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Yahoo! News: or the News is the News

jack_solomon
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I admit it: I am a Yahoo! News junkie.  While the rest of the world is scrambling to Tumblr or Twitter, or Instagram or Reddit or (dare I say) Facebook or all the other social networking sites whose meteoric rises (and sometimes falls) are common knowledge to a linked up world, I start my day with Yahoo! News. After which I go to the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and MarketWatch.com, all of which together provide me not only with my morning news "fix" but also with that constant stream of raw information that one must have in order to perform semiotic analyses.  Like all web sites, Yahoo! News is not static, and its designers have changed its appearance and structure a number of times over the years.  But the latest change, which seems to have solidified after a week or so of experimentation, is the most semiotically interesting to me because of the way that it has abandoned the classification scheme that characterized earlier incarnations of Yahoo! News.  That is, rather than dividing up the headlines into different classifications such as "U.S. News,"  "World News,"  "Sports," "Technology," "Business," and so on and so forth, the new page is simply a scrambled and undifferentiated mixture of news stories (while there are still some classificatory links at the top and side of the page, they are rather inconspicuous compared to the center of the screen headlines).  This itself is a difference, and, as such, it is a sign. I'll have to coin a term to characterize just what kind of sign I think this is.  I'll call it an "emblematic sign," insofar as I think that the Yahoo! News page change is emblematic of something much bigger going on today.  What it signifies is precisely the nature of what, many years ago now in the light-speed time frames of Internet history, was once called the "information superhighway."  This veritable avalanche of 24/7 information that is transforming not only the way we live but also the way things work in this world, is a godsend to popular cultural semiotics, but it also presents a problem.  That problem is that information alone is not self-interpreting.  Its meaning does not lie on its face.  To get to the significance of things you must think about them critically, and that means organizing information into structured systems of association and difference. Now, as a semiotician who has been doing this more or less instinctively for many years (long before I began to codify the process in Signs of Life in the USA), I am not in the least discommoded by the often chaotic vistas of the information superhighway, and so I am not particularly bothered by the new Yahoo! News page.  But there are two things that do concern me about it.  The first is my realization that the change is probably motivated by a desire to get Yahoo! News page readers to click on more stories than they would if presented with pre-classified news categories.  Because if you, say, only want to look at U.S. news, in the earlier format you could ignore the rest of the page to go directly to the U.S. news section, but now you have to skim the entire front page to find what you are looking for, and so see a lot more headlines along the way.  This can be conducive to what might be called "impulse clicking," like the impulse buying schemes that you can find in retail stores.  After all, the more you click, the more revenue Yahoo! makes. But beyond a slight irritation at being manipulated in this way (oh well, Yahoo! has to make some money if I'm going to get my free news feed), my deeper concern is for those to whom critical thinking is not instinctive.  That is, the presentation of undifferentiated news can only intensify the sense that information is not semiotic, is not meaningful; it is only information, something to grab before going on to the next tidbit of information, all seen in meaningless isolation.  And that kind of information makes for less, not more, understanding of our world.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.