People check their mobile phones over 80 times every day, and while that frequency may alarm us as we survey a crowd of people hunched over their phones, it is less disturbing when we look at why and where people use their phones. Most of the time, when we check our mobile devices, we engage them for less than thirty seconds. While we can use our phones most anywhere, research shows that we are most likely to use them at home, in transit, at work, waiting in line, and in a public space. My book, The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime, delves into mobile device use and describes the vibrant “procrastination economy” found in those spaces.
The procrastination economy is a term I give to efforts by media companies to design mobile apps, platforms, products, and hardware that monetize our in-between moments. My book argues that mobile devices, and our experience of much of the Internet, is determined by the spaces of the procrastination economy. The traditions and behaviors associated with these spaces shape user behavior and media company strategies. For example, Facebook’s 2006 redesign, replaced the personal-profile landing page with “News Feed,” a scrolling timeline that made the social network easier to use while checking in with friends during a break at work. YouTube put their “background playback” functionality behind a subscription paywall because people like listening to streaming video while multitasking on their phones on the commute. Casual games, like Candy Crush, offer short bursts of entertainment ideally suited to filling the time while we wait in line.
Film developed in relation to the experience of watching movies in a theater. Television was shaped by the cultural and spatial politics of the domestic sphere. Readers should remember this history as they learn about the spaces of the procrastination economy and the ways mobile devices have amplified activities that were previously marginalized. The office breakroom television, the waiting room pile of magazines, drivetime radio, and the crossword puzzle we did during commercial breaks, are all a part of the procrastination economy. The strategies and assumptions that informed these cultural objects are now shaping our use of smartphones, tablets, and the Internet of Things.
The New York Times once published a piece that described mobile device users as a “cretins” who “lovingly hug” their devices “with a look of rapt idiocy.” The year was 1965 and the author was annoyed by transistor radios. Long before that, books (the original mobile media technology) caused hand-wringing because they offered escapism, distraction, and disconnection. Mobile devices, whether smartphones or books, cause concern because they offer people the ability to augment their surroundings. My work aligns with the traditions of cultural studies in that I am focusing on mobile media use in specific contexts in order to extrapolate their larger significance. Throughout the book, I provide examples of the way people adapt mobile apps and services to the circumstances of their daily lives. Many of the ideas that informed the book, began when I asked my students about their mobile device usage. I found that deliberate tactics related to the context of use. These findings are at odds with advertisements by T-Mobile and AT&T for plans that offer unlimited streaming of Netflix on mobile devices. The mobile carriers offer a passive viewing experience while my students were much more active and creative in their uses of this technology.
While working with the Carsey-Wolf Center: Media Industries Project (MIP), I was able to familiarize myself with the industry logic that informed these digital strategies. I joined a group of scholars that are championing a media industries studies approach to the study of popular culture. This approach urges scholars to consider the ways creative workers navigate economic realities to produce media content. While working with MIP, I was a part of the Connected Viewing Project that partnered with Warner Bros Digital Distribution to think about the entertainment forms that would define mobile device use. My contribution to the project looked at “second screen” mobile apps that provide an interactive relationship between mobile screens and television screens, like tweeting about a television show by using an official hashtag. Through this research I became interested in the ways that previous industry strategies informed emerging media practices. The research for my book began when I started charting the continuities between television programming strategies and mobile content strategies.
The complexity of the procrastination economy is best displayed by the mobile culture on the commute. In chapter three, I examine this culture by analyzing the creative process behind Spotify’s playlists. From my research, I learned how Spotify develops algorithms to create adaptive playlists (a feature designed to entice subscribers to continue to pay for the premium service) that evolve in response to user clicks and likes; these algorithms, however, do not account for the context in which the users are listening. An individual may play one of Spotify’s commute playlists while riding the train to work in Atlanta and feel disconnected from the songs selected without realizing how the playlist was designed and modified. Subscribers may not realize that their commute playlist is adapting to data from users across the globe without filtering for factors like local taste. Spotify’s mission to provide a personalized and curated music experience to their subscribers contributes to a culture of individualism that has been critiqued by scholars that see mobile devices as antithetical to community.
While these criticisms are not without merit, personal mobile devices can foster community. Indeed, one of the major findings from the surveys was that the commute has become a significant place for socializing during the workweek. The practice of using in-between moments to connect with friends and family is not surprising given the increasing demands of modern life. According to studies published in American Economist and from the Pew Research Center, Americans work more and vacation less than in the past. Mira Moshe has argued that the spread of neoliberalism and the development of digital technology have created a “media time squeeze” in which our devices help us handle the increasing demands of modern life. Consequently, the commute has become a prime location to connect with others via mobile devices.
It is true that commuters rarely use their time in transit to socialize with each other, but they are using that time to connect with others. I wanted to create an opportunity for those on the commute who wanted to socialize with their fellow travelers without disturbing them, so I developed the Atlanta Mobile Music (AMM) project. I surveyed commuters on Atlanta’s mass transit system (MARTA), asking them what music they like to listen to on their mobile devices on their commute. Using this information, I compiled a playlist that reflects the shared music tastes of the city’s commuters. Unlike the commute playlists created by Spotify, AMM’s lists are crowdsourced from actual MARTA riders, not a DJ making and adapting a list for a large disparate region. My hope is that this project will connect people through their shared love of music and pop the audio bubbles that separate us when we listen to our mobile devices.
There is a tendency to blame mobile devices for many of our contemporary problems. It is too simple to blame mobile devices for the decline of communication. I believe that focusing on the procrastination economy reveals the complexity and variety of mobile device use. Understanding the specifics of the procrastination economy can lead to policy and practices that make the Internet operate in favor of inclusiveness, democracy and community. Indeed, these devices bring opportunities for communication to places where socializing is discouraged and limited.
Certainly, the algorithms used by search engines and the design of social media platforms personalize online content and can easily contribute to an echo chamber effect, but the examples of the ways that people interact with the procrastination economy demonstrate that the drive for community is strong. Whether it is the co-workers using their mobile devices to illustrate a point in a conversation or the community of gamers fining camaraderie in their shared ability to build elaborate virtual cities in their in-between moments, the procrastination economy contains examples of interactions that would not be possible without mobile devices.
Accounting for the procrastination economy will be especially important as the Internet of Things, augmented reality technologies like Pokemon Go, and location based services like SnapChat proliferate. These emerging Internet products and services provide digital content that change our experience of particular spaces. The assumptions and strategies developed for mobile devices will provide the foundation for this ubiquitous computing. My book provides evidence of the institutions and audience practices that will shape this future.
Ethan Tussey is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media at Georgia State University. His book, The Procrastination Economy: The Big Business of Downtime, featured in his Rorotoko interview, details the economic and social value of mobile device use in the context of the workplace, the commute, the waiting room, and the living room. His work explores the relationship between the entertainment industry and the digitally empowered public. He has contributed book chapters on creative labor, online sports viewing, connected viewing, and crowdfunding to the anthologies Saturday Night Live and American TV (Indiana Univ Press, 2013), Digital Media Sport: Technology and Power in the Network Society (Routledge, 2013), Connected Viewing: Selling, Sharing, and Streaming Media in a Digital Era (Routledge, 2013) and Crowdfunding the Future: Media Industries, Ethics, & Digital Society (Peter Lang, 2015). He is also the Coordinating Editor of In Media Res and the co-founder of the Atlanta Media Project. He teaches classes on television analysis, media industries, and digital media.