Whether you read headlines on the Google News page or the Drudge Report or the front page of Yahoo, Internet headlines and stories tend to provide very small slices of reality. Want to see the actions of a happy cat? How about the strange actions from someone with mental illness? What one C-list celebrity did last night? The inane “gaffe” from the campaign trail earlier today? Put all of these headlines together, some serious and many not, and what do you get? It is difficult to get a broad, cohesive view of the world from Internet stories. They can provide more information than people in the past ever had and let us know how many different people around the world live. Even good stories on websites devoted to more in-depth news present numerous topics. Yet, because of their fleeting, diversionary, and never-ending nature, they don’t add up to much. As a reader, how am I to put all the pieces together?
It is debatable how much better other forms of media do in delivering broader context and the bigger picture. Media forms composed of images – TV, films – have moved toward incredibly quick editing so that scenes rarely last more than a few seconds. Written forms – newspapers, magazines – have a reputation for deeper storytelling. Yet, this all assumes that a good number of citizens take the time to read such materials and understand them.
Perhaps this is where we don’t just need media or digital literacy; we need ways to put all the information together and keep the big picture in mind. What is underlying all these stories? What are the patterns in society? Why do these stories get attention and others do not? Sociology can help: you need to know the broader context, the powerful institutions at work in society, how information is created and sold, and the large-scale social trends. One story of an amazing animal tells us nothing; having tens of thousands of such tales might. Reading multiple stories about the Panama Papers might be interesting but we need to know how this intersects with all sorts of social systems (such as governments and corporations) and processes (such as social class and globalization).
It is too easy to get caught up in the quick accumulation of news and information without stepping back and trying to comprehend it all. We are good now at dispensing information but having difficulty digesting. We need frameworks in which to put the new headlines and stories. We need time to consider how this new information might affect us. All of this takes time and effort on the part of individuals – perhaps it is just easier to let all the information wash over us. But, even if we must do this at times, having a sociological perspective that sees social structures and forces and asks for empirical evidence could help us all.
(Disclaimer: I occasionally think about how to pitch sociology to undergraduates and this is one such attempt.)