When it comes to culture, ritual is everything. Metrics folks and marketing analysts love to talk about “tipping points” and “critical mass” because they confuse reach with meaning. For oh so many years, metrics companies touted the raw numbers of people who accessed streaming video online as a sign that TV was coming to the Internet. So many digital video studios were born on the premise that people really were going to watch original episodic shows on their desktop with the same kind of regularity and loyalty that they watched TV in their living rooms.
And how many of those programs spurted onto the scene, succeeded in getting reasonable audience for the first episode, and then trailed off into obscurity? The habit of watching series video on the desktop was just not there yet. And certainly the distribution vehicle of a YouTube and Hulu had not become commonplace. In fact, I would argue that continuous, story-based episodic programming still has not taken hold here. The YouTube successes really are just pick-up programming that don't demand sequential viewing. Hulu is an on-demand version of TV, where I suspect most of us still are experiencing most of our beloved shows.
The major media of the last century became powerful insofar as they had ritualistic places in everyday life. They became attached to and identified with regular moments and physical activities and places. Movie theaters were mass gatherings made part of evenings out. Radio started as an evening family ritual, but TV moved it to a drive time and office listening ritual. TV, the gold standard of ritualized media, became the centerpiece of the post-World War II nuclear family. It was part of the shared family evenings of relaxation that were critical to a fundamental reorientation of American consumer society in the last half of the 20th century.
TV was not just more dazzling a medium than anything that had come before it. In fact, in its first iterations, the TV experience was just awful compared to film, recorded music and print. It was a very low-res medium that combined the other media, but in a perfect time and place. Daytime, evening and night programming came to embody actual stages in the household life. The connection between medium and daily American cycles of activity was so deeply engrained that no other technology ever approached TV’s raw power in American culture.
Likewise, what is important to watch about mobile technology is not how many people have done this or that on their cell phone, but what activities are occurring with great regularity in tandem with other activities. To wit, the finding from Nielsen earlier this week that almost half of smartphone owners use shopping apps either to pre-shop before going to a store or while in the store itself. More to the point, they found that the average shopping app is opened 17 times in a given month. This is not just a trend, this is a reflex. To me that indicates that many Americans are coming to identify mobile devices with the shopping experience. When many of us are in the store and have a question about an item or wonder if it can be found cheaper elsewhere, we don’t have to strain to remember that we have that answer in our pocket. In the same way we learned a few years ago that our phones could answer the question “what time is it?” we are coming to know just as automatically that the Internet is here with us everywhere.
Mobile and local is another association that is evolving among users. The new Keystone survey of several thousand smartphone owners finds that accessing local information is the leading activity that owners associate with their smartphone. In fact, 88% of owners cite local look ups and 74% cite specifically looking up local services. This is to say that on some level, smartphone owners are carving out a place for this device in their lives and in their consciousness. It is evolving as the medium of here and now. We are starting to understand it as a tool that enhances context. It is the complement to the moment. Just as TV got its power because it was part of an extremely important ritual of American suburban life, mobile will get extraordinary power as it becomes a part of the American shopping ritual and the simple act of understanding and mastering one's immediate vicinity.
The historic importance of media devices as a part of larger rituals is also why tablets -- and to a lesser degree smartphones -- are poised to shake up TV at least as powerfully as did cable. The staggering amount of second-screen use during prime time indicates that a ritual is already taking shape in 21st century American life that directly affects the defining medium of the last century.
We are on our way to transforming the living room TV ritual of the last century into a two-screen experience in this century. We don’t’ know what forms those two screens will take in relation to one another yet, but the reflex is there even before the forms have been set. This is going to be really interesting to watch.
This point is as obvious, perhaps, as it is powerful. The places where the mobile medium becomes automatic, ritualized, a reflex are where it takes on the contours of a real medium -- a regular, predictable, scalable part of everyday living against which media companies and marketers can target content and services.