There was a time when Carlo Padial (Barcelona, 46 years old) thought he was going to change the internet. And that the internet was going to change his life through viral videos. In a newsroom that was getting bigger and crowded, he saw how digital native media managed, with little effort, to gain millions of views on social networks. During those years, PlayGround, the startup where he worked as director of reports and content, came to compete in virality with all the Facebook profiles of the traditional Spanish media. It surpassed even The New York Times.
"It was crazy. We weren't prepared for that much. It was clear that things were going to end badly," Padial admits now in the cafeteria of a hotel in the center of Madrid. Since the digital bubble burst at the end of the last decade, it has left behind the viral videos of teenagers at the door of Apple Stores and has returned to the world of film and television, not without pulling one last ace out of its sleeve. The iPhone notes he wrote frantically so as not to forget a single one of the absurd situations he witnessed in those offices have found a place in Content (Blackie Books, 2023), an entertaining and highly believable satire that portrays the most "chaotic and exciting" years of the Internet.
Question. "Content" is a word that people try to avoid in newsrooms.
Answer. There's a certain fear when it comes to talking about content, it's a bit of a taboo. When I was at PlayGround I did a video column that talked about how we are content, anything is content. So, when I decided to write a book about a Spanish start-up, describing the differences between my experience and what we see in the HBO series about Silicon Valley, it seemed like the most appropriate word to describe that delirium.
Q. And what was the reality like?
A. Utter nonsense. Starting with the CEO walking around with an HBO backpack, and everyone speculating that we were going to be sucked in. But it would not be correct to say that a single person was responsible for this chaos, because it was a collective delusion. The cultural and digital model in Spain is permanently collapsing. In our case, there was someone who detected a model and the possibility of killing it in a very short time. But the talent, the research that characterizes Silicon Valley, was missing. There was nothing. Here the digital transformation has been totally affected by the only culture that really exists in Spain, which is that of the pelotazo.
Q. At one point, it looked like PlayGround's success was going to be unstoppable.
A. We went through several phases in the magazine. A very chaotic first one where it had very little entity, but this allowed everyone to gradually begin to find their personality. The coolest thing, and the purest thing, was the feeling of freedom when it came to performing. You'd come to PlayGround and the craziest ideas, which other media would have thought stupid, were welcome. It was a kind of Far West of the internet, where everything was possible for a few months.
Q. Until the problems started.
A. Of course. This was short-lived. Soon, as this experiment succeeded, advertisers began to arrive to open our eyes. It was no longer enough to go viral, you had to start making money. This idea of a much more politicized Internet is also beginning to develop, so that content cannot be merely artistic, but must have an intention. And as it became more successful and we moved to a larger and larger location, people came to their first work experience thinking that this model was going to work.
The coolest thing, and the purest thing, was the feeling of freedom
Q. Did you think that was going to be the future of the media?
A. We didn't know. I had the feeling of entering a very strange place, of not understanding anything that was happening. Adapting a little to what I saw could work, understanding it, totally killing it, and then entering a spiral of change and uncontrolled growth that ended with an absolute implosion.
Q. In January 2018, a change in Facebook's algorithm [which the book's protagonist calls "millennial Vietnam"] caused PlayGround to lose 80% of its traffic, which was an economic catastrophe for the company. At the time, you were Grupo Zeta's video director, but you came back a year later, when the digital media outlet made public a redundancy plan that affected almost half of its editors. Why did he come back?
A. In a totally nutty way, I thought I could help fix the situation. I also came back because I wasn't entirely happy in Zeta, which was a normal reality, where you had to make videos about politics, society... After having lived through the chaos of PlayGround, I went to work in a traditional media outlet, but I felt that I no longer fit in. So I went back and arrived in time to see the collapse. The ERE, which was very hard to watch, a real slap in the face from the real world. But this is also the cultural and digital world in Spain: the permanent cycle of collapse. In 2018 it was the digital native media and now it is the influencer agencies that are starting to show signs of exhaustion.
Q. Do you think the influencer bubble is going to be the next bubble to burst?
A. I think it's already happening. Agencies are going through a very big crisis. The media is still in the same crisis. And digital advertising, which seemed to be the last stronghold, is not safe either. It's just that it's not being said, we always come to recognize it later. Partly because saying it raises alarm bells, but if you talk to people in these sectors privately, that's what counts.
The reality of digital native media is that they appeared, they opened a space that didn't exist, and once this space was generated, people with more resources and more strength came along and took it away
Q. How much did Facebook's algorithm change influence PlayGround's downfall?
A. A lot, but it wasn't just the algorithm's fault. Nothing worked. The reality of digital native media is that they appeared, opened up a space that didn't exist, and once this space was generated, people with more resources and more strength came along and took it away. I used to use my phone to watch PlayGround videos, whereas now I have the Netflix app. There were media outlets that didn't even have a Twitter account at the time, or had 50 followers. No one had thought that there was a place for them on social media. Now, all TV shows and media have their YouTube channel, they put clips of the interviews on Instagram and TikTok.
Q. If you had managed it better, would you have been able to survive?
A. Yes, there are media outlets that have managed to do so because they didn't trust everything to Facebook, which also took care of a website, while PlayGround put everything on Facebook. I was in these meetings where we were told that our business was there and that the rest didn't matter. Still, I think the business was unsustainable, unless they had been very cautious, which was not one of them.
Q. In five years, Facebook has gone from being the social network that made millions from ads, to becoming irrelevant.
A. Totally. No one is on Facebook anymore. A handful of people have been left behind and we don't really know what they are looking for. It has become the ghetto of social media.
Q. Where do you look at the content now?
A. Things don't come to you from one place anymore. Now everyone has a totally different timeline. We probably don't share more than 20% of the content that is on the internet, because reality is much more polarized than it was a decade ago. When it comes to selecting content, you have to do a kind of extreme curation: you choose a podcast, a Netflix series that no one has seen, a documentary that is on Filmin, a Twitter account of a writer who doesn't stop coming up with ideas... The landscape is deeply fragmented.
I'm fantasizing about buying an old phone that doesn't have internet
Q. Isn't there a risk of overwhelming users with so many stimuli?
A. Sure, people are tired. I'm fantasizing about buying an old phone that doesn't have internet. This is not enough. It has sickened us all and we are going to need a few years to put ourselves and the friendships that have been called into question to put ourselves back together. Our concentration, how we relate to the world. And it's all been because of smartphones, something we've created ourselves that's brutal, but sometimes it's also too much.
Q. In the book, he talks about digitally native media as Facebook's "cults." What would be the cult of 2023?
A. The Kings League. And a Midsommar-type sect at that, very tacky, very Spanish. The other day I watched an entire broadcast for the first time, because until now I had only come across fragments on social media, and I almost fell out of my chair.
Q. In the years of maximum virality, PlayGround was talked about as the millennial press. What is the press of the centenials?
A. There's a very funny thing about this, and that is that we don't know anything about them. A lot of times I'm in meetings where they try to speculate what centenarians like. You can't ask them directly because, unlike millennials, they're not in these spaces. It is evident that they are in other moves. We know that they're on TikTok, that they're on Twitch, that video games are probably their cinema, and that something has been broken in a more definitive way. But the rest is speculation, and if you try to listen to them, you don't get anything clear either.
Q. Despite the striking similarities, more than the story of PlayGround, Content is the story of a generation that thought the internet was going to change the world. Did they succeed?
A. Perhaps there was a certain naivety in thinking that this was possible. The novelty was so beastly, that no one could gauge its consequences and all that it was going to bring. We went into it thinking that we were going to be able to put an end to the cantankerous people who wouldn't let us do cool things, but really the problem is the people. No boomers, millennials, or centenarians. So once the new spaces were drawn, the same old problems hit. We have made a very stupid journey to end the same or worse. All the experimentation brought by the audiovisual with the arrival of 4G to mobile phones has ended up culminating in the reconstruction of television, in the most painful way.
Q. What viral video would you record today?
A. I would like to make a very laughable video about how Spain is going to get its act together with the issue of artificial intelligence. Spaniards trying to explain to artificial intelligence what it means to be Spanish, or concepts such as "I'll be here in ten minutes" and that you never get there. We'd cry with laughter at that.
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