What 'Downton Abbey' Can Teach Us About the Rise of Social, Mobile

"Downton Abbey," the British period drama about an aristocratic family and their (mostly) loyal servants, has taken America by storm, giving PBS its highest ratings in years. More than 5.4 million Americans tuned into the season finale -- and that doesn’t include those who watched on their DVRs or streamed it online.

Clearly, we’re hooked on "Downton," and I started to wonder why. It’s true that the costumes are lush, the mansion beyond compare and the rapid-fire exchanges between the characters lovingly scripted. (Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham delivers some of the best zingers in prime-time.) And then I watched an interview with Julian Fellowes, the creator of the series, which PBS aired at the end of the season finale.

Fellowes says that he is particularly fascinated by the turn-of-the-century period in which the series is set because in the span of just 50 years, English society utterly transformed itself. It went from the codified, rigid ways of the Edwardian era into modern Britain, complete with cars, electricity and bursting with possibilities never imagined.

What compels us to watch "Downton" is that we, like the characters, live in a world that is fundamentally changing and full of promise. I had a chance to really stop and consider these changes during a recent trip to Macau, where I spoke at the IBM Executive Summit 2012.

Consider that Sina Weibo, one of China’s premiere microblogs and Twitter alternatives, started the New Year with 32,312 messages per second. This number handily beat Twitter’s 25,088 messages sent per second last December in Japan, during a TV screening of the anime movie "Castle in the Sky."

In fact, according to the Chinese news site, DoNews, 481,207 messages were sent in the first minute of the Year of the Dragon. This was about three times the number of messages sent during the first minute of the last New Year, and reflected the site’s 296% increase in users during 2011.

Closer to home, it took iPhone 3 one month to sell 1 million units, iPhone 4 one week and iPhone 4s just 24 hours. These numbers don’t include Android, which was projected to sell 1 million units per day by October, 2011.

Each of us becomes a driver of change every time we buy a new smartphone, sign up for a social network or send our first tentative tweets. Our expectations of businesses go up every time we discover a new way to interact with them. In response, new and intriguing business models come to the fore every day.

Have you played with Pinterest? Try it. If you’re an American Express member, check out “Link, Like, Love” for tailored discounts and highly relevant special offers. And don’t even get me started on Gilt Groupe.

The changes we’re all witnessing are as life-changing as those that propelled Edwardian England from its rigid class system and bucolic horse-and-carriage mentality into the modern era of telephones, central heating and greater upward mobility.

1 comment about "What 'Downton Abbey' Can Teach Us About the Rise of Social, Mobile".
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  1. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, March 12, 2012 at 11:20 a.m.

    I never made the connection before, but Downton Abbey and Mad Men are actually the same show... a stylized human dramas in a time of rapid social change. Btw I did a slightly different Downton metaphor on this site: "Leaving Adton Abbey" which you might want to check out.

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