On the Half-Life of Content

“To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.”

– Nassim Taleb


Half-life is the time required for a quantity to reduce to half of its initial value. You may remember from high school chemistry that this concept relates to the elements on the periodic table. A notable stable element is carbon 14, which has a half-life 5,730 years. This makes it a reliable element to use in estimating age with the carbon dating process.

As an analogy for the consumption of media, half-life is the time required for half of the content to no longer be relevant or accurate. In a digital world, the consumption of ephemeral content is the way of the masses. If you want to red-pill from that mindset, consider the following, as it relates to your daily content consumption habits.

The content half-life test: How long will this information be relevant or accurate?

Signal Vs. Noise

The second and third concepts to consider with content consumption are signal and noise. The former is the information intended to be communicated by the sender. The latter is introduced, whether by a plan or by randomness, and accompanies the signal.

The definition of signal and noise for the consumer will vary from user to user based on his or her experience. Content may or may not contain noise. However, it has to be hosted somewhere. The need for platforms and the advent of user-generated content gave rise to the major platforms that we are all well aware of. Companies with valuations in the billions generate revenue from directing attention to advertisers. As a result, the user experience on the major social networks will always be a mixture of signal and noise.

The content signal and noise test: How much of this content is signal? How much of it is noise?

Signal to Noise Ratio

The relationship between signal and noise create the signal to noise ratio (SNR). Simply defined, this is the signal divided by the noise, as experienced by the user. At some point, the noise of the content platform may outweigh the signal. It’s that this point where some users decide to jump ship– a wise move. All of this is based on the individual user’s tolerance for noise.

An example of a plummeting SNR can be seen with the ‘legacy media’. These include broadcast television, newspaper, and radio. In a desire to be profitable, there is an urgent introduction of noise, which may increase profitability in the short term, but further the feedback loop that drives users away from the platform.

This leads those doing market analysis to ask the following question: how much noise will the user handle before exiting? Based on the usage statistics of the major social networks, the answer to the previous question may be surprising. Perhaps you have deleted Facebook and don’t plan on returning. Maybe you use the platform daily. Whichever is the case, it is still worthwhile to consider the SNR, as well as the half-life, of what you read and watch.

Continuing with the theme of digital content, the following are examples of what I would define as examples of signal and noise on the Facebook platform.

Signal (valuable)

  • Picture of your nephew’s birthday party
  • Marriage or newborn announcement
  • Reconnecting with an old friend
  • Message from an extended family member

Noise (distracting or irrelevant)

  • Advertisements
    • (1 of of every 4 posts in the feed is an ad)
    • Sponsored content (right column of Facebook)
  • Friend requests from people you don’t want to add (who you end up adding anyways)
  • Spam messages
  • Suggested groups to join (providing the algorithm with additional data on your interests/habits, which is ultimately sold by the platform to advertisers)

By design, platforms that feature content with short half-lives are conducive to advertising according to their business model. This keeps users coming back frequently. With a surplus of content, the precious digital attention of users has opportunity for monetization. Platforms have (ingeniously) outsourced the content creation to the users, only to sell it back to other users with the injection of noise. Alternatively, the content that has a long half-life may reside behind a paywall– a book, for instance. On the aggregate, with an increase in half-life comes a decrease in noise. Perhaps the it’s with the longer half-life content where the majority of our time should be spent, both for it’s longevity in accuracy and relevancy, as well as it’s decreased noise trying to crowd out the signal that we are seeking.

Considering these concepts has led me to severely limit my social media usage, including turning off all push notifications on my phone. After deleting and reactivating my Facebook many times over the last eight years, I’ve learned it’s still valuable in small amounts. By leveraging the platform for access to the people that I’m genuinely interested in staying connected with, I can find value in the signal without being drowned out by noise. My attention has now shifted to the newsletters and the mailing lists of those who provide content and commentary that I find to be interesting and meaningful. Joining in the long tail social media may be in my future. All of this is in pursuit of a healthy SNR and longer content half-life.

Questions for reflection

  • When you pick up your phone in a moment of free time, what is the half-life of your default entertainment?
  • Are you actively avoiding noise?
  • In your evaluation of what is meaningful in the long-term, is the content you consume a ‘reliable element’, with a long half-life?