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TikTok has a mindless content problem. Or does it?
I can really feel what the artist was thinking here
MEET THE NPCs
In his latest "idle gaze" newsletter, the Berlin-based cultural strategist Alexi Gunner explores a weird new online trend, the rise of so-called NPC content on TikTok.
NPC stands for "non-playable character," and it refers to those repetitive, robotic-seeming background characters that gamers see in the periphery of video games.
Today, it also refers to real life, human content creators who act in odd, repeating —and directed— ways.
Open up TikTok, and you may well see real life people in their kitchens and living rooms, endlessly saying stilted, robotic catchphrases and looping their gestures for hours —egged on by viewers, comments, and real life money.
(Yep, viewers are sending monetary tips —some totaling hundreds of dollars— to humans playing “non playable characters” on TikTok.)
THE DOPAMINE TRAP
Alexi writes that these repetitive, robotic livestreamers actually represent the logical endpoint of algorithmically-optimized, engagement-driven content.
And that’s the good part. He actually shares an even darker reason why people are doing this —and watching it.
Alexi hypothesizes that many of us may be in a (theoretical) mindstate called “depressive hedonia.”
What is depressive hedonia, you may ask? It represents an intense —but ultimately unfulfilling— pursuit of short-term gratification, fueled by a near constant depressive state.
Does the NPC TikTok trend actually reflect a “deeply existential dread rising up in the public consciousness”?
Many people know that the goal of most social media platforms is to stimulate the human brain's pleasure centers by way of an endless rush of dopamine. (Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good.)
As Alexi puts it:
BUT, LIKE, WHY?
Why does this stuff appeal? Let’s unpack, shall we?
In the face of some pretty substantial and constant cultural change, the predictability of hyper repetitive movements is actually pretty comforting. Seen this way, NPCs and sludge offer a reassuring sense of order —however brainless— amidst the chaos of modern life
Similarly, for overwhelmed brains, sludge and similar content actually provides some kind of oddly soothing background noise.
Also related: Finding patterns in randomness satisfies humans’ pattern-seeking brains.
BUT. I think there’s another reason this stuff is popular.
We humans love to organize ourselves into groups, specifically in-groups and out-groups.
This is often referred to as "in-group favoritism" or "out-group bias," concepts that have been extensively explored in social psychology.
In our splintered Internet era, where mainstream culture is on the decline and countless new subcultures seem to pop up on the daily, appreciating, liking, and even paying for this type of content is a powerful way to signal that you’re on the “in” side of the Internet Cool Kids
But this whole thing gets deeper, still.
My take on sludge, and its predecessor “corecore”?
Dude, it’s art. Contemporary art.
Stay with me.
…IT’S ALL ART, BRO
Art is, after all, totally subjective, just like sludge and NPC.
Art also is often about challenging norms, questioning reality, and pushing the boundaries of expression. (Check, check, check.)
Art has always provided a reflection of the society and times we live in. (Check.)
In our hyper-digital era, TikTok and other social media platforms have become new avenues for artistic expression.
In this newsletter’s view, “mindless” sludge videos and similar are simply contemporary video art that reflects our current culture's fascination with repetition, memes, absurdism, and the blending of reality with digital constructs.
Just like Pop Art (Warhol, Hirst, etc.) elevated everyday objects and imagery to the status of fine art, these TikTok videos do the same, using elements from our digital, mass-consumer culture, and presenting them in a repetitive, rhythmic pattern, in order to play with our expectations —as well as the conventions of both entertainment and art.
PART OF THE CANON
Zoom out: The utilization of repetition and loops is a significant characteristic of contemporary art, and particularly video art.
And don’t just take my word for it:
Andy Warhol's Sleep (1963) is a five-and-a-half-hour film that shows the artist's lover sleeping. The film is simply a looped 20-minute shot.
Bruce Nauman's Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–68) is a 10-minute looped video performance, in which Nauman walks around a taped square on the floor, drawing the viewer's attention to the act of walking, repetition and time.
In Marina Abramovic's Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975), the artist brushes her hair and face repeatedly for almost an hour, while repeating the piece’s title over and over, like a mantra. This extreme repetition is thought to be a commentary on the demands placed on artists as well as the nature of beauty in art.
To make Super Mario Clouds (2002), the artist Cory Arcangel hacked a Super Mario Bros. video game, erasing everything but the moving blue sky and white clouds, turning the looping background video into a tranquil and familiar digital artwork.
Christian Marclay's The Clock (2010) is a 24-hour long montage of thousands of film and tv clips that feature clocks or some other references to time. The clips have all been edited together to show the actual time (of the viewer's location). The Clock explores the relationship between repetition, time, and the moving image.
Each of these pieces utilizes repetition or looping to comment on various themes, from the passage of time to the monotony or rhythm of everyday life. They're a testament to the evocative power of repetitive imagery in contemporary art.
And you can draw a straight line from all of the above to both sludge and NPC.
WHAT SAY YOU?
Look around: the lines between the digital and physical have never been more blurred. You see it in bad fan behavior at concerts, in the fun weather presenter lyrics trend, and you see it with corecore, sludge, and NPC.
Today’s TikToks, with their repetitive and often absurd content, challenge our perceptions —just like well regarded video art installations in contemporary galleries do.
Food for thought, as the algorithm pushes more and more mindless TikToks to the fore: Your next “endless scroll” just might serve up the next Abramovic or Warhol.
'Sludge content' is the latest form of escapism on TikTok (from April 2023) »»
A strange TikTok trend called 'sludge content' has Gen Z hooked. Here's what you need to know. (from May 2023) »»
In-group favoritism (Wikipedia) »»
Written by Jon Kallus. Any feedback? Simply reply. Like this? Please share it!