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Is online behaviour changing, or is technology changing our behaviour?

Scott Thompson
Scott Thompson, Head of Digital Research at Starcom MediaVest was one of speakers at AOP's 'Unlocking insight from changing online behaviour' event on Wednesday, 17 November.

In line with the topic of the event, we asked Scott:

'Online behaviour is becoming increasingly complex, how have you seen it change, and stay the same, over the last 5-10 years? What trends are you seeing?'

I think there are really two major trends that have shaped online behaviour. The most visible is the changing shape of technology, which is making the internet more accessible and easy to use.

If you've been using broadband internet over a wifi connection on your laptop, then it can be hard to imagine back to what it was like when you had to go off to whatever room the desktop PC was set up in, wait for your dial up connection to connect, and watch as images slowly appeared, almost pixel by pixel on your screen.

But we have seen text and grainy images move towards videos and interactive web applications. With touchscreens, it all becomes even easier - you don't "operate" a machine that lets you interact with content, because now you can interact directly with the content; instead of "move your mouse so the pointer is on something and click a button" - you just tap, swipe or pinch the thing that you're interested in.

So we've seen the technology become 'domesticated', to the extent that we now allow it onto the sofa in our living rooms- or even reading on smartphones and iPads in our bedrooms.

What that means in terms of human behaviour is that we don't think about "going online" any more; we are becoming permanently connected. Most obviously with the mobile web, but also as other devices are going online; later this year, we'll be seeing updates from Facebook and our emails appearing on Virgin's TV platform, and similar things happening with platforms like YouView and Google TV, and the increasing number of "connected TV" sets from manufacturers like Samsung and Sony. [Full disclosure - Samsung is a Starcom MediaVest client.]

But I think the second, more overarching trend of the last 10 years is the socialisation of the internet. Communication has always been the main reason people want to use the internet, and email gave them an easy and cheap way to do it. But it also enabled self-publishing; the kind of thing that we used to see in newsletters and fanzines, but in a much more scaleable format.

Ten years ago or so, we had the blogosphere, where we joked about how nobody was interested in a 12 year old girl's online diary of what they had for dinner. Then we had "user generated content", where people could upload videos of themselves cooking their dinner and photos of the finished meal. And now the social web, where hundreds of millions of people can all discuss their dinner plans with one another.

I don't think we've really seen a significant change in behaviours from one of these to the next - just technology making it easier for people to get involved in this online network of people - but what happens when network effects start to change the shape of the activity means that there is a significant difference between a few hundred or thousand people sharing their thoughts on the internet and 500 million sharing their thoughts on Facebook.

It's quite difficult to track this kind of change in behaviour from a pure "research" perspective though, because of the way we tend to structure our questions.

Five years ago, we were asking questions about "blogging" - but at the time, someone posting updates to a MySpace page might have thought about that as a blog. A few years later, we were asking about "social networking" or "updating a profile page" - so the same person, doing the same activity would appear to be representing a changing behaviour.

Since we started talking about "microblogging" with the rise of Twitter, there is another type of activity that we are tracking - but I don't think the actual behaviour of regularly updating a Facebook status and posting a tweet is really very different, even though what we see from our trends charts seems to clearly put them into different boxes.

I think you really need to understand the way people fill out these kinds of surveys to properly understand what the charts are telling us (for example, the way people try to fit their own behaviour into the media-centric boxes they can tick), but there is definitely an overall shift from private and personal communication between individuals and groups, towards more of this "many-to-many" communication between networks - which can also include information that becomes publicly visible, or include brands - that is creating new opportunities.

We are already seeing that some people have an expectation of brands to have a Facebook page or Twitter account where they can reach them - which is quite similar to the expectation for brands to have a website back in the early part of this decade. But it isn't just information that they expect to find now; it's someone who will listen to them, and respond.

The part that I personally find really interesting right now is how this technology that we are shaping then comes back to shape us as people. We are seeing now how it changes our relationships — most clearly with the "weak ties" at the edges of our personal networks, and also with brands and communities — but what does it really mean when you can expect to have the world wide web at your fingertips at any moment in time?

I think most of us remember the days when we committed our friends' phone numbers to memory, instead of committing them to our mobile phone's digital contacts list. I'm just not sure what happens when we start to do the same thing with something like Facebook, Google Maps or Wikipedia.

Read another interview with Scott - 'we are chasing yesterday's audience.'

Find out more about the event, also featuring speakers from ITV, Kantar, MediaTel and dunnhumby.

Supported by

Kantar Media
Event Sponsor: Kantar Media

Research Magazine
Media Partner: Research Magazine

AOP Events so far in 2010

AOP Events so far in 2010

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