Tune in for mindless affirmation

File this ad for New York TV station WPIX under: I’m not even sure I get what they’re saying.

“If you’re thinking it, they’re saying it” is the slogan.  Huh?  It seems to mean, “We promise everything you see on our station will be an echo chamber that reinforces your existing opinions.  We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

I wasn’t tuning in to local news anyway, so this starts out as a post about a somewhat troubling and pretty weak subway ad.   But it’s a worrisome meme: watch us because you know we agree with you.

We’re getting more information flows are made just for us: we choose who to follow on Twitter and who our Facebook friends are, what blogs to read and what news sites to peruse.  Mass-customization might allow us to hone in on what most interests us, but it might also be code for “We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

Worse, there’s a lot more filtering of information than you might think.  Eli Pariser gave a chilling talk at TED 2011 in which he showed how Facebook is filtering his (and your and my) feed, showing a lot more updates from his lefty friends than from his righty friends.  And, one week after the uprising in Tahir Square, Eli showed how two people on two different computers got radically different Google search results for “Egypt”  – one got political news, the other got vacation and travel sites.

This makes it all the more important for us to decide why we read – for pleasure, for edification, to learn something, to challenge ourselves?  When I recommend a book that’s designed to challenge people’s thinking – like all the manifestos by the Domino Project (Poke the Box, Do the Work); or Cognitive Surplus or Drive or Made to Stick or Rework or even my Manifesto for Nonprofit CEOs – I always wonder what people who tell me they didn’t like the books really mean.

Does “I didn’t like it” mean “…because it made me really uncomfortable” or “…because I disagreed” or “…because this is different than the way I do things” or something else?

We have access to more information than ever, and it’s becoming less likely that we stumble across contradictory views.  This can’t be good for civic discourse, for our political process, for our shared values and culture.

Armed with this knowledge, it’s incumbent upon us to seek discomfort in what we read.  It also means, for the writer/blogger, how illusory and deceptive it is to strive for popularity.

Here’s Eli Pariser’s TED Talk