Read this, not that: A review of Clay Johnson’s “The Information Diet”

posted at 6:08 pm on March 13, 2012 by Tina Korbe

Clay Johnson knows a thing or two about new media; he’s the founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008. As Karl Rove reportedly once said, “Blue State Digital! You guys do great things for the wrong people!”

Johnson was also the director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that aims to give people greater access to government data. Johnson has experience with software development, politics, entrepreneurism and non-profits. When he writes about new media in his new book “The Information Diet,” then, he knows whereof he writes.

No, Johnson isn’t blind to the many benefits of the technological advances of the past two centuries or to the many benefits of the blogosphere — but he also isn’t blind to the drawbacks of what he calls Big Info.

The premise of “The Information Diet” is simple: Just as technological advances revolutionized the way farmers produced food, so technological advances have revolutionized the way content creators produce information. Today, we’re able to produce more information more cheaply than ever before — but, just as the cheapest food is often the least nutritious, so the cheapest information is also often the least informative. In a nutshell: Affirmation and entertainment are cheaper than facts and figures.

Johnson argues that the tendency to gorge on information that reinforces our biases leads to information obesity, a condition in which we’re simultaneously hyperinformed and yet blissfully unaware of the ironies of our way of thinking. Picture an intelligent, well-informed man bearing a poster that reads, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!” Johnson has actually seen that man. He’s the poster child for information obesity.

The first part of Johnson’s book exposes the realities of profit-driven “churnalism,” a new form of journalism in which traffic potential, revenue potential and turn-around time primarily determine what content an editor covers. At the bottom of the list of considerations is editorial quality. That list of factors specifically comes from an AOL document leaked in early 2011, but plenty of other online information organizations have adopted a similar approach. Johnson doesn’t necessarily condemn what has come to be known as “The AOL Way” — it’s obviously a savvy business model — but he clearly thinks it’s important that information consumers understand that content creators today (or, at the very least, their managers) are driven more by the desire to raise advertising revenue than by any noble desire to tell the truth no matter what the consequences. With that understanding, consumers can begin to filter and interpret the information they receive from those content creators accordingly.

The second part of Johnson’s book offers his prescription to avoid information obesity. It’s as straightforward as the entire book: Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation. Two more of his tips: (1) Consume locally. Pay attention to information that is actionable and relevant to you — neighborhood news, local news, state news. (2) Seek a diversity of viewpoints. Challenge yourself with the opposition.

This strikes me as an important book for anyone who is highly plugged into the blogosphere, whether conservative or liberal. We call ourselves “information junkies” or “political junkies” for a reason: We’re addicted to that next hit of affirmation. Realistically, we’re the ones most susceptible to epistemic closure — to the idea that any source that contradicts us can’t be trusted. In fact, I faced that very problem as I read “The Information Diet.” After all, it was authored by a guy who has actively campaigned for politicians I vehemently dislike. When I began to read the book, I wondered: “Why should I trust that he, like me, wants to advance truth? How can I be sure his motive to write the book wasn’t to delegitimize the blogosphere, which has become one of the few far-reaching forums for the dissemination of conservative ideas in this country?”

But, chapter by chapter, Clay Johnson won me over. “The Information Diet” isn’t necessarily a call to eliminate the existence of Big Info (although, if everybody adopted his recommendations, the demand for it would be greatly diminished): As its subtitle makes clear, it’s “a case for conscious consumption.” I’ve written before that new media demands more of consumers than old media: It demands engagement, an active grappling with the facts and with the arguments advanced on both sides. “The Information Diet” is a helpful primer on how to engage the information at our disposal.

But why take it from me? Watch this introduction and go straight to the source. Read the book itself!


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I’m loving that post graphic while I sit here snacking on a sweet but slightly tart and juicy Granny Smith apple. Yum!

 

In other news — Consider the source is sage advice.

SD Tom on March 13, 2012 at 6:19 PM

Didn’t PBHO tell us we should check other news sources, too? On occasion, I try to catch MSNBC in the morning, even ABC’s Sunday news show. Then I hear one of their regular jack-wagons say Santorum wants to make contraception illegal (seriously he said that), and my wife tells me to stop yelling at the tv.

LtGenRob on March 13, 2012 at 6:20 PM

Hmm. MY name is Clay Johanson. I do not like this Clay Johnson fellow.

clayj on March 13, 2012 at 6:28 PM

I’m getting a fat head reading all this stuff.

OkieDoc on March 13, 2012 at 6:29 PM

It was all so much easier when the people had virtually no choice.
It was all liberal, all the time, which is exactly what Clay and liberals everywhere want.

RJL on March 13, 2012 at 6:38 PM

Clay wants to keep you dumb as dirt.

Scribbler on March 13, 2012 at 6:44 PM

Its called taking an R@R break,about every few months!!

canopfor on March 13, 2012 at 6:49 PM

From the Amazon reviews section for the book:

I simply wanted to add that, indeed, the author holds out CNN as the exemplar of objectivity: “CNN, on the other hand, took a different path. Watching the other two networks go their right- and left-of-center ways, CNN figured there must be some room left for the facts.” He also attributes CNN’s lack of viewers to the fact that, unlike its competitors, it offers the kind of news that ought to count: “Fox News is in first place on the right, and MSNBC is second on the left. CNN sits at the bottom in the middle, providing real news that nobody wants to hear.”

Holding CNN up as a paragon of journalistic virtue doesn’t bode well for the author’s viewpoint.

BakerAllie on March 13, 2012 at 6:51 PM

Speak for yourself there please, TK! I am fed up with pundits presuming to know how I/we think. Affirmation junkie? Not me. Speak for yourself if you will.

And that goes for O’Reilly on FOX NEWS as well: Stop presuming you know all about the “folks”, dude!

And you bloggers and pundits stop crowing that “you read or heard it here first!” I am usually ahead of that curve!

Less presuming please!!

Sherman1864 on March 13, 2012 at 7:13 PM

CNN = Communist News Network

If they are in the middle…god help us all.

Reality Checker on March 13, 2012 at 7:16 PM

Trust but. Verify. Tina, your a great kid with tons of potential. Try not to be so naive.

SayNo2-O on March 13, 2012 at 7:31 PM

(2) Seek a diversity of viewpoints. Challenge yourself with the opposition.

A person could probably argue that conservatives are the only ones who actively do this. Liberals, of course, are all about the affirmation part of the equation. And I’m sure it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice here that the reason liberals are becoming more and more reactionary and strident in their viewpoints is because for the first time, their ideas are facing serious competition and they can no longer assume that everyone thinks as they do.

As for AOL, an IT guy I once worked with summed it up thusly: “there’s AOL and then there’s the real Internet.”

PatriotGal2257 on March 13, 2012 at 7:38 PM

If somebody tells me they think Oprah Winfrey is God, and that he will trust no one else on earth, I’ll assume he has pretty lousy judgment. But I will have infinitely more respect for that lunatic than I will for the moonbat who tells me: “I just sort of listen to everything.”

Althought it’s unlikely in the extreme, there’s at least a CHANCE the first idiot might be right about something someday. But the person who prides himself on having absolutely no standards whatsoever will always be a consummate liberal.

logis on March 13, 2012 at 8:00 PM

CNN = Communist News Network. If they are in the middle…god help us all.
Reality Checker on March 13, 2012 at 7:16 PM

I’d say they’re right smack dab in the middle — of the media.

This moron’s advice is like the Soviet apparatchik advising his comrades: “Be open-minded. Don’t make any decision until you hear all sides of the story, from both Tass AND Pravda.”

logis on March 13, 2012 at 8:04 PM

I don’t necessarily disagree with the general thesis, but it leaves out a lot. Information overload is not some non-partisan idea. There is one group of people who stand to gain the most from the “keep your government hands off my Medicare” sort of idiocy: genuine socialist sympathizers.

gryphon202 on March 13, 2012 at 8:40 PM

Quoting CNN as anything useful should be an automatic Godwin.

bofh on March 13, 2012 at 11:50 PM

Most of the populace are gullible and little informed. This book is for political bigots, which I put in that demographic. Persons whom understand the author, like myself, do not need a book to tell us to be cynical or merely skeptical; we are inherently so.

Do people need a book to tell them to slow down? I don’t listen to AM radio, nor nighttime FNC for a reason. I know what’s to be said. Though not all AM radio is bad, I mean the more strident ideologues. I don’t read all articles on the sites I visit either. Leaves time to visit a broader range of sites.

John Kettlewell on March 14, 2012 at 12:19 AM

Well the Pew article was my next stop but it’s locked and at only 1pm. I wanted to say I wish we could differentiate “liberals” from prgoressives and others. An obnoxious liberal to me is a progressive…change at all costs regardless of facts or results.

John Kettlewell on March 14, 2012 at 12:26 AM

Then again that is how Obama got reelected: MSM omits uninforms and plain propagandizes all of the to viewers who listen. And so few it seems of these find the truth mostly here in blogs like hotair.

So we here need to do more than comment–we need to talk but man it ain’t easy.

True story: I point out to young friend and student that indeed global warming may not be true. At least its theory is weak.

Friend then tells me she told other friends same and …

…was laughed at with word “lies” tossed back at her.

This is what most of us are up against.

This reality as we know is very chilling indeed when considering the critical importance of the elections months away.

I hope we can change just enough minds or at least open them up.

Turns out we are the revolutionaries of the present fighting “the man” in office.

Exit question: any former or trending former liberals on this site?

Have we changed any minds here?

Sherman1864 on March 14, 2012 at 1:22 AM

Got elected I mean! I hope my obvious fears are not realized!

Sherman1864 on March 14, 2012 at 1:24 AM

You lost me at “Obama.”

Jim Treacher on March 14, 2012 at 2:28 AM

You lost me at “Obama.”
Jim Treacher on March 14, 2012 at 2:28 AM

Meaning?

If that is all you have to say it is insufficient.

Sherman1864 on March 14, 2012 at 3:48 AM

Treacher you a liberal? Voted for Obama? Gonna vote for him again?

Sherman1864 on March 14, 2012 at 4:25 AM

Honored by the dishonorable drive-by, Treacher, I guess!

Shame on you!

Sherman1864 on March 14, 2012 at 8:11 AM

Most of the populace are gullible and little informed. This book is for political bigots, which I put in that demographic. Persons whom understand the author, like myself, do not need a book to tell us to be cynical or merely skeptical; we are inherently so.

Do people need a book to tell them to slow down? I don’t listen to AM radio, nor nighttime FNC for a reason. I know what’s to be said. Though not all AM radio is bad, I mean the more strident ideologues. I don’t read all articles on the sites I visit either. Leaves time to visit a broader range of sites.

John Kettlewell on March 14, 2012 at 12:19 AM

Seconded. Almost makes me think that the people who already agree with it in practice won’t buy the book, and the people who ought to read it won’t either. But liberals will buy it and proceed to talk about how their reading it backs up how they’re NOT dangerous knuckle-dragging Republicans, ’cause OMG like those are the people who are totally the only ones who are REALLY destroying this country, y’know!! I mean Sarah Palin and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and, and, and…(head explodes in self-righteous frustration)

Liberty 5-3001 on March 14, 2012 at 9:57 AM

Ha, ha. I particularly like the phony “consequences” of “information overload” (1)Obesity (2)Hypertension (3)Sedentary Death Syndrone (4)Diabetes (5)Heart Disease (6)Distorted Sense of Time (7)Shallow Social Relationships (8)Reality Dysmorphia (9)Screen Addiction (10)Agnotology (11)Epistemic Closure (12)Democratic failure. Who figured all this out? What tests were completed to determine that too much info causes “Shallow Social Relationshps” or “Democratic failure”? This is more leftist dribble. To put this in other words: “We can’t control the entire media anymore so it is important that you only consume information that we deem is good for you (ie liberal propaganda)”. Nice try but you can’t stop the light of information.

Dollayo on March 14, 2012 at 3:13 PM

Treacher! I’m calling you out! But if you are a troll (and it is looking that way), you won’t be back.

Me? I am merely a lowly commenter. You? You are starting to look pretty bad, sonny!

Guess you trolled for more folks to take a gander at your blog perhaps?

Is it that bad??

Sherman1864 on March 14, 2012 at 7:14 PM

Meaning?

If that is all you have to say it is insufficient.

Sherman1864 on March 14, 2012 at 3:48 AM

Meaning that the fact that this guy built and managed Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008 is all I need to know.

Please let me know if you have any other questions. Have a pleasant evening.

Jim Treacher on March 14, 2012 at 8:37 PM

Oh, and I was talking to Tina, not you. Just because a comment appears below yours doesn’t necessarily mean it’s replying to you. That’s not really how the Internet works. Hope that helps.

Jim Treacher on March 14, 2012 at 8:38 PM