Contra the Snacks Hypothesis

Last month, Wired Magazine ran a special issue defined around the theme of "snack media." At the heart of the issue was the following proposition:

We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips - in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture - and boy, is it tasty (not to mention addictive).

In a sense, this is a return to a very old idea that television of the future will be designed for zappers, that it will be designed in very small units which can make sense outside of any narrative context and that can be consumed whenever we want. In Convergence Culture, I explore how a contemporary television show like American Idol is designed to balance the fragmented interests of Zappers (or snackers) with the gradually deeper levels of investment represented by casuals and loyals. On a superficial level, much of popular culture looks as if it is designed for this kind of fragmented and short-term attention. So, it is not hard for Wired to find film producers, say, who are skeptical about whether the feature film will continue to be the central form of cinema:

It's not written in the Bible, "A movie shall be two hours." Somebody made that up to sell theater tickets. With technology, the very definition of a story has changed. It used to mean an actor and a script. Now a story is a 15second, no-dialog clip of somebody running across the street. An artist used to be the person who could get the studio to finance, manufacture, and distribute a story. Today an artist is somebody sitting in Des Moines in front of his computer - and his audience isn't a million folks at once, but one person a million times over. I now look to GoFish and YouTube to get ideas, to see what's going on. They show me not only what people are posting, but also what people like. It's a much better metric than a Nielsen rating system.

We are all scrambling to construct a new model to profit from these bits and pieces, but there's so much out there, it's like trying to harness a tornado and getting spat out the top. I definitely don't have the answer yet. I don't even understand all the questions. But if people are thinking this is the end of Hollywood, they're wrong. This is a whole new beginning.

-- Peter Guber, CEO and chair of Mandalay Entertainment Group and host of AMC's Sunday Morning Shootout

Or to find radio programmers who think people are too antsy to sit still for an entire song:

Why climb the "Stairway to Heaven" when you can take the elevator? That's the logic behind Radio SASS (Short Attention Span System), an experimental radio protocol currently in development that takes classic tunes and whittles them down to about two minutes. "People's patience for music - even the stuff they like - is thin," says founder George Gimarc, a veteran programmer and former DJ from Dallas. "Twelve songs per hour won't cut it." Gimarc and his team of editor-musicians use what he calls "intuitive editing" to trim pop songs to their catchiest crux, pruning seconds from a guitar solo here, lopping off a chorus there.

Or television critics who think that the previews are more entertaining than the programmes:

Even if you're a regular viewer, labyrinthine shows like Lost and Prison Break require full concentration and are best consumed in marathon viewing sessions aided by TiVo or DVD. But you can still drop in on complex dramas midseason - just make sure you catch the "previously on..." recaps before each episode. These mini montages have become a captivating subgenre for both regulars and channel surfers. Back in the early days of narrative dramas, in the '70s and '80s, bare-bones recaps for serials like St. Elsewhere rarely topped 30 seconds. Fast-forward to Lost or Prison Break, and recaps of a minute or more are common, with some lead-ins for season openers or finales taking nearly two minutes to bring viewers up to speed - and bear in mind that each shot in those recaps now lasts less than two seconds on average. Sometimes editors rescue scenes from the cutting-room floor, if those bits tell the story in a tidier form. It's a new kind of TV serial, distinct from both the hour-long episode and the season-long arc.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

Well, for one thing, it describes one aspect of a much more complex media ecology based on different modes of attention within the same individual and different styles of consumption across different segments of the population. The short form of the YouTube video or the "previously on" segment is no more representative of our current relationship to media than the 10 plus hours at a sitting marathon of friends watching a favorite television series on DVD, the 100 plus hour computer game, or the 700 page plus Harry Potter novel (itself one of seven novels that will be required to understand the full narrative, once the series is completed). Indeed, what we are seeing is that people are learning to skim media to find the stuff they really care about and then dig down deeper, anticipating that there will be enough there to sustain them for extended media experiences. This is a point which Steven Johnson makes in the Wired issue:

Snack culture is an illusion. We have more of everything now, both shorter and longer: one-minute movies and 12-hour epics; instant-gratification Web games and Sid Meiers Civilization IV. Freed from the time restrictions of traditional media, we're developing a more nuanced awareness of the right length for different kinds of cultural experiences. You don't need an hour and a half of Saturday Night Live when you can get two minutes of "Lazy Sunday" or "Dick in a Box." For that kind of humor, the older, extended format turns out to be excessive. On the other hand, if you're craving a really satisfying, complex crime narrative, two hours is too short. Yes, it sometimes seems as if we're living off a cultural diet of blog posts and instant messages - until we find ourselves losing an entire weekend watching season three of The Wire. The truth is, we have more snacks now only because the menu itself has gotten longer.

But there's a second problem with the snack analogy: a snack is something that is pure pleasure and for the most part, utterly without redeeming nutritional value and indeed, in many cases full of things that are out and out bad for us. Of course, there are "healthy snacks" -- carrot sticks, celery stalks, and so forth -- but I doubt that this is what leaped to very many people's minds when they read the comparison between YouTube and media snacks. The reality is that these so-called snacks are themselves complex bits of content which often compressed or condense even more complex media experiences. It takes a fairly sophisticated knowledge of popular culture to decipher these little bits and therefore I think the experience is much more like wine tasting that grazing the desert bar. Think about the amount of information that gets compressed into an average fanvid and the ways that it gets reactivated at the site of consumption whether as a means to introduce a newbie to a favorite series and its mythology or to allow a veteran to take a trip down memory lane.

Moreover, as human beings, we rarely engage in activities that are meaningless to us. Just as good things can come in small packages, rich cultural experiences can and often do come in bite-size clusters. And so, even at the small scale, these are not trivial, random or capricious activities: we are involved in the production and circulation of meaning.

I am the wrong person to talk about the value of brevity, clearly. I often joke that I am a marathon runner and not a sprinter when it comes to intellectual matters. If I get criticized for this blog, it is most often because I am long-winded compared to many other bloggers. That isn't the way you are supposed to blog, people tell me. Well, stop and listen to yourselves for a moment, people. For me, the whole point of blogging should be to create alternative media channels where people can exchange ideas and express thoughts that might not fit comfortably within the structures of mainstream media. It should be a space where we try new things, test new models, and create new experiences. If we reduce blogging to a formula, how is this any different from any of the other formulas that shape commercial media? In my case, I am experimenting with a new relationship between the academic world and the rest of society. I am trying to create a space where serious ideas about media can be made accessible to a broader public and where different groups who care about popular culture can interface with each other. So, my blog represents a different modality than many blogs which are out there.

That said, there is nothing about the short form which would prohibit serious and reflexive engagement. Indeed, I have become a big fan of In Media Res website which has enabled a range of media scholars to share their impressions on contemporary media. The format of the site is deceptively simple: every day, someone posts a very short clip from recent television on the site and then offers a few hundred words of critical commentary designed to spark discussion with the readership. I was one of the first to contribute to the site and found it really hard to fit my ideas into such a small space. But many of the younger scholars who are contributing to the site are raising very important questions inside what we might see as a "snack media" format. There has been a great deal of stuff produced for In Media Res which will be of interest to regular readers of this blog -- in the past week, there's been discussions of the representation of New Orleans on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, analysis of the British Big Brother, the deployment of comic book aesthetics in Heroes, and the crossover between The Guiding Light and Marvel. Going back further in time, we could find interesting discussions of Buffy, Project Runway, Supernatural, The Sarah Silverman Show, and a German spoof of StarTrek

As the last example suggests, the site's contributors have access to global television and often present materials which we would otherwise have more trouble accessing, including, as well, archival materials from television's past. All of this feels more meaty than snacky -- more like beef jerky, satay, or Vienna sausages, depending on your frame of reference.

So, who says snacks can't also be good for you?