In recent years, social media has fed the expansion of microformats. The lack of context of these brief contents makes them ideal for readapting and using for a wide variety of purposes. But while this fragmentation encourages virality, it can also have very damaging effects on how we access information.
In the midst of the pandemic, and with hours and hours to kill shut up indoors, TikTok grew by 75% in 2020. The platform followed in the footsteps left behind some years ago by Vine, and which its predecessor, Musical.ly, had kept afloat, and showed its users an endless array of videos lasting a maximum of 15 seconds. To pair this increase in user numbers with growth in the number of advertisers, the platform’s directors also increased the maximum video length (thus making it easier to insert ads). First to 60 seconds, then to 180 seconds. Later, at the beginning of 2022, TikTok increased the maximum video length to 10 minutes. But a company’s economic decisions have little to do with the behaviour of its users on the web, and according to the company itself, it is the 11-17 second videos that perform best on the platform.
Carlos A. Scolari, Professor of Theory and Analysis of Interactive Digital Communication in the Department of Communication at Pompeu Fabra University, wrote his book Cultura Snack (Snack Culture) before the rise of TikTok. In it, he talks about tweets, memes, sneak peaks, microblogging and digital headlines – a whole cosmos of microformats that have proliferated in recent years. He also points to social networks as fertile ground for this type of short content.
This idea and the study of micro-media is nothing new. Scolari borrows the title of the book from a cover of Wired magazine, which as far back as 2007 – and before even reaching the glorious years of Web 2.0 – pointed to the proliferation of micro-formats. Since then, the trend for short formats has grown and there is no sign of it stopping, however much other forces may want to prevent it.
Cutting out the context
In his book, Scolari points to fragmentation as one of the key concepts of snack culture. Culture is fragmented, both in the media and in consumption practices, and even when we want to tell a story through a Twitter thread.
Chris Marker, who considered himself an editor first and a filmmaker second, explored this same idea through video editing. Cutting up and fragmenting his recordings, Marker put the images in his documentary Sans Soleil (1983) into what he called “The Zone”, an out-of-context filmic space. In this work, Marker edits down his filmic travel diaries until, deprived of an out-of-shot context unknown to the viewer, the images cease to signify the emotions they represented for their author.
Another perspective is that of Umberto Eco, who, in the field of microfiction, attributes the lack of context to brevity. In The Limits of Interpretation (1990) he writes: “The text is a lazy machine demanding strenuous cooperation from the reader to fill in the unspoken or already spoken spaces, spaces that, so to speak, have been left blank, meaning the text is merely a presuppositional machine.” The interpretative work that must be contributed by the reader is proportional to the ellipsis left by the writer’s editing.
Lack of context as a pillar of internet culture
I imagine that Chris Marker, who was always interested in the cutting edge of the internet and played in Second Life with Agnès Varda, would like to know that he stumbled upon one of the keys to understanding digital culture decades before the word “viral” began to move on from its medical meaning. Nowadays, the effect of cutting out the context of any digital-cultural artefact is crucial to its memetisation. Pepe the Frog, for example, began his internet story as part of a fanzine posted on MySpace by Matt Furie in 2005. In his case, the fragment that managed to go viral is his face with a static expression that would be replicated ad-infinitum by the American alt-right, taking on, in other contexts, totally different meanings to the one intended by the cartoonist.
Compared to other cultural formats, images have always been easy to decontextualise and turn into internet memes. After they burst into the mainstream with RageComics, or photos framed above and below with impact font (Bad Luck Brian, Overly Attached Girlfriend and other variations of Advice Animals), memes that represented an idea that could be easily inserted into different contexts had a great advantage.
During its short and successful life, the ephemeral platform Vine made it possible for videos to have the same effect as images – as long as they met certain parameters. Although there had already been popular and massively shared videos on the web since the early years of YouTube, these were not able to fulfil the embeddable and massively replicable role offered by images until Viners started to cut them down to the mandatory 6-second length on the platform. Their cultural effect was such that today some are still quoted in copypasta format, and a search for “vine compilation” on Youtube disinters more than 3 million videos.
This type of video meme has come back to the forefront years later with TikTok. On the new social network, popular videos with audio overlays are filled with comments asking for the video to be re-uploaded with the original audio file, so other users can then use it in other contexts. Most trends on TikTok emerge out of this decontextualisation of sound, which only makes sense in short clips. Users can click on the sound and automatically create their own content based on the same audio.
Even without talking about the rise of “out of context” accounts or the tendency to say “I” with any image, brevity and lack of context are inseparable from the exploitability of digital content. The possibility of being recontextualised is what empowers the meme, allowing it to evolve and continue without becoming worn down by swimming in eternal novelty. It is no coincidence that Loss, one of the longest-lived memes (taken from a 2008 cartoon strip), has managed to survive stripped down to its essence of eight dashes in precise positions.
Drawing the lines
This relationship between brevity and virality is not only found in the world of memes; it also indiscriminately affects different content that are browsed and shared in the digital space. In digital media, an article’s headline acts as a letter of introduction to what the person who clicks on it is going to find, but also as a text that, due to its brevity and lack of context, can be dragged around by the currents of the web. In this case, brevity has the same effect that Marker and Eco talked about: the more headlines are cut for SEO and to vie for the user’s attention in crowded timelines, the more context is left (at best, when there is no intention to deceive the reader) in the hands of the algorithm, which chooses who to show it to and when. Henry Jenkins, author and Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, speaks of an “informational Darwinism” in which only the most contagious pieces survive.
In an article for The New York Times, Columbia University psychology PhD Maria Konnikova stated that “a headline changes the way people read an article and the way they remember it. The headline frames the rest of the experience” before going on to give a list of headlines that were cut in such a way that made them easy to interpret in a manner contrary to the information given by the rest of the article. Konnikova added that the headline alone has the power to affect the reader’s ability to both interpret and remember the details of the article.
Jenkins, who usually observes memes and what he calls “spreadable media” from a neutral position, openly positions himself against this information Darwinism and invites reflection on ethical codes to avoid it. “If indeed there is an Information Darwinism underway, we cannot continue to beat the dead horse with “what used to work”. It is our moral obligation to engage in our own pedagogical arms race against the changing information landscape in order to maximize information that yields the most physical, mental, social “fitness” for as many people as possible.” If the limits to the trend of brevity do not exist, perhaps we will have to set them ourselves.