Short scenes from movies signposted with the caption “kid beats up school bully”; clips of ex-servicemen returning home early from combat to surprise their dogs; physio exercises to cure ‘tech-neck’… This used to be the sort of mild-mannered clickbait TikTok would innocuously offer up from time to time.
But like Frankenstein, mad scientists have created a new genre of visual brain candy made from disparate pieces of content stitched together like a human centipede. Dubbed ‘sludge content’ due to its spooky psychological ability to appeal to our primordial nature, it’s best described as an addictive type of digital junk food that TikTok will endlessly recommend once you’ve got a taste for it.
And, of course, it involves Family Guy.
We’re Living Through The ‘Family Guy’ Apocalypse
Like the markings on poisonous spiders, sludge content has obvious identifying features that make it easy to spot. In a typical video, you’ll notice that the screen has been horizontally split in two, with a scene from a TV television show playing on the top half while something benign like footage from the mobile game Subway Surfers plays on the bottom half.
For many viewers, your introduction to this new horrifying hybrid will involve Family Guy. After personally being bombarded with dozens of badly edited videos of Peter Griffin’s antics, I had questions: Is anyone else getting these videos? Am I the only one who, against my better judgement, finds them oddly enchanting?
Maybe it’s because of the arbitrary nature of Family Guy scenes, or something to do with microplastics lowering our IQ, but for some unsettling psychological reason, the combined effect is visual heroin. Psychologist and co-founder of the University of Sydney’s Cyberpsychology Research Group, Dr Brad Ridout argues that the success of sludge content comes from the genre’s ability to hijack our curiosity.
“Curiosity is a cognitive form of deprivation,” Dr Ridout tells Junkee. “Your natural reaction is to address that gap in knowledge, especially if that’s only going to cost you a few moments of your time.”
Dr Ridout explains that while you might not watch an entire scene from Family Guy on TikTok, you’re more likely to stick around if there’s another video playing in the background.
“If you’re not gonna be interested in the top video, rather than scrolling on, you might just switch to the below and that’ll suck you in for another few seconds,” Dr Ridout says.
Also, the choice of relaxing scenes from video games in the lower half of the screen is no accident according to Dr Ridout. “When you are watching someone play a game it lights up the same part of the brain that is working if you were playing the game yourself,” he says, explaining how these random clips of Family Guy end up endued with the addictive power of Candy Crush Saga.
There May Be A Pyramid Scheme Involved
Funnily enough, sludge content’s penchant for co-opting Family Guy has become a TikTok trend in itself. Users have started making intervention videos where they attempt to break people out of the so-called ‘Family Guy pipeline’, in the style of the first Matrix movie.
Others have claimed that Family Guy itself is the perfect breeding ground for this attention-grabbing nihilism. Many critics on Twitter have mused that the identities of the cartoon’s various characters feel like they have been purely decided by whatever cruel joke the writers have planned, like disabled cop Joe whose physical condition is played purely for laughs. This combined with the show’s many short throwaway skits makes Family Guy highly suitable to be repacked into sludge content because the identities of the characters are essentially jokes themselves, “You don’t need to know what’s going on in the episode to be sucked in,” Dr Ridout says.
But why am I endlessly being served content for a show I gave up on at least a decade ago? In whose interest is it to churn this stuff out? Well, as it happens, Family Guy sludge content is part of a complicated pyramid scheme. As reported by TheGamer, individuals on the internet are actually offering paid tutorials to teach others to make their very own Family Guy hybrid video channels, with farmers on these shit-post ranches profiting from views the clips inevitably receive in return. There are even instructions on how to hire a team to build your channel, promising that you’ll only have to do a maximum of 20 minutes of work per day.
There’s literally a fucking family guy funny moments pyramid scheme on youtube pic.twitter.com/pY5IfAIqvw
— jame (@plankwa) August 5, 2022
And they don’t just stick to Family Guy either — other viral-friendly TV programs are swapped in and out for maximum yield, riding the algorithm towards the next juicy vein of attention. The practice has even been jokingly adopted by goblin mode pioneer @juniper, who quickly recognised how this hybrid had the potential to give Gen Z the attention span required to stick through lectures by Marxist political scientist Michael Parenti.
learning how to instill left wing values to the youth of today, this is the way pic.twitter.com/dmY6Vp1biP
— pudding person (@JUNlPER) January 24, 2023
Core-Core Proves That Absurdity Is The New Entertainment
If you’ve been stuck in the Family Guy pipeline, you’ll begin to notice some irritating tidbits that best define the non-ideology of sludge content. For example, videos often abruptly end before the characters can even deliver punchlines or they’re frustratingly released in multiple parts, all of which are nigh impossible to find.
But like when art is so bad it actually becomes good, the absurdity generated by sludge content is a natural fit for adherents to the internet’s latest art aesthetic: core-core. For the uninitiated, core-core is a mockery of internet phenomena that attach prefixes to various aesthetics (see normcore, night luxe, cottage core, pastel goth, bard core, indie sleaze…) and finds the absurdity of modern digital life by fixing its messy intestines on the outside.
Defined by some as the modern revival of the dada art movement, core-core is unashamedly constructed from the discarded pieces of visual media that whiz past us each day — and sludge content is its latest target.
What Is Sludge Content Doing To Our Brains?
While there’s not a lot we can definitively say about how mobile entertainment has affected the daily functions of our brains, sludge content taps into at least one thing psychologists know for certain. “We are not as good at multitasking as we think we are,” Dr Ridout explains.
“At the end of the day, what we’re actually doing is our brain is actually switching our attention back and forth between competing stimuli. And every time we do that, it requires this constant configuration of the brain that comes at a cost.”
“The long-term impact is something we all feel in the internet age in that we don’t have the attention span that we might have had in the past because we’re just so used to switching back between tasks, and every time you do that it takes longer to get back onto the task that you were on.”
Dr Ridout says that watching a piece of sludge content is similar to the almost universal act of multi-screening, where you use your phone or laptop while simultaneously watching TV. This isn’t to say that audiences have had their attention spans completely fried by modern technology, but suggests that Millennials and Gen Z have a desire for what Dr Ridout calls “passive entertainment”.
“In a way, it’s the electronic version of flipping through a magazine,” Dr Ridout says.
So while watching clips of Family Guy superimposed above somebody playing Fruit Ninja might feel like it’s rotting your brain, the jury’s out on whether it leads to a reduction in attention span. Who knows, maybe killing an hour with some sludge content is only appealing due to the constant pressure multi-tasking places on our lives? Maybe zoning out as animated figures vie for your attention after a long day of balancing Slack notifications, email messages, and texts is just the equivalent of stretching after a run.
Or maybe, just like with cigarette smoking, we’ll eventually look back to this moment and wonder why we didn’t do something about it sooner.
Charles Rushforth is a staff writer for Junkee, you can follow him on Twitter here