Outer Meatspace

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Meet Your Editors. You already know them. You had dinner with a few of them last night, beer flights over plates of hot and cold tapas at that place under the highway. Another moved to DC after college, but he stays in touch, is a gifted phone-talker, among his other skills. One’s in Portland, another in Pittsburgh. And for all of them, no matter where they are, it’s their full-time job—paid through reciprocation—to keep you informed, educated, primed. They are your editors. They decide the news.

Of all the happenings—new laws, old scandals, new technology—the majority of it is now captured, recorded, retold, and printed (online or off) by someone, some news organization. And if that were all, we’d be lost, forever treading the inky water of wsj.com. But that team of editors—unique to you, unique to me—is tailoring it. Slipping you links. In emails, Facebook messages, tweets, comments. A collection that, in sum, represents a personalized publication with yours as the nameplate, your friends and family, the masthead. News has never before been so personally customized.

Well aware of how much has been said of the digitization of news (and life), I am hesitant to delve into the metrics of the more widespread repercussions of this phenomenon, but I was curious enough to conduct my own qualitative—if highly informal—research.

Meet Adam. He’s an acquaintance from college. One of those guys always asking the big questions. Much like myself, he seemed haunted by the intricacies of life, thought, belief, and experience—and their myriad interactions. Adam is now a cultural anthropologist and consultant on the West Coast, “managing the web presence” of a startup called LivingSocial. Everyone who knows Adam will give an understanding nod to my choice to interview him on this subject. The man is a guru-in-the-making—if not our generation’s Marshall McLuhan, at least on track to become a prominent voice in the world of media anthropology, much like the professor that no doubt started him on (or at least contributed to) his journey.

For those of you who don’t know him, Adam’s most relevant credential is that, by his own admission, he spends the majority of his time online. So I asked him about his participation as both an editor and consumer of this new form of news.

Timothy: How many links do you think you share in a day (via any site)?

Adam: Personal: 10 or more. Work: 30 or more.

T: Do you have any idea how many people generally read the items you post?

A: My blog averages 75–100 non-unique visitors per day. On Twitter, 360 people follow me, so taking the streaming nature of Twitter, lets assume .25 of those people actually see the content I post. That makes 90 people who actually see the content I tweet. On Facebook, I have 430 friends so, for similar reasons, let’s say .15 see the content I post. That’s 64.5 people. I interact primarily on Twitter and Facebook and blog infrequently, so let’s not factor in the visitors to my blog. 90 + 64.5 = 154.5 people who are ambiently aware of my presence and the content I post. That number is quite interesting, actually, if you consider that Dunbar’s number is 150…

T: Assuming that someone sharing a link with you improves the chances of you reading that particular story, does the likelihood you’ll check it out depend on the sender?

A: Certainly. People build their reputation on the content they post. Over time, I’ve become ambiently aware of who generally posts what content and what to expect. Also, if someone posts too frequently I become desensitized to their presence and are less likely to check out the links they post. Same goes for if they don’t post frequently enough. There’s a threshold, but I can’t say exactly what it is.

T: How often do you feel the posted items filter back into offline life (i.e. about what percentage of posted/shared stories do you later discuss in person with a friend or contact?)

A: Well, since I spend a majority of my time online, I consume most if not all my information this way.  So I’d say almost everything I discuss with friends in meatspace is inspired from something I consumed online. Almost.

T: In theory, the stories shared specifically with you will resonate with you more deeply, since they are most likely tailored (in style and content) to your interests. What about stories that are posted by friends/contacts but that are not shared with you specifically? Do you find these stories tend to hold something more meaningful as well?

A: I occasionally receive links shared directly with me, but I’d say most of the content I consume is from glancing over my feeds (e.g. Twitter, Facebook). The links shared with me tend to be more timely in that they are the result of a recent conversation or event that I had or experienced with the person sharing. In that sense, I’d say they resonate more than others not shared exclusively with me, but on any given day, I can find plenty of non-exclusive shared content that resonates equally as well.

Meet Brian and Sean. My friend Brian represents a poignant example of a life shared via the cables and network connections of our digital avatars. Adam is right that there is, and always will be plenty of content to discover on our own, without the help of others. Yet, we may not give enough credit to how special this personal sharing can be. (I use that word knowing how easily mocked it is.) I couldn’t find the exact occurrence, but Brian once wrote to me, “There’s just so much to share with people, and it often seems like this is the best way to do it.” He was referring to online interaction: blog posts, commenting on these posts, leaving personal notes to connect and remain connected. He’s since reprised that sentiment; he says reading what others post is a priority, because it’s become the best way to bolster relationships.

Another friend, Sean, likewise seemed to imply that the personal connection is very relevant. He said that he browses anonymous online offerings (official news stories, for example) lightly, almost off-handedly. But when he reads something a friend has written (here he mimed squaring himself in his chair and leaning close to screen), he buckles down and concentrates. His entire posture changes (literally and metaphorically).

Granted, he was talking about actual writings, not just shared links. But what our editors give us matters a great deal. I will not only more readily take the time to read a story or watch a video someone shares with me, but I’m often tempted to get more out of it, more aware of meaning lurking somewhere in the words or images, knowing it inspired another person—and not just that, but someone close to me.

Meet Your Cohorts. There are people like Adam and people like Brian. People like me who prefer meatspace to the other kind. And people like Derek who use the Internet in absolute wondrous ways (and who is slowly teaching me too). If you are like me, at times you pine for a time when you would huddle around the radio to hear the news. The same news heard by your neighbor a few miles away. You get wistful for that kind of nationwide collectivity.

But look again. If there is anything reassuring about the digitization—and now personalization—of news, it is this: as the Internet twists and tangles the world, we are all in this together. No one is unaffected; therefore no one is isolated. If we are being pulled farther and farther apart—into our individual spheres with our friendly editors feeding us personalized news—the exact same force is keeping us together. Whether we rail against it or accept it willingly, the point is there is still a “we.” Every link we share is also literally a link between two people. Two people who are both immersed in a shared world—one that’s never before been navigated.

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4 Responses to “Outer Meatspace”

  1. Sean Conner October 3, 2010 at 4:39 am #

    Speaking of our editors, or our arbiters, this Wired article makes an interesting argument for how the internet is changing. The gist is we’re shifting to an ‘app’ based configuration with our internet visitations, preferring the simplicity and direct access for a nominal fee rather than the overwhelming amount of ‘stuff’ you have to run through in classic browser mode. Intrinsic in this is an editing, delivery based on the lens of a few, select and trusted application / organizations. The democracy of information could be falling. Hail the oligarchs.

  2. readzebra October 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

    I read that! Very interesting, as is all this, which was sent to me in response to my writing on this topic:

    from my brother, matthew: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-bianchini/the-evolution-of-social-t_b_433815.html

    https://www.thecommon.org/

    some TED from nick timmons:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/stefana_broadbent_how_the_internet_enables_intimacy.html

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/erik_hersman_on_reporting_crisis_via_texting.html

    and some thoughts from christina: “First of all, let me say I absolutely agree with your assessment that the method in which we receive a news item shapes the connection (or lack thereof) we feel to it. For example, I have a cousin who works in Minnesota politics who is probably as close as anyone’s ever come to my ideological opposite. However, I love and respect her, so I’ll read the news item on, say, Sarah Palin or TARP, with a lot more thoughtfulness and less eye-rolling than usual, simply because I’m trying to figure out why she identifies with it.

    From a less personal angle, I think people are more likely to trust news they receive from a friend or other trusted source. I work at a newspaper – where I can vouch for the amount of thought and effort devoted to staying objective and avoiding the appearance of any bias. Despite our best efforts, about 40% of our readers are convinced we’re flaming liberal commies, and another 40% are convinced we’re right-wing Obama haters. People are inherently suspicious of news organizations choosing what information constitutes news, and coloring it with their secret agendas.

    I’m glad you talked to Adam. He’s the man.”

  3. Adam Bo September 27, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    How am I only seeing this now?! I’m… honored, humbled. Had no idea my thoughts would be formalized in this type of forum. I’m glad I could be of some assistance. We all really should collaborate and converse more often. I feel some amazing things would come out of it. Cheers.

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