Coolness and substance

too many words about obscure streaming services

Coolness and substance

This old Marlon Ettinger piece on Means TV popped up when I was digging through some notes the other day. It contrasts Ovid (a streaming service which had the catalogues of several older radical film publishers) with Means TV (a project geared largely around “breadtube” personalities and similar). One was able to get a lot of attention off the back of its ostensible novelty, marketing nous and (presumably) media connections, one doesn't seem to have been able to—and I'm sure you can work out which is which. There are several things demonstrated by Means here, in Ettinger's telling: a desire to be seen as cool, a desire to project certain values (whether or not they hold and adhere to them substance and fact) and a desire to be seen as substantial without earning it. I think these are problems that are not the exclusive domain of the left, but are very common failure modes of projects and initiatives that are (or claim to be) of it.

Cool is a tool to be used, not an end in itself. If Cool is your objective then you're going to be a reed in the wind. Cool is obviously complex, but one of the things it can often mean is a preference for the new and different over the old and familiar. The trouble becomes that this can lead to change for change's sake. Older and uncool can quite often be much more substantial and robust. It makes me think of some experiences I've had in left organising spaces. Novel measures intended to e.g. ensure people's comfort, while well-intentioned, bewilder and frustrate, while actual attendees' issues go unaddressed. If you've got hearing issues, the 'breakout sessions' involving three different conversations in the same room will be impossible to engage with. Meanwhile, there will be ten new hand signals you have to learn substituting for point of order/point of information. Those procedures might seem a bit old-fashioned, but they have stood the test of time. Having a discussion then voting on it might seem a bit retro, but I'm unsure a constant stream of vibe-check-via-jazz-hands is necessarily an improvement. This kind of small-c conservatism can certainly be stifling when taken to extremes but jettisoning every lesson and practice of the past is going to cause as many issues as never changing.

The appeal of novelties of various kinds is magnified by the internet, which allows you to very effectively sell yourself as though you have substance when you, in fact, do not. There are tools which allow people to whip up things that look very slick without having to put in the effort that you would've had to even as recently as ten years ago. Hell, it affords you a platform that makes it much easier to get your thoughts out than would once have been the case. It removes or greatly decreases  the requirement for the costly signalling mechanisms that used to demonstrate investment in and commitment to something: an ideal, a project, whatever—and knowledge and expertise about it.

This leads to a situation where Means has—based on an inspection of titles available, I will confess to not having subscribed —very little content of substance. I personally have a profound fear of being seen as insubstantial, as not coming correct; I would be in a constant state of low-grade panic if I were presenting gruel as thin as Means does. Ettinger's piece was written in 2020 when Ovid had 350 films and Means 18; Ovid now appears to have somewhere in the region of 1350 films, Means has (as near as I can tell) 36 films, 32 short films and more shortform videos and 'series' that seem to just be annoying-looking Youtube videos you have to pay for, which are more difficult to count but they do not seem to be large in number, and several seem to be video versions of podcasts. One of them has Nathan Fielder in, though a quick search reveals that the writer-director of that series has put it up for free on his Vimeo. One appears to be the (rather thin) tape library of an enterprising Texas indie wrestling fed(???). You have to pay $10 a month for this.

To try and extend some benefit of the doubt to Means, I suspect they would say that Ovid is solely using existing films whereas they're trying to create their own content, but a) that just returns us to the aforementioned failure mode of always needing to reinvent the wheel, and worse than before, and b) none of their original stuff looks to be worth watching. Some things they didn't make look ok—a series on the world of South American political street art sounds cool, and is even 'Means Exclusive'—but it's still not their stuff, which largely seems to consist of lower-tier Chapo penumbra people failing to be as funny.  If you are to be a socialist streaming service, the socialism is almost the easy part; you also have to be a streaming service worth a damn.

This is part of the reason I rebel so strongly against Internet Doing Something: I find it an affront to my sense that things should be done Properly. I can see how it happens, how it becomes very easy to end up not selling substance, just selling a vibe. It's not inherently terrible if you're just some guy on Twitter, but it's not great if you're trying to seriously build or achieve something. There's something to be said for things developing over time (I was thinking about No Man's Sky in this context the other day after seeing this) but bluntly, that doesn't seem to be the trajectory they're on. They have the technical nous to build the service, the connections to get it in front of people but ultimately there's no there there. Without some kind of real intellectual tradition or coherent set of ideas or dedication to artistic exploration and depth, it's inevitably going to turn out like this; seeds falling on rocky ground. If you're not grounded in something but instead just want to make epic jokes, meme it up and pal around with Patreon podcasters, there's a low ceiling on what you can create because that stuff is allergic to the kind of seriousness that leads to depth. I think a lot of folk like the Means people and their milieu try and avoid overt seriousness for fear of coming off as pompous. There's always a risk of bathos of that kind arising, but I believe that pomposity is the failure mode of seriousness, not inherent to it. Trying to be earnest, trying to be honest, trying to be real—these things can open you up to ridicule, sure, but if you're not doing that you're playing in the kiddy pool forever.