Friday, August 10, 2012

Newspapers vs. Blogs in an Information Diet

I recently read Clay Johnson‘s book Information Diet and it’s changing the way I think about my consumption, production and sharing of media. I’m still trying to figure out what’s best for me as a media professional. How can I have a healthy media intake and remain gainfully employed? I need to keep up with what others are writing on my beats, what’s going on the tech industry as a whole and in the world in general. I also need to keep up with what’s going on in the journalism profession. Plus I have other interests I like to follow. All the while I need to avoid filter bubbles and expose myself to serendipity for the chance to make new connections and find new angles on beats.
As I try to work it all out, I enjoy reading about other writers’ media diets. Earlier this month Warren Ellis wrote that he reads about 100 blogs on various subjects, and indirectly addressed the issue of filter bubbles and serendipity.
“I read a newspaper every day, and I watch a well-produced, intelligent news analysis programme every night, and I have been known to leave 24-hour news running in a video window all day, and that still doesn’t give me a world picture in the way that my blog capture does,” Ellis writes. “The only way to find interesting things to talk about is to be open to the world as possible, and tune your machinery to bring as much of it to you as possible, without getting to the point where you’re getting no time to process it.”
I found that to be an interesting counter perspective to the notion that we get less, not more, variety from blogs than we get from a daily paper – the idea that, as expressed by Cass Sunstein, newspapers provide a better architecture for seredipity. Abe Burmeister called the suburbanization of information:
Physical newspapers play a similar mixing role, especially those that strive towards mass market audience. The more people they try to attract, the broader the mix of news stories. Turning the pages and sorting the sections is a constant reinforcement of the diversity of information in the world. We may ignore large chunks of it, but somewhere inside we know that other people actually do care about the sports section, science section, international affairs or the local stories.
As more and more people go online for news, we are losing site of the mix. News aggregators, blogs, email alerts and customizable websites give us a tremendous ability to focus our information. We surround ourselves with the news that we want to hear/see/feel. We can zip around in snug little information cocoons, isolated from the harsh reality of different ways of thinking. Those nasty conflicting viewpoints are relegated to trashbin of somebody else’s RSS feed.
William Gibson told Richard Metzger that Twitter is the greatest aggregator of novelty and that following the right 70 people is like a shopping bag full of imported magazines. Of course 70 is a really small number of people to follow on Twitter (and Gibson is now following over 100 as of this writing). And as Ellis points out, 100 blogs isn’t an astronomical number compared to some media junkies intake. Personally, I rely mostly on Twitter now for information aggregation and don’t use an RSS reader much anymore. I follow 402 people or publications on Twitter (down from about 600 before I readInformation Diet). I’m trying to cut that number down further, hopefully to 200.
Of course Ellis and Gibson are professional writers of fiction, not journalists on a particular beat or citizens just trying to stay informed. I’m sure Ellis, and possibly Gibson as well, is also very consciously choosing people and publications to follow to avoid filter bubble and ensure some measure of serendipity.
I’ve often wanted some sort of “seredipity engine” that could show me random posts from a large pool of blogs – not too much stuff, just a small water fountain split off from a firehose, not filtered by what other people I follow read, not what’s popular with the world in general, and not sorted by what some algorithm thinks I want to read – just a nearly random list of articles outside my usual bubble. (I say nearly random because I would want it somewhat controlled to reduce the number of articles on the same topic, and to keep publications that publish multiple times a day to flood out publications on a less hectic schedule.)

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