True Crime Burnout, or: Monetize that Sh*

I’m reading a fascinating book about True Crime and digital media engagement by Tanya Horeck (who probably has my dream job and whose work I wish I’d come across earlier in my PhD career), and I’ll definitely be dipping into parts of it on this blog, but this early tidbit stood out to me as an important reminder about the relationship between True Crime as a narrative genre and our cultural experience of time and material needs:

“Writing on true crime literature in Britain in the 1980s, [Anita] Biressi observed that “true crime is promoted primarily and explicitly as a leisure pursuit,” as with the true crime magazine summer specials that “invite viewers to put their feet up and relax” (1). However, as I will argue, true crime is no longer primarily promoted as a way to relax; in a digital network culture that puts a premium on the participatory involvement of audience members as “viewers with a job to do” (Clover 2000a, 246), true crime is now cast as a genre that performs more serious cultural work. While true crime is still also promoted as a form of entertainment, this book argues that twenty-first-­century audiovisual true crime’s intersection with the more culturally prestigious genre of documentary has led to its new credibility and branding as a media format that effects social change.” (Justice on Demand 8)

So, while Biressi (another rad scholar I will be reading more of, for sure) earlier pointed out that true crime discourse, especially in late-20th century literature, facilitated a particular kind of leisure time — a kind of permission to escape, through murder, dun dun dun — Horeck says that true crime is now “serious cultural work.”

Both of these frames, “leisure” and “work,” are the result of decades, centuries, of evolution in our thinking about time itself, and our existence in it, as only calculable in terms of monetized labor. That’s right, that means that, in capitalism, . . . true crime DOES pay! (ok, bad joke; I’ll see myself out)

I would build on this, though, to recognize something else in the ways we interact with true crime digital media: not only has the networked age transformed the “leisure” framing of engaging with true crime, but it also has intersected with (or sped up) the long trend of monetized time management in general.

This dovetails, I think, with Anne Helen Peterson’s writings about “burnout” for Millennials who have not only come of age in the 21st century, but who have to “optimize ourselves” in our age of late capitalism, which is a digitized, gigified (™) economy (she wrote about this first in a Buzzfeed article in 2019, and expanded these ideas in the 2020 book Can’t Even).

Screenshot of Peterson's article on BuzzFeed News website.
Screenshot of Peterson’s 2019 article on BuzzFeed News website.

In her 2019 article, Peterson writes about “errand paralysis” as the manifestation — a symptom — of Millennial Burnout, which is the result of being conditioned to be productive all the time:

“Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.” (Peterson, 2019)

Horeck’s argument is that Biressi’s observation about 80’s consumption of crime media as leisure needs to be updated because now true crime is part of (at least there’s a perception of it being) social justice work.

But Peterson’s analysis of generational burnout reminds me that the whole concept of “leisure time” has shifted, in U.S. and western frameworks, anyway.

It’s not just our engagement with crime media that is different, it’s our engagement with time and (or, as a function of) labor in general. And maybe it’s been a long-haul evolution over time. But the rapid changes to the ways we communicate with each other and engage with information and entertainment since the age of the internet and mobile technology has created a dramatic shift in thinking about how we organize our lives.

And that reminds me that we’re not allowed to just “enjoy” entertainment, and we’re not even really allowed to “participate” in an early “Web 2.0” way — as anonymous, even “innocent,” contributors to a mass of free information being built for collective use.

Nope. Now we need to monetize that shit.

First, we need to be hyper consumers so that we can turn around and be “influencers” who are experts at, well, consuming stuff.   And then maybe we become “producers,” even though our production work is often just re-hashing other people’s work and adding a “take” on it. This is basically the whole point of the My Favorite Murder podcast, after all. This is not a personal dig at MFM, btw. I love that podcast in many ways (and we could debate, maybe in another post, the extent to which something new IS actually created through podcasts like MFM). This is just an analysis of the cultural-economic pit we’re in:

It’s NOT ENOUGH to just be interested in something. We have to be OBSESSED.

It’s NOT ENOUGH to chat with friends about some shared interests. We have to RECORD, DIGITALLY DISSEMINATE, AND MONETIZE those exchanges.

So, we have another chicken-egg situation when considering the relationships between media engagement, crime discourse, technology forms, and how we organize our time. Did the technology change us, and therefore we see time (and crime) differently?

Or is there something fixed in our relationship to crime discourse, and it’s simply technology that has changed our relationship to time and money?

Or is “crime” just part of what makes us human, therefore any social changes show up in the ways we talk about crime?

But is it also possible that all this “productivity” around true crime media over the last few years (should we call this the true crime serial era?) might one day lead to a kind of true crime burnout?


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