Resisting the CFB content-industrial complex
Entering 2021, my Gamecock football fandom needed a jolt. By opting out of the digital content-industrial complex, I found just what I was looking for.
If you were a Midlands-area cable TV subscriber on Saturday, Sept. 14, 1996, the maximum number of college football games you could have watched — including South Carolina’s ESPN primetime tilt with Georgia — was 11. That’s 11 games across the span of the entire Saturday, not the number of games to watch during any given time slot.
Your options for consuming news about the Gamecocks were even more constricted: basically, you could listen to local sports talk radio and subscribe to The State. Most of your understanding of the team came from experiencing the games themselves. The choice of the word experiencing is intentional, as being able to watch them was not a given. In 1996, only six of South Carolina’s 11 games were on basic cable; one was on pay-per-view, the other four had to be witnessed in-person or on the radio.
Over the next decade, nearly everything about this arrangement changed. In 1998, Gamecock Central launched. In 2001, Scout.com launched, with its USC affiliate GamecockInsider. In 2007, The Big Spur launched, originally under the banner of ESPN. Soon, South Carolina fans could also get team-specific coverage from SB Nation, Bleacher Report, and FanSided. Both in sports coverage and “more serious” news, the “democratization of information” was cheered by many as an inherently benevolent force.
People of my generational cohort — elder millennials — crested this wave of techno-optimism. Our parents had brought home Gateway 2000s in cow-patterned boxes. Like the apes cavorting around the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we puzzled at them and lovingly unpacked their mysteries. We loaded in the discs promising 500 free hours of AOL and explored a world beyond our own. The monolith, as far as we could tell, had been manifested by a deity whose vast wisdom was surpassed only by her kindness; she offered us this gift in the hopes that we might use it for our own self-betterment. That the monolith was a Trojan Horse which, once brought inside the walls of the city, would monopolize and then monetize our attention spans — this thought, so obvious in hindsight, had not yet occurred to us.
As the internet of chat rooms and GeoCities gave way to the internet of smartphones and social media, we still thought — almost adorable in our naivete — that things were poised to get even better. As it became easier and cheaper to publish the written word, the number of digital publishers exploded. With so many options available to the consumer, publishers would, surely, have to enter a fierce competition to deliver the highest-quality product. Discerning readers would precisely calculate the marginal utility they derived from each additional article they read and determine which site delivered the most value. To the victor go the ad impressions.
For a time, this seemed like maybe it was working. In the first five years or so of Twitter, it felt possible to spend my lunch break reading everything I’d missed over the past 24 hours — including clicking through to the links my favorite writers had posted and actually reading the articles. It felt possible to keep up with everything I needed to know about South Carolina football by simply following Travis Haney and reading his Gamecocks Blog. And as South Carolina got better and better at football and their games carried higher and higher stakes, it felt increasingly necessary to remain as informed as possible of the outcome of the position battle at left guard and the hamstring injury suffered by the back-up cornerback. Reading about the week of practice leading up to the Auburn game alleviated the stress of the Auburn game, somehow. As Patricia Lockwood’s narrator wonders in No One Is Talking About This, “For as long as she read the news, line by line and minute by minute, she had some say in what happened, didn’t she?”
It was all well and good when the trajectory of South Carolina’s football program bent ever-upward. But around the same time the Spurrier bubble went bust, something even worse was happening: Facebook had captured a plurality of most sites’ referral traffic (as high as 40 to 60 percent in some cases). Publishers were no longer catering to the interests of utility-maximizing readers. They were catering instead to the demands of the Facebook engagement algorithm, a shadowy force which we realized only too late suppresses the human instinct for empathy and enlightenment in favor of the human instinct for violent insurrection and genocide.
Facebook’s destructive influence on college sports fandom is, obviously, a far less dire concern than, say, Facebook’s destructive influence on Western democracy. But the effects are nevertheless analogous: using Facebook makes us more irritable, unhappy, and polarized. And sports news publishers, just like political news publishers, are incentivized to inflame our existing emotions to drive engagement, post reach, and click-through rates.
This is why it has become common practice for publishers to assign a writer to watch Paul Finebaum’s show, transcribe some portion of the things he says, and post them to their sites as original content. Does Paul Finebaum have any particular expertise on, say, Spencer Rattler’s transfer to South Carolina that might make his insight relevant? Is his analysis likely to meaningfully alter anyone’s opinion about the Rattler transfer? Of course not. But that is, from the content publisher’s perspective, completely beside the point. Paul Finebaum is a figure to whom audiences are conditioned to produce a deeply emotional reaction. He is exactly the kind of person who might inspire you to react with an angry-face emoji — perhaps without even actually reading the article.
Not only has Facebook dictated the character of the news but also its volume. The day after South Carolina’s first-ever bowl win, the entire Jan. 3, 1995 edition of The State featured six stories about South Carolina football. By contrast, The State published 16 stories on USC football in the 24 hours following the 2021 Mayo Bowl. Can it be the case that there is three times as much to be learned about USC’s 2021 bowl game than there was about the 1995 bowl game? Or is it the case that The State and its competitors are no longer serving the curiosity of its readers? Are they, instead, bending their content plan to the ideology of the medium through which they distribute their content?
Consider, for instance, a real article titled Twitter reaction: Spencer Rattler commits to South Carolina. The article itself features no original text, apart from the headline. Its contents are a 23-page slideshow of tweets in which various people offer comment on Spencer Rattler transferring to South Carolina, including — in a true hall-of-mirrors moment — tweets written by the publication that generated the article. Between each slide is an advertisement, and each slide has a unique URL, which means 23 ad impressions and 23 pageviews. At then end of all that, the publication then tweeted a link to the article — an article that, may I remind you, was in part a summary of its own tweets.
What audience is such a piece of content intended for? you might wonder. Mostly, a Facebook audience enticed with the explosive caption “The Twitterverse BLEW UP last night!” An audience that will hopefully be drawn in by the promise of finding out what strangers — maybe even famous strangers — are saying about their team. An audience that will make it to slide seven or so before realizing that it’s not worth their while to continue. The publication won’t mind the average reader not making it all the way to the end, as at that point the ding to the site’s bounce rate is offset by the bump in pageviews.
The article is, in other words, a social media ouroboros, serving no purpose but to inflate pageview and ad impression data. Though this particular piece of content is perhaps an extreme example, its existence proves an important point: content is now routinely created not because it contains information that readers need to know but because there are pageview goals to meet and Facebook slots to fill. What does it do to our brains when we inundate them with completely useless information? How does the ceaseless barrage alter our relationship to the team, to the university? How will it change our experience of watching Spencer Rattler play after we spend eight months under the influence of headlines like Finebaum not convinced Spencer Rattler will succeed at South Ca— AUTOPLAY VIDEO: 5 Reasons Spencer Rattler will return the Gamecocks to SEC East contention.
There has never been a time when a person could consume so much content about an incoming quarterback transfer. You can read articles, listen to podcasts, and watch YouTube channels. You can debate the significance of the transfer on Twitter and in Facebook comments. You can read minute-by-minute premium message board updates about how everyone in the building is excited about what Rattler is bringing to the quarterback room. And in the event that the transfer does not work out, the same insiders will convey that everyone in the building could see from the beginning that it just was not a fit. (It is very important to describe things as happening in the building and in the room and on the tape so that people will know you are a serious football insider.)
You could consume all this content and more, and how much would it increase your understanding of Rattler’s likelihood to make a positive contribution in 2022? Between now and the season opener against Georgia State, what will we learn beyond: He was an elite prospect coming out of high school. He had a great 2020 season and a disappointing 2021 season. It will be interesting to see if he looks more like the player we saw in 2020 or the one we saw in 2021.
I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing of interest to be learned about Spencer Rattler between now and September or that anyone should feel ashamed for seeking out such knowledge. But in order to access that information, we have to sort through mountains upon mountains of useless information — and for me, at least, I have found that exposure to this information has adversely affected my enjoyment of South Carolina football.
As cultural critic Neil Postman wrote in his 1992 book Technopoly:
From millions of sources all over the globe, through every possible channel and medium … information pours in. Behind it … is an ever-greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we are awash in information, and all the sorcerer has left us is a broom. Information has become a form a garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. The tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.
The farce that was the 2020 college football season allowed me to fully address something that had been creeping up on me for a while: I had lost much of the joy I once felt about college football. When the 2021 season rolled around, I had an idea that I thought might help fix this: what if I just watched the games? No podcasts, no written content, no message boards, no social media — just the games. The only thing I read were The Rubber Chickens’ Snap Judgments column (somehow, after all these years, Buck remains the only must-read South Carolina sports opinionist), the occasional Gamecock Central newsletter, and one SEO-fodder article that answered my question about what Zeb Noland’s full name was.
And … it was great! I recorded every game and watched most of them after my three-year-old had gone to bed. This also helped me stay off Twitter during the game — the two-screen experience is another thing that was supposedly going to deepen our sports-watching experience but has only made it shallower. I’m certain there are legions of fans who were much better-informed of the week-to-week fluctuations in the depth chart, but it was easy enough to keep up with most things just from the information disseminated during the broadcast. In fact, my enjoyment of the broadcast was actually enhanced, as many of the biographical details portioned out between plays were, for the first time since 2002 or so, things I had not already read, months ago, on a message board.
My point here is not to dissuade anyone who genuinely enjoys their participation in the digital content-industrial complex — after all, the continued production of this newsletter requires that you not abstain entirely. But I’m speaking with more and more people who just feel completely burnt out in their USC fandoms; it has made me wonder whether it’s a problem with USC athletics or just the media through which we’re experiencing it.
I am not, after all, proposing that the informational pendulum swing all the way back to 1996, when only half the games could be seen on TV. But I think it’s clear that the amount of information we receive right now is far too much. For me at least, my digital media cleanse granted me a new mindfulness about my online diet. Near-complete abstention from digital content is not likely something I will be able to sustain, but I found it to be a far better option than gorging myself on utter nonsense.
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