"Content nausea, World War Four / Seems like it all came too soon ... "
If you're feeling an increasing sense of anxiety that you may be streaming your life away, you very well could be experiencing "content nausea" -- a term that stems from a 2014 song and album by the band Parkay Quarts.
Although "content nausea" is new, you've likely heard of cousin terms that attempt to pick away at the same issues. "Unplugging" -- whether it's trying to look at a cellphone less or completely cut out the internet from one's life -- is a concept/movement that has already caught on. That said, the goals maybe haven't totally translated to results. Here are just a few signs we're far from unplugged:
The average American....
*Dedicates about 2 full days per month to browsing on a smartphone.
*Spends 40 minutes a day checking Facebook.
*Bonus: nearly 20% of young adults may use their smartphones during sex.
More recently, as evidenced by the rise of projects like ContentBot or Clickhole, the fear of being "plugged" has led us to explore the actual content that's keeping us occupied with our "shitphones." For those in media, the threat of content nausea is certainly an old debate, so this is nothing new, but consumers and readers driving the traffic from the Facebook fire-hose seem to be desiring a more critical look at our digital dependence too.
After all, everyone with a Facebook or Instagram or Twitter is a content creator; therefore, a wholly new question exists as to what all these people owe each other, in terms of decency and attention... and sometimes currency.
This is the world in which Ryder Ripps' new exhibition "Alone Together" -- at Red Bull Studios in New York until April 12, 2015 -- takes place. The piece features six internet "performers" creating content live. That content is then streamed into a manageable, but still overwhelming wooden box located a floor above them. Viewers walk up a staircase, look into the content flashing and blinking before them, and decide whether they want to hit a "Like" button.
Of course, six people is just a slice of the content creation world. For the Super Bowl alone this year, there were 71,245 articles, with 7,072 of them being written just about Katy Perry's halftime show. Limiting Ripps' scope to six people allows the audience to wrap its collective head around what it's seeing in just a moment. God only knows how the sausage gets made for the entire internet, but by peering into Ripps' nauseating boxes, for a moment you get to see the light.
"There's no definitive end to any of this."
Ryder Ripps describes his project as a "mission" and positions his content creators almost in the style of astronauts, giving them uniforms with logos reminiscent of NASA programs. Conquering the Moon was Kennedy's generation. Conquering Mars will be the next. Creating the great American listicle will be our feat. Lately, it's been at least a part of our president's mission.
In the past, Ripps has talked about how gaining the most followers on social networks is a form of "winning," although a questionable pursuit:
We refresh our Instagram to see who follows us. Our value as human beings is about that. And it sucks and I'm a part of that. Maybe I'm perpetuating it, but I'm saying that I personally am a victim of it. My Instagram followers grew from 7.1k to 7.2k today and that actually made me feel good. Like really good. And that's so fucked up. It's so stupid. It means nothing. It has nothing to do with anything. Meanwhile, I didn't call my mom back today after she called. Am I a good person? No, I'm a fucking shit person who didn't call my mom back. I should call her back. But I got 7.2k, I got 7.2k! I validate myself through that.
Talking to The Huffington Post, Ripps walked back that thinking, now believing that it isn't worth focusing on whether you're winning or not on social media as you can't win if there's no end of the game. "Yeah, and the other thing is to what end? There's no definitive end to any of this," explained Ripps. At another moment in the conversation, he said, "it's hard to fulfill if you don't have a goal. Then you never reach it."
"[The content is] not intended to be discussed past a day or two."
"Alone Together" is partly about capturing a moment of our time so we can at least have a shot of wrapping our heads around the underlying relationship that causes content nausea. As Ripps explained, "there's a lot about that sort of displacement, the flow of content from a whole collective of users into a singular feed and the things that get noticed."
These are human interactions and creations that, on the internet, are not fated to last. Even websites go dark, deleted completely over time.
Ripps told HuffPost how his piece tackles this hopelessness, noting a focus on how "these items are purely ephemeral." Ripps continued, "They're not intended to be discussed past a day or two that they're posted and none of them are going to be heirlooms that you print out and you show your kids. It's all in the ether. It's all just pure entertainment and sensationalist and they really just activate the serotonin in our brain."
Recently, the popular internet writer Safy-Hallan Farah reiterated in a tweet, "Tumblr has made a generation of young people believe their [sic] small, self-validating online spaces make them famous."
"We have a voracious desire for new content."
Perhaps content nausea comes out of innate human -- or at least American -- desires for more and more. Ripps described a characterization of the typical content exchange between creators and consumers in his mind, "With a smartphone in their hand, they're uploading stuff. They're viewing stuff. They're consuming. They're posting. Reading. Writing."
Ripps continued, "And then a whole other group of people are reacting to that, to those outputs and inputs. Just analytics, how many hits does a blog post get? How many times does this thing share?"
Within the perpetually rolling newsfeed, Ripps admitted to believing only the most sensational content survives. Although "we have a voracious desire for new content" as Ripps claims, that doesn't mean all content is created equal or that all content will go viral. It's hard to emerge from the noise, which begs the question: what are content creators willing to do to get noticed?
"Why do followers fulfill us and what obligations do you have to people you've never met?"
Ripps doesn't believe that it's worth focusing too too much on what people should or should not do to gain followers, but rather it's more important to take that a step further and ask, "Why do followers fulfill us and what obligations do you have to people you've never met?" This is the "big question" of our era. Ripps explains:
[In the past] people had obligations to their friends and their family but someone you passed on the street you didn't have an obligation to them. But now when you tweet something, or you post something on the internet, you make an image, that has the ability to reach everyone on Earth possibly. So we are constantly considering what obligation do I have to people I've never met.
Some Tumblr stars are teens and it's maybe more questionable whether they consent to public scrutiny -- like it's argued normal celebs have done. Moreover, it's unclear if we can argue and criticize and interact and potentially befriend people without bullying or defying other social norms associated with the non-content world. If everyone is a brand, then certainly there's a new communication struggle. Try to navigate this struggle and you might just wind up with content nausea.
"Reblogging is the new way of showing love."
One of the ways to interact in the content world is to reblog or aggregate. As Ripps claimed about his art exibit "Ho," based on the Instagram star Adrianne Ho, "Reblogging is the new way of showing love." It's just a bit detached enough and it creates more content for the algorithm. Win win.
Wander back to Ripps' exhibition and you see visitors pressing the like button on Ripps' content box. From their vantage point, nothing appears to happen. But downstairs in the content creation station, the performers see a light start blinking for a moment. Win win.
Although musically wholly unrelated, Parkay Quarts "Content Nausea" may be our generation's metaphorical equivalent of a "Hotel California." The Parkay Quarts song has the line, "Pretty pictures, pretty lives / I peered into once or twice / I'll go back but not today / It's nice to visit but it's hard to stay."
We're building a world that can make you sick to linger in too long, experienced via excessive staring at an artificially lit screen. Maybe we haven't fully traded skylines for timelines, but the more hours and weekends you spend alone together with the new world atop your lap, streaming content, you have to wonder if this frontier is still worth settling and refreshing.
There was an elephant in the room, but it exceeded the character limit.
All still images Greg Mionske / Red Bull Content Pool.