At a broadcasting conference twenty years ago, BBC media correspondent Nick Higham warned that public service broadcasting was under threat, that investigative programmes might be reduced to features on subjects such as ‘dangerous dogs’ (a matter that was then exercising the popular press). Higham’s warning has been proven true in the two decades since, as television channels have raced to the bottom in a search for ratings; even the once weighty BBC news has been progressively dumbed down and domesticated.
Eli Pariser at The Filter Bubble is concerned that the Internet as a source of news is in danger of following a similar direction. Pariser writes:
In the Darwinian environment of the hyper-relevant news feed, content about issues like homelessness or climate change can’t compete with goofy viral videos, celebrity news, and kittens. The public sphere falls out of view. And that matters, because while we can lose sight of our common problems, they don’t lose sight of us.
Pariser’s response to the downward spiral into inanity has been to launch Upworthy, a site intended to gather and share things that matter.
Having spent most of my lifetime trying to persuade people to think about the things in life that really matter, Eli Pariser’s aspirations seem entirely laudable. Yet, while wishing the Upworthy project every success, it is difficult not to think that if people were going to read things that mattered, they would already be doing so. It is not as though the stories are hard to find for anyone who is looking.
Posting the odd serious link on my own Facebook page, it is interesting to note how little response there ever is; whereas some light chatty item is far more likely to elicit comment from my small group of friends.
Nick Higham’s warning came in the early morning of satellite television, when the sudden multiplication of the number of channels gave people a range of choice they had previously not enjoyed. How many of those who sat through Panorama or World In Action in the 1970s if with the flick of a remote control, they could have found a soap, or a comedy or a game show? Wasn’t the fact that there were so few channels the reason why public service programming drew such large audiences?
The Internet offers infinite choice, endless options for viral postings, celebrity scandal and cuddly pets, Eli Pariser’s task is to attempt to persuade people they want something serious instead. How do you persuade cuddly kitten fans to read stories about Syria? Or those who watch videos of people’s mishaps to attempt to understand the issues raised by international banking?
If Eli Pariser is successful and Upworthy takes off, there will be church leaders around the world queueing to ask him to explain to them the secret of persuading people to think about things that matter.