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.