[In]Sight: The Great Divide

InSight-Graeme Hutton-The Great Divide"It's a country whose average broadband speed is 30 times slower than the world's leader. Some say that online video will cause its Internet service to grind to a halt. And its population lives in ignorance of the wide choices available to the rest of the world. Welcome to the United States of America."

Spencer Kelly, host of BBC World News television program Click, April 3, 2008

In earlier columns, I have shown that contrary to popular perception, the average U.S. consumer lags behind the typical global user in his use of mobile media. But never have I seen it put so forcefully and by such a respected global news organization as the BBC (see inset). I doubt any of us would agree with the implication that, digitally, the U.S. consumer is backward.

Universal McCann's latest edition of its global digital research series, Wave, spans 29 countries and 17,000 respondents and confirms earlier recognized trends: On every social media metric we measured, the average U.S. consumer typically adopts slower. That said, the rate of change in the United States is highly dynamic, and at some levels it's moving at a breathtaking pace.

For example, in the States, video clip viewing has more than doubled from 32 percent in September 2006 to 74 percent earlier this year. Similarly, downloading podcasts has more than doubled, from 12 percent to 28 percent over the same period. RSS subscriptions and blog writing are moving swiftly to all-time highs.

Interrogating the differences between the United States and the rest of world, we see that this country performs relatively better in what we call passive social media (e.g., watching video clips or visiting a friend's social network page). Conversely, the United States performs comparatively worse in what we term active social media (e.g., managing a social network profile or making a phone call using the computer). On the surface, the U.S. consumer appears to be more inclined to be a social media voyeur.

However, at a much deeper level, media carve out powerful, emotionally ingrained habits. These emotional attachments and habits don't change overnight. Yet ultimately, change they will.

Interestingly, one major area where entrenched human motivations can immediately be seen in the U.S. social media is in gender. Men are still from Mars and women from Venus - even in cyberspace. There is a clear inverse relationship between men and women in the types of activities they prefer. Men are much more likely to be involved in geeky Internet activities, such as uploading a video (30 percent of men vs. 20 percent of women) or downloading a podcast (38 percent of men vs. 21 percent of women). By contrast, women tend to read personal blogs, visit a friend's social network profile or manage their own. Women quite clearly see social media for what they are: devices that can extend or facilitate social interaction and understanding.

When we look specifically at blog topics, we see clear patterns emerge which amplify the differences between the two genders. As in life, men gravitate to the physical and tangible: They demonstrate greater interest in issues like technology, business and science. Blogs by friends and family appeal more to women.

We see a correlation between what is important to female and male consumers offline and what content they consume online. For example, Universal McCann's qualitative research shows women take a much greater active interest in planning vacations than men, which translates to women's preference for travel blogs. The blog topics that appeal to women are precisely the ones men show the least interest in.

Overall, the United States enjoys a vibrant social media ecosystem. Streaming video leads the way in shaping how social media are swiftly growing to become an integral element of our mass media ecology. But perhaps it is gender - and the innate differences in how men and women use social media - that confirms that while digital media is starting to fuel macro changes in behavior, deeper and more profound human motivations still fundamentally define who we are, and who we want to be.

Graeme Hutton is senior vice president and director of consumer insights at Universal McCann. (

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