The Live Content Death Zone

Happy new year! If this makes you think, please do share the good word with your friends and colleagues or follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I, a lifelong football fan, missed the World Cup Final. I unintentionally booked a flight that coincided with the entire match, and there was no way to move it. Probably the greatest moment in my football observing career, and I was 40,000 feet above the Black Sea, watching Bad Boys For Life on an 8-inch screen.

The reason I bring it up is that before the game, a loved one suggested a solution to my problem: recording the match, not looking up the score, and watching it when I land.

Apart from the impracticality of this idea (I had at least 10 Messi-related messages and a social media feed full of Salt Bae vitriol as soon as the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac), there was another fatal flaw. I didn’t want to watch the game. Even without knowing the conclusion, sitting through a 90 minute game that had already finished sounded boring.

This unfortunate situation got me thinking. When is it important to watch something live? And when is on-demand better? There must be a reason that sports, Twitch and some news shows are best viewed as it happens, while other media formats (YouTube, podcasts, audiobooks) are better on-demand.

Clubhouse merits some special investigation here. For a few months it was the hottest live platform in the world, and it flamed out before we knew it. What can we learn from it about when live works, and when it doesn't?

So to put my thoughts together I used the strongest weapon in my former MBA arsenal: a 2x2 matrix. Excited to unveil…

The Intensity vs. Structure 2x2 Matrix

The matrix has two axes:

Horizontal: emotional intensity. How immediately invested in every second of the content you are. Rule of thumb: you wouldn’t want to switch it off halfway through, or miss five minutes going to the bathroom.

Vertical: structure. How easily digestible the content is. Rule of thumb: the content has an easy-to-follow narrative or structure, and is either short-form or can be packaged into digestible chunks.

The green zone

In the green zone (everything except the bottom left), the content is either structured, intense, or both.

Structured, low intensity content is good for relaxing. OK, so an eight hour podcast from Lex Fridman is long, but it’s broken down into manageable chunks, and it gradually built up into an overall narrative (apparently. There is absolutely no way I would ever listen to that). Even if content is low intensity, it can still be enjoyable in a vegetative way, or because you want to learn more about a topic.

The aforementioned almost eight hour podcast. Green zone yes in that it's structured, but still no fuckin way I'm listening to that.

Unstructured, high intensity content is good for your passions. Love sports? Gaming? Fan of a specific streamer? Watching performance at a high level of intensity means you can forgive the lack of structure. Turn on Twitch and you’ll see what I mean; most successful streamers spend a lot of time shouting at their audience, or absurdly overreacting to whatever is in front of them. When you’re passionate about something and you get an intense dose of it, sometimes it’s better for the content to be unplanned and the outcome unpredictable. Who knows what could happen? You need to watch live to find out.

Watch from 0:55. Ice Poseidon live on stream gets threatened by the mob while streaming on Twitch. And it's live!

Structured, high intensity content is good for entertainment. Good films, TV, and high-production value YouTube content will be both structured and high intensity. This is a powerful form of content, but the tradeoff is it requires the audience’s full attention, which is some price to pay with the available stimuli these days.

MrBeast is a master of the art of structured, high intensity content. While every second is absolutely precious, and 90% of dialogue is manically shouting, there is also a clear structure and continuous narrative to be followed. This type of content is firmly in the top right of the 2x2 matrix.

MrBeast's over 300 million view Squid Game recreation.

The red (death) zone

The red zone, aka the death zone, is unstructured, low intensity content. This means the content is neither gripping you from one moment to the next, nor providing a structure that you can follow. It's hard to follow, and you also don’t care.

Rewatching sports games is an obvious death zone, since the emotional intensity of the result doesn't matter anymore when it's in the past, so the lack of structure makes it boring. This is obvious to anyone outside the world's greatest sports nerds.

Clubhouse: death zone inhabitor

I’d like to focus on another platform firmly in the red zone: live audiorooms. Clubhouse soared to relevance in 2020, buoyed by successive rounds from a16z, as well as their celebrity contacts. Fomo abounded, invites were more difficult to get than memberships to Zero Bond, and luminaries from Elon Musk, Kevin Hart and Lindsay Lohan were shooting the breeze to thousands of listeners in what felt to many like it might be the future of media. The company raised hundreds of millions, and turned down a reported multibillion acquisition offer. Growth investors were calling up seed investors and offering millions for basis point shares of the company, most of whom were rebuffed.

Clubhouse iOS downloads per SensorTower. February 2021 peak was the month Elon Musk went live on the platform.

Obviously it then catastrophically collapsed. Growth started to dwindle, creators stopped using it, and the social network death spiral began. Its final nail in the coffin was when Twitter launched Spaces, a well-integrated clone that served the use-case better: idly listening while doomscrolling Twitter (i.e. the fact that it was boring was less of a problem, it was a background activity). Seed investors will likely see zero return on their investment.

So why did it fail? Ultimately, the problem was that it sits in the death zone of our 2x2 matrix. The content was unstructured, and not emotionally engaging. It was effectively a podcast (low emotional intensity) but without an editor or fast-forward button (poor structure).

In short: it was boring. Twitter Spaces has a similar issue, and the only rooms that gain traction are ones talking about immediately-relevant events (e.g. the only ones I see are just Tesla Bulls trying to cope with earnings misses...).

I will write more some time in the future about the issues with live shopping, but I think it suffers from a similar problem. The viewer is neither sufficiently invested nor sufficiently guided to watch. That needs to change.

What does this mean for my social app?

If you're a founder looking to build the next big thing in social, you can grade yourself against the 2x2 matrix. If it's in the bottom right, you can consider live. If it's top right or top left, consider on-demand.

And if it's in the bottom left, then when you get a missed call from a growth investor who offers you a $4 billion valuation for your shares, call them back.

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