Fear, Loathing & Internet Hamster Wheels


If you’re looking for some light reading, might I suggest you check out the Federal Communications Commission’s report on The Information Needs of Communities (PDF) or at least Matthew Lasar’s summary of it?

Okay, so maybe it’s not a light read, per se, but it’s worth your time. In it, the FCC dissects how the Internet has changed the media landscape for both good and bad. And, well, there’s some juicy stuff in there applicable to any business living in the digital age.

While the report mentions plenty of positives that the Internet has brought like improved analysis, speed and ease of publishing, direct access to civic news, etc, it’s in the negatives (of course) where things get particularly interesting. Specifically when the council coins a new word to refer to the Web’s effect on journalists.

That new word is “hamsterization”.

Oh no they didn’t!

According to the FCC, the Internet has changed journalism by introducing a motion-for-motion’s sake mindset in the world. Reporters have been forced to “regress” into producing a high quota of superficial stories which they THEN have to go and tweet, Facebook and share in ways they’ve never been required to before. Instead of going out and turning over rocks and doing investigative reporting, they’re doing Internet searches and are stuck in the time-consuming task of learning new technologies.

Those poor, poor things! Except, most of that isn’t really true.

The Internet didn’t create loopholes and laziness and you can’t blame the Web for the Internet marketing strategy you decided to use. It’s not the car’s fault if you voluntarily decided to drive it off a cliff into page view journalism. You were supposed to be steering it.

The Web has changed journalism the same way it’s changed all business – by making content relevant and findable to a much larger audience than ever before, even if you’re someone like the New York Times. The FCC noted that in May 2010, NYTimes.com had 32 million unique visitors, royally trumping the daily circulation of its print edition which, in September 2010, came in at 876,638.

More exposure to more eyes simply by keeping some SEO best practices in mind. Not a bad deal.

I’ve already shared my belief that journalists need to stop resenting SEO and welcome it as a huge opportunity so I won’t do it again, even if most news organizations still prefer to drag their feet and scream like two year olds. That’s fine. Let someone else take your traffic.

What I did find amusing was the FCC’s use of the word “hamsterization” just so they could give the Web a jab to the chest. Because, at least in my mind, the Web is what shatters that hamster ball. It’s never been what locks you inside.

It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, take a few minutes to think about what you were doing BEFORE the Web. How were you marketing your business? Email newsletters? In-store events? Flyers? The Web gives you an opportunity to do what you were doing faster and better. It smashes the mediums that were confined and replaces the ones you can hack to do what you want. That’s why it’s cool. Of course, that’s assuming you were marketing your business before. Perhaps you were doing nothing and the rash of your competitors running to the Web has simply shown you that. If that’s the case, I can see why you’re a little perturbed.

If you’re feeling stuck in a hamster ball, faking motion and doing things blindly and in volume, you should stop. Because it’s YOU whose driving your car off the cliff.

But fear not, you’re not alone. There are plenty of others engaged in the same hamsterization.

For example:

  • It’s the reporter who creates a Twitter and Facebook account with no social media plan for how it should be used.
  • It’s SlimFast spending $120,000 to buy a promoted Twitter Trend only to fall asleep at the wheel while the promotion is going on.
  • It’s big brand that hires an SEO company or a social media agency without knowing why they’re taking these steps or what they hope to gain.
  • It’s the copywriter who churns out endless pages of content and ignores all other types of media (tweets, updates, videos, etc) because they’re unfamiliar with them.

This happens every day, online and off. When you move blindly, with no idea of where you’re going or why you’re going there, that’s hamsterization. It’s not a product of the Web but rather when you zone out of your business.

Maybe tune back in.

You can whine and moan and drag your feet all you want; you can refuse to adopt new marketing practices because they’re new, they’re hard, or because you think you’re too old for social media. Or, you can put on your Big People Pants and hop off the hamster wheel you were totally just called out for being on.

The study put out by the FCC made me sad because it’s not helping. It’s validating the belief that the Web is hurting journalists and that social media is too much work for business owners. It’s not. If customers are your business, then social media and the Web are your two biggest tools. The future of business means incorporating all of these other approaches in a way that makes your business more understandable, more interesting and more complete. Maybe it is raising the bar, but it’s also giving you a great opportunity to be FOUND and to CONVERT and to MAKE MONEY. The Internet has opened a mall full of doors for business owners to venture through. If you don’t want to be a hamster, get off the wheel. You put yourself on the path of mindless path views by falling for crap. Now that you’ve been called out – stop.

Your Comments

  • Ben Cook

    I think they have the right term, but blamed the wrong culprit. I would argue the way most media responded to the web is what has caused “hamsterization.”

    In fact, the very activities the FCC report cites, are exactly what keeps reporters on the hamster wheels in the first place. Sure they’re running hard, but they’re just spinning their wheels because we want them out digging for the stories, not serving up TMZ style reports with the only goal being page views.

    The web allowed “regular” people to dethrone the media only because the media had become lazy and complacent. And their response to the dethroning has simply been to look for an easy way out of the situation they put themselves in.

    You cite examples of how they’re continuing to keep themselves in the hamster wheel, and I certainly agree, but blaming the web for putting them there is the same kind of denial and arrogance that got them there in the first place.

  • Erika Napoletano

    I would like to offer that perhaps the FCC wasn’t taking issue with the wheel. Perhaps the people in question were displaying an uncanny affinity for green food pellets and cedar shavings.

    Spot on, m’dear. And no – the internet’s never been a way to stay on the wheel. It’s always been the place where you can find the keys that unlock the doors to wherever you want to go. Holler.

  • Jerry McCarthy

    Sounds biased. What are the odds this report was written by a group former senior editors at the Washington Post or New York Times? Are dinosaurs still pissed at the internet for sabotaging the newspaper industry?

  • Chavi

    I think it’s unfair to blame difficulty to adapt on laziness. Especially if many of these journalists are not self-employed bloggers, but are responding to pressures in the office.

    Sure, I believe in being proactive, and that successful people figure it out no matter what the odds, but the FCC is asking a pertinent question. As we move to constant, real-time, 140 character, RSS feed style communication, what are we sacrificing?

    The other question is, do we let progress run its course without tempering its hunger? Do we watch while Master Progress evolves – demolishing and building, devouring and creating?

  • Doc Sheldon

    Shame on you, Lisa, for wasting precious moments of your life reading an analysis on communication by a government agency that at best, had a tunnel-vision view of communication long before the Internet came along.
    An authority, they ain’t!

    Chavi makes a very valid point. Having worked as a print journalist since decades before the Internet-as-we-know-it was given life, I can tell you that the vast majority of print journalists have little to no control over the stories they work. If their editor has a decent working understanding of the Internet, beyond email and Google, they’re a lucky journalist, indeed. And most often, their direction trickles down to the editorial staff from clueless publishers.

    However, I suspect you had no intention of pointing your finger at individual journalists, but rather at print media en masse. If so, then I agree that the real hamsters are those in the print media that haven’t managed to adapt.

    They used to be essentially the only source of news. Then along came radio and television, but the effect wasn’t devastating. Perhaps that’s why they seem to have made no real effort to adapt to the competition presented by the Internet… they thought/assumed/prayed that they’d once again survive without suffering undue damage.
    We all make mistakes. Some are fatal.
    And some, like the NYT, heed the warning and adjust.

    As far as I’m concerned, if they can’t or won’t adjust, they deserve to be left behind. The Internet could be the best thing that ever happened to them, if they embrace it.

  • Rohin Guha

    Lisa, yes. Yes yes yes.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here. This was totally a world that I came from and when the journalism industry cratered in 2008, this perpetual motion machine was a quick fix some editors put in place to make sure some bloggers/reporters still had work. More importantly, it helped to alleviate the burden of content generation for themselves.

    Another thing! A lot of these outlets soon adopted the “byline as currency” payment model and that meant that very talented reporters were disappearing and were being replaced by people who could afford to work just for that byline. So you had inexperienced people writing on subjects that they couldn’t properly analyze. And you had them producing a high volume of content, to boot.

    If you were go back and look through the archives of a lot of newspapers/magazines and the writing produced between 2008-2010 (the period when the industry was struggling to figure out new media), you’ll notice there was a pretty ridiculous dip in a lot (not all) of work being printed/pushed online.

    I think another problem is that many who enter journalism fancy the old-world glamor of “journalism” and don’t realize that in the new media age, they have to consider themselves more than journalists–as content creators. Unless they have a SEO army like HuffPo, they’ve got to be advocates of their work. This means tweeting the links, syndicating the post if necessary, and just finding ways to get people talking about it.

    The strangest thing about this so-called “hamsterization” is how if you’re constantly churning out (“churnalism” is my favorite term for this same trend) news stories, how is anything supposed to stick?

    Anyway, I think this goes back to the whole idea that social media is exactly what you make of it. And without a proper goal or game plan, of course the internet’s going to be a scary wilderness.

    (I didn’t mean for this to be so long!)