Thursday, July 30, 2009

Breadth vs. Depth: What is the internet DOING to us?

During a recent conversation about online news with my roommate, he commented that he "didn't like what the internet had done to him." In his eyes, our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter as more and more information becomes readily available for our consumption. I agree. With so much going on, you can't necessarily afford to read everything thoroughly to cultivate informed opinions and reasoning. It becomes a slippery slope to developing habits of skimming headlines, or using things like the "Quick Read" feature offered by the Huffington Post.

My roommate's comment struck me because it made it sound as if he had been victimized, as if the internet had some ubiquitous influence over his habits that he couldn't escape. And suddenly, I was forced to consider my own information-gathering habits. I have a long list of blogs and news feeds plugged into my Google Reader account, and am constantly adding new interesting or relevant sites. I only check out a few on a daily basis, but I figure I'd rather have these resources available for future reference than to lose them forever.

Despite my attempts to check all of these sites regularly, I have yet to find a healthy balance of breadth and depth. With so many topics (illustration, advertisting, news, gadgetry, photography, humor, friend's blogs), it becomes difficult to decide what to read and when. A quick solution might be to just go through all of it really quickly. Sure, you'll get an idea of what's happening, but you won't really learn anything; ranted, I assume this is how most people digest newspapers and magazines, both in print and online. If your intention is too just get an overview of what's happening, then skimming gets the job done. But then aren't we just growing accustomed to shallow reporting? And if you've got the ability to have hundreds of feeds in your feed-reader, isn't that just getting you to learn less about more?

I see two possible solutions:

[1] Make a short list of sites that you intend to thoroughly read and investigate. Spend time researching lots of different ones and choose based on what seems to be source, rather than a regurgitator/commentator. Come to terms with the fact that you can only spot check others.

[2] Make a schedule. Sounds super OCD, but it could work beautifully. Imagine structuring your week by category so that you don't need to worry about covering everything in a single sitting. Make a list for each day of the week and stick to it. This requires a commitment to regular reading, but would keep you ├╝ber-informed. In conjunction with [1], you'd learn a hell of a lot.

There's an obvious caveat to this reasoning: the problem is self-inflicted. I've got a broad range of interests that I want to cover, and want to keep up with current trends and news on lots of fronts. It's just something I personally feel compelled to do. Others might not care about breadth, and are satisfied with depth in a select few topics. That's fine..

But with SO MUCH STUFF out there, with SO MANY OPINIONS discussing different angles on SO MANY ISSUES, decisions have to be made. There are so many hours in a day, and only so much time you should be able to sit in front of your computer. As our breadth of knowledge increases, it becomes a challenging—but not impossible—task to see it all with the kind of depth that will help us learn. It's like that epic quote from Spiderman, am I right?!

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