Algocult: Fragments of media, decentralized, accelerating
TV shows become screenshots become memes without context.
|Kyle Chayka||Sep 28, 2019|| 29|
I’m writing weekly dispatches about technology reshaping the ways we create and consume culture. If you like this essay, please hit the heart button above! It helps me reach more readers on Substack. And subscribe below:
I’ve been editing bigger stories all week, which is exhausting, but they will actually come out soon, which is great.
Fragments of Media, Decentralized, Accelerating
In a previous newsletter I wrote about sharing photos of books on Instagram as a kind of communal practice, turning the offline page into a digital, social artifact. Another example of this came to mind: “No Context” or “Out of Context” screenshot accounts on Twitter and Instagram that aggregate shots of TV shows or movies but, obviously, with no other context. They’re just clipped images, appended with dialogue captions that seen on their own are dark, absurd, funny, or #relatable. They screenshots become currency in the online content economy.
Here’s one of Succession, the very popular show about rich people:
The Succession account tweets constantly — way too much, which is why I’ll probably unfollow it soon. But I find these fragments of media interesting as self-contained units. They move the paywalled, gated HBO show out of its home platform and into the wider internet, where the imagery circulates freely. The screenshots refer back to the show and depend on it for meaning — the moment above won’t make sense without knowing the narrative of the episode — but they also exist on their own, literally without context, or in a random context of other content.
While watching Terrace House (a Japanese reality show about domesticity and helping other people achieve their goals, also dating), I started taking my own No Context screenshots and putting them on Instagram.
Partly it’s to share the experience in real time with my fellow Terrace Heads, but also because the images make great one-liners. Since the dialogue isn’t Prestige Drama, they can often be hilarious or touching — totally sincere.
Sharing the screenshots is part of the fun of watching the show for me. I’ll pause and rewind repeatedly to catch a good sequence. But there are also Terrace House No Context accounts:
That account also retweets jokes and memes that people make out of the screenshots, adding captions to captions. Repurposing the content is a great game, and I think it’s partly why Terrace House is so appealing: The narrative is as neutral and ambivalent as real life, and so it can be freely applied in our own new contexts, unlike a brooding, moody Succession shot that can only be about billionaires or business or whatever.
As you might expect, there are two pieces of theoretical / critical writing I want to apply to the no-context accounts. The first is, fittingly, Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow, a manic piece of media criticism that first ran in the New Yorker in 1980. In the essay, Trow describes mass-media television as a zone of “no context,” creating its own space in which the rabid, hedonistic, primal soul of America can fester, feeding on meaningless celebrities and scandals:
Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there.
The internet has even less context, thus perhaps it is even more trivial, or the trivial is given even greater grandeur. This is true, but social media also gives us users more access to the scale of television, allowing us to compete with it by making our own content, taking back control. I also enjoy the match of name: Within the Context of No-Context Accounts.
The other bit is the artist and writer Hito Steyerl’s concept of the “poor image,” as defined in her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image”:
The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.
Steyerl’s essay was published in 2009; in the meantime, the internet has become full of much higher-quality images — digital aesthetics have gentrified, becoming smoother and cleaner, since the days of dial-up piracy. But we still appreciate the Poor Image: screenshots of screenshots, filtered or watermarked memes, shaky smartphone videos.
The no-context accounts are poor images, too, removed from their sources, uploaded to other platforms, captioned and recaptioned, experienced not at all in the way that the original was meant to be. I often think of Steyerl’s dictum, “As it accelerates, it deteriorates,” like a law of digital distribution. Deterioration doesn’t just happen in resolution, it happens in information and contextualization, and the faster it’s spreading, the more loss occurs. The images lose their meaning but gain the opportunity for new meaning in the process.
There’s no conclusion here, just something to think about. As we consume media we also make media.
If you like this essay, please hit the heart button below! It helps me reach more readers. Email me any thoughts or things you’d like me to look into and subscribe here.
— Follow me on Twitter
— Preorder my book on minimalism, The Longing for Less
— Read more of my writing: kylechayka.com