The New Kind of Compulsive Consumerism

In 2005, the great comedian George Carlin remarked that the new American pastime is consumption. In describing the people that spend “money they don’t have on things they don’t need,” he calls them “efficient professional compulsive consumers.” This reality should come as no surprise to anyone, and is especially apparent around this time of year, where nearly every television commercial tries to convince you that it is our “civic duty” as Carlin puts it, to buy, buy, buy today and not worry about how we’re going to pay for it tomorrow. This hasn’t changed. But a lot else has changed since 2005-the Great Recession and the resulting “recovery” has made it impossible for many to justify a credit card purchase of anything frivolous, either at a brick and mortar shop or online. Instead, a new form of consumerism has taken its place in the hearts and minds of most Americans. As computers (smartphones, in particular) have become cheaper and more common, Americans are spending more and more time consuming content, rather than spending money on goods.

The legendary comedian once said that when it comes to consumption, Americans are “big time, pig time!”

By content, I’m referring to audiovisual media that can be provided without charge via the Internet-such as this blog, for example. On the one hand, it could be argued that this shift is better for consumers. Americans can save their increasingly dwindling funds while still enjoying high-quality entertainment-and corporations benefit from skyrocketing ad revenue from websites like YouTube. Many entrepreneurs have made their living from YouTube, by providing the kind of content on their channels that would never have a chance to be broadcast on TV. These content creators earn their income from ad revenue–the same kind that benefits corporations–or at least, they used to. Many lost their income this year, when YouTube adopted “advertiser-friendly” policies that prevent creators such as independent political analysts and commentators from earning any significant amount of money.

This development brings me to why content consumerism is not such a win-win. First of all, the YouTube advertiser boycott, or “Adpocalypse,” as it is colloquially known, reminds us who runs the show on the Internet, just like the rest of the world: corporations; a handful of huge conglomerates to be precise, who have decided that they no longer want to advertise their products on videos made by freelance journalists who wish to discuss, for example, strategies for defeating ISIS. Those same companies are free to advertise on each other’s videos, however. Take for instance this Stephen Colbert video titled, “President Trump’s Pedophile Stump,” which showed me a 30-second unskippable ad despite the fact that the title alone contains references to sexual abuse and the demeaning of an individual, both of which are violations of the new guidelines. This essentially means that the only way a YouTube viewer could watch an ad-supported video that acknowledges the existence of terrorism (you literally cannot mention the existence of war or terrorism, according to the guidelines) would be on one of the corporate channels, such as CNN. No wonder the President calls it “fake news.”

In fact, it would probably be against the guidelines to even mention the existence of the President, considering that “political conflicts,” are not allowed. Would election coverage fall under that category? Discussion of the recent resignation of Senator Al Franken or the accusations against Roy Moore would certainly not be allowed, as “sexual abuse” does not exist as far as YouTube is concerned. While the guidelines promise that context will be taken into account, nuance has not stopped them from de-monetizing the videos of countless small and medium-sized channels. It appears that the conglomerates are in charge of deciding if content can be considered to be “clearly comedic, educational, or satirical in nature.” Surely only their own content would meet their standards.

Not only are these guidelines shockingly Orwellian, but they fly in the face of the principles of free speech and open debate that YouTube represented for over a decade. Regardless of the results of the FCC Net Neutrality decision, it seems that an era of freedom has already ended for the Internet.

But this is only part of the reason why conspicuous content consumption has become so unhealthy. The main point I need to make is that just as how unfettered consumption of goods has hurt people financially, our compulsive need to constantly be reading articles and watching videos online has damaged our attention spans and our time management skills. Think about how much time we devote without hesitation to our mobile devices, aside from just time spent texting, emailing, or talking on the phone. I’m referring to the ironclad grip that social media and free entertainment have us in. It is extremely difficult to go to YouTube to watch just one video without getting distracted by the cornucopia of related videos and click-bait. The same applies to Facebook or Reddit, where so much information is presented in text and images that it can be incredibly addicting to just scroll through it endlessly. We can now get the same experience that was once reserved for strolling through small shops or a mall without even leaving bed. The only ones that profit from this are of course the conglomerates who either own or advertise for these sites; small businesses that conduct commerce in person have no way to compete with the sheer entertainment value of what I imagine must be millions of hours of videos on YouTube.

The “just one more video” mentality that comes so naturally with web activity is really the core of the issue. At least when shopping at a store, our wallets and credit limits hold us back from spending, to an extent. When watching television, the unbearable commercial breaks convince us to simply stop watching (I just recently sat through a 5-minute commercial block before the start of a half-hour show). And of course, all TV programming comes to an end eventually; YouTube, on the other hand, never has to end. With most videos that are still lucky enough to be ad-supported having only one or two short commercials, there is nothing stopping the hours from flying by. This is why I think that just as we must take periods of time where we refuse to spend any money on non-necessities, we should also take frequent breaks from online media. This may sound like an obvious suggestion, but in today’s world, it is far more difficult to get away from content consumption than it used to be. There are plenty of ways to entertain yourself and your friends without being constantly plugged-in to the information superhighway, and now it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of this fact. I would even recommend that you take a break right now, starting at the end of this article. Seriously, stop reading.