The Way We Get News

A few minutes ago I sat down to write an entirely different post. My attention was caught by a friends’ comment on another friends Facebook post. That post asked prayers for the children of Oklahoma. Dreading news of yet another school shooting, I Googled “Oklahoma news”, trusting that the top hits would be from the Google News feed. It wasn’t a school shooting. It was a massive tornado, a mile wide, that traveled straight through Oklahoma City. This happened a few hours ago.

The news article contained a captured tweet from Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin. The tweet used the hashtag #okwx. I followed the tag to a real-time stream of comments, links and backyard photos of the tornadoes path.

Much has been written about Twitter and Facebook as a source of breaking news. I’m not sure I have much to add to that conversation, except “yes”.

I am struck by how far I have come from the way I used to get my news. I stopped watching televised news several years ago when the steady tide of breaking news became too much and overtaxed my nervous system. At that time, I trusted NPR to deliver the news I needed via radio. During times of national crisis or local emergency, I knew that NPR would prime me to pay attention where attention was warranted.

Late last year, I became obsessed with  podcasts, which now occupy my entire commute to work and back again. I don’t watch TV news. I don’t habitually listen to radio news. I have stopped reading newspapers and really don’t even follow newspapers blogs or Twitter feeds. I am off the media news grid. And yet, I still keep informed.

I use news curation tools like Zite, Feedly and Flipboard to push important stories up to my attention. This keeps me relatively well-informed about day to day updates. I fill in the cracks with media podcasts like On the Media to help me make sense of larger trends and find stories I missed.

The gap here is breaking news. Today, for the first time, I realized that I trust my social networks to let me know when something big is going down, and that I am okay with that.

I don’t need to know every last detail as it becomes revealed. I don’t need to watch wreckage porn to know things are bad. I just want to know what is happening, what is being done to respond and what I can do to help.

I am really interested in how people discover, interpret and receive their news. I am especially interested in those patterns of behavior as information habits. Where do you get your news? How have your news habits changed? Comments are most welcome.

Keep the people of Oklahoma in your thoughts. They are going to need our help for many years to come.

Becoming well-informed

Yesterday’s post about information rituals missed the point. I was working with the idea of information rituals as intentional, useful information habits. Yesterday’s post was a screed written by a madman, crippled  by the compulsive need to stash web links in the virtual nooks and crannies of his web space in the misguided belief that there will someday be enough time to visit them all, watch them all, read them all and use them all. There won’t be enough time and there won’t be a point. Yesterday’s post was more about link hoarding than about information rituals.

Yesterday’s post failed to consider this: why bother? The goal of link catching, organizing and follow-up can’t be to visit them all. There is no point to that. The web is immense and growing on a scale far beyond the human mind. Before we can consider useful information habits, we need to consider the goal. What are we trying to accomplish?

You can’t learn everything. You can’t be interested in everything. If you are, you certainly can’t invest your attention equally in all directions.

Information rituals should help a person benefit from their information streams: Facebook, Twitters, blog feeds, social bookmarks, emails and so on. The benefit is gathering the raw materials needed to be well-informed.

Being well-informed means seeing an idea or event from many different directions. Being well-informed means having a sense of understanding about a thing, how that thing relates to my life and how that relationship changes over time. Being well-informed is about gathering resources that help you make good decisions. Being well-informed helps you set goals, plan actions and assess outcomes. Being well-informed helps you lend value to others who can benefit from your specialized knowledge and focus.

And so, before I can think about developing useful information rituals, I need to establish my purpose. What is it about which I wish to become well-informed? This, it seems, will determine the most suitable rituals to cultivate.

So here’s the list of things about which I am trying to stay well-informed. These are more than just recreational interests. These are events, themes or concepts about which I need to become and remain well-informed in order to accomplish my larger goals. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • writing: as an action and a process
  • libraries: why we need them, how they operate, what they do
  • leadership theory and practice
  • books: what is being published, how are those books being received, what is their impact
  • eBooks: emerging publication models and the business of eText,  how reading eBooks compares to reading print books, how to connect readers with eBooks through library collections
  • mobile technologies and their use in education
  • open education: models, platforms, possible goals/outcomes
  • educational technologies: how technology intersects usefully with teaching and learning
  • pedagogy and learning theory: how people learn, how we teach people to learn more effectively; how libraries contribute
  • information theory: what is information, how is it used, how do people seek, find and interact with information
  • changes in web technology
  • social media: how they create communities of interest and how to use them to deliver messages to audiences
  • Buddhism and mindful living
  • parenting
  • creativity and things that inspire people to accomplish useful goals
  • politics and political action
  • world news
  • local news

Ah. I begin to see the problem. This is a very broad list, and I know the list is incomplete. I am trying to wrap my mind around too much. I am becoming somewhat informed in a number of these areas but am not being purposeful enough in finding where these areas overlap. I am sipping from streams of information that pertain to all of this but not focusing intention on developing deep knowledge.

I need to pare down my daily information diet. I need to identify the most beneficial sources of information in these specific areas, find places where these overlap and pursue those channels with greater focus. This might mean dropping some blog feeds. This might mean reshaping my Twitter feeds. I need to raise the criteria I use to screen what sources I try to follow to increase the value of time spent with each.

I do realize that this thread of posts may seem crazy. What I am talking about here is cultivating a mindful approach to information overload. We all suffer. We can all benefit from new habits. I suspect in the future, the ability to quickly filter information, screen out background noise and act quickly on the highest quality information will be a basic requirement for survival.

The mind evolves to survive our circumstances. I believe we can take control of this process. In fact, I believe we have to take control of this process or we will get bewildered, blinded and lost. If we don’t find ways to cultivate useful information rituals, we will become more and more poorly informed in the most information rich time our species has yet seen.

Standing in the stream

People don’t “surf the web” anymore. Or, if they do, they don’t tell me about it.

I’m glad. I always hated the expression. The web browsing as surfing metaphor never rang true for me. As if clicking from link to link to link was a challenging, exhilarating experience that required skill, focus and a measure of bravery.

I always thought of web browsing more like jungle vine swinging. Reaching frantically from branch to branch, trying to get someplace you can’t really see and hoping all the while you can somehow quit crashing into trees.

But this post isn’t about the metaphor of web browsing. I just want you to know I don’t do much of it. I don’t have the patience required or the tolerance for tedium.

That’s not to say that I don’t spend a great deal of my time online — reading, gleaning, gathering. Take a look at my Google Bookmarks account and you’ll see a digital hoarder at work. A magpie of hypertext.

I just don’t get my web content by running around on the web and trusting my clicks to take me anywhere useful. I prefer that my content come to me.

I read a library blog post several years ago (was it FreeRangeLibrarian?) in which the writer described a future wherein information comes to people rather people going to their information. I understand what she means.

Like I said, I’ve never been big on Googling a topic and then browsing links to see what’s there. For a short while, I tried StumbleUpon as a discovery engine but found the result pretty much the same, random hits about diverse topics without a single common thread for context except that they were “about” a general interest of mine — writing, history, Beatles, Buddhism, technology. This is a maddening mashup of sites that add little value to my life.

So there’s the crux. I need my information to add value to my life in some small way. My information needs to inform or enlighten or, at the least, entertain. If it doesn’t, I’m bored.

So, I don’t often go out in search of news or information. I let news and information come to me. Like a bear standing in a stream catching fish.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Facebook: I use Facebook mostly to read articles or watch videos posted by friends who share common interests. I’m not a great Facebook friend. I often find myself asking Michelle, “Does so and so have kids?” only to find that my good friend so and so posted every pregnant moment for the past 9 months and then delivered triplets. How did I miss that? Friendship fail! I missed it because I was more interested in the articles.
  • Twitter: I follow 84 people and am followed by 36. I’m not prolific. I catch interesting links from time to time. My favorite use is during a conference or other event, monitoring a hashtag to have conversations with many people in a “happening”. That’s fun. Like having a private, telepathic conversation. A layer of conversation at a pitch only I and a few others can hear.
  • Google Reader: I follow 92 blogs. Most are about librarianship, educational technology and eText. RSS is the best (and only) way for me to keep up with my favorite thinkers on a particular topic. I am very rarely caught up. Right now, I have 946 unread stories. I’m not sure there’s a prize for skimming/reading them all but it feels like I should for some reason. This was a real burden until I started using the FeeddlerRSS app for iPad. It has been a great way to read my feeds since each post takes a screen and you can move through posts by swipping.
  • Flipboard: So, I mentioned that I feel bad about not being a better Facebook friend. It isn’t that I don’t care about my people. I just don’t want to spend a lot of time visiting each and every profile to see what’s new. The new FB redesign has helped a little but I still really only see the updates from about 20 friends. That’s where Flipboard comes in. Flipboard takes my FB feed and reassembles it as a magazine of images and captions on pages that can be swiped. Very efficient. I see pictures and posts from people I care about but don’t always think to check up on. I like an update or comment on a post and sudden that person is back in my regular FB stream. I’m a good friend, after all. Nice save, Flip Board!
  • Zite: This is my favorite iPad app of the past 3 months. Zite uses my Google Reader, Delicious and Twitter feeds to assemble a customized magazine of articles predicted to be of interest to me. I can like or dislike a specific article to provide feedback and can indicate specific elements of interest within a story to see more like it. Here’s the thing about Zite: it knows me really well. Nearly all of the articles presented are interesting to me and there is very little duplication of articles discovered through FB, Twitter or my RSS feeds. Automated information concierge. Brilliant!

These 5 sites/apps take up pretty much all of the time I spend online. In other words, I pretty much only ever really go to 5 sites on the Web. For me, they are very sticky and very helpful. They pull together streams of content into a single river. Several times a day, I wade out into the river to see what’s there. Actually, that’s not true. With my iPhone, iPad and Chrome Twitter extension, I am pretty much always standing in the stream.

I don’t mind. It is no effort. I spend a great deal more of my time reading and thinking about stuff than filtering and deciphering.

Not sure if anyone out there is still “surfing”. If you are, I hope you are having fun and don’t mind so much that constant feeling like you are always just about to drown.