Remember the Food Guide Pyramid, that '90s-era guide to healthy eating, brought to you by the helpful folks at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)? It is one of many food guides in the USDA's long history, but it was the first to focus on what the USDA considered the "good-for-you stuff" on the pyramid's wide base, the bad-for-you stuff at its point and all the rest in between.
Now a digital communications strategist and former advertising executive has created a similar pyramid — except this one focuses on how we should consume media instead of food. It's an experiment for the 21st century — and an attempt to offer a little shape and substance, a little guidance and suggestion, to what has become our insatiable appetite for information and entertainment.
Our Media Addiction
In 2017, the average American spent more than 12 hours a day with various media, from TV to smartphones to laptops to newspapers (remember them?), right down the line. But is consuming too much media like eating too many french fries — bad for your health?
All sorts of research seems to say yes, and points to dangers from too much screen time for kids, too much access to porn, and too much TV can mean too much unhealthy eating. We might want to just chill once in a while. Read a book. Go for a leisurely stroll around a museum. Take part in a bit of quiet, thoughtful one-on-one conversation.
Getting a handle on our media addiction is the goal of the media pyramid, a concept from Faris Yakob, that 39-year-old London-born digital communications strategist we mentioned earlier. He also is founder, along with wife Rosie Yakob, of the consulting firm Genius Steals. The Yakobs, based in Nashville, Tennessee, crisscross the globe working with companies on improving their branding through social channels, unique advertising concepts ... all sorts of media.
Faris rolled out the first version of his pyramid on Medium in a post titled, "You are The Media You Eat."
"We don't understand abundance well," Faris says. "Clay Shirky [an NYU professor and writer who has written extensively on the internet and social media] said 'Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.' We tend to, in lots of studies, eat more and less well when we're exposed to larger amounts of food, and larger portions, and larger varieties."
The problem with both food and media is not simply a matter of scale, though. The problem is that many of us flip those pyramids upside down and gorge on that bad-for-you stuff at the top.
"We tend to eat the easiest most sugar-salty-fatty things, if given the sort of non-conscious choice," Faris says.
Junk food. Junk media.
The Media Pyramid
Faris did a lot of thinking and researching to draw up his media pyramid and afterward took a lot of suggestions from readers (some from the Strands of Genius newsletter he and Rosie write). That resulted in a revamped pyramid in another Medium post, "How to Balance Your Media Diet."
In its current iteration — "(Why We Like Things That Are Bad For Us" just posted March 19) — the pyramid spells out what media is good and bad for you by placing them on six different levels. The aforementioned good stuff sits at the bottom, on the "Actualization" level; things like art and music and theater and reading. The bad media — like, say, InfoWars (link intentionally not being provided) — is in that tiny little point at the top, labeled "Info-Toxic-ation," where lies and falsehoods live.
The idea is to spend more of your media-consumption time on the bottom, with forays as needed or as desired into other levels (and avoiding those at the top).
Faris makes a few interesting suggestions throughout the pyramid:
- It's better, for example, to spend a bunch of time on Netflix (in the Participation level) than, say, vegging out in front of CNN (Consumption level) for hours on end. "To allocate your attention intentionally has some value, right?" he says. "You're more in control of that experience. And that seems to be replicated in some studies. So Netflix is more chosen than a broadcast stream or social media."
- It's better, for another example, to spend time with NPR or National Geographic (Edification) than it is with broadcast TV (Interaction). "It seems that non-commercially driven media has a different set of filters and often a kind of mandate toward public improvement," Faris says. "The commercial media has a different set of drivers."
- As for the bottom layer, where Faris suggests people fill most of their media allotment (reading, talking, listening to music and strolling through that museum), he knows: Junk media is easy. This level is not. "These things [on the Actualization level] don't tell you what to think [as many of the other levels do]. You have to look at it [for yourself]. You, as a reader or a consumer of art or whatever, are adding some meaning. There's something about the bottom layer which isn't just learning. It's about being open to different interpretations of reality."
Media Literacy 101
In his second run at the pyramid, Faris also touches on news media bias and how to differentiate the real from the fake, the slanted from the straight-up. "It's sort of the 101 of media literacy. The first thing you do," he says, "is look to the source. Who wrote this piece? Who is this medium owned by? What's their business model? What's the ideology it tends to have? And then, how open are they to being fact-checked, to sharing knowledge? How willing are they to admit mistakes?"
It should be pointed out that those who measure media consumption do it in different ways. Some research counts that hour you spend watching TV and looking at your smartphone simultaneously as two hours, one on each of the screens. Still, whatever we spend, "to me, it seems like too much," Faris says.
The main takeaway from Faris' experiment, though, is what you consume counts more than how much you consume. Ten hours a day dealing with trolls on Twitter does you more harm than 10 hours staring down a Monet at the Met.
"The pyramid's just an attempt to begin a conversation that says perhaps we should be more mindful about our attention and how we allocate it. Otherwise, somebody else will do it for you," Faris says. "We're all part of this discussion because we need to sort of help ourselves be mindful, because we're making ourselves unwell."