The Firehose

(CC) Flickr User Neil B.

Attention span is an interesting variable, everywhere from Kindergarten classrooms to the corner office. In it, though, may lie the roots of the digital shift in news media.

There is a common metaphor used to describe the overload of news that many face, caused by newer forms of information retrieval. You can’t drink from the firehose (no matter what Michael Richards said in UHF), which means that at some point, if you try to handle all of the media you are trying to consume – via the quest for realtime search, your 1,500 Twitter friends, or your scores of RSS feeds – you will miss something, even if you had intention of looking for it.

The metaphor I’ve been using recently is that Twitter is like a whiteboard. It’s not a posting place for solid reminders: it’s an easily erased, ever-changing form of information that has new information up there every second. This lack of permanency has its place in reporting and breaking news, but not in telling the whole story and certainly not in lasting impressions and legitimate news sharing.

Where attention span fits into this is a chicken or egg moment. Do people flock to Twitter because they can rest at ease if the miss something? Or was Twitter the inevitability of the movement from a newspaper (a source of news with finite information, but developed a sincere time investment) to the television/radio broadcast (less amount of news, but still significant in terms of content, with lower time investment) to blogging and blogging’s cousins of RSS and Twitter? In the latter, the well of news is the deepest it has ever been, but there is no human amount of time or ability to consume it.

By developing our own content, we had options on what to do with our news reading time.

  • Option 1: Try and consume it all, anyway, and fail.
  • Option 2: Filter down to a few sources that are not connected, basically becoming our own editors. Personal bias creeps in here, and we start shrinking down to really few.
  • Option 3: Turn to a trusted, “third-party” editor, who isn’t associated with a central content developer, and see what they say to read. (This is the “I’ll read what the smart people read” model).

I have found, across the hundreds of sources I stumble upon – creeping up on thousands if you combine all my feeds and Twitter friends – that the last model is the most efficient way to get information. In my most honest moments, I’d like to think that I’m at least contributing to that for my own friends and followers and providing them information about what I follow closest, turning to them to pick up the other slack.

As it exists right now, that unbelievable majority of us are consumers, relying on the few who, even without access, are able to be sources of information. Media history called this two-step flow, but there are way too many steps in between than there used to be to think its simply two. The point remains the same, and, ultimately, this is the theoretical and actual root of social media. Even when it comes to news, we rely on our social connections before the institution, and we have for hundreds of years.

You can’t take a straw to the firehose, it’s an awful way to get anything to drink. However, the most useful source out there is the person who tells you where in the spray to stand to actually get something useful.

Please note, in the clip below, Michael Richards is not helping:


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