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Working at work is a thing of the past

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Over 20 million people interrupted their work day to watch the Yeezy fashion show — and nobody complained.

For all the technical issues in the lead-up to The Life of Pablo release, Kanye West and his advisors were brilliant to host the biggest listening party / fashion reveal / culture event of the season in the middle of the work day (around 4PM ET, to be precise). Is there a more captive audience than the bored employee?

In Kanye’s event, we saw a minimally produced, afternoon stream pulverize network TV viewership. The biggest show on television, NCIS, brings in roughly 16 million viewers. Grease Live, the most recent major live television event not associated with a sports league, landed 12 million. Could Kanye have scored 20 million viewers at 8PM on ABC? It seems unlikely.The most recent event to top Kanye’s viewership was The Grammies, which managed 25 million viewers only by expending millions of dollars in marketing and hosting every ultra-famous musician whose name isn’t Kanye.

The bored-at-work crowd owes its scale to the smartphone

In 2010, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti documented the bored-at-work crowd and their click-generating readership. At that time, that crowd consisted largely of office workers and college students, pinned between swivel chairs and Dell monitors for hours at a time. In 2016, the label has expanded to anyone with a smartphone. The mobile web has made it easier for anyone with a data connection to take a handful of breaks every hour from whatever it was we were supposed to be doing in the first place.

In fact, the internet is rebuilding itself around the awkward social dynamics of this audience, which conceals its content addiction by catching glances at its Nexus underneath the table. Mobile media, for the "should-be-doing-something-else" viewer, needs to be fast to load, easy to scan and share, and quiet. Facebook Instant Articles reduce the amount of time to load and skim a story and swipe back to your feed, resulting in more compact and visually simplified stories. Facebook Videos, which auto-play without sound, as not to give away a viewer taking an unapologetically long toilet break, have resulted in a seemingly paradoxical surge in "text-heavy" video.

The bored-at-work machine gained such pull in the last decade that entertainment and corporate drudgery have, in an effort to appease the dissatisfied worker, wed themselves in the form of our most precious tools. Google Hangouts, Slack, and Twitter are designed to be small, low-impact, and businesslike, while producing an endless stream of potential distractions. The tools are so good at concealing their business purposes that they’ve wiggled their way into evenings and weekends, bringing both the fun and dread with them. A work day may end at 6PM, but Slack and Twitter never stop.

And for that reason, I wonder if we are gradually surrendering our free time to work duties in exchange for work becoming a little bit more like free time. Are bosses that join their employees for a couple hours of Kanye in the middle of the day comfortable with that cost, knowing their team will make up the time elsewhere? I think so.

If that’s the case, the idea of mass entertainment as cultural opiate is being cut from the relatively safe space of the living room and grafted onto the office, convincing us that work is play, and play is pointless. What began as amusing ourselves to death has become working ourselves to death, and we’re too deep in an Instant Article or goofy work email chain to notice.

We decompress from work by checking our work email

I say this, sincerely, as someone who struggles not to check my work email or Slack notifications or Twitter replies when I’m supposed to be decompressing from those very things. I know better, and yet, I can’t help myself, because my preferred form of entertainment — the internet and its content abyss — is inextricable from work.

Plenty of fuss has been made about cord cutting and smart televisions, which merge TV with social media and the rest of the web. I understand the appeal. We’ve become adept at devoting fractions of our attention to multiple people, videos, and websites at once, and so watching television without a phone in hand has become, at least for me, a challenge.

I do like my cable box, one of the few pieces of technology with which nobody I know can reach me. I can sit on the couch, and give something my complete attention, or at least 90 percent of it — it’s hard to ignore my laptop sitting on the coffee table, pulsing with light letting me know someone has something to tell me. But do I want to hear it?

Of course, what I would love most is to listen to the new Kanye album at home on my couch free of distractions. But it’s exclusive to Tidal, an online service. So I open up my laptop, and there’s Kanye right next to that starred email I really should get back to.


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