Who are the Digital Natives and what do they really want?
Michael Bhaskar argues that, rather than chasing a mythically sophisticated consumer, publishers should keep it simple.You hear about them all the time. They are always on. They need information 24/7. They get their news and information from social media. They have smartphones. And tablets. And ereaders. They know what geo-locative media is. They tweet all the time. They are the Facebook generation, Gen Y, generation me. They pioneered social media, can't breathe without their iPhones and want lashings of control and interactivity with everything they do. People who swim through the byways of startup web culture with supreme ease.
You hear about these people - the digital natives, the digerati, consumer/reader/human 2.0, whatever else you want to call them - at conferences, on blogs, in books, in presentations and, of course, on Twitter.
There is one problem. They don't really exist. Listening to yet another presentation on today's consumer it occurred to me that, no, the consumer doesn't want social tagging on demand. They don't want, necessarily, to manage all their relationships through a little three-inch screen. They aren't "always on". The whole digital industry has created a straw man, a kind of fictitious being designed to serve our needs, induce paranoia and open development budgets. Outside Hackney and Tower Hamlets, where admittedly there really are some genuine digerati, we are buying into a myth of consumer behaviour none of us really recognises.
Yes we are addicted to our phones, yes we look at Facebook quite a lot, and yes we are on the web as much if not more than we watch TV. Are we some kind of radical new creature utterly transforming the behaviour and economics of all production and consumption? Probably not. The truth is we are all mongrels, part digital, part analogue, one foot stuck in the shining, beeping future, one in the warm comfort of nostalgia for a simpler world.
This isn't to say major changes aren't taking place. The economic foundation of our industry shifts by the month. Digital reading keeps on growing. It is just to say we have overestimated the slowest thing to change: people.
So, what does it mean? It means we should focus on the perennials of the publishing business. Affordable and attractive prices are part of this. Above all, we should be making digital publishing as simple as possible. We shouldn't manufacture scarcity, and we shouldn't encourage the continued growth of confusing, walled garden approaches to books. People want the content they have legitimately purchased wherever and whenever they want it. Witness the success of O'Reilly's recent Dropbox ebook syncing experiment.
We need, therefore, interoperability between files and systems. We need a much, much better approach to tying physical and digital editions together naturally, economically and seamlessly. In short we should be pursuing a digital strategy that doesn't spend 10 years debating our Pinterest plan or the merits of the Android Ice Cream Sandwich update.
We should go where the readers are and listen to what they want; we should focus on making things simple, easy and understandable to anyone who wants to read books.
Michael Bhaskar is Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books. He can be found on Twitter as @ajaxlogos.