Saturday, February 16, 2008

In Internet, News Chooses YOU!

So I promised no more marketing-related posts, but this really isn't that so don't worry. The Beautiful Competition returned from Barcelona a couple of days ago and has been sick, giving me a project this weekend that's keeping me in the house, and I've been slammed at work (but in a good way) so I haven't had time to come up with anything very creative. But this has been "knocking about," at my new countryfolk might say, in the back of my head and I want to get it down on paper.

I'm often wary of a lot of the iconoclastic ways people discuss the Internet - print is dead, print is worthless, this is the new way and the old way doesn't matter, blah blah blah. I realized though that the structure of the Internet has allowed a fundamental shift in how I receive information - not just news, but information of any kind.

Taken as a whole the Internet is nothing more than a vast repository for information: most of it worthless or irrelevant, but information nonetheless. At its most fundamental level, it is a series of wires (not tubes, although tubes could describe fiber optics and - never mind) connecting computers together in a huge network - but those wires would do nothing if it weren't for the information flowing between them. Series of 1s and 0s, vast volumes of information being sorted, routed, directed and stored. If I wanted to, with two or three clicks of my mouse I could make all the information on my hard drive accessible to anyone in the world who wanted a peek.

It wasn't that there was a lack of information before the Internet, there just wasn't a good way to store and share it. Right at this very second I'm staring at a device smaller than a half a stick of gum that holds 2 GB worth of information. According to an old forum thread I just Googled, it can hold about 10,000 books. Until about 20 years ago, that would have been impossible. Actually until about a year ago it would have been impossible, but I'm talking digital storage vs. physical storage. It is now incredibly inexpensive to house and share quantities of information that you could not before; imagine storing 10,000 books on clay tablets in the Babylonian era - it would have taken a small city. And to transport them around the world? Armies of slaves. Even the original Library of Alexandria can't hold a candle to what I can do with my 80 GB iPod right now.

The end result of this is that there's now a whole lot of information out there available to anyone with a computer and Internet access at the touch of a button. With broadband and wireless penetration reaching record numbers - the wireless Internet in Africa puts some areas of the US to shame, even though it's all happening on mobile phones - and the OLPC program has set the bar low enough that a world where everyone is online is actually conceivable - we're all part of a vast network of information. It's happening, right now.

And the most fundamental, iconoclastic and hyperbolic paradigm shift isn't that we have all this information at our fingertips - it's what we're doing with it. It's how we're dealing with it - being forced to deal with it really.

As I noted a good deal of the information out there is either worthless or irrelevant - either on an overall level or a personal level. While someone out there is interested in the migratory patterns of bees or what Alexei in St. Petersburg had for breakfast, I'm not. So we've been forced to develop ways to sort through this information on our own.

Enter RSS and other kinds of information aggregators - and this is the fundamental shift. Now instead of others choosing the kind of information I receive (whether a paper or a TV station will cover a story or the way they cover it, the limited number of books that a publisher or editor chooses to publish and so forth) I choose that information myself. I select which news sources I pay attention to, by a mixture of interest and trust. I'm more interested in what people like Brandon and Seth and Jon and Kevin are sharing through their Google Reader items than what CNN thinks is important.

We're only just now beginning to realize the implications of this change, and it is the cornerstone of how the Internet and the New Media is will affect how we process information. And it's not simply a matter of being able to choose; with choice comes responsibility. We're now responsible to no one but ourselves for the information we choose to process and gather and share with others.

It's an interesting, scary and empowering prospect no?

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