I still get the paper edition of The Economist, and I almost never read it online. Yes, blasphemy I know. Here is the deal though - a paper magazine is a different experience than reading online. For me, it is a better experience because I can take it places where I don’t want to take my computer, I can read it in places without an internet connection, and I can read it in lots of different positions that are much more comfortable than sitting in front of a computer or scrolling on a small phone screen.
When people talk about paper media as if it’s going away because it is losing to online, I always wonder why they never think concerts are going away too. The same people who argue that reading online is simpler and more efficient than reading a paper periodical never seem to agree that listening to an mp3 should replace going to a concert. They think the latter is stupid, because a concert is about the experience. What they miss is that a paper publication is about the experience too. It is a way to focus on a set of stories away from the distractions of a constant email/twitter/im barrage. The real reason newspapers are dying is that our relationship with news has changed, not our relationship with paper publications.
My big problem with online media is that there is so much of it. That is why I don’t celebrate this grass roots publishing movement that has become religion to so many people. Yeah, yeah, Digg, Stumble, filters, aggregators, iGoogle. It’s all bullshit. Maybe it does a good job of recommending things if your tastes are mainstream, but if your interests are more esoteric, these tools probably fail you. Part of the problem with these tools though, is that they have to wade through so much crap that even good algorithms get overwhelmed by garbage. Too many times I have searched for information on a topic only to be lead to a dozen 101 level blog posts that all give the same generic bs crap about the topic. Usually it wasn’t written by an expert in the field, it was written by someone who understood how to game the system and get to the top of Google.
Economists talk about “externalities,” which are effects from a decision that impact people who had no part in the underlying decision. Pollution is an externality. And externalities are usually addressed through taxes.
I think stupidity is an externality. Stupid people create stupid content and then I have more crap to filter through to find the good stuff that I want. Social media just perpetuates this because it pushes popularity as the driving force in ranking systems. Amateurs are amateurs for a reason. They shouldn’t be pushed to the top of search results just because they are popular. It creates problems for those of us who rate the value of information on dimensions other than popularity.
What do I think should be done? I propose a content tax. If technology is going to lower the barriers to publishing, then I think the government should do what it can to raise them back to a respectable level. Plus, the government needs the revenue to help balance the budget. And anyway, all that indexing of your content that Google is doing is killing the environment.
Ok. Maybe this argument is a little tongue in cheek. But some of you will probably admit there is a kernel of truth to it. If you really believe that online media is all about conversations then make sure, before you hit that publish button, that you are contributing something useful to it. Otherwise, I will be sending you a bill for my time spent wading through your crap.