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November 30, 2017

Americans’ Consumption of Media has Plateaued—but it’s Not because We’ve Chosen to Cut Back.

In the digital world, there’s room for all types of content—both good or bad.

News sites, businesses, and advertisers all have their own respective content to share. Most often, when the content itself reaches an end, even more content is created to promote it—extending its online presence. In the land of free information, entertainment, and advertising, how does one intelligently navigate all the clutter?

The late Marina Keegan, (author, playwright, and activist), observed the internet’s paradox: the “inconsiderate inclusion of everything.” Good or bad, all content lives under the same roof. And under this roof, the doors stay open 24/7. The instant and constant availability make navigating the internet quite unlike any other consumer experience.

Studies from earlier this year show that more media could not possibly be consumed. Whether it’s happening on smartphones or computers, Americans today have maxed out their ability to consume within the span of a 24 hour day. One source shows that while 2016 witnessed a considerable spike in media consumption across all demographics, consumption plateaued for 2017. The reason? There is literally not enough time in the day. This begets the question: if there were an extra hour in the day, would those 60 minutes also unfold in front of a screen?

Navigating one’s way through, around, and across the internet in its myriad of magnetizing directions is quite unlike any other consumer experience, except for perhaps one other area in life closely familiar to us: shopping. Retail shopping.

The internet experience is curiously akin to the shopping experience, although it’s hardly handled with the same approach. If you plan on wrapping up in the time you intended to, you necessarily go in with some blinders. Consider a clothing store. Some people go in having already planned precisely what they need. They come out with exactly what they came in for—no more, no less. Others have a more fluid approach, entering instead with a vague idea of what they need.

Walking through a shopping mall and scrolling through our newsfeed both require us to make decisions in settings that competitively pull our attention in multiple different directions. In a store, it’s the call of the bright “Sale” banner in the front window, or the convenient, strategic placement of two complementary products near each other. And when holiday season kicks up, such promotions multiply in number, occupying the field of vision with more posts, banners, and in-store signs.

All that promotional material hovering in the margins of an individual’s awareness exists with the same purpose online— except they occupy the literal margins of the webpage.

The difference is, few of us maintain the same sense of purpose in our online endeavors as we do when we go shopping. The all-time high of media consumption suggests that activity online is likely guided less so by specificity, and more by entertainment value. It seems far easier to get sucked into the internet than it does to spend two hours ogling something on a shelf. At that point, we would probably realize we’d been there too long and walked out.

There’s a strange, subtle exchange of consumption happening on both sides. On the one hand, we are the consumers—taking in a whole lot of content. Some of it is just what we came to the internet for, but a lot of it is…everything else. That’s just how the internet works: clickbait lives right next to the long read you intentionally opened trying to educate yourself on an important but perhaps complex and confusing issue. Pop-ups sabotage your phone screen, and look! Somebody just shared a really tempting cake baking tutorial.

On the other hand, we are being consumed. We engage incessantly with an activity designed to consume our attention—and therefore, our time. Are the only things kicking us off the internet our “real-world” responsibilities? Is our online “life” so dominant that if reality didn’t come loudly knocking on our door as it does, we’d never remove our eyes from the ceaseless memes and videos the internet’s entities and personalities provide?

Of course, it’s difficult to contend with the fact that the internet does facilitate many tedious daily or significant tasks, ranging from online shopping to taking care of finances. There is unarguable functionality, and certainly, we in the modern world would be left reeling if the internet were to suddenly vanish.

Yet, it’s precisely because our online life has become so closely intertwined with our day-to-day living that the bar should be raised.

Many companies consider “good content” to be content that gets a lot of views, clicks, or engagement. It touches on buzzy topics that the internet has determined people are interested in. I venture to redefine “good” content as something that’s less focused on SEO terms, and more focused on creating personal connection and improving our lives. Good content—if you are to engage with it—should be actually good for you. When we go after a good series to watch or a good book to read, our brain engages some level of critical thinking. We may find ourselves going through a series of questions determining whether it’s our style, our shtick, or if we even care enough to consider it.

That process of selection, in a land of free and rampant information, entertainment, and advertising is ever more critical. The ease of clicking around the internet parallels the ease of bypassing this process of discernment. Let’s be mindful enough to notice when we are on autopilot on wrong, and return some intentionality to our online pursuits.

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Author: Paula Horstman
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman
Social Editor: Travis May

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