In algorithmic America, content consume you!
What if Twitter and "content" had existed during the O.J. Simpson chase? I'm glad you asked!
On June 17, 1994, O.J. Simpson fled from the LAPD in a slow-moving “chase” in a white Ford Bronco driven by his friend, Al Cowlings. That moment—and that entire day, on which the 1994 FIFA World Cup opened, Arnold Palmer played his last round at the U.S. Open, the New York Rangers celebrated their first Stanley Cup in 50 years, and the Rockets and Knicks faced off in an NBA Finals game that got preempted by the Simpson chase—was the high watermark of analog TV in the US. By “analog TV,” I mean the encoding and decoding of analog signals whose amplitude, phase, and frequency defined the properties of a broadcast such as its color and brightness.
More people watched the chase on their CRT TVs than had watched the 1994 Super Bowl. Media coverage was centralized in the major broadcast networks. Cable and satellite were still a few years from the mainstream, as was the proposed transition to digital TV via the Telecommunications Act of 1996—itself a watershed in the development of household internet and of the eventual “content” industry. The World Wide Web was in its infancy, such that many now look back on June 17, 1994 as a (weirdly innocent?) moment when they wished that
the “content” industrial complex Twitter had existed, as in the replies to this engagement-bait prompt:
Other examples imagining some kind of utopian online discourse—a “treasure trove of content,” if you will, equally gripping and, somehow, funny rather than tragic to witness—are abundant:
What these dreams of “content” are really about
These desperate wishes for an alternate history in which the entire O.J. murder saga was contemporaneously “content”-ified—with endless digital words, pictures, podcasts, and videos created from the anxiety of their creators to keep up with a fast-paced and sensationalized news cycle—strikes me as as best naive and at worst a sign of the death drive among its wishers. They overlook the reality of analog media while also showing how deeply the modern content production “productivity” ethos—the “rise and grind” mentality of needing to churn out content as industrial scale to power the attention economy—has reshaped how they look not only at the present and the future, but even as the past:
They’re wishing to graft the currently dominant mass-media notion of “content,” with all of its inherent ties to the digital domain, onto a media event from the analog world, an aspiration that makes as much sense as wishing the internal combustion engine had existed in Ancient Rome. The easy data storage and rapid networking that underpin digital media enable a scale and a uniformity that’s far beyond the fragile steampunk infrastructure of analog media, grounded as it was in things like radioactive CRT TVs, 50-year old (even then!) RCA cable technology, flaky magnetic tape, and interference-prone signals. On the day of the O.J. chase, so many cameras were broadcasting that the analog signals of the broadcast networks crossed over, so you might've tuned into NBC only to see ABC’s coverage.
This underscores how the fragility and the immediate physicality—i.e., the obvious link to the physical world, which we often miss when thinking of digital media as “in the cloud” or “in cyberspace”—of analog media made the tidal wave of “content” that we now experience physically impossible.
They’re wishing to have had the chance to have chased clout on that big day, to to have been a “poaster” who could’ve gotten hundreds of thousands of likes for tweeting anything from an inscrutable (to outsiders) Twitter trope such as “Whoa, I know it smell crazy in there” to engagement-harvesting misinformation like “BREAKING: O.J. SAYS HE’S GOING TO SHOOT HIMSELF” to instant “well, actually…” counter-narratives such as “What if he’s just trying to see his mom?” In her book “How to Do Nothing,” Jenny Odell (who popularized the term “attention economy”) describes such motives as the “invasive logic of commercial social media” (of which Twitter is one of the best examples) and “its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” A hypothetical Twitter “content” creator on June 17, 1994 would’ve had all three: anxiety about the outcome of the chase but even more so the FOMO that some critical item might be missed if not glued to Twitter; envy that other people were getting more engagement for their “content”; and distraction from anything in the physical world.
In a way, they’re wishing to be consumed by the very content they’re consuming. They’re wishing for pain and for work because the attention economy is as masochistic as it is workaholic.
Indeed, the “what if…O.J. trial on Twitter?” discourse feels like a type of actual existing Stockholm Syndrome, the theory of how captives eventually feel sympathy for their captors. That is, the current media environment is so captured by the drive to create “content”—interchangeable portions of eminently disposable digital media whose most important attributes are not what they say or do, but what container (network, streaming service, etc.) they live in and the degree to which they can monopolize and monetize our attention by creating a relentless ad-serving chokepoint—that some can’t remember what the pre-content era was like, constrained as it was analog media.
Ultimately, extremely online Twitter accounts look back and wish they’d been, in all likelihood, much more miserable than anyone watching TV on June 17, 1994 had been.
Encoding and decoding the O.J. chase
Any imagining of contemporaneous “content” about the O.J. chase—on Twitter and elsewhere—is secondary to the fact that the very presence of that “content” would’ve changed the event itself, into something we can’t comprehend.
More specifically, the hypothetical digital O.J. chase content would’ve completely altered how the messages about the event—“what’s OJ’s motive?,” “what’s he going to do now?, “what angle can we show him from?”— were delivered. We’d have interpreted and remembered them all differently. “The O.J chase (TM)” as now conceptualized would’ve never materialized; something else would’ve emerged instead.
Let me explain. Other than the people who were there on the scene, everyone saw or heard the chase from afar, mediated primarily by the distinctive language of analog television. Seeing a physical object—the white Bronco itself, the LAPD cars behind it—is not the same as seeing that object signified on a screen after it has traversed the entire media pipeline and the different codes of conduct and rules of language that govern it at every stage. Broadcasting is an “ideological apparatus,” to quote the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, and broadcasting via TV represents a different ideology than creating content via digital platforms such as Twitter.
In the 1973 essay that contains that quote, “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse,” Hall unfolds a theory of how the output of communications systems such as analog TV is a “determinate” “message”—determinate, because the encoding of this message by its senders and the decoding of it by its receivers are what determine its meaning for both parties and what enable it to have any effect whatsoever.
In other words: Although it’s tempting to say that an event itself is what matters, that same event is ultimately subordinate to the language, knowledge structures, and cultural practices that shape the message-vehicle (such as a TV broadcast) that carries any depiction of it, and that message-vehicle is how it exists as discourse. To dream of bringing Twitter back in time to the OJ moment is to dream of creating an all-new message, rather than iterating on an existing one (that is, the blurrily televised Bronco chase meant for CRT TVs).
The most famous passage of the essay puts it elegantly as follows:
The raw historical event cannot in that form be transmitted by, say, a television news-cast. It can only be signified within the aural-visual forms of the televisual language. In the moment when the historical event passes under the sign of language, it is subject to all the complex formal 'rules' by which language signifies. To put it paradoxically, the event must become a 'story' before it can become a communicative event.
Virtually no one saw the “raw historical event” of the O.J. chase; they saw it on analog TV, as a gripping “story” that the networks saw fit to cover because they could encode, onto this event, many of the customs associated with action movies and with analog TV more generally. Even though it was nominally “news,” it was also part of a distinct TV entertainment genre that emerged during the analog era.
Hall talks about genre formation in westerns, and how such formation depends upon symmetrical encoding and decoding: That “the 'message' was likely to be decoded in a manner highly symmetrical to that in which it had been encoded.” But this symmetry isn’t inevitable.
The sender’s intended encoded meaning may or may not align with the decoded interpretation of the recipient. Moreover, opposition to encoded intention isn’t even a recipient’s uninformed “mis-reading” in Hall’s formulation, but a sign of a deeper social phenomenon. Discussing how broadcasters see their audiences interpreting a their intentions in the so-called “wrong way” through apparent selective perception, he says “my own tentative view is that 'selective perception' is almost never as selective, random, or privatized, as the concept suggests. The patterns exhibit more structuring and clustering than is normally assumed.” So people recognize and often resist the message being sent:
They may consciously substitute one phrase, such as “national interest,” as another, for example “class interest,” thus inverting the meaning of any sentence being said on TV.
They may accept a message on a global scale (for example, that wages have to stay flat to avoid a fiscal crisis) but not on a personal one (they’ll still strike for their own higher wages).
They do these readings because they bring different cultural contexts into the mix. These contexts then feed back into the “ideological apparatus” of the broadcast system, making the audience both creator and consumer.
But in westerns, the decoding aligns tightly with the encoding, without so much resistance. So the decoding audience see events that’d perhaps seem distasteful to them in other contexts, such as wanton violence, as instead justified under certain rules of the genre. For example, an heroic cowboy shooting a villain is here not violence in isolation, but a form of acceptable conduct, of decorum even, when decoded in relation to the despicable acts of that villain; “hero and “villain” are defined in relation to each other. The audience isn’t seeing violence—there’s nothing physical about it for them—but a message, one that’s more about conduct (“the cowboy did the right thing,” “the villain had it coming”) that about violence per se.
Audiences, even ones that don’t see themselves as sophisticated critics, in essence are doing meta-analysis, i.e., processing the depiction of the event rather than the event itself, and this makes sense considering that the depiction (the “message,” for Hall) is what has the real meaning. We see this same meta-analysis in the contemporaneous online (yes, the internet existed in 1994) coverage of the O.J. chase on a NYC area bulletin board system (BBS).
Many participants immediately notice that the chase is an analog TV-mediated message encoded with movie-derived genre tropes, including the notion that O.J., like so many other car drivers/riders fleeing in chases, is or could be the hero of this saga:
550:17) Jonathan Hayes 17-JUN-94 22:41 No, Ann, most people are wanting him to A) Shoot himself B) Die in a fiery crash like in a movie C) Be shot by the Police. If he's shot by the Police, THEN he'll be a hero.
The messages of The New York Newsday, framing the murders as a “tragedy,” encoding an element of fictional drama into the message, also get attention from this same poster:
550:656) Jonathan Hayes 18-JUN-94 18:19 The thing is, the way he was presented last night, it was hard to see him as anything BUT a character in a crummy TV movie. Cutting from SkyCam shot to SkyCam shot, the station ID logo fading in periodically, it lacked nothing but a cheesey soundtrack. It was impossible to see The Man inside the car. He was just some character who had, in a rather unusual move, taken *himself* hostage. How sorry did you feel for Nicole and Goldman when you read about their deaths? They were just another two murder victims, people who you didn't know. A small frisson of intrigue because of who they were? How much time have you spent feeling sorry for the estimated 250,00 Rwandans killed during the last few months? We experience pity and sympathy and compassion in direct relation, I think, to the way in which we are fed it by the media. People experience misery and anguish, *horrendous* misery and anguish, every fucking day. Where should our compassion lie? OJ wasn't fed to us like that so we could feel compassion for his plight. This was EXCITING TV, TV delivering on its potential, ushering us into the panopticon, where we can see everything in the world exactly as it happens. Why did you watch it last night, I mean why keep on watching a tracking shot of a white car on a highway, kept pretty well in the center of the frame, moving at the speed limit? I think that it is part of the conditioning nature of television that we are trained to expect a climax, a crisis in the action, at approximately 13 minute intervals before we hit the commercial break. We were lead along expecting a thrilling resolution, and the whimper that was the invisible surrender was pretty disappointing. For me, the most disgusting thing I have seen recently was this morning's New York Newsday headline: THE OJ SIMPSON TRADGEDY. Those filthy, disingenuous fucking dogs - may they all die roaring in Hell's eternal flames for want of a devil to piss on them, hypocritical sanctimonious bastards that they are.
The villain in this drama (or “tragedy”) could be the police, who during this pre-9/11, pre-“first responder”-propaganda era were often depicted on TV as bozos rather than noble stewards of the community (think “Police Squad” and the “Naked Gun” spinoff movies, starring one O.J. Simpson!). The O.J. chase happened in the wake of the Rodney King riots and before “copaganda” TV shows had taken off, and the familiar form of the hero fleeing from the villains in his car only reinforced the negative perceptions of police.
Meanwhile, the “brutal violence” of the murders themselves, as described by Tom Brokaw that day, fades into the background. The BBS posters already see O.J. mainly as a genre character rather than a person, and evaluate him in terms of whether what he’s doing is “exciting” or if it’ll play well/pay off in the long run. He may as well be a cowboy in a western at this point.
Indeed, another person sees the obvious connection to live sports commentary (“play by play”), like western a popular form that originated in analog TV broadcasts and was later transposed to the digital domain, and connects this particular encoding to the manipulation of the audience into seeing O.J. as, if not a hero then someone who will be found innocent anyway:
550:653) David A. Ross 18-JUN-94 17:12 I think we've all found the event for the 90's...not exactly a media event, but obviously fueled by live chopper cams and instant psychoanalysts doing the play by play...Dog Day Afternoon meets the Rose Bowl Parade...did the waving crowds lining the 405 FWY make you feel that ours is a great nation, or that we are long gone down the crapper? Best conspiracy theory...the entire eventg was staged by his lawyer to generate a movie of the week AND to ensure that no one in the entire nation could be called for an impartial jury...prediction... OJ will walk...trial impossible Only those in Madison Square garden didn't see the event and here the entire case presented by the DA and the defense...
He did indeed “walk” on this trial, and a big reason why was how the encoded messages of the broadcast—O.J. as tragic hero; police as incompetent villains whose actions justified the chase; possibility of sympathy-inducing suicide—polarized public opinion, largely along racial lines. Ironically, the intended encoding of the TV coverage, of O.J. Simpsons as a somewhat sympathetic figure who had tragically strayed and found himself in desperate trait, found the most symmetrical decoding in the U.S.’s more marginalized populations, while its white population provided the more oppositional decoding.
The O.J. murders as digital content
Ultimately, the dreamed-about alternate timeline, in which Twitter exists during the O.J. chase, is one with an encode-decode cycle that’s unrecognizable compared to the one we actually got.
Twitter is a “content” machine: a platform designed to induce the anxiety-envy-despair cycle Odell described. It relies on the cultural notion that we should be producing monetizable (but mainly not for us) public thoughts at immense scale, and it also reinforces that same notion. If Twitter had existed in 1994, then so would have many similar services and a entire “content” industry to support them, similar to how SEO content mills, advertising agencies, Netflix, and LinkedIn all, in their own ways, undergird and provide the core logic for modern content production.
A content-ified 1994 probably would’ve:
Diminished the centrality of television: There wouldn’t have been the monoculture of having to see the event televised. Back then, even the BBS participants were mostly riffing on the analog TV coverage. But with Twitter and other at-scale social media, you get more media silos—places where people don’t get one main encoded message particular to TV, but multiple ones, most or all of them digital.
It’s easy to gloss over the “analog” and “digital” terminology as jargon, but I think it’s actually helpful to unpack the terms a bit. “Analog” means “in relation to something else.” An analog signal is continuous, and the properties of it relate to things such as the height of the wave. When the height (or the frequency or phase) change, so do those properties. Here’s a drawing of the wave of a composite TV signal, similar to the one many people would’ve seen in 1994:
Digital signals are much different. Everything’s a 1 or 0. The waveform is square because there’s no continuous range between values like there is with an analog signal:
, all or nothing—you either hit it really big or toil away in obscurity.
Not to get too cute, but you can almost literally see how digital platforms like Twitter replace the continuity of the analog media world—where everything relates to something else, as in Hall’s theory, and the boundaries of making and consuming are blurred—with something that isolates each “decoder” (person) by forcing them to either always be completely receptive (a “0” getting bombarded/consumed by content) or rise-and-grind-y proactive (a “1” motivated to make as much content as possible for the discourse). Moreover, the digital content economy is, like digital signals
Been much less uptight and much more depressing: When people pine for “Twitter on O.J. chase day,” they’re not just pining for their own misery—they’re also pining for jokes. Twitter is barely tolerable amid the flood of bad news and arguing because of its complicated humor codes, which often reference other much older tweets and spats and negatively portray right-wing figures (deservedly). This is a great example, as it shows someone joking about a truly odious radio host, Bill Mitchell, with a reference to a certain cartoon:Yes! Yes!Well, I'm back. After years in the wilderness I've returned to my Twitter family. Have missed you all so much! Working on getting my #TwitterBlue going. I personally think it's a great idea and wish other platforms would employ this. In my opinion small price to pay.Bill Mitchell @mitchellvii
This is the “content” people are wishing for in the if-Twitter-existed-in-94 discourse: It simultaneously makes you mad and depressed (a bad person like Mitchell is getting huge visibility) while also making you laugh (maybe), so that you feel like you can’t turn away and have to consume more content like it. The wish is beyond my comprehension.
Portrayed O.J. more negatively: Remember how I said Twitter doesn't exist in isolation, but as part of the “content” machine/economy? This machine is literally fueled by “crime,” the subject matter of so much streaming content in particular. ESPN, a subsidiary of content powerhouseDisney, ran a prestige mini-series, “O.J.: Made in America,” about OJ in 2016. It pioneered a genre that’s become a big lure for streaming service, themselves one of the most prominent “containers” so essential to the basic concept of “content”: (the documentary is of course available on ESPN+, the company's streaming-only platform): The dark and gritty true-crime documentary.
No American crime is “truer” than the O.J. trial. The story lends itself so well to the true crime genre's particular codes of:
Instilling fear into the audience by presenting them with graphic violence: The OJ Simpson murders stunned me even at the time for how gory they were and how much of the blood the TV coverage showed.
Alternately valorizing and scrutinizing the police: True crime is inherently somewhat police-skeptical (“why didn’t they figure this out?”) but it also pushes people in a pro-police/anti-perp direction by making them afraid of “crime” writ large. Suspects are put through the wringer. The ESPN O.J. documentary criticizes his personal life, to a much greater degree than the 1994 TV coverage.
Tantalizing them with uncertainty that intersects easily with conspiracy theorizing: “Did O.J. really kill Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman? Was he framed?”
Wearing an air of prestige: The more true crime content you consume, the more you realize how much of it is media presentation, with high production values masking a thin story. This prestige is mainly an advertisement for the content platform itself.
Pressuring them to make their own content: It’s not enough to watch the documentary; you’ve got to post your own hot take about it. And then you have to read these takes, and by doing so consume meta-content—content about content. You become consumed, angry, and depressed.
And not just that: You end up hating these moments from the pre-content world, seeing them as missed opportunities to have burnished a “personal brand” while sitting all day in a chair, bathed in blue light as the red hot takes sizzle in front of you.
ESPN has a documentary about this incredible day in sports.
I was watching and I wasn’t miserable, but then again I wasn’t even 10 years old yet.
A BBS was a type of online messaging system that was a dominant modes of usage among early adopters.
A digital signal is sent either entirely or not all. In contrast, analog signals can degrade and still come through. Think of how a vinyl LP can still play even when badly scratched.
I hate this cliche phrase but it’s the best one here, and I get to use it somewhat ironically.
Perhaps ironic, because the crime is most famous for its not-guilty verdict in the face of overwhelming evidence.