When I first started using social media, thirty Helens agreed: “content is king!”
And, at the time, it certainly felt that way. Perfectly crafted tweets seemed to be retweeted again and again; insightful blogs seemed to lead to comment after comment; great articles were always bookmarked.
I suspect, however, that content looked kingly only because we content creators looked at tiny samples of high-performing content and jumped quickly to conclusions. Survival bias ran rampant, it was primarily the bias of content creators that was running, and content creators really really wanted to believe that expertly crafted content could compel others to action.
Much later, in the early days of live streaming on Facebook, a video I shot and shared live went “viral”. It received something like half-a-million views in twelve hours or so. For a social media nerd like me, let me tell you, there is no greater thrill than hitting refresh every few seconds and seeing the number of views on your post jump by hundreds and, at times, thousands. Like slot machine enthusiasts everywhere, the bells and whistles are almost more important than the jackpot itself.
And, on the face of it, it seemed like the sort of video that should earn a lot of attention. My phone had captured a pretty special moment in a powerful story, even if the video quality was questionable and the audio mediocre. The story — we content enthusiasts had been telling ourselves for years — was much more important than the technical specifications of the media that shared it. And, this video was a perfect case in point! A live, raw and powerful moment was the stuff of social media glory! I had always known it, but now here was the proof! One more bias was joyfully confirmed.
Then, I watched that short video of a woman laughing in a Chewbacca mask. Do you even remember it? It was the video that blew up in those early days of live streaming on Facebook. Sure, it was vaguely amusing, but was it really that share worthy? Was it really earning all those views and engagements? Was this really the kingly content that the social media prophecy had foretold?
Then, it occurred to me: Facebook had just launched its live stream functionality and they wanted it to make a splash. My phone had been rattling every two seconds to let me know whenever anyone streamed live for the first time. Moreover, because it was a new service, it had appeared on my phone using the default settings for notifications, which is something like “maximum racket.” In other words, Facebook was making every effort to put as many eyeballs as possible on any content that was shared live.
Facebook’s effort to boost the visibility of its live stream service should come as no surprise. They wanted people to use the service right away and they wanted those people who used it right away to experience success right away. Easy success would hook users and those who were hooked would talk it up to others. The first hit is always free.
I am reminded of all of this because of a recent article about TikTok and the author’s naive attempt to explain why some videos on this service have earned big numbers. To be blunt: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people running TikTok are specifically manipulating things behind the scenes to generate big media-story-worthy numbers. You are the product, after all; they need you to be active; and, what’s a few inflated numbers between friends?
However, even if the people running TikTok aren’t intentionally manipulating the numbers, there is a much more plausible explanation why some content is getting more attention than other content. Dumb chance. When enough content gets in front of enough people, some of that content will earn more attention and, from there, it can snowball. That’s it; that’s all. There is nothing in the content itself that will definitively explain its success. In the same way that we can’t know in advance which genetic adaptions will lead to an organism’s reproductive success, we can’t know in advance which features of our content will lead to its reproductive success.
Circling back to those early days of social media and the quest for the holy content grail, if there was any truth in our collective hope that content is king, I suspect it was this: the experience of kingly content is probably symptomatic of the fact that humans tend to socialize with people much like themselves and become more like the people with whom they socialize as they socialize with them.
So, at the outset, specific social media channels were attractive to a particular community of users who were already pretty similar in terms of interests, values, and identity. There wasn’t a lot of content being created, so any content that was shared was bound to earn whatever attention was out there to earn. Because the people using the tools were already pretty similar, they came up with similar theories to explain the success of some content and those theories became self-reinforcing. As people shared content that fit their theories of success, the successful content was more likely to match the theories because there was more content out in the world that aligned with the theory. For example, if you claim that red aces are always drawn because they are special and you add more red aces to the deck every time one is drawn, your theory is bound to look true whether there is anything special about red aces or not.
Eventually, these theories about what made content shareable, engaging or whatever were internalized as norms, values and aesthetic sensibilities. In this context, content starts to look kingly and almost magical because it’s attractiveness is rooted in a sense of “we”. We are the kind of people who think a tweet will be more engaging if the hashtag is at the end of the copy instead of beginning, so we see it as such and act accordingly. In other words, the apparent kingliness of content is an expression of a particular community’s sense of shared identity. If a particular community of we has power and influence, then, they will influence the tastes of other communities. And so on.
But here, I think, is the nub of the matter: this isn’t some kind of social media gaffe or millennial voodoo. It has always been like this for all content everywhere. The success of content is best explained by the communities that behold it, their sense of “we”, and their power and status. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, seem kingly to us only because an influential group of people took a liking to them at a time when there wasn’t much competition for people’s attention. When you are the only show in town, it is very easy to make the taste.
If I am right about this (and I’d bet that I am not the first to claim it), I suspect a lot of content lovers and creators’ will react to my conclusion with nihilistic rage. “If there is nothing in the artefact of creation itself that guarantees success or could guarantee success, what is the point of creating at all? Why create if what is produced is of secondary importance or, dear god, not important at all? Oh woe is us!” However, I want to make the case that this frown can be turned upside down.
On the one hand, if your aim is to create content and be recognized as a content creator, the path forward is pretty simple: do your best to ingratiate yourself to whatever community is the tastemaker community for the kind of content you want to create. Meet, greet and emulate. Play the game well enough and long enough, and you will probably get a shot at shifting the community’s taste. No magic or special natural gifts required. You don’t need to be the anointed one. Being pleasant and patient should do the trick.
Alternatively, if you enjoy creating content for its own sake and have no particular desire or need to be recognized as a content creator by the relevant tastemaker community, you are free to create in accord with whichever standard(s) you want. Who cares what the tastemakers think? They no longer control the means of creative production or distribution. Go forth and create! Celebrate the fact that you have enough time and the means to create, even if no one is looking. On the other hand, if it turns out that you don’t want to suck up to tastemakers to earn a living as a content creator and have better things to do with your time than create for the fun of it, so be it. The choice is yours and, to be frank (you be Jane), having that choice is pretty lucky too.
I can think of only two groups of people who will be in a jam: those people who desperately want to be recognized as a content creator but don’t want to suck up to the relevant tastemaker community or the people who are ignored by that community even when they do suck up. For them, only Nietzschean frustration awaits.
If you are among this lot, I can offer only this advice: storm the taste making gates until you are accepted, ingratiate yourself to a marginalized or underserved community and hope their day is yet to come, or ride the early adopting wave of some new technology like the printing press or social media. However, whichever path you take, please remember: if you end up holding something that feels like a sword of divine right, the underlying mechanism that provided it to you remains the same, whether you were finally picked by the cool kids or the uncool kids somehow suddenly turned cool. The sword doesn’t make you or your content king; nor does the farcical aquatic ceremony that put it in your hand. Instead, it is the community who thinks of “you” as “we”.