Narrowcasting

Susan
Funk
, in her spiritedly
assertive comment
to my
recent post on Kelly Christopherson
, said, “Hey! I want some feedback on my
recent blog post
!” So here goes…

Susan, I think this notion of the economy of
attention
is getting more and more (dare I say it?) … attention.
See, for example, this excellent
set of resources on the topic
as well as Davenport & Beck’s book, The
Attention Economy
. I agree with your ‘I want some commercial-free spaces
in my life’
  perspective but your post also caused my mind to wander in a
completely different direction.

In the attention economy, everyone is competing for ears, eyeballs, and
brainwaves. Because there is way too much information for us to pay attention
to, advertisers and marketers are doing everything they can to
get us to pay attention to their messages
. But as Malcolm Gladwell notes, “word
of mouth” from those we trust
still carries the most weight when it comes to
our decision-making.

So who do we listen to? To whom do we give permission to
“market”
products and ideas to ourselves? Well, technology both expands and
limits our attention. On the expansive side, our ‘trust
circle
’ now may be comprised not only of family, friends, and close
colleagues (those with whom we have ‘strong ties’) but also bloggers; trusted
web sites and media channels; political, charitable, and/or ideological
organizations with whom we affiliate; etc. (those with whom we have ‘weak
ties
’). E-mail listservs, RSS feeds, and other subscription mechanisms allow
us to hear from and monitor more information channels than ever before.

Of course technology also allows us to be much more selective about who we
listen to. We no longer are dependent on a few print, radio, and/or television
broadcast channels for information. We now can choose from an
often-overwhelming choice
of print and online newspapers; AM, FM, and
satellite radio stations; network, cable, and satellite television stations;
text-based and streaming media web sites; blogs; podcasts; text and instant
messaging; interactive videogames; and other information streams. Of necessity
we use Internet bookmarks, iPods, Tivo, RSS aggregators, and the like to filter
out what we want to see, hear, and read. Cocooned with our personal media
players (and sound-isolating headphones), e-book readers, PDAs, cell phones,
computers, and home theaters, we rarely have to come in contact with any persons
or ideas we wish to avoid.

Some call this personalization; others call it isolation. The challenge of
all of this wonderful individualization is trying to still forge a sense of
common culture, to create common bonds that tie us together as a society, as a
local community, as national citizens. When we voluntarily narrowcast ourselves by
only hearing or watching media that we like, by only reading certain ideological
or political perspectives, by only visiting web sites or blogs that resonate
with us, where do we hear the common messages that bring us together as a
people?

I think the answer is public schools. It’s definitely not broadcast
television or radio: even the most-watched TV shows now garner only a fraction
of the viewers they used to. Workplaces and houses of worship are too disparate
and divergent. The Internet is too scattered and newspaper readership is way
down. What’s left besides our public elementary and secondary institutions?

Yet we are now seeing the same surfeit of choice in public schools as we see
in other societal arenas. Complementing the traditional choice of private
schools, we now have magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools,
privatized schools, schools-within-a-school, virtual schools, and homeschooling.
In Utah, lawmakers just passed a law providing tuition
vouchers for every student in the state
who wants to attend private
school.

I’m not an advocate of hegemonic groupthink (particularly from the
government), nor do I tend to be an alarmist, but I do think there’s an
important place for public schools regarding socialization of our youth,
instillation of community and national norms, and creation of a people with
common bonds. But I’m afraid we’re losing this quickly, and we need to start
talking about what it means for us as a society.

4 Responses to “Narrowcasting”

  1. Wow Scott, this is the conversation I hoped to have. It’s the “thinking that took me in a different direction” which makes the conversation rich. I, too, am a public school advocate. We are fortunate in Saskatchewan to have fairly strong public schools with reasonable tax support. Most students still attend public schools. The Utah voucher system sounds scary. We’re starting to see specialization of the public schools into ‘academies’ of one sort or another. I’m not sure if this is a positive move or a negative one. I will hope for the former. My feeling is that if the public school can be adaptable we can draw the public to us and establish those communal ties.

    Thanks for extending the conversation.

  2. Thank you as always Scott for using your site as a place to further discussion. I wanted to reinforce a comment you made in which I hadn’t thought of: “we rarely have to come in contact with any persons or ideas we wish to avoid.” I find this to be true in my own life as I bypass traditional media sources as well as traditional delivery methods. Would I not explicitly choose to interact with a diverse group of people in my daily workings I would truly miss the “common bonds that tie us together as a society, as a local community, as national citizens”.

    Thank you again,

    Sincerely,
    Sean Martinson

  3. Is this not the principle, as well, of The Long Tail? We are all becoming such niche shoppers not only in the retail market, but also in the media market. It started with specialized channels on Cable (from ESPN to the Game Show channel) and now has migrated to how we get our news and whose editorials we read. But this is hardly new. The political parties in the US continue to polarize to the point where families with differing views cannot bring up politics at the dinner table.

    School…real school, not second life ones…is one of the few places where we all still interact. I am lucky to be at an international school, where ethnic and national diversity is really high (not so much on the socio-economic status).

    I worry that it has been a long time since I’ve seen diversity and opposing viewpoints be truly celebrated and embraced. Are our “conversations” online too like-minded? This site has helped in pointing out other views and keeping a real conversation going – where not everyone agrees.

    So that’s my long-winded way of saying “ditto” – thanks too.

  4. streaming consciousness

    Tiny red ants (Oh, Ant of Destiny!) are crawling, no swarming over my two habanero plants and there on the ground are five still-born not-yet-orange pods and not one to waste valuable foodstuffs I grab a large pot and dump

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