You Need Your Own Fire Hose In This FOMO Era

In this digital age of persistent connectivity we like to justify our obsession with real-time content with the bromide that “information is power.” In the everyday reality of our lives and media consumption, information really doesn’t translate into power so much as a kind of geeky hipness of always-on.

Our mobile apps -- or at least a few really savvy ones -- are starting to feed into this new attraction of feeling oneself riding some pulsing, living Trendosaurus. Not surprisingly, we see some of the best implementations in BuzzFeed, but even better ones in sports and celebrity.

As with most digital media developments, ESPN’s SportsCenter Feed got press notice when it launched in September as a Web app but then fell under the holiday radar when the iOS app dropped in late December. The concept and excellent execution here both merit more critical follow-up than the press-release-fueled digital media ecosystem allows. This is precisely the kind of real-time but nicely shaped data feed that we need to see optimize the mobile moment.

As anyone who knows me will attest, I am not only sports-averse. I may actually be sports-phobic. My inability to address even the simplest sport-related question or opinion has been a sore spot since childhood when all my Pinocchio-like attempts to walk and talk like a real live red-blooded sports-addled boy crashed and burned pathetically. I developed this bizarre sweat gland response to the mere mention of an athlete’s name even before I knew he or she was an athlete. Apparently, my dislike for any and all sports talk has developed in me a special sweat gland that is triggered by the mere mention of an athlete’s name even though I don’t recognize the figure as an athlete. Call it the bookish boy’s extrasensory perception of an oncoming conversation he cannot possibly engage on any level.

“Steve, you look pale all of a sudden. Do you need to sit down?

“No, fine.” I try to deflect. “Did you hear that Pynchon is coming back this year with another one?”

“Who does he play for?”

“He’s a -- oh, never mind. I am certain I heard my wife cry for help. Please excuse me.”

And yet, even I can tell that ESPN’s SC Feed is a damn good piece of work. Essentially, it takes the fire hose of material coursing through the massive ESPN sports news ecosystem and cuts it down to manageable size for the reader. All the video clips, scores, ESPN Insider premium content, Facebook and Twitter posts, blogs from the huge network of partnered content -- it all gets put through a personalized filter.

The filtering mechanism allows you to add in sports or teams as favorites. But the slider interface also lets you drop out of the filtering to the most popular stories and top news. The feed itself is nicely designed for mobile. Each item is time-stamped to underscore the real-time nature of the feed. It is visually tagged as to source and content type. And many items like the latest scores do not require any click at all. They just show up in the feed.

The ad model also feels right. The banners are inserted into the scroll at decent intervals and they have some diversity to them. They strike me as a bit too small, however, for much of the creative crammed into them. The Corona beer ad linked to its YouTube video and the Nissan ad to a mobile-friendly site. Both sponsors used rich media well. The plentiful video clips in the feed are kept blessedly brief and have an intermediary page that describes the content before launching the stream. This is no small thing, actually. I find it frustrating when news sites push you into a mobile video experience directly from a headline that may or may not accurately describe what you are getting.  

The SC Feed demonstrates that it is possible to personalize torrential amounts of content in a format that feels like a real-time portal onto what the fan needs and wants to know. It is a first step toward the kinds of personalization and aggregation that I hope characterize the next inevitable stage of mobile media development. We see something similar in People magazine’s very good CelebWatch app, which sets up parallel newsfeeds of star and fashion news. One feed is the full torrent of People.com news, images and videos, but the parallel channel -- a toggle on the main screen -- filters news and star Twitter posts according to your declared celeb faves. The app also has a personalized alerting system that will use app messages to ping you when something is up.

Mobile is the platform that is especially well-suited to address this FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) characteristic that seems to be either a byproduct of or a driver for connected culture. Real-time connectivity seems to carry with it an ethic of being in the know and the fear of being “oh so five minutes ago.” It may seem a silly trait by some or a dire sign of cultural decline among others. I regard it more as a tic of our times that is a way of entertaining ourselves with the tools of data overflow.    

The great American cultural historian John Kasson theorized that Coney Island and its many amusements helped acquaint turn-of-the-century Americans -- especially the working classes -- with the technologies, social dynamics and mores of modern times. One of his points was that the sophisticated machinery that powered many of the rides at the amusement park helped make manageable, understandable and even entertaining a world of technology that was about to engulf and disorient the way they lived in the Twentieth Century. I wonder if something like that can be seen in FOMO and the technologies that address it.

We are entertaining ourselves with the very torrent of data that is about to power, personalize and shape so many of our experiences in coming years as Big Data becomes a technology of a kind. Far from trivial, FOMO is a way that we exercise and test the skills we sense will be needed to thrive or survive in an environment that no one yet can define.  

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