BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s that old saw, you are what you eat. Imagine that at the end of each day, someone handed you an itemized list of every food you'd consumed. Now, imagine the media equivalent. Yeah, maybe you'd rather not know, but Ethan Zuckerman wants to know. He’s a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and he believes to really know ourselves in the modern age, we have to track what he calls our “personal information flow.” Ethan, welcome back to the show.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Great to be with you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So first of all, why – I mean, what do you suspect about the way you personally, or people in general, receive information from the media, and what do you think that measuring it would show?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, I myself bought a little personal pedometer the other day, and I probably would have told you that I walk two or three miles a day. Now that I actually track it, I discover that I'm mostly a lazy slob who sits on the couch.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And that’s a useful thing to find out. What I'm now trying to do is apply that same sort of logic of self-examination to the world of media. And I'm hoping to test a theory that I've argued for for a couple of years now, which is this idea that we may get less information about international news, about the world beyond our own borders, at this moment in time than we did in an age before the Internet. And I figured if I'm going to go around and make this assertion – and there’s some good support for this assertion – I should try to look at my own media diet. And then also I hope to set up an experiment that other people could voluntarily participate in so that people could look at what they're basically taking in and decide whether or not they're happy with the media that they're getting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we're talking about measuring all of the information that a person receives in the course of the day, whether on a website or in a conversation with someone on the street, random shot of a billboard, cataloging all of that and analyzing it? Because a lot of our media is pretty passively consumed. We don't necessarily even choose it.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, I'm trying to do two things. I am trying to keep a diary of the off-computer media that I encounter. When I'm listening to the radio, when I'm talking to people on the telephone, when I'm having conversations, I'm just trying to make notes in a little file. When I'm on the computer, there’s a wonderful program called RescueTime, which is designed to help you decide what time you’re spending online that’s productive and what time you’re spending online that’s wasting time. And if you set it up, it'll come and nag you and, you know, tell you that you've spending too much time reading about football and not enough time getting your work done. But it also turns out to be a very effective tool for tracking what websites you've visited, how long you've spent on each of them. And then you can dump all this data together and start building a portrait of where your information is coming from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does this tool, this RescueTime, know that you’re wasting your time?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: When you first install it, it’s a little bit judgmental. It asks you to list the three activities that you think are the most productive and then the three activities that you think are the least productive. And I remember telling it that I thought encountering news and opinion content was the second most productive thing I did, at which point RescueTime said, really? Most people think that that’s a terrible waste of time. I'm not trying to do this so much that I have a computerized nag that bothers me every time I look up Red Sox scores. I'm really doing this more because it’s a nice way of tracking all that online behavior passively. One of the problems with active tracking is that people lie all the time. Nielsen figured this out years ago. If you become a Nielsen family – I remember doing this – my wife and I did this about a dozen years ago, and kept the little paper diary, and we recorded ourselves as watching more PBS that month than during any month we've ever watched television. The act of recording tends to force you to change your behavior. So I'd really love to get as much passive data as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are these things called people meters that people wear that track what they're listening to. It’s passive, but what it can't tell you is the substance of what you’re listening to.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, that’s correct. But ideally what you'd be able to do, if you could put together a really good media diary where I'm making entries and saying, okay, I listened to Morning Edition in the shower this morning from let's say 7 to 7:10, I'd like to be able to enter that into my media diary, have a tool retrieve what stories were played on my local NPR affiliate during that time, grab the text from the Web of those stories, or at least the keywords of them, and then be able to do an analysis of it, because what I really want to be able to do at the end of the month is ask questions like, how much hard news have I gotten versus entertainment content? What parts of the world have I heard about?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what have you learned so far? Anything as significant as what you learned when you got your pedometer?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Predictability, I've got huge blind spots. I read an enormous amount about Africa, because it’s a part of the world that I know a lot about, I've traveled to quite a bit. I read almost nothing about Latin America. I'm also finding that while I think of myself as someone who very actively looks for information, in the course of an ordinary day, almost all the information that I'm getting comes to me on the front page of a couple of news sites that I view, or over the radio. We think in a digital age that we have a great deal of control over what information we're getting. It’s an interesting reminder to me of how important the forces of editors and curation still are to us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that there’s such a thing as an ideal media consumer, the person that perhaps you want to be?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I'm not sure that there’s a good picture of the ideal media consumer. I do think at the same time that there’s the possibility of having enough information that you can be an informed civic actor. One of the things that worries me, Brooke, is that there’s a lot of people in the media working very, very hard to try to present important hard news, whether it’s statehouse reporting, whether it’s investigative journalism, and it’s not clear what grabs people’s attention. You can't assume that just because the information has flowed past me, whether it’s on the computer screen, whether it’s on the television or whether it’s on the radio, that I've necessarily consumed it. But if I click a link, if I open up a webpage, if I look for more information on it, that’s a fairy good indicator that that piece of information registered with me and I took action based on that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that our role as actors has changed?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Our roles have changed enormously now that it’s so easy to create media. I think a lot of us, whether we think of ourselves as doing it or not, end up being curators. We curate by putting links up on Twitter, by posting things on Facebook, by sending them via email to our friends. We're all becoming editors. Trying to figure out how we're getting information and how we're amplifying it and passing it on to other people, for me would be the heart of this experiment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan, thank you so much.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Always great to talk to you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Zuckerman is a senior researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
"Shrines & S**t"
by Gentle Friendly