Culture overwhelm: How social media is changing our movie and TV watching habits

Still haven't seen The Wolf of Wall Street? Watch a 1 minute clip on TikTok instead.
Still haven't seen The Wolf of Wall Street? Watch a 1 minute clip on TikTok instead. Copyright Canva/@bensclips3 on TikTok
By Amber Louise Bryce
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Too much to watch, too little time? An influx of movie and TV summaries on TikTok and YouTube are altering the way we consume traditional media.

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Clarissa’s friends are always talking about new TV shows that she hasn’t seen.

In an attempt to keep up, she used to binge watch whatever the latest series was, only to find that by the time she saw her friends again, they’d already moved on to the next thing.

Instead, she turned to online summary videos and websites.

“I haven't really done this with movies as I can catch-up in 1.5 hours, but when it's a series with 24 episodes, plus potentially multiple seasons, it just seems virtually impossible [to watch it all],” says Clarissa. 

Overwhelm and FOMO (fear of missing out) are increasingly common problems for avid pop culture consumers, with the sheer amount of new releases far outpacing the rate at which people can digest them.

Bite-sized synopses of movies and TV shows on YouTube have become a popular solution, not only for quickly catching-up, but also for those that want a reminder of something they’ve already seen.

One such channel is Mystery Recapped, which boasts 3.72 million subscribers and shares 10-15 minute-long narrated film summaries with clickbait descriptive titles like, “2 Men Pee In Front Of This Statue, But They Instantly Regret It” for the 2011 movie The Change-Up.

Some of their most-watched videos are for lesser-known, straight-to-streaming movies that might have certain unique plot points but as a whole, aren’t very good. The speed-run commentary, told in a conversational way, allows viewers to experience a simple snapshot of the storyline without any potentially disappointing filler.

“Mystery Recapped honestly improves upon the movie with his clever commentary. Not to mention how good it is that I can "re-watch" movies which I forgot, without having to waste hours doing so for only [a] portion of the excitement I had the first time around,” a Reddit user writes.

If you browse YouTube enough, you’ll find hundreds of similar channels, many of which use AI voices to narrate the same movies and TV shows in different ways. Others, like Dead Meat, a horror-focused channel with 6.26 million subscribers, provide more insight to the films covered through the inclusion of behind the scenes facts.

Warning: For those already shaking their heads at such contents’ sacrifice of linear plot progression and holistic artistic intention, you might want to stop reading here.

More pervasive than summary videos are TikTok’s out-of-context movie clips, where single scenes are shared - sometimes with a clickbait description that tries to make it seem like a shocking real life moment, other times with a dramatic overlay of inspirational music. 

These clips regularly find their way to almost everyone’s FYP (for you page) and can be surprisingly engrossing; moments isolated in mystery, like walking in on a whispered conversation. 

The accounts dedicated to posting them have hundreds of thousands of followers, occasionally serialising the clips. Some of the most popular have been from The Wolf of Wall StreetArrival and M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening; cliffhangers always likely to go viral. 

Earlier this year, one TikTok user posted the entirety of Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men from 1957, leading to widespread discussion amongst teenagers who were discovering the film for the very first time. 

It's this sense of realtime community that also makes watching summarised or shortened versions of film and TV so enjoyable to modern day audiences, inspiring debate and commentary, even if much of the comment section is: "What is this film called?"

While seeing things in full will always be the ideal, the inordinate amount of content that's constantly vying for our shortened attention spans means that sometimes a social media summary is necessary, and can even be a good thing - especially when it brings older and more niche films to a new audience's attention. 

Or saves us from watching something brain-meltingly terrible.

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Even David Lynch, who memorably said, “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone,” seemed to have warmed to the idea during an interview with Cahiers du Cinema for the 2017 release of Twin Peaks: The Return. "Looking at a tablet or computer from the right distance, close enough, the screen is almost the same size, proportionally, as if you're sitting at the back of a movie theatre. So if you're in a quiet, dark room, it can be a good experience." 

Unfortunately for Mr Lynch, we doubt many are creating an appropriate ambience for soullessly swiping through TikTok clips. But of course, none of this is truly a solution to culture overwhelm anyway. 

Instead, the answer probably lies in focusing on the things we truly connect with and experiencing them wholly, rather than trying to keep up with everything all at once, turning art into nothing more than a tick list that we graze the surface of. 

As Wim Wenders said in a recent Euronews Culture interview: “The biggest illness we all have at the moment is that we have too much of what we love. We love the cinema, but there are too many films. I love music, but there's far too much music to listen to... There's too much of everything, and it doesn't make me happy.”

There is indeed too much. But watching Mark Wahlberg sensitively talk to a plant in a random TikTok clip from The Happening does, admittedly, make us happy.

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