Anytime a new article or video or presentation pops up claiming to systematize how or why content goes viral, I tend to tune out. Immediately. It’s too repetitive, too assumptive, excruciatingly vague. But Ze Frank’s recent interview at the Paley Center for Media was refreshing, particularly the way he dissected the differences between structuralist and post-structuralist media. Which is, I assure you, a hell of a lot less academic and incredibly more useful as a construct than it sounds.
This tends to be the traditional view or approach to media, where a sole creator makes media to share with an entire audience. As Frank says, “media as this perfect encapsulation that you can hand to other people and you want them to experience it like you intended it to be experienced.” Media to be consumed. Music, film, print journalism, etc.
Think about going into a movie theater. And the amazing experience you can have, really transformative, to the point where you’re crying and you are in the process of actually saying ‘maybe I should ride a motorcycle through the Andes by myself.’ There’s this moment where you’ve so given yourself over. And then the movie ends. You and the person that you came with shuffle out and you hit that broad daylight and you’re like ‘where the fuck am I?’ — it’s like life hits you and it’s not so beautifully orchestrated. There’s this big disassociation. And you shuffle in silence with this person and then they turn to you and they say ‘did you like it?’ And you say, ‘yeah’. And that’s it. Right?
Structuralist, traditional, consumptive media. It has the power to impart deeply personal or emotional experiences for people. But it can also be tenuous. As Frank explained, “if you think about the mismatch between the experiential component and the way one talks about that experiential component, it’s very much a personal experience… the depth of the experience is very hard and very vulnerable to communicate with other people.”
The post-structuralist view explains how media can be used as a proxy for conversation among people. Think about it this way: a piece of post-structuralist media becomes powerful or gains meaning based on the social dynamics of the people that consume it.
A great example is the popular “All Things Couples Fight About” video on Buzzfeed. As a standalone piece of media, it’s something people can consume and enjoy. But once this video is shared between significant others, it takes on new meaning based on their unique social dynamic. As Frank explained:
Think about how [the couples] provide the complexity and depth. In the exchange, that’s where the complexity and depth actually gets put around the piece. [Content creators] don’t have to put it inside. And each couple, as they share it with each other, the meaning grows around it.
That’s an important distinction of the post-structuralist creative approach. It fundamentally changes the role of storytelling, the role of the audience and the impetuses for sharing (case in point, Spotify’s new “Music Takes You Back” work).
Traditional creatives think that they’re leaning in by saying ‘oh, I can have a conversation with the audience now. There’s a chance now for the audience to speak to me.’ That’s still a very traditional model of one content creator and then there’s an audience. The reality of it is that the content itself takes on life and moves without you and it doesn’t care about you anymore.
So it’s important to note that there is no inherent advantage or disadvantage between structuralist and post-structuralist media. Both can be beloved by audiences. But these two fundamentally different approaches to media have very different ways of impacting people. And two very different ways that content creators can set out to do just that.