The Astounding Evolution Towards Less In A "More Society"

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No one pays much attention to anything these days.

In August 1981, the world changed dramatically. The saying "I Want My MTV," was introduced, and even though musicians traditionally stood behind the music, now they were forced not only to put a face to it, as they would in concerts, but also on music videos, a visual representation of their songs. As music began to transcend its own media channel and enter into something completely new, there was a small but vocal outcry. These short blasts of music video would kill everything we knew and loved about culture.

The ushering in of the MTV era is often linked to discussions around how much shorter the attention span of teenagers was becoming. Kids could no longer listen to an entire album and just wanted a quick fix (with visuals to go along with it). It would not be long before a 30-minute sitcom would be well beyond a teenager’s grasp and replaced with a quarter dropped into an arcade video game. The world was all about pieces of content that were flashier and smaller.

It was no longer about having an abundance of anything, but rather getting satisfaction in something much smaller with less time and attention needed to focus and concentrate. It made parents, teachers and earlier generations shake their collective heads in disbelief.

If we fast-forward to today, the concept of a music video seems passé to most. The advent of the Internet and the multiple new media channels that are currently available have created a moment where media fragmentation has taken things to new extremes. Without question society is deriving major value from the creation of minor bits and pieces of content. It may not be obvious at first glance, but the tracks to Twitter‘s success (the online social platform where people post what’s on their minds in 140 characters or less) is paved with long diatribes of text being published, commented on and passed around.

The evolution is astounding.

When the ability to create and publish a website started taking hold in the early ’90s, it was not something that everyone could do. You needed a certain level of technical knowledge to code in HTML (the Web’s programming language) and then the ability to transfer your code and host it on a computer server that could be accessed by those with an Internet connection. It took a lot of hard work. Within a decade of that time, the first blogging platforms were being introduced. Suddenly, with very little technical prowess, anyone with a thought could type it out, hit a "publish" button and their words could be available for the entire online world to read. In short order, the ability to do the same with images (think Flickr), video (think YouTube) and audio (think iTunes) became readily available. And with that, the technology also became more intuitive and easy to use.

Suddenly, we stopped attaching a 4-meg video file into an email that was sent to our contacts, and we started posting those videos to YouTube and sending our friends the link. In essence, as the technology gets easier to use, we tend to shift away from the longer formats and move toward the smaller, more digestible ways of doing things. As an example from the traditional media, look at how the adoption of TV overshadowed the newspaper.

Our world is quickly becoming much more about the little things.

Do people like Twitter because of how easy it is to get connected to Oprah, or do they like Twitter because you can get little chunks from Oprah in short and easy to digest fragments? What about journalism? Do you really think that you’re going to get the insights and perspectives of a news story in 140 characters or less?

If anything, we’re learning that people do, indeed, like getting information in these small, friendly and compact methods, but to truly add value and "get to the bottom of things" there needs to be a little more substance. The real truth is that even though this column is republished on my Six Pixels of Separation – the Twist Image Blog, it really has little resemblance to what a modern blog posting looks like (short, pithy, with lots of bold and italics fonts to grab the hurried online reader’s attention).

So, what’s really going on?

As technology blasts us forward, we’re actually not looking for much more than a quick fix. The businesses that are able to satisfy this new habit are winning by creating an online engagement that transcends what we would have traditionally thought about consumers: they want a lot of information. They don’t. They want "just enough" information. And, if you can give them just enough quickly, they’ll probably then be open to stuff that has a little more depth and perspective. Your business is going to get attention by doing the little things fast and then winning customers over with the supporting content and context of everything else you are publishing and marketing. Seth Godin, the best-selling author and marketing expert, said it best on his blog (in fact, he liked it so much that he wrote a book by the same title): Small is the New Big.

How do you reconcile a world where consumers want more information, more personalization, more customization and more control, but they want it with less and less content?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Montreal Gazette – People want ‘just enough’.

Vancouver Sun – It’s all about the little things.


  1. Experience– experience is the new frontier in business competition.
    How do you provide an experience in 140C? Hmmmm… I have no idea.

  2. It seems that the first thing that happens when the shackles of an analog container are broken is content reorganizes itself in ways people want, not the way the business model worked. Jewel cases and newspapers became ring tones and blogs/tweets.
    The second thing that happens is people begin to suffer from Content Attention Deficit Disorder. As the number of ‘smalls’ increases hyper-choice sets in and we tend to gravitate to the familiar of tried and true as well as the recommendations from others. (Message for brands here.)

  3. It is also reflective of the way we operate now. Full steam ahead, I subscribe to over 100 blogs, I don’t have time to read every word, I read news online as well as email updates.
    If I can’t get the gist quickly I must move on.
    We are in an amazing time where thought provoking comments can be sparked off in 140 characters, where blogs of random thoughts are prolific and information is shared at a rate like never before.
    I have access to information, tips, hints, stuff that has helped my career and yes, personal development in ways I could not have imagined before I started becoming an active member of the online communities I have so admired in the past.
    Little things fast is all I have time for right now, but I will get back to you if I like the way you talk to me, the way you MEkert to me rather than market at me and if I am interested in your product I will engage – in small chunks that my schedule allows me to manage, and together we will get to the stuff that matters – once I’m engaged!
    Gotta go tweet and blog…no time to stand around the cooler chatting…

  4. Just watched a short video where Andrew Robertson of BBDO tells about his kids’ world I think he fittingly describes what’s happening: Simultaneous streams replace individual messages. And a 16-year-old already talks about his video-chatting 14 year old brother as being of “other generation”!

  5. Mitch
    excellent post
    others have also written about the pace of change and the underlying technological singularity that Drucker and Kurzweil first put forward.
    However we must not presume Twitter’s rapid rise in popularity to be an inherent substantiation of the ‘just enough’ viewpoint since published results indicate only a 40% retention rate for Twitter
    and if those rates hold – this is akin to the titanic iceberg moment.
    There is the inherent multitasking time crunch environment that brands need to compete in and why I keep ranting about pull vs push as a way of securing one’s spot on the time line.
    As you point out, it would be a mistake to presume that only a superficial presence/content is required to satisfy and engage customers. Rather it’s an attention grabbing/headsup prelude to consumers spending more substantial time in deeper engagement ….if one makes that available to them.
    if a brand only invests in 140 characters of depth- don’t expect it to win against those who have stories to tell and are prepared to converse.

  6. To make a long story short, people pay attention to stories they want to be told.
    Make your story great first. Then tell it to those who want to hear it.
    @Jarod McCormick: An example of an experience in 140 characters. You’ll imagine. You’ll laugh. You’ll go WTF.

  7. Short bytes of info are just that – bites. They give the reader a taste of what’s available – enough to whet the appetite but far from a full meal. I use twitter like a newswire – to find out what people are talking about in our industry and choose where I’ll spend my very limited research time to get the best effect. Twitter and it’s ilk are useful tools absolutely – especially for the tech obsessed. But let’s be careful about getting caught up in our own excitement and missing the facts of the market.
    Reuters reported last month that 60% of twitterers abandon the site a month after joining.

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