Earning Your Ph.-Stream

In five easy steps, convert your Spotify, Netflix or Apple Music account into a lifelong learning engine. 

A core tenet of the New York Public Library’s mission is to inspire lifelong learning. This mission is mostly maintained through curation (deciding which books are included as part of the library’s collection and which are not) and programming (helping readers extract the most educational value from their collection). During a June 2017 conversation with Alice Tan - the New York Public Library’s Director of Strategic Advancement and Education Initiatives - she described the Library’s programming design instinct as “[meeting] people where they are and [helping] them get to where they want to go." This instinct informs how Alice and her team craft programs that are inclusive and approachable, helping lifelong learners “gain both the skills but then the confidence to continue on and cultivate a love of learning.” 

In further describing the New York Public Library’s dedication to thoughtfully designing and delivering these learning programs, Alice clarified where the Library’s focus is placed and why:

There’s been a lot of research lately around growth mindset, so if kids believe that they can work hard and that mind and intelligence isn’t fixed, then they can do a lot better. Our focus is on both delivering programs that expose them to new opportunities, to new skills, to new technology, to new words, to new worlds and open up their minds.

The ways in which public libraries support lifelong learning are especially relevant given the growing importance of lifelong learning to maintaining career security and career longevity. Public libraries are as important and as relevant as they’ve ever been. The public library concept also seems to be more popular than ever.

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Platforms that curate a massive collection of media material - loaning their library of media products to dues-paying customers - are omnipresent in the form of streaming media services like SpotifyNetflixKindle UnlimitedApple MusicVimeoCrunchyrollComixology UnlimitedQelloHBOGoHistoryVault, Marvel Unlimited,and many, many others. No matter your flavor of artistic or educational interest, a streaming library that serves an overstuffed menu of that material exists to satisfy your craving. Although the streaming platforms don’t share the same educational mandate as the best of our public libraries, and the subscription expenses can make these platforms inaccessible to some, media streaming services can be incredibly useful lifelong learning engines if used properly. This is especially true when you can convert a streaming platform into world-opening, mind-expanding exploration vehicles.

But this conversion process will require some initiative on your part. Unless each streaming service hires their own version of Alice Tan*, if you’re interested in extracting the most educational value from your streaming service, you’ll have to shoulder the program design responsibilities. That’s why I’ve assembled the following programming principles, created to help you convert your streaming library of choice into an engine for lifelong learning in five easy steps.

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Step One: Find a Partner

To deepen your engagement with this cultural exploration, you’ll want to work with a partner.  Before you dive into the next four steps, find a friend (or friends) from your team, your office or your personal life who’s equally as interested in music, comics or film and similarly invested in exploring unfamiliar worlds and invite them to join you on this journey. Compare notes on your streaming service subscriptions and pick one platform that will serve as your classroom in the cloud for the next few months.

Step Two: Identify the Unexplored World

Identify the genre within your selected streaming platform where you and your partner have little relative familiarity. If Apple Music is your go-to streaming service, you’ll want to browse through the genres, searching for the unfamiliar (i.e. Americana) or the downright foreign (i.e. Mùsica Tropical). If you have a Netflix subscription, select a filmmaking genre, style or topic where the titles and directors are completely unknown (e.g. dark comedy, animé or stand-up special). The key is to identify an unknown area that is deep with content options.

Step Three: Chart the Genre’s Stars

After you and your partner have identified your unexplored world of choice, spend some time individually researching the genre’s stars, touchstones, and seminal works. Pitchfork’s editorial team has compiled many genre and sub-genre lists and guides that could serve as a starting point for your music exploration (The Story of Goth in 33 SongsThe 50 Best Rap Mixtapes of the MillenniumThe 50 Best Indie Rock Albums of the Pacific NorthwestThe 50 Best Dancehall Songs of All Time). The collective writing archives of Wesley MorrisManohla DargisSean Fennessey and Emily Nussbaum can support your film and television exploration. Or you can ask for the advice of a friend or colleague whom you know to be well-versed in your genre of choice.

However you decide to conduct your research, it’s important not to go overboard with this step. Avoid pulling every loose thread, picking up every breadcrumb and venturing down every rabbit hole. Conduct enough research to get a sense of what’s popular and what’s critically appreciated in the genre and then prepare to start exploring.

Step Four: Make Space for Exploration

You’re now ready to dig into your previously unexplored cultural world. But the temptation to fall into familiar listening, watching or reading routines is likely to be strong. This urge will be stoked by a streaming service algorithm that’s designed to present you with suggestions based on your streaming preferences; broad exploration isn’t the primary mandate of the streaming service algorithm. Recognizing this potential obstacle to exploration, you’ll want to set aside some time every week to consciously swim against the algorithmic tide.

Maybe you set aside an hour every Saturday during your morning coffee or 30 minutes over lunch every Tuesday - whatever you decide, try to select a time of day & week when you can consistently expect some degree of calendar autonomy. During the time that you earmark for cultural exploration, ignore the streaming platform's homepage recommendations and their “Just For You” suggestions and seek out an album, song, show or short within your unexplored world.

Step Five: Make Space for Discussions

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In addition to making some time for your weekly exploration, you’ll also want to reserve 30 to 60 minutes every other week for a check-in with your exploration partner. Your check-in discussion shouldn’t be super formal or overly structured. Each partner should introduce the songs, albums, books or films that they explored in the last two weeks, explaining why they found it interesting and sharing what they learned from the listening/viewing/reading experience.

When you and your partner have grown bored of your selected genre, find another area to explore. Or find another streaming platform to mine for exploration. There’s more than enough incredible material streaming online to support a lifetime of exploration.

The longer you and your partner can commit to following this exploration routine, the better. Consistently seeking out new worlds will open up your minds, strengthen your creative thinking abilities and transform streaming platforms from services that deliver what you want into ones that give you what you need.

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*If you work for one of the major streaming platforms, here’s a free idea for you: start selling educational programs. Few companies are better positioned "to meet people where they are" from learning & interest perspectives. With a few smartly designed education programs layered over top of your already smartly curated content library, you can attract new users to your platform (learners vs fans), increase engagement with existing users (I can now justify watching Netflix at work!) and extract greater utility from the content that you’ve already assembled. For companies like Amazon & Apple, the opportunity to program multi-media educational packages might be especially interesting. Each company could create incredible educational programs that combine content from across all of their cultural mediums.

For instance, Apple could easily program a "Jazz 101" package that includes two biographies of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, three episodes of Treme, a Nina Simone documentary, a catalog of essential songs and albums and two episodes of the Song Exploder podcast. Or Amazon could program a "1990s Culture 201" package that includes episodes of Friends and Seinfeld, songs from Dr. Dre, Beck and Nirvana, Pulp Fiction and three of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels from the ‘90s. To get started, they’d only need to hire their own Director of Education Initiatives whose primary focus would be creatively leveraging all of their content in ways that expose users to new opportunities and new worlds. Why couldn't this work?