Last week, the WWE announced a new network and app for phones, tablets, and game consoles that would allow subscribers access to the company’s massive back catalog of wrestling dramas. Developed over the last two years at a cost of millions of dollars, the WWE Network costs $9.99 a month with a minimum six-month commitment from new users. The service will initially offer 1,500 hours of archived footage, access to original programming like the reality show Legends House, as well as instant viewing of pay-per-view events like WrestleMania and The Royal Rumble.
While a few media brands have become big enough to justify stand-alone apps, most depend on the flow of attention from aggregators like Instapaper, Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, or Netflix. Today it matters less what company is responsible for funding and publishing a piece of content than the intermediary that made it visible. This structure has brought new breadth and eclecticism to media consumption, but it has also bred a kind of exhaustion, leaving one overwhelmed by the number and complexity of stories going on at any one time.
In this atmosphere of overwhelming surpluses of media, binging on television shows, podcasts, or live streams for hours on end provides a comfortingly fixed frame for the audience, sparing them from having to reconcile images of Syrian corpses alongside video of an actor giving an award acceptance speech or a BuzzFeed quiz that tells you what city you should live in based on your drinking habits.
There is nothing to search for in wrestling, and in that way a self-contained network that makes only wrestling visible—separate from the inscrutable flood of data that no one person could ever absorb or act on—may be the one of the most perfect uses of the Internet.
Professional wrestling has long served as a kind of emotional home, sheltering its fans from the moral chaos of the world. Roland Barthes argued that wrestling is meant to portray “a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of ‘paying’ is essential to wrestling, and the crowd’s 'Give it to him,’ above all else means 'Make him pay.’”
Wrestling stories all come to the same end, because the moral vindication of the good guys is as certain as gravity. The drama comes from not knowing when the inevitable will finally arrive. Like watching a skateboarder rotate in slow motion at the apex of a jump, there is never any doubt about the future, but one’s imagination is electrified with wondering about how many different variations of the present there might be.
With more than 130,000 hours of archived footage from weekly matches, and dozens of different events throughout the decades, the WWE network could become a kind of perpetual motion machine, giving a dreamy imprint of the moral pathos of each generation, from the simple hero-villain parables of the 50s and 60s to the hyper-nationalist stereotypes of the 80s and 90s.
Professional wrestling is often considered a kind of cultural trash because it’s outcomes are scripted, and its athletics depend on the performance built on arch and inflexible morality. Yet indulging in it is its own kind of relief from the flow of urgent social and political issues that have come to animate the Internet. Professional wrestling offers a reliable dervish of nonsense that succumbs to a reassuring moral order, one which occasionally features a interjection from the sitting U.S. President in both fictional and real versions.
An age defined by a search engine must also be one of overwhelming excess, in which the attempt to satisfy a curious whim produces so many competing options it becomes impossible to know what the right choice should be. We need outside structures to assure us that the things we’ve chosen to preoccupy our minds have a value relative to all the other available options. What matters is not just the ability to consume, but access to a narrative that gives a meaningful identity to the person choosing to consume.
Professional wrestling is the antithesis of the search engine. There is nothing to search for in wrestling, and in that way a self-contained network that makes only wrestling visible—separate from the inscrutable flood of data that no one person could ever absorb or act on—may be the one of the most perfect uses of the Internet.
It's not truth we want from media, but editing. We want solace from the things we have learned, and shelter from encounters with people we didn’t know where there, and still can’t seem to reach once we do. The beauty of the professional wrestler is that, no matter how besieged or beaten, he doesn’t need reaching. Cheering is enough, and there is nothing else to give through the Internet.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.