I’m writing a book review of the classic internet ethnographic study, creatively titled The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach, by Daniel Miller and Don Slater. Despite the nondescript name, the book is a very rich text about internet use in Trinidad. The authors find much higher internet penetration rates than they had expected, and they find that Trinidadians (at the time) used the internet in a very wide variety of ways, in cybercafes, at neighbors’ houses, with friends. They write:
This degree of diffusion was impressive, but does not convey the shock of walking past the yard dogs in front of a squatter’s corrugated iron-and-plank built hut with no running water in order to ask the self-evidently daft question, “Do any members of your household use the Internet?”, only to find oneself in a very well-informed conversation about email, paying for computer courses, career prospects in IT and library access.
I’ve been thinking about the way that internet use is embedded in people’s lives. I know that now that I work at home, I surf the net in an entirely different way than I did when I was a 9-5er with plenty of free time on my hands. When I’m laptopping around the country, I use the internet very differently from when I’ve just got my machine on so that my giant torrent of The Amazing Race Season 3 can finish up. Anyway, I was reading this article1 by John Carey on how people actually use the web, and I came upon this paragraph:
Lifestyles of people in the study group had a strong impact on how and when they usethe Web. Consider first a group of three recent college graduates who shared anapartment in Manhattan. They have very hectic and irregular schedules. On any given evening, one might be at a gym; another out on a date; or the three of them might be visiting a local sports bar. Much of their media use moved later into the evening and their apartment was crammed with media options: multiple televisions, PCs, cellphones, videogame consoles and MP-3 players. They also had broadband access to the Web and a wireless network. To reach them, media had to fit flexibly into their irregular schedules because they might not be available when regularly scheduled media were playing. Television was limited by having a schedule; the Web and other media such as videogames were generally schedule-free and therefore fit more easily into the routines of people with hectic, irregular schedules.
This basically describes me and everyone I know. Let’s look at TV: there are a few people I know who will make sure they see a certain program, and make it part of their weekly routine: folding laundry while watching Desperate Housewives, for example. But for most of the people I know, there are two options:
1. Pay for a DVR
2. Get all your media from the web.
Since 2 is basically free, since we all have broadband anyway, there’s not much compelling reason to do 1. When I’m watching TV on my computer, it becomes just another website that I’m looking at, often in a corner of the screen, movies and TV shows from past and present, US and abroad, cult and mainstream, cable and network are all undifferentiated.
I read something recently which referred to the “post-network” era of American broadcasting, which I think describes right now just fine. I don’t remember the last time I watched a sitcom. I watch a fair amount of TV: I download Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, the Amazing Race, and the Sopranos every week, and I work through the back catalogs of other shows that interest me. All of those shows, by the way, I got into by watching them on the web first (with the Sopranos, it was Netflixing DVDs, since it launched pre-torrent). This means that of all my friends, even if we’re all watching a show, one person is likely to be catching up on back DVDs, one person may TiVo it and watch it day of, and I may be three weeks behind because I haven’t bothered to download the torrents yet.
I’m more than happy to see the era of network TV lumber to a close, which may be hypocritical, because I still want to get entertainment products that I like and watch them when I want to. If I could pay a $10/mo fee for all-internet TV, with no DRM and total time-shifting, I’d probably do it just for the convenience, and because then I could watch shows that I really like, such as Made, which are never on the torrents.
But back to the internet: it becomes so hard to differentiate types of “media” from one another. Going physically to the movies, to me, is a fun activity to do with friends that displaces going to a club or a show if we’re feeling tired or there’s something really cool on. It’s not like I choose between going out to the movies and watching TV. Internet, video games, TV, DVDs are all kind of part of the same thing for me, and since I’m online most of the time, I’m usually working, taking a brief surfing break, working, watching an episode, working, etc. This is a pattern of media use that just doesn’t fit within old media models.
Big Media seems to be slowly stumbling into the sunlight and realizing they need to regroup; I have to say that the TV studios have been a lot less assly about P2P than, say, Jack Valenti or the RIAA. Anyway. Back to book review.
1.The Web Habit: An Ethnographic Study of Web Usage Patterns. Carey, John. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 2005 Annual Meeting, New York, NY, p1-18.