Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In Defense of Driveby Culture

Marketing blogger Seth Godin bemoans our fickle online media consumption in a recent post, which of course I will excerpt for those of you too lazy to click through and read the whole thing for yourself. (You would think linking to someone else's work would be an explicit enough endorsement, but I am amazed at how often bloggers write stuff like "it's worth reading the whole thing." I sure hope you're not linking to articles you didn't even bother finishing yourself!)
Imagine if people went to the theatre or the movies and stood up and walked out after the first six seconds. Imagine if people went to the senior prom and bailed on their date three seconds after the car pulled away from the curb.
The majority of people who sign up for a new online service rarely or never use it. The majority of YouTube videos are watched for just a few seconds. Chatroulette institutionalizes the glance and click mentality. I'm guessing that more than half the people who started reading this post never finished it.
If people give up on a blog post you've written, is it their fault, or yours? In all likelihood, whatever you were saying just wasn't interesting enough. On the Internet, switching between content is extremely cheap and easy, so the standard of "interesting enough to keep reading or watching" is dauntingly high. Not to mention that much of your audience is looking at your site during work.

This is one of the starkest examples of opportunity cost I know of: time spent reading subpar blog posts takes time away from reading superior blog posts, or doing other activities. Therefore, I really can't fault online readers for being so demanding.

Perhaps the most famous proponent of this mentality is George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen. In his book "Discover Your Inner Economist," he writes:
When should we finish a book we have started? In this regard I am extreme. If I start ten books maybe I will finish one of them. I feel no compunction to keep reading. Why not be brutal about this? Is this book the best possible book I can be reading right now, of all the books in the world? For me at least, the answer is usually (but not always) no. Whatever is the best possible book to be reading, I am willing to buy it or otherwise track it down. Most other books don’t make the cut.
Unless you know me personally (and perhaps even if you do), reading Econ Tricks is probably an inefficient use of your time. Why read a 2-month-old blog written by a grad student when there's so much out there on any of my topics written by people who are more intelligent, more experienced, more articulate, and more highly credentialed than I am?


Adam Gurri said...

On the other hand, there is no more efficient use of anyone's time than reading every single word I've ever written :D

Seth Godin said...

There's a fundamental flaw in this argument, which is that if you judge a book just by its cover, and a post just by the first two paragraphs, you've eliminated any chance of being seduced or persuaded by an argument too long to be catchy.

Which is a shame.

Adam Gurri said...


While it's true that often the quality of a book or post is hard to gauge by its first few pages or paragraphs, it's also true that in this day and age the number of written words available for free to anyone with internet access exceeds the amount that they could read if they did nothing but read for every minute of every day for the rest of their lives.

As such, all the time spent reading one particular post is time that could be spent reading something else. Put differently, for every good post you happen to stumble upon, there may be a better one, better written and more interesting, that you would have found if only you hadn't taken the time to read the one you're looking at for any given moment.

As such, we're forced to make quick decisions about whether or not it's worth it to invest our time in reading some particular post. It's true that we may tragically end up passing by something really good because of it, but on average I'll bet we mostly end up passing over the mundane stuff.

Figuring out how to filter out everything but the stuff we'll feel was worth reading after the fact is one of the key challenges of the times we live in.

Greg said...

That is why it's so important to invest in that book cover, or those first two paragraphs, no matter how shallow it seems.

Journalists have been doing this for years with the inverted pyramid, i.e., presenting the facts of a story in descending order of importance.

Adam Gurri said...


I think it amounts to more than that. I've ended up reading plenty of things that turned out great where it wasn't so obvious from the very beginning that it would be.

If you think about a specific post, there are times where I might have chosen to read it because a lot of people I respect recommended it. Or because it's from an author who only writes very rarely but always has something interesting to say when he does (I will read every word that Clay Shirky writes--though I'd do it if he wrote more frequently, too).

The important point is that in the world we live in, signals and filters that economize on the time we spend finding good content are in many ways more valuable than the content itself.

Josh Hattersley said...

I noticed a too-long parenthetical aside at the start of this post and stopped reading so I could get back to my Chatroulette.

(Just kidding; I love parenthetical asides!)