Tuesday, December 30, 2014

How To Consume Media

In the latter half of the 20th century, the western world got so good at creating excessive amounts of food that we ate too much and became obese.  Now in the early 21st century, we have also gotten so good at creating content that we overconsume that, too. There has been a lot written about how to eat responsibly so that you don't get fat, but much less written about how to consume media responsibly and avoid brain rot.

In an attempt to fill that need, I present Terrence's Guide to Quality Media Consumption. Follow this guide, and I'm confident that you'll nourish your brain with high-quality content. Please let me know what you think in the comments below!


The people who need this guide the most are the ones who will view its length and want to skip it. So like a surgeon in a war hospital, I'm going to do the tl;dr summary for the people who need rescuing the most, then expand later for everyone else. The key points:

  • The #1 fundamental key to good media consumption is to be deliberate. Know in advance what content you want to consume so you are not easily tempted by garbage.

  • Choose movies/TV shows ahead of time. Watch TV, but never channel surf.

  • Don't link-surf either. Click on articles that your friends send you directly, not the ones you see on Facebook.

  • Avoid current events and temporal content (newspapers/magazines).

  • Liberally unfollow (hide) Facebook friends who share lousy content.

  • On Twitter, don't follow your friends, follow people who post good stuff.

  • Use Pocket to create a reading queue.

Okay, feel like reading more? Onward to the good stuff.

How to consume content: Be deliberate

The biggest problem with 21st century media consumption is that people do it mindlessly. Sure, people eat junk food mindlessly too, but there's plenty of awareness that eating junk food is bad, plus there is a built in satiety system called the stomach that prevents you from eating way too much of it. By comparison, there is relatively little awareness of the dangers of bad media consumption, and your body has no known built-in mechanism to prevent overconsumption.

However, you can both moderate your media consumption and increase the quality of it by being deliberate.

Being deliberate doesn't mean you plan for days or even hours in advance what you'll read or watch. It means taking a few seconds to select for things you had planned to read or watch, instead of consuming the thing that just happened to pop up in front of you.

How to be deliberate: television/movies

If you want to watch TV, cool, watch TV. But don't channel surf. Channel surfing means you don't have anything you actually want to watch, you just can't figure anything better to do. It is anti-deliberate.

Choose your movies and TV shows ahead of time. Watch whatever you want to watch, just be deliberate about it. When you find yourself watching TV for a long time, you should check in with yourself and ask "is this what I want to be doing most of all right now?" If you're in the midst of a great TV series and you're loving it, the answer will probably be yes, so keep going. If you're a big NFL fan and it's the Super Bowl, obviously the answer will be yes. But if the answer is no, it’s most likely you’re just watching for the mild low-level brain stimulation — so stop, and turn it off.

Many people have a list of movies or TV shows that they have wanted to watch for a while, but haven't gotten around to. It is extremely unlikely that there is something on right now that you would enjoy more than those movies or shows. It's a matter of simple math -- the number of shows that are on right now is dwarfed by the number of shows that have ever been created.

Use Tivo/DVR to create viewing queues and skip commercials. Most people already do this, so I won't waste time talking about it.

Written Word (books, essays, articles, and online content)

Tend to choose books over articles*. Books are generally going to be more thoughtful because of the lengthy process from conception to publication. But there are lots of awesome articles out there, so I don't want to speak poorly of articles. (And hopefully you are enjoying this one.) Articles and essays are like a good stir-fry. It can be healthy and taste great. But a good book is a meal slow-cooked for hours, broth full of flavour and meat falling off the bone.

* I know it's inaccurate, but for the sake of brevity, I'll refer to blog posts, features, columns, essays and so on simply as "articles". 

Thus, read articles, but tend towards avoiding newspapers and magazines. All major news outlets are garbage. (As much as people like to take shots at Fox News, they are like the high-fructose corn syrup versus table sugar; you're not going to convince me that one is really that much worse.) Magazines, by their nature, force their writers to come up with content on a deadline and so quality must necessarily take a back seat to timeliness.

In general, skip current events and news. Similarly, avoid anything with a "Trending" tag attached to it. People like to follow the news under the misconception they should "stay informed". But very little that happens right now is relevant six months or six years from now. (Quick - what was the biggest news story during the first week of this past October?) If an article looks like it would be just as relevant six months in the past or in the future, then it might be worth your time. (Same goes for movies -- everyone is talking about "The Interview" right now, and I don't care. But if people are talking about it three months from now, it's far more likely I'll watch it.)

Read articles (and books) your closest friends send you directly. Your closest friends know you best. They know your quirks and areas of interest. As a result, they're probably your single best source of quality content, especially online content.


Facebook deserves its own special mention since it's such an important medium now. Ideally, I wouldn't use Facebook at all other than to keep in touch with people, but we’re all human, and we all waste time sometimes, just like we all eat junk food sometimes even when we’re trying to eat healthy. So here’s a realistic guide.

Don't scroll down your News Feed. If something is shared by multiple friends or friends you value, Facebook's algorithm will likely bump it to the top anyway. It's unlikely anything good is beyond the first screen or two.

Avoid clickbait. "Shocking Ingredients In McDonald's French Fries" is a perfect example. Anyone who shares this article probably doesn’t eat McDonald’s french fries to begin with. Anyone who has made the life decision to eat McDonald’s french fries isn’t going to change their mind; it’s not like they don’t realize they’re bad for you. So who the fuck needs to read this article? The answer -- nobody.

If you're shocked by this, you're probably easily shocked.

Get rid of your annoying friends. This is the big one. Be VERY liberal about unfollowing friends who share crappy links. We all have Facebook friends who share basically everything because they have too much time on their hands. Get rid of them.

This feature, right here, is the best part of Facebook

As illustrated, you'll still be friends and they won't know. In my opinion, Facebook is not usable unless you have unfollowed at least 10% of your friend base, and probably more.

Once again, you should not use Facebook as a media source, although it's true that it's easier said than done. (Just like most normal diets fail, most "Facebook diets" do too.) The problem is that content providers optimize for Facebook, so they know how to create images and headlines that lead to better click-through rates.


Twitter is a little better for making good content choices, because the interface is a little bit more minimalist and a little less clickbait-friendly. But there's still room to improve your Twitter consumption habits.

I have only one key rule for Twitter: Don't follow your friends. Twitter is not Facebook; contrary to popular belief there is no good reason to follow someone just because they follow you. (Unless you think it will increase your chances of having sex with them. I guess that's fair.) Instead, follow people on Twitter who are very good retweeters/link sharers. I used to be very anti-twitter because I thought it was very mentally masturbatory and self-indulgent. And in fact, >99% of users do just post banalities about their lives. I do not follow a lot of people I consider friends. (So don't take it personally if I don't follow you - it doesn't mean I don't like you.) And on the other hand, I do follow a lot of complete strangers and casual acquaintances because they are good content providers.

Pocket To The Rescue

Final tip: Get a Pocket (or similar page-saving app). Pocket (getpocket.com) is something I've discovered in the last couple of months. It's a one-click browser extension that saves web pages. It sounds simple but it is a huge step up from the bookmark feature in any web browser (is there anyone who still uses browser bookmarks?). When you encounter an article that you want to read but you don't want to read it immediately, save it to your Pocket reading list. Then when you have free time and want something light to read, instead of mindlessly going to Facebook or Twitter, you can go to some well thought out content pre-selected by someone you respect -- yourself.

This is my own unread queue from Pocket. Everything I've already read has been whisked out of sight, but saved for later.

An additional benefit: using Pocket has slashed my number of open browser tabs by 50-70%, because like so many people, I use the open browser tab as a "I'll save this for later".

Basically, we are doing for the written word what we do with Tivo for television -- creating a list, then digging into that list at a time that’s good for us, and when we are in the mood for consumption.

With every link you click on, as soon your eyes do that first brief scan, you should ask yourself — “do i need to read this right now?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but the huge majority of the time, you should save it for your to-read list on Pocket.

This brings us back to my key to good media consumption. Being prepared is the key to being deliberate. Don't allow your ADD mind to be the one driving. Channel surfing and random internet clicking/browsing is basically the same thing, but in different form. If you want to watch TV, watch something you had planned to watch. Something that you've heard good things about, and are excited to watch. Similarly, if you're reading, read a book on your book list, or an article you've previously saved. Your ADD mind is not very good at making quality choices in real time, so protect yourself from it.

It’s the difference between planning a dinner (you think about what you want, go to the supermarket, buy all the ingredients, come home and cook) and pulling into the drive-thru (you see something on your drive, decide in about 10-30 seconds about what you want, then you get it immediately). You're always going to make better choices when you're deliberate.

So there you have it, my guide to good media consumption. Do you have thoughts on how to better consume media? Do we mindlessly consume too much media? Let me know what you think in the comments below. And thanks for choosing to consume my content. :)


  1. It's quite a sweeping generalization when you write, "All major news outlets are garbage."
    News media are essential to educating the populace about the society it lives in. If you think issues like democracy, tyranny, world events, war, income inequality, poverty, and corruption are important, read a newspaper.
    No one else holds the government as accountable.

  2. The fallacy lies in the idea that big news outlets are required for this news to get to the populace.

  3. I couldn't disagree more. Journalists paid by news media outlets, especially newspapers, are essential to finding and writing this news. Most everyone else is repurposing their content.

  4. Love this, Terrence. Great advice. I'm a former journo so I'd find it impossible to skip the news, but I have the benefit of knowing what outlets tend to be the most trustworthy (here in Australia, at least). Thanks for the really useful advice. Have a great 2015.

  5. WOW It's Terrence Chan!!

  6. In my opinion the big fallacy is also, that people believe most popular news media to be 100% objective, even though they are often completely biased.
    I strongly disagree with anybody deeming news media essential for our education.

    Thank you Terrence for sharing your thoughts. Always appreciate your content. :-)