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December 11, 2008

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My Awareness Modes

I started to post this on Newsless, but I think it might be more Snark-appropriate.

I’m trying to articulate some of the values and expectations I bring to my media consumption. I wonder whether my tendencies are typical, or how I might benefit from cultivating different values and expectations.

When I visit most local news sites, I have this sense that the editors of the site are trying to foster a sort of “ambient awareness.” That is, there’s not really an organizing purpose behind the information they provide. I suspect they don’t typically expect me to do anything with this information, but they just thought I should be aware of it, or that I might find it interesting.

awareness.gifAlthough I care about Minneapolis, I don’t really have a strong desire to be ambiently aware about it. Having very shallow information on a vast range of Minneapolis-related topics actually makes me a little crazy. I’m not sure if this makes me a bad citizen or an idiosyncratic news consumer or what. But it’s a filter I find myself employing when I read a local news site.

There are many domains in which I value ambient awareness. I think that’s what I get out of my New Yorker subscription, for example — not particularly deep knowledge on any given subject, but a sort of conversational familiarity with a well-curated variety of current affairs. I like to think of myself as ambiently aware of what’s happening in things like video games and Web development and gay culture and Minneapolis arts.

But in the domain of local news, I seem to value information that makes me “functionally aware” — that might actually affect my behavior or circumstances. So I’d pass over a headline like “City likely to OK $5.3M for Target Center green roof”, but “Paperless boarding passes coming to MSP” interests me.

Besides local news, I seek functional awareness in a few more specific contexts, such as Web design and health and nutrition. I read publications on those topics that keep me informed of products or practices or developments that might affect me.

And then there are a select few topics on which I’m looking for what I might call “expert awareness.” Online journalism, for example. And at this level, communities, not publications, are my highest priority.

I think my tendencies might be unique in several regards, but I wonder how many folks are like me. Is there a generational thrust to this sort of thing? And if everyone were like me, how would we draw attention to boring-but-important stories?

Posted December 11, 2008 at 4:42 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Media Galaxy


What a world it would be Matt if everyone were like you.

My habits follow a somewhat similar pattern...although I'm not sure if I would put my New Yorker subscription in the Ambient category...I normally think of it as more of an immersive experience.

Ambient: Absolutely, part of my media diet is focused on the "Did you hear ____?" content. I think newspapers do a fine job with this, but it is audience-specific. Buzzfeed, Digg, and several aggregator blogs that I read give me more than enough of this (I often think my diet is too heavy with this sugar...need more fiber). There's plenty of ways to deliver this information, it is essentially just a curator role, whether through the wisdom-of-crowds or an editor.

Functional: This is the category that I have the hardest time keeping up with. It seems my bookmarks and reader are filled with, "read me, understand me, use me" content. I appreciate those sources that spread this out...honestly, I prefer the magazine/newsletter format used by A List Apart, Make, arts newsletters, etc. I usually need a breather in between each bite of this meal, otherwise it becomes "Did you hear ____" trivia.

Expert: This is where the web excels, and newspapers have struggled (there are exceptions...Postman on Politics in Seattle for example). Here I prefer to go directly to the source, trying to taste the nuance, to figure out the original ingredients that formed a new opinion or idea. I believe that this is the type of consumption media sites have the most ground to make up. The idea that they may be the source, rather than a mediator.

Tangent: I've never been able to figure out why introverts (like myself) still seek and absorb so much ambient media. It isn't that I take much joy from standing around the watercooler (proverbial or not) chatting about the latest SNL/Lonely Island music video or Jesse Jackson Jr.

Lots of thoughts on this, but let me just propose this: the demarcations are fluid and permeable; there's nothing intrinsic to the stories themselves that puts them in one category or another; and it's largely a function of the mode we're relating to the information we're seeking that puts them in one category or another.

For instance, the internet is highly tolerant of temporary obsessions where readers lurk among expert communities. Let's say you're momentarily charmed by a passing reference to the wrestler "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, and spend 10-30 minutes scouring the web for everything about him. Your ambient awareness has just been transformed into expert awareness. Then again, maybe not; after all, if this is just part of the way you typically react to ambient info-noise, then it's hard to differentiate.

What to make of fan culture? especially sports, television programming, etc., obsessions that are seasonal.

I'm always struck by how much time local TV news spends on traffic and weather, but they are, after all, in many cases the most functional kind of information a TV news show can give.

Isn't there a blog where no comment is allowed to be used twice?

Maybe that could be adapted to local newspapers. If and article or column doesn't add something substantially new, it gets rejected out of hand.

Sadly, it seems that fluffy AP wire stuff beats out in-depth local coverage.

Posted by: grover on December 11, 2008 at 09:42 PM

Tim, you're absolutely right about the permeability of these categories. I meant to include that as a note in my post, and "thin membrane" was the term I was going to use to describe the separations between these three.

In fact, to the extent that I have an answer to the last question - how you point someone like me to a boring-but-important story - it requires permeating the membrane that separates these modes. Doubly in fact (?), the model I have in mind somewhat resembles your "Hacksaw" example, Tim.

Gary, oddly, one of the sources that I find most useful for that functional stuff is Popular.

Its awesome that you mention Popular for that. It was exactly what I was thinking about when I was writing the functional comment.

The reason why I prefer the periodical format of sites like A List Apart, was because of my use of I've found that I have to throttle down what I allow myself to click on...otherwise I cannot absorb any of it.

To put it another way, during the average day I roll through about ~100 entries that require ambient-level attention. While I can only really deal with 3-10 entries that require functional-level attention. This creates some weird occurrences...for instance the recent article about 10 useful iPhone Tricks ( popped up prominently on 2 sites that I normally go to for functional-level information. However, I didn't actually read it (surprisingly useful) until it flowed through a site I use primarily for ambient-level content.

The place I know of that allows a comment only once is XKCD chat.

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