Thursday 15 March 2007

Head soup

Communications is becoming harder to track, less predictable, and much, much more personalised. Word of mouth and personal advocacy counts for as much, in some cases, as raw spend on promotions. For issues-based and cultural organisations this is vitally important as issues-based messages have the potential to carry farther and more dramatically than products or services, provided that they are designed effectively.

Barriers to entry and competition for ‘headspace’

In Information Anxiety the author Richard Wurman noted that the average weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a person would be likely to encounter in an entire lifetime in 17th Century England. The works of Shakespeare pale in raw information terms alongside the output of just one global news outlet; whether they represent a greater degree of intelligence is of course another matter.

So how much raw data are we taking in? According to UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems as long ago as 2002, the combined output of print, film and computer data created each year mounts up to around five exabytes of new information.

How much is this? If you digitised the nineteen million books and printed materials in the US Library of Congress you’d get around ten terabytes of information; five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in half a million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress.

Per person, this stacks up to a substantial information flow. Given a world population (in 2003) of 6.3 billion, this represents almost 800 MB of recorded information per person each year.
If you wanted to store that information on paper, it would take over nine metres of books.
The volume of information impacting upon individual headspace is dizzying in its scale, but what kind of information are we absorbing and what new forms of data are we seeking out?

It’s time to turn to Google.

For the week ending 9 October, 2006, these were the top ten search terms hammered into Google via keyboards all over the world:  Amish (no doubt due to recent school shooting in the USA); Shanna Moakler (former Miss USA, starring in film with Dennis Quaid); You're beautiful (James Blunt, we thank you); Mark Foley (scandal-hounded Republican caught salaciously emailing boys); Bj's Wholesale (shop); Texas Chainsaw Massacre (gory film); Tatana Kucharova (18 year-old Czech student wins Miss World); Johnny Cash; Hips Don't Lie (by Pop Princess Shakira, featuring the majestic Wyclef Jean); Line Rider (online game).

Edifying? Hardly. It doesn’t get any better if you narrow things down to the UK. Our Google searches in February 2006, for example, were as follows:  1.  National Lottery; 2. 50 Cent; 3. Dictionary (rather highbrow!); 4. Wikipedia; 5. Holidays; 6. Paris Hilton (babe search one of three); 7. Eastenders; 8. Simpsons; 9. Paintball (why? why?); 10. Car Insurance (practical); 11. Train Times (ditto); 12. Cheap Flights; 13. Chantelle (two of three); 14. Katie Price (aka Jordan); 15. Weather.

There it is, our intellectual DNA courtesy of Google. The stuff we’re thinking. Our Head Soup. A few also-ran searches included dogs, Crazy Frog and the Pope. It’s as surreal as it is sobering. We all Google so we’re all culpable. This is not a highbrow snub. We have our work cut out.
A crucial question then for those of us with something more important to communicate than the bust size of Jordan or the nearest paintballing venue, is this: how do we cut through the 800 MB of shopping, boobs and cheap holidays to get our message through to the people that matter, the public?

Chances are it won’t just be an ad and a press release.

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