Sometimes when I take the subway to work I play a little game. I count the number of people, head down, shoulders rounded, looking at their phones. Sometimes, I can count a whole row of six people reading their phones at 8 a.m. on their way to Manhattan from Brooklyn on the C train.
Back in 2013, when smartphone penetration was only around 50%, seeing so many people sitting in a row was fascinating and remarkable. It felt like the world was driven by a technology that would change it forever — which it did.
People reading newspapers on their way to work just looked old-fashioned; they still reading on paper!
Today, more than 85% of the entire adult U.S. population has a smartphone, and it’s more than 90% for 18-24s. When I see a row of people hunched over their phones now, it just feels sad and lonely. But something interesting is happening among young adults as a result of too much screen time — reading print as a protest.
People that look younger than 30 are reading magazines like TheEconomist and The New Yorker on their way to work. In fact many carry the tote bags one gets with a subscription or after making a donation to WNYC or NPR. I’ve even seen more people reading nonfiction paperbacks!
These people are standing in the train car, clutching the bar with one hand and holding the magazine with the other and effectively saying: look what I’m reading! They’re using the medium as a badge. We call this Badge Media, and it’s a type of medium that was nearly extinct in the age of digital. But it’s making a comeback.
Print is having a renaissance and as a media anthropologist, I find this development fascinating.
Many years ago I was taking the LIRR to the Hamptons, and I was reading a celebrity gossip magazine. But there was someone across the aisle I wanted to impress. I also had Wallpaper and The Economist in my bag and I reached for Wallpaper. He saw what I was reading and we started a nice conversation. That’s the power of Badge Media, which immediately says to the world, you’re a person with certain tastes, interests and beliefs. It’s a shortcut for deciding if the person next to you will be a friend, a date, or a business contact.
Smartphones are not a form of Badge Media.
If anything, we use them to isolate ourselves and build fortresses around our personal space. Using a smartphone on a train doesn’t invite a conversation. It does just the opposite, especially when they’re paired with headphones.
However, when you see someone reading a book that you just finished, you’re moved to gush about how much you enjoyed it. I remember when everyone was reading “Twilight” on the subway, before there were Kindles, and it felt like we were all enjoying the story at the same time, which we were.
When you talk to people at The New Yorker, they will tell you how ads in the magazine drive sales and that their audience is so committed, they notice and support the advertisers. I’m sure that’s true.
What’s more interesting is how people today are rebelling against too much screen time, given its impact on our cognitive development and its isolating effects on generations. Younger people are protesting those negative tech impacts, and at the same time, using print as a way to identify their social and political beliefs.
Now, when I see someone reading a particular magazine, I look at them a little differently — and I like that. So it’s interesting to consider how we can use print differently, now that people are using it to protest. How should print be paired with other media?