Turmoil in the Libya!
Catastrophe in Japan!
Tiger’s Blood & Adonis DNA!

Remember the bit from Sesame Street where they assembled a group of items and sang that song asking viewers to guess which item(s) didn’t belong? It was a catchy, fun way to teach youngsters about numbers and groupings. By design, choosing correctly was not difficult.

Consider the above headlines, all of them dominating the media and competing for coverage. How would you group them? If you’re like me, then chances are you break them into two camps: frivolous and serious. Obviously, the horrifying situations in Libya and Japan put them into the serious camp. By comparison Sheen Land, NCAA basketball and SXSW must be placed into the more frivolous bucket.

But is that the only way to categorize these events? In terms of popularity one could argue that Sheen belongs in the same group as Libya and Japan. If one aggregated stories about all three (allowing for time differences), Sheen’s metrics would dominate. In the coming days, countless stories about the crisis in Japan will no doubt surpass discussions of anything else. In fact it already has. According to Adweek, “Yahoo News served more pages than in any other hour in its history.”

But not by every metric. Not by mine. Most of the Tweets I’m receiving are about and from the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. What am I consuming most in terms of mass media? The NCAA Tournament. Bracketology.

So, if “serious” equals “important” then how come I’m not consuming important content more? Easy answer: it’s less fun to consume. Like broccoli.

Nothing new about that. When given a choice, People have always preferred to be entertained than informed. Back in the day, the Beverly Hillbillies regularly outperformed even the powerhouse news program, 60 minutes.

The more things change… Even though the Internet and social media allow individuals to customize their content, we still choose entertainment. And while we could debate and discuss this ad nauseam, I’m taking another tack.

What’s new is the changing definition of importance. In the new world importance is more and more defined by numbers. How many “followers?” How many “Likes?” How many “Views?” For example, The Huffington Post claims, perhaps rightfully, to be more “important” than the New York Times. They justify this because of views. Therefore, if the categories game (serious vs. frivolous) is now a numbers game Charlie Sheen is as “important” as Muammar Gaddafi. Call it “virtual importance.”

Don’t read me wrong. Social media has unarguably done tons for positive change, driving the overthrow of Egypt’s government, helping to elect America’s first black President and so on.

But with consumers driving content, as opposed to mass media, the choices we make have become criteria for determining importance. And not just financially but culturally. By that measure, the line between crap and quality is more than blurring, it’s inverting.


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