5 rules for conscious media consumption

“We can pick our teachers and we can pick our friends and we can pick the books we read and the music we listen to and the movies we see, etcetera. You are a mashup of what you let into your life.” —Paula Scher

I spend a lot of time–perhaps an inordinate amount–thinking about this idea: that what I choose to let into my life and into my head is ultimately determining who I am, what ideas I have, and, in turn, what kinds of things I am able to create myself.

As a person with a great deal of curiosity and interest in a truly ridiculous number of topics, this has always been somewhat of a problem for me, but when the internet became a huge part of my life–when I first got my own laptop, and, shortly thereafter, discovered that there were blogging communities surrounding almost any interest you could think of–it became particularly pressing. Ever since, I’ve been scrambling to come up with a system to manage my various input streams, always trying to find a balance between creation and consumption, being entertained and being informed. Always struggling to participate in culture without drowning in it.

I’ve spent even more time than usual thinking about this in the past few weeks, as my new job has shaken up my habits quite a bit. I’m back to having a daily commute which gives me time to listen to my beloved podcasts, which is lovely, but I also spend eight hours of every weekday researching and writing about subjects not of my own determination, which both takes up space in my brain and uses up most of the hours during the week that I’m willing to spend reading things on a computer screen. Simply put, I just can’t keep up the same reading habits I had when I was semi-employed.

Life changes happen, of course, and the impacts that this one has had on my habits are neither good nor bad, they just are, and I will adapt just as I always have. But for whatever reason, this time has been particularly hard, so I’ve been thinking very deeply about what my basic principles are for making these decisions. These five are what I’ve come up with, and I’ve elaborated a bit on where my head is at currently on each of them.


  1. Embrace your limitations

    The first limitation is simple, and applies to everyone: it is literally impossible to watch, read, listen to, play, or otherwise consume every possible bit of art/entertainment/information media that might be of interest. Even if you were independently wealthy and had literally nothing else to do with your time, even if you were a super genius who could somehow consume multiple streams of input at a time, even if you could perfectly curate all the media out there, ruthlessly cutting out everything but the best 1% of all the things that pertain to your interests… there would still be too much.

    This is the joy and the curse of being a modern human: we can all make stuff and access a large chunk of the stuff that has already been made, and there are a lot of us. So there will always, always be MORE stuff.

    So not only do we need to accept that we can’t consume everything, we also have to accept that there is no perfect system that will allow us to optimize what we do consume. It would be easy to get over-dramatic and see this as a reason to panic or despair, but for me, at least, it’s kind of a comfort. Even with the best designed system I can possibly come up with for deciding what to consume, I’m going to end up taking in some stuff I could have done without, and missing some stuff that I would have really enjoyed. So I may as well just do my best and not worry about it too much, right?

    The other limitations are more personal, but perhaps more important. Because you aren’t just a generic person trying to choose the objective “best” of things to consume, you are a human with likes and dislikes and a set of abilities that will shape what types of content are your kind of thing. And this is really, really useful, because those things may allow you to exclude entire classes of content.

    For instance, a lot of my friends are very into video games; some of them even work in the gaming industry. I like the idea of video games, and I totally acknowledge that they can be a meaningful and interesting and satisfying pastime, and even a form of art that can contribute great things to the culture.

    But at the same time, I’m just not much of a gamer. My family was late to get into the console gaming world, and even for a few years after that we were still limited by having one tv for seven people, so I never really got very good at that sort of game. I’ve gotten into a few casual games and a few PC games here and there (most notably, I spent a bit of time getting into World of Warcraft during my last year of undergrad), but though I enjoy them, I usually end up frustrated with myself about how much of my time and brainpower gets sucked into them. So while I don’t avoid games altogether, I mostly stick to participating in casual games in social contexts or fooling around with puzzle games on my phone at the bus stop.

    A few times I’ve tried to get past this limitation because I felt I was missing out (or not being a good enough nerd or nerd-girlfriend), but I’ve since realized that for me, not having that entire category of stuff sucking up my time, energy, and money is on balance, a good thing.

    Other personal limitations of mine include that I don’t particularly enjoy consuming certain types of content in video form. Basically, if it’s something that could be either a blog post or a youtube video, I’ll take the written piece almost every time. This means that I am damn near oblivious to vloggers and the world of youtube. And again, I sometimes feel bad, because I know some people are making really amazing stuff in that genre, but again: no matter what I do, I am going to miss amazing things. Given that, I may as well consume content in my preferred forms.

  2. Know your reasons

    The tone of this post thus far might lead you to believe that my media consumption, on the whole, is very high-minded–lots of news, and in-depth analysis, and high art; that I consume primarily to be informed and inspired. This would be an incorrect assumption.

    We watch, read, listen, etc to media for lots of reasons, and don’t think most, if any, of them are inherently bad. It’s perfectly okay to want JUST distraction, comfort, or entertainment sometimes. It’s even okay to choose some of what you consume solely because you want to be part of something–a social group, a culture–that is invested in a particular thing.

    The important thing, I think, is to know what purpose(s) a specific piece of content is serving for you. This allows you to then a) balance the types of purposes you’re fulfilling day-to-day, so it isn’t ALL mindless distraction if that isn’t what you want and b) ditch an input stream if it isn’t serving its purpose any longer, or if that purpose is no longer a priority.

  3. Be thoughtful, not guilty

    A significant percentage of the time I spend watching television shows is spent on what a lot of people would call “guilty pleasures”, but what I prefer to think of as “comfort food”. Basically, they’re things I watch not because they’re novel (a lot of them are formulaic or things I’ve seen before) or the-best-content-out-there, but because watching them makes me feel good. I’m emotionally attached to the characters/actors, or the format of the show is familiar and satisfying.

    This is the kind of stuff I watch while I knit mindlessly at the end of long day, or while I fold an epic backlog of laundry. There are reasons that I pick the things I pick–I don’t just turn on something completely random–but I’d be the first to admit that I’m not necessarily watching brilliant television. I have a weakness, for instance, for crime shows, and though I don’t watch just ANY crime show, some of my standards are kind of arbitrary or sentimental. I still watch Law and Order: SVU, for fucks sake.

    I’m okay with the fact that time spent watching SVU is time I can’t spend watching other shows that might be ‘objectively’ better TV, because I know why I’m watching it, and it fills its purpose. Being a conscious consumer doesn’t mean you have to perfectly “optimize” every damn decision–sometimes you just want a reliable old favorite, and it’s okay to be okay with that.

    At the same time, I also know that if I spend too much of my time vegging out while binge re-watching old favorites, I’ll feel shitty and dull and out of it… but beating myself up about moderate use of “guilty pleasure” television doesn’t make that less likely to happen. Awareness of my habits is good, guilt is useless.

    “Guilty pleasures” are only one aspect of the guilt problem, of course. It’s also easy to end up feeling guilty because you’re a few weeks behind on a show or blog that you normally read/watch/listen to, or because you chose not to watch something that everyone in your social circle loves, or whatever.

    I think in all these cases, the same basic idea applies: awareness good, guilt bad. Are you behind on shit you normally watch because you’ve been out doing other cool shit? Awesome then, you’ll catch up or you won’t, no big deal. Are you behind on shit you normally watch because you’ve lost interest in it? Maybe you need to drop it, or back-burner it for awhile. Behind because you spent your free time falling down the rabbit hole of random shit on the internet? Well then make a mental note not to do that next time, and move the fuck on.

  4.  Have a system, but don’t take it too seriously

    All the myriad ways people choose to organize their media consumption are utterly fascinating to me, because there are an infinite number of options. Some people have really consistent habits–sites they check every.single.morning, the one source they always get their news from, the three shows they DVR during the week and watch every Saturday. Some people are completely scattered about when they consume what, but very carefully curate their facebook and twitter feeds, filling them with people who they know will feed them stories that are important to them. Some people are very dependent on specific tools or services.

    I don’t think there is one magic system that works for everyone, but I do think there is some value in having a system. As a long time blog reader, for years my consumption of online content revolved around my google reader–I subscribed to blogs on a number of topics I cared about plus a few news feeds, and probably 90% of what I read online was either delivered directly to my reader or was linked to by one of the things that was.

    As the years went on though, my inputs got more diverse. I spent more and more time on social media, reading things my friends linked or that were posted by news organizations I had “liked”. I got a wordpress blog, and suddenly “following” people with wordpress’s reader became more convenient for wordpress blogs. Tumblr and Twitter happened (I’m not very active on either, but I have accounts and do use them some). Oh, and eventually google fucked with and then completely shut down google reader.

    Today, I still use an RSS reader–Feedly–to make sure I don’t miss updates from non-wordpress blogs I care about, and I scan that and my wordpress reader almost daily. I also come across stuff in social media feeds, and for all of those things I either open them in a tab to read on a break, or save to Readability to read later.

    Off the internet, we have books, tv, and movies. For me, movies are almost entirely a social thing, so while I have leanings towards some individual actors or genres, what movies I see is largely influenced by what overlapping interests I have with friends. TV, as I mentioned earlier, is mostly a comfort-food type thing, to be used when I’m too exhausted for much else, but I do stay caught up on a few shows that are big cultural phenomenons that I also enjoy–Game of Thrones and Sherlock are two that I tend to watch as they come out so I can talk about them with friends, and House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were both fun binge-watches this year.

    And for books, well… I wish I had a more functional system there. Mostly, I keep my kindle loaded up with stuff that I think I’d like to read, and then I dive into whatever captures my attention when I’m looking for my next book. Reading more books is definitely a goal for me right now, and I’m trying to set aside time for reading NON INTERNETTY THINGS for a few hours every week until I’m back in the habit.

    All in all, I have something of a system, but it’s a fairly flexible one–For internet stuff, I make sure I’ve put stuff/people in my feeds that will end up making lots of cool shit cross my desk, so to speak, and I pull out whatever catches my eye and crank through it once every day or two or three. For podcasts, I subscribe to a handful and listen to them on my commutes roughly in order of priority, but sometimes skipping around if I am in the mood for something specific. For tv and movies, I follow the crowd for some things, and enjoy my indulgent netflix habits the rest of the time. For books, I surround myself with interesting options and try to clear time to fall into them. It works out.

  5. Reassess often

    Here are some questions I like to ask myself:

    –What subjects/social issues are important to me, am I informed on those issues at the level I want to be?
    –What types of media do I want more of in my life? What do I want less of? (My answers to this question right now are what led to my goal of reading more books.)
    –Am I [watching/listening to/reading] this thing out of habit or obligation, or because I want to?
    –Do I like the way the stuff I’m [reading/watching/listening to] is making me feel?

    I try to be in the habit of asking the “do I like how this is making me feel” and “do I want to be watching this” questions pretty constantly. Of course, some media should be uncomfortable, and sometimes there are reasons to watch things you don’t like, so a “No” answer to either of those doesn’t necessarily mean I turn off what I’m watching right away, it’s just stuff I like to stay aware of.

    On a broader level, I try to take inventory of my internet reading habits every few months and weed out things that don’t fit anymore, for whatever reason. Sometimes my interests change, sometimes a blog stops updating or takes a new direction I’m not interested in, and sometimes an election happens and I realize I’ve gotten waaaay too caught up in political stuff and it’s just making me grouchy. Regular spring cleaning forces me to recognize those things and make changes as needed.

Anyhow, this post was reeeeeeeeally long, and I think I’m going to call it done now. I’d love to hear all about how you choose what media to bring into your life in the comments.

A little bit more reading on conscious consumption can be found here:

A healthy information diet: the case for conscious consumption
Revolutionary Act #4: Treat media consumption like binge eating

Of course, if you have further related reading suggestions, do share!

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