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Attention, distraction and Quibi

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
6 min read
Attention, distraction and Quibi

It will go down in history as one of the great failures of the digital age. Almost $2 billion spent on a Hollywood-backed, highly-polished, mobile-only, episodic streaming video service that will be long forgotten with no sense of loss whatsoever.

We talked about Quibi on the Byteside podcast a lot more than it probably deserved. It just seemed like such an ambitious project that didn’t really know what problem it was trying to solve in the market. Who felt like they were lacking in high production value entertainment to fill the 5 minutes gaps in life?

Quibi – QUIck BItes – somehow believed something that only a Hollywood executive could believe. That if only there was great bite-sized Hollywood content out there, people would abandon user-generated content and social media to fill those gaps and pay for a new streaming service instead.

The fact they believed having both portrait and landscape edits of the shows was a selling point? Seriously. It was extra work for novelty benefits that had nothing to do with entertainment value.

This from an open letter by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman…

“Quibi is not succeeding. Likely for one of two reasons: because the idea itself wasn’t strong enough to justify a standalone streaming service or because of our timing.

Unfortunately, we will never know but we suspect it’s been a combination of the two.”

Oh, we know…

Meanwhile, TikTok absolutely exploded during the pandemic. No commute required. People clearly still enjoyed finding cool things to watch on their phone. But the idea that somehow ‘real’ TV shows would beat UGC is now laughable.

So what’s the lesson? In those moments in between, we want to be distracted. We don’t need deep, engaging stories and entertainment. In fact, even the idea that we need to be committed to a mini episode for 4-6 minutes feels too committal.

There’s a huge difference between Distraction and Attention. Many services seek our attention, but we ourselves are often seeking distraction. We give attention carefully, but we find pleasure in distractions that can also be safely abandoned at a moment’s notice.

That we often disappear down rabbit holes of distraction for hours on end doesn’t change the fact that we could stop at any moment if the need arose.

There was one production on Quibi that stood out for me as exactly the kind of content it should always have been aiming for.

Home Movie: The Princess Bride

This was a COVID-era production featuring umpteen Hollywood stars delivering home video versions of the classic film. After every few shots, the actors in each role changed. It was scrappy, fun, and utterly adorable, and it was something that no one but Quibi could have made.

Quibi should have realised that what was so much more valuable than production values was access. It had the right backers and producers to ring practically every Hollywood star in the business to do some fun short projects that would be delivered in a more trusted environment than a TikTok or YouTube or wherever else.

Home Movie: The Princess Bride is high-class distraction content that makes you want to come back and see what comes next. It’s based on content we already know well so there’s no dramatic arc we are meant to keep up with or worry about forgetting if we don’t circle back to finish watching until a few days later.

I can imagine a Quibi that is full of this UGC-style entertainment but starring our favourite actors being a bit silly and having fun. Like a service entirely made up of original late night talk show skits that you cannot find through any other service.

But what we got was a list of entirely generic dramas, reality shows and news bulletins. And they wanted monthly fees because somehow these ones were better than the ones we were either already paying for through Netflix, Stan, Amazon and friends, or the entertainment we could get for free by catching up on our social media feeds, TikTok and YouTube.

Chalk this one up to overestimating the value of ‘excellence’ in production and underestimating the importance we place on things that engage us but do not require much brain power to engage with. The war for our attention is real, but it’s distraction we crave most from our mobile screens.


The Quibi catch-up

In case you haven’t been following along…

The Quibi shutdown news

Quibi expects to shut off the mobile service around Dec. 1 but doesn’t know whether any of its content will be available elsewhere.  •  Share

An open letter from Katzenberg and Whitman

In their own words, how they feel they tried everything and achieved so much of what they intended to achieve but it still just didn’t work out.  •  Share


Twitch blasts streamers with vague, unhelpful DMCA takedown emails

Your stuff violates copyright law—fix it! Which stuff? Oh, we can’t tell you.  •  Share

WHO partners with Wikipedia to expand access to trusted information about COVID-19

This deal helps to expand access across almost 200 languages.  •  Share

Chrome's private data wipe spares two websites from the purge: Google and YouTube

Is this another case of one rule for the Chocolate Factory and one for everyone else?  •  Share

Is Facebook too big to know? The Markup has a plan (and a browser) to wrap its arms around it

The Citizen Browser Project will pay 1,200 Americans to let The Markup monitor the choices that tech company algorithms are making for them. “What are they choosing to amplify? And what are they choosing not to amplify?”  •  Share


Facebook manipulated the news you see to appease Republicans, insiders say

When changes meant more right-wing content would be hit most often (because factual inaccuracies galore), they put their foot on the scales to make sure left-wing outlets were hit harder.  •  Share

Audio’s opportunity and who will capture it

The content, business models, and health of every media category is driven by technology. And audio technology has never been so diverse and dynamic. After decades of struggles, audio is ready to grow, not just replace.  •  Share


AI is throwing battery development into overdrive

Improving batteries has always been hampered by slow experimentation and discovery processes. Machine learning is speeding it up by orders of magnitude.  •  Share

Adobe is adding its ‘content authenticity’ tool to the latest Photoshop beta

Adobe will give some Photoshop beta users access to its Content Authenticity Initiative tool, which adds simple, cryptographically signed metadata options designed to fight misinformation and help preserve artist attribution.  •  Share

'Virtual' studios could offer a real alternative to green screen special effects

‘Percival’ is a short film that was filmed entirely on a virtual studio. Here’s why that could be a really big deal for the future of big-budget filmmaking.  •  Share

More videogames featured women this year. Will it last?

The data on female representation in games looked optimistic—but time will tell if these changes endure beyond a wildcard year.  •  Share

@ Byteside

I don’t want this to read as a pure Byteside website promo, so I’m moving these links down the end. But here’s all the biggest stories from this week. Plenty more, of course, at!

Australian-made hydrogen energy storage tech ready to launch

A UNSW research sping-off is ready to sell you hydrogen-based battery with larger and longer lasting energy storage than ever before.  •  Share

Billie Eilish upcoming livestream gig plays with an XR experience

An interesting experiment in digital concert livestreaming also feels like a fun, accessible way to catch some live music.  •  Share

Uncovered: how does Valve decide what to show you on Steam's front page?

Valve has offered up a video primer on how on Earth those games get recommended to you on the Steam front door.  •  Share

The great coffee conundrum

Is there a way to enjoy convienient coffee ethically? Probably not. Am I a monster for enjoying coffee pods? It’s complicated. But yes.  •  Share

The Flaming Lips take the quarantine bubble literally with unique live show

Live music has been one of 2020’s greatest casualties, but The Flaming Lips may have solved the problem of how to safely perform to crowds.  •  Share

Destroying my Animal Crossing island was an amazing lesson in mental health

There’s no ‘nuke’ button in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, so the journey to destroy everything gave me so much along the way.  •  Share


Seamus Byrne Twitter

Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.

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