The Time Horizon Shortens

That headline is a fancy way of saying you’ve probably felt like you’re missing out on something, that you need to move on to the next thing every other minute of your waking day. It’s most oppressive in media consumption.

“TikTok now has over 850 million users – I have not yet seen anyone try to quantify the billion of minutes viewed/week that converts into, but it’s quite likely that it dwarfs Netflix’s weekly minute view count (which has 195mm users).”

Elena Burger
Is This Profitable?

That quote is taken from Burger’s essay on “what we talk about when we talk about eyeballs,” her exposition on the ever-evasive attempt to ratify the true number of viewers in the streaming wars. That bit was tucked away in the coda to her work; it’s where I found the piece to be the most revelatory: when she compared Netflix to TikTok.

As the companies are branded, one is a streaming service, the other a social network. But they’re competitors. It’s an apples-to-apples comparison that shirks the companies’ colloquial characterizations. So much so, Burger also implies in a nearby sentence that Netflix had to adjust their metric of a view from “watching 70% of an episode” to watching “the first two minutes” – and that it might or might not have happened shortly after TikTok exploded in Q1 of 2020 as lockdown force-fed everyone their phones.

Netflix, via their shareholder letter announcing the change, claims the adjustment to the view metric is to internally level the playing field between long-form works (like The Highwaymen, a two-hour-plus movie) and short episodes (like the 15-minute-long episodes of Special). They buttress the move by leveraging the social equity of the New York Times, YouTube, and the BBC: “But this is how they do it!”

They’re not wrong. But it’s also exactly how TikTok does it. Make it short enough and 70% becomes irrelevant. Two minutes becomes irrelevant. You just watch 100% of the video. It’s how Twitter got you to read 100% of a sentence. It’s why some online publications put a hard return at the end of every sentence. (Paragraphs are hard.)

The casualty in all of this is the preimminent, sustained feeling of schizophrenia created as the moments between your A actions and your B actions are becoming infinitely compressed. Burger quotes David Harvey from his book The Condition of Postmodernity (released in 1989!):

As space appears to shrink to a ‘global village’ of telecommunications and a ‘spaceship earth’ of economic and ecological interdependencies … and as time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is (the world of the schizophrenic), so we have to learn how to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds.

David Harvey
The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 240

That’s the fancy way of saying FOMO because we don’t actually cope with that “sense of compression.” Instead, it’s that abiding feeling when your attention span has shrunk to the time it takes you to watch a TikTok video and your brain already feels like it needs to move on to the next, causing a wake of mental pollution and a guilt of wasted time – you can remember 30 minutes ago when you aimlessly opened TikTok but now your legs have fallen asleep from sitting on the toilet too long. (And, in a previous life, that same amount of time would have been eight minutes longer than a cable-ready sitcom. But cable is already dust.)

I present it without subjective opinion, more so because, for me, it has realized the link in the chain from America’s pasttime of going to baseball games to going to the movies to sitting around a television set with dinner to binging Netflix to sharing a :15 second TikTok video. I don’t like to fight progress; objectively, this is how humanity will move forward. Your mind is your own personal world, but it’s likely you have felt that same forward movement compress so rapidly and felt it overcome so many “spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon (p. 240)” you.

It’s fascinating to think about what will happen when our minds either a) break down, or b) catch up to those gaps in the time horizon and slow it down.