Study Conclusions

Click here to read the conclusions in Spanish.

“We feel the need to be plugged in to media all day long. Our lives basically revolve around it. It is the way we are informed about news, about gossip, the way we communicate with friends and plan our days.” — UK


For STUDENTS • Going without media during the world Unplugged study made students more cognizant of the presence of media – both media’s benefits and their limitations. And perhaps what students became most cognizant of was their absolute inability to direct their lives without media.

The depths of the “addiction” that students reported prompted some to confess that they had learned that they needed to curb their media habits. Most students doubted they would have much success, but they acknowledged that their reliance on media was to some degree self-imposed AND actually inhibited their ability to manage their lives as fully as they hoped – to make proactive rather than reactive choices about work and play.

“Although 24-hour no contact with media made me very uncomfortable, I started to reflect on my life. Do we live for the media, or for ourselves? We need to make the right choice.” — China

For UNIVERSITIES • There is an important lesson from this study for universities, no matter their geographical location:  Students need to be taught about the role of media in their lives – how to distinguish between fact and fiction, credible and non-credible sources, important and unimportant information, and how to mindfully navigate multiple platforms for multiple personal and professional purposes without becoming toxically overwhelmed and distracted.

This Unplugged study makes a compelling case for the need for media literacy to be taught as part of the core curriculum in universities around the world.  The study also dramatically documents a need for the teachers who staff those courses to themselves have a sophisticated comprehension of how students find, share and experience media. One way to get students to start thinking analytically about the media they consume: Have them take part in an “unplugged” experiment.

“I’d actually recommend anyone take part in the challenge, as it heightens your awareness to how much we as people RELY on media for so many things.” — UK

For DEVELOPERS OF MEDIA TECHNOLOGIES • Unintentionally, the world Unplugged study surfaced several key lessons for media and digital entrepreneurs – lessons topped by one observation:  The students in this study – from five continents, from the developed and the developing world – are increasingly platform agnostic, at least as far as carriers of bits of news and social information.

Young people around the world care most about whatever latest hardware or app can connect them most quickly to the people they most value. The students may have settled in for the foreseeable future with familiar social networks (Facebook, Twitter), they may have definite preferences about their favorite brands of phones (Blackberry v. iPhone), but the next “better” thing will get quickly picked up by the early adopters, and either steal market share or entirely displace older tools and technologies.

These savvy digital natives already rattle off an arms-length list of communication platforms and tools they use now to connect to friends: e.g. Facebook, QQ, RenRen, Weibo, Twitter, Skype Chat, Windows Live Messenger/MSN and BBM‘s – not to mention MMOGs. And many students casually mention that they maintain connections on a handful of these simultaneously, noting in passing that the friends they have on Facebook are a slightly different group than those they text, and that those they text are somewhat distinct from the group they call.  Then there are the people they email for work or school, who are separate from the set of friends they Skype Chat.  Students consider and sort through all these permutations automatically, but the implications are real for how they construct their social networks and shape their personal “brand” identities.

The world Unplugged study also surfaced another lesson about how students use media, both as consumers and as producers.  That could be called the “Bed Factor” – a supplement to the better-known “Working while Moving Factor” and the “Under the Table Factor.”   There has long been an understood need to create platforms that are small and mobile, so someone can make a call, surf the web, and update Facebook all while literally walking across town, or, even more often, semi-surreptitiously, one-handed under a table or desk.

The Unplugged study noted a related trend and need of this age group: Many students reported waking up and immediately checking their cell phones for texts and emails and Facebook updates while still lying in bed… and then checking them all one final time before falling asleep at night.

“I was really pleased when I was finally in bed, waiting for the next day – with media. It was then that I understood. I can’t live in this world without media.” — Slovakia

For JOURNALISTS • The lessons are five-fold:

  1. The definition of “news” has hit the tipping point.  “News” is no longer a noun reserved for what happened in politics or business or world affairs today. “News” is both worldwide events AND friends’ everyday thoughts.  In their daily trawl online, most students around the world didn’t discriminate between news that The New York Times, the BBC or Al Jazeera might cover, and news that might only appear as a friend’s Facebook status update. “News” to students simply means “something that just happened” – and students want to know what that is, whether it is globally momentous or only of personal interest. Journalists need to stop arguing that there is a moral high ground to news, and determine how to help meet all the information needs of young adults – ways of delivering “news” of friends and family can be a Trojan horse to also deliver local, national and world “news.”
  2. That gets to point two:  Students no longer search for news (if they ever did), the news finds them. No matter where they live, the amount of information coming at students via their mobile phones or on the Internet – via text message, on Facebook, Twitter, chat, Skype IM, QQ, email, etc. – is overwhelming; students are inundated 24/7. As a result, most students reported that they rarely go prospecting for news at mainstream or legacy news sites. They inhale, almost unconsciously, the news that is served up on the sidebar of their email account, that is on friends’ Facebook walls, that comes through on Twitter.
  3. And that observation leads to point three:  Students now get their news in chunks of 140 characters or from Facebook posts.  Think Dickens’ serializing of his novels; that’s the way news comes to students.  And if a chapter or two are lost along the way, well, the students don’t bother to go back – nor do they often click into the shortened URLs embedded in the 140-character messages.
  4. The non-stop deluge of information coming via mobile phones and online means that most students across the world have neither the time nor the interest to follow up on even quite important news stories – unless they are personally engaged. For daily news, students have become headline readers via their social networks.  They only learn more about a story when the details or updates are also served up via text or tweet or post. “We are used to having information about everything on the planet and this information we have to have in an unbelievable time,” observed a student from Slovakia. “Our generation doesn’t need certified and acknowledged information. More important is quantity, not quality of news.”

    Most students see the de facto text-message-length headlines as sufficiently informative for all but the most personally compelling events.  It’s not that students are uninterested in news – in fact this Unplugged study suggests that students today are more catholic in their concerns than their immediate predecessors.  It’s more that the flood of information is so continuous, and the bandwidth already is so great that there isn’t a hole of curiosity that needs to be filled.
  5. That raises the final point: There is a tremendous need for news curation:  people and tools to make sense of the 24/7 influx of information. Some of the headline-length bits of information come from legacy news providers via Tweets and RSS feeds on Facebook and the like; most of the “chunked news” comes in Re-Tweets and viral messages second and third and tenth-hand from a miscellaneous assortment of “friends” and “follows.”Contributing to the glut problem is that among the messages even from trusted reporters and sources there is always dreck in the mix:  breaking news folded in together with SXSW-asides about where to meet for lunch. How to sort through it all in a digestible way AND have the way be part of a social network will be an increasingly greater challenge and opportunity as, for example, TweetedTimes, Paper.liStorify, Storyful and Yogile are observing.

Finally, this all circles back to the lessons for the students themselves, for universities and for entrepreneurs.  News curation needs to be taught to students as a life skill they need in both their personal and professional lives.  News curation needs to be taught to journalism students (and to students in other disciplines) because increasingly what is needed is are people who have the critical and analytical tools to sort through the vast amount of data that is being created in all fields.  And news curation needs to be a concept embedded in app design as well as hardware creation:  If the public has to do it, they need intuitive ways to handle it.

“The next day certainly felt different, almost like a new day, in that same way that if you go out into the cold air for a few seconds, and then head back inside, it seems considerably warmer, simply because of the contrast.” — USA

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