I Chose This: Why the Web Is More Personal
Syracuse.com’s Brian Cubbison has posted a very good Q & A with Howard Owens of The Batavian, whose real-world experience at hyperlocal will be drawn on for years to come. It’s a solid read for Owens’ takes on advertising, working with local businesses and citizen journalism, but what really grabbed me was an exchange about digital media in general:
[T]he way people interact with digital media is much more personal. Our digital devices are much more personal than a family-shared television, or even a newspaper, which has the feel of something everybody else is reading, too. It’s a mass media vs. personal media mindset. So communication on personal media is more conversational, more of a mindset that communication is one-to-one, not one-to-many.
At first glance this flies in the face of the popular idea that the Web makes us fickle consumers of disposable content. You know the drill: We don’t read, unless it’s short articles formatted as cute lists, and we certainly don’t read important stuff because an in-depth story about the fighting in Marja is just a click removed from the latest starlet who forgot to wear underwear to the club.
I’ve always thought that idea was wrong, or more precisely that it carelessly assumed all Web readers behave like a few Web readers. But at the same time, I had to admit that yes, people generally read things on the Web with a certain impatience. I didn’t have to look further than my own surfing habits to find evidence that Web articles do best when they stick to a single topic, and that long-form pieces have to be really good to keep their audience. I tried to dig into how both of these things could be true in this column about writing for the Web that I wrote for the National Sports Journalism Center, arguing that understanding your audience and what it wants was far more important than any one-size-fits-all Web advice. A reader wanting to know what’s going on at noon on a workday needs to be served very differently than one looking for a better understanding of a complex issue on a Sunday morning.
I thought that column turned out OK, but had the nagging feeling that some key piece of the picture was still missing. I think it’s what Owens is talking about above. Reading a newspaper or watching a newscast, I’m interacting with a product that’s a bundle intended to appeal to a general audience, of which I’m a small part. I tailor that product for myself by choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. But searching for information online is different. I’m looking for something that fits my needs as exactly as possible.
So what does that mean?
For one thing, bundled products have an uphill battle to engage me, because by their nature they’re tailored for general audiences and the starting point of engaging with them is winnowing out information that isn’t relevant. This is why the Web blows bundled brands to literal and figurative bits.
For another, I’m going to read ruthlessly. I’m looking for something specific, and if what I read isn’t it, I’ll stop reading and look elsewhere. If what I’m reading is what I’m looking for but the execution is lacking, I’m much more likely to quit part of the way through and look elsewhere, because there may be other sources that do a better job. This isn’t true in print: If I want to know what’s going on in Afghanistan and all I have is the print New York Times, the fact that the Times’ Afghanistan story wanders off into larger questions about nation-building is less likely to make me stop reading. It’s as close as I’m going to get, and I know it.
But there’s a flipside to this that I didn’t see until I read the Q&A with Owens. If what I find online is a fit, I’m going to engage with it more closely than I would engage with a print story or the right story on the news, because it feels like it was made exactly for me. I found it and I chose it. The ruthless abandonment and the close engagement are two sides of the same coin. I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.
In the digital world, every article or product starts as an uncertain prospect for holding my attention. It has to succeed, and quickly. Online, the battle is always uphill. But there’s potentially a greater reward. If that battle is won, if an online product succeeds, I will be more loyal to it. Because I chose it.