I just read Clay Johnson’s profound and world renowned manifesto, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption and, as a book lover, couldn’t help but do my own research to try and understand why it is that reading thoughtful novels makes me feel so good – significantly better, in fact, than consuming content from some of my favourite online entertainment channels.
The Information Diet serves up precisely what it advocates – a balanced, well considered and researched menu of thought that you are encouraged to consume at your own discretion, depending on your personal taste. I am largely supportive of Johnson’s argument, which I feel makes a strong case for why we need to make a better effort to thoroughly consider the information we consume.
Best known for his political influence building and managing Barack Obama’s online presidential campaign in 2008, and then his Directorship at a government transparency organization called Sunlight Labs, Johnson has a unique perspective on media and culture, and how information can be used to sway mass opinion and behaviour.
The rise of churnalism
Johnson points a critical finger at today’s mass media industry, specifically the manufactured communications delivered by content farms such as Associated Content (acquired by Yahoo!), Demand Media, AOL, About.com, and even Huffington Post. This type of content, known as churnalism, is produced by organizations that employ a large number of freelance writers and underpaid staff to generate mass quantities of content specifically to appease search engines for the purpose of generating advertising revenue.
Johnson describes the working environment of content farms, using a personal example to explain the unreasonable pressure placed on their writers to turn around content at such a rapid rate they can’t possibly research their subjects properly nor lend them a critical eye. The result is popcorn content that exploits search algorithms to promote self-affirmation and its resulting addictive qualities.
Cheating and getting high off dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released in the brain that controls the feelings of pleasure and reward. While it has been foundational to the success of the human race by satisfying us for doing things that keep us alive and propagate our genetics, such as eating and having sex, it is also addictive and does not turn off despite ample availability of both in today’s society of mass consumerism. As we have survived by working together in society, dopamine is also released as a reward for operating in a way that is deemed supportive of the preservation of society.
Self-affirmation, first proposed by Claude Steele in 1988, is a theory that interprets a variety of psychological motives, such as cognitive dissonance and reactance, as reflecting an underlying need to perceive integrity of the self. Integrity in this respect can be defined as the sense of being good and appropriate as it relates to cultural norms.
Therefore, when we see a Buzzfeed post that confirms what we already know to be true in our own lives, we get a shot of dopamine as a reward for being part of what we have come to understand as cultural norm.
You have cat? I have a cat! OMG mine has ridiculously short legs, too! How amazing!
Did you just see Miley Cyrus twerk on Robin Thicke? Can you believe she used to be Hannah Montanna? OMG wha’happend?
Cheating search engines and getting us high off dopamine is what makes content farms, which make up a bulk of online mass media, so bloody successful.
Get high in moderation
I’m no neuroscientist, but I know the way I consume information has changed since the rise of the Internet. While I like to think of myself as well informed, too often I find myself automatically skimming article leeds to get the “gist” while also failing to question their accuracy as much as I should. I also regularly experience the brief but very real sense of fulfillment when I reward myself with Buzzfeed popcorn or by checking my little red social media notifications after battling to maintain a train of thought on my actual work. (This post is no exception.)
That’s not to say we can’t enjoy a little kick of dopamine every now and again. In fact, apart from making us feel awesome, dopamine has been linked to better memory, focus, and attention. That said, most research I’ve encountered emphasizes that benefits from dopamine are dependent on a delicate balance. Too much or too little can offset that balance and result in some pretty terrible health disorders. The key is moderation.
What does all this have to do with reading a good book and overall well being?
I’ve done a pretty thorough job of attempting to understand what’s wrong with my information diet when it comes to consuming online content, but what does this mean when it comes to the goodness I feel when I read a book club novel?
First, reading books as opposed to cheap blog posts (not this one!) exercises my concentration. Reading a book pulls me away from the distractions of Internet notifications and advertisements and helps me maintain my dopamine at a healthy level … except when I drink too much wine and read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Second, reading books that are well researched or experiential, such as historical fiction and memoirs, actually teaches me something important about the world that’s substantial, meaningful, and applicable to my own life. I anticipate backlash for this comment, but The Bachelor does not teach you anything even remotely useful about how to live a healthy life. It’s addictive and can make you feel good, sure, but make an effort to balance the junk info with something a little more meaty.
For example, while perhaps equally as disturbing, reading a novel such as Our Daily Bread or Something Fierce might offer you valuable perspective that does not necessary abide by your cultural norms, but that helps shape a more accurate view of the world we all share … beyond Hollywood Boulevard.
Third, purchasing books from authors who have done their homework about their subjects perpetuates a cycle of even more great content. Support authors who write meaningful stories. They’re the ones that last and generate real, positive change in the world.
And if reading books makes you miss the feeling of being part of some larger cultural discussion, join a book club. I assure you, it’ll be dope.
Image credit: The Guardian