Compelling or Addictive

Even a week after returning home from a family visit to Seattle, several of the songs my baby nephew loves are still stuck in my head.

Many of these songs (Baby Shark, classics by Raffi, those featured on Cocomelon) are genuine earworms, even if as an adult they don’t seem terribly compelling by any other metric (some of the simplest and least interesting (to me) of these songs are the ones that have become most deeply rooted, to my chagrin).

It speaks volumes, I think, that these sorts of songs are so popular; they’re useful for parents, who want to keep their kids occupied and happy, and sometimes to bequeath as a reward for good behavior. But they’re also regularly deployed as space-fillers for parents who just need some time in which to be human; to be adults, friends, partners—anything other than parents—for a few minutes.

This type of content is great for that purpose, as parents can feel confident their kid will be 100% engrossed, thrilled, and not whining about anything or making demands on their time and attention for their runtime (and maybe a lot more than that, if the playlist or YouTube stream is allowed to continue progressing through its algorithmically optimized list of recommendations).

There’s a reason, though, that many parents—once they’re able to do so, practically— ultimately limit their child’s exposure to this sort of content, relegating it to moments here and there throughout the day, rather than leaving screens and speakers playing on an endless loop.

After all, offering a child endless platters of candy would also keep them occupied for a good long while, but though there might be short-term benefits to doing this (especially in terms of keeping them happy and quiet), the long-term consequences wouldn’t be ideal.

I’ve been thinking about addictive media for the past handful of months, in part because I’ve been assessing my own output and making decisions about how I’d like to be spending my time, including what sorts of things I want to be creating (for my own edification, and so I can feel good about what I’m putting into the world).

I’ve been thinking especially about temporal versus more concrete and permanent work (tweets versus published books, short-term valuable content versus stuff that’s more evergreen), the nature of said work, and the incentives (and disincentives) baked into the delivery mechanisms we use to get such work to its intended audience.

Because of how our most common methods of distribution and consumption function, we’re motivated to make work that’s addictive in some way: stuff that tugs on people, demanding and grabbing and keeping their attention for as long as possible.

This is largely because the services and networks we use to connect with each other are themselves addictive. These platforms only survive and thrive when we spend more of our finite time on them, incorporating our attention and output into their bulging archive of the same (which they can mine for data, and against which they can place ads).

Even folks who are professional makers-of-non-addictive-content (those who write books, for instance—books seldom becoming addictive, at least individually, because they have a defined ending) are forced to spend a lot of their time and energy producing addictive fare (Instagram posts, tweets, podcast appearances, etc) because they’re unlikely to get a publisher’s attention without the social proof a large number of social followers provides, and because without a large number of people paying attention to them (and continuing to do so), how will anyone know their work exists in the first place, competing as it does with the (for most practical purposes) infinite number of other possible units of media would-be book-readers might engage with, instead?

I wish I had clearer questions to ask myself about all this, and maybe some answers to these (nebulous) questions, as well!

What I do know is there’s a tension between how I’d like to spend my time, and the things I might do to better sustain my (weird) career.

I know I’d like to reorient things toward even more compelling work, in the sense that it’s valuable and draws attention because of that latent value, but that a workable model for doing so that includes a minimum of the intentionally addictive stuff hasn’t been formalized for the social media, artificial intelligence era in which we exist.

I think on some level, at least, most of us would love to fill our lives with more substantive, healthful art, information, and overall engagement, but we live at a moment in which overflowing platters of candy are always within reach, and most of the folks controlling our distribution channels seem focused on shoveling more fuel into their candy-making machines, not on figuring out how to sustain their denser, more nutritious offerings (and the people producing those offerings).

I feel incredibly fortunate to do what I do for a living, and I don’t think addictive content is necessarily bad—I enjoy candy as much as the next person.

But I do wonder how viable this sort of career path will be for people (except for the few metaphorical lottery winners who stumble upon ways to make it work for them and their specific circumstances) in the coming years, and I mourn for what we’ll lose if the number of people willing and able to invest themselves in less addictive, more compelling projects (of all kinds) shrinks even further.

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