There are times when the changes that the Internet has wrought in my life over the past 10-12 years simply amaze me. One of those areas can be simply summed up as content. It's a lump of items that can be hard to define, but I believe content is applicable.
Consider everything the Internet brings us these days. News and events. Sports. Entertainment. Knowledge and research, information (and speculation) on a subject of interest. All of these come mixed together now on one medium. Often from the same channel. Television was similar, but it was set to someone else's schedule and only brought one type of content at a time. Not so with the Internet.
One container to rule them all
In a recent article, Levi Mills covered the upcoming changes to Facebook’s interface. While this new look is partly to reduce visual clutter (greatly needed), it’s primarily intended to reflect Facebook’s changing focus:
Content is now the center of the Facebook experience, not relationships … the network that was built to connect people is transforming from a communication platform with sharing ability into a content platform with communication ability.
Mills is spot on. Every company that is a major player in the current tech space is racing to be the place where people consume content. It's what the Internet has been driving towards and for good reason. Mills sums it up early in his piece:
They want to change Facebook’s purpose, because the race is on to be the container for all of your consumption.
The race is indeed on. Google, Apple, Twitter, and Facebook all want to be the hub of where you find, consume, and share this content with others. Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix are all in the mix as well, but with slightly different approaches.
This race is where Steve Jobs was so ahead of the rest of the industry. He saw Apple devices as the hub of the home, the entertainment system of the early 21st century. Even if people choose another software alternative like Facebook or Twitter to find and consume content, if they’re doing it on Apple devices, Apple wins. The fact that Apple also creates great software is icing on the cake, but much of their software is completely focused on ensuring using multiple Apple devices is as smooth of an experience as possible.
It’s a strategy that's working very well. It's not surprising that so many rumours of a Facebook phone have persisted, or that Google has entered into the hardware arena. These companies are recognizing the genius of Jobs’ vision and are racing to catch up.
Curating? Not really
In his article, Mills moves on to discuss the importance of good curation to whatever tool becomes the hub of this content. For the love of all that is well defined, can we please stop misusing this word?
Curation: the act of curating, of organizing and maintaining a collection of artworks or artifacts.
Wikipedia even includes a definition of digital curation, which still does not fit the activity Mills details in his post:
Curating is how we've dealt with the incredible amount of content on the web.
No, it clearly isn't. Simply try looking for content that is more than 3,4 years old and it becomes very clear that almost no one is ensuring we have well put together collections of past content. Twitter and Facebook streams are full and fast flowing. If you want an item of content to get attention, you know that attention won’t last more than a few minutes.
So can we start using a more apt word? Filtering is a good fit. Sharing is as well, although it’s used so much that it makes some of us ill to hear it. Disseminate? Too long, and not catchy enough for social media experts, I suppose.
Whatever word we decide on eventually, Mills is right in that curation (filtering) well done will win out. There's simply too much to consume, so choices must be made. Like the man staring at a wall of salad dressing options at the supermarket, we’d appreciate some help in making a choice. Can I get a little help from my friends?
This social filtering of all these heterogeneous streams of content will be a focus as we figure this stuff out.
The end of Reader
News of Google Reader's coming demise brought out a lot of opinions. In light of the content race outlined above, it may seem like a surprising move for Google to make. Not really though; they’ve been pushing Google+ on users for a while now and are willing to sacrifice a product of their own that competes with it.
Personally, I take it as good news. Reader was the last Google service I still use and I'll be happy to move to — and pay for — an alternative.
Aside from complaints or shouts of joy, some folks have suggested it's a good time to consider replacing RSS. Twitter has done this for many people. Some suggest simply manually visiting the sites you enjoy most as part of your daily routine.
Having been on a fast of both Twitter and RSS since Lent began, I'm looking forward to considering any and all alternatives. This is a much easier exercise to undertake when you're not busy consuming the deluge of input (as of this writing, my RSS count sits at 1,415 … this is an issue in and of itself). Having 40 days away from the constant input has been a great opportunity to reflect on my consumption of content, and how it may change.
I've considered the Twitter only option, as well as visiting sites manually. Email subscriptions! There's also Fever, Feedly, Pulse, and Flipboard. Plenty of apps like Feeds In fact, it seems like each week brings another option, various web based or tablet apps that collect updates from various sources you plug in.
The issue is that Google Reader has been the source itself, so these apps will have to either allow you to drop in a batch of feeds (an OPML file etc) or offer some solution of their own.
Another alternative is to cut it all out. Before my fast, I wouldn't have given that option much thought. But over the past 4 weeks, I've missed this content a lot less than I would have guessed (remember books?). Partially this is due to the enjoyment I've had in more time, and realizing that I don't actually feel like I'm missing out on much. I'm missing out, there's no doubt of that, but I realize I'm not missing out on anything of enough substance to make me long to return to my old habits. At least not exactly as before.
This is partly due to the fact that I’ve gotten some content coming my way during my work day. Coworkers share items in the chat room. I signed up for News.me a few months back, a service that scans your Twitter stream for every 24 hour period and sends you the top 15 links of the day. So I'm getting just enough to satisfy, but not overwhelm. There's less of a desire to ’check’ things when during non-work hours.
Overall, my fast has been a great exercise, leading to a few solid conclusions.
The divide between processing and consumption
Not only has my fast allowed me to consider my consumption, but it has led to considering the various alternatives in greater depth than the past. I've known about a lot of the iPad apps that have surfaced in the past couple of years, apps like Pulse and Flipboard. Now I've been able to check them out and step back and appreciate the design and usage they encourage without getting caught up in my content.
This has led to two observations. One is that these apps are good. Really, really good. The design is so very well thought out.
The second is this: they are built more for processing than consumption. At least for this guy. Tiled items, streams of content … the design allows the user to quickly move through items, picking out items of particular interest. Bite sized morsels can be taken in, but I find that anything of longer form longs to be moved somewhere else.
Because the stream beckons me back. There's more to look at!
There is a gap between processing these inboxes, these containers of content. Whether it's Facebook or Twitter, a pure RSS reader or a new fangled tablet app, they all feed the desire for more … more updates, more consumption, ‘more checking in’. My time away has resulted in more long form reading and I'm loath to give that up.
The race is on. For our attention. Whatever bucket or inbox you choose to receive, filter, or consume this content, recognize the effects it has on you. Go deep. Processing is not consumption, let alone digestion.