News has always presented a mixture of information and entertainment, says Daniel Hallin, a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego. Important events such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the deaths of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher rank high on lists of this year's most-shared stories.
But in an age when the digital readership of every story can be measured, the balance has shifted more toward the fun stuff.
"News in general is just much more market-oriented than it once was," Hallin says. "Now, when click-through rates and 'most tweeted' become important criteria, the assumption is much more that you give people what they want to see."
True, but it's been my contention for some time that even "serious" news is presented in such a context as to make it, too, a form of entertainment. You don't have to go far on the web to find people arguing over this, that and the other with a vehemence that suggests life-and-death importance, but Neil Postman saw the inherent emptiness of such activity almost three decades ago, before the Internet allowed it to become a full-time occupation for many:
But most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action...You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourself another series of questions: what steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge, of course, is giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagra of similar opinions, and convert them into — what else? — another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.
To update his observation for our age, of course, we can substitute "social media activity" for "giving your opinion to a pollster". Most of us don't "do" anything with the stories and articles we consume except use them as ammunition to win meaningless arguments online. If I were of a conspiratorial or Marxist bent, I'd think the twitosphere was capitalism's most sinister-yet-ingenious invention. A giant playpen to keep people from getting their hands on anything important, letting them spend all their time and energy cultivating a narcissistic self-image based on having the correct opinions on issues and events over which they exercise absolutely no influence.