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Is Social Media the Death of Depth?

2009 May 19
by Eric Hwang

I wrote that headline and noticed that there’s only one letter difference between death and depth. Just a funny coincidence I guess. I decided to write this article after reading W.R. Tish’s post about the online version of the now defunct WineX and some of the comments that were posted about “content compression” and the “McNuggetization of news.” When Seattle’s local newspaper, The Post Intelligencer, closed down in favor of a web-only presence, it really signaled, for me, the beginning of the end for traditional print media. News experts and activists in the area cried that this was the death of critical reporting that is part of the system of checks and balances in our local government. After all, without investigative journalism, who is going to keep our elected officials and big business in line. Responsible journalism is dead, they moaned. I disagree. Journalism, responsible and otherwise, continues through the web, social media and blogging. I think it’s the responsible consumer of news that is slowly dying.

My wife and her family have characterized the Millennium generation as lazy or unmotivated. I bought into that notion for a while, but after being a passive observer of social media for many years and an active participant for a while now, I don’t think it’s a matter of laziness or even a generational thing. Since the time when I graduated from high school, the amount of knowledge in the world has grown exponentially. What a daunting task it would be today to not only gain the knowledge that the baby-boomer generation has learned but also the news and discoveries that continue to accumulate every day. All that collective knowledge, or perhaps I should say, the access to that knowledge makes it difficult to determine what is important and relevant to our lives. For many, information overload often leads to apathy or inaction.

With so much competing for our attention, who has the time to explore issues with profundity? We get our news in 30-second video clips or 140 character tweets. I find it rare that I have time to sit down and read a newspaper or magazine or even sit through 15 minutes of the evening news on television. With any luck, I’ll get stuck in traffic and get to listen to NPR or a podcast. Heck, if you’ve read this article up to this point, you’re to be commended. It’s not that people aren’t looking for in-depth reporting, they’re just more selective about what interests them. I have only so much gray matter to store what amounts to evanescent information. I like to choose what in-depth topic fills up that increasingly minute space. That’s where social media helps.

Social media for me is the filtering mechanism for all the information I’m bombarded with daily. It allows me to be selective about what I feel is important. I am no longer a passive receiver of information but rather an active participant in choosing what and when I want to know. I choose who I follow on twitter based on mutual interests. If I see a tweet about a blog post that sounds interesting, I’ll click on that link. To the uninitiated, that may seem somewhat narrow in focus, but how is that really different from watching the local reporting on television that focuses on regional news and glosses over national and world events. I find it kind of liberating not cluttering my mind with issues that I don’t find relevant, or more importantly, things I have no control over. By choosing only what I want to know, I can choose to get more in-depth information when and if I want it from blogs and web sites. It’s usually while I’m digging deeper on a topic that I stumble across other tidbits of news, so I do end up getting a well-rounded mix of knowledge. If I find the information helpful, I help to repeat the process by linking to that information in my own blog or retweets.

As far as journalistic integrity and unbiased reporting goes, recent scandals and the lack of probing inquiries of our previous presidential administration shows me that traditional media isn’t immune from the problems that the blogosphere faces. No matter how much traditional media dismisses blogs, with all the immediacy of the available technology, social media is just the natural evolution of news and information delivery.

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