Back in 2018, I invented the idea of content granularity, which is a measure of how large each chunk of content is when a creator produces a stream of content. I observed that creators usually try to be consistent in their granularity, and discussed the “coarse-graining death spiral” where creators feel the need to put more and more effort into each chunk until it is unsustainable.
Today I’d like to talk about other ways that creators enforce consistency in their content streams. For example, a creator may produce content focusing on a particular topic. Or perhaps they have a gimmick, which may be applied to one or multiple topics. Or maybe the one thing that is most persistent about their content, is their personality (either genuine or performed). Whatever it is that provides consistency, I will refer to as the creator’s brand.
As I write about this, I am totally thinking about that satirical music video by Brian David Gilbert, advising creators on establishing a brand.
The examples in the video are absurd (“I respond to tweets from elected officials with pictures of my son bowling”), but such absurd brands have been known to have success. For example, CanYouPetTheDog is a Twitter account dedicated to answering the question of whether video games let you pet the dog. It sounds silly, but Polygon has a video explaining its wide-reaching implications and influence.
While CanYouPetTheDog asks an interesting question, it should be obvious that the creator is not exclusively interested in this one question, nor are most of his followers. The followers follow other content streams besides just this one. The creator produces other content streams with different branding, and also has a life outside of creating content.
So we have a situation where content creators and followers are all complicated individuals with collections of disparate interests, and yet this is not reflected in individual content streams that adhere to a particular brand. There is some value to structuring our content this way. If one person is interested in dogs, constitutional law, and calligraphy, and another person is interested in heavy metal, constitutional law, and robotics, then they can both tune into the same content stream about constitutional law, and then find other content streams related to their other interests. It’s about content modularity.
Content modularity is made possible by the internet, where it is easy to produce and follow many content streams. I’m an old-school blogger, so I use RSS to freely aggregate content streams from all over the place. Because of the decline of RSS in recent years, many people use the more primitive method of using subscriptions built into social media platforms (e.g. following someone on Twitter). This can arguably provide a better experience than RSS, but traps people on platforms. The most primitive method of following content is by just occasionally navigating to the website to check for updates. That feels so inconvenient that I wonder if content modularity works at all, or if those people mostly end up following general interest websites. This is all to say that a person’s appetite for “branded” content may depend on their internet behavior and tools.
Consistency in content granularity is fairly universal, and occurs without deliberate effort, but consistency in branding is less common, and does not come naturally to everyone. For instance, this blog does not have very consistent branding. It’s about math, origami, asexuality, social justice, philosophy, and whatever appeals to me at the time. The branding isn’t not there, but it’s fairly weak and that suits me fine. I have other blogs with much stronger branding, and but many creators like me also enjoy having a space with weaker branding.
One type of branding that tends to emerge spontaneously, is the creator’s persona. This is something that creators consistently complain about, when audiences see a particular side of them, and they feel the need to live up to that side even if they don’t feel it is authentic to who they are. And the funny thing is that audiences want authenticity, or at least they think they do. What audiences really like is perceived authenticity, which the creator may have to manufacture (video, 36 min), at the expense of real authenticity.
But for what it’s worth, personality is not the only kind of branding that creators can rub up against. For example, many readers are familiar with the situation where video game news sites want to talk about diversity in relation to games, but gamers feel it is off-brand to “insert politics into video games”. In recent months, we have seen many creators endorse president-elect Joe Biden, and this feels particularly strong when it is off-brand (see: Scientific American making its first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history) because we intuitively understand that going off-brand is rare and difficult.
I’d like to hear from both creators and followers: Why do you enjoy consuming content that is strongly branded or weakly branded? Do you try to adhere to a brand, or do you have any unintended branding?