Rabbit Hole: The End of Casual Consumption
What we lose when content is more intentionally curated to our exact wants than ever before
“Rabbit Hole” is a single-topic deep dive column that comes out twice per month for paid subscribers. The free newsletter returns in a couple days.
It’s weird to say I saw the future of content at my mother-in-law’s house over Christmas, but it was there I began exploring a new version of “television” that had me laughing and a little afraid for where we were going as a society.
What I saw certainly looked TV-like, but “Freevee,” as it was called, had some major notable differences. There was no MTV, or Bravo, or ESPN. There were some channels that resembled traditional ones — something called “LOL,” which showed comedy programs, or “Midnight Pulp,” which was a collection of cult classic movies. But then there was a channel called “Ice Road Truckers.” Ice Road Truckers was a popular program which ran for 10 years on the History Channel, ending in 2017. This Freevee offering wasn’t the History Channel — or a channel about truckers, or icy roads. It was a literal channel that only aired the show “Ice Road Truckers.”
And it was hardly alone. There was a channel called “Divorce Court,” that, you’ll be shocked to know, only played the show Divorce Court. There was one for that crazy show “Cheaters.” There was a channel that just played the 80s hit “Alf.” It reminded me of that Xhibit meme — ‘yo dawg, I heard you liked Alf, so we built a television channel that just runs Alf after Alf after Alf.’
It’s not breaking news to note that the way we consume content has changed in recent years, and likely forever. There was the introduction to streaming networks, as cord-cutting has become more prevalent. Now you can binge whatever it is you want, practically at all times. Your ideal viewing experience seems to always be at the tip of your fingers. Television was once a passive medium — sit back, click around, see what hits you. But now that’s been flipped.
This is different than appointment TV in the old days. I remember growing up and waiting to watch ABC and TGIF at 8pm to catch Full House at the end of the week. Today I’m a DirecTV subscriber, and make use of DVR and On Demand. But all of these still allow for an environment where choices could be made in conjunction with a more casual consumption, where surprising discoveries might happen.
And it’s not just television. Magazines and newspapers are seeing physical circulation declines, as we see the shift from print to digital. While consumers can still go to a homepage, their experience with what the “New York Times” or “Time Magazine” is has often been curated and whittled down to just their own pre-approved choices.
We are stopping ourselves from stumbling on something new and unexpected in the content we consume. Casual consumption has been replaced with consumption that’s ceaselessly intentional. The massive abundance of choice in the marketplace has become so pervasive that it’s actually made choosing less of an activity — a “choice” becomes a “standard” quicker than ever before. And this presents a very real problem.
This casual consumption evaporation is not just related to media and content either. We listen to singles instead of albums. Uber Eats and other food delivery apps allow us to stick to our pre-approved meal choices without deviation. Dating apps give singles a streamlined avenue to hone the process of finding a mate. (Surely some of this more recent shift has been pandemic-related, as the IRL, which allows for some unknown, has gotten overtaken by the purely digital.)
And then there’s social media. So much of our current cultural experience takes place on these apps, where we’ve curated our own bubble exactly how we’d like it. We follow what we want to see, we engage with those who have been pre-approved for our eyes and ears. We have culled through and eliminated casual, surprising, interactions.
You could say there is casual consumption in the way we consume our non-“friend” content. But what may feel authentic and organic is actually what an algorithm tells us we’re interested in — it’s just an extension of that intentional consumption. People swipe through Instagram Reels and TikTok for hours, stumbling on new accounts or videos. But ultimately this algorithmic exercise mimics this idea of “Explore,” since the only discovery happening is what has been deemed “For You.” The algorithm is simply feeding what it has decided you want.
Your cable box or satellite dish doesn’t decide what you want. You can set up a DVR, but it is a passive intentional curation. Now there’s active intentional curation — and we’ve lost the ability to consume what it is we don’t even know we want.
Because… what if the algorithm doesn’t know you as well as it thinks it does? The pathway to this reality is the simple fact that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. If we don’t know what it is we want, then the algorithm can’t pick up on it either. And we should know ourselves enough to recognize the unknown will sometimes surprise us, in unexpected ways. The only way to beat the algorithm is to push ourselves outside it.
Here’s a thought experiment — the next time you’re in a grocery store, pick up a magazine that you’ve never read before. Try to zero in on one you wouldn’t normally buy or even think you would enjoy. Spend 10 minutes and thumb through it. It’s very likely you’ll find at least one thing you’ll be interested in somewhere in there. And when you find that, think about the ramifications — and consider stepping outside your content comfort zone. Find a way to occasionally consume content — news, entertainment, everything — in a casual way.
And then keep going. Try a new item at a restaurant you like. Diverge from driving in the most direct route that your maps app tells you, and see what you might stumble on if you add a few extra minutes to your trip. Close your eyes, spin a globe, and go to wherever your finger lands (or, more realistically, go pick up a book about that country or city). If you’re at a metaphorical or literal fork in the road, pick the path that feels less comfortable.
We live in an increasingly on-demand society. There are undoubtedly positives to it. But let’s not forget the value of casual consumption too — and let’s try to delay, or reverse, the seemingly inevitable death of not getting exactly what we think we want at all times.