Commentary

The Art Of The Catch Up: Maybe We Don't Really Want Relentless, Ubiquitous Media

One of the weird consequences of connectivity and mobility is that our cultural zeitgeist seems to have a location now -- the “internet.” We stay plugged in in order to feel somehow “plugged in” to something indistinct but palpable. Connectivity as a term used to connote person-to-person contact. Now it also means maintaining ties to this ongoing flow of news, gossip, trending topics, and shares. It feels like a proxy for citizenry -- connection to a culture, a body politic, a community writ large. The much-discussed “fear of missing out” phenomenon (FOMO) evolved quickly as the personal anxiety that drives many of us to check in scores of times a day with something or other that we can’t quite identify. And to miss out is to feel disconnected from this, well, whatever it is we feel we are plugging into.   

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News apps seem to be responding to the FOMO jones with ever more intricate ways of compressing, curating, organizing and personalizing this massive flow of content into the smaller screen. As our habits migrate from desktop to devices, there is an obvious imperative to renovate information architecture. We need to think more carefully about how various sets of people seek and discover content, how they move from glance to browse to deep dive. All of these are poorly understood habits of mind that are in flux and adapting to mobile content environments.

What is an app to do?

It is interesting to watch a number of news entities try to accommodate the mobile news consumption habits no one truly understands yet. Yahoo News Digest has been playing around with its attempt to leverage push and curation into a twice-daily package of nine lead stories across general interest areas. I get them at 8 am and 6 pm each day. Their approach is to give you a light top line of nine stories with perhaps a hundred or so words of summary for each. But within each story you can start drilling into full articles, images, search results related to the content. I noticed also that recently Yahoo is appending to its top nine a much longer scroll of stories categorized by traditional news subject areas. They clearly are trying to balance curation with user choice and range. I am sure this will be one of the dark arts of mobilized media that will require constant tweaking and reinvention.

The Economist just launched a daily briefing style app “Espresso” that feels its curation and content are valuable enough for a standalone fee of $4.99 a month. Their approach is more radically truncated – only about top five stories each morning of about 200 words with a couple of more from diverse categories thrown in as well. This minimalist approach in content and design is actually made more compelling because it is strident in maintaining a less-is-more principal.

Others in the news space like The Week, Quartz, Time.com, Inside.com and more are struggling with the catch-up reflex of mobile use. It is interesting that some of the principles of old newspaper media apply here, timed delivery, tighter editorial judgment. It is reversing the polarity of a decade or more of the Web imperative: always-on, real-time streaming, more-is-more. On the one hand, mobility allows for real-time alerting, an unstoppable gusher of detail. But I find that as my notifications feed on my lock screen fills, I come to realize how little of it I really needed to know at just this second. In some ways I wonder if the relentlessness of media will come to teach some of us at least that we aren’t missing out all too much if we wait to “catch-up” later in the day.

These new formats all seem to be acknowledging that humans can’t (or don’t want to) incorporate such relentlessness of media into their everyday lives. Mobility demands perhaps a return to discrimination, prioritization, putting media into its proper place in our lives rather than letting it wash over every moment of them.   

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