This is the eighth in a series of excerpts from the report A Matter of Perspective: A systems approach to communication and complexity. A copy of the entire report is available here
It’s not an either/or proposition
Versatility is paramount in complex systems because the rules of engagement keep changing. More communication channels are competing for the public’s time and attention than ever before; but it is clearly not a zero sum game. According to Riepl’s Law (coined by German newspaperman Wolfgang Riepl back in 1913), existing media do not disappear when something newer, and possibly better, comes along. Instead, they survive by adopting different formats. Early television was filled with the kinds of situation comedies, variety entertainment and game shows that had previously been staples on radio. As a result, radio became home to talk and a new sensation dubbed “rock-and-roll.” For its part, the Internet has not extinguished any of its predecessors.
What a new medium can gain at the expense of its older competitors is notoriety. Organizations around the world are presently agog over social media, ascribing to it practically every desirable communication function. Is the adulation deserved? True, more than 60 percent of online users are on social networks. Still, at the end of 2011, some 65 percent of the planet’s population did not yet have regular access to the Internet. On the flip side, nearly 75 percent of global citizens have at least one television set in their homes. In the United States, many households now have more TVs than breathing occupants.
Credit has also been given to social media that may, in part, belong elsewhere. There is little doubt Facebook and Twitter were crucial in helping to organize efforts that led to the Arab Spring. Yet, as Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, has observed, it was the videos aired on independent television network Al Jazerra that mobilized the masses into the streets. That said, Lynch advises us to “not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition (‘Twitter vs. Al Jazeera’), but instead think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming a complex and potent evolving media space.”
That is good advice even for those not engaged in regional insurgencies. But while many organizations are still learning to deliver and measure content across multiple technologies, audiences have come up with a simple solution – they choose the most appropriate medium at any given time. According to market research company Nielsen, (for which this writer was formerly Senior Director of Global Communications) consumers base their decisions on several factors, including convenience, availability and relevance of content, and the quality of the experience.
Recognizing these attributes can benefit communicators considerably. For instance, television’s rich and compelling content enable it to capture attention and create awareness even in a cluttered environment. Information online may not be as compelling, but the Internet’s interactive capabilities make it ideal for impelling users to take action. And mobile’s ubiquity and portability, enhanced by an array of applications, make it the most popular media platform on Earth.
Although the passage of time generally favors digital devices, they are unlikely to break Riepl’s Law. Old, new and not yet imagined media will probably continue to co-exist and compete into the foreseeable future. Individuals and organizations must adjust communication strategies accordingly.