Friday, September 24, 2010

Dog Bites Man: Reclaiming the issue attention cycle

I started wondering why I hadn't heard or read about a dog attacking someone for what seems at least a good while now (apologies for the scientific language...)

And then I recalled something called the 'issue attention cycle' we used to talk about in newspapers back when I was in that industry.

Essentially it was the length of time people would still be bothered about a particular issue.

The first dog attack may get a 'brief' on page 7. The second a lead story on page 5. By the third there's a campaign on page 1. But as the attention wanes further attacks warrant less and less attention until they are no longer covered at all.

The issue - one assumes - remains, it's the attention that has gone.

Newspapers likely had a viral impact on each other. Neighbouring local papers having their agendas set, their attention focused, by those nearby.

I imagine (and if you have a relevant example, please do share) if you mapped the reporting of dog attacks over time you would see classic viral dispersion across the nation. Bubbling up, bubbling down again.

Let's assume that dog behaviour isn't viral - that there isn't the equivalent of doggy newspapers to spread the news. The behaviour of the dogs hasn't changed. The reporting of it has.

That's worth remembering when you read any story selected for you by lowest-common-denominator publication.

But it's also important we remind ourselves of this in social media: where the issue attention cycle remains. Through our selection of trusted sources (ie rss readers or peer-to-peer recommendation focused by our selection of Twitter or Facebook friends) we are active participants in the generation of these cycles.

And through the speed of publication, the cycles are hugely truncated.

The saving grace of the web in this regard is the universal ability to publish that it grants.
We don't have to wait for the centre to pay something attention; ourselves and our peers create our only cycles. We choose when to start them, how long to sustain them and when their job is done.

No one can tell us where our interest starts and finishes any more.

And for that we should be eternally grateful. The media chose what to surface. Now we do.
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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?