Empty calories

To feed young minds, let's add some nutrition to social media

(Illustration by Daniel Chang)

If you’ve spent time with anyone under 25 recently, you will have noticed that they get their news from their friends on their phones—much of it from social-media feeds. At the same time, more and more journalism shops that underwrite enterprise reporting are starting to lock their wares behind paywalls. Someday in the not-too-distant future, it seems, there will be very little credible news for the bloggers and scrapers to aggregate. So where does that leave the young adults of tomorrow? How can they quickly tell what’s true? How can they get beyond the superficial updates about Justin Bieber’s monkey or Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy? Believe it or not, some current high-school journalism students are worried about these questions, too. If they stick to what their social networks tell them, they can easily end up in what Eli Pariser has called a “filter bubble,” keeping out varying points of view and also preventing serendipitous discoveries—things they didn’t know they wanted to know. General-interest media, at least, take them beyond the bubble (they might come for Kim but then discover Syria).

Given the fragmentation of the content marketplace, there’s a financial wrinkle in the social-news trend, too. Even if media subscribers do pay up, chances are that that audience will be too old to satisfy advertisers’ perennial hunger for the ever-tasty 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Nowadays, a business that wants to introduce its product or service to a mass audience of young consumers has no choice but to dance with the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple’s iTunes store, or Amazon. And thanks to all of the data about users those companies have vacuumed up over the years, the digital behemoths may indeed be able to segment audiences and target customers for advertisers with minimal “waste.”

Of course, advertisers can also create their own content—which is sometimes labeled as “sponsored” or “integrated” although the current nom de buzz is “native advertising.” Sometimes, when a pitch is really clever, it does win over those desirable young’uns; it might even go viral. But surreptitious marketing may just further confuse young readers.
And needless to say, the advertising dollars that once would have underwritten original journalism never make it to editorial coffers. But hey, it’s all part of the industry’s upheaval, and as long as such content is labeled and does not attempt to deceive consumers, there’s no use fighting it.

We’d argue that it’s in everyone’s interest to pay close attention to the evolving content ecosystem and compare notes—with kids, teachers, marketers, elected officials, and content creators—about what’s best for all.

In his new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (W. W. Norton, June), Ethan Zuckerman frames the issue constructively: “Those who would like to rewire news to be more representative, more global, and more surprising have an opportunity,” he writes. “The tools of social media that shape what we see and what we pay attention to are barely formed, and they change week to week, not year to year. If we are excited by the possibility of creating media that expose us to a wide range of perspectives, we have the opportunity to build the tools we need.”

Perhaps journalism can learn from the mistakes of the food industry, which bred a perfectly red, flawless-looking tomato, giving the edge to looks over taste, since that’s what consumers were buying. But bland, homogenized content and empty social-media streams will not feed the brains of the nation. We need to propagate the media version of the tasty, nutritious tomato. As Zuckerman concludes, “If we want a world that values diversity of perspective over the certainty of singular belief, a world where many voices balance a privileged few, where many points of view complicate issues and push us toward novel solutions, we need to build that world.” And yes, we’ll take those odd-shaped, multicolored heirloom tomatoes over the tasteless, fibrous, perfect ones any day.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.