Cute fiction

Welcome to a fast-approaching media universe where everything we consume will be sterilized

Of all the bizarre “gates” iPhone managed to produce — “antennagate”, “bendgate”, “batterygate” etc. — none of them is as fascinating as this year’s “beautygate”.

For those who are not familiar with iPhone’s most recent muddle, beautygate” is a “glitch” on new models’ front-facing camera that makes skin smoother on selfies. By default. Users get a delusional “skin cleansing” on every photo whether they like it or not.

As a flaw by itself, this is no tragedy — a week ago, Apple came up with a flimsy excuse and released a quick fix through a software update. The allure with “beautygate” lies somewhere else: almost nobody asked for the fixing. The vast majority of iPhone owners decided to ignore this camera issue because it’s a “good” glitch. It’s a “malfunction” that creates a pipe dream, that washes out the dirt and makes them feel better — like a broken scale showing you’ve lost weight even if you haven’t or like believing that removing homeless from sight will make them go away.

You get it, pretty much like everyone’s filtered life on Instagram.

This “noise reduction” environment, where the ills and defects of the world are set aside for the sake of a sanitized lifestyle, is creepy enough on this self-esteem level, but it’s not an Instagram prerogative, especially when you scrutinize the exponents of new media.

Take the YouTube generation, for instance. A few years ago, the site used to be a niche frivolity, now it’s the constant hub of 1.9 billion souls — 25% of the world population. Yet this incredibly multifarious audience gets a very restricted schedule. Half of the 20 most popular YT channels are music related, the place is a festival of parodies, pranks and pandas, and all of the top youtubers are limited to the entertainment pod: tech, games, comedy and lifestyle. Viewers can easily spend 1 billion hours on the platform — the number of hours of video watched on YouTube every day — without knowing who Brett Kavanaugh is (that sounded like a bad thing when I first wrote it).

While tempting, blaming content creators and the audience for this continuous hypnosis is mere ignorance. The concept of some entertainment carousel seducing us all has existed since before Christ. The missing piece in this equation is the counterpoint: critical thinking, as you might have guessed.

YouTube’s new rival, Facebook Watch, most likely will take the plunge into purifying waters and face a similar fate. Since it’s pretty recent (it only went global in August), Watch is still experimenting a bit of everything to see what sticks, but honestly, it will be a huge surprise if it doesn’t succumb to the same “colour-graded” universe made famous by YouTube. It looks like cynicism, but that would be coherence. After all, Facebook was the first one to teach legacy media that the boring things of the world — say, global health issues, social inclusion, gender equity or climate change — could never compete against a cute cat video.

Youtubers Lele Pons and Liza Koshy with Late Show’s Stephen Colbert at YouTube Rewind 2017

So does it mean that the “future” of media has no room for journalism?

Here’s what I think when people talk about the future of media.

After setting aside $1 billion for investments, Apple will finally premiere its new streaming service in 2019. But don’t expect inroads through political or controversial territory. All the ugliness of the world will be properly weeded out before the grand opening — including the ugliness of the fictional worlds. A report from Bloomberg revealed that Apple won’t allow nudity, strong language or drug use in its original video content. And The Wall Street Journal detailed that the company’s policy against “gratuitous sex, profanity or violence” is being overseen by Tim Cook himself — according to WSJ, Apple CEO has already rejected specific shows he considered “too violent”.

This family-friendly approach is also one of the mantras that has been conducting Netflix’s originals lately. That is to say, the future holds more Stranger Things’ vibes and (much) less House of Cards’ inclinations.

Stranger Things: the Netflix show tailored to retain subscribers

In Netflix’s case, this subdued modus operandi will be more and more supported by data analysis. Since the company controls content and platform, it can dissect consumer behaviour at its fullest to chase its own harmless blockbuster. It’s not by chance that Netflix’s top bets this year were a bunch of insipid rom-coms such as The Kissing Booth, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up — more than a genre fixation, they clearly have an immediate target in mind.

The other message from this Saturday Morning protocol is to forget news programs or even live sports broadcasting. To Variety magazine, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos confirmed that the company won’t take this route in the near future. So far, the most journalistic the service can get is programs like Vox’s Explained and Buzzfeed’s Follow This — and, despite all the efforts to prove otherwise, neither of them is a news show.

This clash will become even more lopsided next year. Not only because of Apple’s market uptake but more important, as a result of Disney’s new streaming toy. The leading media group in the world is building a pristine — in every sense — Disneyflix platform to deliver content straight to consumers, which means access to all the movies and TV series from Disney, LucasFilm, Pixar and Marvel.

Soon we'll find out what happens when the other "Thanos" of media snap their fingers

The bittersweet cherry on top of this Infinity War will be a much more efficient customization system. Today, the recommendation filters on streaming services are far from ideal — they act more like a lazy focus group — , but in a couple of years they tend to get cleverer and truly personal (something, by the way, that news media companies could have been doing since the rise of mobile).

Besides competing on original content, Netflix, Apple, Disney, Amazon, Hulu and all the rest will engage in a new bout in the algorithm trenches (they already are). When that day comes (it already did), having the best customization engine will be as crucial as content itself.

On the flip side, it comes with a cost: a broader mirroring of the filter bubble often seen on social media, and as far as critical thinking is concerned this is a train wreck — to put it mildly. No matter where, filter bubbles generally only serve one purpose: to reinforce our reality distortion field and therefore our cognitive biases.

So you were asking… does it mean that the “future” of media has no room for journalism?

It depends. Incredibly, YouTube and Facebook are two places that still have room for almost anything, including hard news, investigative reporting, powerful stories… — the fact that news companies don’t know what to do and keep behaving in 2018 as if they were the last Blockbuster store is a whole other issue.

The actual future of media though, the one that will beautymode and cuteflix everything… that, my friend, is a different story.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado