Category Archives: personal space

Lap dances: Why Twitter won’t fit on your TV

One great irony of our time is that technology gurus expect gadgets to converge into single interfaces with more and more embedded functionality … and yet miss that achieving singularity could diminish the usability they’re supposed to be advocating. Or in more simple terms: You don’t want your campfire in your bed.

You see, humans have three basic fields of communication — a concept by Robert Sommer called “personal space.” Sommer wrote of this way back in 1969, along the lines that our evolutionary ancestors were trained to listen to stories from the campfire, hold tools in their hands, and share whispers of lovers in their ears. Stories, work, sex — the basics you needed to survive in clans in the wild. Sommer termed these fields “social,” “personal” and “intimate” spaces. If a large man tells another man a tale from 10 feet away, that’s cool; if he gets too close, it feels like a threat; if someone you are sexually attracted to gets very close, you may be in for a new relationship or deep trouble. Our bodies are conditioned to react to the physical distance tied to the incoming communication around us.

So fast forward to summer 2010. TiVo announced this week it would load Facebook and Twitter streams onto television sets. At first blush, this seems like a superb extension of social media — more personal, real-time news on the big screen. You can almost hear the tech geeks yell yee-haw! Alas, is this what people really want? Twitter is really analogous to whispers in your intimate space; Facebook is almost as close, yet slightly more distant, more suited for the work-style typing and photo uploading from a laptop screen. Television is the distant social field, an incoming bath of blue light that warms us like stories from hunters around the ancestral campfires.

Humans don’t want all of these things together. Don’t believe us? Then ask, why in a world where consumers rush to buy new electronic gadgets of only slightly more marginal utility has no company succeeded in the past 20 years in building a convergence device — where you can watch movies and TV, read the Internet and type at work projects, and text or call your closest friends intimately? Why does the Apple TV box suck in sales? Why did you forget that Apple makes a TV device? Because society rejects convergence if it jumbles up our communication fields.

There are very few open market niches, but when they yawn gaspingly open — think, the Internet refrigerator, people, no one is buying the damn thing — it’s usually a signal that the sum of two combined utility factors is less than the whole of its parts. Sometimes too close is not the right solution. If you don’t believe us, at your next office party with your spouse in attendance, ask if he or she minds if you let another attractive colleague sit on your lap.

Advertising is still in your space

This summer while guest posting over at Brandflakes for Breakfast we riffed on Robert Sommer’s 1969 theory of personal space. One of his key concepts was humans have three fields for receiving communication – intimate, near your face or ears; personal, about an arm’s length away; and social, inbound from about 10 feet. Now if you think about the communication devices in your life – mobile phones, laptop computers, and big-screen TVs – they fit nicely into each range. People have a need for each level of communication, likely embedded in our genes from ancestors who whispered secrets, talked face to face, or entertained from the campfire.

This is worth noting as some, like Bob Garfield, predict the end of advertising. Computer banner ads may be replacing newsprint in the personal space, but consumers still watch more than 5 hours of live television a day in the social space. Mobile may be ascendant in the intimate space, but the ads there don’t work well due to limited inventory and consumer modality. The Chikita network recently tracked 93 million impressions and found cell phone ads had a click-through rate only half that of the already horrific banner ad CTRs (0.48% vs. 0.83%). The sexy iPhone, with arguably the best screen for mobile web browsing, had the worst CTRs of all — 0.30%. But so what? Advertising never fit well into lovers’ whispering messages, either.

Campfires live on

The point is we all have a need to be passive occasionally, and as we allow cable television to wash over us, there remain plenty of slots for paid advertising. DVRs are nibbling away at this, but beware stats that tell you 1 in 4 homes have them, because they overstate commercial skipping. Nielsen reports consumers only watch DVR-recorded programming, on average, about 15 minutes per day. The total time spent viewing commercials or paid sponsorships from various screens? Sixty-one minutes. And we keep improving the entertainment tools for our social space; next up, 3-D television is coming to a basement near you soon.

Advertising is alive and well, especially in the social space of inbound entertainment. We’ll riff more on this in an upcoming ad column.