How I audited my daily media habits and improved the way I read

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Creating web content is incredibly easy — but filtering content is really hard. In late 2014, I realized I was reading too much bad content. I felt enraged by some of the articles I clicked on, because they were such a thoughtless waste of my time.

I got so frustrated that I decided to invest serious effort in fixing the problem on my end, instead of fruitlessly swearing at my laptop. I hoped to determine what what was non-optimal about my media habits, and how I could improve them.  So I audited my habits (with a spreadsheet and everything!) — and what I learned might surprise you.

Current clickbait solutions

I’m not alone in my anger about clickbait and my desire for a better media diet.  There’s plenty of mocking commentary about this, like The Onion’s satirical site ClickHole, or the amazing Twitter feed Saved You A Click by Jake Beckman. Example:

It’s becoming an arms race: One side makes ever-sneakier clickbait … while the other side makes ever-better filters. Much of this stuff gets spread via Facebook, yet Facebook knows that it’s a threat to user satisfaction, so the company is working to make the news feed algorithms less vulnerable to bad content in clever packaging.

On the publisher side, we have examples like The Daily Beast, which just got its “newly quantified and gamified news reader” profiled by Nieman Lab. The Beast’s reader organizes Beast content for each user, and it allows readers to signal that they didn’t like a certain piece and thereby see less of that in the future. Of course, The Beast isn’t a clickbait publisher, but its app allows users to slowly and intentionally improve their media diet. I’m looking forward to more of these.

Another quantificational example is Nuzzel, a service that trawls your Twitter and Facebook feeds and pulls together the most popular links that have been shared by people you follow.  I use Nuzzel, and it’s really handy.  Yet, as you’ll see from my findings below, a fair amount of irritating content gets into my feed via Nuzzel. 

On the other hand, qualitative solutions typically involve human curation. Like most media professionals, I’m on Twitter all the time, and I use Twitter lists to track a small core of people who provide consistently good content. (My primary list is secret, so I can’t give you a link. Sorry!) I’m hardly the first to point out that Twitter is a tough product to master, but if you invest many hours in curating your sources, it’s unbeatable.

And I actually pay (gasp) for one human-curated media source — the LAUNCH ticker, which was founded by investor Jason Calacanis. His team collects news and commentary about tech and digital media. The Ticker’s sensibility is close enough to mine that at least one item per day is genuinely interesting, and it keeps me up-to-date enough that I can skip trawling big tech sites’ daily newsletters.  For each item, the Ticker team provides one-paragraph summaries, which give a lot of information so readers can easily skip clicking through. (This contrasts with most publisher newsletters, of course, because most publishers have incentives to convince readers to click.)

Although there are a lot of items in the Ticker that I don’t read, it has a better signal-to-noise ratio than most newsletters. It’s also worth noting that Calacanis has a technical product, Inside.com, that’s like Twitter except that it offers one-paragraph human-written news summaries. Inside.com has potential, but it hasn’t yet earned a permanent slot in my media perambulations.

How I audited my media habits

I acquire links in three basic ways. One is that I find them while specifically researching topics.  Another is that they are sent to me personally by friends and family.  The third is that I receive them throughout the day via mailing lists, digital communities and social media feeds. While auditing, I ignored the first two categories and I focused on the third — the links that I passively receive in an intentional way.

For one month, I rated every link that I passively received on a 1–5 scale:

1: “I’m actually angry that I clicked on this link.” (Example: A newsletter wielded my fashion anxiety against me, so that I clicked on a slideshow of “5 Style Traps To Avoid.” I then unsubscribed in a fit of rage.)

2: “Ugh. This might be useful, someday, sort of, but it’s unlikely.”

3: “Okay, I can see this being useful under the right circumstances.”

4: “Wow, this is really cool or useful. I’m glad I saw this.”

5: “Maybe I’ll write an article about it!” The piece was so useful, interesting or funny that I find myself bringing it up during “real conversations” in the “real world.” (Example: This article in The Economist about major players in “dark net,” i.e. the underground and un-tracked internet economy, came from my curated Twitter list and it’s fascinating.)

I also tracked various characteristics of each link:

  • Where I saw it
  • Whether I shared it on social media
  • Whether I saved it in one of my bookmarking services

There’s a blank version of my spreadsheet here, if you want to copy it and try this yourself.  After you’ve tracked all your information, you can make an assortment of tables using the Google Sheets “Pivot Table” feature.  (For instance, to sort your link awesomeness by source, make a pivot table where Rows is “Group by: Source,” Columns is “Group by: How interesting or useful or fun this link is 1-5,” and Values is “Source” summarized by COUNT.)

Finding #1: Things I regretted clicking on

It wasn’t all traditional clickbait-like top-10 lists. (I have no idea how they got me to click them, I swear! I was tired and distracted!) I feel uncertain about how to evade listicles, but I think (hope) that I’m clicking on them less and less?

Anyway, the other things I rated #1 fell into two loose categories:

Cynical, thoughtless zeitgeist capitalizers. These are the people who write 500-word fluff posts about something that’s currently fascinating (say, Uber). Then the writer slaps a title on it that makes it sound like they’re doing legit analysis.  This is hard to dodge — my main strategy is to start ignoring sources that link to things like this, but I can’t always do that, because surprisingly good sources occasionally contract this illness.

Personal insight posts from names I didn’t recognize.  Typically, I thought these would be interesting because they were about topics I find interesting (e.g. “Why I’m Quitting The Newsroom”). But it turns out that these posts are almost always useless to me unless they’re from someone whose opinion I already care about — a friend, or perhaps a thought leader who’s written good analysis elsewhere. Hopefully, this is something that I can immunize myself against by recognizing the trend.

Aside from these types of clickbait media, there was one specific stream that I will not name, which yielded such consistently awful content that I started leaving giant bolded notes to myself in the middle of my spreadsheet: “Don’t click on [offending stream]!”

This stream is part of a product that I use a lot. So at first, I couldn’t figure out a way to avoid it — and the parent company has a lot of data about me, so it constantly matched me with headlines that I couldn’t resist. (No, it’s not Facebook.) Finally a friend showed me how to use the AdBlock Chrome extension to block specific areas on a webpage, and I eliminated the offending stream from the product. When I’m in a charitable mood, I assume that this company’s content team is saddled with terrible incentives and bad work culture, but I’m still annoyed at them. It really harmed the brand in my eyes. Don’t be this brand.

Finding #2: Content observation anxiety

I’ve always considered myself an open book, but there’s a lot of stuff that I save for later without sharing on social media.  This is partly because I save some stuff that’s not top-quality, yet I want my social presence to distribute only the highest-quality information. But it’s partly because I feel self-conscious. 

Several recent surveys have discussed the fact that what people want to be seen reading is different from what they want to read. Indeed, I save a lot of links privately, in a format that I believe others can’t see. And I was hesitant to show friends my spreadsheet, even when they asked, because I wasn’t always sure how they would interpret my interests. I found myself most self-conscious about reading content that was critical of the industries where I work.

I suspect that my feelings on this are typical, which means that the designers of filters and curation services must be careful about what information is public — including the information that’s openly recommended to their users. Most curators are already aware that sexual content should be filtered, but there’s lots of other content that might not seem controversial, especially if it’s being gauged by an algorithm that can’t measure sarcasm.

For instance, let’s say the user is a full-time employee of Corporation #1 and he’s been reading articles about his workplace. What if he’s at work showing something to his boss on his screen, and a recommendation service pops up with a new article critical of Corporation #1?

Media pages

Finding #3: What are media brands good for?

Of the best content that I came across during the month (i.e., rated 4-5), there was only one media brand that came up more than once. (It was Wired, in case you’re curious.) This doesn’t motivate me to visit big-name media sites for the purpose of discovery.

This backs up other trends that media people have been discussing: For instance, as streams have begun to dominate, visits to media brands’ home pages have gone way down. John Herrman at The Awl predicts that large publishers will soon perceive home pages as a liability — “uncomfortably revealing glimpses into the social sausage factory” — if they don’t already. Blogger Chris Blattman has noted that, in his experience, audiences now read more blogs but fewer posts by each blogger.

However, there were publications that were clearly consistent at a certain rating level. This motivates me to read those brands’ stuff more frequently, and more carefully, when I’m directed to it.

Also, when I’m actively doing research, writing an article or drawing important conclusions, then I consider the source. Sometimes I’ll specifically search for what a respected source has to say about a topic: For example, if I’m researching the business fate of mobile games, I’d look for “Harvard Business Review mobile games.” So media brands still count! (I think.)

Finding #4: My best sources

Over the course of the month, more than a third of the links I clicked came from Twitter. A quarter came from the LAUNCH Ticker, and a sixth came from Nuzzel.  The rest came from a scattering of other sources. I was surprised to see how much I get from Twitter, Nuzzel and LAUNCH combined, but it made sense when I looked at how well those sources perform.

Between them, LAUNCH and Nuzzel ensured that I didn’t miss anything big in tech or digital media. LAUNCH also had the distinction of never sending me anything terrible (that I clicked on). This might be because LAUNCH includes a one-paragraph, human-written summary of each news item, so I already know a lot by the time I click through. I plan to look around and see if I can find more lists like this.

My Twitter lists performed very well, especially my main private list. This is unsurprising, since it’s a list of sources that I’ve carefully curated over years on Twitter. Sometimes I look at my main Twitter stream — all the people I follow — but that’s much less productive than my lists. So Twitter has been a good return on investment.

Overall, the quality of stuff I got through Nuzzel was least consistent of my top three sources. Since Nuzzel tracks everything that’s “most shared” among people I follow on Twitter, it makes sure that I see the top stuff, but it surfaces a lot of terrible share-bait too. Also, an unanticipated side effect of Nuzzel is that I feel nervous about following many new people in new disciplines on Twitter because that might throw off my Nuzzel ecosystem. I fantasize about the day I can apply Nuzzel to my Twitter lists so that these problems are mitigated (a feature that’s rumored to be currently available to Nuzzel employees).

However, much of the good stuff I see is only shared by one or two people I follow — people who are out exploring the edges and making unexpected connections, rather than reading the same stuff everyone else is reading. Ultimately, the smart people who explore outside their filter bubble are useful sources for that reason alone — and I plan to ensure that this is part of my ongoing value.

Finding #5: The infamous Facebook

When I started this project, I instinctively felt as if Facebook wasn’t a good source of media for my purposes. Sure enough, it wasn’t. I clicked only four links from my Facebook feed during the month, and all of those links ranked 3 or lower on my coolness scale.

Sometimes it’s more productive to look at my Facebook wall in an unsorted state, sans algorithms, but not always. (You can access your own unsorted Facebook wall by clicking here.)

However, I suspect that once I finally get around to setting up a Facebook list, the media I acquire there will be more useful. I haven’t done this yet because with over 1,500 Facebook friends, I know it’ll take time to go through them all and set up my first list — and I’m already getting such good results from my other sources that I haven’t felt motivated enough. New Year’s resolution.

Conclusion

This exercise highlighted the amount of time and work I put into curating what I read. I understand why the average consumer throws up their hands and immerses themselves in their Facebook feed. But this has also shown me the width of the gap that Facebook has to cover.

This exercise was time-consuming, but I’ll probably do it again sometime this year. (I’ll do it after I make my Facebook list and can include it among the sources I measure!) I have a better understanding of what clickbait looks like, the difference between keeping and sharing content, and how I can continue to hone my content acquisition, and after reading this story, I hope that you do, too.

Lydia Laurenson is a writer, researcher and media strategist based in San Francisco.  Learn more about her at her website, Journalism For Brands, or follow her on Twitter @lydialaurenson.

15 Comments

randybennett

Many of these solutions are for more sophisticated users (how many average information consumers really use, or know how to use, RSS feeds? I would argue very few. My problem was being able to keep track of relevant information on Facebook and Twitter without scrolling through the firehose or going through the process of creating lists, which might exclude someone that I might want to hear from. I developed (mostly for me) a Web-based app called SocialSiftr.com which collects Facebook and Twitter feeds and allows you to sort by friend or those you follow. So I can more easily scroll to see who has posted in the last 24 hours (or had the most posts or latest posts) and select the folks whose post I’m most likely be interested in (akin to going to the mailbox and sifting through mail to see which one, if any, I want to open now and which I’m tossing in the trash). I can also link friends’ Facebook and Twitter accounts so I can track their conversations on both networks. I still don’t capture everything, but it’s saved me a considerable amount of time sifting through things I’m not really interested in.

Heikki Pelkkikangas

Thank you for the very interesting article and study! Here in Finland we have tried to solve this problem by searching all the tweets from all users of Twitter with links to news sites and publishing only those exceeding a certain limit of tweets. This seems to work surprisingly well. I would love to hear your feedback on this approach. The site is at http://sweetestnews.fi (currently in finnish only), the english sources such as GigaOm are at the bottom of the page.

Jess Bahr

I love this. In addition to Nuzzel I use RSS feeds to stay on top of content from sources I know I want to read (like Gigaom).

Thanks for writing this!

Bill Bennett

My strategy is use RSS feeds and sort them into various lists. The best feeds are my top list, others go lower down and don’t even get a look unless its a slow day.

If I use Feedly – one option that I seem to stick with – I can read headlines and opening pars. Often there’s a byline and I know which ones are best and which to avoid.

It’s not ideal, some otherwise good sites sometimes serve trash, but it IS efficient.

Lydia Laurenson

Out of curiosity, do you use Twitter to sort or receive content at all?

Bill Bennett

Barely, only if something relevant catches my eye as it whizzes by in the twit stream.

The problem with Twitter is that it a) isn’t comprehensive, not EVERY story goes into the stream and b) it’s not reliable, Twitter CAN miss stuff, RSS never does.

That’s fine if I’m just browsing for interest, but it’s not good for my work as a tech journalist where I need to keep on top of certain stories.

I should say, I live in New Zealand, so most of the Northern Hemisphere news feeds I follow happen overnight, the US is usually active until about the time I take a morning coffee break. That means I need to be disciplined ploughing through the material early in my day.

snuggles

Weekend click-bait on GigaOm makes me wish Om was still running the show.

Lydia Laurenson

I spent days doing this audit and writing this article… clickbait would have been much faster :)

mike

They funny part is I got here through an RSS feed where the post was marked as a guest article and indeed I ddin’t recognize the author.
According to point 1 this means the article – an insight article from a person uknown to me – has a high potentiality to be useless.

Lydia Laurenson

Hmm… I guess by “personal insight” I meant more like emotional insight. I see that as different from analytical articles like this one.

Eric Castro

I clicked through to read this via my Feedbin hosted RSS subscriptions, and I’d rate it a solid 3, “Okay, I can see this being useful under the right circumstances.” That’s actually better than average — thanks!

jjj

You are an odd animal if you aren’t using RSS feeds You get the headline,part or the entire article and you can go over a lot of items pretty fast. Obviously you have to be selective about what feeds you add too, you can always go too far.

Lydia Laurenson

Well, this is embarrassing :) What happened was that I was a Google Reader user, and I never got around to replacing it. Perhaps I should, but I find that most blogs — even the good ones — have too much useless content. When I find a very valuable blog, I typically subscribe to the newsletter.

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