HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 81
Digital Citation

Attention deficit disorder

Luke Skrebowski

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Despite the depressed state of world markets, magazines, TV channels, radio stations, and gaming platforms continue to proliferate and diversify at a rapid pace, saturating our audiovisual landscape with a riot of competing offerings. As Todd Gitlin, professor of Journalism and Sociology at New York University puts it: "Never have so many communicated so much, on so many screens, through so many channels, absorbing so many hours of irreplaceable human attention... the obvious but hard-to-grasp truth is that living with the media is today one of the main things human beings do."

Yet famously, familiarity breeds contempt. As in other areas of consumer society, market saturation and hyperchoice are making it harder to secure the attention, still less loyalty, of any given target audience. Despite widely voiced concerns about the extent to which we are influenced by the media, the power of the cathode ray and the printing press are on the wane. Pious familial rituals of collective TV viewing have been replaced by individual sets for each member of the household, most of which are subordinated to a games console or DVD player; magazines are picked up, leafed through, and dropped on a monthly basis where once they were subscribed to and treasured in archival binders; radio stations are preset and punched at impatiently. The appointment to view, read, or listen is in danger of being cancelled altogether. People are increasingly seeking to self-schedule their media intake and are ever more discerning about what they will attend to. There's more and more traditional media out there and we're less and less interested.

As if that were not bad enough for media owners financially dependent on the increasingly fickle attention of their audiences, the ongoing rise of the Internet as a viable mass medium represents an additional, double-edged threat. Where American trends lead, the rest of the world tends to follow and the American experience is clearly showing that widespread Internet access cannibalizes media consumption. The Internet eats into its media cousins like nothing before it, with TV suffering most of all. A recent report from the UCLA Center for Communication Policy ("Surveying the Digital Future") demonstrated that Internet users watched five hours less TV a week than non-users. Furthermore the unstoppable rise of P2P file sharing is facilitating and normalizing piracy on an unprecedented scale. The music industry was the first hit and the TV and movie industries are now suffering similar effects as people head online to download advance episodes of Buffy or even pick up whole Hollywood blockbusters before their official drop date. In a tongue-twisting paradox, the mainstream media find themselves in danger of being disintermediated.

Media content is becoming ever more commoditized and ever more disposable. Unsurprisingly then, traditional media companies are deeply concerned. Yet they are reacting ineffectively to the threats facing them—from draconian posturing on piracy to a fanciful belief in developing unhackable digital rights management software to prevent it. This sea-change is not going to stop however much they will it to; instead of pointlessly trying to shore up copyrighted material media owners have to start being more inventive in looking for new sources of revenue from their assets. That it took Apple to launch a credible paid-for online music service (the iTunes Music store) is telling: The computer industry understands the dynamics of the network society in a way that the major record labels haven't been able to get their collective heads around.

Media companies need to understand how people gain value from their media consumption rather than how they have historically been charged for it. The greatest mistake that they are making is to assume that value is located in content itself, rather than in the diverse uses that people make of it. Their misguided response to widespread value erosion has been to launch yet more offerings into a flooded marketplace, attempting to shore up antediluvian business models with more of the same and hoping against hope to regain former levels of attention and profits.

The collective result has only been to commodify content still further and obscure the real value equation. Still obsessed with crude and largely inaccurate metrics (BARB and RAJAR data is notoriously unreliable), most large companies miss what really creates the added value of their propositions to the user and hence, ultimately, what users are prepared to pay a premium for.

The media have for too long operated with a poorly articulated understanding of their audience and have ended up focusing on the mechanics and machinations of the industry rather than the needs and desires of the people who ultimately fund it. From falling newspaper circulation to fracturing viewing figures, the fourth estate is beginning to break up and senior media executives look increasingly like a feudal class watching in disbelief as their power and influence wane.

In contrast, the new media industry has grown up with a significantly more nuanced understanding of its audience (including their psychological motivations and immediate and social context of use). It regularly tests and observes its users to make sure that they are getting what they want from the products offered to them. In contrast, the mainstream media might occasionally ask a few people what they think in a focus group.

To get to a better understanding of the media value equation we need to get at the social context of people's media usage. We need to understand their "media ecology," that is the system of people, practices, and values that combine with media content (and its delivery mechanisms) to generate real value to them as end users.

Value resides in people's interaction with media, in their personal or shared experience of that media—not in the content per se. Consequently, many of the techniques of interaction/experience design (originally developed for computing and the Web) can be beneficially brought to bear on the mainstream media, particularly as they become increasingly digital and multi-platform. New Media's highly developed understanding of the user's mode, context of use, and means of navigation are increasingly relevant to traditional media forms.

If we think about pieces of media not in isolation but as part of an ecology of content offerings in competition with each other for potential users—a world where offline and on, the competition is one-click away—then we can see how techniques designed to engage the user and retain their interest should not be restricted to Internet-based offerings alone. Once we realize that the value of media primarily resides in users' personal and social experience of it, then using these techniques, we can begin to design better and more engaging examples.

This awareness is already dawning on the mainstream media, as prominent new media theorist Lev Manovich summarizes: "I think that either consciously or subconsciously people making films, people making television, people making books... have come to understand that they have to compete with the Internet, and they have to compete with screen culture." From newspapers rethinking their editorial design in ways clearly informed by new media (shorter, more concise paragraphs, more pull-outs and hooks, hyperlinks appended to the printed page) to TV seeking to co-opt the two-way communication of the Web ("red button" voting on topical events or large-scale talent competitions, user-selected coverage of sports tournaments, SMS-based interaction with music channels) the media are beginning to catch on to the benefits that interaction and user-input can bring to their offerings in terms of audience engagement and loyalty.

Yet the mainstream still has some way to go in understanding the new competitive landscape, as journalist and online gaming expert JC Herz explains: "It seemed that media companies would be among the first to harness social networks in the digital age. Most didn't; those that did, for the most part, did it poorly, because they created inward-facing social structures around their products... instead of outward-facing structures that transformed the product into social currency." This elusive social currency is a key part of what leads successful media properties to distinguish themselves from the mass.

If we look at the runaway media hits of the last few years we can see they are highly savvy pieces of design which engage the user/consumer in their social context, present a compelling call to interaction and fashion an engaging user experience. From the explicitly communal prurience of Heat magazine (its advertising alludes to the legions of readers who never actually buy a copy) to the über-voyeurism of Big Brother (which uses every viable technology—Web, webcams, SMS, DiTV—to allow the audience to pry on the housemates) these standout hits understand their audience and engage them more thoroughly than the competition.

Yet successful approaches still need to be refined and extended if audiences are to be lastingly engaged. Even the hits are aware that they could do better—Heat has failed to translate its vision into a TV program despite having commissioned production companies to try; Big Brother has had to tweak its multi-channel approach (most recently they have experimented with paid-for online content—previously the 24-hour webcam streams were free).

Appropriate combinations of new technology and bold, engaging concepts that stand out from the competition and diminish the distance between media production and consumption would seem to present the way forward. Blogging is the most successful example of this (and has received a volume of media commentary to match). By understanding people's residual appetite for public proclamation and approbation and providing highly user-friendly Web-based publishing tools to facilitate it, tiny software houses have precipitated a global (meta) media phenomenon. The traditional media companies were left standing and yet the basic tenets of this model could have been derived from the ecology of any coffee shop or pub. New product development needs to start paying closer attention to the ecology of people's media usage, of what is actually mediated and why.

"Community TV" (a form of DiTV where viewers are able to interact with each other as well as the TV show itself) is an emerging media technology that looks as if it will succeed because it does precisely this. An early implementation of the technology syndicated to chains of bars in the States facilitates a national, televised pub quiz. Teams from all over the country can compete with each other in real time by means of the back-channel on the set-top box. The format is simple (the screen shows only text) but highly engaging: It weds the prestige and aura of national TV to the competitive instinct and area pride of the average local. Anyone can enter and anyone can win; the show is a runaway success. Blogging and Community TV are examples of new media products and services that skilfully negotiate the media ecology to their own and their users benefit. They broker real value rather than simply offering more of the same.

By attending to the wider media ecology and the different players within it, traditional media companies should be able to develop more compelling propositions better suited to the environment in which they must struggle to survive and flourish. Furthermore, by really paying attention to media users, by allowing them to thoroughly engage with, contribute to and even directly effect the outcome of the media offered them, they can be engaged in ways that were not previously possible. Big Brother 3 polled more votes than the last General Election. Perhaps politics is the next public institution that could benefit from a bit of interaction design.

back to top  References

1. Gitlin: www.opendemocracy.net/themes/article.jsp?id=8&articleId=71

2. UCLA Center for Communication Policy:www.ccp.ucla.edu/pages/internet-report.asp

3. Manovich: www.uoc.edu/artnodes/eng/art/manovich_entrevis1102/manovich_entrevis1102.html

4. Herz: www.thestandard.com/article/display/0,1151,22187,00.html

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

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