Narrowcasting

Susan

Funk


, in her spiritedly

assertive comment

to my

recent post on Kelly Christopherson

, said, "Hey! I want some feedback on my

recent blog post

!" So here goes...

Susan, I think this notion of the economy of

attention

is getting more and more (dare I say it?) ... attention.

See, for example, this excellent

set of resources on the topic

as well as Davenport & Beck's book, The

Attention Economy

. I agree with your 'I want some commercial-free spaces

in my life'

  perspective but your post also caused my mind to wander in a

completely different direction.

In the attention economy, everyone is competing for ears, eyeballs, and

brainwaves. Because there is way too much information for us to pay attention

to, advertisers and marketers are doing everything they can to

get us to pay attention to their messages

. But as Malcolm Gladwell notes, "word

of mouth" from those we trust

still carries the most weight when it comes to

our decision-making.

So who do we listen to? To whom do we give permission to

"market"

products and ideas to ourselves? Well, technology both expands and

limits our attention. On the expansive side, our 'trust

circle

' now may be comprised not only of family, friends, and close

colleagues (those with whom we have 'strong ties') but also bloggers; trusted

web sites and media channels; political, charitable, and/or ideological

organizations with whom we affiliate; etc. (those with whom we have 'weak

ties

'). E-mail listservs, RSS feeds, and other subscription mechanisms allow

us to hear from and monitor more information channels than ever before.

Of course technology also allows us to be much more selective about who we

listen to. We no longer are dependent on a few print, radio, and/or television

broadcast channels for information. We now can choose from an

often-overwhelming choice

of print and online newspapers; AM, FM, and

satellite radio stations; network, cable, and satellite television stations;

text-based and streaming media web sites; blogs; podcasts; text and instant

messaging; interactive videogames; and other information streams. Of necessity

we use Internet bookmarks, iPods, Tivo, RSS aggregators, and the like to filter

out what we want to see, hear, and read. Cocooned with our personal media

players (and sound-isolating headphones), e-book readers, PDAs, cell phones,

computers, and home theaters, we rarely have to come in contact with any persons

or ideas we wish to avoid.

Some call this personalization; others call it isolation. The challenge of

all of this wonderful individualization is trying to still forge a sense of

common culture, to create common bonds that tie us together as a society, as a

local community, as national citizens. When we voluntarily narrowcast ourselves by

only hearing or watching media that we like, by only reading certain ideological

or political perspectives, by only visiting web sites or blogs that resonate

with us, where do we hear the common messages that bring us together as a

people?

I think the answer is public schools. It's definitely not broadcast

television or radio: even the most-watched TV shows now garner only a fraction

of the viewers they used to. Workplaces and houses of worship are too disparate

and divergent. The Internet is too scattered and newspaper readership is way

down. What's left besides our public elementary and secondary institutions?

Yet we are now seeing the same surfeit of choice in public schools as we see

in other societal arenas. Complementing the traditional choice of private

schools, we now have magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools,

privatized schools, schools-within-a-school, virtual schools, and homeschooling.

In Utah, lawmakers just passed a law providing tuition

vouchers for every student in the state

who wants to attend private

school.

I'm not an advocate of hegemonic groupthink (particularly from the

government), nor do I tend to be an alarmist, but I do think there's an

important place for public schools regarding socialization of our youth,

instillation of community and national norms, and creation of a people with

common bonds. But I'm afraid we're losing this quickly, and we need to start

talking about what it means for us as a society.