In a previous series on YouTube moderation, I grappled with how we can engage with the genuinely valuable and enjoyable content on YouTube and other social media/entertainment apps while still maintaining self-control. In this post, I’ll explore another strategy for approaching this dilemma: distinguishing between primary and secondary content.
I should probably find more descriptive terms (let me know if you have any ideas), but here’s how I’d define primary and secondary content:
- Primary Content is content that you are genuinely excited to consume. It is the best-quality, most helpful, and/or most engaging content you read, watch, or listen to.
- Secondary Content is content that you consume because (1) you’re overly fixated on a certain topic or (2) you’ve run out of primary content but feel an urge to fill your time with entertainment rather than silence.
I’ve observed that if I limit my consumption to primary content, I can experience the benefits of various entertainment mediums while still maintaining moderation. When I delve into secondary content, however, I’m far more likely to binge on that content and end up feeling miserable.
Secondary Content and Sports Fandom
Let me illustrate this through a humorous but very real struggle. I love the Sacramento Kings and the NBA in general. As the fan of a bad team, my two favorite times of year are the NBA draft (chance for the Kings to snag an exciting new prospect) and free agency (time for blockbuster trades and player movement across the league).
I know what qualifies as my sports primary content. These are the podcasts, Twitter threads, or YouTube videos that spark genuine excitement when they come across my feed. If I just consumed that content, my sports fandom would take up a significant but still reasonable amount of my time.
But my voracious appetite for Kings and NBA content usually doesn’t stop there. As an example of an over-fixation on a certain topic: when the Kings prized rookie, Keegan Murray, lit up the summer league, I didn’t just watch highlights or listen to a podcast or two. I stayed up late into the night, searching for any podcast, video, or article that remotely touched on his performance, even from sources I wouldn’t normally enjoy. The result was increasingly diminishing returns. What began as excitement for the Kings’ rookie, devolved into feeling silly for wasting so much time.
As an example of running out of primary content but preferring secondary content to silence: now is the dead time of the NBA season. No more draft, free agency, or summer league. After the deluge of content that was released during those periods, it has been difficult to adjust to the lack of news and content. Sometimes I’ll find myself searching out and mindlessly clicking on content I’m only mildly interested in, just to scratch that basketball itch.
Slaves to the Algorithm
If you think about it, the whole point of the “algorithm” for sites like YouTube, Netflix, and other apps is to rope you in and trap you with secondary content.
On YouTube, for example, your primary content comes from your subscriptions. Those are the creators that you’ve found valuable enough to subscribe to.
Your suggested video page picks up on topics that you’ve demonstrated interest in and recommends similar videos. Sometimes this results in finding new creators you enjoy (i.e. new primary content.) But just as often, the algorithm will recommend copycat creators or derivative content that is similar in topic but lower in quality.
This is how you can go down a rabbit hole and grow increasingly more miserable. Your fixation on a topic or desire to quench your boredom causes you to consume more and more from the algorithm, even as the content declines in quality.
In previous articles, I explored some practical strategies (see part 2 as well) for resisting the pull of the algorithm. One idea is to add any video that initially piques your interest to the “Watch Later” playlist. This creates an extra step for you to pause and evaluate if you really want to watch a particular video (primary content) or are just clicking impulsively (secondary content). Another strategy is to install DF YouTube to remove the suggested video page altogether.
“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room”Blaise Pascal
At my first job out of college, the work was menial enough that I could listen to audio content while I worked. This had its good moments (like listening to the entire Harry Potter series on Audible), but looking back, I realize that this freedom often made me feel unhappy and restless.
Why? The ability to listen to anything anytime caused me to develop a constant appetite for new content. Eventually, it became less about what I was listening to — it could even be a convicting sermon — and more about passing the time to get through the workday.
Our world of competing streaming services and constantly refreshing social media feeds promises a never-ending stream of primary content to entertain us. We buy into that promise and begin to crave that all our spare moments be filled with noise.
The result, however, is that we turn more and more to secondary content, which we watch just for the sake of watching. Like junk food, the more we binge on secondary content, the more addicted and unhealthy we become.
Embracing silence, in contrast, is like a muscle that grows the more we exercise it. Initially, we will feel uncomfortable. It will seem as if we are wasting our time or missing an opportunity to catch up on the flashiest new thing. In time, however, learning to enjoy silence will yield many fruitful benefits. To name a few:
- Silence invites deeper reflection. Think of the difference between letting your mind wander during a walk or commute versus instinctively putting on a podcast.
- Silence trains us so we can enjoy unhurried time in prayer, meditation, and study without growing bored or restless;
- Silence allows us to focus on the present task at hand instead of always multi-tasking. An example would be simply enjoying a meal instead of reflexively watching a show.
- Silence makes us feel we have more time. I find that when I take a break and simply rest without consuming anything, the break seems to last much longer than if I spent it scrolling on my phone.
I ended the YouTube Moderation series with a reflection that strategies for moderation shouldn’t be our ultimate aim. I use the example of training wheels:
Training wheels assist beginners who are learning to ride a bike but are not yet skilled enough to balance on their own. Without training wheels, these individuals might teeter and fall, badly injuring themselves. I think the training wheel analogy is helpful. because it highlights the temporary nature of the various tactics I’ve proposed. These tactics are not ends in and of themselves, but help us as we go on to greater, more important pursuits.
In a similar vein, we shouldn’t be content to merely consume primary content and avoid secondary content. It does me little good, for example, if my only interest in life is basketball and the Sacramento Kings, no matter how disciplined I am in consuming primary sports-related content.
In addition to embracing silence, we should also seek to expand our appetites from content that merely entertains to content that informs and helps us grow. For me, I’ve been trying to push myself beyond my normal sports intake to seek out content on topics like fatherhood, personal finance, or health. These may not be as natural for me to listen to, but in the long run they will help me better lead and love my family.
Hopefully this discussion of primary and secondary content resonates and is helpful. Feel free to reach out and let me know what you think. Until next time!