Balancing Your Media Diet

When I was a kid we had the food pyramid. It was designed to help people think about the right mix of foods for a healthy diet. The plate has replaced the pyramid but the idea is the same — you need to be mindful about what you put into your body in order to stay healthy.

The same thing is true for what you put into your head. The more varied the information you consume, the more connections you’ll be able to make between issues and ideas. The more diverse your information diet, the more likely you’ll be able to discover insights that can prompt new ideas and ways of solving problems.

Here’s one example. A few weeks ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I watchedNuclear 101: How Nuclear Bombs Work, Part 1, on YouTube. It was a lecture by Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at Harvard. For years nuclear history has been an interest but the science is tough. Bunn made it very accessible.

He described the problem of achieving fission in a sub-critical mass. He explained that there are three solutions: add more material, reflect neutrons back in to the material, or compress the material. It made sense to me and it apparently lodged someplace in my head.

A few days later I was talking with a client. She was describing the challenge of more effectively using her global communication teams. Simply adding more money wasn’t the answer, she said. And then I remembered the lecture. Her teams, I said, were like the atoms in a sub-critical mass. Money was akin to neutrons. Adding more could help, but so would using consistent messages and materials (similar to reflection) and better coordination with the regions (similar to compression). It was an apt analogy and led to a more focused discussion on how to implement the approach.

With that example in mind, here is a way to think about media consumption in a way that can help broaden your mind when it comes to the events and issues of the day. In the world of MyPlate, there are five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy. Applying this notion to media consumption, we could also think of five categories: foundation, expansion, practical, inspirational and indulgent.

Here’s what they mean:

  • Foundation is the basic information needed to put things into context. It’s the news, history, literature and anything else that provides a fundamental view of the world.
  • Expansion is information or ideas that you aren’t familiar with or don’t agree with. The news falls into this category, so can a lot of other things, such as vides (like the one mentioned above), topic-specific publications or partisan Web sites. Consuming this content can take discipline.
  • Practical is information that helps you do what needs to be done. Understanding a clients business or what a particular reporter is writing about are examples.
  • Inspirational is media that makes you feel good and gives you space to recharge and reflect. It can be music, art or anything else that works for you.
  • Indulgent is information that is more a guilty pleasure than anything else. For some it might be reality TV, for others talk radio, for me, it’s video games.

Too much of anything isn’t healthy so it’s important to come up with a mix that’s right for you. For most people it’s easy to spend time with practical and indulgent media. It’s easy to justify it — the practical stuff can help you get your job done and the indulgent stuff is a necessary respite if you’ve been over-taxing the old grey matter.

Media isn’t like food though. You can’t measure it consistently in terms of calories. Does a copy of US Magazine equal two episodes of Parks & Rec? Is binge watching Breaking Bad the same as plowing through three weeks worth of the Sunday Styles section? And what should you do about that stack of ten unread New Yorkers? It’s pretty hard to say.

The important thing is to mix things up. It’s easy to get into media ruts and fall back to familiar formats or content. It’s also easy to stick with popular media. This gives you plenty of fodder for water cooler conversations but if everyone is consuming the same content they’ll also likely come up with the same ideas and observations.

It’s also important to recognize that the right media mix will vary from person-to-person and over a lifetime. A middle schooler will have a far different media profile than a veterinarian, who will likely be consuming different content than an airline pilot. While different people need to engage with different media, it’s important that they don’t isolate themselves in their own media universe.

This has been a big concern when it comes to political media. There has been an assumption that many people only consumed media that supported their point of view. Thankfully, according to a recent story in the New York Times, that isn’t the case. According to the story, what people are actually observed consuming differs — and if far more diverse — from what they report consuming. This is a hopeful sign.

Achieving a healthy media mix isn’t something that should be left to chance. As a first step, why not begin tracking what you read, watch, listen to and play? Do it for a week and assess your media diet. Are you watching way more TV than you meant to? Have you whiled away untold hours playing FIFA 15? Be honest with yourself. Then push yourself the find more balance.

As a communications professional, not only will this give you a glimpse into the actual media you consume, but it will also help broaden that mix, which will expose you to new ideas, help you make new connections and allow you to deliver new insights to colleagues and clients.

Originally published at

No Cameras, No Recording Equipment, No Sense

Last night I saw Gorillaz at the Agganis Arena at Boston University. The show was amazing. It’s really easy to find really terrible examples of mixed media performances but when you see one that nails it . . . well, it’s just an amazing thing to see. From the first song – which featured a video of Snoop Dogg on vocals to the last pounding encore Gorillaz wove sound and light and video into an intense narrative.

Even within each media type there were so many elements and styles and tones and textures that it could leave your head spinning. So given this commitment to flexibility and quality and creativity around content it was weird to see that old tag on my ticket “No Cameras, No Recording Equipment.”

Now if that were actually enforced (or enforceable) I *might* be able to understand it. Sure, every artist (or production company or record label or venue) would like to have full creative control of the content they make or produce or distribute or present – but that isn’t possible any more. Here’s a shot of the crowd at Gorillaz:

Every little light is a camera or recording device . . .

There were dozens and dozens of people photographing and recording the show. Guess what though? Photographs/video/audio captured with an iPhone or point-and-click camera aren’t great. Here’s an example that’s actually better than most:

Even though it’s good for the genre, the quality isn’t that good.

Here’s another – this was was made with a proper HD video camera and the difference is evident. It’s still not great but it’s a step in the right direction:

Here’s a third example that shows what can be done with two cameras and editing:

There are big differences in the quality and experience of the content in these three cases. It makes me wonder, “what’s the logic behind the ban on recording?” Is it to protect the original content? to boost record sales? sell merch? fill clubs? Does the ban – or its unintended fallout (poor quality content) accomplish these things? I have no idea but am curious. For me personally, quality fan content makes me want to experience the band and its content for myself.

What about poorly produced fan-generated content? If anything, it may have a cooling effect on someone’s desire to experience a performer. I think of it this way – the low quality content functions as a souvenir. It allows the producer to say “I was there” but rarely conveys much about the quality or experience of a performance. Of course the quality experience is exactly what you want to be conveyed. That’s what builds and excites a fan base.

Encouraging fan-content is nothing new. The Grateful Dead managed to become pretty successful not in spite of fan recordings but in part because of fan recordings of their shows. Artists who include their fans in the process of creating a strong content-based community can and do thrive. The best way to create a strong content-based community is to allow fans to create strong content – NOT to force them to create sub-standard content with outmoded restrictions.

The idea of not just tolerating – but actively encouraging – content creation shouldn’t be limited to artists. Virtually any brand can benefit from strong user-generated content. Some brands do this well, while others try to exercise control. Control is gone and has been for a while. People will say what they will say whether you want them to or not. The only control that can be exercised is how easy you make it for people to make quality content.

Aiding and encouraging content creation (and recognizing quality content) helps connect current fans/customers more tightly to the band/brand/movie/etc. It can also helps attract new fans (how many of you have checked out a band on YouTube based on a friends recommendation or because you’ve heard they’re coming to town?).

By putting content restrictions in place all that happens is that poor quality content is produced. These restrictions squander the opportunity to build an engaged fan base, add additional content to multiple channels and reach new people. It’s time for these types of restrictions to be lifted so more people can participate in a positive content experience.

What do you think? Do limits on content creation help or hurt?

Licensing is for Software NOT for Literature

I will be the first to admit that I love books. I grew up in a house and with a father who imparted me with a serious love of books and reading and my own library is in the thousands. I read widely and deeply – dozens of books every year and wish I had even more time to read. I love books and so perhaps you ought to dismiss everything I am about to write as the words of a committed bibliophile.

On the flip side though I am also nuts about technology. There are not that many pieces of consumer electronics that I don’t lust after; that I can’t convince myself – in my heart-of-hearts – will make my life better. Anyone who knows me knows that I carry a wide array (wider than most people) of electronics with me – an iPhone, a digital SLR, a video recorder of some sort, a Mac Book Pro, etc.

Ten years ago maybe I got a Handspring Visor. This was the same year the Rocket ebook reader came out and I lusted after the thing. The idea of being able to carry multiple books with me wherever I went was really appealing. My wife told me she had considered getting it for me but settled on the Visor since it had broader utility. A little disappointed maybe but I got an ebook reader for the Handspring and downloaded several books from Project Gutenberg. I wasn’t blown away.

Since then the market for ebooks and ebook readers has taken off. But at the same time my desire to won one has lessened. In part it’s because I enjoy the form factor of the book – all of the nostalgic things people love about them – their shape and weight, the way you can see your progress as the bookmark marches from front to back, etc. I love coming across old boarding passes that make me think of trips longs past, or the dried flower I wore as a boutonniere at a friend’s wedding.

Those tangible aspects of the book are only part of their appeal. A much bigger part of it has to do with ownership. When I buy a book it’s my book. The primary relationship is between me and the author and their work – not between me and the publisher or distributor. Sure – they are the means for me getting my hands on the work, but once I do, their part of the process has ended. With ebooks that isn’t the case. Once I make the purchase that relationship has only just begun.

For me, one of the wonderful things about books is their fluidity. I can read one and think of the friend for whom it would be perfect and then I can hand them my copy of the book. I can tell them to read it and to have my copy – even if I know I’ll never get it back. Often once I do that with a friend they’ll do the same for me sometime – recommending and sharing books. I like the ecosystem of readers that grows around books.

Back in 2006 I met Greg Boesel, the CEO of Swaptree. They gave me a whole new means of enjoying books – by allowing me to trade them with other readers using their service. Their model replaced something that had all but disappeared – the used book store – where I could off-load books that I had finished. With the rise of the big box bookshops and Amazon there stopped being easy ways to buy and sell used books and Swaptree nicely fills the void.

Right now there is no way to sell or trade or share ebooks. This might make sense for someone but it doesn’t for readers. Let’s look at how the print and electronic models approach your relationship to content.

Here is the copyright notice from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem:

Anathem. Copyright 2008 by Neal Stephenson. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information address HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53 Street, New York, NY, 10022.

Pretty clear and simple.

Now here is the digital content section of the licensing agreement for the Amazon Kindle – which is in addition to the copyright of the publisher:

3. Digital Content

The Kindle Store. The Kindle Store enables you to download, display and use on your Device a variety of digitized electronic content, such as books, subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, journals and other periodicals, blogs, RSS feeds, and other digital content, as determined by Amazon from time to time (individually and collectively, “Digital Content”).

Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

Subscriptions. The following applies with respect to Digital Content made available to you on a subscription basis, including, but not limited to, electronic newspapers, magazines, journals and other periodicals (collectively, “Periodicals”): (i) you may request cancellation of your subscription by following the cancellation instructions in the Kindle Store; (ii) we may terminate a subscription at our discretion without notice, for example, if a Periodical is no longer available; (iii) if we terminate a subscription in advance of the end of its term, we will give you a prorated refund; (iv) we reserve the right to change subscription terms and fees from time to time, effective as of the beginning of the next term; and (v) taxes may apply to subscription fees and will be added if applicable.

Not so simple.

The written word differs from other content types – music, video and software – in that it hasn’t required anything but a set of eyes to use in the past. If you wanted to hear a song you had to either know how to play it, have a band who could play it or a device that could play it. The ease of reading is important. Music and video are also more ephemeral. A song is three of four minutes long – even a symphony is perhaps an hour. A book is a commitment to spending days – if not weeks – considering a topic or ideas or characters.

Because the relationship to the content is different between a book and a song, for example, it makes sense that they be treated differently. I can listen to a song over and over again in a single day but I’m unlikely to read many books more than once in the course of my lifetime.

Ebooks also encourage the kid-in-a-candy store model that Apple brought to music with iTunes. The fact that you can store dozens of books on a reader doesn’t mean you’re actually *reading* them all. For me reading is a much more conscious decision. I often have eight or 10 books on deck at any moment but eventually I choose one and commit to reading it. I buy and choose books very carefully because I know I’m going to be spending a lot of time with it.

Downloads make the selection process far less critical. As with a song you may have heard something about the book, might have enjoyed something else by the author, always wanted to read it, know it’s popular, etc. That impulse is one thing for ephemeral content but as I said books are not ephemeral. Their storage media lasts for a long, long time.

One of my favorite books is a copy of the Massachusetts Constitution that also includes the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Farewell Address. It was published – an bound in light wood – in 1805 when many of the drafters and signers and citizens and soldiers who had lived through the Revolution were still living. There’s something that transcends content at that point – there is a connection to a past that is lost when it is digitized.

You are being sold a bill of goods when you make the move from printed books to ebooks – make no mistake about it. This model is not in the interest of readers who may eventually find their libraries incompatible with later generation ebook readers, who cannot share or sell their books when finished and forced to make compromises that print readers do not (I love the glossy pages of illustrations in many of my books – they don’t do so well in an ebook).

While some issues will be addressed through improved technology, the different ways we connect with content requires different ways of owning that content – and the nature of printed works ought to have all of us saying that licensing is for software – not for literature.