If you’re an old-timer on social media like me, you might claim you’ve seen everything there is to see. But have you seen it all at once? This is not a reference to Michelle Yeoh or the multiverse — it’s a new and fast-growing way of creating content on Instagram reels, YouTube shorts, and the place where most trends begin, TikTok.
Am I old or is something very wrong here pic.twitter.com/6TccyljcFV
— Gillian Branstetter (@GBBranstetter) January 6, 2023
‘Sludge’ content typically looks like a video recorded in split-screen mode. One clip could be from a film or TV show (often Family Guy) and another is completely unrelated — someone playing with slime, cooking food a video from a mobile game. At first glance, it seems absurd and counterintuitive to have two such videos playing simultaneously, since the combined effect would make it too distracting to focus on either one of them. However, it does quite the opposite — which explains the rise in the trend’s popularity. It overstimulates you with too much and keeps you hooked.
The split-screen view is not the only face of ‘sludge’ content. A few months ago, I came across a reel that looked like a screen recording of a Subway Surfers game. In the background, a Siri-like voiceover narrated a Reddit post aloud. I watched it all the way to the end, with adequate eyebrow raises at all the right moments in the story. But too many times I’ve skipped past similar Reddit stories posted as screenshots. Reading multiple paragraphs of some self-unaware person insisting they’re NTA (Not The Asshole, as seen on the popular subreddit ‘Am I The Asshole?’) is more effort than I’m willing to put into idly consuming content on social media. Part of what forces people to sit scrolling for hours is that reels, shorts and TikToks are so easy to watch with little to no effort.
tiktok ruined my shit I’m watching the menu with a subway surfers video on the side to keep my attention pic.twitter.com/RrxSztBmJV
— chib (@chibleee) January 18, 2023
The fact that we have lower attention spans today, especially on social media, seems to be both a cause and an effect of such trends. The internet is a place where our desires are instantly gratified with 90-second videos, image-heavy infographics and ‘TL;DR’s (Too Long, Didn’t Read). As a result, we keep actively searching for more content that satisfies us in similar ways.
Now here’s the scarier part. Sludge content is not just about overstimulating our minds or keeping us glued to our phones. Psychologist Gordon Pennycook told CBC News that distracting visuals discourage the user from actually reflecting or deliberating on the content of the video. This means they are more likely to believe false or misleading information without really processing it. Andrew Tate heavily capitalised on this strategy to make his videos go viral, and more such influencers are doing it now.
Even without sludge reels and TikToks littering our feeds, we often end up viewing multiple screens at once. Most of us have one eye on our phones while Netflixing. It shows how attention spans today have become dangerously low, in part thanks to social media. The day that even 90 seconds feels like too long for a video is not far away — even when it’s a side dish to something else we’re watching.