Found Content is Good for You

Posted by in Technology

Elvis? Never heard of him.

Two things I really enjoy doing on Saturday and Sunday mornings are reading the newspaper and listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition (Saturday and Sunday editions). I’m a a bit of news junkie, and I check a variety of sources online during the week. The reason I look forward to newspapers and the radio on the weekend is because of the stories I come across that I would never have gone looking for on my own. With a newspaper, as I flip from page to page though the broad range of content to get to the stories I want to read, more often than not I’ll stumble upon other intriguing stories I wouldn’t have found otherwise. For one reason or another I’ll get reading and the next thing you know I’ve spent several minutes filling in a void in my knowledge I didn’t even know was there.

It’s because of this side benefit of the relatively disorganized nature of traditional media that I was struck by the logic behind Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that he was going to block his properties from being searched by Google. (You can read a summary of this here).

Don’t get me wrong, I love getting news online. I check my usual haunts and get links via various social networks for news from all over the world. News that before the internet came along I’d never get. However, the news that I get via social networks tends to be more narrowly defined than what I get online. It’s usually related to topics either I or people I know are already interested in (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but it can be limiting in ways that aren’t obvious.

A notable exception here is Digg. Digg will serve up any damned thing and it’s as close to random as I’ve seen. My only problem with Digg is that so much of its content falls into what I call the “towel-snapping” category. To demonstrate, the following are the three most recent headlines:

  1. Lost man drives nine hours to get newspaper
  2. Local dad spoke only Klingon to child for three years
  3. Boy Dials 911 After Parents Take Away His Xbox

Top in all topics are

  1. Miss Universe Contestants in Three-Way Sex Tape
  2. xkcd – Academia vs. Business (a cartoon)
  3. The Problem With Internet Girlfriends

Entertaining, yes – but I’m not likely to find anything life changing here. Unless that three-way tape is really, really good.

The internet, as well as the way we use it, is still evolving. Some of these shortcomings won’t be solved over time, but it should be remembered that every medium has it’s own inherent advantages and limitations. I’m going to venture a guess that over time the internet will prove to be great at giving us more of the same stuff we already like but not so great at helping us find those things we normally discover serendipitously – those things we fall in love with that we’d never have sought out on our own.

In his book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop argues that over the last 40 years we’ve been self segregating along lines of class, religion, politics and a host of other cultural markers. Mr. Bishop posits that this segregation has produced neighborhood after neighborhood of echo chambers resulting in two Americas, each made up of citizens with increasingly homogeneous attitudes and points of view. If he is correct, I fear social networks will, in the long term, prove to be a poor source of news about topics we wouldn’t normally seek out or from points of view that challenge our preconceived notions or understanding.

Setting aside the big issues of religion and politics and focusing instead on the safer issue of entertainment media (books, music, etc.), let’s look at the example of China’s hip hop grannies (stories here and here). As an elderly Chinese, I doubt very seriously Wu Ying would have sought out hip hop on her own. You may counter that there are several services that offer suggestions based on other a person’s other likes and dislikes, but to my knowledge those are all based on a user’s conscious inputs and behaviors. I can’t imagine what algorithm would divine that a Chinese septuagenarian would take interest in hip hop – especially if there was nothing in said septuagenarian’s background to suggest that hip hop is something she’d be remotely interested in.

Instead she stumbled across it by way of old media – television. By virtue of that medium’s limitations, she was “forcibly” exposed to something she wouldn’t normally have sought out on her own. I say forcibly here because the inherent qualities of any technology force certain behaviors on the part of the user.

To give a more personal example of this, I find almost all of my new music by listening to the Morning Show on KEXP. I’ve used Last FM and Pandora, and enjoy both for what they are, but I find that both end up serving me more of what I already know and like. I rarely if ever find anything new there. It’s only by listening to the selections of the morning DJ, John Richards, that I find new music that really strikes a chord with me. To be sure, some of his choices do nothing for me, and some I hate, but in the end I always walk away with more than I started.

I’m a believer that the big events in one’s life and in history – the one’s that really matter – are serendipitous. What Nassim Taleb calls Black Swans. Google’s mission may be to organize the world’s information and social networks may facilitate communication with friends and co-workers, but both are built on systems of attribution – things that we (or the people we know) already know. There’s something to be said for the knowledge that comes from having to sift through less organized content. I’m not trying to beatify newspapers or suggest that everyone get a subscription to their local paper or start listening to drive time radio again (though you may want to check this out). Print journalism fell victim to its own shortsightedness, but will hopefully learn from its mistakes. In the mean time, online content providers and aggregation have a long way to go before they can fill the serendipitous void left by their predecessors.