Social Media Overload
Second Skin

And Then There's This

Andthentheresthis Continuing with the social media overload theme from my last post, I went ahead and read Bill Wasek's book, And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.

The book examines the ever-shortening life span of stories in our culture - whether it's news, gossip, or the latest best-seller - among the onslaught of email, RSS feeds, blog posts (sorry, I'm adding to that), and Tweets. He describes a world in which we have become so accustomed to a constant stream of new information, and so wary of always-encroaching boredom, that we tell stories about our society and ourselves, even when there is nothing new to say.

Besides the information glut, shortening attention spans, and overall exhaustion this creates, the really good content gets lost after its fleeting 15 minutes of fame (if that). And despite the broader array of news and opinion available to us, we have not necessarily broadened our horizons, but rather self-segregate ourselves into smaller & smaller niches of like-minded individuals.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

"Breaking news, fresh gossip, tiny scandals, trumped-up crises - every day we are distracted by a culture that rings our doorbell and runs away. Stories spread wildly and die out in mere days, to be replaced by still more stories with ever shorter life spans.

The rapid appearance and disappearance of young writers is a byproduct of niche sensationalism...the young writer comes into the public consciousness like this: he or she becomes the one must read just then, not because his or her work is good, but because it represents something about the moment, or about the youthful cohort from which the writer has sprung.

We like to fill our minds with information that confirms what we already believe; this information in turn doubles down our already existing support of what we think or dismissal of what we disbelieve. It is in this regard that the Internet and confirmation bias are conspiring to erode what remains of reasonable political discourse in this country. The Internet allows the like-minded to find one another so quickly, and with so little exposure to other points of view. Indeed, in this regard, the forward march of search technology threatens to balkanize our politics even further: the ability to ever more agilely find what we are looking for, while excluding the rest, is exactly what a citizen does not need in making his or her political choices.

This is a common meme-maker's lament: viral projects spread through decontextualized blog links and email forwards, and so viewers tend to pay no attention whatsoever to the domains that actually host the material - they never learn anything about the creators who entertain them.

In the Internet circus, a seemingly infinite cast of clowns, daredevils, and freaks each step into the spotlight, enthrall the crowd for thirty seconds or so, and then exit back into the dark with barely a bow.

We love our nanostories, their birth and death thrill us, and yet we know that they are devouring us."

The same themes were picked up in a Financial Times article last week, which noted that for many, social media has become "a more personal filter to the infinite world of the Internet." Where people use to turn to traditional portals like Yahoo! or AOL as their entry point, they are now turning to Facebook or their preferred feed aggregator, reading just the news & information that comes in from friends or other trusted sources. Ray Valdes, a media analyst from Gartner is quoted: “We are moving toward a world of ‘snackable’ news that can be shared like pieces of candy or a pack of gum...Unfortunately, we run the risk of losing substance and nutritive value.” 

Wasik closes his book with a brief look at some of the "solutions" to Internet fatigue. Among them:

  • Writer & editor Jake Silverstein's proposed Internet Ramadan, where people go offline for a month
  • NYTimes writer Mark Bittman's Secular Sabbath, an experiment in going offline for a mere 24 hours
  • Chip maker Intel's Quiet Time, where employees are encouraged to go offline each Tuesday morning in order to think (and work) more deeply

There are countless articles with similar themes:

Should we be concerned? Or is our fast-paced lifestyle just the new norm, and the attention-getting books & headlines just another example of the trumped-up crises we crave?


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