News and Stories

I get a lot of my news from social media. I call it “news” but I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. I get stories. Lots of them.

The thing about feeds of news, like 24-hour TV news, is that they have no beginning or end. I didn’t really notice it before this year, but now I think it’s important.

With published news formats that are constrained to a start and an end, the publisher gives you a huge amount of information just by determining what goes at the beginning. Front Page news on a newspaper, or the Top Story in a nightly news broadcast were very clear signals that you’re getting what the publisher thinks is the most important information. They have a sense for its importance, in part, by reviewing all of the things that happened over some unit of time (last 24 hours, last week).

In a sea of stories on the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to figure out what the “news” is. There’s no step-back and review over a given period of time. It’s on you as the reader to figure out what’s important. As more details unfold and a story is updated, it’s on you discern when to skip a story you’ve already read, or to re-read about a topic that has been revised. In the rush to push stories into feeds, reporters are incentivized to create more stories on less information, and keep publishing new stories as more facts are discovered. Logically, this isn’t a new “topic” but it’s indiscernible unless the reader puts in a ton of work.

Search results, as a reflection of the Internet itself, aren’t much better. If you want to know what the absolute latest understanding is on an event, and you search for it, you’ll just get back a collection of stories again. A few months ago I was trying to understand the details of the Russian election interference controversy. Now, at least, I can link to a Wikipedia page. Enough time has passed that a community of people has been able to piece together something resembling a summary of current information. But, at the time I was lost… all I could find were collections of stories each telling part of the story, and each assuming I already had different bits of context.

I don’t think an unending river of stories is ever going to be a workable way for humans to make sense of the news. I don’t know what the solution looks like, and I don’t think it de-facto requires human curation, but at this moment I think 24-hour news and social media feeds are making it harder to consume information. At present, episodic programs such as weekly TV/podcasts/publications, are the best option I see that’s available.

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