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This post originally appeared in the January 30, 2020 issue of The Content Technologist with the email subject line "Novelty, scale & Kermit the Frog's delusions of grandeur" and a review of graphic design tool Canva Pro.
Sunday marks the end of Novelty Season, when we all watch all the advertisements and take stock of all the new robots and new services and new ways to automate the widening wealth/health gap and then go back to our desks and become too busy to look up for the next ten months. Am I cynical about novelty? I certainly am when it’s coupled with more bullshit to buy, especially if it’s in any way connected to Amazon or home delivery.
But I love content innovation. If we’re using new tools to tell stories in a different way, then I’m a fucking dreamer.
Unfortunately, scale tends to ruin content innovation. YouTube has turned into another way of watching TV, but one with more/different radical right-wingers. It’s far harder to find weird, cool, arty YouTube these days than it used to be. Instagram is a camera that most often functions as an echo of a 1980s magazine in substance and style. VR and AR companies are sputtering because there’s not a ton of demand outside of novelty. Novelty doesn’t scale. After the holidays and CES and Super Bowl ads, we all go back to our desks in February and try to get more work done.
Is Quibi the next … something?
The video that debuted at CES evokes a high level of squickiness, mashing together the worst parts of a marketing conference video (a history of technology? come on.) and legacy Hollywood name-dropping. The later part of the video is peppered with stars like Guillermo del Toro — who is a storytelling risk-taker but not a guarantor of success or quality. It’s a marketing campaign for a content app that’s devoid of content… and yet.
I like the idea of Quibi: designing video content for phone consumption. I never want to watch traditional movies or TV on my phone because I might miss some background detail. But if the content is designed for mobile consumption, I’m in. I love mobile story games, especially those from studios like Annapurna Interactive. My favorite content innovations are always the ones that take make the most of their medium.
I’m into Quibi’s idea shifting orientation, so that you’ll see different focal points whether your content is vertical or horizontal. That’s its biggest selling point for me: a Rashomon-style of storytelling baked into the medium.
And I’m into big dreams: One of my all-time favorite films is The Muppet Movie, a metanarrative about the creative process whose entire plot is Kermit the Frog trying to get to Hollywood so he can “make millions of people happy.” Kermit is earnest in the best way. He wants his talent to scale (frogs are amphibians and don’t have scales so it’s not a real pun). He hasn’t realized that if you want to make millions of people happy, you have to deal with the concurrent trolls and fundraising and projections and revenue.
Quibi has Kermit the Frog dreams of content revolutions. The phone is a worthy canvas: aside from the occasional mobile game and TikTok, there are few natively mobile content innovations. I’m glad varied and sundry big names are along for the ride, as “big names” are still a semi-reliable booster rocket to mass adoption.
But Quibi’s secretive, closed-off content might drown the service before it learns to swim. Our antennae are piqued for hype and scammers by now. Kermit the Frog’s blind faith in the good of humanity now looks more like a scene from the first season of Silicon Valley: a dude with bad facial hair on mushrooms in a gas station bathroom repeating, “We can change the world. We can change the world.”
Even Kermit the Frog’s optimism has morphed in the digital economy. The two most common Kermit gifs are his arm-flailing anger and tea-sipping cynicism. I can’t find a gif of Kermit saying he wants to make millions of people happy.
Twenty-first century content innovations have succeeded (and are also problematic) primarily because they are crowd-sourced, gradual snowballs of creativity. Great digital content innovations challenge the assumptions of the monoculture, whereas Quibi aligns with 20th century Hollywood studio thinking perfectly, like Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic or Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch.
So will Quibi be really cool? I think its only chances of succeeding lie in reinventing the form and harnessing the medium. But god, why am I even thinking about this new content format in terms of its “chances” of “succeeding”?
Because the reason any of us do this — make things out of other things that didn’t exist before — is to make something cool and new and hopefully get paid to do it. The best artists and creators aren’t there for the “millions of people.” We’re here for the “make [them] happy.” At the end of the day, we just want to lean into the novelty, even when there’s no staying power.
So, as the Muppets sing at the end of The Muppet Movie: Life’s like a movie, write your own ending…
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