New Media in a Culture of Stolen Time

We are all living, and surfing the web, on borrowed time. Maybe the time is our employer’s, who technically isn’t paying us to watch funny YouTube videos at work. Or maybe the time is our family’s, who certainly deserve the time and attention more than playing a computer game. Or maybe the time belongs to our aspirations: the time that could be invested in bettering ourselves in some way or another by hitting the gym, attending that workshop or going for that next degree or credential. Any way you slice it, the way we’ve set up the demands on our time in modern society our time feels less and less our own.
We are haunted at all times by that which we “could” or “should” be doing, even if what we are doing is truly important. This “I should be doing something else” feeling is increasingly affecting our entertainment consumption and communication behavior.

But, there will always be a unit of time, a unit of anything really, that is individually beneath counting or caring. That could be three minutes, eighty-nine cents, one more bite, one more wedding guest. Individually there is always room for this unit, just beneath the “Threshold of Care.”

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Beneath the Threshold of Care, anything goes. That’s why ninety-nine cents was pioneered as a marketing device (and later as folks got wise to the ninety-nine cent phenomenon, the ninety-five-cent and eighty-nine cent innovations).

But time doesn’t break down quite so easily. In fact, when it comes to time the Threshold of Care is fluid. It changes based on your life situation, career and family demands. But it also responds to time demands on entire cultures. With the rapid industrialization and technologicalization of a global society determined to do more in less time, the threshold has been driven down.

And that’s where the new age of internet/mobile entertainment and communication comes in. While a phone conversation runs the risk of going over the Threshold of Care, a text stays comfortably beneath it. Even an exchange of texts over the course of an hour can remain, at least in our minds, beneath the threshold, like those six eighty-nine cent burritos you just ate at Taco Bell ($5.34 + tax).

Besides, who doesn’t have time to read a-hundred-and-forty-character tweet. Or for that matter to write one. A whole article seems an unacceptable commitment, but a string of headlines and blurbs is fine. And an image can be digested in significantly less time than a sentence.

And the phenomenon logically makes its way from consumption to production. Consider that in the heyday of print a 1,000 word newspaper article would have been considered unusually short, now 1,000 words is average for online, if not leaning toward the long side in many publications.

Short form video has wound it’s way into our culture for the same reason. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, the way information is produced and consumed on the internet; these are all reflections of this culture of stolen time and the evolution of the Threshold of Care.

And for the first time in history the Threshold of Care, the medium or format itself rather than the choice of content, is the primary criteria on which many consumers will make their choices.

There have always been good books and bad books, good movies and bad movies, good television shows and bad ones. The same applies to new media content. There are, of course, good YouTube videos and bad ones, good Tweeters and bad ones, but the ability of consumers to discern quality is only now evolving. As long as the medium is new the bad content will continue to free ride on the novelty, but over time as we become familiar and more confident consumers of new media, our expectations of content and ability to discern quality will evolve.

The winners in the new time-compressed age will be the producers of content that stretch the boundaries by marketing products beneath the Threshold of Care and over-delivering on content in the bubble of time we’ve deemed acceptable and then stretching that bubble of time from within. You log in to Facebook to check a quick message and before you know it you’ve messaged, poked, posted, and spent an hour consuming content on different people’s walls.

As for the culture of stolen time that makes this an increasingly common behavior, the guilt and the “I should be’s” we’re all coping with, the only solution is as obvious as it is challenging: making good decisions about how we spend our time and accepting our time use for what it is.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “New Media in a Culture of Stolen Time

  1. Pingback: Stealing Time and Filling Up « State of the Fourth Estate

  2. Pingback: Threshold of Care

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