The Content Collapse

What happens when the digital bubble bursts?

• The world collapsed in 2008. A severe financial crisis, bringing on recessions and depressions and job losses and pain, shook the planet – and it was predictable. But hindsight has a way of making everything seem foreseeable. It was a dramatic decline built on the backs of the wealthy taking advantage, on trusted institutions using their state-given goodwill, and on the poor and the middle class trying their best in a system designed to eventually fail them. It cost a lot of people a lot of things. It devastated communities. It is a modern analogy for the greed our world has been built around and the reluctance we have to admit it to ourselves.

Now, this is all very heavy stuff. You don’t subscribe to this newsletter to read about the financial crisis. And you certainly don’t want financial advice from me (put it all on red, best odds you’ll get). I know what you’re thinking: isn’t this meant to be about the internet or something?

And you’re right. So i’ll get to it.

We are in the middle of a content collapse. I will tell you ahead of time I don’t know what the end looks like. But digitally, on platforms, we have built billion dollar systems on the backs of ideas that cannot and do not hold up to scrutiny. Facebook likes and shares, Twitter retweets, fake news, algorithms, AI, podcasts, newsletters, page views, subscribers. So many of these things are valued by the people with money, and so many of them are hugely misunderstood. We have already witnessed democracy tarnished by these platforms, built and trusted to act as watermarks for our beliefs. Presidents elected, extremism embraced, communities built on dust.

We believe that a piece of content with a million views has a million views. Everyone has bought in to the narrative, so as long as things stay that way nothing can go wrong. But anyone who works within the media will tell you, or will know deep down, that it’s not all blue skies. We’ve all seen things go viral and wonder why.

Sure, there is an insider audience within the media sphere that understands all of this. That knows the difference between a three second view and a three minute view. That knows the difference between local shares and international shares when you go to market. That knows how to sell what they’ve been told has value. Who can blame us? But the general population, so regularly forgotten by the mediaclass instructed to inform them, see this content and its success as a positive. As a fact. As a reality. Our jobs depend on it. It’s the way the water’s flowing – why would you swim upstream?

The platforms we have designed and allowed to construct our lives are easily manipulated. We have multiple examples of this from the last few years alone. At the very least, a presidency was hugely influenced by an outsider campaign that based itself on manipulating social media. That rang alarm bells, but the general public were largely failed in understanding how Big A Deal that all was. Lets not forget, the construction of the internet, and its permission of anonymity, has its own issues. We create content because we know no other world anymore. That’s what the internet is now: content. And lots of it. Who can say if it has to be that way?

Entire businesses have been built, reliant on the fact that people will continue cashing cheques and continue to decide that these things have value. People who often do not understand whether they actually do. People who, probably, don’t want to know either way. It is profitable now. May it be profitable forever.

For about a year now the idea of “content collapse” has kept me up at night. Mostly because I get to the point I’ve already outlined here and then hit a wall in my head, infinitely tall and forever wide. I don’t know what the next stage is. I don’t know what collapse looks like. I can just feel it coming. One day, the people who matter are going to realise what they’re paying for. That might translate into a shift in attitude, or a different approach to data farming. Maybe, as we have already seen early on, the real market will be in manipulation. Things are not going to continue as they are. If I could short the content market, I would.

Nothing lasts forever – nowhere is that more true than in the digital world. We’re 12 years in, by my count. Maybe it will last. For all of our sakes, I sure hope it does.

• I wrote about a new form of content that teens are creating, probably without realising, farming on the years of digital cultural knowledge they have within them. Yes, it’s on TikTok.

They are a generation that has spent years with access to every piece of content imaginable. That has left a mark, one they farm within themselves to create content that often even they can’t explain. It’s a feeling, it’s a vibe. It reminds them of someone else’s work, or a movie they saw. They don’t know what to call it. It just is.