We’re not starting a cult but some followers on Instagram would be nice. Thank you.
If you’re spending too much time on TikTok, you probably would’ve come across at least one of these videos at some point.
The first time I saw it, I had no idea why a completely unrelated food video was playing under a clip from one of my favourite sitcoms, Modern Family.
It was mildly distracting, but not enough to keep me from finishing the clip.
I began to see more of these type of videos the more I scrolled, and particularly so in these popular “Am I the Asshole?” (AITA) stories taken from the Reddit community r/AmItheAsshole.
Very stimulating, but also oddly enough held my attention longer than if I had just read the thread myself.
Getting you to stick around by… distracting you?
CBC reported on this phenomenon in January 2023, terming these videos “sludge content“.
The term is borrowed from writer Kaycia Ainsworth’s essay The Content Culture Crisis, in which she refers to the trend as “content sludge”.
“At first it feels like a chaotic jumbled mess that has been hastily thrown together in the hopes that at least one element of it will grab your attention, but its disordered nature is not only intentional, it’s essential. The intention is to not only hook you in, but to disassociate you entirely.”
According to Kaycia, these videos are so successful because they offer “multiple sensory environments and preys on your most human of impulses to keep you consuming for as long as possible”.
The Family Guy pipeline
You’ll begin to realise that the algorithm tends to push you similarly-themed videos, based on the content you’ve interacted with.
So yes, I’ve listened to dozens of AITA stories and played judge and jury on them all.
And there’s probably no better example of this than the “Family Guy Pipeline”, which musician Billy Oberman found himself falling into after downloading the app to promote his own content.
After watching one Family Guy clip, he says, he found himself watching “numerous hours of this show [he’d] never seen in a row”.
“I have classes, I have a job, I have things to do. But yet I come home at night and watch Family Guy minute and a half clips juxtaposed with mobile game screen recordings.”
Incidentally, in November 2022, what is now known as The Family Guy Pipeline Incident hit TikTok.
This was an algorithm glitch on TikTok caused by several accounts posting videos that showed Family Guy clips alongside—you guessed it—completely unrelated videos of a metal pipe being filled with cigarettes and carrots.
This, according to Know Your Meme, was “to avoid copyright claims as well as provide another stimulus for a supposedly low-attention-span-having Zoomer audience”.
The TikTok algorithm began to recommend the search query “family guy pipeline incident’, leading to speculation in the TikTok community about what exactly this “incident” was.
Creating sludge content is lucrative business too.
Bloomberg reports that one content creator makes US$1,000 (~S$1339) a month from producing sludge content, while another said they are paid USD30 (S$40.20) for 1.4 million views.
According to one such creator, each of their videos can clock up to 10 million views, with a view time of 40 seconds on average— eight times longer than the average video on TikTok.
The multi-screen experience isn’t new
Now, this all sounds a little manipulative, doesn’t it?
But the fact is, we’ve been doing this to ourselves even before people did it to clips from our favourite TV shows.
Ever found yourself distractedly scrolling through Instagram while watching TV?
That makes you just like 86% of internet users who second-screen while watching TV, according to market research company Global Web Index.
Saif Shahin, an Assistant Professor of Digital Culture at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, said of the trend:
“What TikTok is doing with these videos is allowing people to have distractions on the same screen … [and therefore] have people stay on the same screen for an extended period of time.”
“It draws on people’s already limited abilities to be attentive to media for extended periods of time, it then reinforces that and further limits people’s attention spans.“
A vicious cycle
Aside from the initial curiosity when I first encountered these videos, I’d admit that I never thought much of it after.
Over time, I’ve gotten used to, and even come to expect to these videos, so much so that I tend to scroll past more conventional storytelling formats, such as these:
@llove_lola I would be so upset if someone did this me 😭 #story #storytime #reddit #aita #relationshipadvice ♬ original sound – llove_lola
It employs the same format of insane internet story + narration, but lacks the additional stimulus of a mobile game in the background.
In an interview with Insider on the popularity of these Reddit storytelling videos, clinical neuropsychologist Jennifer Wolkin said:
“Movement is known to capture attention, so perhaps they are playing to that… It’s not necessarily visual motion that’s salient, it’s the onset of visual motion that really catches someone’s attention. I think the Reddit videos do a really good job of catering to this.”
As the format grows increasingly popular, their familiarity, she says, feeds our need for dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, satisfaction and motivation.
“It’s something we seek out as humans, and each time we scroll and see something that resonates with us, we are getting a hit of it.”
Not harmful… at least for now
Gordon Pennycook, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Regina in Canada, says that a potential risk of the format could be from users who try to convince viewers of their opinions.
CBC quoted him as saying,
“Even if having the extra video increases the amount of time that people spend, and those people are successful at ignoring the message, that will still trick the algorithm into showing that video to more people — who may not be as discerning when they see the content.”
Take Andrew Tate, the British-American social media personality known for his misogynistic videos catered to a young male audience, and who’s now under investigation in Romania for alleged human trafficking and rape.
YouTuber and cognitive science graduate Blair Chapman says that the success of Andrew Tate’s videos can be attributed to this content strategy.
“His content strategy across TikTok was basically an affiliate marketing deal for Hustler’s University where people take clips of him, add a compelling GTA (Grand Theft Auto) or just a video game visual.
“Something about that seamless combo of… the subliminal automacity, simulated agency upon him telling you ‘This is what you need to do to get rich.’ It was the perfect formula for distracting people and giving them that subtle agency…. ‘I’m listening to him, and I’m getting this done as well.'”
Viewers, he says, then associate these viewpoints with the feeling of accomplishment from tasks or video-game levels being completed.
However, Betsi Grabe, principal investigator at Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, says sludge content is unlikely to hypnotise anyone.
Referencing a field of study known as “audio-visual redundancy”, she said that in a scenario where sound and video are competing for attention, video wins.
Hence, it is more likely that viewers are likely to ignore these influencers’ opinions, rather than internalise them.
Top image via satissatuo/TikTok and reddiit_being_reddit/TikTok.
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