Education in the Time of Virality
By Mekarem Eljamal
"Facebook Expert," courtesy mkhmarketing on Creative Commons.
Wide-spread access to the internet has facilitated access to news and information at rates unseen in earlier eras. As individuals have the ability to post and spread political information, social commentary, and other thoughts at will, it has caused an information overload for users of social networking sites. In a fight for views, reposts, and clicks, creators, both corporate and not, have been forced to develop new tactics to inform their audiences. This response to a new mode of information consumption also forces a reconsideration of how we understand knowledge production. Much of the information put forth into the world is taken in passively, such as through characters’ storylines in books, film and television, and accumulates over a lifetime. What, then, happens when knowledge is actively consumed, as it done when reading, watching, or listening to news stories, but the manner through which the information is presented still conforms to the brevity generally associated with more passive knowledge intake?
Pew Research estimates that over 70% of Americans use their phone to read the news. This is nearly a 25% increase since 2013, and the constant barrage of advertisements in online articles does not make news consumption easy to do on a phone, thereby forcing media outlets and their competitors to change and adopt new tactics. Applications such as Flipboard have tried to mitigate these frustrations by simply providing the full article without the ads on their own platform, but many people still turn to sources like The Skimm. In attempting to distill a day’s worth of news coverage on domestic affairs, foreign affairs, pop culture, and sports into a few quips, undeniably texture and nuance is lost. To compete with these services, CNN, the New York Times, and other mainstream news sources are doing the same and producing articles that give the “Top 5 News Moments to Start Your Day,” or a “Daily Brief.” Of course, looking at the language differences between the New York Times daily summary versus The Skimm, one can tell which is a more comprehensive news source, but even so, slashing the word count still takes a toll on clearly informing the public. The question then becomes, after whizzing through these summaries, are people doing readings to cover what was lost? Or has “the brief” become the new standard for knowledge production and awareness?
It is more than likely that a significant portion of The Skimm’s subscribers do go on to read the full article linked in the email, but the growing popularity of similar quick and fast news sources has its impact on how much information viewers and readers actually understand. Between 2011 and 2014, not only was The Skimm founded, so was AJ+, Now This, Upworthy, and BuzzFeed News’ more serious journalism section. Undeniably, all of these sources produce very important knowledge and make the information accessible to a larger audience. However, their production and marketing strategies hinge upon condensing very nuanced topics into videos that are, on average, only seven minutes long and optimizing their materials for social media audiences. Now, it is ridiculous to expect highly textured and complicated issues to be thoroughly represented in these videos or posts, even research based texts do not touch upon all of the complexities of a topic. The problems arise when looking at how viewers perceive themselves and their level of knowledge after actively searching out the products of AJ+ and Buzzfeed for information. Carefully refining their materials to fit the shortened attention span of people scrolling through Facebook, social media news organizations have found their niche audience. These products provide a simple way out for those who want the information on the “hot topics of today,” but do not what to do the leg work to be truly informed. These videos are spread throughout Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms in a manner that says, “Watch this, and you will know what is going on in the world.”
Understanding how one is pushing information out into the world is almost just as important as the content of the information. None of these outlets claim to provide comprehensive knowledge, but in being popular sites for information, do they have a responsibility to push their viewers to continue to inform themselves about these issues? Having a well-informed society is phenomenal, but if in informing society we are also forever altering how we consume knowledge to favor brevity over nuance, what other consequences will come with this change? We must ensure that the consumption of these videos does not become a license for people to see themselves as truly informed and thus appropriate for them to take the microphones at protests and speak over those who have a solid and textured understanding of the issues. This content is incredibly important, as is spreading the knowledge, and AJ+, Now This, and the like have become important role models in showing how issues should be accessible to everyone and not clouted in jargon. But we must simultaneously consider the unintended side effects that these styles of videos have on knowledge production. Ultimately, it is a mutual effort, just as producers must be watchful of their content and method of dissemination, we as consumers must be mindful of how we digest and understand the news we take in.