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Media Snacking

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we consume media these days and how this transformational shift is affecting us all.

First, I should tell you that when it comes to technology trends in communication I tend to be an early adopter…not quite on the cutting edge but close enough. I also tend to be enthusiastic about these changes, most of which are happening online, viewing them as a positive step forward in how we engage with content, how we learn and how we obtain our news. But as sources of online content increase in number and scope, coupled with the rise of social networking, it looks as though we may also be in for a future of increasingly balkanized information and fragmented content consumption…something I’ve referred to in the past as info snacking or media snacking. But before I get too deep into an explanation of what I mean by that terminology, let me first describe what my self-created media ecology looks like .

Several years ago we stopped almost all of our magazine & newspaper subscriptions (I still have a couple that I can’t let go of…like Harper’s and The Atlantic…and my wife still gets Washingtonian Magazine). We did this partially in an effort to be “greener,” and partially because we had become increasingly used to getting our news, educational and arts & entertainment content online. So I now read The Economist on my iPad, as well as browse through Politico, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Huffington Post and Slate. I get a digest of the Wall Street Journal in my email inbox every day. I also get e-newsletters from Government Executive, Nextgov, Washington Technology and several other government related publications.

A few months ago, I also decided that we would cancel our cable TV subscription. We had already been getting used to watching movies and documentaries via Netflix (by mail) and other programing fare via Hulu, so I canceled our cable subscription but kept our cable modem, and bought a WiFi router and a Blu-Ray DVD player instead. The router lets me access the speed of the cable modem via various of the WiFi devices we have at home (via our iPads and laptops) and the Blu-Ray DVD player lets me view Netflix and Hulu movies and programs on my TV.

While proud of our move towards more media independence and control, I also wonder about two trends that have accompanied this new state of affairs. Increasingly, both my wife and I can sit in front of the device of our choice and watch (or interact) with whatever content, information and programing we may be interested in at the time, which includes what our friends, colleagues and others may be saying or doing via the various social networks we belong to. It also means that although we have narrowed our own fields of interest, those funnels are now capable of presenting me with almost unlimited choice within that narrower scope. Let me explain. I love documentaries. And furthermore, and more narrowly, I love political and social justice documentaries. Netflix now knows this (better “suggestion” engines, a la Amazon) and has managed to recommend no less than a hundred political and social justice documentaries of all types…and since they make it so easy to add a title to my personal instant “queue,” I’ve got more than a hundred documentaries patiently waiting for me to decide to watch them.

Now multiply similar access to various other passions and interests (via smaller screens on multiple devices) and it’s not hard to imagine that the Aldo Bello media universe is a fairly large space. Not only that, it’s got so many goodies, all of them pre-selected and waiting to be sampled, that it’s hard to stay with only one thing…hence, my media snacking comment. I have found myself sampling and accessing content of short duration from many different sources. The social media networks actually function best in this manner…Twitter being the most extreme example…but Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media spaces function very similarly…short bursts of content, often devoid of larger context. Additionally, when I got rid of my magazine and newspaper subscriptions and began to sample news and information via selected online sources, I have been reading more but not as deeply, another problem associated with media snacking.

So one trend is towards media snacking which I believe, forces one to sample, and which often implies that deeper understanding is out of the question. But I’ve observed an even more disturbing trend, and that is towards the balkanization of information. Aldo Bello’s universe of online media is so attractive that it tends to present me with the things that I want (hurrah for that) but keeps me from accessing other information, in a way that hardly ever happened with print magazines and newspapers…or cable TV (even though I could always choose to ignore certain channels, and did). Increasingly, I hear people talk about the content that they access in a way that is different from the recent past: favoring certain channels and altogether avoiding others. I am beginning to think that it’s this trend that is contributing to a lack of civility in political discourse and the resulting lack in bipartisanship.

What do you think?

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Aldo – and I hope it spurs some discussion. I am definitely a media snacker. How I combat it is by reading more books…vs. just online content. It’s the only way I feel like I am completing something…even though I am doing more reading on a Kindle these days 😉

Also, you may want to check out Roku – web-based apps for your TV.

Profile Photo Jeff Ribeira

My name is Jeff, and I am a media snacker.

Agreed. Very thought provoking. Having a relatively long Netflix documentary queue myself, I know exactly where you’re coming from. Sounds similar to the debate of whether or not the DVR actually saves you time or just makes you watch more tv. Does having so much media at our fingertips really help us save as much time as we like to believe it does? Like Andy, I try to “unplug” myself from the digital world around me whenever I can help it (read a real book, go on a run without my ipod, etc). With the convenience and sheer awesomeness of many of our modern gadgets it can be tough to do, but I find it increasingly necessary in order for me to still feel like a real human being. I mean, I love my electronics just as much as the next person (perhaps even more), but I guess I’m still a little old fashioned in that regard.

Profile Photo Eric J. Akers

Definately a thought-provoking post– and not just from a consumer point of view. The phrase “media snacking” neatly sums up some similar thoughts, and concerns, I have had regarding how technological changes are affecting the role and capacity of governments to communicate with the public writ large. If the public is increasingly composed of ‘media snackers’–how does this change how information should be shared with the public? Media snacking describes not only that we can have a whole lot of what we want, but that we can exclude what we don’t think we want, making it dificult to provide new information or topics to an audience. Being able to exclude alternative points of view, or topics, limits the ability of consumers to understand or accept that there may be more than one correct solution to a policy problem.

Profile Photo Bill Brantley

Great post! This is tangential but, as a professor, I’ve noticed that even though students seem to have better and easier access to even more information than I did their research papers don’t seem to be any better researched than when I was in college. I would spend hours in the library checking printed references and scrolling through microfilms for journal articles.

Compare that to students who can research vast libraries of journal articles without having to leave their dorm rooms. They also have software tools that can do the statistical analysis for them and organize their bibliographies for them. One would expect a vast improvement in student papers but I just don’t see it. If anything, it seems like the torrent of information has led to a decrease in the quality of research and analysis.

As to your question: there is a great book on this very subject that was published in 1992 but the author seems to be writing about today’s media-rich environment. Reality Isn’t WhatIt Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World by Walter Anderson

Profile Photo Tarryn Reddy

Interesting post! I think these quick spurts of information have made people form snap judgments about people or issues (especially political). With Twitter you get to choose who you want to hear from… but often never really get to read any other opinions on the issue. (I guess this is good if you don’t want to!) I agree with Aldo… it seems like this is making people more partisan than ever.

Profile Photo Aldo Bello

Love the “unplugging” with a book comments by Jeff and Andy…and Andy, I end up reading books on my Kindle or iPad too. Have podered getting a Roku…might still do it. Eric and Tarryn, yes, that’s the problem with balkanization, the exclusion of the “other.” In this case the other is information and opinions which we exclude because they aren’t coming form the “right” source (I mean that as in correct, not the political spectrum, ha). Eric, you bring up a great point…how do government agencies communicate in a world in which it’s very easy to ignore or exclude certain channels of information. To take this a bit further, if the current “we don’t trust gov” attitude espoused by some is taken to its logical conclusion, then how do you reach out to that segment of the population (which seems to include even some Congressmen and their staff, ha)? Bill, interesting observation about your students and thanks for the book recommendation…will definitely read it (love the “theatrical politics and ready-to-wear religion” part of the subtitle).

Profile Photo Colleen Ayers

Bill, I love your comment about the quality of research papers not increasing with more available sources, but instead decreasing. I had always thought of myself as a very good student who was organized and pulled together information well… until I hit law school. And discovered that I had never really LEARNED how to pull together research! And the “ease” of gathering information didn’t help, because on top of just finding the information, you also have to judge its value and credibility, more skills that aren’t taught as part of a basic education. Certainly seems to apply to the average person’s consumption of news.