Following channels is like chasing shadows.

Switching Channels
Image via Wikipedia

Gotta have the most friends on Facebook! Gotta start using Twitter! Gotta get to be Number ONE on Google! Gotta have the most “likes” on Facebook! Gotta get more tips about my place on Foursquare! New channels are introduced to our lives on a regular basis. The pace of introduction is increasing. The rate of change probably isn’t going to slack any time soon either.

It’s very easy and very tempting to get overly focused on the channels and lose sight of the human behavior that’s driving the use of those channels. The reason it’s easy is because there are lots of people (hey, me included) that will gladly charge you a few bucks to tell you how to increase your ROI with any given channel. And there are products you can buy that help you increase your ROI with all of these channels. And the people who make those products make sure to tell you about them over and over again. There are conferences devoted to all of these channels too, creating their own swarm of media and mentions and buzz and hashtags.

But when the dust settles, communicating with people online isn’t so much about the channels themselves. It’s about the people. The people in your audience are still the same people when they are on Facebook or Foursquare or just checking their email. What changes, when they use different tools and channels, is their behavior. People do different things with different tools. In the same way that a fork is used for one thing and a hammer is used for another. Just because people tend to use more forks doesn’t mean that marketing to people who use hammers is a waste of time.

Freaking out about specific channels and tools is like chasing shadows. The channels will change.

Lots of user behavior changes in the works.

Right now it seems that there are a lot of user behavior changes in the works. Changes that are a lot more significant than what the newest widget for Twitter is or whether Facebook has a billion more users. Here’s a few that have me thinking a lot lately.

Change in how we understand and use location

The way we access channels is changing. Best Buy reports that iPads is cannibalizing laptop sales by about 50%. It might not seem like that big of a deal: people are peering into the infostream with an iPad instead of laptop. But there are significant differences between a laptop and an iPad. Differences that have an effect on how people interact with the messages you distribute. Differences that force a change in human behavior.

Here are some things about iPads (and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous “iPad killers”) that are very different from laptops.

  • More mobile. This is a change in degree, not a totally new thing. But it’s a major change in mobility so I’m including it. The iPad is far more portable than a laptop or even a netbook. Once you’ve started toting one around your laptop feels like a brick. A big heavy brick. A brick that Homeland Security makes you unpack when you go on an airplane.
  • Awareness of the world around it. The iPad knows where it is. It can use this information to show you data that is relevant to your location. Like maps, for example. Or contextual information left by others via channels like Foursquare and Gowalla. Your laptop really isn’t like this. Sort of. But not really.
  • Touch interface. Interacting with information using just your fingers, and all of the gestural language that requires, is a big change.
  • A portal for information more than a storage medium. The size of the hard drive on the iPad isn’t the main feature difference between models. When people talk about iPads the question isn’t “how big is the hard drive?” (i.e. storage capabilities) it’s “do you have 3G?” (i.e. mobility).

Many people have mistaken this decreased storage capacity for a decreased ability to produce meaningful work with an iPad. What’s really happening here is that the methods used to produce meaningful work are changing. And the way they’re changing is that mobility and the location-awareness that mobility allows becoming more important aspects of producing meaningful work. Even more important is how far this technology lags behind human behavior such as working from home offices.

Access to and interaction with channels is changing from a desktop/laptop, keyboard/monitor, stationary/luggable world to a unified presentation/interaction, highly portable world. Changing the way we create and consume content has an impact on the kinds of content that is important to us. It’s an epistemology that is changing.

Change in how we understand and use time

Just as radio and television disrupted the relevance of the newspaper industry’s multiple daily editions, the web is increasingly disrupting television’s ability to control the flow of time. CNN’s Headline News, updated every half hour, is less relevant in a world where news breaks on Twitter complete with eyewitness accounts, photos and video. A half-hour is no longer an acceptable unit of time to wait to find out more information about something that’s happening.

Entertainment video content on television has been losing the ability to become single events dictated by the owners of the television channels for some time. The TiVo is a continuation of the work that the programmable VCR began. Netflix, Hulu and the AppleTV (and the AppleTV-like devices which are promised to arrive any day now) will continue to erode the concept of a time schedule for entertainment video. In fact, the existence of television channels delivered in a time-linear format my be in danger as cable television channel subscriptions also appears to be waning.

At the same time, since many of the tools required for us to work are now available in mobile phone-sized packages, our understanding of work time is also changing. The relatively recent innovation of the eight-hour work day is probably slipping–flex time that only flexes one direction, 9am-6pm 40-hour weeks and our willingness and desire to continue work-related activity beyond what was normal even ten or twenty years ago.

I’m not sure if this is good or bad or whatever. But it’s clear that how we understand and use time is changing. Again, this is an epistemological shift in relation to time.

Channels are just the shadows of human behavior

The channels that appear and disappear over time are just shadows of real human behavior. The channel appears in order to meet some human need and then disappears when that human need changes. Or maybe the channel adapts to meet the new human behavior. We can see this play out in the newsprint industry, the book publishing industry, the broadcast and cable television industries and so on. It’s the most obvious there as these industries are trying to prop up production methods more suited to a world in which they better mirrored human understanding of time and location. As human behavior changes the shadow it casts either moves or fades from view while new shadows form.

But “new” media channels aren’t immune from ongoing changes by virtue of their being “new.” Change happens, and it happens faster in a world where a few lines of code can accomplish the same result as an entire printing plant. All the channels, whether it’s Facebook or the New York Times, exist because of their ability to effectively mirror human behavior and understanding.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care about channels or use them. Just that we should be sure to think about them as deeply as we can. We should strive to understand the human behavior that is driving the use of the channel. Or understand what use of a particular channel can reveal to us about human behavior. And most importantly, not get caught up in guru-hood and so on.

For example, understanding things like signal and noise in a channel like Twitter is infinitely more valuable than a list of someone’s ten “best” practices or rules for using Twitter. We’re much less likely to be side-tracked by channel shadow-play if we try to understand the aspects of human behavior that remain constant from generation to generation.

Here’s some more stuff to read and watch (yes it’s a Chinese site, after the commercial you won’t notice it thought) if you made it through this post.

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