How the digitalization of content resized all of our media, and what will happen next.
Twenty years ago, TV shows were 22 or 44 minutes only. Best-selling books were 150-300 pages, newspapers were the size you could comfortably read with two hands, music albums 30-60 minutes, and movies 90-150 minutes. Why? Money and form constraints, mainly. Content of all forms followed size patterns so that it felt substantial and worth paying for, but could fit on a VHS, or a CD, or be bound.
Then the commercial internet was available, and everything changed. Well, not immediately. Albums and movies and books were still usually the same length. It was still easier for consumers to start TV shows at the top of the hour, and invest in a book around 200 pages (i.e., not American Tragedy). It was what we were used to.
But then we got creative. As the web matured and became more complete, we found no reason to restrict ourselves based on form. With virtual folders and 500 gigs of hard drive space, who cares whether an album is ten minutes or ninety? Visual stories could be told all at once in a movie, but also five minutes at a time on Youtube, or just 5 seconds at a time. I post to my blog ~500 words at time: no binding or publishing costs required. Netflix throws its content at you seasons at a time, and what we can't find there we download by the season. Digitalization means 'one size fits all' has become 'all sizes fit me'.
This is not news, per se, if you lived through the late 20th and 21st centuries. But what I find most interesting is how entire industries have grown or gone away as a result of this paradigm shift. Our binge-watching culture has given birth to a recapping industry; journalists share insight about a TV episode, and people who are at the same point find each other and discuss in the comments. TV themes are shorter or hookier; no one needs to know the story of the Brady Bunch every time when they are watching 9 episodes in bed. One of my favorite albums, Pat Metheny's The Way Up, is one 68-minute composition-no flipping of the record or tape or CD or even tracks were required (though they did originally split it up into four files so you could remember when certain parts are). News doesn't resemble itself at any time in history. There are 13 million archived New York times articles but 17 billion Tumblr blogs. I consider Twitter Vines (6 seconds or shorter videos) an art form, and film majors are actually getting discovered through Vine microfilm competitions.
The possibilities are great; here's a good example of new technology changing art. I'm working on a project for class where I am helping E-publish a women's book. Her non-fiction work about communist Russia spanned many regions, fields, and decades, and she described it as difficult to find the right order to present the information. So I said, why do we need a linear story? Why not make a web of stories connecting as they do in real history? We could have a story about Lenin lead to stories about the 1920's, or to other revolutionary leaders, or to his faction, the Bolsheviks, depending on what reader wants to see next. We could even visualize the story in a way books couldn't, with hundreds of embedded photos or videos. And it could all be on a Kindle or iOS app. I'll fill you in more as the project progresses, but you get the idea.
I fully expect TV shows to abandon the idea of standard episode lengths in the next five years. The Kindle market has already done this for books. As CDs die out, expect more and more artists to ignore the restraints every generation of musicians before them has felt as they try to record and promote themselves. Say goodbye to big-budget recording -> music stores, say hello to Garage Band -> SoundCloud. Soon, no major human event, even in the developing world, will go unrecorded. Expect a world where there is no "normal" media, few artistic standards, and no limits. Are you excited?