Education, Internet, Journalism, Libraries, News, Social Media, Society

What We Learned from Studying the News Consumption Habits of College Students

Over the last year, I was fortunate to help guide a study of the news consumption habits of college students, and coordinate Northeastern University Library’s services for the study, including great work by our data visualization specialist Steven Braun and necessary infrastructure from our digital team, including Sarah Sweeney and Hillary Corbett. “How Students Engage with News,” out today as both a long article and accompanying datasets and media, provides a full snapshot of how college students navigate our complex and high-velocity media environment.

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This is a topic that should be of urgent interest to everyone since the themes of the report, although heightened due to the more active digital practices of young people, capture how we all find and digest news today, and also points to where such consumption is heading. On a personal level, I was thrilled to be a part of this study as a librarian who wants students to develop good habits of truth-seeking, and as an intellectual historian, who has studied changing approaches to truth-seeking over time.

You should first read the entire report, or at least the executive summary, now available on a special site at Project Information Literacy, with data hosted at Northeastern University Library’s Digital Repository System (where the study will also have its long-term, preserved form). It’s been great to work with, and think along with, the lead study members, including Alison Head, John Wihbey, Pakis Metaxas, and Margy MacMillan.

“How Students Engage with News” details how college students are overwhelmed by the flood of information they see every day on multiple websites and in numerous apps, an outcome of their extraordinarily frequent attention to smartphones and social media. Students are interested in news, and want to know what’s going on, but given the sheer scale and sources of news, they find themselves somewhat paralyzed. As humans naturally do in such situations, students often satisfice in terms of news sources—accepting “good enough,” proximate (from friends or media) descriptions rather than seeking out multiple perspectives or going to “canonical” sources of news, like newspapers. Furthermore, much of what they consume is visual rather than textual—internet genres like memes, gifs, and short videos play an outsized role in their digestion of the day’s events. (Side note: After recently seeing Yale Art Gallery’s show “Seriously Funny: Caricature Through the Centuries,” I think there’s a good article to be written about the historical parallels between today’s visual memes and political cartoons from the past.) Of course, the entire population faces the same issues around our media ecology, but students are an extreme case.

And perhaps also a cautionary tale. I think this study’s analysis and large survey size (nearly 6,000 students from a wide variety of institutions) should be a wake-up call for those of us who care about the future of the news and the truth. What will happen to the careful ways we pursue an accurate understanding of what is happening in the world by weighing information sources and developing methods for verifying what one hears, sees, and reads? Librarians, for instance, used to be much more of a go-to source for students to find reliable sources of the truth, but the study shows that only 7% of students today have consulted their friendly local librarian.

It is incumbent upon us to change this. A purely technological approach—for instance, “improving” social media feeds through “better” algorithms—will not truly solve the major issues identified in the news consumption study, since students will still be overwhelmed by the volume, context, and heterogeneity of news sources. A more active stance by librarians, journalists, educators, and others who convey truth-seeking habits is essential. Along these lines, for example, we’ve greatly increased the number of workshops on digital research, information literacy, and related topics at Northeastern University Library, and students are eager attendees at these workshops. We will continue to find other ways to get out from behind our desks and connect more with students where they are.

Finally, I have used the word “habit” very consciously throughout this post, since inculcating and developing more healthy habits around news consumption will also be critical. Alan Jacobs’ notion of cultivating “temporal bandwidth” is similar to what I imagine will have to happen in this generation—habits and social norms that push against the constant now of social media, and stretch and temper our understanding of events beyond our unhealthily caffeinated present.

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Social Media, Twitter

Going Indie on Social Media

Social media is like the weather: everyone likes to complain about it, but nobody does anything to change it. Of course, you can do something about it, and some have — namely, by deleting your social media accounts. But the vast majority of people, even those who see serious flaws with our social media landscape continue to use it, in many cases avidly.

As someone who is naturally social but who has found social media like Twitter increasingly unpleasant and lacking in what drew me to these services in the first place — the ability to meet new and interesting people, encounter and discuss new ideas and digital resources, and make a few bad puns on the side — deletion is not a great option, for a number of reasons.

Some of those reasons are undoubtedly selfish. Having a large number of followers on a social media platform is a kind of super power, as John Gruber has said. With over 18,000 followers, accreted over 10 years on Twitter, I can ask for help or advice and usually get a number of very useful responses, spread the word widely about new projects and initiatives, find new staffers for my organization, and highlight good, innovative work by others.

I will also admit to liking the feeling of ambient humanity online, although the experience of social media in the last two years has tempered that feeling.

So what to do? I’ve tried alternatives to Twitter before, such as App.net, a Twitter clone that launched in 2012. It went nowhere and shut down. I have considered Mastodon, a somewhat better thought-out Twitter replacement that is decentralized — you join an instance of the platform and can even host one yourself, and yet you can connect across these nodes in a very webby way.

Most of these Twitter replacements unfortunately have frictions that slow widespread adoption. It’s often hard to find people to follow, including your friends and colleagues. The technology can be janky, with posts not showing up as quickly as on Twitter. New services are largely populated in the early days by young white dudes (I am fully aware that I am not helping with this diversity problem, although I’m no longer so young). It’s unclear if they’ve truly solved the “I’d rather not be hounded by Nazis” problem, especially since they all have less than a million users, a tiny population in social media terms.

Nevertheless, I’ve continued to prospect for a post-Twitter life over the years, and spurred on by some friends, I think I’ve finally reached a solution that works for me.

My new social media setup is this:

  • Just as I have done with my personal email address, website, and blog, my social media presence will be tied to my own domain: dancohen.org. I’ve chosen social.dancohen.org because it has a nice ring to it and it doesn’t define my social media presence as text, images, or any other single item type. Indeed, it can be all of the above and in the long run replace multiple centralized social media services, including Twitter and Instagram.
  • Even though the root domain is dancohen.org, I can have someone else host my social media, but in an ownership structure I feel good about, and with the possibility of changing that host at any time in the future. I should be fully in charge of my social media, as I am with this blog. My new social domain, social.dancohen.org, thus acts as front end, but just as I’ve changed web hosts and email services over two decades, my addresses for those services have not and will never change. I’m not tied forever to a Gmail address or a service that bonds me to notmywebsite.com/dancohen.
  • I’ve chosen Micro.blog as my new hosted social media platform, because I like how Manton Reece and the early community of users is thoughtful and conservative about features, so as not to replicate the worst of Twitter, Instagram, etc. (See, e.g., this conversation about whether there should be “likes” on the service, and whether they should be public or private, temporary or permanent.) There are also good clients for Micro.blog, including from third-party developers. There are no ads. It has a good clean design that you can change if you like. And you can leave the service with all of your social media at any point for a new host.
  • Micro.blog, in turn, can connect with Twitter, so posts from social.dancohen.org will show up as posts on Twitter, so my followers there can still see what I’m tweeting…or…tooting, about.
  • Although I’ve focused on Twitter in this post, Micro.blog actually has terrific Instagram-like functionality, with none of the annoying algorithmic sorting of your feed and no ads, so I’m moving my photo posting there. (I left Facebook a long time ago, with few repercussions and zero regret.) Instagram does not allow cross-posting from Micro.blog.
  • My domain registrar (Hover) has a great, simple way to connect a subdomain to Micro.blog to create something like social.dancohen.org. This normally involves futzing with a DNS record (which has the geeky and off-putting moniker CNAME). I want my setup to be replicable, and no one should ever have to edit one’s DNS records to create a personal social media hub. Everyone should be able to do this with one click. Get on it, domain registrars.

Here’s my early sense of how this will work:

  • Starting last week, I began making my primary social media posts on social.dancohen.org rather than on Twitter.
  • For the vast majority of people who follow me, they will continue to see my posts on Twitter and interact with them there. Indeed, they probably haven’t even noticed the change unless they looked at my tweets’ metadata, which now includes “via micro.blog”.
  • When necessary, I will interact with replies on Twitter. One downside to my setup is that these Twitter replies do not ping back to social.dancohen.org. Or maybe that’s an upside. Time for me to consider how much humanity I really need to be ambient.

For those who would like to replicate what I’ve done, Micro.blog has good documentation on setting up a personal social media domain like social.dancohen.org, including for the majority of domain registrars who don’t have automated mechanisms, like Hover, for creating a proper DNS CNAME record. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has a more sophisticated setup using WordPress, where her posts of the type “micro” are ported to Micro.blog, and then over to Twitter. Chris Aldrich has a longer description about how to structure your WordPress site to be able to do what Kathleen did, separating brief social media posts from longer blog posts that remain on the root domain.

It feels good to have gone back to my blog and now to go indie on my social media as well. I hope my experience prods others to give it a try.

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Blogs, Internet, Social Media, Twitter

Back to the Blog

One of the most-read pieces I’ve written here remains my entreaty “Professors Start Your Blogs,” which is now 12 years old but might as well have been written in the Victorian age. It’s quaint. In 2006, many academics viewed blogs through the lens of LiveJournal and other teen-oriented, oversharing diary sites, and it seemed silly to put more serious words into that space. Of course, as I wrote that blog post encouraging blogging for more grown-up reasons, Facebook and Twitter were ramping up, and all of that teen expression would quickly move to social media.

Then the grown-ups went there, too. It was fun for a while. I met many people through Twitter who became and remain important collaborators and friends. But the salad days of “blog to reflect, tweet to connect” are gone. Long gone. Over the last year, especially, it has seemed much more like “blog to write, tweet to fight.” Moreover, the way that our writing and personal data has been used by social media companies has become more obviously problematic—not that it wasn’t problematic to begin with.

Which is why it’s once again a good time to blog, especially on one’s own domain. I’ve had this little domain of mine for 20 years, and have been writing on it for nearly 15 years. But like so many others, the pace of my blogging has slowed down considerably, from one post a week or more in 2005 to one post a month or less in 2017.

The reasons for this slowdown are many. If I am to cut myself some slack, I’ve taken on increasingly busy professional roles that have given me less time to write at length. I’ve always tried to write substantively on my blog, with posts often going over a thousand words. When I started blogging, I committed to that model of writing here—creating pieces that were more like short essays than informal quick takes.

Unfortunately this high bar made it more attractive to put quick thoughts on Twitter, and amassing a large following there over the last decade (this month marks my ten-year anniversary on Twitter) only made social media more attractive. My story is not uncommon; indeed, it is common, as my RSS reader’s weekly article count will attest.

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There has been a recent movement to “re-decentralize” the web, returning our activities to sites like this one. I am unsurprisingly sympathetic to this as an idealist, and this post is my commitment to renew that ideal. I plan to write more here from now on. However, I’m also a pragmatist, and I feel the re-decentralizers have underestimated what they are up against, which is partially about technology but mostly about human nature.

I’ve already mentioned the relative ease and short amount of time it takes to express oneself on centralized services. People are chronically stretched, and building and maintaining a site, and writing at greater length than one or two sentences seems like real work. When I started this site, I didn’t have two kids and two dogs and a rather busy administrative job. Overestimating the time regular people have to futz with technology was the downfall of desktop linux, and a key reason many people use Facebook as their main outlet for expression rather a personal site.

The technology for self-hosting has undoubtedly gotten much better. When I added a blog to dancohen.org, I wrote my own blogging software, which sounds impressive, but was just some hacked-together PHP and a MySQL database. This site now runs smoothly on WordPress, and there are many great services for hosting a WordPress site, like Reclaim Hosting. It’s much easier to set up and maintain these sites, and there are even decent mobile apps from which to post, roughly equivalent to what Twitter and Facebook provide. Platforms like WordPress also come with RSS built in, which is one of the critical, open standards that are at the heart of any successful version of the open web in an age of social media. Alas, at this point most people have invested a great deal in their online presence on closed services, and inertia holds them in place.

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

When I left Facebook eight years ago, it showed me five photos of my friends, some with their newborn babies, and asked if I was really sure. It is unclear to me if the re-decentralizers are willing to be, or even should be, as ruthless as this. It’s easier to work on interoperable technology than social psychology, and yet it is on the latter battlefield that the war for the open web will likely be won or lost.

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Meanwhile, thinking globally but acting locally is the little bit that we can personally do. Teaching young people how to set up sites and maintain their own identities is one good way to increase and reinforce the open web. And for those of us who are no longer young, writing more under our own banner may model a better way for those who are to come.

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Blogs, History, Social Media

Information Overload, Past and Present

The end of this year has seen much handwringing over the stress of information overload: the surging, unending streams, the inexorable decline of longer, more intermittent forms such as blogs, the feeling that our online presence is scattered and unmanageable. This worry spike had me scurrying back to Ann Blair’s terrific history of pre-modern information stress, Too Much to Know. Blair notes how every era has dealt with similar feelings, and how people throughout the ages have come up with different solutions:

These days we are particularly aware of the challenges of information management given the unprecedented explosion of information associated with computers and computer networking…But the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period. Ancient, medieval, and early modern authors and authors working in non-Western contexts articulated similar concerns, notably about the overabundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them (such as memory and time).

The perception of overload is best explained, therefore, not simply as the result of an objective state, but rather as the result of a coincidence of causal factors, including existing tools, cultural or personal expectations, and changes in the quantity of quality of information to be absorbed and managed…But the feeling of overload is often lived by those who experience it as if it were an utterly new phenomenon, as is perhaps characteristic of feelings more generally or of self-perceptions in the modern or postmodern periods especially. Certainly the perception of experiencing overload as unprecedented is dominant today. No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new.

Blair identifies four “S’s of text management” from the past that we still use today: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing. She also notes the history of alternative solutions to information overload that are the equivalent of deleting one’s Twitter account: Descartes and other philosophers, for instance, simply deciding to forget the library so they could start anew. Other to-hell-with-it daydreams proliferated too:

In the eighteenth century a number of writers articulated fantasies of destroying useless books to stem the never-ending accumulation…One critic has identified the articulation of the sublime as another kind of response to overabundance; Kant and Wordsworth are among the authors who described an experience of temporary mental blockage due to “sheer cognitive exhaustion,” whether triggered by sensory or mental overload.

When you ask historians which place and time they would most like to live in, it’s notable that they almost always choose eras and locales with a robust but not overwhelming circulation of ideas and art; just enough newness to chew on, but not too much to choke on; and a pervasive equanimity and thoughtfulness that the internet has not excelled at since the denizens of alt.tasteless invaded rec.pets.cats on Usenet. Jonathan Spence, for instance, imagines a life of moderation, sipping tea and trading considered thoughts in sixteenth-century Hangzhou.

Feels to me like there are many out there grasping for a similar circle of lively friends and deeper discussion as we head into 2014.

 

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