Awesomeness Fatigue

This is a commentary piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service.

I call it awesomeness fatigue – the exhaustion that comes from being bombarded with stories, videos and pictures designed to amaze you. The problem is not that they don’t work: it’s that they’re too good.

In the past week or so I’ve watched people fly off mountains, some figure skating guy and a kid who sued his school after being bullied. All are awesome.

No, the problem is that a sort of “awesome inflation” kicks in, meaning that as your Facebook page, or Twitter feed, or however you consume social media, fills up with these things, so each one needs to be a little more extraordinary than the last one to gain your attention.

And this is the problem. In the past year we’ve seen the rapid emergence of a number of services designed to do just that – to find amazing things on the net and then write a headline that you can’t resist.

Upworthy, one of the most successful, pays a team of freelancers to each unearth no more than seven videos a week. Then they get to work crafting headlines – at least 25 of them for each post, which are then tested rigorously on small focus groups to find the one which would be most viral.

A couple of recent headlines. Resist them if you can: Remember When Music Videos Used To Mean Something? Some Still Do. or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Badass Speech That Everyone Forgot About.

See? They sort of understand us. And so it has worked. Within 18 months, Upworthy has overtaken websites of the New York Times and Disney’s Go.com in the US.

According to Newswhip, a company which measures these things, upworthy got almost as many people to share its 246 items last October as the British newspaper the Daily Mail did with its more than 12,000.

In short, sites like Upworthy have fine-tuned what makes stuff irresistible to us, to click on, watch and then share.

An advertiser’s dream, of course, but this is not a sustainable model.

A few years ago we were quite happy watching a video of baby laughing (‘Baby laughing’, 2006, 21 million hits), or a 7-year old boy groggy from novocaine (‘David After Dentist’, 2009, 122 million hits. Or a guy combining mentos and cola (‘Diet Coke + Mentos’, 17 million hits) to make a fountain.

Now it’s got to be awesome, with a focus-group tested headline.

But it’s hard to envisage how we can keep coming up with amazing things that surprise us. And, more importantly, that we end up getting sick of looking at things that are awesome, and just start yearning for some normality. I am much more selective about which awesomeness I click on. Some of my friends, frankly, are a bit too easily amazed and have slipped in my estimation.

And this is the problem. Digital is making us so hyperefficient that it’s fast squeezing out of life the joys of surprise and serendipity. Surprise that we might define for ourselves the awesomeness – or not – of what we see. Serendipity in discovering something ourselves – rather than having it delivered on a focus-group tested platter.

That our social networks are now being filled with stuff that’s got virality baked deep in somewhat takes the joy out of what social media used to be: finding things ourselves and sharing them with others.

And that word awesome? Awesome as a word has lost most of its awesomeness through overuse– I was told I was awesome by an online magazine for subscribing, and I notice my three-year old daughter is informed by her iPad games that she’s awesome a tad too frequently. Me?

I’m back to being impressed if I can remember my wife’s birthday or to charge my phone before I go to bed. Wake up with a fully-charged phone? Now that’s awesome.

The Rising Noise of Silence

This is a commentary piece for a semi-regular slot on the BBC’s World Service. It’s not content that appears on Reuters, nor does it reflect the views of my employer. 

I’m here to report a new scourge of the public space: folk who watch video on their tablets in public without a headset. Just the other day someone sat next to me in a coffee shop watching a local soap opera on her iPad quite oblivious to the disturbance she was causing me and, well, just me.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but I’ve canvassed friends and it’s clearly a problem that extends far and wide. I’m told ferries in Hong Kong are abuzz with this kind of noise pollution, as are subways and buses in Singapore, as well as flights into and across the Philippines and India.

Putting aside my own tendency to be annoyed by more or less anything these days, I think we have here an example of a counterintuitive trend: what sociologists might call the reclaiming of public space from intrusive technology.

Think about it for a second. Up until a few years ago our biggest bugbear were loudmouths on their cellphones intruding on our reverie in trains, coffee shops and dentists’ waiting rooms.

This is not exactly yet a thing of the past, but it’s beginning to be, because as we’ve embraced the smartphone so have we preferred to occupy our time communicating via text or playing games on our devices. Take mobile phone usage in the UK as an example: the number of minutes most people spend talking on their mobile phone has fallen by 19% between 2007 and 2012. This, I believe, is a global trend whenever phones go from those basic ones that just do voice and SMS to smartphones, where you can do lots of other things.

The trend, therefore, is less time spent talking on phones, which means less time annoying other people in public.

This is a good thing. It basically reverses a trend we thought was irreversible – namely that technology was always going to intrude further into our lives.
So back to the watching video in public without a headset thing.

We’ve gone through an interesting couple of years on mobile. We’ve seen a lot more people buy smartphones, and we’ve seen smartphone screens get bigger. We’ve also seen a lot of carriers deploy faster networks, and in many cases reduce prices. All of this makes video on a portable device possible.

So it’s not surprising that folk are consuming video on their devices in extraordinary quantities. In 2013 video accounted for about a third of global mobile data traffic, according to Ericsson. By 2019, it will account for more than half.

Driving this are deeper phenomena: a lot of the people with these devices and connections don’t have a lot of space to call their own: they live and commute through crowded sites, sleep in cramped flats or dorms. While I do worry about all the neck problems we’re going to see in the years to come, it’s hard to begrudge people carving out a little private space for themselves wherever they can find it.

In a way, I’m amazed that this revolution hasn’t been more intrusive and irksome. For all the folks who aren’t wearing a headset when they immerse themselves in streaming soap, there are thousands, millions of folks who are.

So I’ll desist from decrying these inconsiderate souls, and marvel at how quickly we’ve adopted these new ways of reclaiming some privacy out of public space. What’s astonishing is probably how seamless this transition has been – and how quiet our public lives have become.