Saturday, October 25, 2008

The recent financial turmoil has been the perfect example of how information has become a lot more prevalent than during the time of - say - the last Great Depression. Being a crisis which involves the activity of the international financial markets, which is mostly fuelled by 'confidence' and 'sentiments', it's been a great measure of the rapids shifts in mood all over the world, partly in reaction to equally volatile headlines.

Just take a look at these depressing recent updates of twitter news bots StocksAsian Marketsthat have almost become a feature of their streams lately, not to mention the latest headlines (at the time of writing this article, the headline at the top of my BBC Live Bookmarks feed read 'Stock markets plunge across world'). Good news seems to be few and far between, but tends to be worded in equally hyperbolic terms.

A number of articles have picked up on this crisis' significant differentiating factor of the degree and speed of accessibility to relevant information. The New York Times examines this experience more from the average news consumer's perspective, proposing that gathering large amounts of information in troubled times gives people 'a sense of control'. Knowledge also serves as a form of social currency or social capital, with connections and competitions formed around how up-to-date one is. Jorge Escobar blames the web for the current crisis and Roger Ehrenberg believes that 24/7 media is indeed affecting our markets. David Risley's advice is to ignore the stock market and be aware of the effect of the news media on our perceptions.

Personally, I feel that the current crisis is, in a way, emblematic of our new information paradigm. With this new paradigm comes new responsibilities. I'm not sure if traditional news media is aware of the extent of the impact that their reporting has on business and consumer sentiments. As Ehrenberg rightly puts it, media thrives on evoking strong reactions to grab more eyeballs, but now with updates being made available (and checked) all day, a more nuanced form of reporting may be required that dispenses with hyperbolic terms and relays information with the perspective of this being just one development, with many others to come, and within an informed context. In his post about how journalism failed America at a most critical time, Howard Owens argues that journalists should regurgitate less and pay more attention to helping readers understand the issues at hand.

With the spread and increasing use of social media, our opinions are also made known more quickly and visibly than before, and along with those of others, can even snowball to create an overwhelming impression that varies in its credibility. As Jorge put it, 'we owe it to our communities to be direct, data backed and centered', using the extensive resources available to us to check how much weight lies behind something instead of just passing it on and just being responsible when disseminating media. I know that I, for one, have been guilty of digging or tweeting the latest story just to appear 'in the know' about the latest trend, when a few extra minutes spent on google would have made for a more informed perspective.

In addition to the knowledge placed online by experts and thought leaders in different fields, there are also opportunities to discuss and counter-check like never before. You might say that the information highway and social media has in fact made for a more nuanced view of the world, with people able to acknowledge that they have certain information on-hand but that they need to know more, ask questions and exchange ideas.

It's understandable that in times of difficulty, people would want to keep abreast of as much and as current related information as possible. I wonder though, if this current trend of news consumption at the rate of a heartbeat is just a fad, something that the mainstream crowd will grow sick of and abandon once the worst of the crisis (and the US presidential election) has passed? Or is it a harbinger of what is to come, and a great opportunity for a large number of people to become comfortable with consuming information on the web to the point of making it a primary, and frequent, source.

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