Companionship Content is King | Theory No. 29
Why short-form video has a ceiling & how companionship content escapes it.
Greetings fellow theorists — this essay is a deeper dive into one of the 24 ideas I shared for this year. This post’s admittedly a bit long-form, so I won’t be offended if you skip to what catches your eye.
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In 2019, I went to a media founders get together in SF. It was pre-pandemic, IRL. I remember a venture capitalist asking me what kinds of things were interesting to me (as any good VC would). I said passive, long-form content.1
Yet, at the time, TikTok was the rising star, and short-form video was becoming the thing. For the past 4 years, we’ve marveled at the format and the formidable company that’s synonymous with it. Now every platform is Tiktok-ifying itself.
But I believe short-form video has a ceiling, and we’re going to start seeing it. I’m not predicting the format’s demise, but it won’t scale infinitely either. Even TikTok is searching for its “second act.” It’s not just about competition or politics.
On the other hand, long-form passive content, what I call companionship content, doesn’t have nearly as low a ceiling. It emerged long before modern short-form video and it’ll stay on top far longer. Companionship content is, and will be, king.
What is “companionship content?”
Companionship content is long-form content that can be consumed passively — allowing the consumer to be incompletely attentive, and providing a sense of relaxation, comfort, and community.
Companionship content isn’t consumed just for information or entertainment, but as a proxy for having company around, a way to mitigate the awareness of lacking it, or to make an otherwise dull task enjoyable — with a companion.2
Here’s how I see companionship content in the modern content landscape:
Long-form, passive content of this kind lives mostly on a few popular platforms.
YouTube is arguably the home, the king, the Google search of long-form video. Podcasts are distributed by Apple podcasts, and to an increasing extent, on YouTube and Spotify too (and with podcasts moving to video, there’s more overlap). Twitch is uniquely low fidelity in the sense that content isn’t edited yet goes on for hours.
Traditional radio, podcasts, audiobooks, and music are anchors of audio-only companionship content. Interestingly, each individual “unit” of music is short-form (e.g. a 3-5 minute song), but how we consume it tends to be long-form and passive (i.e. via curated stations, lengthy playlists, or algorithms that adapt to our taste).
Then there are streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max. Much of their content is a high-quality production; it’s meant to be watched intently, but it isn’t always. If you’re rewatching a show or movie, it’s likely to be companionship content. (Life-like conversational sitcoms can be consumed this way too.) As streaming matures, platforms are growing their passive-watch library.
Other types of companionship content aren’t formally represented on the diagram above. One example is sports, which again can be active (e.g. for a championship game) or passive (e.g. watching a full day of golf). Sports has historically been owned by legacy television networks and is now moving on to streaming platforms or being licensed to modern media bundles.
Social and community platforms can arguably play a companion role when they’re quite passive and always-on. Having Twitter open on a second monitor, having a busy Discord channel open or even streaming video or games into a Discord community are examples (there are many more).
All this is to say that content isn’t always prescriptively passive, rather it’s rooted in how consumers engage it. That said, some content lends better to being companionship content: Long-form over short. Conversational over action. Simple plot versus complex. And delivered via an app or platform with a largely hands-off interface.
Short-form video has a ceiling
Consuming content requires attention, and everyone has an attention ceiling. This is the basis of my belief that short-form video has an upper limit.3 It’s not that short-form isn’t as good or as entertaining as long-form, it’s that it’s distracting and ultimately draining.
The mental energy consumed per minute of content consumed must be higher for short-form video than many types of content. I think of this as the “drain ratio” (as in energy drain) for a given piece of content or even a whole genre. (I doubt if anyone’s scientifically measured this, but I’d willingly commission a study on it).
What is the cause of this excess energy consumption? Short-form video requires more attention & action in a few ways:
Context switching, i.e. wrapping your head around a new piece of context every 30 seconds, especially if they’re on unrelated topics with different styles
Judgment & decision-making, i.e. contemplating whether to keep watching or swipe to the next video effectively the entire time you’re watching a video
Multi-sensory attention, i.e. default full-screen and requires visual and audio focus, especially since videos are so short that you can easily lose context
Interactive components, e.g. liking, saving, bookmarking, commenting
Short-form video has arguably reached peak zeitgeist.
Almost all legacy players (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, even Netflix) have been in TikTok format cloning mode (and they’re usually late to the scene)
Many startups are chasing a slice of the short-form video pie (e.g. unbundling TikTok by vertical / audience or adapting the format to more private networks)
We’re in the big push for monetization phase and there are whispers that the hyped strategies are not panning out for either the platform or creators
On the latter — the allure of putting a plethora of ad spots between short-form videos meant high hopes for TikTok ads. But it’s not clear that this is in fact the advertiser’s dream format. I haven’t seen many other people predict the deceleration or decline of short-form video, but I agree with author-turned-creator economy expert Mark Manson, who cites weak ad performance as one reason he expects platforms are and will start pulling back even more.
TikTok watch time has grown fast, but it’ll plateau.
It’s not surprising to see TikTok time shot up from 2019 to an average of almost 1 hour per day by 2023. Netflix was plotted a bit above and YouTube a bit below. Interestingly, the “average” means that someone who binges a Netflix show — say for 12 hours — would bolster the “daily average” stat, and same for YouTube.
I’m not predicting that short-form video will start to freefall. But I’m betting that the amount of time that a given person can spend per day consuming short-form video is limited, and it won’t keep rising.4 And I’m more focused on why saturation happens at the individual level, not at what exact number of hours it happens.
Short-form video will cannibalize itself.
I believe there’s a fundamental flaw in the short-form video format —something that tempers how much humans can ever relate to it. With how performative, edited, and algorithmically over-optimized it is, TikTok feels sub-human. TikTok has quickly become one of the most goal-seeking places on earth. I could easily describe TikTok as a global focus group for commercials. It’s the product personification of a means to an end, and the end is attention.
I’m convinced very few creators even like creating short-form video (though they may like playing the game). And you can see how even TikTok creators are adapting the historically rigid format to appeal to more companionship-esque emotions and improve retention. It’s no surprise then that TikTok is making moves in to long-form to take YouTube on head-on. The push includes longer videos, horizontal videos, and even paywalled video series. Since platforms compete towards each other, it’s not the platforms that I’m tracking but the kind of content that’s deemed long-term valuable and hence the true north.
Companionship content has no limits
Luckily, short-form video has a foil: long-form, passive, companionship content.
Companionship content is more human.
Companionship content is the most durable in its closeness to human experience, to being around people. When we search for a YouTube video to watch, we often want the best companion for the next hour and not the most entertaining content.
While short-form content edits are meant to be spectacular and attention-grabbing, long-form content tends to be more subtle in its emotional journey
Long-form engagement with any single character or narrative or genre lets you develop stronger understanding, affinity, and parasocial bonds
Talk-based content (e.g. talk shows, podcasts, comedy, vlogs, life-like sitcoms) especially evokes a feeling of companionship and is less energy-draining
The trends around loneliness and the acceleration of remote work has and will continue to make companionship content even more desirable
As we move into new technology frontiers, we might unlock novel types of companionship content itself, but I’d expect this to take 5-10 years at least
Long-form is the final destination for creators.
If you use TikTok enough, you know that the pipeline for successful creators is to YouTube. Go viral on TikTok, gain followers, funnel to YouTube. TikTok is where you connect with an audience, YouTube is where you consolidate it.5 Long-form content also earns creators more, with YouTube a standout in revenue sharing.
This is a great encapsulation of the state of creator platform monetization (courtesy of Chris Dixon via Tim Ferris’ blog):6
“Four out of five of the largest social networks … Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter — have take rates of about 99% or above. Youtube has a take rate of 45%, meaning it pays out 55% to creators. Almost all of the payouts to creators come from YouTube alone …YouTube paid out $16 billion to creators in 2022 (which is 55% of its annual $30 billion in revenue) and the other four social networks paid out about $1 billion each from their respective creator funds. In total, that yields $20 billion.”
Mr. Beast, YouTube’s top creator, says YouTube is now the final destination, not “traditional” hollywood stardom which is the dream of generations past. Creators also want to funnel audiences to apps & community platforms where they can own user relationships, rely less on algorithms, engage more directly and deeply with followers, and enable follower-to-follower engagement too.7 If dedicated long-form platforms want to stay on top, they’ll have to make this more seamless.
Interestingly of course, an increasing amount of short-form video, including formats like clips and edits, seems to be made from what originally was long-form content.8 And in return, these recycled short-form videos can drive tremendous traffic to long-form formats and platforms. This recent breakdown from Jules Terpak highlights the value of edits in the attention ecosystem. I don’t discount the value of short-form as top of funnel; I see it precisely as this, an accessory.
YouTube is the king of companionship content.
YouTube is the most popular platform among teens, with over 90% adoption among U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 (this based on the percentage of teens who say they ever use the following apps or sites). It’s followed by TikTok, then Snapchat, and Instagram. Notably, the rest of the legacy or newly dominant apps are at <35%.
And not surprisingly (but exciting to see it in a chart), many young people use YouTube a lot — about 60% of teens use it almost constantly or several times a day. This was a great representation shared by Justine Moore:
YouTube is the TV of digital media.
90% of people use a second screen while watching TV. We generally talk about “second screen” experiences in the context of multiple devices, but you can have complementary apps and content running on the same device — you can have the “second screen” on the same screen.
TikTok will never become the “tv on in the background,” but YouTube can (and it clearly already is for many). YouTube literally being “backgroundable” helps. YouTube itself also cites a trend of people putting YouTube on their real TV screens:
“There are more Americans gathering around the living room TV to watch YouTube than any other platform. Why? Put simply, people want choices and variety … It’s a one stop shop for video viewing. Think about something historically associated with linear TV: Sports. Now, with [our NFL partnership], people can not only watch the games, but watch post-game highlights and commentary in one place.”
“Ad-free & background play” is the way
By the end of 2022 itself, YouTube had hit more than 80 million YouTube music and premium subscribers. Premium started with 3 main features — no ads, background play, downloads (and similar benefits for its music content too).
I’m a premium subscriber and it’s life-changing. It’s the difference between having YouTube on for an hour a day and a lot more. Sometimes I hear the faint sounds of conversation and wonder where it’s coming from, only to realize I’ve left a YouTube video on and turned the volume down to tend to something IRL.
I’m curious how many “always-on” YouTube users are premium subs (I bet it’s high). It’s interesting to think about how TikTok could background-ify itself; with their push now into longer form content, it’ll be easier for them to try.9
Another curiosity: right after you close TikTok, what’s the next app you open? I wouldn’t be shocked if it were a YouTube, Twitter, or some other backgroundable companionship content platform, and not some utility app or just nothing at all.
Create companions, not distractions
If I were to build an on-demand streaming product or any kind of content product for that matter, I’d build for the companionship use case — not only because I think it has a higher ceiling of consumer attention, but also because it can support more authentic, natural, human engagement.
It’s still early.
From a creator perspective, there’s a lot of talk about how “late” we are, and that anyone starting a YouTube channel now will have a hard time. It’s definitely harder than before, but it’s still early. We’ve seen a generational wave of early YouTube creators get famous, move onto “bigger” stages, and even quit YouTube from creator burnout. I expect we’ll see a new wave of creators come up on YouTube, with formats harking back to low-fidelity vlogging and the like.
Honestly, if you want to build in consumer media, don’t compete with TikTok. Compete with YouTube or something similarly long-form and passive. It’s audacious, but it has promise. And the existence of Tiktok only helps you. All the creators that are ‘made’ on TikTok are looking for a place to go to consolidate the attention they’ve amassed. TikTok is commercials. YouTube is TV. (Though yes, they’re both trying to become each other). Regardless, build TV.
Embrace new toys.
I can see a world in which we have novel companionship content devices and experiences (maybe the push into AR/VR and AI wearables is the most futuristic version of this).10 And certainly AI and all the new creator tools enabled by it will help people mix and match and remix long and short formats all day, blurring the historically strict distinctions between them. It’ll take some time before we see a new physical product + content combo thrive, and meanwhile the iPhone and its comps will be competing hard to stay the default device.
Do some good.
The new default seems to be that we’re not lonely as long as we’re streaming. We can view this entirely in a negative light and talk about how much the internet and media is contributing to the loneliness epidemic. Or we could think about how to create media for good. Companionship content can be less the quick dopamine-hit-delivering clips and more of this, and perhaps even truly social.
Ultimately, I believe companionship content is evergreen and everlasting. It’s not an of-the-moment format that will rise and fall in dramatic fashion. In contrast, short-form video could just be a glitch in the long arc of consumer media. I don’t expect it to just die, but I expect researches, end users, and the platforms that cater to it to start recognizing it’s finite place in our lives. As I said at the start, and I’ll double down on now: companionship content is, and will be, king.
P.S. “like, comment, & share” — scroll up to give this essay a like (helps more people on Substack find it), leave a comment, share with a friend, & consider becoming a patron. 🙏
Shout out to Turner Novak for being curious what people he doesn’t know think. That was the first time we met and we became friends and stayed in each other’s orbits since.
Some have talked about “lean in” vs. “lean back” content, but these are more focused on full attention and don’t capture the why. “A consumer turns on the TV, or puts on an album, and sits back on the couch with their hands behind their head, to watch (or listen). This is ‘lean-back’ consumption. It suits traditional formats and metrics around entertainment because it engages with the consumer’s free time, and thus can command their sole attention.”
It’s not obvious in aggregate or at the average ‘active user’ level. But if we look at a histogram of time spent (e.g. 0-30 minutes, 0-1 hour, 1-2 hours, etc.) and number of users in each category, companionship content should have more power users.
I talk about YouTube a lot here as a kind of representative of long-form content, and the home for a lot of companionship content, but of course it’s not the only platform that does or can offer this kind of content.
Long-form wants to become the conversational third space for consumers too. The “comments” sections of TikTok, YouTube and all broadcast platforms are improving, but they still have a long way to go before they become even more community-oriented.
I’m not an “AI-head” but I am more curious about what it’s going to enable in long-form content than all the short-form clips it’s going to help generate and illustrate, etc.
When there’s a background, that means there’s a foreground. The foreground tends to be utilities or low-cognitive / audio effort (text or silent video). Tiktok is a foreground app for now, YouTube is both (and I’d say trending towards being background).