The economic crunch will reorient consumption around reasons, not ways, to spend attention
Photo: Nick Fewings
The past few weeks have demonstrated that the economic downturn is not only affecting consumer spending, but corporate strategy as well. Venture capital investors are rethinking red flags, Amazon is rethinking its long-term bets, Facebook has acknowledged a downturn in consumer reach, and Twitter is, well, Twitter-ing. In the midst of tech company layoffs and budget crunches, and entertainment reorienting its strategy around predicted changes in consumer spending habits, the question looms: after all of the restrictions on spending and behaviour, what will be left over?
The answer lies in cultural relevance. Or, rather, propositions that give people reasons, rather than simply ways, to spend attention.
Platform boom of bust
Or, more likely, neither. Facebook’s cultural value is decreasing, with the original proposition of its friends-first updates turning into inter-generational updates turning into advertising and ‘news’ updates (skewing elections, no less). Yet its decline – if it is going to experience one in real terms – will be a slow, stately descent. Twitter, meanwhile, is loudly hiring, firing and re-wiring internally, to the tune of the trending #RIPTwitter – yet its cultural value remains the same: a way to keep one’s eye on the global cultural pulse, from first-hand accounts. Elon Musk’s takeover has perhaps cast doubt as to the reliability of information on the platform, but the platform’s self-aware cultural backlash seems to have sustained it, rather than resulting in the exodus that trending culture may itself lament.
An increasing perception of Instagram’s perceived main value resides its reposts from other platforms; Twitter screenshots, Reddit horror stories, and TikTok’s reposted as Reels. As a maturing platform It is perceived to no longer offer influencers an accessible ability to rise to fame, or even the ability for average account holders to keep up with one another’s daily updates. This sort of ‘front page news of the internet’ holds some value, but it is easier to displace. Meanwhile, its original photo-first proposition is being challenged by BeReal – but the upstart app has not been around long enough to gain the cultural roots required to survive upheaval. Reach must be balanced with relevance, which again must be balanced with cultural meaning. Just because a new topic is relevant, and thus might gain a view, does not mean it is meaningful for the viewer, who would then choose to check for updates.
Entertainment saturation: the power of live
The difficulty with ‘meaning’ is that it is difficult to measure. ‘Relevance’, which is generally measured by context relation and aptitude to view, has pushed digital-first culture in an ever-accelerating rush to extremes; the most extreme, yet relevant, content gains more views, more time, more comments, and more shares, and thus is proliferated further and faster by the algorithms. Yet that does not necessarily indicate that this content has more true value for viewers; only that it evokes the most negative (strong, yet cheap) emotions through controversy. Over time, this becomes draining for viewers, and thus desensitising. More positive sentiment that ties into deeper, core values is longer-lasting, and more likely to be supportive and self-sustaining during a crisis.
Similarly, streaming in broader entertainment favours mainstream hits and background replays, but has difficulty measuring the more meaningful songs, artists, films, and shows played less often, but in a more concentration-heavy context. It can also favour cultural trends of negativity; see the controversial, yet short lived. hype of Tiger King, the lack of revenue yet high meme-ability of Morbius, and the dramatic backdrop to the making of Don’t Worry Darling, which has not lent itself to the ratings or cultural value of the film itself.
What comes next?
"Hate watching" is not going anywhere – but the need to stand out from the crowd is becoming ever more important in the environment of entertainment over-saturation, and there are ever fewer ways to do that. Value is diluted through plenty; the latest Marvel productions have had far lower impact than the original, limited annual releases, and Netflix shows have seemingly ever-shorter cultural lifespans.
The standout value lies in live events, which promote community, are literally once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and, when local and thus lower-cost, can provide higher value-for-money expenses than yet another streaming service with different yet similar content to every other service. Cinemas can provide premium social activities in a fully immersive context; live music gigs can provide a night of forgetting the outside world in a way streaming at home cannot.
The next few months will see a rapid decline of the abundance of uptake and consumption in digital entertainment that the Covid era promoted. The standout value propositions will rely on experiences, deeper intrinsic value (which will see more limited, but more meaningful engagement), and cultural connectivity. This will require not only rethinking on content strategy, but also re-orienting measurement of success, as the quality of views will increasingly outweigh the quantity of views for determining the impact and commercial value of content.
MIDiA’s cultural insights coverage looks at this shift from quantity to quality in the cultural value of consumption. See the latest reports here or get in touch with email@example.com to find out more.