“This is so awesome, I’m so excited, aren’t you excited?” My son was talking to his friend over a headset, Xbox controller in hand, watching a countdown as his Sith trooper skin stood on the Avengers’ helicarrier waiting for the Fortnite live event ushering in Season 5 to begin.
He was, in fact extremely excited. I, on the other hand, was curious, and honestly I had no idea what a live Fortnite event even was, so I settled in next to him to watch.
What I now know after doing a little research and watching the Season 5 event is that Epic Games uses its online Fortnite platform to host live events that players can watch and interact with. In April, by which time in-person concerts had already been shut down, it hosted a concert by rapper Travis Scott that had more than 12 million live viewers. The Avengers-themed event this week would break that record, bringing 15 millions users to the platform.
I have to admit it was pretty cool. In the story Marvel characters helped players, or were they viewers, defeat the evil Galactus. Between the interactions, game play happened, and what appeared to be a very fun first person shooter moment reminiscent of Halo was my kid’s favorite. As the action toggled between interaction and plain viewing, it became clearer to me just how drastically the entire concept of televisual entertainment is changing before our eyes.
Much of this was predicted by David Bowie in a 1999 BBC interview which is now what we call a viral video. He not only said that we were just seeing the tip of the iceberg then, but that the interaction between content consumer and provider would revolutionize the content itself. That is at this point undeniable and also, we are still very much at the tip of the iceberg.
But Bowie said something else: that the internet would be both exhilarating and terrifying. Of late, some of the terrifying aspects have been coming to the fore. With so much content online and with the individual ways it is curated for users, there is a sense of common culture that feels like it is fraying.
Not long ago TV shows, and movies, and albums, and books could saturate our culture, like how everyone knew “Seinfeld” or Nirvana. Today that is being lost as we each dine culturally off of our own menus.
The impact of this pretty substantial change in how we entertain ourselves is difficult to predict but certainly feels like it has the potential to damage the sense of common identity among Americans. The less we share the same content, the more disconnected from each other we become. Even our basic values start to diverge because storytelling, the ancient transmitter of values, becomes atomized; everyone gets a slightly different message.
There is likely no real solution to this problem. It’s not like platforms such as Hulu, or Netflix, or Disney+ aren’t actively trying to saturate the marketplace, they certainly are, but with so many options it has become basically impossible. In 35 years, by the time my son is my age, the entire concept of the television may well have evolved into an entirely new and entirely personal experience. And so far it seems to be what people want. They are certainly willing to pay for it, but that doesn’t mean it is good for them.
Put simply the era of must-see scripted TV is over. There is still sports, and news, at least for now, although decreasingly so for the latter. Nonfictional events still happen in a shared reality, but what is a culture if not stories, and how can a culture survive if everyone, or at least most people aren’t reading, hearing, and seeing the same stories?
This is a question that many parents struggle with, and that is partly why I wanted to see what my big guy was so excited about. The screen time debates are complicated because on the one hand, there are clear advantages to limiting it severely, but on the other, we don’t want our kids to be troglodytes in a world dominated by tech.
I don’t have the answer and I don’t really think anyone does. In fact, I’m not sure we fully understand the question yet. But we better start understanding it, because these changes are happening whether we do or not.