December 8, 2010
Q&A with Nick Bilton, author of ‘I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works’
Nick Bilton’s recently published book is titled I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works not only because he’s a New York Times technology reporter but because of his previous tenure at the paper’s Research & Development Lab, exploring technological shifts that will be important in the near term. There, he was a user interface specialist and researcher, and also worked as a design integration editor in the newsroom. The Gen Xer and self-described geek (“I grew up playing the first video games ever made, and I still get excited by anything with buttons or a screen,” he writes) talked to us about consumnivores, the advent of online personalization and what he’s excited about for 2011.
Bilton was also one of the experts we consulted for our “10 Trends for 2011”; for more on our trends, click here.
Can you describe what you mean by the term “consumnivore”?
We no longer just consume or create content; we all do both. We’re living in this world where we have the opportunity through digital media to consume something and then decide which parts of it we like and want to share, and then off we go and share that on our social networks and filter it off to other people. So it’s someone that both consumes and almost regurgitates content or information.
Can you also explain what you call “1, 2, 10”?
“1, 2, 10” is actually a course I teach at NYU, and it’s this idea that we consume information, whether it’s television or books or anything, across three different screens. And the “1, 2, 10” aspect of this is the distance you hold the screen from your face. So your cell phone is about a foot away, your laptop is around two feet away, and your television is around 10 feet away. And the user interface and the way stories are told and the way we consume information and so on all change based on these distances, because you have different types of interaction.
With a mobile phone, you’re using your finger usually, and it’s touch screen. With your laptop, you have your keyboard. With a television, you have a remote control. And it’s about how these experiences will—in the next few years, as they all become connected to the same network, the Internet—start to talk to each other more, and your content will be able to flow between these three worlds.
But as devices merge, do you think this will become less relevant—for example, a tablet can be a TV screen?
No, it becomes even more relevant—I’m watching a show on my television, which is hooked up to a computer, and then when I’m not finished with it, I put the rest of it on my phone and watch it on the subway on the way to work. And so as these devices start to merge and become everything, they also have to deliver content in the same respect.
So we’re not moving toward a scenario where one device rules?
Absolutely not. That was the assumption years ago, and it is far from the truth. I mean, I have three laptops, I have a mobile phone, I have two televisions. Everything’s becoming this converged experience that follows you between different devices. You can see it with your e-mail: You check your Gmail or your Hotmail from your work computer, you check it from your phone, you check it from your home computer. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to be happening with all the types of information we consume.
You talk about consuming digital content with the phrase “byte, snack, meal”—can you explain what you mean by that?
In the past, a book was a book because it was a 200- or 300-page object that you would buy in the store, and you knew how big it was. A newspaper was laid out in this large format. Television shows were only on your television, and movies were only in the movie theater and then on your television later. Now there’s no differentiation between these. On my cell phone I read books, I watch movies, I watch television shows, I read newspaper articles, I read blog posts, I read tweets. The only thing that really differentiates these is the length of the content. Because everything is converged, medium is completely irrelevant at this point.
You can see this happen with The New York Times and CNN, for example. CNN used to be just a news organization that created television content. And now they have teams of writers and photographers and graphics editors and multimedia producers, and they create everything for the Web. And the same thing has happened with The New York Times, where it used to be just a newspaper, where there were writers and editors, and then there were photographers. And now there’s a video group and a graphics group, and they essentially create the same kind of content that CNN does, although it’s from a different brand. And so what differentiates these companies now is the length of the content.
So in some ways the brand is becoming more important, because people say, “I trust The New York Times, so I’m going to look at their video instead of whatever else”?
The brand becomes more important, but at the same time the brand becomes less important and the people within the brand become more important. So [readers] follow The New York Times on Twitter—they also follow the reporters they admire and like to read on Twitter. So people might follow Nick Kristof or Maureen Dowd, and that’s who they look for for information and content. And so what we’re starting to see happen is that trust is moving from just being for brands to also being for people within those brands.
In terms of content, do you think we’ll see more and more storytelling across different media?
There was the concept that the medium is the message—that was the famous quote of the television era. But now, what I say is that there is no medium—everything’s the same medium. We consume video and words and audio and photos and gaming and all these things on the same devices. And it’s the same medium that we’re consuming, so the message has now become the message. The medium means nothing, right?
You can see the very beginnings of this with books, where books on the iPad have videos embedded and you can comment on them. On the Kindle you can see the passages that people have highlighted the most. I think what is going to happen is that a book—and this goes back to my “byte, snack, meal” concept—is a book and a newspaper article and a blog post and a tweet; they’re all going to have the same kind of medium to them, and they’re all going to be transmedia experiences. What’s going to separate them is the quality of the content and how well the story is told.
So it’s just a matter of seeing it on different types of screens?
When you couple the concept of the “byte, snack, meal” and “1, 2, 10” and the consumnivores and all these things I talk about, it converges to this experience where your content is hyper-personalized and follows you between your devices, and there’s no differentiation between whether it’s video or photo or words. It blurs together. And it’s constantly regurgitated in this way that people will find the things that are interesting to them and pass it along; it creates this hyper-personalized, transmedia experience that follows you.
You write that content companies that succeed in the future will be those that create the best experiences for customers. Can you explain why experience is the key?
Because I don’t think we pay for content. If you were to buy my book, and you paid $20 for that book, you have this experience where you’re paying for the words on the page, you’re paying for the typography and the design and the layout and the paper and the fact that it’s in a bookstore, and you’re also paying for the ability to have a conversation around that, right? If I told you I would sell you my book for $20 on Post-It notes, you probably would not want to buy it, because it wouldn’t be an enjoyable reading experience.
When you think about what it is we sell, we don’t always sell content, we sell experiences around it. And the same thing applies to The New York Times. It’s the same reason a million people still buy the print newspaper every day, because it’s a really amazing experience.
You argue that consumers would pay for more content online if more of what they were looking for was available in a timely way in a high-quality format.
You saw this happen with the music industry. People stole music online not because they wanted to. They stole it because they couldn’t get it anywhere, or it was too expensive. Ninety percent of the music available didn’t exist in digital formats because the music industry thought it was going to be stolen and passed along. When the iTunes model came along, people began to pay for it because they created this ultra-simple, ultra-fast experience where you could buy a CD and have it on your iPod in seconds.
The same thing applies to other types of content. It’s not necessarily about stealing the content, it’s about having access to it. And you’ll see this happen over the next year or so, as some TV shows are now going to be for sale for 99 cents, which is a fair price for a show. In the past, they were $2.99, and people didn’t think that was fair. As they become a price that’s nominal and it’s easy to purchase that content, you’ll start to see people actually purchase it more.
You talk about the consumer being at the center of his universe, deciding how to consume content. How do you see companies evolving to adapt to this?
What’s going to happen, and you’re starting to see this on the fringes now, if you go to Amazon.com, and you’ve looked at books before, you’re going to see books that are relevant to the things you’ve looked at before. You’re starting to see the very beginning of this where things become hyper-personalized for who you are and what you do. That is what the future looks like as far as these content experiences go, whether it’s newspapers or shopping or whatever.
People will be willing to pay for this hyper-personalized world where things are culled for them and are relevant for them at that moment in time. So if I pull out The New York Times on my mobile phone at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in Brooklyn, I should get a different experience than if you were to do the same in California in the morning. And it should be relevant to what my social network has read and what I’ve read already on my computer, where I’m standing in that location and a variety of other things that fall into line with that.
How far down the road do you think that’s feasible?
You’re starting to see it now, but it’s really going to become a mainstream thing in the next few years. Everything will become hyper-personalized, where your newspaper, your television experience—I can imagine you have a book and you say, “I only have a three-hour flight to read this book,” the book then becomes that length in that period of time for you to consume it in that way. And then you see notes of friends that have read that book at the same time and things like that.
Are any companies doing a good job of this already?
There are some fringe companies, like Foursquare, where they’re trying to figure out how, if you check into a restaurant, they show you other things that friends of yours have enjoyed in that restaurant. That’s creating a hyper-personalized menu, if you will. And Twitter’s trying to help create experiences where your content and the tweets you consume are culled and reorganized based on how much time you have to consume this information and the things that have been re-tweeted the most.
As far as brands, I haven’t seen any that have gone too far with it. Of course, there’s the Old Spice commercials, where they tried to customize the commercials for everyone on YouTube. I think that was the seminal idea of what we’ll see advertising like in the future, where you’ll get to a point where your television advertisements are not only relevant to you but actually include you. You can see it with Facebook a little bit, where your friends are put into ads for dental work and things like that. That’s the very beginning of what we’ll see happen in the next few years.
Do you think people will accept this hyper-personalization, or will there be issues with the creepiness factor?
The creepiness factor is a real thing to worry about. And it’s something we all have to find the right balance with. But if it’s done in a way where consumers have the ability to say, “I don’t want this right now,” I think they’ll engage with it more. One of the problems has been that consumers don’t know what’s going on with their information. They don’t know what Facebook is doing with it. Once you allow people to say “I don’t want this right now” or “I don’t want this information being shared,” people will want to engage with these advertisements and personalized experiences more. And if they deliver something you really want and need and it’s helpful, that’s incentive for people to want to use it again.
Convenience is important?
Correct. It’s like Gmail. It’s free, though we know Google is going through the e-mail and putting ads next to the e-mails because that’s the way they subsidize that platform. So essentially our privacy became a currency for Gmail, right? We are adapting to those experiences, and we’re saying, “I’m willing to give up some of my privacy for this experience because it’s a really good one,” whereas in other situations you may not want to let it go as far.
Do you think there’s a difference between what digital natives expect as far as personalization and a wider audience?
Everyone will start to expect it because everyone now experiences it on Facebook, for example—essentially a social news experience based on my social network. When you think about the way this next generation is coming of age with that as a part of their life, it’s not going to change. They’re just going to expect it more and more.
I had a funny experience that I talk about in the book—a friend of the family came over and she asked if she could use my computer to check the “news.” This was a teenage girl. I said “Which website are you going to, which news site?” And she said “Facebook” without thinking twice about it. That has become her news feed. It incorporates what her friends are doing, and it incorporates what The New York Times is doing and The New Yorker, and things like that. But it’s this personalized experience, it’s filtered around her.
Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook said recently that a website that isn’t customized to the individual will look as antiquated as a site from 15 years ago looks now. Would you agree?
Absolutely. I think the whole point of the location battles between Facebook and Foursquare and Gowalla and all these places is a huge part of this personalization, where things are personalized around where you are at that moment in time. And once you couple that with hyper-personalization around your social networks, and with your interests and your search histories and things like that, you’re going to have a world where, if you do a Google search for pizza and I do a search for pizza, we’re both going to get different results based on the criteria I just mentioned.
How would you envision very personalized websites will look?
I just think every single solitary thing we touch will be personalized. If you go to Banana Republic, it’s going to know you’re a size small and you don’t like to buy things that are blue, and you’re going to see those at the top of the page. If you walk into a sneaker store and it knows you like New Balance, you’re going to be able to see things that are relevant to that experience—not just online but in the real world, too, because of the mobile devices we carry. Every aspect of our lives will be incorporated into this at some point within the next five years or so.
You also make the point in your book that this extends to physical objects.
Absolutely. I think the Internet is not just something that connects computers and mobile phones and televisions. It’s going to be something that connects everything, whether it’s the shoes you wear or the T-shirt or the car you drive—almost the same way that electricity is connected to pretty much every part of our lives now. When they invented electricity, they powered light bulbs; they didn’t think it was going to turn on refrigerators or power these weird things called computers.
The same thing happened with the Internet. They thought it was going to share information, and we’re starting to see the very, very beginning effects of it becoming embedded in other objects. You can see it in cars, where certain cars have IT addresses and are connected to the Web, and can e-mail you if there’s a problem with the oil. And you’re going to see that spread even further.
You also talk about things like 3D printing.
3D printing is a huge thing that is going to start to happen over the next few years. Imagine you have a dinner party and you need an extra plate and cup from IKEA. Instead of running out to the store, you can download the schematic of that plate and cup and print out a version of it. And voila, you have it ready to go.
Finally, what’s on your personal things to watch list? What are some things you think you’ll be writing about a lot more next year?
The 3D printing thing is going to be pretty exciting as 3D printers become more mainstream and people start to get them in their homes. It’s almost like this new Industrial Revolution that’s taking place around 3D printers.
And then I think the conversions of some of these social experiences, where they start to filter into other sites and other organizations is going to be exciting. Right now they’re on the edges of a lot of mainstream experiences. When you can go to the movies and find out what your friends think of that movie at that moment without having to go search for it, that’s going to be exciting—to see those social and personalized experiences start to enter our lives.
And then the Internet of Things, where more objects and things become connected to the Web, is going to be exciting too. When your shoes have a sensor that can give you information about when to get a new pair or places you’ve walked, and how maybe next time you buy a pair of shoes the rubber on the left should be a little bit higher because you scrape your foot a little. Things like that are going to be fascinating to see the ideas and creativity that people come up with.
Photo credit: Justin Oulette