Personal media blackout?

Have you ever done a personal media blackout? I'm curious, because a quick tweet I sent out this morning made me wonder if perhaps I wasn't the only person feeling less enriched by, but instead more burdened with, the knowledge I was seeking out about the world around me. I've done minor versions of such blackouts before, with my biggest ones taking place during collegiate finals weeks to ensure I focused on my studies, but that was at least three lifetimes ago. Years later, information presses in even more constantly and subtly.  It used to be that our sphere of knowledge coincided with our sphere of influence, but now we hear, actively follow, and care about occurrences that are far beyond our ability to influence, much less control.

Here's what I wonder, though: how does this torrent of current-events knowledge help me, past the ability to win a few rounds of Trivial Pursuit? I would like to be aware of information that is truly relevant to me, but I think I could acquire that knowledge with less exposure to the Informational Superhighwayfirehose.

Traditional means of consumption

  • Television: I actively watch maybe an hour or two per week, and none of it is news programming. Passively, I pick up more because Jeff watches a few shows that I don't, and I hear bits and pieces of those shows when I'm sewing in the kitchen. We have a TiVo, but it's mostly for Jeff's use now.
  • Radio: I vacillate between listening to NPR on my commute (23 minutes) when I'm not listening to music on my iPod or calling a couple of friends.
  • Newspapers: none.
  • Magazines: none on a regular basis.  The Economist maybe once every 4-6 weeks, when I feel like picking up a copy.

The devil's in the details, though: the hybrid infotainments I consume online.

I consume news online from a small set of sources:  BBC, Reuters, CNN, NPR.  My job as a webmaster dictates that unless I'm on vacation, I can't choose to not open a web browser for a week. I could, however, restrict what I choose to read, and choose not to read news for a set period of time. That would be difficult but manageable.


Twitter is about 80/20 worth keeping for a news blackout, because I use it to keep up with members of the open source community whose software I use at work, and personal updates from friends. I'd have to make a conscious choice to not follow any links my friends post that look like they might even be remotely newsworthy. Thanks to work, I can't really turn it off. 

Google Reader

My Google Reader inbox is a combination of news, comics, Not-Quite-News, posts from friends, and posts on topics of personal interest.  Lately, I've been completely zeroing out the news and comics unread.  The Not-Quite-News, like metafilter, I keep for when I'm itching to idly consume trivia. The posts from friends I'd like to keep, but the world wouldn't end if I didn't look at them daily.  I'd miss the posts on personal-interest topics the most: things like quilting blogs that actively feed my brain and don't contribute to media overload.  (At least, I don't think so.)

What? Why?

I feel vaguely guilty for even considering doing such a blackout. The idea that a knowledgeable person is one who is conversant in current news and happenings is one that is deeply ingrained in our culture as well as my psyche. I don't think doing a media blackout makes me stupid -- it is not that black-and-white -- but I am indeed choosing to cut myself off from knowledge for a while because I don't believe what I gain is worth the price I pay for it.  I am not paying for it in dollars, but I am paying for it in intellectual and emotional attention.

When people ask me how I found the time to sew, my stock answer quickly became "I stopped watching television." I find myself wondering what I'd get back if I stopped my news consumption for a while. Perhaps a week to start with, just to see if it's worth doing?

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I suspect this is worthwhile.

First, a little perspective: Ever read the Little House on the Prairie series? The TV show was cute, but didn't match a lot of the ideas; in any event, I'm talking about the isolation experienced by the Ingalls family as they moved. They started in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, and moved when it was noticeable they had neighbors. They were aware of their immediate surroundings, and only got news of the larger world when Pa went into town -- in one case, he heard how the place they had settled would be handed back to the Indians, so he elected to move his family before they were forced to re-settle by the government. In one story, a terrible winter prevented trains from arriving from the east with personal letters and gifts, not to mention food.

The Ingalls were able to survive without knowing what was going on in the distance. Humans are capable of such survival. If something is really important, you'll find out about it through friends or people nearby.

Second, I'm not sure if being up-to-the-minute on news is worthwhile. Early news reports are often incomplete. Sometimes, early reports have errors. Finding out later what happened may give you a better appreciation of events -- this is the news magazine approach. If you have to report on the news, being immersed in the flow of it has value. Otherwise...why?

This is probably the trade-off we get for online news, instead of waiting for a newspaper or a regular TV broadcast. Sure, we know it within minutes of it happening, and sometimes we do need to know what's going on -- like why are there lots of police cars down in the street right now? But otherwise, a delay of a week is probably not going to be even annoying, let alone fatal. Getting all that information that doesn't require immediate attention can lead to media indigestion.

Enjoy the break. I'll let you know if I see anything worthwhile.

...Does a woman suing an airline for damage to her breast implants count?

I don't get any news to speak of. I watched more news this week in London than I have in years--luckily, it was mostly about soccer. If the story is something really big, multiple sets of people will be talking about it and I get word that way. News is depressing for me but more than that I think in many ways, it contributes to a personal sense of distrust and cynicism toward my fellow man which I managed to unintentally gave up when I stopped watching the news. And I can't say I'm sad about that.

Here is my situation right now:

  • Google Reader - Sitting at 1000+ unread and continues to accumulate.
  • Twitter - I've let it build up to 200 tweets unread, now my echofon is off, my Twitter phone app is quite dusty (although it doesn't look it, they need to make an app for that).
  • Plurk - There are more and more days where I would avoid it altogether for the sake of peace and quiet from the noise.
  • Facebook - I dread that thing everyday b/c of all the games apps and shtuff along with some people trying to promote their events.
  • Telly - I do NOT have cable, it feels like nothing more than a waste of money for a lot of junk and not a lot of quality shows. For news, I'd rather read my news feeds or listen to the radio rather than kill my eyes with CNN and their beep-whizz-clang overload. Oh and that newscasters can only wear so much makeup to keep from looking horrid on HDTV.

I feel deprived of information everyday, hour, minute and second I avoid the net to do something like reading a book, fold stars, play on my Game Boy, cook, lie on my bed with everything off and just bask in the silence (along with the house a/c unit's on/off cycles and the occasional doggie bark next door), etc. I do feel a sense of relief and peace knowing that the barrage of information is now off knowing I can turn it on anytime I want. However, if I'm in BFE, consider me frightened beyond anything, yet something tells me that I can do just fine without the above listed as time passes.

I used to think that I'm a wimp because sometimes I feel tired more easily than all of you when doing my usual information ingestion. I would panic if I miss a thing because I'm afraid I will not have enough to contribute to a worthy conversation with my friends. Lately, I'm at the point where I believe that if I want the info, I will go and find it when I damn well please. I still occasionally feel guilty when I don't follow up on my reading, but like everything else, it gets easier as time passes. If anything, this has become another chapter in the life lesson about balance.

My news comes mostly from friends linking things which are important to them via Twitter.  I do listen to NPR on occasion if I'm driving while one of the better shows is on, and I will sometimes click through on a Yahoo news story while checking my email, but most of the time I just tune it out.  And mostly for the same reasons you've named - I can't do anything about it, I just get worried and agitated about what's going on, and I don't have the energy to deal with more than what I've already got going on in my life right now.  I'm actively cutting out other activities and time-wasters, so news was a logical one.

I still do hear about major events - flooding, oil spill, Arc Attack being on America's Got Talent - but I neither know nor care about the celebrities du jour.  And I like it that way.