Content Providers and Consumers

“Oh Lord!” laments a party host amid her bored guests, in a 1995 New Yorker cartoon, “We forgot to invite any content providers.”

The punchline is dated, twenty years later, if only by her choice of words. In those early days of the internet, ‘content providers’ referred to those who wrote the texts that others read online, which was then still a novel way to distribute texts.

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We’re all content providers now, thanks to social media. But in ye olde 1990s it was harder to post things online. You had to write it in hypertext markup language (HTML) and navigate file transfer protocols (FTP), dialing up a server with your modem to upload your files. Those were the pioneer days, when most web sites were endearingly amateurish by today’s standards.

But even if it’s easier to upload texts today, writing content has always been harder than consuming it. It takes devotion to set aside half an hour to write something. A few years ago I read this advice on a daily writing habit from Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: start every day as an information producer, not a consumer.

If you write out your own thoughts before reading other people’s thoughts, your priorities will shape your information consumption for the rest of the day. I wish I could do this myself, in my own daily routine; but it’s all I can do to get the coffee started and read the newspaper.

Why worry about shaping your information consumption? Because otherwise, other people’s priorities overrule our own. It’s gratifying to ‘Like’ or comment on their status updates, or to share their linked articles with your own followers: I did that half-a-dozen times yesterday alone. But it’s more superficial than I like to admit. I shared this article about academic conferences on Facebook yesterday, even though I’d read only the first half of it – partly because I liked what I read, and patly because I want to be the type of person who shares this type of article.

The normal interaction online in 2015 is the share, not the content provider. It’s time to shift this norm.

Social Engineering with Assignments

Educators don’t often think of ourselves as social engineers. Sure, we induce and incentivize behaviours while discouraging other behaviours – but we’re not shaping tax policy to discourage smoking, here.

The distinction is just a matter of scale. In the environment of a classroom, the content we deliver and the assignments we design first teach and then assess certain skills and knowledge. Students who learn and then display these skills and knowledge do well; and those who don’t, don’t. It’s social engineering, just on a smaller scale. If you prefer, we can call it intellectual engineering. Making more writers is an intellectual good, just as making fewer smokers is a social good.

Educators have always believed in content creation as an intellectual good. We want our students to be good readers and good writers, so we create an ethos of creativity and critique in response to consumption. In plainer terms, we assign essays in response to readings.

What would happen if we treated essays more like online content? Are essays the best form for critical thinking, or just the default form? Is there any reason a social-network post like this, on a blog, can’t be both intellectually provocative and social?

Those are a lot of questions, and I don’t have all the answers. But my blog assignments shift students’ intellectual energies into the social-network space so they are liberated from the mind-forged manacles of the five-paragraph essay; so their writing reaches a wider audience; so they are the content providers who shape discourse and thinking as much as anyone else. So they are producers first, and consumers second.

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