Monday, January 6, 2014

Narrowcasting And The Internet

Narrowcasting can be defined as the process of aiming a radio or TV program or programming at a specific, limited audience or consumer market. While it is a term that is applied to traditional media, Noah Richler suggests in an interesting article in today's Star that increasingly, the Internet, by the choices people make, is quickly becoming a medium that is narrowing, not expanding, our capacity for critical thought.

While his article perhaps does not constitute a fresh insight, Richler points out that we are becoming increasingly susceptible to what he calls the tyranny of measurement, our propensity toward counting hits and likes as the barometer of just about everything we do now. In other words, we are letting what we read, and the sites we visit, be inordinately influenced by how many 'likes' a Facebook posting may have, how many 'hits' an article gets, etc., thereby reducing the marketplace of ideas to, well, a marketplace driven by the force of popularity.

Richler points out that the arbiters of ideas worth pursuing formerly had certain criteria by which things were evaluated and deemed worthy. Although now the process may be much more democratic in a sense, choices are now influenced by what he calls a pendulum of approval that has swung extremely towards that which is vindicated by the masses.

We are living in a period of gross aberration marked by a giddy counting that has seen us forget other ways to calibrate our common sense. We post a picture to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, and count the number of “Likes” and “Retweets” and “Comments” and compare.

The barometer is instant, just as it is for companies evaluating the content of their websites with their own easily tabulated scale of hits, or for political parties reneging on a lot of good ideas that, not so easily enumerated, are of less worth in the pursuit of power.

Such a trend can have insidious effects:

When it comes to the news, a smaller number of stories garner ever more massive amounts of attention before the reverb to which our own viral sharing pushes us to forget them. And, in the political sphere, the web’s herding of us into like-minded crowds means that we ignore even the smallest of contradictory arguments and conduct ourselves as ideologues.

Richler links the tyranny of numbers to something that we are all familiar with:

This tyranny of numbers, distracting from more far-sighted views, goes hand in hand with the “selective exposure” that the Internet encourages.

The Internet’s illusion of proximity to the like-minded, no matter how dispersed — the fellowship it creates in the virtual sphere that affects our behaviour in the real one — is one of its most distinctive properties. In the digital age, we gather all too easily alongside those whose messages are consonant with our own.

I think we all know how the verification and validation of our own views and philosophies is made easy by the Internet. For example, while I read a number of progressive blogs, it is rare for me to seek out a conservative one, although I justify it to myself by asserting that there are very few of the latter worth reading, given their proclivity for screeds, rants, and character denigration. But is that simply a comforting excuse for me to be less expansive in my perspectives?

Richler has much more to say in this provocative article; you can read it in full here.


  1. Thomas Frank has coined a fine term - "hiveminding." It's why I'm reluctant to engage with aggregators, Lorne.

    1. I was thinking of your comment the other day about Newsana when I read the article and wrote this post, Mound.