The Hawaii experiment


Winter break has started at Stanford. For me, it began with a week of vacation in Hawaii. I decided to put this time off to good use and do some work on my Knight project. Or, actually, to have other people do some work for me while I was going to enjoy some Pina Coladas on the beach.

Dreading the perspective of diving trough piles of unread emails and missing out on great stories, to catch-up on a week of news – as I was prepared to follow information only casually – I put a message out on  Facebook. It read :

“Friends! I want to run an experiment and need your help: I won’t read any news this week, as I’m travelling. Please share in the comments below your 1-3 favorite articles or stories of the week, so I can catch-up on the greatest things next week-end. This curation will also help me push forward my Stanford project – so many many thanks in advance. And make it GOOD :) “

My hope was to gather about 30 to 50 links from a small participating part of my 400+ friends, some of which would be redundant and hence give me a sense of importance in volume, some of which would be very random and hence make sure I got a random and surprising harvest.

What I received was indeed surprising. But not quite in the sense I would have expected. Here’s what I gathered thanks to four devoted/playful friends:

Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States, Washington Post (4’48”)

 The worst CEOs of 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek (2’07”)

110 Predictions for the next 110 years, Popular Mechanics (6’55”)

Coursera to offer social dance, The Stanford Flipside (35″)

Time to stop the massacres, Jeff Sachs (9’40”)

Looking for America, New York Times (2’13”)

Politicizing tragedy and the Aurora Theater shooting, Mother Jones (1’26”)

A response to Jack Stuef’s Buzzfeed article about me, The Oatmeal (10’08”)

The secrets of the Internet’s most beloved viral marketer, Buzzfeed (3’22”)

Poll: which party is Santa in?, Politico (11″)

Was it the Newtown mass shooting that slightly threw off the experiment? I didn’t feel like I could jump right into the many op-eds that were shared and started by looking for a timeline of events (2’41”) that I had just discovered through Facebook hear-say and emotional reactions.

41 minutes and 31 seconds later, I knew a bunch of stats on guns and mass shootings in the United States, I had learned that some law passed in Australia in 1996 contributed to a zero-mass shooting environment down under and I had heard of some clash between a comic artist and Buzzfeed. I had learned that the CEO of Zynga had beaten those of Facebook and Groupon to the list of worst CEOs in America and realized that it didn’t matter much since in fifty years, we’ll all be needing help of robots to programm our own brains….

It may say a lot about my caracter but somehow, I wasn’t sure I could consider myself fully informed on the major events and good surprises of the last week with this bouquet of news curated by my friends. Especially when some dated back to… last July. So I went off to scan my inbox for good stuff to read in the various newsletters I subscribe to (it to about 2 hours to open dozens of tabs of things to read).

Then, I was intrigued to learn that my instinct was to go for local news first (16″) while on a day to day basis, it seems like candy you munch on after dinner. I also enjoyed the “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (5’04”) a friend had recommended me by email. The piece felt more interesting that all the op-eds I had swallowed earlier. But I couldn’t have understood it without some context a.k.a the initial timeline of events. Also, I could not resist indulging a not that important yet meaningful piece to me, on GigaOm : It’s not Twitter, it’s just the way the news works now (4’08”).

Finally, there are still many of favorites waiting on my Twitter feed to be read and understood.

Still, here are a couple of take-aways from this experiment. Things I’ll keep in mind while further researching ways to slow down the news:

  1. Your friends can be the best and the worst of curators.
  2. Relying only on them (social curation) may feed your fear of missing out on good stuff.
  3. Local news rise in importance when offline for a while.
  4. Op-eds without context (=headlines, timelines) fall into the catefory of “nice things to have”, not “vital stuff”.
  5. Personal interest > funny story.
  6. Funneling the reader from short contextualizing stories/headlines might be a good idea.

Time to brake the news

P1060835This is were it all started. This is the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean sea. I spent three days with friends there, about 15 months ago, for a week-end of heavy partying and cool visiting. My phone’s only use during these couple of days was for snapping pictures. No e-mails, no news readings. A perfect time out.

So, when I came back home, late on a Sunday evening, I was pretty lost when I turned on the TV. The news channels kept showing images of the tarmac of a North-Parisian airport, blabbering about the latest New-York adventures of the IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn… and just perfectly failing to do what they pretend to do: inform me. I wondered if DSK had assaulted a stewardess, if he had tried to flee, if he was being deported, if he had been expelled….

It’s only after ten or fifteen minutes of staring at the screen that I managed to put the pieces of the puzzle together and understand they were just live reporting the landing of the plane that would bring DSK back to Paris.

That day, I realized how much the media were actually forcing their customers to adapt themselves to the pace the media were setting, when it should really be the other way around.

That day, I wondered how much my experience of the news would have been more valuable, if I could have caught up on the last three days of news while traveling back from the airport.

This experience is at the origin of the innovation proposal I submitted for my Knight fellowship at Stanford. It’s all about giving the users the ability to put a brake on the 24 hours news cycle. Personalization of news has, to date, been mostly about making it more interest- or social-centric. However, the most personal thing about me is my time. It’s the only thing nobody can have more of, while information is more and more abundant. The time we have to consume information and the timing we’re in when we consume information should dictate the new rules of the news cycle.

I believe that only then, news outlets can hope to regain value in the eyes of their consumers.