Unmasking entertainment

Entertainment is complete in itself. We play a game mostly because it is fun – not because it teaches us skills in the real world (although it well may). We binge watch movies and the Game of Thrones merely for the hours of pleasure they give us. Pure entertainment is an investment in return for pleasure, without any other pretense.

Entertainment can also serve as a great front door to serve different ends. Apps like Duolingo gamify language learning. Quizzing is a form of entertainment that nudges its participants towards the more esoteric but fascinating facts of the world around us. Any popular science author makes the technical subject matter of their book entertaining so that a wider audience benefits from it. Entertainment is valuable in making difficult, but important activities easier to engage in.

However, entertainment as a back door, is counterproductive. Facebook’s mission statements – “To Make the world more open and connected” and “To Bring the world closer”, all hint at improving the quality of interaction between people. And yet, we know today that Facebook is primarily an entertainment platform, with several questions raised about whether it actually brings the world closer. It is certainly valuable (at $500+ billion), but based on its mission, Facebook serves to entertain through the back-door.

In 1903, the world’s first tabloid newspaper was born. The tabloid was a pioneer in separating news from entertainment (and being explicit about it). Tabloids carried sensational stories, celebrity gossip, sports news, puzzles and comics. They sell for cheap and are primarily financed by advertising money. Several mainstream newspapers (such as India’s most popular English newspaper, The Times of India) switched to this revenue model (ads make up more than 70% of The Times of India’s parent company’s revenue) but continue to pretend that their primary goal is to inform their readers. The internet has embraced and exploited the tabloid revenue model of keeping access free or cheap, and serving ads in exchange. But in the process, it ushers in entertainment through the back-door.

Entertainment is a great front door, but a lousy back door. In Shakespeare’s words, a rose by any other name, would smell as sweet. But entertainment by any other name, is often ground for deception.

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