Is the Couch Potato Back?

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. After the great social media boom of the past few years when it seemed like new digital media tools were shifting the American public from a “lean-back” to a “lean-forward” mentality in the way that they interact with content, it looks like the Couch Potato is back.

According to the latest Razorfish Outlook Report, which examined digital media consumption habits among casual technology users in the 18-49 demographic, the vision of a digital future in which people are actively participating with content in a “lean-forward” mode still has not arrived. (In fact, cable TV network MSNBC now uses “lean forward” for its branding campaign) While nobody can deny that we are spending significantly more time online than ever before, we – the great collective we of American society – are also reverting back to our old Couch Potato days. As Razorfish points out, social media has turned into a type of “ambient activity” that we have on in the background while we go about our lives – much as people used television in the pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter days. We lazily check our social networking profiles the same way we lazily scroll through hundreds of cable TV channels.

The easiest way to explain the reappearance of the Couch Potato is that new digital platforms, tools and devices are making it easier than ever before to consume content — while simultaneously giving the appearance of active content creation. Despite all the digital buzz about Twitter, for example, only a relatively tiny fraction of the people using it are actually engaging with content — everyone else is passively “curating” their Twitter content and trying to get people to follow them. The latest example? Facebook’s concept of “frictionless sharing” – you can share your activities and actions using various apps without actually updating your Facebook profile yourself. Even if it’s something as simple as listening to a song, Facebook will do all the heavy lifting for you, letting your friends know what you’re up to as long as you’re logged in.

If you think about it, every major social media platform has embraced the equivalent of the Twitter “retweet” or the Facebook “like” or the Google “+1” – a passive way of sharing content without actually doing anything more than hitting a button when some interesting content pops up in your stream (sort of like turning up the volume on your TV when something interesting appears on the screen). In many cases, we passively engage with this content even when we have only read the title of the article or seen the first photo in a slideshow. When we do this, we are really using the content not as a way to engage or have conversations, but as a form of social badging – to let others know what we are up to, without actually doing what we say we’re doing.

At the same time, Internet-enabled tablet devices like the Kindle Fire and the iPad are really about content consumption from a specific media ecosystem (i.e. Amazon or Apple). Not surprisingly, TV viewing on the tablet is becoming one of the fastest-growing activities on mobile devices. The tablet is becoming the best way  to curate all the content that we might have missed during the day and saving it for when we return to our homes at night. Is it a coincidence that tablet usage spikes in the prime-time hours these days?

At the end of the day, the reappearance of the Couch Potato is further proof that, in the constant struggle for supremacy between “content” and “pipes” in the media world, the momentum has now firmly swung in the direction of “content.” As Razorfish is quick to point out in its report, the reappearance of the Couch Potato is actually a great thing for media companies – it gives them a wider audience to sell all their content. In retrospect, sites like Facebook and Twitter may not have really been about active content creation – they were about creating fatter, thicker digital pipes to stream more content into your hands. The type of content that you can read leaning back, with your tablet propped up on the couch, while comfortably wearing a pair of pajamas.

image: couple on a couch watching a movie on a laptop / Shutterstock

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