In our current digital age, where anyone can self-publish anything they want, there’s more stuff out there than ever before—books to read, videos to watch, podcasts to listen to, etc—and more is coming out every day. Too much, even. More than anyone could ever keep up with, even if they vowed to only read/watch “the best” of every medium.
Content consumers have never had so many options. And content creators have never had so much competition.
Books. Audiobooks. Free serialized web fiction.
Console games. Mobile games. Twitch streams.
TV shows. Netflix. A half-dozen other streaming platforms, suddenly, all with their own exclusive content.
Everywhere you look, corporations and content creators are fighting for your eyes and ears, pushing out hundreds of new series, thousands of new episodes, billions of hours of fresh entertainment that you’re free to partake in as you choose. (At whatever the cost of the platform is, which might even be free!)
And it’s gosh dang fantastic! If you were ever worried about running out of good shows to watch, worry no more! You’ll never have a shortage again. Marvel or Star Wars fan? Here, have another miniseries on Disney+ every couple months for the rest of your life. Or do you prefer books? Over a million new books are self-published on Amazon every year. YouTube subscriptions? Podcasts? TikTok? Twitter’s endless scrollbar? Okay, maybe this isn’t such a good thing after all.
There’s too much content now. No one can keep up with it. Which means, for the people who do want to keep up with it all, they need to learn how to let go of their completionism and accept that they’ll only ever be able to scratch the surface on all the content that’s out there.
I have a friend who keeps a “Media Queue” spreadsheet of books, audiobooks, games, podcasts, anime, movies, and so on. A literal list to help them keep track of all the things they want to read or watch or play or experience or so on. That’s not particularly strange these days; how many of us have ever given (or been given) a Netflix recommendation, only to hear (or say) in response, “Thanks, I’ll put it on my list”? Everyone is keeping a list of the media they want to consume, whether in the back of their mind or explicitly written out.
The problem with this person’s list? It was over a thousand entries long.
At some point in that list’s growth, it stopped being a media queue and started being a “semi-prioritized list of things to consider consuming, eventually, maybe.” There’s no way a single person could actually go through that entire list without it taking years, even as a full time job—especially since the list would continue to grow as new media comes out.
A little over a century ago, about ten thousand books were published each year in the United States alone. Today, counting self-published books, that number is in the millions.
Decades ago, when television channels numbered in the dozens rather than the hundreds, any single program was viewed by millions more people than the average program today would get, having to compete against all the other channels, against streaming platforms, against all the other things people are doing with their time instead of watching a literal television. Even comparing today to a few years ago shows the drastic effect that streaming services have had.
In 1983, the series finale of M*A*S*H received 105.9 million viewers. Can you imagine that many people watching any series finale today? Can you imagine that many people watching any one thing today? (Other than, like, big sports events, of course.) The diversification of content platforms and content types means fewer eyes on all of them.
And one of the unfortunate casualties of that diversification is the loss of a shared cultural vocabulary, where we all have the same memes because we all watched the same shows and read the same novels. Today, someone who spends all their media time on YouTube and Twitch is going to have a vastly different cultural experience than someone who spends all their media time on books and audiobooks. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a little sad to realize that the very media we choose to consume is just another way we can silo ourselves from the rest of our community.
As a writer-in-training, I try to filter my “books to read” list not just by the story concepts that interest me, but also by the books that will be most helpful to my writing. (Books with good evocative prose I can study, or complex characters, etc.) And that’s still not enough of a filter—there are too many books I want to read, and not enough time to read them all, and that kinda sucks!
But it gets even worse when I look at the issue from the other side, as a writer instead of a reader.
When I start publishing my books, I’m going to be competing against literally millions of other authors. How do any of them break through the crowd and achieve any kind of popularity? The answer is, most don’t. Most books only sell a handful of copies, ever. Which also kinda sucks! I could turn out to be one of the best writers of the decade, and sheer luck of the draw with The Algorithms That Be might mean that no one ever reads my books to find out. (Or the other way around—I could be a pretty bad writer, and become wildly successful by sheer chance. Wouldn’t that be fifty shades of fucked up?)
And yet… I don’t think I would change the current system, if I somehow had that power. If a million people want to express themselves by writing books, they should be able to—even if the numbers mean significantly lower chance of success for any of them. And if another million people want to become indie game developers and steal my prospective readers with their Steam offerings, well, good for them! Let them have their chance too! Everyone should have a chance, and that’s what’s great about the current system: it gives a chance to people who never would have had a chance before.
It’s just a shame that the chances are spread so thin right now.
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