Wednesday, July 23, 2008

PR for dummies?

Nicholas Carr who has in the past questioned with some success the value of technology, has again scored a bit of a stir, this time by exploring the impact the Internet is having on the way we think and our ability to concentrate. His article “Is the Internet making us stupid?” is published in Atlantic Magazine. The article uses a mix of anecdotes and new research on the topic and makes a good case. In essence he argues that our brains are adapting to the way the Internet serves up information, making us less interested in long articles and books. His point was well made when I noticed I was skimming through the article…

If we assume Carr is correct, then his point has some important implications for those of us involved with managing perceptions of companies, organizations and individuals. At its simplest level it reinforces the view that information needs to be disseminated in bite size chunks. People will no longer read two page news stories and sadly they will no longer read two page news analyses. Instead they want their information one paragraph at a time. This brings in to question the most basic of PR tools, the press release. The press release has been questioned in recent years. Carr’s article potentially buries the notion of a long press release and calls on companies to create one paragraph news announcements that in turn link to other documents that provide the extended detail.

If you follow this ‘bite sizing’ of communication to its logical conclusion with other PR tools you soon start to see a very different world. What you realize is that companies will soon avoid trying to communicate anything complex and instead find ways of breaking the information down into a series of announcements that people can absorb. Indeed, some companies may find themselves saying remarkably little and instead focusing on get snippets of bad news about their competitors on the Internet.

Aside from testing the ability of PR people to tell stories in seconds rather than minutes, we are also being challenged to create ways for people to get their information that are more rewarding. The very act of web surfing has become tiresome. High speed internet connections, coupled with great search tools mean we get our information on demand. Put another way, there are fewer and fewer gaps between information, giving us less time to think and make sense of the content. The companies that can somehow reverse this trend and allow us time to really absorb information, rather than have it wash over us, will ultimately win. To do this we need to think not simply about the content but also the tools we use to get information across. This is something the advertising industry has already been working on for decades. Indeed they are masters of dealing with short attention spans. I would therefore encourage all PROs to take a long look at the tools this industry uses and see if there are ways PR can be adapted to a SASW (short attention span world). I’d give you some of my own thoughts but I suspect most of you have stopped reading by now and have moved on to another blog…

16 comments:

Scott Ellington said...

I read clear to the end of both your post and Carr's article, noting that line-breaks in printed text make it possible to enclose a line of reasoning into a convenient multi-page volume. And yet, the emotionally provocative images Carr invokes -- HAL 9000's lobotomy, Nietzsche's typewriter, and Frederick Winslow Taylor's stopwatch -- are all supremely-charged particles of information that serve very admirably to unite the the cardinal points of the piece.
If the article were written (without line-breaks) on a ribbon of paper, and taped to the wall of a lighthouse with a spiral staircase that requrired all readers of the Atlantic Magazine to read it exclusively there, there would be a number of effects on the readership.
I think the "byte sizing" of communicated information is a more equivocal term for our blossoming ability to "model" the line of reasoning in a given article far more effectively than has been demonstrated previously.
The iconic images in the Carr article are an excellent case in point because they connect the reader to potent portent despite the length of time required to run serially from the first line to the last. An effective summary of the article would emphasize the hooks (HAL, Nietzsche...) while drawing a larger readership that's fully capable of minute exploration of the reasoning that promulgated the article.
And thank you for a couple of very valuable reads.

jk said...

Tim,

Carr's piece is fascinating but it only briefly alludes to the bigger and, in my opinion, more interesting question to which all of this points. If we automatically assume that deep reading and uninterrupted critical thinking are inextricably linked with intelligence, then we are undoubtedly "dumber" because of the Internet.

Not to downplay and simultaneously validate his thesis in one fell swoop but it doesn't take an overly lengthy thought process to prove that we're digesting information in bite size chunks while our deep reasoning skills get rusty. Next time you're at a cocktail party, ask someone to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his or her political beliefs and see if you get a response that's even remotely more in depth than a superficial collection of the latest headlines or the zeitgeist around the political hot button du jour. Say no to offshore drilling!

The bigger question I find fascinating is about where this evolution is eventually taking us. Carr points to Socrates bemoaning the development of writing. For real? Where would we even be without writing today? If one of the most enlightened thinkers that ever lived wasn't prescient enough to see that one coming, I have to believe there could potentially be something more meaningful in store for humanity than just doom and gloom as a result of our increasingly short attention spans.

Irving Wladawsky Berger of IBM recently cited the Cambrian Explosion, when complex organisms exploded in prevalence a half billion years ago, as a metaphor for the next phase of technology development. Whatever actually happened during that period is definitely above my head but I think the basic principle of evolution applies to this discussion as well. A larger purpose is at work. The implications of this might just be beyond our thinking today.

Looking at such a complex, wide ranging issue through a one dimensional lens would be like saying that our progression from hunter-gatherers into organized societies was some kind of evolutionary regression because the rise of mass food production yielded some awfully wimpy and lazy people in the process.

I agree the Internet is killing our ability to think to some extent. But, Carr's article seems to paint a zero-sum scenario, which I believe it is not.

Joseph Kingsbury, Text 100

PS - Jared Diamond needs to take a whack at this subject. Not sure what he'd say but you bet I'd want to see it.

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