Are we headed for an information obesity crisis?

Jessica MurphyFrom articles slamming Sarah Palin to celebrity gossip to pieces that
confirm what you knew all along – in a world of information obesity, we
only consume messages we most enjoy. But there are consequences to
bingeing on junk info, writes
Jessica Murphy.

Hey, fat head. Yeah, you!

Have you been bingeing on buzz stories, a news soda-pop overload?

What about those op-eds confirming you were right all along? Psychological macaroni and cheese.

Those articles slamming Sarah Palin? Data danish.

We’re heading towards a society suffering from information obesity, a world where we only consume messages we most enjoy.

Guilty pleasures define foods we shouldn’t eat and media we shouldn’t consume, a litany of self-indulgence from gossip blogs to thrillers and sports pages to reality shows.

It’s information combined with emotion, a media id. We’re seeking out content that stimulates and entertains us, spurring feelings of anger, joy and excitement. What we aren’t doing is hunting out informative content – but we’re avoiding news roughage at our peril.

It’s a danger highlighted by danah boyd, a social media researcher with Microsoft Research New England.

In a speech at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York last fall, she discussed changes in the way media is disseminated – from the centralized broadcast method, where information is pushed out to the passive viewer, to a networked model, where the power is in the hands of the consumer to pick and choose.

We’re creating our own media echo chambers, collecting information that confirms our views, ‘friending’ people who harbour like-minded opinions and choosing news that does both.

Take the booming gossip industry. Celeb news source is in full expansion mode and is worth an estimated $100 million. and its properties are valued at $300 million. PerezHilton, $44 million.

We’re bingeing on smut.

Meanwhile, today’s newsrooms, with their 24-hour news cycles and diminished resources, are pushing (cheaply produced) punditry and narrowing their news agendas. Newspapers, which traditionally offered a wider narrative, are suffering.

Not only are we consuming more intellectual junk food, we’re sticking to the comfort of familiarity. Despite our access to global resources, boyd found we tend to connect predominantly with people just like us.

(Here’s a factoid that blew my mind: boyd came across gays who thought Friendster was a gay dating site because all their contacts were other gay men, and teenagers who believed MySpace was a Christian site because all of the profiles they saw had biblical quotes.)

It’s a phenomenon backed up in initial findings by former Apple engineer Pete Warden, who mined 210 million Facebook profiles in the U.S. for data and looked for patterns. His company, Mailana, is making the information available for university research. Here’s what he says on his blog about some of his findings: “Looking at the network of U.S. cities, it’s been remarkable to see how groups of them form clusters, with strong connections locally but few contacts outside the cluster.”

In the southern U.S., for example, God and football rank high for fan page popularity, while along the lower west coast, Starbucks is on top. Connections stay within geographic boundaries.

Those results are echoed in other recent communications research. A study last year out of Ohio State University suggests Americans spend more time on media stories that confirm their opinion and less on those that challenge them.

Interestingly, those who held the strongest opinions were the ones most likely to seek out opposing viewpoints – but weren’t looking for new insights that would change their minds. Also, avid news consumers are more likely to avoid opposing views.

The researcher, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, has spent years studying the phenomenon, dubbed ‘selective exposure’ – a broad term that encompasses our tendency to avoid information inconsistent with our beliefs.

“People have more media choices these days and they can choose to be only exposed to messages that agree with their current beliefs,” she said, suggesting a link to the increasing polarization of U.S. voters.

In boyd’s words: “Technology does not inherently disintegrate social divisions. In fact, more often than not, in reinforces them.”

It’s a grim message, but the landscape is still shifting under our feet. The way we consume information is in flux, power is being redistributed.

So let’s not get nostalgic about the good old days of nightly newscasts and the local broadsheet on your doorstep. We have the ability to shape the media ecosystem we’re helping to create. We can pave the way.

We live in a world where information is everywhere – boyd calls it streams of content.

By recognizing and acknowledging our instinct to reach for information that both emotionally stimulates and comforts us, we can head off the information obesity epidemic before it hits critical mass.

Knowledge, after all, is power.

Projects like Warden’s Facebook analysis will give us a clearer picture of how we live in our new media ecosystem. Work like boyd’s allows us to hold a mirror to the ways we’re approaching information.

We need more research into the psychology of how and why we filter our online flow of information, so we can better understand the cultural and social media choices we make. Technological innovation in online social and information networks could initiate and encourage an open flow of conversation outside our comfortable homogeneous clusters. Teaching critical thinking and its grandchild, media literacy, in primary and secondary schools could give a new generation the intellectual tools to make informed media choices – an information food guide.

As for journalists themselves, we can all make a concerted effort not only to produce comprehensive, complex and in-depth journalism but to promote and support it as well.

And you, dear reader? You can start by eating your vegetables. Now go chow down on The Economist.

Jessica Murphy is a Montreal-based print and broadcast journalist with The Canadian Press. Her freelance articles have also appeared in publications like The Montreal Gazette and Naked Eye magazine. Connect with her on twitter @jnewshound.