The Promise and Peril of New Media: Engagement or Distraction?

Multimedia Milieu

Well, after this week’s readings, I now have a word to describe what I do each morning while I eat my breakfast. I’m participating in “concurrent media exposure” because I’m reading the Tyler Morning Telegraph or the Dallas Morning News while listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on the radio. Who knew I was so au courant?

This week’s articles highlight both the promise and the peril of new media. New media can help develop people’s civic involvement and give them a way to store those long New Yorker pieces until they can read them. But on many new media platforms, the credibility of news stories can be altered depending on what surrounds them. And people greatly underestimate how much time they spend on new media.

Tenore (2010) described three Web-based programs that allow people to permanently store a link to long articles so they can read them later. Nate Weiner, creator of Read It Later, said he is giving these long articles “a second chance” (para. 10). For Weiner, Read It Later is a mechanism to avoid getting caught in the “conundrum of connectedness” (para.5), in which you are overwhelmed with data but don’t have the time to digest and evaluate it.

Attentive reading on an unlikely device

Marco Arment, developer of Instapaper – which has an application for the iPhone – maintained that cell phones are better than computers for reading long stories.

The modern computer is packed with distractions. Your hands are always on thecontrols, waiting to click around and find the next bit of information. Every few minutes something beeps or pops up a balloon or displays a big red number. Long-form content requires attentive reading, and attentive reading requires a distraction-free environment. (Tenore, 2010, para. 16)

I would be very skeptical of this claim if I hadn’t experienced this phenomenon myself. I have read several long Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles on my iPhone while waiting to see a doctor or get my hair done. There were no electronic distractions: just me, my iPhone, and the newspaper article. However, now that the fourth generation of  iPhones can run more than one application at a time, the days of distraction-free reading on that device may be numbered.

Finally, Mark Armstrong used a Twitter account called @LongReads as a clearing-house for long-form journalism. Readers tweet him about long stories they like and he retweets the recommendations to his followers. In essence, he’s developing a community of long-form journalism readers (Tenore, 2010).

Websites as tools for civic engagement

Coleman, Lieber, Mendelson, and Kurpius (2008) explored a different kind of engagement. They tried to determine if a website designed to meet users’ wants and needs in its content, navigation, and appearance can foster positive attitudes toward civic engagement. To do that, they employed uses and gratifications theory. This theory is designed to understand how people use mass communication, what needs they hope to satisfy, and what their motives are for using that particular medium. And the authors combined it with Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion. According to Coleman et al., Yankelovich describes three levels of public engagement in working to solve important public problems:

  1. Consciousness-raising, in which citizens learn about the problem
  2. Working through, in which they confront the need for change
  3. Resolution, where they make a decision about the problem.

While media are involved in the first step of this process, they usually “then abandon the effort, leaving people to the second and third stages on their own” (p. 181). The authors wanted to see if user-friendly websites – one example of new media – could play a positive role in civic engagement. They declared that:

Only the websites that provide gratification for the uses sought will be the ones actually used by citizens; only the sites actually used by citizens will have the potential to encourage civic participation. (Coleman et al., 2008, p. 184)

Results of the study showed that user-friendly websites did foster positive attitudes about civic engagement. People preferred the website with self-contained chunks of information with clear, no-nonsense headlines that enabled them to easily find the information they sought. This website also used a lot of lists, charts, and graphics, rather than long narrative passages.

Attitudes, not actions

From these results, the authors concluded that Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion needs an additional step between the first two, designed

to determine what people want and need on that topic, their motives for using websites with information on the topic and what they bring to the issue, so that the content and structure of the websites created would better meet those needs. (Coleman et al., 2008, p. 197)

To me, the problem with this study is that it measures attitudes about civic engagement, not actions. I can see that an easily navigable website with chunks of useful information and data presented in clear charts and graphics would be engaging. But, looking at a website is a passive activity. Even if the website has features such as polls to vote in or blogs to comment on, that is not the same level of engagement as actually voting or going to a town hall meeting to publicly express your opinion. Coleman et al. (2008) briefly discuss how Internet users tend to be younger and more interested in entertainment than politics. The authors’ user-friendly website is also more entertaining than most websites dealing with civic issues such as the budgets of governmental agencies. Their research does not tell us if the people visiting the user-friendly website took the next step and became more engaged in civic life.

News content set free

Thorson, Vraga, and Ekdale (2010) used social judgment theory as a lens to examine the effect that surrounding material has on straight news stories, now that “news content is set free to be publicly reframed and reinterpreted by bloggers and other self-appointed pundits” (p. 290). They cut and pasted an article from a news website and embedded it within a partisan political blog post, then altered the partisan ideology and civility of the blog post “to create a more or less credible standard of comparison to the balanced news story” (p. 290). Their overall results indicated that “judgments of news story credibility can be influenced by the context in which the story appears, at least when that context provides a salient and extreme standard of comparison” (p. 303). The authors found that readers judged the news article “more credible when the blogger’s post was uncivil than when the blogger was civil” (p. 304), thus demonstrating “a contrast effect. The uncivil tone of the blog message made the news story look more credible by comparison” (p. 304). Maybe the readers were just relieved to read something that wasn’t the Web equivalent of a shouting match.

While these findings are heartening to those of us worried about the fate of fair and balanced news coverage, it’s important to note that the blogging posts in this study were not assailing the facts or tone of the news article. Thorson et al. (2010) said “the news story itself was not under attack by the blogger but merely one of the policy positions described within the story” (p. 307). And the authors studied a one-time event, not exposure to the same blog over time. There is no shortage of partisan bloggers who have an audience that apparently enjoys a certain amount of uncivil commentary.

‘Multi-media-ing’ as a way of life

Finally, results of the Middletown Media Studies II by Papper, Holmes, and Popovich (2009) showed that many contemporary Americans engage in “multi-media-ing” for hours every day, often without realizing it. The authors were able to determine this by using observers who followed study participants around and noted their actual use of media. In contrast, many studies of media use rely on participants’ self-reporting, which is notoriously inaccurate.

The demographically balanced population in the study by Papper et al. (2009) were exposed to one or more media for almost 9 hours out of the average 12.9 hours of the observational day. For 2.75 hours of that 9 hours – 30.7 percent – participants were exposed to two or more media. “At 225.6 minutes [about 3 ¾ hours], media-only activity (not involving any other life activity) was the number one activity during the day” (p. 55).

The authors use the term “exposure” as opposed to “use,” because participants weren’t always actively using the media. An example would be a radio or television playing in the background while a participant surfed the Net on a computer.

Papper et al. (2009) did not track participants’ exposure to media over time, so they couldn’t say if media use is increasing. However, it’s certainly not decreasing. Anecdotally, I know my use of media has increased since I got my iPhone. I now check Facebook, read newspaper articles, and look up word definitions and synonyms during down times when I’m waiting for something. Before I had the iPhone, I couldn’t do that.

What we don’t know yet is how this constant exposure to multitudes of media is affecting us. “Multi-media-ing” is essentially a form of multitasking, and there are numerous studies that indicate multitasking is not nearly as efficient as corporate America would like us to believe. Some research implies that multitasking negatively affects our ability to concentrate and makes us more susceptible to distraction.

As we trip merrily down the yellow brick road of being increasingly connected to all kinds of media devices, I wonder if we are not also becoming more detached from our immediate physical environment. Cyberspace is indeed seductive, but we need to think about the cost of responding to its siren call.

References

Coleman, R., Lieber, P., Mendelson, A.L., & Kurpius, D.D. (2008). Public life and the Internet: If you build a better website, will citizens become engaged? New Media & Society. (10)2, 179-201. doi: 10.1177/1461444807086474

Papper, R.A., Holmes, M.E., & Popovich, M.N. (2009). Middletown Media Studies II: Observing consumer interactions with media. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 18-30. New York: Oxford University Press.

Richtel, M. (2010, June 6). Multitasking hurts brain’s ability to focus, scientists say; when one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it. Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2012049123_webmultitask07.html

Tenore, M.J. (2010, August 19). How technology is renewing attention to long-form journalism [Blog]. Poynter Online. Retrieved from http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=188741

Thorson, K., Vraga, E., & Ekdale, B. (2010). Credibility in context: How uncivil online commentary affects news credibility. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 13(3), 289-313. doi: 10.1080/15205430903225571

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6 responses to “The Promise and Peril of New Media: Engagement or Distraction?

  1. Wow, I had so many thoughts go through me mind when I read you reaction. First I must admit that I’m not a high new media users … well until this semester. I find myself online more and more. I don’t have a smart phone, but I can see how convenient in can be, but as a county commissioner once said during a budget meeting “we have to determine if this request is for a nicety or a necessity.” In other words is it (whatever is requested) that would be nice to have or is it something you need to have?
    I haven’t reached the point in my life that I can honestly say some of this new media is just not necessary … yet.
    As for long-form journalist and storing those stories for later — I have a a storage unit I have been using for many years … it’s called my coffee table. I always now where the story is. I know I can pick it up any time and read the story without much distraction. Yeah, I know. It’s not portable and it takes up space, but he has many other uses.

  2. I agree with Vanessa — some of this stuff is just not necessary, but it is nice. A year ago my office ordered us smart phones. Since many of us travel, we needed something to be in contact with one another and have access to our e-mails when away from the office. This idea of being able to check my e-mail at any time, from any place has greatly shaped the last year of my life. I didn’t know how much it would actually change things. It also comes with great perks like internet access (can find a phone number at the drop of a hat) and GPS. However, now I am also accessible any time of the day. My employees feel more comfortably calling me at all hours of the day and I am expected to answer e-mails outside the confines of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. When I am answering a student’s question at 11 p.m. I find myself wondering if it was worth it.

  3. While reading your article I was struck with an epiphany about my own self doubt when it come to use of new media and how it affects my life. I am referring the three steps to public engagement. I have been avoiding using a laptop in this class, until now. I also am aware that I don’t even know if I would prefer to read a story online because my phone doesn’t even have a camera let alone apps. I never thought I would ever think such a thing in my life. I suppose I am going to have to get in the game if I want to play.

  4. Vanessa,
    I relate to your comment. I, too, have piles of copies of articles all over my study at home, piled up (along with magazines) on the headboard of my bed, and on a bookcase at work. Most of the time, though, I never manage to read them. At some point it all becomes too much and I throw them out or (maybe) file them.

    I was skeptical of the Read it Now application, but I have actually read several articles that I saved to read later. It could be the novelty of the application; I’ll just have to see. But I like the option — especially with Web articles — to save them, rather than trying to bookmark them, which does get unwieldy, or try to figure out if I can print them in a readable format.

    It is so easy to get sucked into all this, however. It can be a downward spiral into the depths of cyberspace. And there is only so much time in life: it all comes down to how you choose to spend it. A life lived primarily in cyberspace is not worth living, to paraphrase Socrates. Here’s a blog post that I have on my Read It Later list that asks what kind of relationships that we have through social networking: http://bit.ly/dbfs2z

    Check it out.

  5. Jessica,
    You’re so right about the accessibility factor. There was a story on NPR a few weeks ago about commercial campsites in fairly remote areas installing wireless Internet because it’s a perk that people want. Phil and I have camped in some fairly remote places (tent camping, not backpacking), and I never wanted to be able to call people up at the drop of a hat from any of them. But that was before the age of wireless Internet and smart phones. If we went camping now, I would take my iPhone, and do I really think I wouldn’t use it to check Facebook or newspaper websites? But, if you take everything with you, when do you get away?

    Patricia,
    You can use the Read It Later application on your laptop. That’s where I’ve used it. You can add it to your bookmarks bar and then just click on “Read it later” when you have the story that you want to save on your screen.

    Right now, much of New Media is like a shiny toy. It waits to be seen if the shine lasts, or people go on to the next new thing.

  6. I felt the same way before I used Readitlater, I didn’t get it, read the articles? Why not just bookmark the website and read it later. Well, I ended up book marking too many things and it got very cluttered. I like how it’s just the article on your phone with no clutter and then you can mark the article as read or just delete it from your list. I have an Iphone 4 and I still read my articles with no distraction, well also it probably helps because i don’t know how to use two apps simultaneously.

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