I am what I read

For a while, my news mainly came from the RSS feeds I chose to come into my netvibes account.  This was a form of personalising the news I received grouped into things more likely to interest me (so tabs for politics, culture, the third sector, technology etc) – still in the main from news providers and journals, but divided up by topic not source. Then I started to use my network on delicious to find my way  to articles that friends and colleagues had bookmarked as being of interest.  Increasingly over the past year or so I’ve found I’ve been following links posted by those I follow on twitter. So I’m very interested to see the development of Twitter Times – a newspaper created for you personally, based on precisely these links.  This is, essentially, a community-edited newspaper, but with the community differing from individual to individual, from paper to paper. And without anyone in that group needing to do any extra work to create it.  It’s the same content as twitter, but the interface is modified to suit a reading environment. It’s rather exciting.

twitter times frontpage

There are functional limitations of course – if there was something like the lastfm love it/hate it function to have more of some types of articles or less of another you would truly be able to follow these – but there are also broader social concerns to be wary of.

When I choose what to read, or see, or do, like everyone else I often like advice on what’s a good choice.  I generally take that advice from a source that I can trust correctly to anticipate whether something will be worthwhile or will fit my interests – in effect someone or something who I think knows enough to be accurate or more honestly (and sadly) I know thinks a bit like me.  This might mean newspapers or journals who I generally think are ‘right’, reviewers who write well and persuasively, and most important friends. In other words, I exhibit homiphilic tendencies.

But why does this matter?  As we have been discussing as part of the future of membership project, there is a good deal of research which shows that when groups of ‘like-minded’ people get together, it creates strong bonding social capital (within the group).  However, this is countered by the negative lack of bridging social capital (across and between groups).  When we spend time or energy in an isolated group we can end up tending to create a group think model (potential solutions here) where we all think the same and respond negatively to others outside the group and internal disagreement.  Without sufficient links to other groups or ways of thinking, this is likely to lead to pockets of polarised and extreme views, as this research modelled

And sources of information are the same. If I get all my news channelled through the interests of a narrow group, that information will become narrower in terms of both subject and approach, and arguably will begin to influence how I think about a given topic. Theoretically I might then find it harder to emphasise with alternative views on the same topics, or become interested in topics outside of that area. These are already apparent – a 2007 JRF report showed interesting differences in attitudes to social inequalities based on what paper the interviewee read (and I’ve written before about the sense of community created in newspaper readership) However, many fear that accessing news online (as we read, for example, only right wing blogs with single authorship instead of a broadly right-leaning paper) will exacerbate this tendency.  The importance of this kind of trend on society is highlighted when we consider the results of this report (released on Wednesday) on uses of media sources in informing and creating public policy. When one in five policy makers have recently “changed a policy position based on online sources” (fourth slide) these reading biases start to matter.

The development of Twitter Times is very similar to the trend of hyperlocal news which is slowly building (there’s a good article on this from the ever-reliable New York Times, which Wikipedia suggests is offering editorial expertise to some hyperlocal news sources with a view to leveraging “small portions of advertising revenue”) – enabling the aggregation of news relevant to a small physical community.  Interest groups based in either geographical communities or communities of interest form strong bonding ideas but few bridging ones.  There have been a few studies of the demographics of twitter users (see for example this, this and this), but without analysis it should be clear that the community on there, much less the tiny sub-group of which I am a user, is in no way representative of the population as a whole.  But the danger is if we begin to believe that it is, and forget about other views outside.  The hope must be that with something like Twitter Times or local news we can take a look at other users’ or areas’ newspapers, realise they’re far more interesting than our own, and perhaps expand our networks or sources of information as a result.

Last updated at 16:51 Fri 06/Nov/09.
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With your worry that "information will become narrower in terms of both subject and approach, and arguably will begin to influence how I think about a given topic", you seem to be heading down similar lines to the "Daily Me" critique of personalised media here -- Cass Sunstein is the exponent of this I hear most often. My hunch about why we shouldn't get hung about this is based on:

  1. few of us exist in just one 'narrow group', and even narrow groups look beyond their boundaries more often than you might think
  2. while we all get gulled into groupthink from time to time, in the long term we quickly get bored of hearing the same views from the same perspective and seek out alternatives
  3. what's the point of sharing and filtering stuff with people who you know already share your point of view. (more on this here)

There's a kind of reductio ad absurdam you can imagine with the social filtering dystopia: that we all exist in bubbles passing round news and views that we're guaranteed to agree with, while different bubbles hold polarised and opposing views. Evidently this would be so* unstable and *so explosive a situation that it wouldn't last 24 hours before the bubbles burst and we were confronted by opposing perspectives again.

Katherine's picture


Specialist Editor

Many thanks for your comment David,which exposes the problem of writing online - namely, one does so on the basis of limited research and then releases it to an audience including people who have written the book on the subject. I've read - and found extremely interesting and useful - your posts on both problems of and designs for personalised media.

I think what I was trying to get across was that as we change our reading habits we need to be aware of the fact that we are reading a subsection of information, filtered through a lens. It's not something that should concern or worry us unessarily, but that dangers come at a population level when we start reading - for example - a Littlejohn or Monbiot article and take it as unopinionated fact, and the same applies with our own reading when these come from limited sources.

(NB if you're following the links to David's blog and are confused by the dates, it's because he uses the Long Now dating system, designed to get us to think in longer timescales [even further than 3s4...] and also to avoid a technical glitch due to hit in 8000 years time).

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