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Some Second Thoughts on Mindless Media

When I read Tom Goodwin’s Online Spin last week, I immediately jumped on his bandwagon. How could I not? He played the evolutionary psychology card and then trumped that by applying it to the consumption of media. This was right up my ideological alley.

addict_f1pjr6Here’s a quick recap: Humans evolved to crave high calorie foods because these were historically scarce. In the last century, however, processed food manufacturing has ensured that high calorie foods are abundantly available. The result? We got fat. Really fat. Tom worries that the same thing is happening to our consumption of media. As traditional publishing channels break down, will we become a society of information snackers?

We’re rewarding pieces that are most-clickable or most easily digested, and our news diet shifts from good-for-us to snackable.”

Goodwin also mourns the death of serendipitous discovery – which was traditionally brought to us by our loyalty to a channel and the editorial control exercised by that channel. If we were loyal to the New York Times, then we were introduced to content they thought we should see. But in the age of “filter bubbles” our content becomes increasingly homogenized based on algorithms, which are drawing an ever-narrowing circle bounded by our explicit requests and our implicit behavior patterns. We become further insulated from quality by mindless social media sharing – which tends to favor content pandering to the lowest common denominator.

But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if this wasn’t a little paradoxical? Tom’s very thoughtful column, which hardly qualifies as intellectual fast-food, didn’t come to us through traditional journalism. Tom, like myself, is not a professional journalist. And while MediaPost does provide some editorial curation, it’s purpose it to provide a fairly transparent connection between industry experts like Tom and other experts like you. Tom’s piece came to us through a much more transparent information marketplace – the very same marketplace that Tom worries is turning us into an audience of mindless media junkies. And I should add that Tom’s piece was shared through social circles over 200 times.

So where is the disconnect here? The problem is that when it comes to human behaviors, there are no universal truths. How we act in almost any given situation will eventually distribute itself across a bell curve. Let’s take obesity, for instance. If we talk trends, Tom is absolutely correct. The introduction of fast food in North America coincided with an explosion of obesity, which as a percentage of the US population rose from about 10% in the 1950’s to almost 35% in 2013. But if we accept the premise that we all mindlessly crave calories, we should all be obese. Obesity rates should also continue to be going up until they reach 100% of the population. But those two things are just not true. Obesity rates have plateaued in the last few years and there are indications that they are starting to decline amongst children. Also, although fast food is now available around the world – obesity rates vary greatly. Japan has one of the highest concentrations of McDonald’s outlets per capita (25 per million) in the world but has an obesity rate of 3.2%, the lowest in all OECD countries. The US has a higher concentration McDonald’s (45 per million) but has an obesity rate 10 times that of Japan. And my own country, Canada, almost matches the US McDonald for McDonald (41 per million) but has an obesity rate half that of the US (14.3%).

My point is not to debate whether we’re getting fatter. We are. But there’s more to it than just the prevalence of fast food. And these factors apply to our consumption of media as well. For example, there is a strong negative correlation between obesity levels and education. There is also a strong negative correlation between obesity and income. Cultural norms have a huge impact on the prevalence of obesity. There are no universal truths here. There are just a lot of nebulous factors at play. So, if we want to be honest when we draw behavioral comparisons, we have to be accepting of those factors.

Much as I believe evolution drives many of our behaviors, I also believe that more open markets are better than more restrictive ones. As the mentality of abundance takes hold, our behaviors take time to adjust. Yes, we do snack on crap. But we also have access to high quality choices we could have never dreamed of before. And the ratio of consumption between those two extremes will be different for all of us. Consider the explosion of TV programming that has happened over the last 3 decades. Yes, there is an over-abundance of mindless dreck, but there is also more quality programming than ever to choose from. The same is true of music and pretty much any other category where markets have opened up through technology.

The way to increase the quality of what we consume, whether it be food, information or entertainment, is not to limit the production and distribution of those consumables through more restrictive markets, but to improve education, access and create a culture of considered consumption. Some of us will choose crap. But some of us will choose the cream that rises to the top. The choice will be ours. The answer is not to take those choices away, but rather to create a culture that encourages wiser choices.