Everything Is Downstream of Content
The internet used to reflect offline life. Now the opposite is happening.
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We watched a lot of the news in my house when I was a kid. As an elementary schooler I was watching Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer anchor Good Morning America every morning as I ate my Pop Tarts and packed my backpack. ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings was on every night in the background as we ate dinner. For some families, having the news on during dinner may sound distracting and even downright wrong, but I seem to remember it leading to a lot of good conversation about life, the events of the world, and how the world works. I think it was actually pretty central to my development as a person, and I’m grateful for it.
I don’t watch the news much anymore mostly because I don’t watch live TV much anymore unless I’m watching a sporting event. But in the last decade or so, when I catch the news on one of the TVs at the gym, in the airport while traveling, or elsewhere, I’ve noticed how much of their coverage is dedicated to “what went viral.”
Following a harrowing report of an attempted coup in a far country (or perhaps our own), David Muir, the current host of World News Tonight, may be heard saying:
But now, in lighter news, a family is celebrating tonight as their dog Roscoe has returned home after a harrowing adventure down a river beside the Jones home.
[cut to B-roll of rushing water alongside Jones home]
Rob Jones of Fayetteville, Arkansas posted an urgent call for help [show screenshot of Facebook post] as he watched the family dog, Roscoe, jump into the river that runs along the back side of the Jones home.
[cut to silent B-roll of Tim Johnson being interviewed]
Tim Johnson, a neighbor who lives two miles down the river from the Jones family saw the dog and was able to pull him to safety.
A video—look at this—[cut to viral Roscoe video] of Tim and his wife Tina returning Roscoe to the Jones family went viral after the dog jumped out of their truck and sprinted back to his family.
[cut back to Muir]
A dog truly is a man’s best friend.
That’s all we have for you tonight. Thank you for watching World News Tonight.
That example isn’t real, but it could be! I wasn’t able to find any clips to share, but I have seen almost this exact scenario on a few different local and national broadcasts.
More and more it seems like online content is driving not only offline content, but offline life in general.
Once upon a time, in the early days of the social internet, what happened on the internet felt like more of a reflection or commentary on what happened off of the internet. Blogs about world events. Video highlights of sports. The internet was a virtual version of “real” life offline. The earliest days of the social internet felt like it reflected culture more than it created culture.
This is no longer the case.
Life is Downstream of Content
In a recent edition of his newsletter Garbage Day, writer Ryan Broderick reflects on this phenomenon:
Whether we want to admit it or not, now, and possibly for the rest of our lives, the machinery of our various societies will operate downstream from content. This didn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that I would say started at some point between the first Myspace band to secure a major label record contract and Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, before it really go going by the time the Oreos Super Bowl moment happened, and then completed itself at some point between the release of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” and Kyle Rittenhouse’s appearance this week at Turning Point USA’s conference. For non-American readers, I’m confident you can replace those references with your own cultural equivalents.
What does it mean for life to be “downstream of content”? It looks like online content happening first and offline reactions/commentary happening second. Really we saw life being downstream of content throughout the presidency of Donald Trump—how much of the news and American political commentary was driven by what the president posted to Twitter? Too much of it! That is life being downstream of content.
How often is your local news or even national programs like World News Tonight and Good Morning America covering viral videos of heartwarming or disturbing events? This is life downstream of content…and it’s entertaining, which is great for TV news!
I’ve often joked that the way you win the internet is being invited on the Ellen show. It’s a joke, but not really. Though most people wouldn’t admit it, many normal social media users like you and me secretly hope that cute video of their dog or kid goes viral and they get asked to appear on Ellen, at which they will receive a check, for some unknown reason, from one of the show’s sponsors.
Don’t believe me? Here are some I found:
Ellen's Million Dollar May Surprise for an Incredible Family of Viral Dancers
Here’s my search of the word “viral” in Ellen’s YouTube archive. There are countless videos. I tried counting and I stopped at 50. Of course, one of the first instances of a viral video leading to someone being a guest on Ellen’s show resulted in Justin Bieber. Here is Bieber’s first appearance on the show, in which they discuss him going viral on YouTube…before that was the backbone of Ellen’s show.
Anyway, getting on Ellen is how you “win” the social media game that so many people play. This is life downstream of content.
Pay attention to how many Super Bowl ads this year have some sort of social media campaign attached to them, perhaps in an attempt to go viral. Will some brand begin their advertising campaign on social media throughout the month of January and then culminate it with a 30-second spot during the big game like Planters from a few years ago? Maybe. That would be life downstream of content.
Non-fungible tokens? Those digital goods that people are purchasing with cryptocurrency and will be used for offline experiences and access in the very near future? That is life downstream of content.
The Ultimate Example: Old Town Road
When Lil Nas X created “Old Town Road” he created one of the most popular songs of the last decade. Here’s how he did it:
So yeah…that’s life downstream of content. A perfect example of it, really. A similar situation actually happened with another song via TikTok recently.
What Is Real?
As I wrote back in December, we need to do away with the idea that online life isn’t “real life.”
For good or for ill, what happens online is affecting what happens offline more than ever before. Where once the internet was a sort of response to life’s call, now, much of life is a response to the internet’s call.
I’ve quoted this a lot the last six months or so, but Bo Burnham is brilliant in his special Inside when he says, “The non-digital world is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.”
Pay attention to how internet content is affecting your life offline. You may be surprised at just how much it does.
What a great post, I think you're totally right. I was reading a super old essay in a cyber-zine from the 90s that anticipated this phenomena. It's crazy how prescient early internet users were.