Life As a Series of 'Media Interrupts'

In the ocean of media that we live in, what we think of as 'life' may already just be a series of 'media interrupts.'

In the year and a half that I spent with the US Navy's Underwater Demolition Team 13, in 1969-70, I spent far less time each day immersed in water than I now spend immersed in media. So do you, unless you happen to be related to Aquaman.

I visited Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, last week for the "Greening of the Campus VI" conference and spent some time with SCUP member Donald King, Jr., associate director of University Computing Services there. From him, I learned that BSU's Center for Media Design was about to publish a major research report on Americans' use of media. This week the report came out, and it's a doozy.

Muncie Indiana was the site, in the 1920s and 1930s of the "Middletown America" research, conducted by sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd. If you've ever taken a sociology class, you've read about their research.

This summer, in a modern analogy to that earlier research, staff at the Center for Media Design studied more than 394 ordinary Muncie residents to review and record how they use media in their daily lives.

They had previously determined that asking subjects to record their media use in a diary, or to respond about media use via a telephone survey would result in underreporting. So, the subjects' media usage was tracked by researchers who actually followed them around for 12 hours a day, noting their media usage every fifteen seconds using a hand-held device. "Concurrent media exposure," meaning consuming two or more forms of media at once, was something they were especially looking for, and they found a lot of it. They also found some surprises.

Here's one: 18-24-year-olds spend less time on line than older people do. Really. Hmm. The folks at Ball State think it's likely because the older folks spend a lot of time on line as part of their daily work. That's initially counter-intuitive, but it works.

Here's another: Altogether, the average subject in this modern Middletown study, spent 69 percent of their time engaged with some form of media. That's more than two-thirds of their waking hours.

And, yet another one based on age: Media multitasking-concurrent media exposure (CME)-is prevalent within all age groups. It's the varieties of media that are combined simultaneously that vary by age. For example, I spend much of my evenings reading newspapers or novels and simultaneously browsing the Web and checking my email every few moments. My youngest daughter, a senior in high school, might spend much of that same time watching DVDs or listening to her iPod and simultaneously text-messaging with her friends.

Some of the more common pairings of media they found include:

· Combining television and the Web is the most prevalent form of CME and that holds true for all age and gender groups; but only 28 percent of television watching occurs while using some other form of media, but 80 percent of Web usage is combined with some other form of media use.

· They call the telephone the "universal interrupt in the media day" for most, although I've got to think that instant messaging may be an even more frequent interrupter for many; it sure is for me.

· Some forms of media are frequently used in conjunction with other forms. For example, instant messaging and telephone and newspaper use are often taking place along with other forms of media; but watching movies on DVD is frequently a single-media experience.

The full report is aimed at marketers and is thus quite expensive to purchase just to satisfy one's curiosity, but no doubt there will be independent reports and white papers available over time.

The single most nagging question that comes up for me when I read the report and when I think about it, comes from thinking about the phrase "interrupt in the media day." I presume that when my colleague at SCUP, Phyllis Grummon comes into my office to talk about 2006 Campus of the Future conference programing, that is also a "media interrupt?"

So . . . if we spend 69 percent of our waking hours immersed in media, often in concurrent media usage, is all the rest of life now simply a "media interrupt?" One thing's for certain, my lunchtime is rarely a "media interrupt." J

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