"Just a Quickie"

How Short-Form Content is Changing the Way We Consume


Picture this: it’s 2020, you’re scrolling through Instagram and you are presented with - for the seventeenth time today - an ad for Quibi. Remember those? Quibi was a streaming service that boasted original series of 10-minute-or-less episodes and celebrity features aplenty! With an onslaught of new entrants in the streaming wars (Disney Plus, HBO Max, etc.), Quibi had the tenacity of that younger sibling who just wants to play with the big kids. And why shouldn’t it try? With the human attention span declining at alarming rates, and short-form content gaining in popularity, Quibi had a content formula primed for Gen Z interest. But then, after 6 months of incessant ads, Quibi went away quietly.

The inference here could be that if people are paying for entertainment, they probably want to enjoy it on a slightly larger screen, maybe with a snack. For Quibi, it was very difficult to compete with the oversaturated market of free short-form content on YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok (to name just a few of the platforms available on our smart devices). While the latter started with a cringey, overzealous set of ads similar to Quibi’s, the pandemic and the subsequent stay-at-home orders propelled TikTok’s success. The app caters to our interests and attention spans alike, providing both entertainment and community in an otherwise isolating time in human history. This, in addition to its promise of low time commitment, has bolstered TikTok’s appeal. Mind you, I say “low time commitment”, but the common TikTok experience often looks something like people staying online all day or just simply zoning out. :

Petra Collins 90s film aesthetic
Image by Petra Collins

By and large, the global pandemic and prevalence of short-form content are changing the way Western cultures consume. This past year, we’ve seen changes in reading habits, with some people getting through more books than usual, and others (ahem, me) finding themselves in a “reading slump” due to difficulties focusing and the temptation of easy digital content available just a click away. Back in the streaming sphere, services like Netflix feature original shows and films alike, but the general consensus among Gen Zers is that a TV binge is more worthwhile. Movies seem like a greater time commitment, although diving into a full season of The Circle likely triples your hours of viewing. Why, then, are more and more of us opting for TV shows over movies? It could be the availability of exit points. Though, this poses the same caveat as TikTok: we usually end up watching hours upon hours of content regardless. However, that time spent is entirely optional, with the “Next Episode” button acting as more of an invitation than an obligation. Additionally, movies require an equal emotional investment with less reward; as we grow to love the protagonist over 120 minutes, they are gone from our lives just as soon. Whereas in television, we can spend more time with a character, an arguably wiser investment of our emotional labour.

As we find ourselves over a year into this devastating pandemic, home entertainment is a rapidly growing industry. Forrester research found that, “Consumers will become more willing to try out new forms of consumption that promise a rush of comfort, control, and happiness.” It’s no surprise that we are looking for small escapes from the stresses of the everyday. Apps like TikTok provide both opportunities for escapism, while also acting as a platform for creativity and community. Through frustrations with the capacities of your attention, it’s important to be kind to yourself and consume in a way that feels good to you... Whether that is ploughing through Season 9 of #bbcan (@me), reading another chapter of Shadow and Bone (also @me), or trying out that TikTok dance (@I could never)... go for it! In the words of Arrested Development’s Lucille, played by the late Jessica Walter, “Here’s some money, go see a Star War.”