Online versus off: two burning questions

Two questions were asked during my session with students at the University of North Texas this week that I want to repeat for readers here. These questions come up ALL the time, and they signal to me the struggle between the logical mind and the personal media revolution.

The first question is the most common.

Aren’t you afraid that if people read only what they want (via RSS subscriptions) that they won’t be informed about what they “need” to know?
First of all, this question is hypothetical and calls for speculation, at best. But the bigger problem with this question is that it requires belief in, among others, the following assumptions…
  1. That isolation in an “only what you want” paradigm is absolute.
  2. That everybody in the “only what you want” stream is similarly isolated.
  3. That people will never reach outside their isolation.
  4. That there aren’t or won’t be filtering agents within the paradigm.
  5. That “what they want” is an all or nothing proposition.
  6. That people are essentially incapable of defining their own information “needs.”
  7. That people are essentially incapable of finding things they “need” on their own.

When I answer this question, I always say that the only real evidence I can offer is my own experience and the experience of my friends and colleagues. I find myself easily able to filter that which is important and that which isn’t. In so doing, for example, I find that the mainstream spends an incredible amount of time on issues that — in the end — matter little in the big picture view of things. For example, an obsession with politics leads often to the conclusion that, well, it’s just politics. Who knew?

I don’t watch much TV news anymore. I don’t read a single newspaper. I don’t read magazines or “browse” mainstream Websites. I do peruse aggregators, and I read a ton of blog entries that link me to mainstream pages, and I find it vastly more informing to follow breaking news online than I do on TV. It’s not as entertaining, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

So I view this question as specious — a smokescreen put forth by those who use it to assuage their own fears of irrelevance in the new paradigm (They’re not really irrelevant, but that’s their fear.).

The second question is similar.

Aren’t you afraid that spending so much time in the cyber world will lead to a lack of human contact?
Again, this question is speculative, and flows from assumptions, including…
  1. That cyber contact isn’t human contact.
  2. That cyber contact is an “all or nothing” proposition.
  3. That getting to know people online is inherently problematic (whereas “real” human contact is not?).
  4. That cyber land is a dangerous place (whereas the “real” world isn’t?).
  5. That the addictive power of cyber contact is absolute.
  6. That cyber contact doesn’t allow (or require) people to develop interpersonal skills required in the real world.
  7. That somehow people are incapable of figuring out the difference between real and cyber.

Again, experience trumps belief when realistically examining this question. I have found that meeting people online and getting to know them there produces an incredible sweetness when meeting the same people in person. I think that’s because meeting and interacting with people online doesn’t include any of the surface bullshit that goes with getting to know people offline. We meet others “at core” here. We’re less judgmental, as a result, and we find that we’re attracted, perhaps, to people with whom we’d normally not associate. Surely, this cannot be a bad thing for humanity.

I’ve been a part of bringing bloggers together in two different communities, and the social gatherings have been amazing. The good-looking people chum with those who are “challenged” in that regard. Older folks hang with younger. Big, small, black, white. It’s really quite fascinating.

There are certainly potential dangers online, but nothing that education can’t overcome. The benefits, however, far outweigh potential problems, imo, and the more we obsess about those dangers, the more likely we are to miss the benefits.


  1. Hi, Terry:

    I’m a heavy user of RSS. I recently exported my feeds and was shocked to find out that I subscribed to over 600.

    Subscribing to that many people and news sources, there isn’t much you miss. It takes me a lot less time to read than it does the newspaper. Also, the question assumes that people who use RSS are doing targeting. Are they? I’m not. I don’t feel the need to read every item in the newspaper, and I don’t feel the need to read every item in my newsreader. I approach them the same way: I skim until I find something of interest. Most RSS feeds aren’t supertargeted, or single-subject.

    I feel I am better informed than I was before, particularly about global issues, and I’m a better reader of the news, as well. I don’t read the NYT Health section anymore: I let bloggers who are doctors read it for me and tell me what it means. Sadly, they always redirect my attention away from the latest sensational study or cure to boring old diet and exercise…but whaddya gonna do?

    That said, both my assertion and the assertion made in the first question are just that: assertions.

    What people who ask the question about whether people who use RSS are getting what they “need” to know should *do the experiment.* Take a group of people who are big users of RSS, a group of randomly selected people, and a group of newspaper subscribers. Give them a quiz on national and global news issues, and see what happens.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.