Read this one, not this onePosted: May 19, 2013
I love the internet, I really do. As an information junkie it is quite simply the best toy ever. As a child I read, but it was mostly nonfiction. I know that I was a fan of the “Secret Seven”, and would not entertain “the Famous Five” but as an adult I retain none of the nostalgia that is commonly associated with Enid Blyton. The only fiction from my early reading years that I remember fondly is the “Magic Porridge Pot”, but I suspect that much of that is to do with how much I loved porridge, if I’m being honest.
When I got a little older, my teens up to adulthood, I read fiction, but even then the fiction books I loved the most were those that I could learn from. The only novel I was forced to read at school that I enjoyed was “To Kill a Mockingbird” and my favourite of all time is “Catch 22”. There was a brief sojourn through fantasy novels a la Lord of the Rings, although peculiarly I couldn’t get comfortable with Tolkien, it felt as if nothing ever happened in his books, I never managed to finish anything he wrote. Fantasy led to science fiction, Asimov, Heinlein and Vonnegut.
Robert Anton Wilson, was the next big stop, in my mid 20’s and I have often classified him as the single most influential author of my experience. The first book of his that I read was the Illuminatus trilogy, a novel, yet so full of ideas and devices created to make you think, that I find it hard to think of it as a novel. I hoovered up pretty much everything he wrote after that, and as a direct result I started to read about relativity and quantum mechanics, Zen Buddhism and Korzybskian semantics. The last fiction author that marked a warm affectionate notch on the bedpost of my reading history is William Gibson. As has been the case for many people Neuromancer quite literally blew my mind. I loved it and read the whole series voraciously.
That’s a very incomplete history of my dead tree reading but the point I’m trying to make is that I quite literally love reading texts that make me think, and it’s been a behavioural trait of significant longstanding in my life. As such, I spend more time than most hoovering up writing from the internet, and as a result I also spend more time than most trying to find efficiencies in my content discovery and consumption.
I am constantly worrying that I have missed something important, or if I haven’t missed it per se, I simply haven’t had time to read it all. The second scenario is more common.
I have a couple of tools that store content (pocket and my browser favourites/bookmarks) waiting for me to get around to reading it. I don’t always manage to get through it all and sometimes I have to discard stuff I’d have liked to read that has been displaced by newer stuff that seems more important. I have written previously about my consumption process and my sense of awe (envy) for those that lead us intellectually in this day and age, and how they get through so much reading, so quickly and so effectively.
I know that some people are capable of reading a lot, and then intelligently suggesting where we mere mortals should invest our reading time. Their comprehension being as strong as their ability to read quickly, they are therefore able to advise us, read this article, but not this article. Such a distinction is only possible if their reading has been more than a superficial scanning. I suspect that there are many more people who create the impression that they read a lot, but in fact do little more than this superficial scanning of headlines in most cases.
I have a certain level of incredulity about some of what is commonly accepted regarding the social revolution, and how effective it has been at driving an increase in significant interactions for knowledge sharing. I know that the broad import is true, technology certainly gives us this functionality, but I suspect that the breadth of the effect (the number of people actually doing it well) is massively overstated.
At the heart of this post is a feeling that most people simply don’t read much of the content that flows through their various social channels. In the vast majority of cases this is a trivial observation as most people simply don’t want to spend their time reading dry, information heavy articles, and don’t care to create the impression that they do either. However, I still suspect that most people don’t come close to getting through the inane and trivial, the human connectivity, the families and friends, the status updates and the photo albums either.
The idea I am trying to explore is the suspicion that many people just aren’t reading that much, even though they are portraying the impression that they are. I’m focussing mostly on the sharing of knowledge, educational or professional information, but believe that my observations to some degree also apply to the relationship content that bombards us through our social networks too.
The key vector is not that people don’t read, but that the new social paradigm facilitates the belief that they do (self delusion), and provides an incentive (social capital through sharing activities) to benefit from such a belief.
I have some ideas as to why.
We have at our fingertips the most flexible, dynamic, accessible and interactive store of knowledge that humanity has ever known, making information available to the masses on a self-serve basis.
On top of that the whole social paradigm has created a set of tools which delivers this knowledge, almost unbidden and en-masse, in a very flexible customisable range of formats. It is no accident that the analogy of a fire hose is often used to describe social channels. An effect that is less acknowledged is that simultaneously with this huge ingress, we can also broadcast a stream of links and borrowed opinions carved from this incessant flow of largely unclicked URLs and that these acts of sharing, create the impression of significant knowledge consumption.
The simple hypothesis is this – underneath the design principles of the modern web are revealed incentives for slightly deceitful behaviour.
It’s certainly not ground breaking to suggest that the overriding media paradigm of a time has an overarching effect on the population of that time. This after all is the full essence of McLuhan’s observation that the medium is the message. My favourite quote about this comes from William Gibson.
We know that something happened then. We know that broadcast television did something, did everything to us, and that now we aren’t the same, though broadcast television, in that sense, is already almost over. I can remember seeing the emergence of broadcast television, but I can’t tell what it did to us because I became that which watched broadcast television
Gibson perfectly captures the inherent difficulty in trying to pin down the effects of new dominant media channels. From the inside, the view always looks wonderful.
I don’t intend to revisit McLuhan’s theories here (link for anyone interested) but they are a fundamental issue of our times. He believed that the inevitable focus on the message itself would often mask the slower, more structural changes that were heralded with each new medium that overtook us.
These are the kind of changes I am looking to explore in this post.
At the heart of the social universe is the concept of sharing, and indeed it might be fair to suggest that amongst a number of design principles that are clearly a big part of our world today, sharing of concepts, content and often simply the inane minutiae of our humdrum existence is an ethos of significant import.
In the clearly stated intentions of every new social application, or even simply just implicit in the human concept of socialising, in the analogue and the digital, the proliferation of sharing buttons or the dominance of Facebook we comfortably, and smugly, acknowledge that the digital facilitation of sharing is a boon, a gift a stunning accelerator. Something we are to be proud of. And so we should be, even though I am being a little snarky I do tend to agree that this ethos is indeed something we must be pleased about.
But there are often 2 sides to a story, so here’s my curmudgeon’s opinion too.
The current dominant architecture, streams and feeds, is a strong sharing architecture, but is also a deficient reading architecture, and that even though it is fantastic at delivering vast quantities of tempting links, short sparkly précis and concise 140 word take downs across a huge range of topics it does nothing to aid and encourage in depth, cross topic non-linear and effective knowledge consumption.
Anil Dash and Streams
Anil Dash recently published a blog post titled “Stop publishing webpages“. Reading it I found myself getting somewhat unsettled, but in a very little kind of way. I have a great deal of respect for Anil, garnered through reading the words he publishes via the very tools I am describing now, so I am aware that it might seem as though I am on shaky ground. Nonetheless I struggled with this particular piece and his insistence that we should abandon the webpage and publish exclusively to the stream. I couldn’t see why this would be something that any thinking person would prioritise.
I read the article’s comments and took great pleasure in discovering that I was not alone, although the key dissonant observation was that the world Anil seemed to be describing was the world of RSS (as a layer on top of webpages). This wasn’t strictly true although I agreed with the commenters that the goals Anil sought to achieve were already delivered by RSS and that no significant change, such as “stop publishing webpages” was needed at all.
I’m not on Facebook, which probably goes some way towards explaining my ambivalence to streams, but nonetheless I am on Twitter, although like most people, I only consume a tiny fraction of that feed. Social updates simply aren’t a part of my media life, sorry. I read a lot, but its chiefly impersonal information, non-fiction, news to deep analysis to the opinions of today’s thought leaders as I explained above.
I have tried a couple of different RSS readers over the years but, whereas I understood why people like them, I found that all they did was remind me how much content I wanted to read that had to remain unread. So, I’ve defaulted to using a series of organised folders in my browser’s bookmarks, manual browsing of those sites for specific posts and a long history of JSON files backed up in Dropbox for archiving and protection against a critical system failure.
I understand how streams are good for interacting with Facebook feeds, conversational twitter exchanges and image heavy platforms like Tumblr, essentially short form content, but for longform deep reading I find that full screen ownership is more suitable, more likely to get me reading and thinking, which is why I port almost everything into Pocket.
Here’s the thing about streams, they are a structural component of sharing but not of reading. Obviously you can read from a stream, I’m not saying you can’t juice knowledge from streams. What I am saying though is that the key design value is how streams enhance the efficacy of sharing, while doing nothing for the efficacy of reading and that, more pertinently, on top of that they perpetuate illusions.
An illusion of consumption and an illusion of publication.
Anil’s 3 arguments
Anil’s argument in favour of streams as his exclusive consumption design was three fold.
- Consumers have overwhelmingly opted to consume their content via apps which deliver via streams
- Blogs sort of work like streams but they don’t deliver enough control to the user (reader)
- Ads would work better in streams
I pretty much reject all 3 positions.
1. In this instance what consumers have opted for should have no automatic bearing on what a sensible design approach should seek to deliver, unless the overriding concern is adoption and as a result of that adoption money, which, for me, it is not.
It is true that consumers, en-masse, consume mostly through streams, with Facebook perhaps sitting at the top of the list. What is also true is that the vast majority of consumption, as a result, is ultra-short form. Content is dominated by the status update and not much more. What is also true is that for most people that’s all they want and they are served well.
This, therefore, becomes an opportune moment to state succinctly that I am not against streams; I am just appalled at the idea that they may become the only distribution scheme available.
Streams distribute vast volumes of content to people, so much so that they can’t even come close to reading it all, in a format that allows them to skip through with a superficial exposure that, sadly, often passes for the belief that the content has been consumed when it simply hasn’t.
Because the design encourages sharing and provides social capital for conspicuous sharing the consumer wants sharing to be made very easy, which is what has happened. That, however, is not a good reason to devalue the design scheme that encourages reading, by killing it.
2. If you read blogs and you want more control, then consume your blogs in an RSS reader and get the best of both worlds. It’s all available with existing technology that doesn’t encourage any degradation of the reading experience.
3. Ah, the money.
Ok, the money is important. I’m certainly not a free (£) content advocate. I don’t believe that writers and artists and musicians are effectively slaves to the good of human culture. It is an issue of some concern to me that we find a way to pay our valued content creators such that they continue to contribute to the good of humankind.
But here’s the thing, if you look at the technology blogosphere as one example, the people who are worth reading are earning good money already. Sometimes they are professional writer’s, sometimes they have other professional obligations that encompass their writing, sometimes it’s a labour of love given freely and sometimes the writing is a learning experience and a mechanic to sully discourse and interaction to the betterment of the writer’s knowledge and professional obligations.
Admonitions that we must build architectures for advertising are about supporting the platforms, not supporting the writers. So, Facebook and Twitter get to survive if we all read exclusively within their feudal walls. Ugh. There are so many reasons for dismissing such a situation but in the confines of this particular post the key concern is still the lack of reading comforts. These platforms need to keep you intrigued, and within their castle walls, and to do that they blind you with so many titbits, attractive shiny snippets that keep you asking for more. That is an environment that can barely foster consumption beyond 500 words let alone introspective thought.
Here’s the really odd thing. I don’t, for one moment, think that Anil’s motivation for pushing us towards streams is a barely concealed pitch for Facebook’s business model. Well it is, but not because Anil wants to drive money to Zuckerberg, rather I imagine (and I am guessing here because I don’t know Anil personally) that Anil is hooked into a particular community that does use these tools to drive valuable, learned and interactive discourse driven by a core of shared content. Anil is probably receiving the value that I am suggesting is strongly absent in the general population.
As is the case for most technology bloggers and thought leaders of repute, these social tools provide Anil with ready-made self-publication platforms, quite literally at his fingertips (no gatekeepers) and a significant, and easily maintained, audience to boot. No need to worry about circulation and writing what the editor wants.
These platforms do deliver great value, beyond just sharing, to Anil and the other 1% of 1% of 1% at the top of the tree. These are people who do read widely and deeply, who don’t just skim over the content that flows through their streams (If I were to be proved wrong on this and these writers were shown to be also consuming superficially then I would express severe disappointment and downgrade their contributions to guesswork – but I would be the only person affected, their goals would still be achieved).
The fact that we can all follow them via these same tools means that the very same real value can also be shared widely. When I look at the output from the thought leaders of today, being distributed by social tools, I must (however much of a curmudgeon I am) acknowledge that the sharing design is a massive boon. It gives us options and access to advantage that we have not had before.
This, I think is why we see so much support, and so little critical discourse about the sharing / reading dichotomy from the tech world blogosphere. The experience of a prominent writer in the tech world will be massively positive and somewhat insulated from the world of poseurs that build false impressions of deep consumption. When you live amongst the elite thinking echelons of the world already, digital and/or analogue, access to great thinking isn’t such a novelty, the problem of signal/noise ratios is somewhat less critical than it is for the rest of us.
So, if I am acknowledging this very real delivery of value, which I take delighted and liberal advantage of, what are my concerns?
Quotes like these start to explain. Firstly, from Anil himself when making his first point above…. (emphasis mine)
The most popular of those apps, like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Tumblr and others, are primarily focused on a single, simple stream that offers a river of news which users can easily scroll through, skim over, and click on to read in more depth.
From the Nextly website…. (emphasis mine again)
makes it easy to navigate quickly from one article to the next using the arrow keys on your keyboard, a much appreciated feature since keyboard shortcuts are often a handy way of powering through a lot of content.
So, here we are getting to the nub of my case.
The problem with the sharing architecture isn’t that it can’t be used to facilitate quality knowledge share, it’s just that in the main, it isn’t used to share knowledge but does facilitate the impression that participation in the stream is just as effective.
Nextly is a new app that is, apparently, going to revolutionise the way we consume content, once again. I’m sounding snarky again, but it’s a nice set up actually. It allows you to scroll through your Facebook or twitter feeds, or a range of other streams collated by Nextly from a large range of websites (GQ to reddit and others), using keyboard shortcuts. And, of course there is one key sharing using hotkeys. It’s sort of clever, I can appreciate where they are coming from, and although there seem to be some little glitches (some pages didn’t present well in the Nextly window for some reason when I had a play) I still have issues.
I struggle to see what is difficult about powering through a lot of content apart from finding enough time to do it. Even discovery is a matter of trust and time, trust in the reputation of the people or algorithms you follow, and time to follow a large number of people or algorithms. Similarly if you don’t trust someone / something to filter your feed then you must read everything yourself.
The idea of powering through content, with the aid of technology, with the implication, to be more precise, that I can now power through because of the technology suggests to me that for some people headlines and summaries are more important than actually reading and understanding whole articles.
Faux consumption if you will.
I had a play with the Nextly demo, and it’s quite slick. But then after I had literally whizzed through 20 odd articles, just literally clicking left and right with the arrow keys, in about 90 seconds, pausing very briefly here and there to glance at some of the actual content, I was shown this message
Wow, you just read 25 pages on Nextly!
Except of course I hadn’t. At all. I hadn’t read anything. I don’t think I could even claim to have skimmed the headlines.
So, on the one hand we have a set of design principles that can help to convince people that they hold a deeper level of knowledge than they actually do. That’s not great, but people thinking they know more than they actually do, is hardly new.
On the other hand, however, something that is new (that has been transformed) is the modern wonder of curation, that most antiquated of tasks, the stuff of old men in museums, now available as an automated process masquerading as thought leadership.
Of course, there is some great curation going on. Let me get that out of the way right now. Even discarding the purely subjective nature of curation, my comments her are not intended as a critique of curators per se.
It all comes back to time and effort.
If I follow your feed, blog or stream and have been led to believe that I am experiencing your personal curation (topic specific or generic), then at the very least I expect you to have read everything you have included. And I don’t count skimming or speed reading. If you want to consider your output as a curated stream of content then I want you to have enjoyed reading it (or found it an essential experience if it was not a natural joy). I don’t care if you thought the headline was interesting or relevant. I can make a similar assessment myself from my own streams and feeds.
I don’t care if you know or believe that the author is worth reading, and that their content is worthy of being fed to me even if you only glanced through it. If that’s the case I will follow them, not you.
Moreover, if you are curating a feed I’d like to think that you have discarded a much greater amount of content, content that you have also read properly, than that which makes the cut and is included in your output.
If you are not making informed choices based on a true deep consumption then you are not curating, you are aggregating, and aggregation is infrastructure not human endeavour. This confusion of aggregation and curation is problematic when it gets tied in with the concept of publishing, and especially when the design schemes describe these activities as publishing or curation, when in fact we mean low level aggregation.
My poster boy for selling this faux impression of curation is paper.li
It’s another nice piece of technical kit that allows individuals to publish their own paper. If it stopped as a content reader, like flipboard, I would have no issue. But instead the language used describes the users of paper.li as publishers and editors and their actions as curation, and I feel this is a weak assessment of what is going on, that encourages the behaviour I have been describing.
There is a 3 step process involved in setting up your own personal paper.li weekly edition.
1. Select your sources – The Newsroom
This involves choosing other people’s/publication’s streams and includes a little bit of extra selection control. So for example you can select for specific topics within a publication that publishes across different topic areas, or you could specifically exclude a writer from the same stable
2. Customize – Make it your own.
Ok, so this is the tool that allows you to select which posts or links to include? You’d have thought so, but no. This is where you define the language posts are published in, what frequency your paper should update with and a ‘little pizzazz’ with custom colours fonts and background imagery.
3. Promote – grow an audience
And of course, finally, a very useful set of tools to help you engage with the community and to find readers.
When you first visit the site you are faced with this line,
To which I obviously ask how you could possibly know if these articles, photos and videos are engaging within minutes, if at the very least it might take you ten minutes to read the ones you include, let alone those you have excluded.
There is an endorsement from a ‘trend spotter’ and ‘strategist’ on the site that captures the heart of what is causing this mild consternation.
Paper.li is powerful and simple to use. You can monitor peers, trends and industry news while establishing credibility as an expert along the way
And that there is the problem, largely because I don’t doubt that what is said is true.
- Powerful and simple – tick
- Monitor peers, trends and industry news – tick
- Establishing credibility as an expert – tick, but a problem
It would appear that pointing people towards experts has somehow become the act of being an expert yourself.
It’s time to remind you (if anyone has actually read this far) that I am not against these social tools, I am simply surfacing some of the secondary effects that are also starting to appear as a result of the massive popular adoption of them.
Take Twitter for example. Seemingly hardly anyone updates their feeds with any regularity and even the most ardent Twitter fan manages to actually consume only a small fraction of their incoming feed.
Have a look at this series of Tweets from Ricky Gervais making the point that a lot of people simply don’t read the content (the 140 characters, not even the linked content) but happily seek to gain social capital as a link in the sharing chain. The accompanying reddit thread had many pointing out that much of Twitter is fed by bots; automatically re-tweeting against a ‘curated’ set of other twitter feeds. Are people really so lazy, or so daft, that on a platform designed to enable anyone to follow anyone else, there is a role for bots that just follow other tweeters? It doesn’t make sense.
JP Rangaswami tells a tale of receiving a follow request from a band called the Dimes.
First, I wanted to know who had started following me, I don’t like spam followers. When I found out they had 6K followers, they followed a similar number and that they hadn’t tweeted since December, they looked authentic enough to me.
The post was written in March, so according to JP, an authentic twitter account is one that doesn’t update in 3 months (obviously this is a context and not the only marker)
None of these anecdotes describes an authentic media design to me.
OK, time to get to some conclusions.
The headline thought is that there are certain elements of the sharing architecture, prevalent in today’s world, that are encouraging behaviours that are less than laudable.
I had been using, as a working title for this piece, social sociopathy, but I think that that is too strong. It’s certainly a dramatic way to get some attention though, but perhaps that is why it was the phrase that I first chose when putting my thoughts together.
The internet and the social revolution have been fantastic at making tools that enable the sharing of knowledge, in ways that increase the efficiency of knowledge transfer to entirely unforeseen levels, and which have also opened up access to knowledge to a wider group of people (potentially anyone) than any liberal minded individual of the last 100 years could have dreamed possible. It is truly awesome.
A key element of this architecture is the concept of a stream of content, the likes of which drive Facebook and Twitter and is also how RSS presents. I am not arguing against the adoption of streams as an effective sharing mechanism, but I do believe that they should stop at sharing, unlike Anil Dash who was arguing that we should publish primarily (or even exclusively) into the stream, instead of maintaining webpages as we do today.
I have tried to show that streams and feeds, while being massively effective at sharing are less than effective as reading tools, and that they seem to encourage the belief that the act of sharing is as valuable as the act of knowledge acquisition itself.
A great example of this is the common bastardisation of the skill of curation which through certain services has become a simple and, reduced act of aggregation, a straightforward selection of sources. Many are using this automation to broadcast the impression that they consume a fantastic amount of knowledge, when they are in fact simply scanning headlines, or even worse, using automation to send out tweets and links that haven’t even been scanned at all.
Every time I see a part truncated headline in my linkedin content feed I know the poster has used one key press and syndication to share the link, probably, across many different networks. The fact that they haven’t even bothered to write me a headline in constructed English, opting instead for twitter (for example) to truncate the original article’s headline at 140 characters, does not endear them to me, in fact I am more likely to dismiss them as fly by nights who pay superficial attention to how they present via social media, at exactly the same time that they think they are displaying ninja level chops.
Communication via the written word remains in many ways as it has been for over 50 years, maybe more. It takes time and effort. It involves as much reading as it does writing, if not more, and when communicating ideas and concepts in depth, long form is, as it always was, king.
Do I have practical solutions? Not really. I personally adopt a consumption (discovery and reading) scheme that allows me to have as much input into selection as possible. I visit websites, on a roughly scheduled basis and review the current content and also the archives as far back as my previous visit. It’s not a perfect methodology but I feel I get a chance to review, superficially, a much greater number of pieces than if I only had streams. Every one of those sites archives and makes my access to those archives more functional than any stream I have seen. Maybe these comforts are just for me, I get that, my stitched together scheme only works, in truth, because I also make a conscious effort to put the reading hours in. I like surfing the primary publishing locations but I know that that is not important to everyone. The bottom line involves making time available and deciding to prioritise the activity of reading.
If there is an observation to be taken away from this essay maybe it is that we should be aware that there is a perverse incentive sitting alongside this marvelous set of sharing tools and use that to make more judicious selection of the entities we use to filter our hosepipes.