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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 10, No. 3, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
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Susan Moeller is director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda and associate professor with Philip Merrill College of Journalism & School of Public Policy, University of Maryland. Her latest book is Packaging Terrorism: Co-opting the News for Politics and Profit. Other books include Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death and Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat.

Until recently, the rule was that the curious searched for news. But now the news finds the young, suggests a recent study of 18-25-year-olds from around the world. Unlike their pre–Web 2.0 predecessors who traveled the Internet, students now squat in place on Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, chat platforms and email accounts, gathering their news from there.

The fact that youths are sitting like spiders in the middle of a web, content with consuming what flies by, poses serious social and political consequences in an era where Facebook and Twitter have become the media of choice for governments and politicians for public outreach and the opposition’s public square for organizing protest.

A decade or more ago there was much public hand-wringing about a then-new observed phenomenon: The internet was paradoxically limiting users’ intake of information. Despite the exponentially increasing amount of news and information accessible online, librarians, professors, journalists and parents worried that the marvelous opportunities for serendipitous discovery of new information when browsing a library’s shelves or paging through a newspaper were being lost. Internet users weren’t stumbling over provocative books or articles that expanded or challenged their understanding of the world, because, so studies suggested, users went to pages and sites that told them exactly what they wanted to hear. Using bookmarks and other electronic means to demarcate where they wanted to go, users commonly visited specific sites they had pre-identified for news and entertainment.

A study called “The World Unplugged” was released in April by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland. It asked roughly 1000 students in 10 countries on five continents to give up all media for 24 hours. After their daylong abstinence, the students recorded their experiences and also completed a demographic survey.

“The World Unplugged” reported that young users are no longer traveling the same virtual ruts as before. Students rarely go prospecting for news at mainstream or legacy news sites, the study found. They inhale, almost unconsciously, the news served up on the sidebar of their email account, posted on friends’ Facebook walls or delivered by Twitter. No matter where they lived, students observe that they’re inundated with information coming via mobile phones or the internet – text messages, social media, chat, email, Skype IM, QQ, Weibo, RenRen and more.

Most college students, whether in developed or developing countries, are also strikingly similar in how they use media and digital technologies. Across the world, students reported that the non-stop deluge of information arriving via mobile phones and online means that they have neither the time nor the inclination to follow up on even major news stories. Most students reported that a short text message from a friend is sufficiently informative for all but the most personally compelling events.

While most students expressed an interest in staying informed, only a minority of students complained about having to go without local, national or world news for a day. Some students noted that they missed a news outlet’s 140-character Twitter updates, but they weren’t desperate to read or surf the New York Times, the BBC or their equivalents.

For daily news outlets, students have become headline readers via their social networks. They rarely follow up a story on their own, content to wait until additional details or updates are served up via texts, tweets or posts. And because Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and their counterparts are increasingly a source reported for receiving news and information, students are cavalier about the need for traditional news outlets: “We are used to having information about everything on the planet and this information we have to have in an unbelievable time,” observed a student from Slovakia. “Our generation doesn’t need certified and acknowledged information. More important is quantity, not quality of news.”

It’s not that students reported a lack of interest in news. In fact, data from the study suggest that students today both care about news and are more catholic in their concerns than their immediate predecessors. Instead, these young adults cared as much about what their friends were up to as they cared about local and global news. “I felt a little out of touch with the world,” reported a student from the UK after going unplugged for 24 hours, “and craved to know what was going on not only in worldwide news, but with my friends’ everyday thoughts and experiences, posted in statuses, tweets and blog posts daily.”

And that was what was ultimately so fascinating to learn from the study’s data: Precisely because students were getting news delivered to them on their social-media platforms rather than going out and pulling news from specific news outlets, they take in more and varied kinds of news and opinions than their predecessors in the pre-Web 2.0 world. When students have 1000 Facebook friends or follow hundreds of Twitter accounts, there’s bound to be a more expansive range of news and information coming to them.

Librarians, professors, journalists and parents may still bemoan this generation’s loss of initiative and the kind of active curiosity necessary to gather information in an unwired world, but students today are plugged into news via their friends in unprecedented ways.

There’s as yet no viable business model for journalists who originate the news that shows up on social networks, but knowing that young adults are platform agnostic about how they get updated should prompt media outlets to consider how and where they deliver news. A seamless connection between students’ social groups and their access to news of local and world events may help enable the kinds of engagement and activism emerging recently in the Middle East and North Africa. If Facebook, Twitter, chat and email are already where students around the world meet friends and learn about global issues, using those platforms to connect the two in social action is likely to make sense to young adults everywhere –not just those who live in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain.

Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online
(c) 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.


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Susan Moeller writes: "Precisely because students were getting news delivered to them on their social-media platforms rather than going out and pulling news from specific news outlets, they take in more and varied kinds of news and opinions than their predecessors in the pre-Web 2.0 world. When students have 1000 Facebook friends or follow hundreds of Twitter accounts, there’s bound to be a more expansive range of news and information coming to them."

Very interesting conclusions from this study -- I'd be interested to learn more about it. Regarding the excerpt above, I'd like to point out that there are many young adults who refuse to join social networking sites like Facebook, and many more who use them, but remain relatively insular or provincial in their choice of "friends" or contacts. Thus, the conclusion that young adults are getting a more varied news diet due to their social connections being the sources may not hold true as broadly as you might think.



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