How to Avoid the ‘Terrible Internet Content’ Trap


By Christopher Rudy, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Cut

Inplace #2


More than four-fifths of all consumer internet traffic is expected to come from video by 2021, but only about 20 percent of it is driving the bulk of online engagement.


Think about that for a second. It’s great that we love watching videos, but those figures indicate that a solid 80 percent of the videos uploaded to the internet fail to have an impact. The culprit? I like to call it “terrible internet content,” or TIC for short.


We all know TIC when we see it: ephemeral, disposable videos that only serve to kill time. These videos satisfy our desire to watch something. But TIC, which so often resembles data-driven Mad Libs, leaves us paradoxically unsatisfied. TIC distracts us from our days, but it does not provide us with moments of genuine contemplation or growth.


So how did we get here? In the internet’s attention economy, driven largely by algorithmic advertising, creators have used data science, best practices, and an arsenal of marketing strategies inherited from legacy media to compete for derivative shares of audience screen time. The consequences are omnipresent. This attention economy has brands competing for all the wrong reasons: by being louder, bolder, more scintillating, and more salacious.


But the internet can be more than its lowest common denominator. Las Vegas is a great place to visit. But imagine if eight out of 10 cities modeled themselves after this example of urban success. Some of you think that sounds like a great idea. But you don’t count because you already live there.


The point is that we should never pursue a person’s momentary attention at the expense of meaningful storytelling. Valuable stories offer people something potentially transformative to discuss at the dinner table, in the cafeteria, or on a first date. The meaningful story creates change and endures, but in the long run, the marketplace will always dispose of what’s disposable.


Who Cares?


The proliferation of TIC should concern all members of the media world. Oversaturation anesthetizes audiences who are already jaded about what they watch and overwhelmed by a glut of choice.


And there are even more dire consequences for our society: The filter bubble is a well-documented phenomenon that uses TIC to triangulate users into market demographics. These algorithmic strategies can be used for other genres of TIC, too — fake news, misinformation campaigns, and the worst sorts of political antagonism we can remember in recent history.


As technology spreads and access to media expands, the legacy media models that gave rise to TIC will continue to contribute noise. A constant flood of disposable content that can never be adequately curated means lower quality and less relevance in high abundance.


While this is undoubtedly a problem, media businesses have ample opportunity to cut through the noise (and not build a country where every city is Vegas).


1. Data is boring.


There, I said it. The novelty of a technology is often treated as a replacement for evaluating its value. Early 2018 crypto investors can especially relate (including yours truly). This is also what happened with data in the media. Overnight, we gained the ability to talk in detail about metrics that seem like they should be important. How many views did that get? How many subscribers do you have? But we skipped the part where we asked whether these were the right metrics or, more importantly, how we can use them to make better stuff. We shouldn’t be relying on data to tell us what to copy or follow; we should be using data to ask better, more informed questions about how to direct our creative energy.


2. Competition is also boring.


Creators too often depend on identifying features of someone else’s work and borrowing (to put it politely) from them. They hope to be successful by relying on successful features, but their videos fall short because they don’t understand the why behind those features. But you can’t explain how great something tastes to someone else by reading them the label. Challenge yourself to answer tough questions about your creative decisions, and you’ll cultivate a rigorous environment that results in noticeably different content.


3. People are not boring.


Creators who want to drive engagement need to commit to forming a direct relationship with their audience. People are interested and interesting. When we reduce them to artificial groups to better relate to them, we do everything but. What we need to do instead is learn to listen to them, have a conversation with them, and tell their stories. Everyone is a poser, so stop trying so hard and just hang out.


In the short term, TIC can yield returns in the form of views and shares. But these alone cannot fuel the development of brands that become fixtures in society — nor do they inspire loyalty or recognition from consumers who want to pay a premium for valuable products and experiences.


There is a silver lining for creators who are able to buck this trend: In an environment bursting with terrible content, meaningful material shocks viewers in a good way. Content that isn’t shitty is a highly inelastic good, while the bubble for the ultimate elastic good, TIC, continues to move toward its inevitable burst.


Christopher Rudy is a co-founder and chief strategy officer of Cut, a next-generation media company that fuels fandom and deep engagement. With more than 10 million subscribers across YouTubeFacebook, and Snapchat driving about 300 million views a month, Cut’s work challenges and determines the zeitgeist for digital video.