When it comes to food, most of us have an idea of what’s good for us and what’s bad for us. A home cooked meal with some veg and maybe a bit of chicken is pretty good, while a Big Mac is pretty bad. That doesn’t mean we always eat healthily, but at least we know how.
Can the same be said of the information we consume? Clay Johnson, author of the book The Information Diet, was on The Liturgists recently to talk about this topic. He talked about the idea of good and bad information calories, and the need for intelligence in what and how much we consume.
I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and it’s a great analogy. To take the analogy to social media, the way that algorithms on Facebook and, increasingly, Twitter work can be compared to someone putting your favourite fast food in front of view whenever you get hungry.
Social media algorithms, like fast food chains, aren’t designed to give us a healthy, balanced diet of informed and useful content. They’re designed to show us things that we want to click on so that the publishers can get advertising revenue. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop: the more you watch a certain kind of video, or read articles from a particular perspective, the more the algorithms show you that kind of content.
Before going any further, I want you to know that I’m not against social media, and I’m not judging Facebook or Twitter for doing this, but I do like to know where the content that I’m seeing is coming from, and I want to be able to consume information in such a way that my perspectives are challenged and broaden, not just mindlessly reinforced.
The danger of the mindless consumption of our news feeds is that we become so entrenched in our own viewpoints that we’re blind to the flaws of our own perspectives, and the merits of others. We also become susceptible to fake news and misleading information from content sites that feed us what they know we want to see. This way of consuming information isn’t conducive to a healthy outlook for individuals, and it doesn’t help create a society that can talk about something without us just shouting over each other.
So what constitutes a good information calorie? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do know the kind of thing that I would consider better for myself. In general, I want to read informed, well researched and edited articles that provide insight, analysis or information beyond what I have the ability to provide from my own experience. Quite simply, there’s a lot of trash out there on the internet, but signs to look out for in reputable articles (adapted from The Liturgists episode on the subject), include an author who can be contacted, an editorial review board, sources, and a publication date.
I think it’s also healthy to go beyond your news feed if you want to find out what’s going on in the world. If you want a useful cross-section of viewpoints on the UK news, why not check some combination of the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph (or other similar sources) every now and then? It’s important not to consume news from just one source that you like, or another feedback loop of biased information will be created. If you want to read articles in another area, as I do at work for digital marketing, then the same principle of visiting a range of different sources is helpful.
What else can we do to improve our information diet, particularly when it comes to social media? I’ll share a few ideas on the subject, which I’ve either thought of myself or adapted from somewhere else (normally The Liturgists, as they are the only people I’ve come across talking about this). I’m trying to these ideas into practice myself, but with varying success! It’s hard not to eat the fast food that’s right in front of you.
1. Take control of what your newsfeed shows you
Following Mike McHargue’s example, I have taken to hiding all posts from any news or content sites that pop up on Facebook. That’s everything from the BBC to Buzzfeed, regardless of my feelings towards the site. Why am I doing this? Partly to cut out the viral trash that normally dominates a newsfeed, and partly to force myself to take more control out of how I consume information.
Now my Facebook feed is mostly made up of posts from friends and groups that are simply personal photos, videos, and normal statuses. It makes it harder to spend a long time on Facebook, and it means I resist the algorithm’s attempts to keep showing me the same stuff. Now, if I want to find out about a topic, I have to seek it out, which means I have much more control over where I find that information.
2. Be disciplined about the time you spend on social media
I have to admit that I’m not great at this, but I’m trying. If you know you’re obsessively scrolling and consuming content, start setting yourself targets, either for a shut off time for all your social media (9pm? 10pm?), or for a total time that you want to spend on social media all day.
A particular time to watch out for when it comes to the consumption of information is the time when you feel most emotional which, for most of us, is when we’re tired in the evenings. This mind state compromises our ability to be critical about what we read, and makes us more likely to react strongly to what we’re reading about.
3. Consume information from other sources
I mean consume information away from social media. This could include simply visiting the sites themselves, or it could mean going outside of the internet completely. If you want to learn more about a topic, then reading books about it is normally the way to go. Books give more developed arguments than you’ll find anywhere on the internet, and most of them have a much more rigorous selection and editing process before publication.
It is easy to find books that challenge your perspective. I’ve been raised a Protestant, but I have books lined up to read like The Divine Dance, by Catholic Friar Richard Rohr, and For the Life of the World, by Eastern Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. I want to put my money where my mouth is and explore my faith from angles outside my lived experience (in my experience, faith is one of the easiest things to fall into a biased rut with on social media).
I want to close by encouraging you to enjoy consuming information, but to be critical about what you consume. You should definitely be critical about this blog post, because I have no editorial review, very little accountability for what I write, and you probably have a similar perspective to me on life. Accept or ignore what I’ve said, but I ask you to do so critically, going on more than your gut feeling. If more of us do that on a regular basis, I think we’ll all be better off.