Content Consumption Advisory: Supervision Required?

No, not censorship.  I'm not here for that, so all you clickbait-susceptibles and headline-only readers pack a lunch, take a seat, and strap in.  The last 2 months, 8 days, 11 hours and 46 minutes (give or take) since my last article have been like a toddler’s plate after a PB&J sandwich, which is to say jam-packed.  A lot of things happening all within the span of a few months: 3 shows with my band, two of them out of town, plus all the rehearsals; weeks in a row sound engineering for bands and DJs (getting rained on right at sound check is always fun); recording and mixing for various musical and podcast-ic adventures (shameless plug: check out the So Good podcast y’all :D) ed note: click here for Mike’s podcast.  A lot of opportunity for learning & growth, and a lot of time spent executing on a very limited temporal/financial budget. Not gonna lie, I was looking forward to some kind of disconnect. 

Besides the occasional beach day or little weekend trip to my dad’s place in the country, though, I have been engaging in another sort of coping.  Confidently committed to a concept, I consented to concern myself with the considerable consumption of colourfully compelling content, continually and at a constant rate in a community of comfort and convenience, with a consequential contentedness comparable only to the conclusion of a convicted man’s confinement.  Stick that shit on a t-shirt.

Translated: watching and listening to various forms of content.  I have been immersed in the world of music, podcasts, YouTube, Netflix, Crave, and Prime.  They have been my Encyclopedia Entertannica for years, but as of late I have been a bit of a bookworm, buried in these volumes absorbing as much as time would allow.  Sounds great, right? Well for a time it was indeed, cruising along, enjoying the emotional release that goes with the careless binging of absolutely stellar-level content.  At what point, though, does that momentary pipe dream turn into a piping hot mess? I can tell you now that it has been sort of a three-part emotional ride, sort of a weird self-discovered 3 stages of content interaction.  The "yay" phase, the "nay" phase, and the "ohhhhh okay" phase.  

Phase one: "Yay."  Also known as yaas, yuh, and no I am not doing the dishes right now, Felicia, I'm in the middle of 30 Rock.  This was the relief-and-delight phase, the part wherein I discover new content, rediscover the old, and take in all this wonderful art while feeling my creative and energy reserves recharge slowly after having long since been depleted.  So much good art out there to take in right now too. Platforms are so universally successful they curate and produce masterful work, which establishes a culture of unrestrained imagination in which creators generate this almost infinite library of amazing stuff.  Getting so immersed and ignoring the world for a short while seems to be of little consequence when the content is so good. Usually someone who sticks to this phase then promptly switches back to their standard day-to-day has a pretty healthy sense of balance between entertainment and routine.  And had that been me, this would be the last paragraph and thanks for reading, see you next time. If only.

Soon thereafter came the day for “nay,” otherwise known as the lazy-and-guilty hour (it has also been called the “hooman staaahp” moment).  Because of its inherent nature as a physically inactive deed, extended periods of taking in content can give one the impression of not moving toward any cause but self-entertainment.  If this impression, correct or not, carries on for a few short days in a row or repeatedly over an extended period, some of the things that could possibly ensue are a loss of self-esteem and sense of accomplishment, followed sometimes by self-loathing of a horrid nature.  Keep that up for long enough and full-blown depression may be on the horizon, especially if that is something prevalent in one’s genetics already. It sounds extreme, but I have spoken with a few people who arrived at this point, and it is scary just how immersed and out of touch we can really get.

The craziest part is how easily it happens; one moment you have a productive day and decide to sit down for a few episodes, the next you are 5 seasons into Lost and you have four days of Foodora containers accumulated on your dresser.  What the hell just happened?  For me, a complete absence of activity when personal downtime came into play.  It was: get home from anywhere and crank an entire season of whatever in a 12-hour-or-less span.  No regard for much else, ordering in because forget cooking, I hadn’t washed pans or dishes since June.  Daily chores became weekly. Social media became my news source (the horror) and I succumbed to yet another Facebook debate.  Let’s just say, however, that luckily I realized where this whole ordeal was headed before it ended up there, and I got to the stage of, “wow, I should probably like record a song or start working out or something because I really hate what this has become.  I feel like the garbage on my dresser I should have thrown out a week ago.”

Right around that time, my podcasting comrades and I sat down to discuss with the tape rolling, and one of them brought up a very interesting point, something along the lines of, “you really get more out of a show like Stranger Things or Sense8 when you binge them. It’s as if the show creators knew you were going to power through it and adjusted the format as such.”  My jaw kinda just went slack. As if the creators knew…  Of course!  Not only did they know, they obviously saw the potential with the emergence of unlimited streaming platforms that allow for this kind of behaviour.   Writers, directors, producers, all of them had a hand in redesigning the typical season format from ten or more 1-hour episodes to a kind of 10-hour or more mega feature-length movie.   

Of course platforms like Netflix know as well.  I am positive they even have measurables for how often people go straight through multiple episodes vs. at spread out intervals, and probably judge a show’s success at least partially using these numbers (my own little theory as to why they cancelled The OA after the second season by the way, not enough bingers).  That’s probably why they encourage such a formula and push for all new productions to hook you in for whole seasons at a time. Almost as if they’re hoping people just keep needing a series to binge so that they keep searching for new shows with new seasons until they’re done those and they just keep people in this loop… 

“Ohhhhh, okay.”

Yes, phase three was the realization that I, like so many others, had succumbed to a very clever business strategy that has for it one goal, and that is: these sites are designed to keep you watching as much, as often, and for as long as possible.  Funny feeling taking an objective step back and looking down on the situation to find yourself within your own little iteration of a massive social experiment without even knowing what you are a part of. Scary that I didn’t really ever volunteer or agree to participate in this experience at any point though, but that’s what you get when you don’t read the terms & conditions.  Fun fact: in Amazon Prime Videos’ terms of use, they shall not let liability for “[...] damages arising out of or related to your use or inability to use the Software exceed the amount of fifty dollars ($50.00).”  So if you’re trying looking to score some cash from binging, dream on sis, and next time read the fine print! Let me now take this time to make two things perfectly clear about this business model so people don’t start pre-production on, “Misrepresenting Mike: The Musical.”  

One: it is not in and of itself a bad thing.  Streaming platforms need to give the impression of unlimited premium content, otherwise users will just choose the other platforms they feel hit this mark more closely.  Also the ability to provide a soapbox for creators to produce such incredible forms of art as they have done and are doing is oh-so important for actual creativity to flourish.  If companies like Netflix and HBO weren’t making money with their ad-free business models, shows like Black Mirror and Game of Thrones would not exist (pause, and imagine yourself in a world where Game of Thrones was never a thing.  Scary). They NEED to exist because THAT is the kind of content we should be striving for. Not necessarily shows with brutally dystopian universes, but shows that achieve incredible feats of creativity, originality, writing, storytelling, production, effects, whatever the criteria.  We’re at that point in history and technology wherein the only limits should be, and are indeed, one’s own imagination.

Two: at no point are platforms responsible for anyone’s abuse of their services, morally or legally.  Like I mentioned above, companies will stipulate that very fact in their own terms of service to make it so legally.  As for morally, just like it’s not morphine’s fault anyone gets addicted to it, at one point some legitimate human error occurred that could have been prevented.  In my case, I should have probably realized after about a week or two that watching 4 different series to completion was not really a normal rate and, “maybe we’re gonna only watch one or two episodes of Narcos today.”  We can’t start blaming companies for lack of self-control just because that’s the path of least resistance. It would be as if I blamed toxic masculinity and the media for my poor self-image because I don’t want to stop eating pizza pockets and ice cream and refuse to exercise.  Oops, gonna need a mop for that tea.  

Not to say that we should not have understanding and empathy for those with these or any fixations, on the contrary, we must all accept that this could apply to all of us for any number of things or behaviours.  Can you just eat one square of chocolate if you really told yourself to? If not, guess what bud? You’ve got a self-control issue. Can’t stay in the shower for less that 30 minutes? Like one of my roommates, you’re hooked to that, and “GET OUT ANTOINE I’M LATE.”  It seems meaningless and easy to relate to when things like dessert and eccentricities are in question, but when anything more serious occurs, we tend to just look at people and say, “man what is wrong with them?” Until those people are us. Before long that question turns into, “can I even get myself out of this?”  Without a doubt, yes, and absolutely.  

Ultimately Netflix does not have a hold on you, you do.  You have control over yourself and with enough will you can get yourself out of any rut.  If not on your own then with some help from loved ones. You have to understand that content is out there waiting for you to access it, and that’s an absolutely wonderful thing we are very lucky to have.  Libraries and libraries of carefully crafted art and information at our fingertips, waiting to be accessed, and our biggest problem is spending too much time taking it all in. Platforms and creators are non-discriminate, meaning they don’t care so much about what drives you to consume their art.  You could be trying to cut yourself off from the outside world for a time, or consciously observing and having genuine learning experiences, “hey man, as long as it counts as a view.” As with most things, this problem lies not with Amazon Prime or HBO or the like. The problem is, of course, understanding balance and executing impeccable timing so that growth never ceases.  When the occasion occurs to grant oneself some watching/listening time, there is and always will be so much out there to learn from and appreciate. But if you’re missing out on the lessons and beauty of tangible things happening around you or even right in front of you, maybe turn off autoplay on YouTube.

To read more by Mike Gerbasi click here.

Mike Gerbasi is a Montreal based musician and sound engineer who co-runs his own audiovisual production company, 73 Studios.  You can find his bands, The Feedbackers and the Task Managers, on Apple Music and Spotify.