The timing of this assignment was a little fortuitous, because the past few months have forced me to reflect on exactly what I read, when, and why. During the 2016 election I became a true Twitter junkie (the communication proclivities of one of the candidates didn’t help) and seldom made it away from the platform towards longer-form content or into a slower-paced environment.
That changed after election day. I realized that I had — like the vast majority of the journalists and commentators ensconced in the Twitter bubble — missed some of the ‘real stories’ of the election, including the anger felt by ordinary Americans towards Washington elites, not least Hillary Clinton. It also helped that things temporarily quietened down in the dying days of the Obama administration. Suddenly, I became absorbed in long-form think pieces, photo essays, and articles about topics — gasp — other than politics.
But I’ve been backsliding of late. Politics has heated back up to the temperature and tenor of the campaign, and Twitter in particular has become proportionately more compelling. So this self-tracking assignment arrived at the right time, and I’m pleased to note that the insights it generated have served to shake me awake from my subconscious relapse.
I use three devices for information and communication: my iPhone, my iPad and my laptop. Despite the power of the Apple ecosystem and the cross-platform nature of most social media sites, I try to reserve the different devices for different things: my phone for quick hits of information as well as communication, plus podcasts on-the-go; my tablet for more relaxed, mostly ‘read-only’ consumption, and my laptop for longer-form writing and coding. Because of these different patterns of use, I wanted to make sure I could track my media diet across each of these devices – what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, if you will.
First off, my iPhone. In my definition of what constitutes media, I excluded small-group communication apps like Whatsapp and Facebook’s Messenger, as well as email. I was only left with five apps relevant to media consumption: four social networks, and Downcast, my favorite podcast app. Downcast dwarfed the competition, accounting for fully ten hours of listening. (My podcasts of choice this week: Pod Save America; the West Wing Weekly; The New Yorker’s Politics and More; 99% Invisible; the Bill Simmons podcast with Malcolm Gladwell; and a conversation between Tyler Cowen and Fuschia Dunlop.) Besides podcasts, the distribution of time spent on social media was skewed towards Twitter, while Snapchat lived up to its reputation as the most rapid form of social media engagement:
My iPad painted a different picture. It seems I actually do use many of the mainstream news app I have installed, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Economist, and the Times of London. The absolute time involved wasn’t enormous – the New York Times was my favorite news source with 102 minutes across the week – and was still dwarfed by YouTube (which I use for its British radio archives) and Netflix (some of my favorite shows this week: Santa Clarita Diet, Midnight Diner, Chef’s Table and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.) I certainly used Twitter on my iPad as well, but much less than traditional news sources overall:
Finally, assessing media use on my laptop was a little tricker, since almost all media is consumed through Google Chrome, as opposed to brand-specific apps. Helpfully, the laptop-tracking app RescueTime does a pretty good job categorizing each website you visit. Overall, I used the web on my laptop for News/Opinion and Social Networking slightly more than other more defensible purposes like Reference (mostly Wikipedia) or Software Development (mostly StackOverflow). Happily though, the absolute time I spent on these wasn’t too large: 108 minutes over the course of the week on News and Opinion, and 100 minutes on Social Networking.
Drilling down into these categories, the News and Opinion section is actually a little misleading: fully 70 of the 108 minutes was spent on Medium, primarily writing my blog rather than reading others. Beyond that, the BBC emerges as my most loyal destination for web-based news, clocking nearly 15 minutes, and I spent ten minutes getting distracted by BuzzFeed. I glanced only fleetingly at other news sites. My social media usage on other devices replicated on my laptop, with another hour and a quarter spent on Twitter, and a little over 20 minutes on Facebook. Regrettably, RescueTime doesn’t track time spent listening to music on the Spotify app, so this isn’t comparable to the podcast listening stats noted above.
Overall, analysis of my media diary suggests that I’m having some success using different devices for different purposes, in particular getting some news from traditional sources on my iPad. Social media – especially the regular sugar hit of Twitter – is certainly pervasive, but all in all, my media diet seems reasonably balanced.