Maybe you read that digital media have reduced our attention spans to that of a common goldfish. Or maybe you didn’t, because you probably saw that headline as you were checking Facebook while binge-watching Orange is the New Black and buying kitchen knives on Amazon.
It’s fun to indulge in faux-outrage over how the Internet has afflicted us with shallowness. What ever happened to deep reading? What ever happened to critical thought in the age of click-baiting and mobile multi-tasking?
These arguments miss the point.
Today, content resembles conversation. The ways in which we interact with content have become practically prototypical. In that regard, it’s misleading even to compare current content behaviors with the ones that characterized most of the 20th Century – before the advent of social and mobile platforms.
Just examine how we create, consume, and distribute content in the Age of the Smartphone…
The channels of communication have exploded.
For most of modernity, people accessed content through tightly-held channels: book publishing houses and presses, network and cable television, metro daily newspapers. Corporations and government agencies controlled most of the content entering the marketplace, and content creation was generally uni-directional – meaning, people had few options to participate equally in the act of content creation and distribution and instead behaved as passive consumers. The outcome is that there was simply less content, and not much to do but eat up whatever was served.
Today, the channels of communication have exploded. We are living in a time of content abundance. With its multiplayer, spontaneous and shifting nature, today’s digital content ecosystem mirrors everyday discussion more than it does the refined, institutionalized content channels typical of the Enlightenment and Modern ages.
First, today we don’t only consume content from professional publishers; we have become publishers ourselves. Billions of them. Everyone can build an audience and promote a viewpoint through platforms like LinkedIn, Medium, Tumblr, Instagram, Wikipedia, and more. The net effect is that the sheer volume of content has burgeoned. Thanks to our newfound digital tools for creation and storage, the world generated vastly more data in a recent two-year period than in all prior years combined.
Second, as digital network effects have amplified reach, content flows have become omnidirectional. Consider that we now have more powerful and cost-effective means to distribute content than at any point before 2004 (which is roughly when many of the major social and blogging platforms took off). Institutions and individuals can publish and republish content in waves, post replies and comments, and share to social platforms instantly at any time. These phenomena propel content across the globe with unprecedented speed and scale. (You can evaluate the blazingly-fast growth of the recent #LoveWins meme to see what I mean.) Using channels like LinkedIn, more than 1 million professionals are now publishing long-form posts. We send more than 500 million tweets per day. Snapchat draws more than 100 million people daily who use the platform to communicate through quick photo messages. Each of us not only can create content for free, but we can also distribute it broadly at virtually no cost.
In retrospect, our shiny new digital and mobile platforms are less revolutionary than they are a simple return to the first forms of human communication: speech and storytelling.
Today, content can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. Via network effects, it can ripple through physical and cognitive space effectively unhindered by the costs that weighed on historical distribution channels. These truths make modern-day content less like “content” (books, articles and other discrete content particles), and more like conversation. More like the dialogues that people have always shared fluidly, even in the days before institutionalized publishing and corporate media.
In retrospect, our shiny new digital and mobile platforms are less revolutionary than they are a return to the first forms of human communication: speech and storytelling. Yes, content travels and evolves along vectors more prodigious than those that our ancestors knew, no question. Nonetheless, I’d argue that when we create, consume, and share high volumes of bite-sized mobile and social content, we are not forsaking the deep thinking associated with study and novel reading(1). Instead, we are redefining content as conversation. We are partaking in the time-honored tradition of discourse – of connecting with one another in realtime through unfettered means – just as our predecessors did for millennia.
What does this mean for brands?
First, it means that marketers will need to listen more than they speak, since their customers and audiences have much to say and the means to say it just as loudly. Second, it means great content is less about publishing a piece of information, and more about curating an experience in partnership with audiences. Smart marketers will leverage consumers’ ideas, voices, and preferences as assets in their brand story. The smartest marketers will go one step further, making consumers and the connections between them the pillar of their entire business.
1. Rumors of reading’s demise are greatly exaggerated; in fact, book sales are growing.
This article is a post from LinkedIn, written by Andrew Kaplan
Gideon Tailleur – Retail Marketing specialist with omnichannel focus. Founder g-tail.com. Open for freelance possibilities. Follow me: @gideontailleur