On creation and content

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, January 4, 2022, 11:17 PM | comments: 0

I have a somewhat classic education when it comes to the creation of what people today broadly refer to as "content." In high school I worked part-time for the city's government cable access channel, and we made civic minded talk shows and did live city council meetings. In college, I earned a degree in journalism, and double-majored in radio/TV. The latter was more trade school stuff than academic, but it was still formal education. Mixed in with all of that, I got bits and pieces of photography, including one formal college class, and even a class on theatrical lighting. I used all of that for a few years professionally, and certainly the writing is something that has served me all of my life, regardless of occupation. All of it was useful to me, and it certainly influences how I view the creation of media.

The Internet reduced the barrier to entry for distribution of all of these media forms. At first, this was mostly words and pictures, and it was largely self-published a hundred different ways. Finding it was mostly word of mouth, even if they were digital words between people online. It was like the wild west. I benefitted from this by creating a few sites that are still around today. I was already publishing little bits of video by then, and bought my first pro-ish HD camera in 2006. I published video myself, on my own sites, back then using players made with Flash, mostly. The bandwidth was expensive, but I owned the whole process.

Around the same time, YouTube was celebrating its first year, and there was some really great stuff posted there, and also some really terrible things. As you can imagine, someone with my background sees a jump cut and it's like the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I was skeptical that this was sustainable as a free thing, because of bandwidth costs, but then Google bought it. A few years later, I started hosting video on Vimeo, at my expense, because it seemed like it would be a better sustainable option, but I also shifted some stuff to YouTube because I could link it to my AdSense account (which fuels ads on my sites). I made a few hundred bucks a year off of not that many views, but like the ad serving, I hated relying on Google for it. Sure enough, eventually Google stopped paying out unless you met a certain threshold of view hours and subscribers. They show ads and make money on your stuff regardless.

I think that there are two problems right now, but I think there's potential for them to sort some things out. The first is that platforms have become gatekeepers for stuff people make, and no one is more guilty of that than Google. Contrary to the snowflakes in politics who think they're against anyone, it's all algorithmic gatekeeping. I keep seeing more and more frustrations from people who make really great stuff about that. Some of the complaints are that changes are causing radical alterations in how they get noticed, which can certainly be an issue if they generally get enough traction to make a living at it. The other is that the algorithm seems to favor the channels that are already popular, presumably because they likely bring more engagement.

The back up plan should be that these folks should spend as much time promoting their own, durable domain as they do begging for "like and subscribe!" There are so many ways that an amateur publisher can create a site these days, and they're independent of any corporate platform. If what you're making is valuable, people will continue to seek it out. If not, then it reveals an uncomfortable truth about what you make, that it isn't that special, it's just a means for the platforms to make money from what you do.

The second problem is that people have taken "creator" to mean something that maybe it isn't. Oddly enough, the algorithm has presented me with a number of examples from self-labeled creators questioning if what they're doing is worth it or how fair it is for them to not be noticed and the like. What these folks are making, usually young people, is little more than self-documentation. Showing other people what you do in everyday life is not "content," it's a non-private diary. It's hard enough to be popular in school, the odds of doing it on a global level are not high. I feel like this misunderstanding is going to lead to an entirely new reason for a generation to have low self-esteem. Put it up there with becoming a professional athlete, movie star or famous musician.

This problem, I suspect could burn itself out. I'm surprised at how quickly platforms get popular and then certain cohorts of people get bored with them. I saw an article some weeks ago about the new version of high school hipsters, who don't use social media at all.

Let me explain that I'm excited about the things I might never have seen were it not for platforms. The science folks, and some of the video gear people, I only know because of YouTube. But there are others I know because they wrote stuff to go with their video, and that's why I think owning your own site is key. But all of this ephemeral stuff of no particular importance is barely content, let alone entertainment.

Certainly one of the things that fuels all of this is marketers who want to reach people. I don't think that they actually care about who is making stuff, they just care about reaching the people that they want. When the landscape changes again, they'll move to where ever the people are.

It's interesting to watch, but I am continually astounded at how much time the people making really good stuff spend thinking about how to optimize for algorithms. Their video or articles or whatever should stand on their own for what they are. I can't take anyone seriously who does click-baity things. See: pretty much all of the theme park sites. The journalist in me cringes to read things like, "This Disney attraction was down again today." Cool, just say what it is, because there's no thrill in clicking through to find it was a drinking fountain.


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