Short-form Content: A Modern Media Pandemic
From the debut of Sesame Street in 1969 all the way to today’s social media, short-form content has become more and more popular. This may be an overlooked issue in the modern age characterized by overstimulation and attention deficiency.
The Sesame Street strategy
From its debut in 1969, Sesame Street popularized the style of short-form media that was highly focused on audience engagement. The aim was to educate poor preschool children while holding their shorter attention with salient subliminal stimuli. Later on, methods used by the beloved show remained a crucial part of children’s media, creating some issues and raising parents’ concerns. Teachers at the time believed that Sesame Street made their jobs significantly harder because their classes couldn’t live up to the standards set by the show. While the episodes were an hour long, it’s important to note that Sesame Street reached massive audiences of children via shorter repeating segments.
In the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asked the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. The point he set out to make was that the short forms of online prose designed to sustain attention were killing the ability to engage with in-depth arguments, thus ultimately compromising intellect. At the center of this issue lies “snack culture”, a trend that was popularized in South Korea. It refers to consuming media in a short time, with little regard for the content and without engaging with that content at a deeper level. The term comes from the act of snacking, an act of eating that is easy to perform anytime and anywhere. With the global ubiquity of smartphones and other portable devices, consuming short-form content has become a widespread and addictive issue, but which is so normalized that it is not often taken seriously. Not only does it overload our cognition with excessive information, it also creates a collective decrease in attention span, leading to problems in other areas such as work and school, where undivided attention is required to perform intensive tasks.
You now have 6 seconds to be funny
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the short-form trend began in social media, but we can take a look at some popular examples and see how they influence one another. On its release in 2013, the video-hosting service Vine told its users “You now have 6 seconds to be funny.” The app was made for posting 6-second looping videos and it arguably made way for a new form of humor. For better or worse, it was a huge success and people still watch so-called “Vine classics” on platforms like YouTube. Speaking of which, YouTube also jumped on the bandwagon not so long ago and came up with the sub-platform “YouTube Shorts”. Though YouTube allows you a maximum of 60 seconds, so you have a little more time to be funny or speak your mind. YouTube Shorts is often regarded as a “TikTok clone”… which brings us to our third (in)famous short-form platform. When it comes to attention span and subjective taste, the TikTok community isn’t exactly held in high regard by those who stay away from the platform. With its endless stream of short videos, TikTok actually does something very similar to its popular predecessors like Vine. Arguably, it hosts much more “low-effort” content which doesn't necessarily require users to open their mouths to speak. More often than not, you will encounter people dancing to short segments of popular songs with minimal text for easier consumption. While it can be understandable for younger people to dive into this rabbithole with their shorter attention spans, what exactly is the marketing strategy here? And why does it work so well?
Engagement, engagement and more engagement
Simply put, the only goal is user engagement. To return to the snack culture example, engagement doesn’t come with limits. Marketers and content creators know well that short-form content isn’t mentally “satiating”. You don’t really go to the cinema to watch as many movies as you possibly can. And if you want to read a novel, you have some idea about when to stop, because the task involves high cognitive load. For platforms like TikTok, on the other hand, you don’t tell yourself “Okay, I will only watch 30 short videos today.” And even if you find yourself deep down the rabbithole, you likely won’t be mentally exhausted because short-form content isn’t meant to be that way. Marketers don’t need your undivided attention, they just need you to consume large quantities.
Long story short, are we doomed? Maybe. Can anything be done? Personally, yes. While short-form content does cause overstimulation and decrease attention spans, it is not the only culprit. One way to look at it is that the reason why this is consuming so many of us is simply that we allow it to. In the Information Age, we have so much on our plates. Perhaps much more than we need. We just need to be responsible consumers and resist the temptation.