What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘sludge?’
For me, the key words are ‘viscous,’ ‘stinky,’ ‘messy,’ ‘goopy,’ and ‘gunky.’ It has a little bit more of an attitude than its cousin ‘slime’ (celebrity on Nickelodeon). You might think of the thing that pollutes waters or even the texture of your favorite clay beauty mask.
I once thought these things too, until I turned to TikTok, scrolled through my FYP and found a new word that describes sludge: Attention.
A new content phenomenon has been infiltrating the short-form social media landscape and it’s artfully referred to as “sludge content.” It’s the latest form of digital multitasking and has taken the idea of multiple screens to a whole new level.
Creators use stimulating clips from popular TV shows, kinetic videos involving sand and clay (not a beauty mask), streams of the game Subway Surfers, and layer them on top of another TikTok talking about something completely unrelated. The purpose? If you get bored hearing someone yap about the earth being flat, push your eyeballs to the right and watch someone make a cake while they finish their argument rather than scrolling to the next video. (I now believe the Earth is definitely flat.)
The goal of this tactic is a little unclear but there are a couple of hypotheses that it has to do with users’ attention. Creators might be using these clips from already existing popular content to boost engagement. More eyeballs equals more dollar signs. This content makes you watch longer, meaning listening longer, to the ideas a creator is sharing—even subconsciously.
In my opinion, this is digital hypnosis. The first step in the eventual takeover of machines burrowing into our eyeballs and therefore our brains. Our attention spans are turning into attention spam as we unknowingly watch an entire video about how we can fall off the planet for being flat. (Just kidding, I know Earth is actually a triangle.)
There is a really good vlog done by Blair (Whatitis) that talks in depth about what sludge content is doing and the way it makes us feel, while making the informational video itself a piece of sludge content. Take a look here:
As a video creator, I am constantly on the hunt for new forms of media, but I want to continue to captivate audiences without cutting sponges. Although this mode is fascinating, I worry about how some people might be ingesting it, who is feeding it, and what those underlying messages are to the young minds on the receiving end of the spoon. Creators are fighting for attention now more than ever, and this feels more like trickery than any other previous trend.
Sludge content isn’t making anything original or noteworthy, it’s piggybacking off of other successful pieces of content to build itself up or just simply lay egg-like microchips in our brains. Whichever one, we know with great content comes great responsibility.
Controversial creators like Andrew Tate (Self proclaimed misogynist and alleged sex trafficker) and Sneako (controversial internet ranter) have jumped on sludge content and encouraged others to follow suit as it is a quick and efficient way to pump out their content. Andrew Tate has since had his TikTok removed for some of his views, and Sneako continues to hold contentious conversations and arguments on their platform while we watch an animated car drive off a mountain.
In a way, I would say some of these videos, and more specifically their underlying messages, come across less frightening or provocative when it is paired with sludge content. Is this on purpose? I think so. Go ahead and type in “Sneako Sludge” into TikTok and scroll for yourself—it’s uncomfortable.
In conclusion, as someone who makes and watches videos for a living (sometimes over and over again for a client revision), I ask that we take a second to really think about what we are watching, who it’s for, and what its real goal is. So many stories and ideas are already buried deeply in micro assets, and when we layer distracting visuals on top, it becomes even more challenging for us to make decisions on the type of content we agree with and want to consume. Sure, it’s boosting engagement and trendy, but is it worth it?
“The trend has hit the point of saturation where prominent streamers and brands have played along, often willfully poking fun at the trend. But it’s not always easy to tell whether the collages are intended ironically or not — and they appear to be a successful strategy to boost engagement regardless.”Jay Castello
If you come across sludge content, here are a couple of ways you can turn it into fudge content (bite size, simple, and sweet content!):
- Focus on the original message first.
- Listen to the words and who is talking, decide if it’s messaging you can get behind.
- If you see multiple screens, maybe scroll past and watch something with a deliberate message.
- Read the comments, but be aware! See what others are saying about the messaging and take it with a grain of salt. NOT A GRAIN OF SLUDGE.
- Finally, watch reruns of Slime Time Live if you are feeling overwhelmed with our digital world turning your brain into sludge.