Running notes from the Picnic07 conference in Amsterdam.
Anthropologist Stefana Broadbent (I've already blogged about her research here and here and here and written an Economist story about her) talks about trends in entertainment and communication. With her team of sociologists and psychologists she observes people closely and collects a whole set of data (diaries, bookmarks, playlists, they ask people to keep logbooks of communication and media usage, etc). She is a great speaker and a much-needed tech myth buster.
She shows a set of apparently disconnected data that all point in the same direction. Written communication prevails: if you ask people to keep a diary of their daily (mediated) communication, there is a huge prevalence of the written channels (IM, SMS, e-mail) over voice. This correlates to another phenomenon: private life is going into work life: what has changed in the last few years is that there is constant contact with people in our private social network, even during working time. TiVo: you may have heard that the main reason why people have bought TiVos and other digital video recorders is to skip through the ads. Add that to the list of urban myths: DRV owners watch 40% of the ads that they could skip. Another myth: online video is gonna kill TV. Actually, people who watch video online watch more and not less TV. Another: substitution effect: only 10% of people say that they've been listening to less radio because of MP3 players. Another: newspapers are dead? So how comes that daily paper circulation, free dailies included, has increased in Europe in the last five years? (The free dailies are not about "free" only, they success is tied to the fact that they're ubiquitously available).
There is no substitution: everything is added. There is more and more media piling on, more devices, more channels. What's happening is that everything is moving into the background, everything is becoming wallpaper. Radio and music has always been background. Now, TV is becoming wallpaper too, the daily newspapers are read as background (or as interstitials), IM and e-mail also are starting to run in the background, a constant flow of "open channel interaction".
What does it mean to be background? Something that we pay less attention to, that becomes subconscious. In psychology, it's called creating a routine. Attention gets refocused on that activity only when there is an unexpected change. People have incredible media routines. All their day is organized around routines, from waking up in the morning and switching on the radio to the same channel (remember that scene in "Groundhog Day"?), to switching on the PC to check e-mail (including a routine within the routine in the websurfing sequence), to the call and SMS routine. Skype users have the highest routine of all, they plan their calls.
Now, there is a problem: the whole industry is trying to say bye-bye to routine. The whole ICT industry today has to do with putting people in total control and deliberate choice of everything that they will listen to, look at, etc: VOD, HDD recorders, IPTV archives, podcasts, videocasts, personalized radio stations, layout skins, etc.
But users can only multitask if we don't ask for all their attention. Choosing kills routines and requires attention -- the moment you choose you commit to something -- it moves the activity to the foreground; being in control means being actively focused.
Individuals are pretty good as making choices about things that are important to them, and we are also good at constantly moving other things to the side, which allows us to constantly integrate all these new devices, channels, etc. So the question is: how important something is to you to makes you make that specific choice of focusing on it?