Are people "specialising" their use of different communication channels? (Are there different usages for mobile, fix, e-mail, etc in terms of content, partners in the communication or habits? And are new channels affecting how other channels are used?)
Stefana Broadbent, an ethnologist working for Swisscom Innovations studying economical and social aspects of telecommunication, is up on stage at LIFT06 and she answers yes to all of the above questions, at least when it comes to consumers (the focus of her speech).
With her team, she has observed and studied 200 people in Switzerland in their interaction with technology, interviewed them, collected maps and other information about the position of tech in their homes, timelines and usage schedules, communication logs. And, she says, what comes out of this is that people "are very good at choosing the best media for each situation".
What would that be?
"SMS is to tell you I miss you, Email is to organise our dinner, Voice is to say I’m late, and IM is to continue our conversation", says Broadbent. Here is how she explains it in more details:
- Fix phone – the collective channel ("a shared organisational tool for the whole household", with most calls done in "public", because they have relevance to other members of the household, only 25% "privately" from one's bedroom or study)
- Mobile voice – the micro coordination channel ("mobile voice is the preferred channel for last-minute adjustment of plans or updates on where people are, what they are doing" - as in the classic "I am parking the car in front of the house, darling"...) (And Broadbent puts on the table this other surprising figure about mobile communication: "On average people communicate regularly only with 4 partners on the mobile phone: 80% of exchanges are with 4 people")
- SMS – the intimate channel ("SMS is for intimacy, emotion and efficiency; only the most intimate sphere of friends and family are contacted by SMS, and the content of the messages is often related to “grooming” and emotional exchanges").
- Email – the administrative channel (used to support online activities such as travel and shopping preparation ("services"); for coordination with extended social groups - clubs, friends, acquaintances; to exchange pictures and music and other content with close social networks". While "e-mail is the exclusive channel for collective communication - sending a message to multiple partners")
- IM and VoIP – the continuous channels ("users open an IM communication channel for the day and then just keep it open in the background while they do other activities - multitask - and step in and out of a conversation"; she adds that this starts to apply to VoIP as well).
- Blogging – the networking channel ("a personal page in Myspace is primarily a center of communication with friends and people online in general; everyone can read not only what you post but also what people comment; that makes communication not only one-to-one but networked between people who cross reference each other - and the number of communication partners can be hugely extended").
(There is no "video" in her list: "we haven't found much usage of video for communication", she says answering a question). Some of this is very surprising to me, particularly Stefana's points about mobile and SMS, which - even considering that she's talking about average consumers, clash frontally with anecdotal evidence that we all can gather daily. I asked her how "solid" her point about "80% of mobile voice exchanges are with 4 people" is, and she says she's "quite sure of it: maybe we're talking about 5, but it's consistent across studies". Someone in the audience says that his group has carried out a similar research in France and the results are also consistent with what Stefana has discussed.
Now to the second question: do new channels affect how other channels are used? "Each new channel or media that appears in society slowly redefines the uses of the older existing media: IM is currently redefining usage of SMS; blogging is redefining usage of e-mail; VoIP is changing the nature of a phone call. New patterns of communication emerge slowly, stabilize for a period and then change again when new channels come along". On this, we totally agree. There is another aspect of this: what role does cost have in shifting usage from one channel to the other? "Cost plays a role but it's not absolute: consider for example that people use cell phone from home, although it's more expensive and they have alternatives available, just because it's more practical, they have numbers memorized in their cell phone and just need to hit a button".
Question from the public: are your studies having any impact on Swisscom's marketing and R&D? "It's getting there".