Letters from Somnolescent September 7, 2019

How the Feed Killed Creation

by mariteaux

Let’s start with a premise. We have a creator. She’s a writer, maybe, or maybe a visual artist. Maybe dabbles in animation. She’s got big ideas and the drive to see them to fruition. Might even be months into a grand project right now. Yet, she’ll post her stuff online or in a Discord server, and no one gives a shit.

The internet’s built on user-generated content, stuff ordinary people (people like you, perhaps!) create. And yet, with all these sites for it, where’s the support? Let’s talk about the feed and how it’s killed independent content.

Let’s start by brainstorming reasons our lovely little creator can’t grab attention. I’m sure the more cynical immediate answer to the plight of the creator would simply be that she’s shit at what she does. It follows, kinda, but quality’s subjective and untalented people make it big all the time, so leave it out of the equation for now.

Maybe she can’t market herself. Fair. So how can we solve this problem? She starts to get her stuff out there, posts it to a couple different websites. She’s not working at a professional capacity, so many of the portfolio sites (Behance, ArtStation, Dribbble) are out of the question. We’ll say a lot of it’s DeviantART and…Twitter, for good measure. Maybe maintains a Tumblr, despite that rapidly going down the shitter. Tags well.

Still nothing.

Okay, maybe the issue is that she’s not part of an active community. Just throwing content into the void isn’t gonna help much, so she joins a Discord. They’ve got the bright, encouraging tagline about being an artist support server, the useless wall of rules, and the 15 bots to show for it, and we’ll throw her a bone, people actually post here. She makes damn sure to keep up talking and posting her art, and yet still, even no one in this “support” group takes notice.

God forbid she writes. God forbid she have to get someone’s ear for a precious ten minutes to get them latched to the vibrant world she’s created, or the characters she’s fit into them. At that point, she might as well not even exist. Even writers don’t wanna read other writers’ nonsense.

You might immediately jump to the conclusion that I’m blaming the audience for her lack of attention, but I’m not, not necessarily. There’s a fundamental device that’s been used to condition users skinner box-style for the past decade on how they interact with the internet, and as the internet’s grown and the bar for entry’s lowered, it’s enabled a potemkin network of millions, seemingly connected and utterly disconnected at once. I call it the feed.

The feed is a steady stream of content powered by an algorithm to serve content to users en masse. Every social media site has a feed, but don’t mistake the two for synonymous. YouTube is arguably not social media, being a content hosting site, and yet, it features a feed. Art sites, with their ubiquitous follow systems, have feeds. In short, anything that lets you add a user to a “show me more” category, which the site will then drip feed you, like a steady supply of cocaine.

At first glance, the feed seems like the ideal way to keep up with a large amount of information, but like cocaine, it’ll eventually fry the pleasure part of your brain, leaving you disconnected to what you’re even consuming. A numb consumer, as far as the companies behind the feeds are concerned, is a good consumer.

Things stop registering after a while

Information overload is certainly nothing new to internet users, but it really takes vigilance to keep a clean feed. Problem is, the feed encourages the opposite, with a lack of feed updates causing a certain frustration or sense of slowness to those who’ve already done too much cocaine. Thus, people stay subscribed to channels they don’t care about, they follow artists they don’t bother interacting with, and they’re part of Discord servers they don’t even talk in.

Life takes over, that much is clear, but it’s the way the feed and the modern internet have incentivized digital hoarding and a landfill mentality that’s completely devalued content creation. You can’t enjoy what you have time to enjoy when you have so much content coming at you that you can barely sift through it. Thus, you either disconnect completely or pick randomly. Entertainment is entertainment, and who needs to be interested in the stuff they like anyway?

It’s easily manipulated

All feeds are subject to manipulation, both on the front and back ends. There’s no shortage of stories of shadowbans and soft censorship, social media sites manipulating their feeds to shutter voices on supposedly open and free platforms. He who controls the terms of the dialogue will control the dialogue.

Similarly, anyone with enough money or status can certainly get eyes on their content with underhanded feedbombing tactics, stuff that formerly went under the header of “black hat SEO”. If you think only Google’s susceptible, trust me. They’re not. Any system can be gamed.

It discourages exploration

While it’s not intrinsic to the feed, oftentimes, the feed will recommend things to you based on things you already follow. Giving into the system causes the system to tailor itself to you. Issue being, this means a user can feel like they’re expanding their horizons without needing to actually dig. If the feed recommends you big YouTubers in a variety of genres, you can go without ever knowing there’s anything under the surface unless you actively dig for it.

There’s an inherent feedback loop where a recommendations system will show a new user what’s popular, and that will be all they see. Unless the feed just happens to expose a smaller creator, there is no upward momentum. Simply put, if the feed doesn’t recommend a smaller creator, the smaller creator doesn’t get seen. If the smaller creator doesn’t get seen, the feed doesn’t bother recommending them.

I can think of a great example of this with YouTube. I enjoy LGR a lot, and being that he’s part of the gold play button club, it’s likely the feed will recommend more people his stuff. It was only through recommendations from his fans on Reddit, however, that I discovered a channel like, say, AkBKuKu. Granted, he’s not necessarily tiny himself, but despite covering the same eras of retro computing and MIDI tech (albeit in a drier, more technical way), YouTube just saw fit to just never suggest I watch his stuff.

I’m not, of course, saying their content is directly comparable: LGR is far more animated, feed-friendly, and not nearly as technical, but it’s not a huge jump to think that someone who’s a fan of LGR or The 8-Bit Guy would also be a fan of an AkBKuKu or a This Does Not Compute. Yet, the majority of my recent channel finds have been because of manual recommendations and not the feed.

Now imagine this problem for a channel just starting out.

It’s shaped the internet’s collective habits for the worse

We’ve solved the wrong problem when it comes to sorting through user-generated content. In a sense, the internet is far too massive now for small, independent personalities, the average creator just trying to get some sunlight in the underbrush, to ever get a word in edgewise. There’s no good way to fix the problem of scale aside from just crashing the entire internet and having it go back to a nerdy curiosity, but rather than training internet users to be smarter, more discerning, more critical, and more tech-literate, we’ve sent the machines in to do it instead.

In 2000, while the internet wasn’t quite the insular mass of its early days, some assembly was still required. Things were less homogenized. You found your niche through friends and word of mouth, and tiny little forums with users dedicated to their boredom scattered the landscape. As more people who were less technically-inclined hopped online, we thought it best to get rid of as much assembly as possible, creating a generation of people enslaved to the internet who have no clue what a text file is.

And in this, the feed’s most insidious issue is laid bare. It’s enabled people who have no business being on the internet to thrive. That’s not to say they’re necessarily people who should never have business online, but again, without the assembly (and with the necessity), they’re not literate enough to handle it properly. They’re the perfect breed to be manipulated by the feed.

And as for the plight of the creator? Without the skill to manipulate the feed (easier said than done for an independent creator) and get her work into the hands of those with rapidly-shrinking attention spans, overstimulated by the modern internet, she languishes.

I’ve seen people cry out for the spirit and erratic nature of the old internet, but they’d largely hate it. Even sites like our former Neocities (in the holy name of our woke lord and savior Kyle Drake amen) have a feed. The sense of exploration and the patience needed for the spirit of the old internet to thrive is largely dead, and we have the feed to thank for it.

If you wanna boil this essay down into me simply complaining that Somnolescent are a bunch of irrels, you’re missing my point. Sure, you can still do the community thing and perhaps catch a stray spark, but this is more a meditation on if that’s going the way of the dinosaur going forward. I’m scared it is.

If you do happen to like some smaller creators, again writing, video, musical, visual, or otherwise, word of mouth helps a lot. Share stuff. Be an active participant. Try to interact with the people who make the work you enjoy, don’t just lurk. It’s the internet, nothing to be scared of. We’re all a little detached and a little shy, and the nerds who built the internet weren’t much better. If they could do it, so can we.

Tags: internet,

About mariteaux

Somnolescent's webmaster with way too much to write about and a stack of CDs he'll never finish.

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