The Phantom Curator
The virtualization of collective experience during this COVID lockdown era has created some anomalies in audience behavior that may result in some profound mutations in the way culture is consumed for the foreseeable future.
In the past, the defining zeitgeist of the age more often than not was based on one thing- curation. Either through the demonstration of political power, as was the case of the great ducal patrons of the renaissance, or the personality cults of the new celebrities of the publishing boom of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or the advent in the twentieth century of new corporate giants recruiting large numbers of artists and musicians as part of the new advertising-based economy, or the theater chains and TV networks, the palette of artworks available has been curated by some authority.
This is not only historical fact, but is even built into our behavior, as if part of some genetic programming.
With the advent of internet and smartphone, hard as they may try, suddenly curation becomes less and less possible for the powers that be. What this means for the viewer is that they are less likely to stick to one source for their media, since all their friends and family are now creators, as are everyone else’s friends and family.
A theatrical movie is more and more an anachronistic rarity in the diet of the typical consumer. Drama requires a static audience, without the option of clicking away to interact in a chat, or a game or any of the myriad interruptions clamoring for your attention. It takes a retrained mind to navigate the realms of interaction, which is creating a new, more restless collective consciousness for which the static absorption of a linear movie is more and more an anachronism.
Reading novels and listening to symphonies was a uniquely nineteenth century phenomenon; the perfect storm of the publishing explosion, a literate, yet static middle class that included women, and a social infrastructure that facilitated the incubation of the calm, analytical state of mind that is a natural audience for that kind of thoughtful material.
By the advent of the twentieth century and its technological marvels, cars, radio and the like, the ingredient of urgency became infused in the media soup as though it were spiked with methamphetamine. Urgency and capitalistic monetization of content created a new curatorial class, the class that controlled the proverbial means of production.
This centralization of culture that benefited from the economies of scale defined the structure of media. But now the backwash of decentralization brings with it the collapse of curation. The various streaming services (of which emerge new ones daily) attempt to curate their content based on some kind of algorithmic attempt at audience analysis.
But eventually, the audience is largely gathered by public awareness, which in the decentralized world is still only achieved by expensive, large scale advertising and media campaigns. This at the same time as collecting revenues becomes more and more of a challenge, since 90% of content is available for free on the same delivery devices. It’s as if in the movie theater days, a four-plex would have three of their theatres playing free movies, and only one that you had to pay for. Not possible because of the inherent expense of running a physical theater.
The largest audiences today are not drawn by major movies or TV shows, but by content produced by individuals in social media and platforms like Tik Tok and YouTube, for almost nothing. These have the immediacy of real life, and relevance in the zeitgeist of the moment. Although I have paid subscriptions to numerous curated content platforms, I find myself spending more and more time hunting and gathering content in the vast un-curated cosmos that our connected world now makes possible. A TV show or movie is now a conscious choice to abdicate interactive freedom in favor of old-style curation; static, passive, and anachronistic.
These new voices attract their audiences by showing up regularly, interacting in a predictable way, and providing an experience that’s much more tribe-like than movies or TV was ever able to do. A YouTuber can ask their audience directly what they want to see. The feeling of newness is maintained in the vlog-o-sphere, Snapchat, Tik Tok and the like, due to the characteristics of the platforms themselves. We came to expect curation, but now the algorithm provides it, and we respond to it as if it were still there, like an amputee responds to a phantom limb.
The atmospherics of full scale movie and TV production diminishes in contrast to, on the one hand, the new and ever-changing world of the streamers and memers, and on the other hand, dwarfed by the grandiosity of gaming aesthetics, with their armies of designers and animators. A movie is often enough watched casually in a p-in-p window, while a gamer is accumulating wizard points in some fantasy game.
This puts a whole new world of burdens on those who aspire to cinema. If one wants to do a reality based, character drama with the full range of natural human interaction, one finds oneself blocked on all sides by the collapse of theatrical exhibition, the narrow curation of the few top streaming platforms, and the ocean of compelling content available for free.
The economics of such a project looks more and more like the economics of book publishing; works created at little to no cash outlay, with a persistent schedule of small scale PR, with the expectation of modest income, until an author develops a loyal following after several books, or in this case, movies.
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