January 8, 2014
Q&A, Bianca Bosker, executive tech editor, The Huffington Post
The co-founding editor of The Huffington Post’s Tech section, which she helped launch in 2009, Bianca Bosker has developed a keen understanding of how consumers use technology and social media. (She’s also interested in architecture and wrote Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, published in 2013.) We spoke with her about two of our 10 Trends for 2014: Do You Speak Visual?, the idea that we’re shifting to a vocabulary that relies on imagery much more than text, and The Age of Impatience, the notion that consumer expectations for speed and ease are rising exponentially. Bosker talked about how and why technology is driving these shifts and spurring new consumer behaviors.
Do you think our trend the Age of Impatience is one of the drivers behind the shift to a much more visual vocabulary?
Absolutely. Photos are a much more rapid way of consuming information, especially on the small screen. If you’re walking along multitasking, looking down at your phone, it’s much, much easier to scroll through some images than through some texts, and you can get sort of the same amount of information much more quickly. We’ve seen a huge spike in using images to tell stories, and part of that has to do with the fact that it’s just so much more efficient.
How about video imagery? Do you see that increasing as well?
I actually think those slow you down. When you’re looking at an image, you’re on your own time. Video, you have very little control; you can’t speed that up. I personally end up scrolling through a lot of video and not watching it. [Vine] is not 6 seconds [of time], because you have to factor in load time. You’re waiting for it to load and then you’re watching it, so it’s not really 6 seconds.
Photo- and video-sharing platforms have caught on amazingly quickly. Why is that?
To many people it’s much more natural and intuitive to share with an image than via text—it’s a lot easier to snap a picture of the L.A. skyline than it is to try and describe it. Images really tap into our natural desire to share and socialize with one another and give us a really effective storytelling medium that we relate to. Images are also a very economical way of presenting a lot of information.
Aside from social media, in what other ways is this trend manifesting?
Website design, [particularly] e-commerce design, is gravitating toward a very image-heavy layout. People see images as a marketing mechanism. If you present a really beautiful image, someone can take that and share that, and that’s really helpful in a word-of-mouth market. So many shopping sites these days have the Pinterest button that lets you share something.
I also think we see it in news storytelling. BuzzFeed is a good example. Many of their stories are mostly photos and images, because it’s a very pleasurable, quick way of consuming content.
Pictures just capture our attention. It’s like looking at human faces. When we’re looking at things really quickly, which we are because we’re all short on time, images really stand out, so you see every social media company making a big push to play up images. Facebook is doing that in their feed, Twitter recently redesigned theirs, and that has the added bonus of pleasing advertisers, which of course want to put really image-rich content in front of us. So your pictures get our attention, advertisers want our attention; hence this big push toward more pictures.
How do you see this visual trend evolving in the year ahead?
It’s almost hard to imagine people putting more images inside of things. So I think we’re going to see images entering themselves into a lot of other places.
One interesting thing we’re seeing just inklings of right now is this idea of sharing emotion online. Right now we don’t have a great way of doing that, right? You can share what you’re doing, you can share what you’re looking at or what you’re eating, but it’s still really hard to convey the way you’re feeling.
Do you think the rise of visual culture is changing the way we think?
We’re already beginning to replace text with images in our communication with each other, where instead of saying, “This is what I’m up to,” you show a snapshot of what you’re up to. Does it change how we think? Yeah, probably.
I think people who are really active on Twitter began to think in tweets, right? They start to maybe narrow down some of their thoughts, their expressions, into Twitter-friendly sound bites, and we’re starting to see people doing that with Instagram. My friends go out of their way to capture Instagram gold, a photo that will generate a lot of likes for them, so that is powerful. Social media and the image format make us behave in different ways even offline.
Would the selfie be an example of that?
I think people are using it to share emotions they might not know exactly how to write down. Like, instead of saying, “I’m really frustrated,” it’s a picture of your face all scrunched up. People embrace turning the camera on themselves because it’s a very easy and quick way to communicate something about yourself, whether it’s how you’re feeling or what you’re doing, and it doesn’t have the stigma it used to. It’s lost a lot of the kind of Myspace cheesiness it had back in the day.
The rise of selfies speaks to both the rise of visual culture and just the instinct to constantly feel connected with one another, because your face is something that produces more visceral reactions than a picture of your food, right? In some regards it’s like the selfie is the next version of emoji—like emoticons morphed into emoji, which morphed to selfies, which are just a much more expressive, visual way of telling people what’s going on in your life.
Moving on to our Age of Impatience trend, do you see technology as a major driver of this?
Technology is driving it in a number of different ways. On the one hand, the iPhone now is this incredible, magical thing, but because I’ve gotten used to it getting faster, I’m now really ticked off when I have to wait for my email to load. So as things get faster, we assume they’re going to be better, and then we get really frustrated when they’re not.
What technology also helps drive is a social change, where we have become so busy with microtasks—because we can do so much on the go—that we now have to cram a lot of things into small periods of time. There are a lot of tasks I try to fit in between walking from my apartment to the subway stop. And I try to fit this in because I know I can; I now have this device that lets me do so many things away from my computer. So I then require the services to help me do that.
I think you see that everywhere. People check their phones like 150 times a day—we’re talking about seconds that you spend, and so people don’t want to spend them looking at an icon loading. They want that instant gratification right then.
We’ve always had this idea of instant gratification, but now “instant” has taken on a whole new meaning. Instant almost means you get it before you ask for it.
Has something changed in the past few years, or is it just the constant acceleration of change that has brought us to this point?
Technologically speaking, there are a couple of things. First, there’s better connectivity speeds. The transition from 3G to 4G helps a lot. You can load an Amazon page to your phone much more quickly. It’s also the fact that we’ve seen the capabilities of smartphones increase. [Now,] you’re not waiting to book a hotel when you get home, because you can do it on your phone.
A really big piece of it is, you’ve also seen a number of companies excel at connecting the online to the offline. And this is a really interesting trend we’ve seen with companies like Uber and Amazon, where all of a sudden the iPhone has become a genie in a bottle, offering unlimited wishes and gratification in an instant.
We’re not talking about just accessing things with digital, we’re talking about suddenly your phone almost becomes like a waiter, delivering your actual [desires]. You can order food, you can order cars, you can order a book delivered to you. We’re not just connecting bytes and bits; we’re connecting actual physical objects to us.
How much of this have consumers demanded, and how much has come from business innovation? I’m not certain consumers were demanding Uber, but now that it’s here, it’s like, “How did I live without it?”
People always have a kind of “Wouldn’t this be an amazing dream of what’s possible?” The really successful companies are the ones that tap into our dreams, and they understand what we wish were possible and they figure out how to make it possible.
I see it as part of this trend I call “continuous consumption.” Companies are making it easier and easier for us to be pitched to and purchase at all times. The iPod put 1,000 songs in your pocket, and the iPhone threw in the entire mall. [People are] talking about something over a dinner party, and they buy it right then and there. It’s no longer leaving yourself a note; it’s downloading the book as you first hear about it. And that’s a really incredible option for companies to seize on and exploit. On the other hand, I do worry about what happens to the consumer who’s constantly being pitched to and constantly shopping.
What are some good examples of brands trying to capitalize on consumer impatience?
What’s interesting are some of these aggregator businesses, things like Zady, like Trunk Club. The friction is not in paying; the friction is too much choice. So as opposed to saying, “We’re just going to make it easier for you to enter your credit card,” they say “We’re going to make it easier to narrow down the options.” It’s a lot easier to shop that way, as opposed to having to figure out what store you’re going to go to and try a shirt on. That’s another way that companies have tried to help people deal with the friction—because choice is another area that slows us down. Having to decide between something can also prevent us from making a purchase.
What’s really interesting is you’re seeing [tech companies] make information even more immediately accessible than it was by connecting technology to the body. The new iPhone, you don’t have to hit your pass code—you put your finger on the home screen and the “on” button and it unlocks instantly. Samsung puts a smart watch on your wrist, and you’re no longer pulling out your phone to see a notification; you’re just looking at your hand. Goggle Glass is obviously the same thing—you’re not unlocking your phone, calling up your email; you’re literally looking up and your emails have almost direct access to your brain.
How much of this impatience is generational, and how much of it is just an adaptation of our expectations overall?
It’s more linked to tech-savviness than to age. I don’t think you have to be a Millennial to enjoy one-day shipping from Amazon; you just have to know it exists. Once you get used to it, you want it and you expect it everywhere else. Perhaps younger generations feel more entitled to it—they might take it for granted a bit more and not understand all the limitations that make it hard to deliver something when they want it now. Especially for content consumption: younger generations never had to wait for the paper. They just have a sense of having information at their fingertips at all times.
Is there a right way and a wrong way to approach impatience?
In trying to tap into the “continuous consumption” movement, some retailers go overboard, encouraging people to shop at all times. They now have such access to our phones that they begin to notify us and ask us to shop or buy even when we’re doing other things, and that becomes very distracting and intrusive. Technology has allowed companies to target us more continuously and more intimately and more intrusively than before. They have to pay attention to that fine line between their interests and ours, because it’s also very easy to unfollow and delete an app.
Is there a countertrend—we see people embracing slower living and mindful living. Doesn’t that fly in the face of impatience?
I don’t think they necessarily counter each other at all. What’s interesting to me is the whole “unplug and recharge,” the “leave your phone stacked on the table during dinner,” that whole thing—there are elements of that that I would love to see move beyond the episodic, but I have yet to see that happen. We’re getting better maybe at trying to compartmentalize and say we’re going to really remove our devices or technology for this 24-hour period, but it’s almost a “feast or famine” mentality. I’m not sure if that’s more healthy than trying to have a more balanced approach to our gadgets throughout the week.