Sweets / by Dan Weingrod

I haven’t had a chance to read the “Information Diet” by Clay Johnson yet or listen to the webcast over at O'Reilly Community, but what I’ve been hearing about this book and its unique approach to dealing with the onslaught of information we all face sounded interesting. So when I did catch this brief interview with him I was struck by something I had missed in other reviews and discussions of the book.

Towards the end of the interview Johnson talks less about his core theme of our responsibility to control our own digital consumption, which he likens to the obesity and diabetes epidemic, and more about the fact that its the feeding the social media beast collectively dumbs us down. The problem, as he sees it, is that the more we consume and especially “like” or share sugary content, (Snooki, kittens, you name it), the more we feed the Facebook algorithm and create a self – fulfilling prophecy for an all sugar all the time diet.

What’s interesting about this line of reasoning is that more often it seems that the main criticism of social Web content has been the whole “the internet makes you dumber” version expressed by books such as “The Shallows” and others. The problem with this kind of criticism is that, while it always had some merit, it also comes with a whiff of cultural elitism that I find very hard to accept.

What’s different here is that Johnson’s problem is less with the content and more  with the fact that through the frictionless support of “liking” and re-tweeting we’re ending up simply feeding the algorithms that end up building up the fire hose of high fructose corn syrup content that confronts us every day. This sweet stuff dominates our what we see online and can become a barrier to consumption of the more nutritious stuff that we know is there.  The ease of liking, which frankly is about signaling that you’ve got a pulse than projecting value, has really become another way of injecting pink slime additive into the protein of what could be useful content. And brands, of course, do the same thing when they get into the practice of buying “likes”. Johnson’s point is that there has to be a way to stop, or at least temper, this insatiable self-defeating machine.

His suggestion seems to be to develop an approach to information akin to dieting. Make sure to understand what’s nutritious and avoid the high carb high sugar stuff. But another approach to this issue comes from Matthew Ingram at GigaOm in a post about alternatives to newspaper paywalls. In thinking about alternative options he talks about a reverse method suggested by Jeff Jarvis and by the Guardian’s open journalism model.  In this “velvet rope” model the idea is that more active contributors and commenters would get more of a benefit:

 So instead of just hitting a wall after a certain number of stories, readers who contributed comments or moderated the comments of others — or provided other forms of useful data or labor — might get a benefit that others wouldn’t, whether it’s access to certain content or an invitation to a real-world event they might be interested in.

The problem with frictionless sharing, which admittedly is not going away, is that it builds its content stream by encouraging minimal signaling. Perhaps by tweaking the algorithm a bit more heavily for comments, (which I’m sure Facebook already does already), or figuring out a mechanism to encourage and reward comments beyond simply “likes”, we might be able to purge a bit of the fast food content we have to wade through every day.  While its easy to imagine practicing a diet of conscientious content consumption, we all know that its all too tempting to fall off the wagon when the sweets tray if arrayed in front of us.


Image courtesy of david.nikonvscanon