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.