The internet is a magical place. Today, you can get online and watch or listen to anything you want, anytime you want.
Whether you’re looking for a Hitchcock film, an episode of “Glee,” or a song that’s been stuck in your head all day, the internet is here for you. And with mobile devices, you can enjoy these new freedoms wherever you want. But how is this affecting our appreciation for TV, movies and music?
I’m no anti-internet crusader and I’m certainly not standing in the way of progress. However, I am concerned that the web has chipped away at the pleasures of watching or listening to something. In our zeal to access vast amounts of media online, we have created a reigning atmosphere of instant gratification that often discourages a deeper appreciation of said media.
Take the way people experience TV shows or movies online. Between Hulu, Netflix, HBO GO, and the various illegal streaming sites, it’s possible to find just about anything at any time. If I want to plow through an entire season of “Mad Men” in an evening, there’s nothing but time stopping me.
Well what’s wrong with that? Isn’t increased access to the entertainment we enjoy a good thing? Yes and no. It’s great that our favorite content is more available. We are perhaps the most empowered media consumers ever. No longer are we at the mercy of TV schedules, individual rental costs, or even the hassle of leaving our homes.
Yet, the absolute convenience of internet media has also deflated many of the traditional pleasures of a viewing experience. I recall childhood reruns of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” every weeknight at 8 p.m, which were a guaranteed highlight of the evening. I would make sure to get my homework done ahead of time and be on the couch from the start of the show to the final credits. There was no pausing the show to use the bathroom or make popcorn, only a mad dash across the living room during commercial breaks. When it was over, I always wished for another episode, but at 9 p.m. the infomercials came on and I was off to bed. I had to accommodate my life to the show; it didn’t accommodate itself to me. And that is precisely what made it so special.
Today, if I want to watch an episode of “Whose Line?,” I probably won’t wait for it to show up on TV. As soon as the urge arises, I will search for a streaming site online. If finding it proves too difficult, which is doubtful, I will move on to any number of other entertaining shows that are just as easy to access. When I do find a show, I am in total control. I can pause whenever I need to, flip to a different episode if I get bored, and watch as many episodes as I want. I can watch half an episode on my smartphone on the bus and the other half at night in bed with a laptop.
Our internet culture has removed the ritual and build-up from the pre-digital viewing experience. Sitting in front of a television at a certain time on a certain night carries with it a sense that it’s an event; that the rest of our lives have to be put on hold for a little while. But today, our viewing experiences are often far more fragmented and can simply feel like filler time, rather than significant, pre-planned space set aside for screening something. Our sense of anticipation has been watered down since there is no need to wait for a certain time or place to watch something. With the right devices, we can watch anything anywhere—excluding brand new shows and movies: for these, we might have to wait a few weeks. Digital media offers an overwhelming impression of instant gratification, and not always for the better.
This holds true for internet music as well. Pandora, iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and others have all made it possible to immediately find any song you want. There’s no changing CDs and certainly no finding the groove on a vinyl record. But just like with TV and movies, our ease of accessing music does not necessarily make us appreciate it more.
Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic, but there’s something to be said for looking at album cover art and physically holding a CD case in your hand as you listen to a song. Before the internet you had to make some commitment to listening to an artist and you could hold a physical representation of what you were listening to. If for no other reason than that you had to change CDs to listen to something else, pre-digital music encouraged a connection with each specific artist and album.
Now, with millions of songs at our fingertips, it’s difficult to establish a meaningful connection with a single artist or even a single song. When everything is available, any one thing loses some of its significance.
My experience with digital music has been that of a nonstop playlist flying past, often while I’m giving my full attention to something else. What’s more, the relatively few songs I have been able to tie down are often devoid of a larger musical context. I have an enormous YouTube playlist of songs that have caught my ear online, but I rarely know anything about the artists or albums that the songs come from.
Granted, this vast library of music is great for finding music you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Many of my favorite songs came from a YouTube suggested link or a friend’s Facebook post. However, the enormous amount of music we’re exposed to online may also mean we’re giving minimal attention to some artists we might really love.
Online music is also a world of instant gratification. What does that mean for the albums that deserve a little more patience and commitment to truly appreciate? What happens to those rare gems that record executives decide don’t make a good single? The internet is great for skimming across the surface, but it may not always encourage us to go deeper.
The circumstances surrounding our consumption of media are important. The web has brought a vast amount of instantly-accessible content to our fingertips, yet the way we consume this media is not always conducive to a full appreciation of it. Sure, some shows, movies and songs are meant to be swallowed in one quick gulp and forgotten about, but aren’t some things more enjoyable after a little anticipation, background context, and even the simplest of viewing/listening rituals? Sometimes the sweetest pleasures are not those we can have whenever and wherever we want, but instead are restricted to a certain time and place worth looking forward to.
Technology has reached a point where we are no longer restrained or limited in our consumption of media. Fantastic. But now the challenge is for us to learn how to restrain ourselves. Certain TV shows, movies, and songs deserve to be elevated above mere instant gratification.
I’m not saying to stop using the internet, but perhaps some foresight and restraint is called for. Set aside a time to watch a specific movie, uninterrupted, in a certain place in your home. Watch a favorite TV show every day at the same place and time. Stream an album all the way through with no other distractions. Even in the age of the internet, we can still have the special, ritualized, and involved entertainment experiences of decades past. We shouldn’t let our appreciation for media be diluted by its incredible ease of access.