This is not a sports post.
It is, however, a post about the Super Bowl.
Ok, maybe it is a little bit of a sports post, but I don't have anything to say about the game, the players, tactics or stats, legacies, or any of that. Maybe this isn't a sports post exactly, but a post about our society and the way we engage with and around athletic competitions.
More specifically, this is a post about how the nature of societal engagement is changing in our increasingly digitally embedded culture.
I have written before about my infatuation (obsession) with the phenomenon that is athletics in our contemporary society. I got my last two degrees from an institution of higher learning that had nothing but disdain for sports, and I regularly hang out with workaholic types who view the entire sports world as a vapid waste of productivity cycles that could have been spent building a spreadsheet or something. As a result I have frequently found myself as a kind of sports apologist trying to explain why so many of us are so enmeshed in athletic contests featuring people we are unlikely to ever even meet, much less have a significant personal relationship with.
This is not a post about that, although it is about that a little.
Mostly, I want to talk about how incredible it was to experience the Super Bowl Half-Century Extravaganza (SBHCE). I mean, sure, there are all the regular things about these kind of events that reaffirm my belief that certain sports days should be national holidays: namely the gathering together with friends and/or family, coupled with the copious food and alcohol consumption.
The SBHCE was a different sort of experience than just watching a game. In fact, the game might have been the least engaging part of the experience for the vast majority of us.
I was sitting in a living room with my sisters and my brother-in-law and for the entirety of the game whenever a hand wasn't holding food, a tasty beverage, or a baby, it was holding another screen. Sometimes, being the proper rationalists that we are, we rejected the false dichotomy and produced some marvels of balance and juggling, shifting a baby while trying to manage screen, chili, and beverage... Don't worry, the baby is fine.
We sat together living, laughing, and loving, without ever dealing with those things directly. The Game was what we had gathered around, but it was so very far from the reason for gathering. That's because sports has become a sort of societal foil, in the literary sense of a culture that offers a contrast to illuminate the qualities of the thing contrasted. The technosocial revolution over the last decade or so has made that more true than ever, and the SBHCE was the perfect illustration of that shift.
I don't know how you experienced the game, but I'm willing to bet that you processed it through multiple social environments, with the majority of those environments being digital.
This is the reality of our digital revolution: where you used to have to process a given moment only in the context of your immediate environment and whatever remembered environments you brought with you, now you can process an experience through multiple environments layered in your technosocial access portal simultaneously.
The nature of all these environments that we can carry into an experience can vary by huge and wild degrees depending on the given person and their preferences. The SBHCE gave us a great example of how much variation there can be in those layered environments.
Think about all the different online communities with which you might have experienced the game: Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, any number of online message boards, or even the content aggregators passing as news outlets (CBSSports, ESPN, Yahoo, BleacherReport, etc...).
The experience filtered through each of those different environments acquired a distinct flavor. The Twitter conversation was like being in a crowded party, hundreds of conversations happening at the same time that you could dance between like a topical butterfly. Snapchat and Vine created a kind of running highlight real offering instant replays with color commentary. Facebook was more like a bunch of pockets of conversations as each post gathered it's own wake of responses.
The SBHCE was more than a game, the game was even remarkably forgettable (in part due to our western infatuation with positivism making the appreciation of defensive mastery difficult), at least, forgettable when compared to the way the event served as a snapshot of life in a networked society. With the constant global information cycle there are hundred and thousands of people uploading information into the technosocial space every minute of every day. Some of that information is meant for real time, or synchronous, consumption, while other parts of it are designed to be consumed whenever it may be convenient, or asynchronously.
Already the details of the game itself are blurring into all the other games I've ever watched, but what stands stark in my memory was the overwhelming tide of information flowing through all the various social media channels, and the juggling of those channels in real time, as everyone else at the party was juggling their own channels, and the way all those different channels added to our collective experience as we shared from our diverse feeds all the perspectives that would have been absent if we were restricted to just our physical environment.
That is our daily experience, in a nutshell.
Everyday, each one of us is faced with the choice of what information we are going to consume. The fact of that choice is not anything new. I mean, for thousands of years humans have been making information consumption choices. Which long rhetorical contest do I watch? Which play do I catch? Which book do I read? Which firelight shadows do I stare at for hours? The FACT of the choice hasn't changed. The IMPACT of those choices has changed dramatically.
Everyday you will be exposed to a tremendous amount of information, some subtle like commercials or a dramatic television show, some more overt like the headlines covering a magazine in a checkout line. This massive amount of information has established the centrality of the attention economy in our networked society, and the SBHCE was a perfect example of that.
The attention economy is a way of talking about the fundamental exchange that is happening everywhere in our information age, centered around a single question: how much attention do you have to pay for how much information?
While we were experiencing this single athletic competition, we were also processing tons of information that was only tangentially related at best: information about the political world (we hear you Doritos), about the musical world (thank you, Bey, for everything), and information about our social world (when people dislike Cam I suspect racism, because dude's game is on point).
This is where social media has fit into our societal milieu perfectly, because it allows us to sift a great deal of information with very little attention cost. In something like fifteen minutes a day, I can get all sorts of personal, informal information about my friends, relatives, associates, and complete strangers. With just a simple timeline perusal, we can get the kind of depth of insight into daily lives that, in the not so distant past, would have required a 45 minute phone call for each of my hundred friends, or a committed month-long stalking in the case of celebrity strangers.
How much attention for how much information. That is the exchange that is at the center of our collective engagement environments.
A dense peer reviewed article might have a great deal of information, but it also requires a great deal of attention to unlock all that information. In the fast flowing river of the 24 hour information cycle, academic journal articles are like icebergs, and almost no one wants to spend the necessary attention cost. A blog summarizing that article is easier to absorb, less information to be sure, but also a much lower attention cost. A sensational headline with an impactful picture? Little information, but almost no attention cost. This is why the social media marketing world is built around creating a low attention-cost introduction that makes you want to spend more attention for more information.
Well, we happen to be creatures of habits, or patterns, so in this world of finite attention and near infinite information, we all develop attention spending (and information consumption) habits. Whether it is personal information, professional information, financial or political information, we all get some information from somewhere, and as creatures of habit, we establish patterns. These habits define our position in relationship to this huge tide of information we are producing, with that positioning determining a great deal of our frame of reference.
This informational frame of reference impacts which conversations you enjoy, which jokes you get, which memes you grok. You know what I mean if you have ever been at a table with a bunch of people and the conversation takes a left into topics with which you aren't familiar.
I experience this all the time whenever the group I am with shifts into talk about a reality television show. Reality shows just aren't my style, but that means that whenever a conversation ventures in that direction I get immediately pushed out of the loop. I know that my choice to not watch those shows limits my future conversational options. When I think about the value of the information I am receiving for my paid attention, that is a critical part of my evaluation.
My choice to watch sports was always an investment in all those future conversations I want to have, conversations about child development, about the quantification of quality, about communal projective catharsis, about the indomitability of the human spirit, about ethical labor conditions... Now, in the digital culture where people around the globe are only ever as far away as the phone in my pocket, those are no longer just 'future' conversations. Those are the conversations that I got to enjoy during the SBHCE.
To be clear: your information consumption habits are, at least to a degree, a choice, and those choices create a context for the rest of your social engagements.
If you want to be more intentional about your experience in social settings, if you want to start shaping your experience of reality instead of just letting reality happen to you, then intentionally crafting your information consumption patterns is a great place to start.
There are a lot of digital tools you can use to help shape your informational context, and I'll touch on a few of them here, but your own awareness and volition are always going to be the greatest tools at your disposal. You can use any number of apps or browser extensions, but at the end of the day all that is going to matter is what you know about yourself and what you choose to do with that information.
There is a popular saying in organizational development that what gets measured gets managed. The first thing that you need to do in order to take control of your informational context is examine your current consumption habits.
Personally, I like to conceive the different places I get information as streams, and I think about how often I visit a given stream, and how deep I go when visiting.
For example, I might go to Facebook three or four times a day, but I don't read all the posts, I don't click on the links to read the articles. As contrast I might go to ESPN ten times a day, read all the headlines, and ride the links to maybe half the articles. In that example I visit the latter both with greater frequency, and greater depth.
I use Chrome, so a lot of the tools that I use to measure and manage my information consumption habits are Chrome extensions, but I would love to hear about other tools that people like to use, whether extensions for other browsers or apps. Feel free to let me know in the comments.
I start with the timeStats extension, to give me a picture of what my current habits are online, and Hooked, a free app that tracks my app usage over time. Those two tools give me a picture of what my current information consumption habits are.
(On a privacy note, Hooked tracks all the data you upload or download, and keeps that record even after you delete the app, so make sure to contact them about deleting your account when you are done getting a clearer picture of your habits.)
The next step is to imagine what I want my consumption habits to be. What conversations do I want to be able to have, what skills to I want to develop, what perspectives do I want to cultivate?
If I want to be more conversant in the world of finance and investment, then maybe I would want to be visiting the Wall Street Journal or the Motley Fool on a more regular basis, or subscribe to Ramit Sethi's newsletter. If I want to engage in more dialogue about world events maybe I get a subscription to Foreign Affairs, visit BBC and Al Jazeera more often, or watch John Oliver.
After you have imagined what you want your habits to look like, it's time to create a pattern that looks more like what you imagined than what you have been doing. This is important: you don't need to make the complete switch to your new information consumption habits all at once. People don't tend to work like that. Give yourself time to become comfortable in your new habits, and they will grow of their own accord.
There are two keys to cultivating the patterns that you want:
For the first part, StayFocused is a terrific Chrome extension that allows you to set daily limits for websites, and Leechblock is similar for the Firefox fans. You can even restrict the limits to specific windows, if you want to start by just clearing a block of time from the sites that function as a tax on your attention.
For the second part, Flipboard is great for curating which information topics you want to be consuming. You can put together a topic-group based on the things that interest you, and then just set personal minimal browsing time, which you can track on Hooked. I know that I am not going to be able to consume all of the information that I want about a given topic, so my goal is just to make sure that every day I am getting a little bit more, adding to my well of knowledge a ladle at a time.
The Super Bowl Half-Century Extravaganza was an incredible illustration of how rich and layered our experience can be in a networked society. In just a few short minutes you can download and configure the tools that can help turn your everyday life into a similarly rich and layered experience that is tailored to fit you.
Reality is complicated and can be a little overwhelming at times. One hour of intentional attention can make all the hours after that a little less confusing, a little easier to manage.
You are in control of your information consumption patterns. Those patterns significantly impact your social, professional, and recreational reality.
Don't wait for the reality that you want to experience to just happen to you. Find the parts that you can control, and seize them, step by step. Your information consumption habits are one of the things you can control, and you can start today. Right now, even.
Licensing and Affiliation notes: The image used in this post is from the Creative Commons, licensed for the public domain. I am affiliated with none of the websites, products, or programs mentioned in this post, and receive no renumeration from anything or anyone mentioned.
Thoughts on culture, community, and development.