Media content continues to evolve in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways.
We are always being told that media is continually changing because of advances in technology. The original way that people used to consume films and TV was live – in a cinema on a screen, or at home on a TV set. Then home video-taping allowed people to time-shift, and to ‘collect’ films and TV programmes for viewing whenever they wanted. Then streaming allowed people to binge-watch an entire series on the day of release (or weeks later), and the physical ‘collecting’ of vinyl records, CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays began to fade because of the enhanced ease of access to content. The future seemed clear: more and more content available instantly, and in higher and higher resolutions.
But technology is only part of the content viewing experience. The simple media-focussed timeline outlined so far omits any mention of the rise of social media, from photocopier moments, to emails to your friends, to Facebook posts, Tweets, and YouTube videos. People like to chat, and what started as ‘Did you see?’ quickly became ‘Do you like?’ and then morphed into huge online, eager, enthusiastic fan-bases. It all looked good. Instead of fan clubs using the mail to post newsletters, gushing praise could now be exchanged instantly to everyone with a similar interest. It looked like we were entering a golden age of both content production and fandom.
Unfortunately, people are...fickle. Once you have large groups of fans who are obsessively fanatical (hence ’fan’, apparently) about the content that they have invested their time in, then they start to care about it. They start to analyse it, and because all of their thoughts are shared on-line, opinions get shared and refined, and the social media becomes a reinforcing ‘echo chamber’ for the mindset of the fans. This is fine whilst the tone is one of adoration for the content, but it changes entirely when the fanbase doesn’t like something about the content– suddenly fans have turned into critics, and the content producers face a backlash from the very people who used to be fans.
That transition from fans adoring the content to fans criticising the content didn’t happen over-night. There was a gradual rise of disenchantment over time, and a lot of contributors. Fans of ‘24’ gradually realised that the story was written week by week, and so the story arcs tended to be short and aimed at ensuring a cliff-hanger ending for every episode. ‘Lost’ started out with a mystery, and added layers of additional complexity, but many viewers seemed to think that it failed to give a consistent or satisfactory conclusion. ‘Suicide Squad’ and ‘Passengers’ used promotional campaigns to try to convert poor box-office results into DVD or Blu-Ray sales. And then we had ‘Star Wars’, where the fans didn’t seem to like Episode 8 at all. Or ‘Star Trek: Discovery’... Or ‘The Bodyguard’, where a widely published major spoiler was used to attract additional viewers mid-series, knowing that these new viewers would then watch the missed episodes on catch-up and so boost the viewing figures for the series...
Fans seemed to be becoming increasingly vocal and opinionated about content... Some of the media suggested that these were not real ‘fans’ but were just a small number of obsessive trouble-makers. But the game-changer seems to have been ‘Game of Thrones’, where many fans AND media commentators disliked the way that it ended. Over the 13 episodes of the final two seasons, fans seemed to turn from being friendly to becoming the enemy, finally ending up with an online petition for a re-make of the final season, and allegedly this has resulted in less activity on prequels, spin-offs and sequels than would previously have been expected from a huge series like ‘Game of Thrones’.
But the same social media that polarises people can also flip the other way. There are many examples where quirky, apparently minority-appeal content can move from obscurity to wide viewership because of exactly the same sharing mechanisms that pull people in and cocoon them with other fans. ‘Fleabag’, Killing Eve’, ‘Rev’, ‘The Orville’, and ‘Inside Number 9’ all have very appreciative and supportive fan-bases on social media. Content producers like this sort of ‘lock-in’ environment because it enhances the content, pulls in new viewers, and influences awards and future commissions...
One of the interesting things about technology is that it can suddenly change our awareness of minor aspects and amplify them enormously. The way that people consume media has always been a ‘closed loop’, with a diverse array of routes through which feedback can occur. Strolling minstrels would probably get direct and immediate feedback about their songs as they sung them. Cinema box office takings are a strong but time-delayed indicator of people viewing a film, but not necessarily the merit of the film itself. TV viewing figures always trigger a memory from my past of a courting couple caressing on a sofa, with the caption reading: ‘Are they watching TV?’ Except that in today’s world, they would probably be surfing though different bits of media independently on their mobile phones.
Social media makes it very easy to respond immediately with likes, dislikes, opinions and polarised viewpoints, and this removes the damping in the feedback loop, but it also tends to reinforce associations with other respondents who are like minded and so results in less inhibited ‘fan flocks’ who collectively avoid cognitive dissonance. It seems that social media increases the gain and selectivity of the loop in a way that gives too much anonymous feedback, and this normally results in instability that is manifested as howls - of one kind or another. Feedback on TV programmes has been around for a long time, of course – the classic title sequence of early ‘Doctor Who’ episodes used video feedback to turn video of a caption card into flowing graphics with only two states: light or no light. A metaphor for how people behave on social media, perhaps?
And here we are. Technology has given people immediate access to vast amounts of media (both content and social), but despite that wide choice, some things are still enormously popular, and those attract huge followings of nit-picking, analytical fans who are no longer content to be mere individual passive consumers, instead they want (and increasingly expect) to collectively have an active influence on the content that they have avidly watched – and ultimately, in one way or another, have paid for. In large numbers, the aggregated, filtered, mutually-reinforced views of these fans are increasingly seen to have acquired persuasive significance, and it seems that the perception of content producers can rapidly change from adored ‘creative heroes’ to ‘destructive villains’ or vice-versa. If this was a movie or a TV series about the way that people on social media interact with content production, then this story arc seems to be going to a place where it could go either way... and probably, then almost exactly half of the fans probably aren’t going to like it at all, and they will tell everyone else with similar views all about it. It could almost be a real-life episode of Charlie Brooker’s excellent/disturbing (delete as appropriate to your opinion, then talk about it on social media, please) ‘Black Mirror’...
Some links around this topic:
Facebook: ‘The Power of Like’:
And what about a ‘Dislike’ button?:
Reactions to Game of Thrones Finale:
Doctor Who 1963 Title Sequence with video feedback:
Inside Number 9: Surprise at Halloween:
Black Mirror on one aspect of social media:
The IET JLB Lecture 2019: ‘Who is watching who?’