5 Ways We Ruin Entertainment For Ourselves
Just before the world wide web exploded in the mid '90s, they used to talk about how we'd soon have an astonishing 500 channels on our televisions, and everyone joked about what an impossibly huge amount of content that would be. Today there are probably 100 times that many YouTube channels just recapping episodes. But humans aren't known for their restraint, so our natural reaction to this absurd abundance of stuff to watch is to kind of ruin it for ourselves. Look at how ...
Binge-Watching Is Scientifically The Worst Way To Consume Anything
Nothing says we have to watch an entire season of a Netflix show in one 13-hour session on a Friday night, but we're going to do it anyway, because it's the only thing that quiets the awful thoughts in our heads. And it's not like Netflix has discouraged the practice.
Binge-watching is a part of entertainment culture now. Countless news stories, articles, and ads reference it, always in the cutesiest way possible. It's the quirky new way kids are consuming media! It's also just about the worst way to watch something if you actually want to enjoy it. But don't take my word for it; let's ask our ol' pal, science.
According a University of Melbourne study, binge-watching not only reduces your ability to remember what you just watched, but it actually decreases your enjoyment of the thing you're cramming down your gullet like a seagull swallowing a hot dog. I could go on about how we should slow down and savor the finer things in life, or I can just point out that the human brain simply physically needs time to process things.
Think about it. How many times has your opinion of a movie or show changed only after you had some time to stew on it? A plot turn that feels like an emotional punch in the gut loses its impact when you're immediately onto the next episode. "Wow, that was quite a twist! I wonder what will- Oh wait, they're resolving it right now. OK."
Of course, there's the even more obvious fact that sitting alone on a butt-sweat-dampened couch working your way through 552 minutes of Umbrella Academy just isn't good for you. Binge-watching has been connected to poor diet and obesity. Also, sitting in front of a flickering rectangle until three in the morning is, shockingly, a recipe for sleep deprivation, which the CDC and WHO have declared an outright epidemic. So yeah, it turns out there may have been a reason the term "binge" had nothing but negative connotations until marketers branded it cool five years ago.
But part of the reason we can't give it up is ...
We Get Stressed When Unwatched Content Piles Up
Gamers already know what it's like to have a "pile of shame." A study a few years ago found only about 30 percent of games sold on Steam are ever completed, and more than 20 percent are never played at all. Ask almost any gamer, and you'll find there's a weird guilt or anxiety that comes with that, either because you feel like you wasted the money or just failed to see something through to completion. ("I never got those 30 Nuka Cola bottles back to Ronald!")
Somewhere around the invention of the TiVo, everyone began to feel this twinge of anxiety about TV, the sense that stuff is piling up. If you try to remain relatively culturally literate, you probably have multiple piles of shame at this point -- your gaming pile, your TV pile, your book pile (some studies show more than half of downloaded e-books go unread), etc. I'm pretty sure this wasn't an issue my parents had. They didn't feel like it was a personal failing if they missed an episode of Cheers.
And remember that platforms are geared around fostering that twinge of anxiety. These companies know they're in a bitter fight for a finite pool of the audience's free time. Netflix says their biggest competition isn't Hulu, but Fortnite. Games are designed to be grindy because they're not only keeping you away from other games; they want to keep you off Instagram and YouTube, making sure you're not neglecting your game job to spend time with your family or some other nonsense.
"But why is it bad to have tons of choices?" you ask. "There may be 100 pizza places on Uber Eats, but we don't feel some pressure to order from all of them!" Sure, but when it comes to media, there's another factor at play ...
There's Social Pressure To Have An Opinion About Everything
Popular culture exists primarily so that we have something to talk about to co-workers without actually letting them know anything important about us. It's a chance to have a strong opinion on something, but without any stakes attached -- a buffer that keeps us from having to hear about our cubicle mate's politics. ("I sure hope I can get this report done before this weekend! That's when Qanon is going to arrest Congress!")
There has always been some fear of being left out of the conversation after some huge TV event, what with everybody around the water cooler talking about the M*A*S*H finale or whatever. But thanks to social media, now you can multiply that pressure (and the audience) a thousand times over. Especially if you hated a particular episode/character/season and everybody else seems to like it (or vice versa). You have to go out on the internet and fight for your side!
And if you do manage to make your case via timely, resonant comments, the chances are your reward will be ... lots of people yelling at you. Being a fan means taking one side in a very stupid war. Live-tweeting a thing you're watching is the equivalent of doing a book report, while reading the book in front of a classroom of the school's snarkiest bullies.
This also adds to the time pressure mentioned above. The window where anybody gives a damn about those thoughts is perilously narrow. Sure, you could start watching Game Of Thrones now, but how many Twitter hearts are your jokes about terrible direwolf effects and Ned Stark's gullibility going to get in 2019? And if you're current on the show, god help you if you watch the new episode even one day later than everyone else. Overt spoilers will be trending on Twitter within minutes, hashtag #OMGWhiteWalkersAreRobots.
It once again starts to feel like a job, an obligation to the show, even though we're the ones who paid for it.
We're Always Dividing Our Attention (And Missing Key Details)
It's true that in the olden days you could find someone sitting in front of the TV reading a magazine, barely noticing what's happening on the screen. But this was usually because we had next to zero control over what came on (you sat through the ancient sitcom rerun waiting for Star Trek), and most people were limited in how many screens they had. Reading was about all Mom could do when Dad was watching his golf. But only a crazy person would have paid to see a movie, then sat down in the theater and pulled out a paperback novel.
What we're doing today has to be closer to that -- ordering up content we specifically chose and paid for, then grabbing our phones to browse Twitter while it plays in the background. Studies show 70 percent of us are regularly staring a second screen when watching TV (bump that up to nearly 80 percent for Millennial types). And once again, our old friend science says this is making us enjoy it less.
A Dutch study has found people are less able retain or understand what they're watching when their attention is divided between multiple screens. It doesn't matter if what you're looking up on your phone is related to the thing you're watching; it's still just as distracting. We're gobbling up more media than ever, but we're not actually following most of it, as exemplified by the popularity of "The Ending of X Explained!" articles and videos. Watch an explainer for the ending of Split while you're ignoring the ending of Glass!
Of course, your phone also serves as a reminder that you should be devoting part of your brain to the post-episode discussion you'll be having with internet strangers. "Heh, Thanos kind of looks like a California Raisin. Is that something? How would I Photoshop that? Wait ... why's everybody turning into ash?"
Obsessing Over Behind-The-Scenes Drama Can Ruin Immersion
Time for a shocking mid-column revelation: I'm a pro wrestling fan. You may not know this, but your average hardcore wrestling fan spends as much, or more, time following the behind-the-scenes dirt as the actual wrestling. Who's in and out of favor, who's injecting which substances into where, and other backstage drama. That now seems to be standard for avid fans of anything in the social media era. For every drop of content we consume, we suck up buckets of rumors, speculation and deep-dive criticism.
OK, now a show of hands: How many actually watched Justice League and Solo as movies, rather than examining them like crime scenes? "Was that sequence part of the reshoots? Was that awful line reading the reason they hired the new Han Solo guy an acting coach? Is this shot in Justice League pinpointing the moment Ben Affleck loses the will to live?"
Sure, it's a way to squeeze some entertainment value out of a movie or show which otherwise offers little, but it's not like we don't do the same with the stuff we actually like. There's a tendency to immediately race to the internet after watching to make sure we really did like it, or were right to like it, as if we need permission from pallid YouTubers sitting in front of shelves of action figures.
Instead of enjoying it as audience, you're studying it like an inspector on an assembly line scanning for defects. It can be fun (I mean, I've been writing for pop culture websites for over a decade), but it's not the same kind of fun as just losing yourself in a story.
As part of the "overthinking pop culture" industry, I can tell you that the pressure to crank out opinions, dissections, and rumors is relentless. By the time you've written your Star Wars: The Last Jedi review, you need to be working on your editorial about the backlash, and when your done that, it's on to the Episode IX rumor roundup.
None of us are trying to ruin entertainment for you, any more than Netflix wants you to feel oddly empty after blasting through 12 hours of a show. It's just that the audience habits that bring the most success for content providers probably aren't the same ones that will make you happiest. Navigating the gap between those two things -- what makes you happy vs. what a corporation is insisting you do -- seems like a fairly important skill, regardless of your media consumption habits.
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