For the past 3 years, I’ve been addicted to the news. My usual days are punctuated by checking the NPR Newscast (via the wonderful NPR One) every couple hours, reading articles linked through Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, and listening to topic-focused news podcasts throughout the day as I exercise or do chores.
I’ve been reflecting on what motivates me to devote so much time and attention to news. I want to know what is going on so that I can feel connected to and orient myself within the world. The past few years have brought a dismaying array of social, economic, and political challenges that seem to only accelerate. Often, catching up with the news compensates for a feeling of restlessness from the mounting problems my country and planet faces.
In America, the dominant sources of news (media corporations and social media) are monetized based on advertising. Advertising demands attention. The more frequently and longer you engage with a broadcast medium, the more ad impressions result. Likewise, on social media, the more time you spend scrolling through feeds, the more sponsored content you’ll consume.
I recall hearing a story about how food science is engineering delicious-tasting, empty food. Bland crackers and chips are enhanced with seasonings that create addictive, habit-forming snacks. Our taste buds love the flavor of these snack foods, but they provide little nutritional value. Reflecting on social media, I fear a similar effect is happening: we have engineered our information streams to be addictive streams of interesting but worthless information.
From 2011-2014 I worked at Reddit. I recognized the role addiction played in the product, and rationalized that we were channeling that addiction into teaching people things and exposing them to new ideas. I was addicted myself, and often interrupted my coding or thinking to feed my own info addictions. When I catch myself boredly scrolling through my feeds searching for something interesting, I sometimes wonder how I have come to so devalue my attention and focus.
Whether the addictive qualities of social media were intentional or an emergent quality, they are now actively cultivated because they produce business value. Designs and algorithms are optimized to increase the amount of attention users give to media products, and changes that reduce engagement are rolled back.
I believe that this is causing us to create information streams that are fundamentally unhelpful. Social media doesn’t benefit if it provides information that is useful; the incentive is only to take our time. The design of infinite, randomly assorted feeds engages us all in the sisyphean task of trawling for what matters to us. There will always be more to see. There is no goal to satisfy that will end our search. We have optimized ourselves out of a sense of agency.
A similar dynamic exists with broadcast news. The more frequently we tune into our news sources, the more ad impressions will result. To keep us coming back, there has to always be a new story, a new update, new information to disseminate. So there always is. Similar to how an audio compressor makes everything sound loud by increasing the volume of the quiet parts, news keeps our attention by providing information with a steady level of significance.
As I’ve reflected on this, I’ve come to refer to this kind of news as “fast news”. Fast news is Twitter, hourly radio broadcasts, cable news, and frequently newspapers. Fast news is pieces of stories as they develop in real-time, constantly becoming superseded by new information. Fast news is zoomed in on somebody somewhere else right now. Similar to social feeds, it’s addictive because it’s endless and inconsistent: the next important event may be just around the corner.
There is a serious problem with fast news: it turns us into spectators. With a focus on the immediate, fast news presents us with information that we can barely react to before it changes again. Fast news surfaces facts before they can be processed into patterns. Every story has a long tapestry of events and dynamics that preceded it, which we miss when we constrain our view to what’s happening now. Similar to engineered foods, fast news feeds our desire for information without serving the reason we consume it: a need for information that is actionable and enables us to direct our lives.
Being able to receive and act on news as it happens can have tremendous value, such as in the case of natural disasters or organized protests. However if we look at the amount of time we invest in consuming fast news compared to how many choices it presents us with, there is an obvious disconnect. Ironically, by the time we receive fast news, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.
An alternative could be news that exposes opportunities we can participate in. Behind every disaster is a years-long recovery effort. Behind every political move are larger influences, inspirations, and public drifts in sentiment. Slow news changes the focus from individual events to ongoing topics. By weaving events together into continuous stories about larger causes, those causes become things we can debate, influence, and change. Slow news is not about describing the present, it’s about understanding the future.
Unlike fast news, the amount of slow news to consume is finite. If little in the big picture has changed, there is not much new to speak of. This presents a challenge: without a constantly-changing perspective, why will an audience return to it? A successful slow news source must justify itself by the practical value of the information it provides, not by how interesting it is.
Changes in the world, even from acute events, are usually the result of a long ongoing effort. It’s not possible to orient this effort at the pace of fast news. An ongoing value of slow news is to provide focus and context in the face of change. When our perspective is zoomed out, and not changing so quickly, more attention can be paid to the actionable aspects of ongoing, slower transformations.
How we think about ourselves and the world fundamentally changes how we function, and our information sources play an outset role in this. I am seeking to reduce the priority of fast news in my life while staying informed during these changing times. What sources are you following to accomplish this? Are there any that you would consider to be slow news?
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.