Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I have an information overload problem.

I can be very critical to people of older generations who are stuck in their ways on how they get news, yet I may be the one with the problem.  I can't remember the last time I watched news on TV, except in passing as I get breakfast at the cafeteria at work or at the airport.  If the news does somehow make its way onto my television screen, I am usually disgusted by how uninteresting or how sad the news is, and neither of which inspire me to action or have any real impact on my life.  Thus, TV news is not for me.  I have tried listening to news stations on my satellite radio, but they bore me without the visual content and I'd much rather jam to music in the little time I have to myself in my car.  I don't subscribe to newspapers; partly because I hate the feeling of paper and creating more stuff to recycle, and partly because newspapers aren't as up-to-date as Internet-enabled sources of news.  Peer review journals and magazines strike me as uninsightful and too generic, and remain with the newspapers as lagging in immediacy.  

I am aware of, and use to varying degrees, a number of amazing tools to get news tailored to the specific interests of the user.  I use Google Alerts for all things electric car related as well as news on the next casino implosion in Las Vegas (with the intent to book a hotel overlooking it as soon as the news breaks so I can watch the implosion) and more recently, autonomous vehicles.  Then there's StumbleUpon which I guess provides random articles and blogs related to the interests selected, but may not be the most recent.  I have Breaking News alerts from Fox News sent to my work email, as well as several news letters from the aerospace industry and from The Economist.  This method of attaining news is obviously only as good as my ability to check my work email; thus when I'm at home or traveling I may have no clue what the most important news items of the day are.  I hesitate to call facebook a source of news information, but following the companies and people I like does give me some insights into upcoming local events and, from time to time, I get news from my facebook feeds, too.  Lately, I've been using Twitter because I can follow certain people, companies and news organizations tailored to my interests and read just the headlines; and then if I want to learn more it takes me right to the article, picture or video.  I used to use RSS feed, remember those?  I'm not sure anyone still uses them, but they seemed like a good idea at the time.  Another tool I use less and less is the Yahoo! Trending Now top searches; if you see a theme in those, or a celebrity name and you don't know why it's there, that can clue you in to what is going on in the mainstream.  There is also Digg, which I've attempted to use and just haven't gotten the hang of it.  I'm sure there are plenty of others in this line of thinking as well.

I criticize the old-school media, and the people who rely on them, in favor for these high-tech, more immediate sources, yet I have been known to miss major news stories for weeks on end as a result of turning my nose up to mainstream news media.  I miss the major stories for a number of reasons.  First, many of my sources are too niche to catch the general faderah of the world.  Australia could be having a civil war for all I know, and none of my sources would say anything of the sort, because I don't follow Australia politics.  The exception could be facebook or the Breaking News Alerts; they might clue me in if it is significant enough.  So my second cause is that I have so much information coming to me in various formats, that major headlines might as well be lost as a non-news item.  Often, it takes several posts trending before I'll realize something major is happening.  And if I don't have time to read all the posts, I may never catch a trend.  Third, I don't have a routine that works.  I have so many news sources, some are "pushed" to me via email, and some must be "pulled", meaning I have to go looking for them.  Most of the information "pushed" to me is low criticality, so in times of overload at work, I may very well sort that email out of my inbox before reading a word, with the intent of going back and scanning it once I have some free time.  The free time rarely comes, so that news almost always falls on deaf ears.  An additional problem, although not a contributor to missing "major" news stories, is that somehow I'm still not getting all the (slightly niche-y) news I want.  Can you believe it?  Specifically, I want to "follow" college football, and less so, I want to follow college basketball and professional football.  But I don't have that strong of an interest; I really just want to know how the new head coach is doing or if ASU will be better off next year, or who is favored in the next game and why.  Sources of sports news just give me way too much that I don't actually care about, so I've tuned them out altogether.  

Thus, my conclusion:  I've got an information overload problem.  Taking a step back and putting my criticism aside, I can see the value in old-school media.  First, there is consistency; you know what program you watch or listen to, when it's on, who is reporting, and how local or global the program is.  Those reporters instill confidence that they are giving you the most critical information of the day, and you can infer that if they are covering a lame human interest story, that there is nothing catastrophic going on.  Second, there is a forced conciseness.  A newspaper runs the same sections and columns, and doesn't expand or contract by factors of 10 or anything like that.  The news show runs for the same period of time, with extended coverage only for the most dire of emergencies or elections or things of that nature.  So you are comfortable with the amount of time commitment required of you to get the overview of what's going on in the world; your time spent doesn't flex wildly from day to day.  Third, there is credibility on the line, and thus accuracy is a major focus; as opposed to Internet sources which can infuriate me with their inaccuracies and idiocy.  

My other complaint about news is that journalists have what I call "news memory"; much like muscle memory, in which dancers or athletes train their bodies to repeat specific desirable motions, news memory is when journalists create hype around stories that really aren't newsworthy but are similar to previous news sensations.  For example, the southeast US sees hundreds of hurricanes all the time, but after the spectacularly devastating Hurricane Katrina, journalists were piping up about every little routine hurricane that cropped up.  In fact, every natural disaster seems to be followed by smaller storms hyped up by the news media just in case it's another big one.  One major school shooting will be followed by copycats which get proportionately more air time than they should.  A solar company has problems, all solar companies become scrutinized to see what they have to offer by way of dirt and scum.  An electric car catches on fire, suddenly all electric cars are suspect (nevermind that the technology is the same as what you hold to your ear every day, or that there have been more lives endangered by iPhone battery problems than by electric car battery problems).  It's absurd, really.  The difference between news memory and muscle memory is that muscle memory is intentional and for good reason, where as news memory is just a desperate attempt at veiling the journalists' inability to distinguish between newsworthy and routine events.  

Last week I took part in my first live Tweeting event.  That's not to say that I haven't been to an event where live Tweeting was going on, I just didn't really partake in that part of it.  It was at the #NASASocial event (and you can read all about it in my other blog posts), but what struck me the most is that our information was more exciting, more relevant and more immediate than what NASA or SpaceX, even traditional media, were putting out.  Certainly, with the access NASA and SpaceX had to the event, they end up with better pictures and videos.  And our #NASASocial group didn't always get the facts right or the names spelled correctly, so there is something to be said about reputable journalists versus the mass public.  But there is also something to be said about the immediacy and timeliness of the news, as well as the ability to pinpoint the most important information, which gets retweeted around the world within minutes.  It was really incredible to watch the feeds; it wasn't just our group partaking, people were asking us questions because we were there, and were showing their support from wherever they were.  When the Dragon first had a problem after launch, it was rumored to be something that our group had probed specifically for answers on, so there were congrats in play about being so insightful to ask such questions.  Our group also got some incredible soundbites that I anticipate could be used for all sorts of promotional materials for advocates of women in science and engineering, inspiring our youth, you name it.  Other commercial space companies may be looking at our interviews for sources of information, and may be tapping us to help spread the word about their ventures.  

On a side note, I have heard for a long time that certain companies, specifically airlines, will react to negative customer tweets and try to help fix the problem for those customers.  I assume there has to be something to the opposite effect, like if I am clearly a promoter of a company, flattering them, they will not only retweet it but perhaps they would be more prone to give me a discount or a free upgrade the next time I'm in, or something to that effect.  To experiment with this, after finding several living and dead insects and spiders in my hotel room, I thought of a quick tweet to direct at my favorite hotel in Las Vegas.  "After staying at @Cosmopolitan_LV everything else feels like camping."  I sent that off just before checking out, not wanting to necessarily complain to Days Inn about my cheap accommodations, but to throw props towards my favorite hotel instead.  Indeed, within hours, Cosmo picked me up and had favorited it, although I guess I anticipated a retweet.  This by no means concludes my experimentation, I am just starting to grasp how Twitter can make personal customer experiences not just from the business side but from the consumer side.   

So I'd like to hear for you, my readers.  Am I missing something that could totally simplify how I get news and keep me updated?  Or is this a bigger problem with society today, with no solution to speak of?  

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