A Challenge to Millennials: Click Less, Read More

“Professors and universities are no longer curators of knowledge.”

I was sitting in my first doctoral course listening to a professor speak what sounded like scholarly blasphemy. He went on, “You can Google and fact check what I’m saying faster than I can say it. My job is no longer to give knowledge, it is to help you understand what to do with it.” The observation became obvious but cheeky: a choice between breadth of knowledge and depth of knowledge. But did I need a curator of knowledge?

As a Millennial - albeit one that barely makes the cutoff – I find myself frequently considering how I consume, acquire, and share knowledge. Call me old fashioned, but I still consider a pithy headline the hook that draws me in deeper. Part of the reason I still subscribe to a daily newspaper and weekly news magazine is because they provide me the incentive of reading an entire story without clicking or scrolling to another.

However I realize my consumption habits may not be the norm. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 61 percent of Millennials obtain news from Facebook. As the time we spend on our phones surpassesthat of TV, we are now, on average, approaching a solid two hours per day consumed by social media.

So we enjoy browsing, sharing and Liking stories. Are these not natural and positive actions?

When they are performed with the brevity and agility of our online patterns, the answer is maybe not. Timemagazine shared findings that most of us give online articles 15 seconds of attention and conclude that high levels of social activity do not correlate with high read times. In other words, those articles being Liked, shared, and tweeted are, for the most part, not even being read by their promoter.

One of my first contributions to Shared Justice was an article titled, “The Imperative of the Public Sphere.” In it, I shared these thoughts on engaging with social media:

We’ve created social media outlets and participate in them because they are a more convenient and efficient means to connect with one another. However, I’m not convinced that convenience and efficiency are embedded qualities of effective public spheres. In the 21st century, we can enter and withdraw from the public sphere through integrated online personalities without having to confront or converse with one another face-to-face.

If we, as a vocal and active swath of society, crave more civility and robust engagements within the public sphere, then our understanding of problems must become more nuanced. Policy and legal debates are, by their very nature, typically boring when executed properly. Theatrics are introduced when personalities are elevated above the political and legal process.

Make no mistake: Millennials are curious, informed, and engaged. But, when was the last time we read a Supreme Court opinion, a legislative bill, or an executive order without commentary? In pursuit of depth over breadth, I’ve challenged myself to the following practices:

 1.  Pick up a newspaper.

Yes, the print industry continues to experience bumps and bruises in attempting to coexist with online content, however, the role of the investigative journalist is quite complex to replace. The Washington Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos (Yes, the Amazon guy), nudged the paper back to its roots of fierce and original journalism and has enjoyed an uptick in readership and subscriptions. 

2.  Check out a library book.

A recent article brought to light a discouraging pattern among public libraries: the dwindling print collections. But, there are still more libraries in the U.S. than McDonalds, which means we should support our local branches by checking out and even donating books. There is still nothing quite like walking into a library not knowing what you want and walking out with something unexpected.

3.  Commit to a ‘no-read, no-share’ policy.

When sharing something on Twitter, I have committed to read the article in its entirety before pushing it out to others. Why should we want or expect someone to consider something if we haven’t even read it ourselves?

Reading, of course, is not the only medium from which substantive information is born. Audio resources such as NPR or insightful podcasts such as This American Life are excellent options for stretching one’s attention span. For the more visually oriented, streaming services boast a plethora of educative options for viewing. Even participating in a local city council meeting can provide a path to learning about our society.

We live in an era like no other. Our access to information, however, should not be confused with understanding. We must ask ourselves, do we want to give the appearance of being informed or do we want to simply be informed? I suspect I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to being attracted to the idea of understanding over actual understanding. Social media remains a powerful tool for sharing and engagement, but the issues we face today will not be solved by Likes, shares, or 140 characters. We probably won’t unplug completely, but surely we can click less and read more, right?

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.