Attention Curation?

July 15, 2011

I have a question for all of you.

How do you decide what information to consume? More specifically, let’s focus for now on news. How do you decide which news stories to read?

Do you read what flows by on your Google Reader or what your friends post to your Facebook news feed? Do you overhear people talking (or tweeting) and google things yourself? Do you ever read newspapers or magazines or listen to news on the radio or watch it on TV? Is that news The Daily Show?

How do you decide how to allocate your attention? And, moreover, is it more active on your part (seeking out details about certain stories of interest), or more passive (a feeling that the news that’s important is making it to you without much effort on your part)?

I’d love to get your thoughts uninfluenced by my own, but since it’s hard enough to capture a bit of your attention, I’ll just share mine right now.

I used to get most of my news from the Internet. While common perception sees on-line news as the novelty, for me it’s the old way of doing things, and I’ve discovered something that feels to me like a brilliant innovation: television news.

Specifically, the PBS NewsHour. I love it. Not only does it go into considerable depth, but it does the hard work for me. I make an effort to tune in and pay attention, but I don’t have to be making active (but less informed, and therefore strenuous) choices about what I should be reading. I feel like I’m being briefed by someone who knows my time is valuable. Very cool.

It has the bonus of not being in front of the same screen to which I spend most of the rest of my life shackled. (No, no, as I keep saying, I love the computer and I love the Internet. I love that I can stay in touch with friends through Facebook and IM, but I wish I could see more of them in person. But I digress. As always, my issues here stem from a need for balance restored.)

I also like PBS because there are no commercials. It’s not that I mind commercials per se; it’s just that the commercials on NBC/ABC/CBS remind me that I am not the target audience. (Then again, it’s no worse for me than watching hockey games….) Just because I’m sitting in front of a TV consuming news doesn’t mean I want to ask my doctor about Cialis.

I feel like I stumbled across the Next Big Thing, only to realize that the world has already left it behind. But it really works for me! I love it!

This goes into the idea of attention curation. Eli Pariser alludes to this concept in his book, The Filter Bubble. This is about how Google and Facebook figure out what content we’re likely to like (or find useful, in the case of Google specifically; I note this to make it sound slightly less sinister). They want to give us content we like (or find useful) because it makes sense economically. Pariser notes in his book, however, that this has the effect of exposing us to fewer perspectives, since we generally like things with which we agree, and that support our preexisting ideas. That, however, isn’t always healthy for democracy. I don’t think Google or Facebook are being actively evil, but I do agree with Pariser that this could have a detrimental effect on us.

So another reason I like PBS is that I trust them to choose the stories that I need to know, and to bring in a wide range of perspectives. (Whether that trust is misplaced and how it might be earned by other media are other good questions, but I won’t go into those now.)

But most of all, there’s just so much information out there that there’s no way I can figure out what to pick. But thanks to one hour a day of PBS’s attention curation service, I feel like I’m staying on top of the things that matter the most. I certainly use the New York Times’ recommendation service (and I’m a paid digital subscriber), and I follow Facebook posts by my friends, and I search Google for more information about the stories on which I want more depth.

But in today’s day and age, as Google and Facebook know, attention curation is an important service.

So, who’s your attention curator and why?

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3 Responses to “Attention Curation?”

  1. I usually refer to this as Information Literacy. It’s something all Librarians have: the ability to weed out what is important and what is not.

    Many of the kids todays have no sense of Informational literacy. No ability to filter and determine what’s fact and what’s baloney.

    Broadcast “news” isn’t much helping (for the most part), nor news reporting in the first place because I keep thinking we’re sliding back to the Spanish American war. News is supposed to mean “facts of the day”. Much of broadcast news is now “facts rendered through opinion”. Why do CNN and Fox “News” report stories as news, and render an opinion? From what I recall of journalism, that’s what we call tabloid reporting. Reporting the facts to your viewpoint.

    I get my news from whatever I can, and I follow the news according to what’s important to me, or what’s important to my friends and family. Sometimes, even Fox News. I run the stories through internal filters… if the same news is reported multiple times, you can take all the different viewpoints presented and get the real story more or less.
    But I’m still stumped at times by what’s reported as news… like the resent Anthony court case. That seems like a local “spotlight” story to me, but someone decided it was so tawdry, it was worth national broadcast…

    Broadcast news, it has to be captioned. If it’s not, I can’t watch it. Local news captioning is hilariously bad. Famous example: Hillary Clinton was launched on a cruise missle (I still have no idea what they intended to say there).

    My attention curator is the world wide web. :)

  2. Hey Jessie!

    - NPR, primarily by radio when cooking or driving (Morning Edition if I work 8-5, otherwise I’ll pick one of the news shows that’s convenient)
    - BBC Radio if I work an early shift or a really late shift
    -NYTimes.com, though their page limit + my poverty = demoted to skimming the “front page,” national section, and food news
    - Le Monde or one of the German newspapers when I have a few minutes to waste online
    - Local papers if in a store… I used to buy the Sunday edition, until the Kalamazoo Gazette went off the deep end! I’ll probably buy the Sunday Grand Rapids paper on Mondays for 50 cents!

    In any case, I usually seek out stories related to education and social welfare. I’m not allowed to watch TV news b/c I get really upset and start yelling at the TV.:) Same thing with Comedy Central. They make me listen to the radio in another room:/

  3. Thanks for the thoughts, Michael and Alison! Michael, I think your point about information literacy is a good one. I wish they’d teach us more about it in library school these days, because I’m not so sure I’m good at it — but then again, maybe my consciousness of the difficulty of it is more than most people have? But I at least can distinguish between fact and opinion (and between ordinary opinion and propaganda). What I struggle with is a way to get as broad a look at quality information in the minimal possible time. Which, clearly, is a key aspect of librarianship.

    Your comments about Fox and CNN and the like moving to editorialism (and, again, even propaganda) is another subject that is EXTREMELY important and closely related but more than I can tackle here. Suffice it to say, I agree.

    Alison, it’s interesting to me that you note seeking out stories based on areas you care about particularly. I do that too, definitely. Do you feel that the more “general affairs of the world” is sufficiently covered by NPR and the like? I tend to feel that I get that from NPR and PBS. (I do NPR while cooking and driving too, not that I drive these days, which is why I’ve switched to PBS while eating dinner.)

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