Stop Sharing This Photo of Antisocial Newspaper Readers 

It doesn’t make the ironic point you think it does

If you’ve signed onto Facebook lately, you’ve likely seen the photo: a crowded train car full of commuters with their faces buried in newspapers, inevitably accompanied by the snarky caption: “All this technology is making us antisocial.”

Funny, right? Except anybody who thinks about it for more than the two seconds it takes to click “Like” will realize how hopelessly and utterly wrong the comparison is.

What’s wrong with this picture?

It should go without saying, but people keep sharing this image, so I’ll belabor the point: Newspapers are a fundamentally different medium than cell phones. Let us count the ways:

No one at a table ever reached into their front pocket to pull out a newspaper while you were talking to them.

Newspapers never vibrated or chimed to get your attention (and no, that waif on the corner shouting “Extra! Extra!” doesn’t count).

There’s a finite end point to reading a newspaper, and it usually took no longer than 45 minutes to get there.

But the most important difference is what happens after the newspaper was done: people talked to each other about what they’d just read. They could engage in a civic discourse about the news of the day, because they were all reading the same basic material.

In contrast, a group of people on their cell phones are all reading radically different streams: They each have their own silo of information, drawn from their Twitter and Facebook feeds, an amalgam of niche interests and friends’ social lives, with no two experiences exactly alike.

So what you are seeing in that picture of “antisocial” people reading newspapers is actually an eminently social activity: citizens keeping themselves informed so they can participate in the civic discourse of their community.

That is what we are losing with the slow death of newspapers. Recently, a landmark study by Portland State University professor Lee Shaker called “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement” found civic participation “dropped significantly” in Denver and Seattle after newspapers in those cities ceased publishing.

“Readership of the same metropolitan newspaper — or other interactions with it — may spur many forms of engagement across districts and boundaries as groups of citizens respond to the same local (or regional) news in different manners,” Shaker writes. “In short, civic engagement and other indicators of an active citizenry should be higher when local news media institutions are numerous and vibrant and members of the public are consuming the content that they produce.”

The key part of that formulation is that people are responding to “the same local (or regional) news” — exactly what you can see happening in that picture of supposedly anti-social newspaper readers. That’s not the case when people quit newspapers and depend on cell phones and social media for their news. They end up having much less “news” in common.

Ironically, the common bond that has replaced our shared news is image macros like the anti-social newspaper readers picture. You may not be able to name your local City Council members, but you recognize “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” “Bad Luck Brian,” “Ancient Alien Guy,” and the rest of their over-shared ilk.

So please, stop spreading this anti-social newspapers meme you’ve been seeing in your social feeds. Doing so is as myopic as posting a photo of a library to demonstrate that we were all overwhelmed with information long before the Internet.

“LOL, all this technology is overwhelming us with information, amirite?”

(Library image by Nathan Williams via Wikimedia Commons)

Kevin Hoffman is the former editor-in-chief of City Pages, the alternative weekly of the Twin Cities. E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter: @Panopticon13

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