Free surfing: Where does your brain go?

It usually happens on a Sunday morning, in the quiet of the solitary kitchen.

The house is asleep. The coffee is fresh. The sun is rising. And I humbly drift through the Web, aimlessly consuming content insightful and insipid.

It’s not anything I intend to do. I usually start by reviewing Google+ or scanning the New York Times home page or clicking on a link from a friend’s e-mail or tweet. Suddenly, 45 minutes have passed, 10 tabs are open on my browser, and the thought flashes: “How did I get here?”

This type of experience in part inspired Nicholas Carr’s writing The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book I expected to dislike but instead found exhilarating. Instead of a cherry-picking screed railing against technology, it’s a thoughtful exploration of what we know — and have yet to learn — about how this interconnected, plugged-in life is affecting us.

Since reading it, I find myself stopping every once in a while and retracing my technological steps. Too many times, I’ve passively accepted my consumption like a French-fry carnivore at McDonald’s.

So this past Sunday morning, with browser tabbed to capacity, I found myself wondering once again, “How did I get here?”

WordPress

Each morning, I compile a list of local headlines for my community news site, SGFNews.org, which I’ve set up at WordPress.com.

Unfortunately, when I log into WordPress, I get the dreaded Freshly Pressed screen, a pleasantly presented buffet of images, blog titles, and headlines seductively gesturing to be clicked.

This morning, my eyes were drawn to a screenshot from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II,” one of my favorite movies from the past year.

Cut the Crap Movie ReviewsBeing a movie buff, I clicked on the link to Cut the Crap Movie Reviews, an entertaining blog of short reviews. It was a fruitful detour; I had not heard of half of the movies on the list.

Google+

Weekends are my time to delve into media trends and research. It’s also my time to catch up with neglected social media such as Google+ and Pinterest (my primary medium is Twitter).

This morning, I logged into my Google+ account for the first time in a couple of weeks. One of the first headlines posted by Dan Gillmor, noted journalist and media thinker, caught my attention:

I did not immediately make the connection, but the article reminded me that Zaslow co-wrote The Last Lecture, the story of Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who gave an inspiring talk about life’s lessons. The Wall Street Journal also noted Zaslow’s dedication to his wife and daughters, significant details that touched me as a husband and father.

Another Google+ headline from Wired caught my eye:

Privacy has become a flashpoint for me — it’s one of the reasons I use Facebook only while holding my nose — and I shared the article on Google+ and Twitter without hesitation.

Using Google+’s feed-view buttons, I then focused on updates from Friends. My research partner Carrie Brown-Smith led me to two fascinating pieces: The WeMedia.com PitchIt Challenge offering $50,000 for digital-media startups and an Advertising Age article about studying brand perceptions of online consumers.

I briefly considered the possibility of pitching my community news site to the challenge. I also hovered over the Advertising Age comments and thought of criticizing the headline “GE Study Proves Consumers Respond More to Shared Content,” as studies do not prove hypotheses. But thought did not turn to action, and I returned to my Google+ stream.

Next came a blog post titled “And Deliver Us From Distraction: Understanding Resistance to Media Life,” from Seth Lewis, an insightful media scholar at the University of Minnesota I’ve gotten to know in the academic world.

But the blog post wasn’t the only thing lighting up my brain. The site design was interesting, and I noticed the design was created by one of the blog’s co-writers, Joshua Braun, another media scholar.

At his site, he highlighted one of his published papers that fit right in with a study I’m working on. I headed to our university library site and found the paper, “Hosting the Public Discourse, Hosting the Public.”

Sexist startups

My last intellectual side road came courtesy of Kathy Gill, a sharp educator at the University of Washington whom I have connected with through the Carnival of Journalism blog group.

I clicked on the post by Dan Shapiro that recounted a disrespectful introduction of Rebecca Lovell as she was about to moderate a panel on funding startups. The man introducing her said:

Rebecca’s one of the smartest ladies I know, and I thought that she was a perfect pick for the role of moderator.  When we selected Rebecca and she said yes, she was a sexy single woman. And since that time, she’s become a sexy married woman, and so I wanted her lucky new spouse to stand up.  So we’ve got not only a very talented, but a happy moderator.

The post struck a chord with me. I am continually amazed that in 2012 we still hear this kind of — as Shapiro put it — crap. Did we not leave this behind with the age of the Mad Men?

The next item I clicked on from Gill’s stream involved storytelling with infographics. As one of my classes has to create an infographic as an assignment this semester, I thought the post would be particularly useful, and I saved it to my Diigo account.

And then the thought hit me: “How did I get here?”

What I learned

Thinking about my free surf led me to a few conclusions:

  • Free surfing can be insightful: In an hour of surfing, I had discovered a couple of helpful articles for my classes, a paper for one of my research projects, and a potential grant source for my community news site.
  • Emotions drive clicks. In some instances, the provocative subjects lured me during the free surf. Perhaps sadness was lingering from the news of Whitney Houston’s death, but I clicked on the Zaslow piece and the startup post partly because of visceral reactions to the content.
  • Sharing equals power. “Free surf” is a misnomer; I had several trusted guides from my social network leading me to useful content. In fact, most of my content discovery comes through this method (usually through Twitter instead of Google+). And I shared a few of the items I found with my own networks.
  • The stream induces anxiety. As someone whose stock in trade is information, I find that the constant exposure to an ever-growing influx does spark a sense of anxiety: How do I keep up with all of this? How can I accomplish everything I need to get done?

Does this experience jibe with yours? Where do your free surfs lead you in the silence of a Sunday morning?

Five ways to detect Internet BS

In the quest for page views and visitors, bloggers and content creators skate the ethical borders.

They steal content. They create meaningless lists. They perpetuate inaccuracy with statistically ridiculous online polls.

Do not nibble on these cognitive candy bars; they make for flabby brains.

So I offer you a post that is not pilfered, that is accurate as far as I know. I hope it will bring meaning and substance to your online diet.

1. Top 75 ways to …

Have you noticed the proliferation of lists (including this one)? People like them because they are easy to scan, digest, and comment upon. It’s like the weather: Everyone can comment on their favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.

Often, these lists are meant to spark an emotional reaction — How dare you leave out my favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.! — and create “engagement.” They’re also designed to pump up page views by putting each item on its own Web page.

Be especially wary of lists with more than 10 items.

The best compilations I find don’t actually use the word “list” anywhere in them. Two of my favorites: The Big Picture, which collects the best photojournalism from around the Web daily (by Boston.com); and Brain Pickings, which curates some of the most thought-provoking content from the Internet.

2. Who’s your favorite…?

As a researcher, I find online polls particularly offensive. They give the veneer of validity, presenting quantitative “findings” to support a given claim.

The problem? Statistically valid polls depend on a random sample of a given population. In an open online poll, the visitors to a given site decide whether to participate; there’s no control over the sample. The results are meaningless in a larger context.

The questions are often meant to provoke a response rather than elicit valuable information.

The most reliable polls (e.g. ones from Pew Research or Gallup) will provide their methodology, questionnaire, sample size, and margin of error. They will carefully pull together a list from which anyone from the population could be randomly selected. And they will be equally careful in how they interpret the results.

3. Whose content is it anyway?

We’ve all done it. Searching for a quick answer, we Google our query and click on the first reasonable headline. We scan the article, and if the information is useful, we smack our lips and continue on merrily with our day, with little regard for the actual source of the information.

Often, content farms scrape the Web for posts and articles on a given topic and shamelessly repost them with credit lines in the small print. In my opinion, this plagiarism is a lazy, misleading way to manufacture false credibility.

Like the multi-paged list, this ploy is another attempt to pad page-view numbers to lure advertisers and ultimately revenue.

4. Coffee is [bad, neutral, good] for you.

Good journalists know there is a wealth of fascinating, insightful academic research available for public consumption. Academics are often more concerned with publishing in peer-reviewed journals than the public sphere, making this source a rich mine for the resourceful writer.

The key, however, is putting that research into perspective. No single study or paper exists in a vacuum. Research must be tested, validated, and corroborated.

Still, some will elevate a solitary study to inerrant status. Those in search of click-throughs opt for the sexy headline — “Coffee is good for you, says science” — and selectively cite the studies that support their point of view.

5. Don’t believe that S.O.B.

As with academic cherry-picking, the polarized blogosphere has a nasty habit of taking quotes out of context and elevating them to the level of scandal.

Take a quotation from Mitt Romney that made the rounds from one of the GOP primary debates:

…I like being able to fire people…

For people who focus on Romney’s stint as head of Bain Capital, it fits the narrative of Romney as the evil CEO who cuts thousands of jobs. The problem is the quotation is out of context.

Watch the entire quote:

Even his opponents in the GOP primary called off the critics to say his comments were being taken out of context — but not before the Internet masses feasted upon the supposed “gaffe.”

It is this misrepresentation of fact that affects all of us who hope to gain credible knowledge from the Internet. Unfortunately, as authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note in Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, it’s up to us as content consumers to be skeptical of all we encounter.

Kovach and Rosenstiel offer six questions to consider when hearing or reading information:

  • What kind of content am I encountering?
  • Is the information complete, and if not, what is missing?
  • Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
  • What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted?
  • What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
  • Am I learning what I need to?

The technological explosion brought on by the Internet has democratized the ability to consume and create information. It has expanded our minds and empowers us to take action.

But it has also required us to become more discerning, skeptical consumers.