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Can you read this in one go?

Sludge content hints at shortening attention spans
Sludge content is multitasking squeezed onto a screen – except you don’t have to do anything but watch. With split screens incorporating “distraction” clips to be played simultaneously next to the original video, bursting with stimulating gameplay, slime videos, and nail art, viewers are prompted to stay and watch.
Juho K. (‘26)
Sludge content is multitasking squeezed onto a screen – except you don’t have to do anything but watch. With split screens incorporating “distraction” clips to be played simultaneously next to the original video, bursting with stimulating gameplay, slime videos, and nail art, viewers are prompted to stay and watch.

When’s the last time you watched a minute-long video on Instagram reels, TikToks, or YouTube shorts without scrolling immediately? As “sludge content” is becoming more prevalent across social media platforms (especially those used by the younger generation), heaps of research and observations indicate that attention spans are getting shorter.

It’s not common to find some videos more ‘boring’ than others – certain interviews, movie segments, and storytelling clips will want to make you swipe to the next video in a matter of seconds. Recently, content creators have discovered the ideal solution: instead of solely playing the clip on its own, split screens incorporate “distraction” clips to be played adjacent to the original videos. These distraction clips burst with saturated colors and display various kinds of content, mostly of gameplay, slime videos, and nail art. Because the two clips play simultaneously, it prompts you to stay and “watch” until the end.

This genre of content described as “sludge” originally sprouted from TikTok in 2022, and has rapidly spread to other platforms for its attention-grabbing nature, becoming a global trend.

There is some ambiguity with what content creators are trying to achieve by uploading sludge content: Is sludge content intended to educate viewers while helping them keep engaged? A marketing technique that can convey information about a product in an effective way? Or is the goal simply to gain views with no message in particular? Although sludge content’s intent is unclear, many users are willing to watch any video when a clip plays on the side. Unlike most trends, sludge content conforms to a large range of audiences, not necessarily targeting a certain age group, fandom, or individual. 90% of the respondents in a survey conducted in our ISSH High School community about the prevalence of sludge content, and stated to have seen sludge content before, mainly on Tiktok and Instagram.

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The reason why this genre of content has been associated with mushy gunk (hence, the name sludge content) is for how it mashes random videos together for mindless entertainment or continuous dopamine release. Andreas Schellewald, a doctoral researcher of social media at Goldsmiths, University of London, claims in an article that sludge content serves as “something playful,” that allows the viewers to “take your mind off things, and doesn’t require you to dive deep.” Similarly, musician and TikTok user Billy Oberman admits, “I have never in my entire existence on this planet watched, wanted to watch or set out to watch an episode by myself of Family Guy, and I have now seen multiple seasons just through [sludge content] videos.” Oberman realized that he was “just enjoying [watching something] without having to think about it,” because the sludge content was something that “requires no input from the user.”

Sludge content’s addictive nature hints at our shortening attention spans, but Michael Stevens (better known as VSauce) disagrees, trivializing the dangers of sludge content. He claims in a podcast that “these internet fears are what I call faux-neo,” meaning fake-new, because sludge content may not be completely unprecedented territory. Stevens compares watching split-screen videos to multi-tasking in real life: conversing with someone while watching the birds is no different to watching Family Guy clips paired with slime videos. Multitasking is a part of our everyday lives, so why are we concerned about short attention spans now? Stevens insists this is “just human behavior, doing what it’s always been done for tens of thousands of years, but with, like, a new costume on.”

It is evident that Gen Z attention spans are not decreasing solely because of social media content, but some users online disagree with Stevens’s Faux-Neo theory, arguing that with sludge content, creators have the intention to keep you watching. In the comment section of the podcast clip, a viewer says that watching the birds was nothing like watching sludge content, because “birds aren’t designed specifically to keep you in a dopamine loop to drive up watch times.” Another user says the “structure of the problem is not new, but the dial is turned up to 11.”

So what makes multiple clips merged together so much more interesting than playing one on its own? In the survey mentioned earlier, which was conducted in our ISSH High School community, 70 participants were presented with two contrasting videos: a nature documentary and Subway Surfers gameplay. Approximately 54.3% of respondents stated that the documentary was boring on its own, and 74.3% of the respondents stated that the gameplay clip was boring on its own. However, 46.4% say that fusing the two together made them worth watching.

If two supposedly boring clips have higher entertainment value when watched together, it may indicate that the content of the video is not sludge content’s main appeal. Instead, it may be sludge content’s distinctive video formatting that catches 53.5% of the respondents’ attention who claim to actually enjoy watching these videos. An account by the name of redflowerfactory advises in her video, “If you’re trying to sell to [Gen Z], you need to use dynamic formats-like video and grab our attention in the first second; otherwise there’s no hope.” It has been a year since sludge content’s rise, and there is no sign of it going away, as the number of videos incorporating split-screen split screen tactics are in the millions. Many accounts on all different platforms are dedicated to uploading in sludge content style.

Whether you believe that sludge content is interesting or disconcerting, there are heaps of evidence showing that split screen tactics are an effective way to catch your audience’s attention for now. Like most trends, we may see sludge content’s decline sometime soon in the future.

This story was originally published on The International on February 29, 2024.