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Amplitude vs. Fidelity

My husband, a journalist, has wide-ranging interests. Over the course of a single course dinner, his conversation can easily span politics, parallel universes (which can sometimes be one and the same topic), basketball, and Miles Davis’ use of modal scales. He’s also a audiophile (or “gearhead,” to use the more scientific term), so it was no surprise a few weeks ago that we discussed a recent study by the Pew Research Center on how news gets reported over the carrot-ginger soup and had advanced to top-of-the-line stereo systems by the time we’d scraped the last of the acorn squash off our plates. (It was a very orange meal.)

And over the chamomile tea, I realized that these two topics were at least metaphorically related.

The Pew study explored the sources, evolution and distribution of local news in Baltimore, and found that “much of the ‘news’ people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of 10 stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information.” While new media provided a means of accelerating the spread of news, it served mainly as “an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places,” rather than as a source of original reporting that would expand or deepen one’s understanding of the original story. In what the study authors referred to as “the growing echo chamber online,” social media served more to increase the noise and its spread than to shed new light on events that may have since evolved after Web sites and “Tweeters” had linked to it.

Like highly-compressed MP3 music files, the benefit of social media is to make content bite-sized and easily transferrable. But if you’re a music lover, you know that the price of compactness and portability is fidelity. If you want to hear the layers and texture in an orchestration or the nuance in a voice, you listen to vinyl records or CDs, preferably on a good sound system that is sensitive to dynamic range and complexity rather than ear buds that filter it out.

The same is true of consumer insight.  “Listening platforms” – the plethora of Web mining and brand monitoring applications – are great for following the sound byte on its progression through cyberspace. Social media accelerates and amplifies, but sometimes lends greater weight to an item than it may actually merit. And if you want depth, if you crave the nuance that lies at the core of every great insight, you need more than a passive listening platform. You need a well-designed room, a rich source of sound, and a fierce passion for hearing and making meaning from it. And that’s why the diverse and full voices in our intimate communities are music to my ears.

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