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Consumer Seminar at AFTRS

Categories: Consumers, Content as A/V Experience, Conversation, Environment, General, People, Technology
Date: 2 February 2007

Consumers, Social Context, Media and Behaviours.

Both speakers addressed the social forces that shape consumer behaviour and their interactions with media and communication technologies.

Hugh Mackay indicated that consumers might be requiring both media contents and media technologies to perform a stronger role of “social substitute” in increasingly “edgy” western lifestyles. People are using the communication media to provide a sense of companionship and connectedness in changing social contexts. He extensively outlined the ways the western demographic is being challenged to revitalise its way of life with changes to gender roles, living arrangements, birth rates, the restructuring of economies, more mobile lifestyles and the revolution in the communication technology arenas. He suggested an examination of the role media plays in its engagement with these new ways of life could be beneficial.

Genevieve Bell later reminded us the “social substitute” role for media is historically linked with the ways the earlier communication media of film, radio and television entertained, and also provided a sense of connection, intimacy and companionship for consumers.

We didn’t get to discuss Avatars and their emerging role here.

Consumers Research Methodologies – “Seeing the World through Other’s Eyes”

Genevieve Bell highlighted the important role the field of Anthropology contributes to media and technology research and development – that is, the knowledge gained though the methodology of “Ethnographic Observation” which includes watching, participation and researcher integration in studying the context and people who use the communication technologies. She gave examples from a number of her projects with Intel. She emphasised how this approach was “changing the point of view of the technology developer”.

Bell talked about “suspending” assumptions, or “explanatory narratives” while this process was taking place and allowing the consumers to generate the narrative. She provided examples of a number of creative ways of eliciting the voice of the consumer in this research. Some of these included; getting consumers to produce photos matched to selected evocative phrases –drawing maps of houses and living spaces and asking consumers to highlight the areas where interpersonal conflict occurs-taking photos of people using various communication technologies and then getting people to tell stories about what is happening in the photos.

She emphasised that approaches like this provide a vehicle for understanding both context and “difference” within consumer groups and cultures. She warned against the simplistic viewpoint adopted by many high tech developers that the new communication arena was only about producing a transparent delivery platform across the 3 screens (TV, computer and mobile phone) and cited the results of research that highlighted the different relationship consumers can have with each medium and how they see its place in their lives.
Bell asserted that successful devices become ‘naturalised’ and are associated with “comfort” by consumers. Successful devices acquire the status of intimate objects.

She also addressed the relationship between communication technology, architecture and the design of living spaces and how these are demarcated as ‘technically determined zones” for lifestyle purposes by upper middle class consumers. For example, the ways of managing work life boundaries with second homes, or secondary living spaces acting as time out zones where highly mobile, global consumers can “re-connect” with a sense of place and alignment to the “local”, as well as indulge their entertainment and leisure pursuits.

Consumers, Content and Technology

Mackay proposed that mainstream media content might be assisting populations “disengage” with more pressing social issues with its focus on contemporary lifestyles and “backyards” (because the Australian television audience is less interested than previous generations in watching its current affairs programming).

Someone commented, and there was general agreement, that the desire to be immersed in a program and “swept away” was still strong with consumers and audiences, and thus the role for the edited program had not diminished despite the emergence of user generated and unmediated delivery contexts.

Brand recognition and value was mentioned as important in sustaining consumer confidence- and there wasn’t a lot of confidence in the “Australian Feature Film” brand. Comments were also made that Australian Feature Films were yet to engage with a cross media brand identity. Rosen mentioned that Australia cinema is really only an important experience for the 40 plus demographic. And others reiterated what is known about the disappearance of the young male audience (25’s to 35’s) from the box.

However, others reminded us that some Australian TV programming is very popular with this group, but they essentially want into be able to download it themselves off the Internet, and share it with peer/mentor groups (“Cohort generation” behaviours) as they do with other popular media (both user generated and mainstream). The point was made that you can’t have a contemporary “audience” nowadays without including active “participation” as part of the experience.

And, while the biggest market for DVD’s is now the television series, many consumers are buying for immediacy off the net, driven by the desire to “watch” a program as soon as soon as its released.

Many mentioned that Australia’s broadband landscape and its limitations discouraged the download of longer forms and created a distorted market for short form content, as well as limiting innovation in content here. While Australian consumers now have access to the global market place, we are not concentrating on developing our local or domestic market for content.

Some industry people noted a shift in the story elements that engage Australians i.e. a cultural shift from the Australian anti-hero myths to identifying with more American, “noble hero” constructions.

Some research gaps

I noted, as perceived by the media industry at this point in time, from comments made at the seminar.

Consumer research activities

Responses from the Australian media industry audience at the forum indicated that the social research aspects of consumer behaviour have not been a strong feature of this industry’s audience research focus, which has been more quantitative in nature (ABC’s, Telstra’s audience research data etc.). Genevieve Bell noted that most companies, media or not, were good at knowing what people were doing but not why.

There is, however, as Trevor Barr pointed out, a tradition of European industry allied research, aided by government, focusing on consumer involvements with emerging communication environments.

There is also a tradition of strong scholarly (ARC) type Australian research and ethnography, examining the ways consumers use older media to maintain and sustain their social environments. (i.e. research studies performed to assess the ways television and the old tele-phone functioned in the social/public/private spheres).
There is also an emerging Australian scholarly path in this direction with new media, most of it in the area Peter Giles mentioned, the computer games cultures.

Trevor Barr mentioned there is not much systematic research, however, into new media uses for social empowerment.

Annmarie’s comments

Stephanie Donald, at UTS, has ARC Linkage funding currently for a youth community study to examine a group of young people at Ryde Public School and the ways they are using communication technologies, why they use them, and how their designs might adapt to the needs of the young users (Another Transforming Cultures Project in Association with ACID- the Australian Research Centre for Interaction Design at QUT).

It is worth noting here that the sort of technology based research Genevieve Bell outlined is very much aligned to this relatively new field of “Interaction Design” which crosses the boundaries of design, architecture, social sciences and the engineering and computer disciplines. Its objective is to integrate social and environmental issues, and understandings of users, within the design of new urban and living spaces.

“Interaction Design” is now very focused on understanding the social interactions produced in electronic media space (as they now regard it as the predominant feature of all emerging environments). While the disciplinary approaches from art, design, psychology, anthropology, informatics, urban studies and computing prevail, oddly, a media production/studies perspective in all this research activity is negligible.
For example, the convergence between the older and newer media forms and its relationship with consumer behaviours has not been researched as far as I can assess in this field.