Shaun Spark is a London-based filmmaker (and friend) who’s got cool ideas and never wants to share them. I tricked him into talking to me.
Data as vanity
Chris Woolfrey (CW): Alright Shaun. Time to tell the world what you really think. To open yourself up to criticism. We’ve had many rambly chats about copyright, art, artists … and I know you’ve got some ideas.
Shaun Spark (SS): I don’t know if I have ideas, but I have observations from my experiences working within media consumed online.
There’s an obvious but necessary statement to reiterate: the way we value contemporary artistic media has morphed, slowly but steadily. It’s still essentially a meritocratic model but the mechanisms you and I use to measure value have been augmented with cold, hard data.
That’s my two pence.
CW: How’d you mean?
SS: ‘Likes’ and views and plays and Retweets. Figures are paraded around to justify the worth of a product or idea. When you buy a cinema ticket, there isn’t a line of text at the bottom of the print-out, telling you how many people have experienced and enjoyed the work so far. If I post a short film onto Facebook, before you click play on it you can see how many people have watched it before you and how many people deem it valuable (within the context of Facebook).
This feels like data that should never have left some Silicon Valley Excel spreadsheet. We’ve been gifted fascinating and forbidden insights; a body turned inside out with all the unsavory guts and veins exposed.
Unfortunately, I now march forward with this in my mind as I create new work. I end up thinking how embarrassing it will be to show loved ones my thoughtful and emotive short film with only 63 views to its name.
As a result, I have abandoned projects that I’ve spent months or even years working on, due to feeling apprehensive about the feedback they’ll receive (or, more devastatingly, won’t receive).
CW: But we had forms of data before. You didn’t get a line of text with your CD but you did see ‘Top 10 Album Chart’ written on the rack.
SS: Sure, and I’m aware that this has been a marketing philosophy for a long time across many platforms. People like to know that an item they are soon to pay money to own isn’t utterly terrible. The distinction here is how the chart rating is only collated after the fact, once the product has achieved enough sales and acclaim to justify bragging about it. It’s the live updating of statistics that sit just below the media that bothers me.
The wealth of data we have now could be deemed a more accurate form of market research, but that view becomes flawed when ‘likes’ and ‘views’ can be paid for and essentially fabricated if somebody’s social media budget is high enough. We have bots and like farms to help us rack the all important numbers up.
The world of marketing and advertising is run on clickthroughs and traffic. Play counts are displayed to show the success of a campaign.
It’s not the quality of the viewer, it’s the amount of people distracted enough by the bright thumbnail or click-baiting title to watch 1 minute of it that counts.
CW: So you’d say, for example, that somebody buying a #1 single in 1991 is listening with a keener or more critical ear than somebody clicking a thumbnail now on Spotify?
SS: I can only speak for my own experience, which is exactly as you’ve described it there, in an ever-increasing level as I’ve gotten older. It’s difficult, though, to attribute anything specific to my lack of attention span and emotional engagement to art. I wonder if it’s just something that happens to all of us over the years.
But, at least in relation to some of the topics we’ve mentioned so far: I can say that what I have experienced, as a creator of artistic media for well-known brands, is that their primary concern is pleasing the new overlords: the social media team. They have the numbers and they’re not afraid to use them.
Google is constantly analyzing engagement levels of online media and have declared that videos between 1:30-2:30 hit the sweet spot; not too short that we don’t spend enough of our conscious attention on it, but not so long that we become bored and scroll away, never to return.
I’ve been given contradictory feedback from different departments of the same client, all trying to tick the un-tickable list. “We want the messaging to be understated, let’s have the story unfold slowly” is followed by another request: “We need to engage the audience in the first 5 seconds, so can you start with something exciting?”
Nuance and subtlety, the very aspects of storytelling that make a good piece of art great, are slipping through the sieve.
CW: You’re saying that, with our culture’s increasing lack of data scrutiny, creators lose their ability to be original? Or, maybe, that it becomes harder to do something that’s different from what’s gone before?
SS: I’m not asserting that all valuable art is utterly original or without any recognizable reference points.
Joseph Campbell wrote books like ‘A Hero With A Thousand Faces’ about how every good story is basically the same thing told a different way, so I’m aware that tropes and narrative shortcuts exist for a reason.
It’s just that, as our friend Marshall McLuhan says, the medium has become the message, the medium here being the various strains of social media and online video hosting.
My worry is that we’ve entered a feedback loop, or even a spiral, where big tech companies are gathering data on our viewing habits, then tailoring and marketing videos and content that complements it. This then becomes the new normal and our impatience is never tested.
If our video content is to be deemed ‘successful’ in the numbers game, it has to abide by ever-diminishing engagement rates. I fear for the filmmaker (or ‘content provider’, as they will likely be known) who must condense what could be a great story into a 60-second trailer, where we have no time to warm to our characters.
CW: There’s also the question about what ‘originality’ actually means. We could be talking about formal originality – where to put the exciting bit, how long to make the video – but we could also look (maybe naively) into a future that, through algorithmic data, brings increasing diversity to people’s viewing experiences. For example: you could argue that, as Netflix gathers more viewing data, it can look for ‘untapped markets’ and new things come out as a result?
SS: Netflix have thrown everything at an algorithmic model, and have been gathering data on us for years and years, to the point where one of their categories is named ‘Sentimental movie about horses for ages 11 to 12’.
I think it could be a very promising future, where audiences are nudged to the niche — but I also worry about taste-profiling, as it rarely allows for new and broader interests to enter the conversation.
We’ve all had that experience where you’re in a record shop and the music playing in the space is some unknown band who sound great. We need nerdy record store shop workers to show us what we never knew we loved. The art-house film streaming service MUBI does this well, by giving viewers a conveyor belt list of carefully curated and acclaimed films, with occasional guest curators.
CW: There’s not really a category called ‘Sentimental movie about horses for ages 11 to 12’, is there?
SS: Yes, the movie is called Danny.
CW: That’s excellent. But I’m still concerned about you. You’re worried, I think, that everything will become a copy of a copy of a copy?
SS: I’m worried, my friend, that a finely tuned algorithm will soon edit 100 different versions of a film shot entirely by drones, approved by another algorithm that declares it perfect for our pathetic human needs.
The overlords are learning. They know exactly which 11 year olds love films about horses.
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