My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

On viewing and “sharing” media in the digital age

It’s weird how my blog works. I should post another “update type” entry focusing on my half-term shenanigans (warning: shenanigans in the mirror may sound cooler than they later appear). And I will. But I have to get this out of my head first.

I walk into town for the market every Saturday, and almost every week I spend that walk listening to The Vinyl Cafe, with Stuart McLean. I love this show. I love how Stuart can enthuse about a little detail of Canadian history, particular to whatever venue the show is visiting that week. I love being exposed to new and wonderful Canadian musicians. And, I love the story exchange and the Dave and Morley stories. I loved all this before I moved to England, but The Vinyl Cafe has become even more important to me now that I’m living on my own in another country. It’s a connection to Canada, a very concentrated reminder of where I’m from, and it alleviates a little of the habitual homesickness I occasionally feel.

Anyway, this week Stuart was talking about movies. He recounted his own experience with movies as a child in Montreal, including his anticipation of the news reels that would show prior to each film. He reminded us that, before television became a common staple in most homes, movies were one way people would experience the news of far-flung events, saying that this was a time when people watched and experienced the news together, rather than alone with our televisions. Obviously, this is a generalization—people would listen, and continue to listen, to the news together, either through radio or television. But it got me thinking about how we consume content today, and how so much of that content is targeted to mobile devices. I started wondering what it means to share an experience in the digital space.

With a few exceptions, watching a video, reading a blog post, or listening to a podcast on a mobile device is a solitary experience. Sure, it’s possible to share in this experience with a few friends who don’t mind sitting a little closer to you than normal. But that’s far from the norm, and I suspect that very few people indeed gather around a single tablet to watch the latest video from a YouTube channel together. Instead, standard operating procedure is to watch the video separately—usually alone—and then discuss it online.

(On a somewhat tangential note, the result is that consuming video has become more reading a book than watching a movie or TV show, in the sense that few people sit around reading the same book together. You all read the book separately, then you get together to discuss it. This means that the act of reading itself is an intimate, immensely personal experience.)

Therein lies the paradox. Not only do content creators constantly push content towards us for mobile consumption; we are persistently encouraged and reminded to share the content we like. “Like us on Facebook!,” “Tweet us,” “Pin us,” etc., have all become common requests at the bottom of a blog post or the end of a video. So, despite the fact that we are more often consuming the content alone, we are still expected to share that content with others. This has led to a subtle transformation of what it means to “share” an experience.

There is something about watching a video—for example—with another person that fundamentally differs from watching it alone. Alone, no one can interrupt you to make a joke, point out a flaw, or merely be goofy—thereby adding value to the experience, annoying you, or, through some combination of the two, breaking your concentration and thus altering your experience of the video itself. When you watch a video with someone else—when you share the experience in this way—you aren’t actually watching a video any more. You’re watching a work derived from that video, an interactive performance in which you and your friend are participants and players.

Now consider what it means to share a video online. You watch it; your friends watch it. Some of you share it to Facebook, or tweet about it, and it gets discussion going—others, who wouldn’t have watched it otherwise, watch the video. Depending on the video and the circle of friends, the discussion could be quite intense and sophisticated. None of this, however, changes the fact that your initial exposure to the video was while you were alone, uninterrupted and unmediated by another consciousness’ involvement in the experience. You might go back and rewatch the video, your thoughts tempered by points that someone has made online. But all discussion is after the fact.

In this distinction between the two types of sharing, note that this is not a matter of online versus offline content. It’s just as easy to watch a TV show alone, and then share one’s enjoyment of the latest episode online and talk about it there (or in person with people at a coffee shop). Similarly, it’s possible to watch content together with people online—almost every week, my dad and I watch Castle together, simultaneously, while we chat over Skype. There is just no substitute for the experience of the two of us watching it and commenting on the episode as things happen.

So online media is not responsible for this distinction; indeed, the two types of sharing have probably always co-existed. However, the proliferation of mobile devices and the increased encouragement to view content on mobile platforms is responsible for sharpening and deepening this distinction.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. I’m not complaining about this trend. In my view, it’s not a question of improvement or decline; it’s just change. But it’s interesting to think about how our changing habits of media consumption are changing how and when we discuss that media, and how those discussions might, in turn, alter our experience of that media.