Thursday, November 5, 2015

Blogged to Death, Part I

Amused to Death: The World of Neil Postman

Could it be that that Catholic bloggers are contributing nothing at all?

The Bear imagines most bloggers have their favorite posts. One of the Bear's is "Do You Suffer From a Low Information-Action Ratio?" It is an introduction to Neil Postman's book, Amused to Death, which introduced the concept. The Bear will not repeat it full here, but recommends it as a companion article, especially since some concepts may be unfamiliar (like "information-action ratio"). Essentially, a low information-action ratio exists when you know way too much than you can do anything about.

Postman wrote in the television age, when news was available in narrow slots, and tightly controlled by just three networks. If there was an ethic, it was "afflict the comfortable -- but not too much." Prestigious newspapers did the heavy lifting. Investigative journalists Woodward and Bernstein, who brought down President Nixon, were the idols of the profession.

At the same time, there was something comforting about the conformity among the networks, identified mainly by their anchors. Walter Conkrite's fiat was, "And that's the way it is," at the end of the flagship newscast of CBS, and we could agree that it was, amen.

Or at least that our information-action needle had been driven down into the red zone. We indeed knew as gods, but there wasn't a thing we could do about any of it. The rest of television was, in the famous words spoken by FCC Chairman Newton Minnow in his 1961 speech: "a vast wasteland."

That was Postman's world.

Postman's World Updated

Today, those prestigious newspapers are struggling to stay alive, while television has crystallized into dozens of narrowcast facets, unapologetically giving their audience what they want 24 hours a day. People watch Fox News because it is congenial to conservatives. MSNBC caters to liberals. But you can dial it in much more precisely. Logo offers homosexual programming. There is no point in multiplying examples. This is our world, after all, and we all know it very well.

The "low information-action ratio" problem may be even worse on television today than it was in Postman's day. Nearly every story is designed to interest that network's particular audience. A news network sells outrage. Fox News'  Bill O'Reilly even has an "Outrage of the Week." Our selected news network not only provides information. It manipulates our emotions, and demands action that we are powerless to undertake, and solutions that we are powerless to implement.

Give the people the fish
Television news is now designed to stir up narrow, self-selected audiences. Why? Because people are lining up for what they can provide, and the motto of success is "give the people what they want." (The Bear is holding up a fish because this is important.)

TV still may be a vast wasteland, but there are lush oases in serial fiction. Shows like "The Wire," or "Breaking Bad," were brilliant. There are many more that are good. Since they do not move our "information-action ratio," i.e. provide news about events we can do nothing about, we will not be discussing them.

Postman Meets the Internet

How the Bear wishes Neil Postman were still with us to bring Amused to Death into the internet age. But have things really changed that much? Do we still have an information-action ratio problem?

The Bear's answer is an unequivocal yes and no.

Certainly the premise of Amused to Death hasn't changed. It is another source of information that is supplementing the outlets of Postman's day. The information available on the internet is, for all practical purposes, limitless. Most of it is not filtered by an editorial process, and is of questionable veracity. It is the People's Newspaper in all its shame, glory, and goofiness.

It starts with the click. The eye-catching picture of a curiously arresting middle-aged woman who wants to teach you French. The carny barker's promise of the sensational or scandalous: "You won't believe what happened next..." But most Catholics have to get people's attention more modestly, say, by being a Bear, or using blog titles that subtly convey the act within the tent, e,g. Pope Francis the Destroyer (for real).

One of the best ways of promoting a blog you enjoy is to use the convenient buttons at the bottom of every article. You can easily link to Facebook, for example. This becomes relevant later.

What Postman could not foresee was the explosion of the internet, which gives everybody who has it the ability to create their own, custom-designed magazine, every day. As editor-in-chief, the user may select a housewife from Peoria and a half dozen other small blogs; a professional site with many contributors; a Catholic news aggregator like Pewsitter, that collects some of the best of the day's blog offerings; and maybe a secular news source or two. 

Suddenly, the information-action ratio needle is buried in the red, bouncing on zero! To judge by the information, there are so many problems in the Church! And practically nothing we can do but pray! Never, the Bear asserts, has the information-action ratio been so low, so harmful. Yes, the Bear believes a steady diet of fish is healthful, but nothing but bad news is discouraging, even depressing.


However, the internet has also given us another source of "action" to get that needle back out of the red: slacktivism. The Bear uses a popular term to mean a slack sort of activism, such as that silly thing Facebook has where you can mark your profile picture with an unattractive rainbow to celebrate homosexuality. How many pictures have you found in your feed sobbing that Tyana needs 500,000 clicks to... well, that's not the issue. She has cancer.

Veterans. Pass this along or you hate veterans. Post this if you love Jesus. And guns. And during an election, political candidates. The tens of thousands of examples from which the Bear could choose accomplish one primary purpose: they make the passers-on feel empowered.

Or, in Postman's terms, they provide "action" and raise the information-action ratio, if only in an illusory way. After all, Tyana might benefit from your prayer, but not from your share.

However, there is something you can do that does actually accomplish something. Remember that Facebook, or Google Plus button? Small blogs such as St. Corbinian's Bear can actually benefit from exposure like that. So if you find an article interesting, please share. Your "action" is thereby increased by meeting the Bear's real need for exposure. It's win-win.

The Bear also has an agitprop section on the right of his page. They're not there just to be viewed as some museum of kitsch. You may easily download any of them, then upload them to your favorite social media site. (Would a tutorial on how to do that be useful?)

The knowledge that you have materially aided the Bear will increase your "action," which will make you feel better! (And thanks again to the folks who have donated, even small amounts. That is another method to increase your "action.") This is no joke, at least if Postman was right, as the Bear believes he was.

Of course, the above advice is equally true of any other blog you like, with the small blog gaining the most benefit.

NEXT: Part II -- the Bear Gets Serious About Bloggers


  1. Mr Bear don't you think that blogging adds to the compartmentalization of life and the focus on victim hood. If so, we must conclude that blogging is subversive to the general welfare as it tends to elevate the anger and sense of deprivation of the afflicted group. The particular afflicted group to which I belong are those who are affronted the by the many pernicious outcomes of Vatican II, most recently by the diabolically oriented papacy of Pope Francis. I guess the question here is this subversiveness good or bad.

    But we must remember that we all all members of some victim group whether we realize it or not. If we do, there is a blog out there which will us give a sense of belonging and involvement so we can go about our lives with this small feeling of comfort in an otherwise scary world. Isn't that a good thing?

    1. Perhaps some of the answers will come in part two. (It was almost (?) too long even for two separate posts.)

      I do think the low information-action ratio is harmful to us.

      But a consumer of internet can take his own steps to mitigate that problem. If you find yourself reading too many sources that leave you feeling helpless and upset, maybe it's time to broaden your horizons. Add some variety of opinion, maybe a bit of humor. Post in comment boxes. Spend less time on the internet. Maybe someone else has other suggestions.

      Blogs as a source of community and comfort are excellent from the standpoint of information-action ratio. You feel more empowered. "There are others like me!" I think being validated is a large part of why we choose and visit our favorite blogs. (At least those without Bears.)

      The Bear is trying to make his blog a bit less troubling. That's something we bloggers can do. Not ignore problems but perhaps not dwell on them exclusively and create a constant atmosphere of emergency. On the other hand, there are many successful blogs that seem to thrive on being at battle stations. Look at Church Militant TV, which is not a blog, bug illustrates the point. Somewhere on the internet there's a funny jingle: "Fox News Alert: We're All Gonna Die!" The big boys know what they're doing.

      And he's trying to say this without coming across like, "the only one qualified to blog is, why, me!"

      Of course, as I discuss in the second half of the article, bloggers may feel they must run the risk of disrupting and diminishing their readership if they try to make their blog something that doesn't always depress the information-action ratio. In other words, a hypothetical blogger may say, "I know I can satisfy my audience and bring them back next time if I make fun of Pope Francis' new record album. On the other hand I would like to blog about some interesting data on falling denominational membership across the board after Vatican II."

      So the Bear suspects there may be a tension between the best blogging in a way that does not promote feelings of helplessness in the reader, and and the desire to maintain and increase one's audience. Our hypothetical blogger knows traditionalists won't like an article that suggests Vatican II may not be the cause of many of the Church's woes. But they might get a kick out of the other story. So what does our blogger do?

      The Bear doesn't know the answer. The point is, or really the question is, what are we bloggers accomplishing? Are we just serving the same dish to a rotating group of readers who shuffle by every day? We're certainly not "fighting" the Pope or bishops. They could care less about us. How much does our natural human desire to maintain a healthy readership govern our "editorial" choices?

      So (finally) to answer your observations, the Bear agrees. To end, each reader must look to his own "magazine" of news and commentary and determine how to manage his own information-action ratio, trying to keep it out of the red by (1) avoiding sources that consistently push it toward the red (low) side which makes him feel helpless and discouraged; and (2) take "action" which will move the needle toward the green end. Examples would be commenting, sharing articles, and donating. That is not just self-serving. These will really, the Bear thinks, help with the information-action ratio! (Needless to say, this goes for any blog you enjoy, not just the Bear's.)


    2. Michael Dowd, great point, and I agree with your conclusion about this papacy, diabolical. That will get you (and I) censored in many blogs, and cause other Catholics to apparently, get the vapors and pass out. I do think blogs serve an important function for many people including myself, the "hard identity Catholics" in a watered down, Protestant-Catholic heretic world.

    3. I think your point about "slacktivism" is a really good one Bear. Food for thought for me.

      I'm not one of the people who get the vapors over bad popes and heretic Cardinals. It bothers me, sure, but I prefer to know the problem rather than gloss it over. I can detect glossing a mile away. I realize there are many people who do get the vapors. I can't imagine how someone managed to stay so sensitive in this world.

    4. Kathleen, I'm happy I made you think. And thank you for posting. There is a fine line between healthy discussion about ecclesiastical politics and obsession. No doubt I'll err on one side, then the next, but I hope to get close.

  2. And, for the record, the Bear is not targeting any blogger or class of bloggers. This should be read as the Bear contemplating HIS "editorial policy and decisions," which MAY have broader implications.


Moderation is On.

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