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Is the TikTok Split Screen Destroying Modern Movie-Watching?

The split screen format keeps users’ attention by overstimulating them.

Three TikToks show the split screen format.
Credit: @subwaysurfersofficial/TikTok @kaitlynmorris69/TikTok @pamiathat/TikTok

TikTok users’ feeds flood with clips of movies splitting the screen with gameplay from phone games like Subway Surfers. The combination of overstimulating visuals poses a danger to our dwindling attention spans. Together with the endless scroll of TikTok, this content could permanently alter how we see interact with art and film.

Trends on TikTok often speed up, condense, and combine different content. This helps videos fit in with the platform’s fast-paced feed and users’ quick scrolling. Consequently, it makes sense for accounts to put more content on the screen to keep users on their page. With this in mind, there’s a new popular way to win the audience retention game. Many accounts feature split-screen clips of TV shows and movies alongside a wide array of other stimulating content. This content mashes together into what some have dubbed “content sludge.”

The recipe for excellent content sludge includes diverse ingredients. The extra on-screen content ranges from videos of DIY projects like rug deep-cleaning to screen recordings from various mobile games. So, if you want to identify content sludge, watch for Subway Surfers, Minecraft, and lesser-known budget games. Sometimes dramatic or trendy music will overlay the content as well. This stimulates visual sensations as well as auditory ones to the extreme.

@siijemru53k

This woman was locked up in a cabin for 7 years by a perverted man #fypシ #fyp #foryou #movie #viral #foryoupage

♬ Love You So – The King Khan & BBQ Show

Attention spans suffer

Though it may keep viewers’ attention, the trend questions something important. Should we embrace short attention spans as the new norm? As a result of extensive social media use, TikTok users now joke about their ability to watch TV usually. Some insist they now need multiple sources of stimulation presented to them at a time. As a result, maybe the classic movie theater and popcorn experience of the past is gone. Gen Z is entering a new era of never-ending screens and audio clips.

Having a television screen in front of you and a smartphone isn’t enough to stay entertained anymore. So, the ability to maintain healthy attention spans may be at risk. Gen Z is particularly susceptible to lower attention retention as avid social media users. A recent study found that Gen Z’s average attention span watching ads was a mere 1.3 seconds. Getting used to multiple different streams of footage side by side doesn’t bode well for the future of staying focused. 

Feeling the split-screen effects

The inability to focus can hurt one’s school or work performance as well as their relationships with others. Some TikTok users parody what it might be like to try going on a date with or communicate family issues with someone who has become accustomed to TikTok content sludge. This usually ends with someone holding up a phone with footage of mobile game gameplay under their face as they talk. 

Despite the humor, there’s an eeriness underlying these parodies, given how hard they hit with some people, leading dozens of users to comment on how seeing the gameplay screen actually did help them pay attention. One user, Beau (@beau_flex), commented on this TikTok from Dylan Johnson (@dylan_johnsonn), saying: “I actually heard you better with the video, thanks.”

This might be a hack for TikTok accounts looking for audience retention. Alternatively, the split screen could be a hack for those who want to consume content without committing too much time or attention. If you’ve always wanted to be able to recount the plot of The Notebook while only seeing short clips of it above a DIY project time-lapse, this trend is your chance. Still, the constant pressure to provide multiple sources of stimulation may detract from the goals of specific content creation.

Splitting art and the screen

TikTok creator Jack Carden (@pamiathat) posted a TikTok of himself “fixing a painting,” as his subtitles say. The “fixing” involved sawing the painting in half to insert a tablet displaying Subway Surfers gameplay where the lower half of the picture was. He captioned the post “high audience retention painting,” creating a striking metaphor. With this piece, Carden demonstrated how modern-day audience retention involves gutting art of much of its content and original meaning.

@pamiathat

high audience retention painting #art #antiart

♬ original sound – Jack Carden

In like manner, several movies posted on TikTok with the Subway Surfer split-screen formula are drastically altered, edited down, and sped up to present the content in the most attention-getting way. But this formula leaves much to be desired in the artistic sense as it strips films of their most touching and anticipation-building moments. All in all, only the most shocking and dramatic scenes cut TikTok, reducing films from works of art to simple ideas. TikTok content sludge can be eye-catching and easy, but it can’t replace the cinematic value of a film. Now might be the time to enjoy a classic movie theater and popcorn experience before our new attention spans ruin it for good.

Written By

Hi, I'm Hope! I'm from Michigan, and I'm a junior at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, studying Journalism and Religious Studies. I really love writing about culture and entertainment.

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