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The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Online Content

How the content inflation caused by online marketing is hurting its future, and what we might do about it.

Last year, I signed up for the email list of a pretty famous writer/podcaster/internet personality. I liked the few articles that I read, and felt that I’d like to get some emails from him — pointing me to other useful information or just to keep updated on what he wrote.

That got me to thinking: have those of us in the “content” game (I hate that term, by the way) reached the point where our continued efforts to grow our audiences are now actually hurting all of us? I suspect the answer is “yes”.

My Leaning Out

I’ve recently started receiving fewer emails, by design. I’ve unsubscribed from all but a few newsletters and e-mail updates that I consider high-value. I’ve also eliminated a lot of the reading from RSS feeds that I do, unless I see the person or website as one that I consistently gain some value or enjoyment from.

The Dilemma Explained

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a thought experiment that comes from Game Theory, and it helps to illustrate a tragic aspect of human reasoning. I taught Philosophy at the college level for about 5 years, and have always struggled to succinctly explain it to students, but here’s my best attempt.

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When we pursue the highest possible reward — which depends on some competitor getting the shaft — we end up making things worse for everyone. I see this happening with content now. The more we all feverishly push out content, to out-scream everyone else on the trading floor, the less people really hear anything. We yell louder and more often, people listen less and less. And so on ad infinitum.

How the Dilemma Applies to Online Content — In Two Interesting Data Sets

Compare the following 3 reports, from the Radicati Group, on how many emails are sent and received each day:

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2014 email data & projections in billions, care of the Radicati group
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2016 email data & projections in billions, care of the Radicati group
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2017 email data & projections in billions, care of the Radicati group
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  • the average email is about 500 words, which is about 2 minutes of reading time, and there are 150,000 of them sent every minute! That’s about 300,000 minutes of emails sent every minute.
  • 1 hour of video takes 1 hour to watch (or if skimmed, maybe 20 minutes?). And there are 50 of those hours uploaded per minute!
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http://cdn.business2community.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/economics-of-content2.jpg

The Nut of the Dilemma for Content Creators

I sit in marketing meetings with regularity. I also read a decent amount about marketing and content strategy (it’s pretty hard to avoid it, actually). The overwhelming majority opinion is that the more content, the better. More emails, more videos, more Facebook posts, more tweets, more instagram pictures, and so on.

So What Can Be Done?

If we all agree to scale back how much of people’s attention we’re working to get (i.e., how much content we’re pushing, and how often we’re pushing it), we could stand to gain more of our target audience’s quality time and attention. Pie in the sky idea? Probably. Hard sell to marketing people? Most definitely. But the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows us that if indeed content shock is a real thing, it’s in our best interest to scale back. But there are two major problems.

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

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