Modifying Homer Simpson’s famous quip about alcohol, technology is “the cause of – and solution to – all of life’s problems.”
The same force that’s generating the flood of information is also producing tools to direct it into more manageable channels. The standard examples (to make sure we’re all up to speed on basics here) include RSS feeds and feed readers, user-elect aggregators like Digg and services that recommend content based on your interests and past likes (e.g. StumbleUpon, Pandora, Library Thing, iLike, etc.).
And then we find ourselves on a treadmill, still facing the same problem, still making an effort to address it but not getting any closer to solving it. These applications and services don’t necessarily reduce the volume of information; they may even increase it by making it flow more efficiently.
Perhaps the best demonstration of this paradox is FriendFeed, which works by aggregating all of a person’s online content (pictures, videos, events, blog posts, bookmarks, tweets, shared items, comments, etc.) from the various social applications into one feed, which in turn is aggregated with the feeds of other people to be followed by friends, fans, voyeurs, etc…
Even some of the most prolific users of social media complain that FriendFeed is very noisy and just adds to the burden of being online. As with anything, it all depends on what you do with it. FriendFeed represents an issue that encompasses the entire web: we’re just beginning to appreciate its capabilities and master the new kinds of soft skills needed to use it effectively.
Recall one of the key points made in Part I: “The most effective ways to use computers and cell phones are in an ongoing process of being discovered… an ongoing experiment, or adventure that’s always in beta.”
The people who thrive in web related enterprises are successful largely because they know they don’t know how their projects will turn out. Great hackers and entrepreneurs know they’ll be learning on the fly (and more, more, more, more, more, more, more…). They expect to encounter unexpected setbacks (if they “expect” anything at all) that will require nimble adaptations. And they persist largely because of these risks, not just despite them.
This lesson about innovation and education is the soil in which all subsequent lessons about making something on the web must be sown. Without it there can be very little growth. Without it, to paraphrase a remark from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, we see things “through the spectacles of the preceding age,” like military strategists who are “magnificently prepared to fight the previous war.” By the time these designs and plans are executed they’re already becoming obsolete.
I wonder if this is true of the recent report commissioned by the Associated Press, “A New Model for News: Studying the Deep Structure of Young-Adult News Consumption.”
The report includes some interesting points and valuable insights, but it seems to harbour some deeply embedded, tacit assumptions about news that keep its thinking lodged in the past. Its findings seem to validate my belief that the whole conceptual map for dealing with news needs to be redrawn. While they pick up on some landmark features of the present, they fail to orient them in a way that leads to the future.
Among the present findings is that “news is connected to e-mail.” This could simply be a technical matter: news and email happen to “come in small snippets of information” and share the same medium of delivery. Many of the subjects in the ethnographic research found themselves looking at headlines that happened to be handy when checking Yahoo Mail or their PDA.
But what the report fails to address is that email is essentially a kind of news; it’s tricky to draw a clear distinction between them – which isn’t to say we should not make a distinction, it’s only to point out that the AP report doesn’t, and therefore misses valuable insight.
It could be argued that the degree to which news differs from email is proportionate with the degree to which news fails to capture people’s attention and interest. If you want to know why people don’t care about “The News,” write down your definition of what makes it different from personal messages and conversations: the same statement can be modified to answer either question.
The notion that News exists on a plane apart from people’s actual lives is the core assumption of the old media that needs to be discarded. Here we find the “spectacles of the preceding age” worn by folks reared in old media organizations.
One could be forgiven for not noticing that the conventional distinction between The News and our actual lives is itself largely a result of technology (language, the printing press, broadcasting) that developed just as helplessly as it is now being broken down. As this recent column for Editor & Publisher states, “journalism is inherently fused with technological evolution.” The News of old was as much of an ongoing experiment as the web – or rather, the web is simply the latest iteration.
Society in general has been an ongoing experiment, and the evolving means of communication has always set the basic pattern for every age.
A recent article in Slate argued that the value of newspapers has been the “social currency” they provide for our actual lives. News items were like tokens to exchange with people encountered in the course of daily business.
At the peak of newspapers’ influence, everyone could assume that almost everyone else would be familiar with some of the content from that day’s paper – “that picture of an egg frying on a city street the paper published; or a comment about a movie review or comic strip; or an opinion about local government based on a piece by a political columnist” – and new relationships developed according to what was said about these common points of reference.
Now the way information is proliferating and diverging into various channels, we don’t all share the same social currency, and it’s increasingly difficult to find shared points of reference. Without common references, it’s difficult to generate conversation with new contacts and get a sense of who they are, and then it’s nearly impossible to establish trust and build relationships – not to mention communities.
This function is increasingly being distributed through online social networking platforms like Facebook and MySpace. The information in people’s pages and profiles (including the lists of people who are already friends) is the new social currency… or is it?
David Warsh’s most recent article at Economic Principals argues “That Newspapers Are [Still] the Central Banks of Social Currency“:
“Central banks exist by dint of government monopoly; newspapers owe their special franchise to their owners’ willingness to put capital at risk in a particularly tricky game, the creation and management of public opinion through narrative,” and “the naïve view that newspapers don’t matter much any more is contradicted every time a big story comes along.”
To add my own bit to Warsh’s metaphor, much of the social networking sphere is a fast-paced-yet-going-nowhere derivatives market. Automated tools for aggregating, recommending and rating mostly keep the sub-prime content moving fast enough to save anyone from truly bearing the burden of ownership – the cost of actually having to think – or so we let ourselves assume.
As we have witnessed over the past year in financial markets, this high-volume/high-efficiency set of practices is not sustainable. We need to build social capital that holds real value despite ups-and-downs in the cultural market.
Obviously we can’t turn back time and undo the technological advancements that put us in the position of having to cope with so much information. The best strategies for dealing with it will emerge from the advancements themselves (while building on the social capital they inherit from the past, and staying open to advancements that will continue to evolve).
The most important development isn’t merely the technology itself but how it affects our mental models: the notion of threading information – as in blogs, discussion forums, and mini-feeds on Facebook – is a very useful metaphor to help us make sense of personal identity and social relationships in our complex modern world, both on- and off-line.
Begin with the concept of a “lifestream,“ as it is discussed in this recent ReadWriteWeb post. The best example of a lifestream is probably a personal feed on FriendFeed (e.g. mine, which I admit is a poor example), but anybody on Facebook has a kind of lifestream too – albeit not one that can be managed or viewed as effectively as via FriendFeed.
A lifestream is a continuous record of the events of one’s life. These events don’t have to be all that meaningful or important, and most of them are excruciatingly mundane – a fact that critics begrudge and use to argue that lifestreams are stupid – but it seems obvious to me that the first step towards making one’s life more meaningful is to get a sense of all the associated information in an orderly way, which is something that lifestreaming can help do.
When all we can see is what’s happening at a given moment, we tend to follow the crowd: we fail to develop the ability to think, work, learn, and live apart from that crowd. But when we can view our own actions playing out over time in one continuous thread, as in a lifestream, we get a better idea of who we are (or perhaps aren’t). Then we can stop following the crowd from fad to fad and ground ourselves via sustainable personal identities, each with our own respective knowledge, skills, styles and voices that nobody else can duplicate.
The thread metaphor is especially valuable when we try to make sense of the relation between personal and social aspects of living, or the relation between “the individual” and “the group.”
The value of self-reliance is not merely personal or individualistic. When we each cultivate distinctive talents and personal mastery for ourselves, our society becomes richer and more robust: the greater degree of variety of knowledge and competence is present in a group, the more likely the group is to survive and thrive via emerging challenges and opportunities.
Hence a social fabric develops as our many personal threads distribute evenly accross the full range of experience – not tangling too close together nor leaving too many gaps, but each tending to find an individual niche with just enough wiggle room. And it’s just as important that our threads should all continually stretch towards the future, learning and growing via new challenges, rather than going in circles, or falling slack and getting tied into knots.
My proposal for the role of news is to provide the perpendicular threads that weave our lives into a coherent fabric. Without these common cross-references it’s difficult to maintain an even distribution. Without obective threads being weaved laterally, the fabric may disintegrate into separate bunches, tangles, and braids.
News and personal information (like emails or Facebook notifications) aren’t separate things; they’re more like two lines intersecting (to modify one of William James’s great metaphors). The intersecting point of any given event is neither just news or just personal information, but is referenced by properties of both.
As we communicate through the course of the day, we each have an individual responsibility to continually weave information into the fabric of our world – interpreting each moment into information that can be exchanged both laterally via social/news threads and vertically in the form of personal identity and meaning, leaving some aspect of the thread open, stretching towards the future.
I’ve doubtless made some ridiculous and risky suggestions in this essay, but rather than just being a target for criticism, the speculative ideas herein should be treated as a parts of a working experiment, as well as an actual demonstration of the ideas discussed (not just talk, but action too).
I can’t prove all of my claims, but what’s important is they now occupy a section of my personal thread, or identity. Regardless of whether these claims turn out to be right or wrong, I’ll learn something – about the world and about myself – and move a little closer to finding my niche in a richer, more robust social fabric.
One more thing the AP report, A New Model for News, got right but didn’t work out more thoroughly: building connections is “a job for both people and machines.” With all the hype about technology it’s easy to forget about improving ourselves, rather than merely improving our machines.
The rest of this thread is open.