The Cost of Content: Media Oversaturation and Hegemonic Experiences

(Hello! My schedule’s a little hectic at the moment, so as explained last week, the next few Sundays will feature updated reposts from another site I used to run. This week’s post was originally published on July 20th, 2015.)


If you actually made it through that title (which reads like a marketing exec vomited buzzwords on a sociology textbook), then I applaud you. Unfortunately, despite staring at it for a good length of time, I couldn’t think of a less bland way to concisely describe the topic of this post, so that’s what we’re stuck with.

The topic in question is one that we’re all forced to address in our day-to-day lives with the supposedly simple decision of what we spend our time on. Specifically, I’m talking about how we spend our “leisure time,” those precious few hours between work/school and sleep where we have theoretically unlimited freedom to do what we want. Within the boundaries of physics and the law, of course.

Even more specifically, I’d like to address the leisure activities that I’ll collectively refer to as “content consumption,” wherein we choose to experience something that someone else has created. This is a very, very broad categorization, including such disparate pastimes as reading a book, playing a video game, or even just reading Twitter. Each of these subcategories encompasses an effectively limitless amount of content. It wouldn’t matter if you devoted every moment of your life to books or music or TV shows, you still wouldn’t even be able to scratch the surface of what’s out there.

This sort of media oversaturation is nothing new, of course. One estimate suggests the year 1500 CE as the approximate date for a “content singularity” of sorts, when books began to be written and published faster than anyone could hope to read them. For hundreds of years, people have understood (at least implicitly) that there was too much content to be consumed in their limited time. So why are we talking about it now?

Put simply, because the situation is much more drastic than it has ever been before. The advent of the digital age has allowed the creation of unfathomable quantities of content and provided a platform for cheap and easy access to the sum of human creativity. Kindles and other e-readers let you carry entire libraries with you everywhere. Netflix holds a vast and continually updating repository of movies and TV seasons. The iTunes Store holds around 37,000,000 songs, plus podcasts and other media. Perhaps most frighteningly, an estimated 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

We are actively confronted by the sheer volume of content available to us, and we have an incredibly limited amount of time to try and consume what we can. Traditionally, we decide what content is worthy of our attention by what we find to be the most entertaining or fulfilling, and this still holds true. If a TV series isn’t holding our attention on Netflix, we’ll stop and watch something else. After all, each piece of content we consume has a distinct opportunity cost: by choosing to spend our time on one thing (e.g. watching a movie), we lose the opportunity to spend that time doing something else (e.g. reading a book).

This drive to figure out the “best” pieces of content so that we don’t waste our time has led to what I call “hegemonic experiences” or, more colloquially, “must content,” as in “must-read books,” “must-watch movies,” and “must-play games.” You’ll be familiar with the concept if you’ve ever seen a list of “100 books to read before you die,” or if a friend has ever cornered you and ecstatically chirped, “Wait, you haven’t seen Breaking Bad yet? Oh my god, you have to watch it!”

This phenomenon is even more noticeable in academic circles. As an English student, I am all too aware of the “literary canon” of books that I absolutely must read if I’m going to pretend I have a solid understanding of English literature. Books like Jane Eyre or A Tale of Two Cities are portrayed as required reading for anyone studying or working in the field. Film students, aspiring game developers, and basically any other students of creative academia all have their equivalents.

And for a while, this was enough. Each one of us became a curator of content, deciding what to consume via a combination of our own personal tastes and socially established lists of these hegemonic experiences. But it couldn’t last.

The list of hegemonic experiences grew too large simply because too much high quality content is being released. The social pressures to consume these pieces of “must content” began to overpower individual preferences as we caved to our friends’ explicit and implicit demands because we wanted to fit in. If you’ve ever thought something like, “I don’t really like [insert content here], but all of my friends are talking about it and I don’t want to be left out,” then you know what I’m talking about.

This change has some far-reaching impacts, too. The concept of revisiting content that we’ve particularly enjoyed or found to be especially compelling has become almost unthinkable. The opportunity cost of rereading that favourite book from your childhood means that you might miss out on the newest Netflix original series, and we can’t have that, can we?

With the way our culture has established rigid guidelines on what content we should consume, our leisure time is now being directly and heavily influenced by people other than ourselves to the point that it is no longer truly leisure. It has become work.

To summarize, the demands of our friends and our culture as a whole have become unfeasible and often irreconcilable with our personal preferences for how to spend our time. Furthermore, not only has the full span of available content extended past our limits of consumption, but the list of hegemonic experiences has become so enormous that it too is beyond the scope of a human lifetime. When the amount of “must content” overreaches what is reasonably possible for an individual to consume, the concept becomes ineffective and meaningless.

There’s really only one solution, then: fall back on personal preferences, because they still mean something and they won’t lead you astray. Spend your time how you want without worrying if your leisure activities conform to the exalted “canon” of whatever field you’re exploring. Focus on enjoyment and fulfillment for their own sake, even (or perhaps especially) if that means revisiting a piece of content that you found to be particularly significant.

Your friends will continue to provide recommendations, obviously, and that’s fine. But reserve your right to ignore or even disagree with their opinions. You’re the only person affected by the opportunity cost of consuming one piece of content or another, after all, so you should be the only one to decide how you spend your leisure time.

Of course, this means you might not always be able to follow along with conversations about specific content, but that’s fine too. In this way, each individual will be able to cultivate a “portfolio” of consumed content, a résumé of specific experiences shaped by their own personal taste and providing them with a unique perspective through which to perceive future content and even other aspects of their life. This will amplify our already distinct opinions and thoughts and help to create a much more enriching conversation than one that just rehashes the events of last night’s episode of Riverdale.

This is doubly true for academia or for people who want to make content of their own. We should be doing everything we can to foster a diverse array of voices in scholarly and creative settings, and that includes encouraging everyone to consume whatever content they want. While required readings will obviously still exist, the content that each student consumes outside the classroom will promote lively discussion of whatever pieces the teacher or professor chooses to share.

So go on, then. There’s more content out there than you could ever imagine; a lot of it is fantastic and a lot of it is awful. As for deciding which is which, well, it doesn’t matter if you don’t always agree with your friends or your classmates or your professors. It’s your time, and how you spend it is up to you.


Author: Mitchell

I'm 24 and currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Toronto.

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