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Media Technology

What the hell is media and how does it work?

Pew Research released a new set of polling data this week, exploring the media landscape and how users interact with it. Specifically, the polls seek to define how people learn about their local communities through the various media channels we have these days. There’s a whole lot of data, here, though the final report is sadly lacking some of the statistics that are presented in the summary. The report could also have used the help of good infographic specialists, as the graphics contained therein leave something to be desired.

I’m not an infographic guy, myself. In fact, I’m colorblind. Fail. But I can put together a spreadsheet and have Excel print out some pretty graphs, so I thought I’d rearrange some of the data in more illuminating fashion. For example, the poll breaks up media consumption by age, pointing out that age does seem to determine a lot of our preferences, web vs. print vs. television. Here’s a pretty stark example of just how profound that shift is, between age groups:

Political news consumption, by age, by medium. Source: http://lsdfe.net/pubzJ6

A couple things jump out at me about this infographic, though.

The first is: there is no data about how this graph might have changed over time. When looking at this graphic, the first conclusion one might draw is that paper and television media are going the way of the dinosaur. And that might be true. But it might also be that print and television media appeal to an age group rather than a generation, meaning once the under 40 go-getter set breaks through that most depressing of barriers, they may suddenly find themselves craving a copy of the New Yorker and a glass of warm milk.

Print journalism is, after all, a slow medium with lengthy articles. Print explores topics at great depth and with nuance, as opposed to screaming headlines on trendy new websites. Print is not the kind of thing young people necessarily have the time or patience for. Television is a passive medium, meant to be watched while relaxing, which is not a thing most thirty-somethings can afford to do.

The other question this graphic raises, also associated with a lack of context, is whether this graph may have looked identical forty years ago, had the choices been between print, AM radio and television? We have no way of knowing whether this graph represents a genuine shift away from print media or simply a general preference in our society for the newest technology.

On the web, however, we’re dealing with small enough of a timescale to justify making some pretty solid conclusions from the next graph, representing the respondents’ preferences for how to share news content on the web. This is of particular interest to those of us who are curating content on the web, of course, but it also demonstrates how deeply the social networking trend has penetrated how we use the Internet:

How content gets shared on the web, by method. Source: http://lsdfe.net/pubzJ6

Email remains king, which I have to say, must be the case for people who aren’t me. I barely send or receive any emails at all, getting most of my info through either RSS feeds or social networking. The choices in this poll are a bit strange, but it strikes me that “customize home page,” might be interpreted as posting to a social network? If not, I’m not entirely sure what it does mean, as Geocities has been gone quite a while. If it does, then 19% is an impressive number.

And I guess I don’t wonder anymore why local news media insists on including comments sections on their sites. Given the stunning lack of decorum often displayed in those comments, I’ve always thought of them as more of a burden than a benefit. But if that many people honestly contribute comments, then you can’t turn those eyeballs away, can you?

Final Thoughts: What is “Media,” anyway?

In centuries and decades past, “media” has been shorthand for the various news sources that use different types of “media” – as in the plural for “medium” as in the stuff that carries the information, television waves, paper, radio waves. But in a digital world, the medium is the same in all cases, save for actual printed documents. Print “media” may have a problem on its hands if indeed the era of printed news is over: many people work in the factories that produce printed documents and many billions of dollars are invested in those machines that, if paper is irrelevant, are tits-on-a-bull impossible to sell.

I mention this not only because my belief is that “television,” even if it transfers to all-digital service, still remains the same passive pastime requiring mostly the same equipment and staff. I mention it also because the lede for stories bearing this polling data has been that young people prefer online-only media even over local print media available online. Well, honestly: if you’re 18 years old right now, you have never known a world without the Internet in some form. The distinct lines the rest of us aged citizens draw between specific technologies and mediums are probably significantly less important to the whipper-snappers coming up behind us.

In other words, most of the concepts in this poll may be completely irrelevant and even flumoxing to the very people we’re trying to understand. And the data is probably badly skewed as a result, or will be.