The Future Is the Sound of Your Own Voice

NPR has been allowed a little bit of an internet-destruction grace period, on account of how slowly people buy new cars. This has given it some time to experiment with its millions of loyal listeners, to see what new things they like and don’t like. Today, it’s NPR One:

Listen to the latest local, national and international news in a curated stream customized for you. With NPR One you’re in control: you can pause, skip or spend more time with the news and entertaining stories that you might have otherwise missed. NPR One remembers your history as you go, so you’ll never hear the same story twice. Search for shows and podcasts, review your listening history or look ahead at upcoming stories…

And the more you use NPR One, the better it will work. We want to make sure you can hear the important stories of the day crafted in a listening experience just for you. So start listening and when a story resonates with you, mark it as ‘interesting’ or share it with your friends. We think you’ll be surprised how well NPR One fits into your day.

This is a concession most news organizations and publishers have made more quietly, and maybe that was a mistake.

Publications aren’t defined by whether or not they’re prescriptive — of course they are! — but by the manners in which they’re prescriptive. Are they left or right? Do they traffic in sleaze or keep things clean? Are they obsessed with fairness or with empathy? Understanding this, a publication’s sensibility and quirks, is an essential part of the process of engaging with it at all. Consistent sensibilities, or at least patterns, provide a structure within which to understand an otherwise arbitrary flow of information into your eyes and ears. Or just a way to get mad about it! “Biased!,” “balanced” and “fair” are all ways people describe prescriptive publications that either clash with or confirm their worldviews. When people pine for a news channel or website that doesn’t shove its views down their throats, they might really be asking for a site that reminds them more of themselves.

But the illusion of listener control, and the collapse of a central point of view, is a necessary part of marketing your content now — the term “NPR listener” under the new feedback-machine definition is ideologically and aesthetically meaningless, like “Facebook user” (although this version of NPR is effectively much more prescriptive than these promotional materials suggest — the segments themselves are all intact, albeit reordered and occasionally, now, excluded).

That is the brutal logic of this concession, and the big hot identity-based internet, where the only way to regularly challenge yourself with unexpected information will be to assume the character of another human entirely. You must trade your publication’s identity for that of your readers, no matter what it is. If they don’t see themselves in you, you may as well be dead.