Information is like food. You are what you consume. Tell me what you pay attention to, and I’ll tell you who you are.
In the information economy, knowledge is freedom. The most successful people are the best learners, and as a result, they have freedom to choose where they work, who they work with, and what they work on.
Historically, information has been scarce. Access to it has been expensive. But on the internet, the capacity for learning is widely accessible.
However, the best ways to learn online still haven’t been established.
What’s the best way to learn on the internet?
The Medium is the Message
Most people focus too much on the content of what they consume, and not enough about the context where they consume it. They view information mediums as fungible. But different mediums , such as articles, books, videos, and podcasts are better for different stages of the learning process. The content varies regularly, but the mediums of information flow change slowly. Thus, the medium is every bit as important as the content.
Blind to the social and psychic effects of information technology, they’re like fish in water — unaware of the water they swim in. In turn, they under-estimate the differences between ways to consume information. Different mediums emphasize different senses and stimulate certain ways of thinking and feeling.¹
Each medium has strengths and corresponding weaknesses.
Speech-Based Media vs. Text-Based Media
Before we move on, we need to define two terms:
Speech-Based Media: Podcasts and Videos
Text-Based Media: Books and Articles
The Learning Funnel
My process for online learning moves down a funnel from speech-based media to text-based media — from podcasts and videos to books and articles.
As I move down the “Learning Funnel,” I change how I learn. This funnel, with speech-based media at the top and text-based media at the bottom, isn’t a one-way street. Even as I move down the Learning Funnel, I’ll sometimes swim upwards and improve reading comprehension with videos and podcasts.
Speech based media is high-energy. It’s loaded with emotion. The vocabulary is simple, and gives me a easy-to-understand, two-dimensional overview of a subject.
In contrast, text-based media — books and articles — is like going from casual, toes-in-the-water swimming to full-on scuba diving. Reading builds expertise. Text-based ideas are transmitted are low-energy and emotionless. Ideas are transmitted explicitly, which inspires complex thinking and precise communication.
In short, this transition from swimming to scuba diving creates a Learning Funnel. Speech-based media is the top and text-based media at the bottom.
Swimming: Speech-Based Media
Speech-based mediums stimulate your emotions. Speech-based media is more inspiring than static words on a page.
I use speech-based media — podcasts and videos — to test out the temperature of a new subject.² It’s like dipping your toes in the water at the local swimming pool. With my head above the water, I can maintain optionality. I can shift my attention between ideas and activities. Even though it’s shallow, it’s fun.
Speech is intuitive and low friction. When we speak, we use a much simpler vocabulary than when we write. Just compare bar talk and an academic essay.
The spoken word is lossy. It trades truth for compression and detail for amplification. Through pitch, enunciation, and body language, speakers communicate information in explicit ways.³ Great orators speak in memorable ways and repeat what’s important.⁴
Speech is a dynamic, two-way medium. Speakers and their audiences communicate bi-directionally, in real-time. As they speak, they gauge the facial expressions of their listeners and interact in other implicit ways. In times of clarity and understanding, they speed up. In times of confusion and mis-understanding, they slow down.
Speech-based social and visual learning platforms have only taken off in the past decade. Since podcasts and online videos are newly ubiquitous, we under-rate their potential as learning platforms and don’t know how to properly take advantage of them.
Scuba Diving: Text-Based Media
Once I’ve laid the foundation through speech-based content, I move down the Learning Funnel — towards text-based media.⁵
Books and articles excel where podcasts and videos don’t. Like scuba diving, text-based media offers a in-depth, three-dimensional perspective. If an idea catches my interest, I dive into the water and explore it deeply. Like scuba diving, intense learning experiences demand focus. They’re surprising and unpredictable.
Writing activates precise, rational thought patterns, which real-time, on-the-fly speaking and listening cannot produce. Similar to how scuba divers, explore the deep depths of the ocean, reading is the best way to understand the nooks and crannies of an idea. Like scuba divers, readers are immersed in their environment, fully focused, and blind to what’s happening elsewhere.
Reading forces logic. In relative terms, reading is an emotionless experience.⁶ It inspires critical, independent thinking. Attention wavers and wanders, and when it does, we pause and reflect.
Unlike videos and podcasts, books are articles don’t have an auto-play feature.⁷ You can’t just press play and do something else while the information flows.
Reading, though, makes total understanding possible. Readers can easily jump around. They can skip sections, re-read confusing parts, or pause to reflect on an idea.⁸
Like swimming and scuba diving, speech based media and text based media are similar activities, but impact your senses in different ways. Not all information is created equal. Each activity has tradeoffs.
By improving your process for information consumption — knowing when to swim and when to scuba dive — you can make online learning more efficient and enjoyable.⁹
¹ Switching between mediums has also improved my learning stamina. I like to switch what I’m working on every 2–3 hours. By switching between podcasts, videos, and books, I can keep learning and stay fresh. It’s a perfect balance. Since I’m guided by mood and energy, I’m consistent in my consumption, and I remain consistent because my learning feels loose, free and unstructured.
² I subscribed to YouTube Red, which makes it easy to watch and listen to videos and podcasts.
³ Heavy readers tend to under-estimate how much information is embedded in speech and body language.
⁴ These redundancies aren’t as inefficient as they seem. Knowledge that’s not repeated disappears. Repeating a message reinforces it. For more, see my Orality and Literacy book review.
⁵ There are exceptions. When I read The Power Broker, a 1,200 page — 700,000 word — study of New York politics, I knew nothing about urban governance. To improve my understanding and get psyched about the book, I watched interviews with author Robert Caro and a documentary about Robert Moses, the book’s protagonist.
⁶ Exclamation points, italics, and bolded words are minor exceptions. And due to their back-and-forth nature, in-person conversations with experts are an excellent way to stir up the emotion, clarify misunderstandings and arrive at new insights.
⁷ Audible is a noticeable exception, but this is generally true.
⁸ Reading usually takes first priority. An intelligent reader said it best in an email:
“I only really listen when I’m doing some other activity that prohibits reading. I never listen when I could be reading, but that’s just a personal preference. So I naturally look at audio as lower opportunity cost time b/c I’m already doing something else productive (working out, subway, walking, cooking, etc.).”
I also default towards reading. I’ve built this bias into my learning system. I’m a dilettante with speech-based media. I use speech-based to explore new realms of thought. I’ll consume anything and everything. Once I’m sedentary, I’m much more focused. I turn towards text-based media and look towards mastery. My text-based inputs converge towards topics I’m familiar with, and projects I’m working on. In reading, I crave detail.
⁹ One thing I’ll add: I rarely consume news. I look for non-expiring, long-term knowledge instead.