Ethan Zuckerman: Tracking My Media Diet

Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of Global Voices and the writer of a wonderful blog called my heart’s in accra is doing an experiment, and is asking for advice and collaborators. The experiment is to track his “media diet.” The project is related to Ethan’s argument that we don’t have very reliable intuitions about the kind of media we consume.

I’ve made the case – in my recent TED talk
and elsewhere – that many of us overestimate the amount of diverse,
international information we encounter through the internet and other
communications networks. We run the danger of being “imaginary
cosmopolitans”, convinced we’re encountering information from all
corners of the world, while we might be trapped in homogenous echo

One of the interesting, valuable things about this experiment is that Ethan has already had more experience than most people tracking media consumption. Now he is turning his attention to the problem of self tracking media. We will all learn from this.

Media diaries aren’t new – take an intro communications class at many
universities, and you’re likely to be asked to keep one. They tend to
be pretty superficial
- it requires some serious obsessiveness to log the individual stories
you encounter, rather than writing down “NPR – 7am – 7:20am. And the
process of keeping a diary tends to shape your behavior – for the month
Rachel and I were a Nielsen family (years back), we watched vastly more
public television than we do in an average month.

It’s easier than ever to keep a diary with tools like Your Flowing Data,
a Twitter-based service that allows you to send direct messages via the
web or SMS. I just logged “d yfd listened WNNZ 0750 – 0830″, a syntax
that I hope will let me start collecting information on what media I
encounter offline, and who I interact with in the real world.

But what I really want is data on the dozen or more stories I heard
on NPR during that morning drive – coding each in terms of subject and
geography would mean either logging while driving or writing a tool that
turns the name of a broadcast media source and an interval into a
stream of metadata.

If you have tried this yourself, please pipe up with suggestions. For more details about what Ethan is doing read the full post:

Media Tracking and the Quantified Self

Below is a wonderful TED talk by Ethan about how easy it is to make mistakes about the nature of the media we consume. His ideas about “imaginary cosmopolitanism” tell us something important about how errors in how we understand our own behavior may also blind us to important things going on the world. 


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3 Responses to Ethan Zuckerman: Tracking My Media Diet

  1. Joseph Buchignani says:

    I think he’s going about this in an impractical and excessively data-entry oriented way.
    I also don’t really see the point. Cosmopolitan-ness is more a function of travel and book reading, in my opinion.
    However, here is how I would accomplish his goal of geographic exposure measurement:
    All my notes, thoughts, actions etc. are dumped to a main emacs text file. This text file is never modified after initial entry, so it forms an accurate chronological record of my information intake and output, at least that which I found relevant enough to save.
    So all I would have to do to estimate my cosmopolitan-ness is data mine my text. This would give me at least a rough approximation. Mentions of foreign countries, etc.
    If I were really serious about becoming more cosmopolitan, I would make that a goal and track the process using my brain rather than trying gauge progress by some data-driven proxy.

  2. Gary Wolf says:

    Thanks Joseph – I do think the text-based analysis you’ve talked about is one of the great possibilities, especially interesting because it is sort of hidden in plain site. Some of the most thought-provoking QS talks have involved text analysis. My summary of the Ethan’s project doesn’t get much into his reasons for doing this; he’s particularly curious about whether the Internet broadens or narrows our range of knowledge. He has raised some important criticisms of the idea that the Internet makes us more cosmopolitan, but acknowledges a possible weakness in his argument: maybe the Internet a narrower “window” on the world than we assume, but nonetheless wider than other forms of media or social participation. As he writes in his blog post:
    “Sure, 90% of my Facebook interactions might be domestic, but perhaps that vastly outpaces my face to face interactions – that might then be an argument that the Internet is, on balance, more likely to help us interact with people from different nations (different religions, different political perspectives, take your pick) than other technologies.”

  3. Matthew Cornell says:

    I’ve been on a media diet for years, and it’s been extremely helpful. If you want to actively go on one (rather than collect data then decide action), here’s the experiment:
    > Eliminate from your life all news that’s not directly related to work, including papers, magazines, radio, and on-line sources. At the end observe:
    o Was there anything important that you didn’t hear about from a friend?
    o How did your mood change during this?
    o How much extra work did you get done?
    After a few weeks I realized that not much of import actually happens (trivia and excitement rule) and that I was much calmer. Put another way, news is rarely important or durable. I took a hint from Tim Ferriss and catch up on news by scanning the newspapers on sale on the sidewalk as I pass. Usually gets me up-to-date in about 20 seconds.
    My wife is doing this and had a funny comment: “I almost didn’t know about the hurricane that didn’t happen.” Exactly!

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