Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Massive increase in words consumed

There’s a lot of angst around how we consume language in the light of new technology. In terms of ‘words’, are we consuming more or less, and from what sources?

How much information? 2009

At last there’s a huge study that attempts to look at the big picture of ‘information consumption’ over time. The How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers by Roger E. Bohn and James E. Short from the University of California, is a fascinating read. It looks at how much information we consume at home (not at work) and has some surprising findings.

First think about the information sources you use at home. There’s stuff from the outside; cable TV, broadcast TV, broadcast radio, telephone, internet, wireless, print, digital storage e.g. DVDs. Then the new kid on the block, the user-created stuff: photographs, videos, web pages, blogs, chat, social networking, email, phone calls, texts, computer games. Our homes are awash with information.

So what did they measure? They use three measures; hours, words and bytes consumedand did not adjust for double counting. If someone is watching TV and using the computer at the same time, the data sources will record this as two hours of total information. This is consistent with most other researchers.

Massive increase in words consumed

I’ll focus more on ’words’, as I think it’s the one that’s gone through most change over time.. When many think of language they think books, newspapers and magazines. If little Josh or Sarah-Jane ain’t reading, or being read to, it’s not really ‘language’. But as any linguist will tell you the spoken word is primary. So how do we consume words, spoken and written?

The top line figure is a 140% increase in total words consumed from 1980 to 2008. Using words as his only metric, Pool estimated that 4,500 trillion words were ‘consumed’ in 1980. This grew to 10,845 trillion words in 2008, which works out to about 100,000 words per American per day.

Breakdown of words consumed

They are consumed in the following ways; TV 45%, computer 27%, radio 10.6%, print 8.6%, phone 5.2%, computer games 2.4%. Taken together, U.S. households in 2008 spent about 5% of their information time reading newspapers, magazines and books, which have declined in readership over the last fifty years. From the perspective of the information measured in words, printed media in total accounts for only 8.6% of all words consumed.

Computers massively increase reading

Conventional print media has fallen from 26% of information by words in 1960 to 9% in 2008. However, this has been more than countered by the rise of the Internet and local computer programs, which now provide 27% of words, with conventional print providing an additional 9%. Thanks to computers, a full third of words are now received interactively. Reading, which was in decline due to the growth of television, has now tripled from 1980 to 2008, because it is the overwhelmingly preferred way to receive words on the Internet. In other words, reading as a percentage of our information consumption has increased in the last 50 years, if we use words themselves as the unit of measurement. Of course, the picture is getting far more complicated as we read and write more on mobile devices and through social networking. My guess is that both reading and writing are dog-legging in growth as mobile devices and social networking have become mainstream.More information consumed In general, we consume more information Hours of information consumption grew at 2.6 percent per year from 1980 to 2008, due to a combination of population growth and increasing hours per capita, from 7.4 to 11.8.

Radio and TV still dominate

The traditional media of radio and TV still dominate our consumption per day, with a total of 60 percent of the hours. The estimated 292 million U.S. viewers average nearly five hours of TV viewing per day.9 Total TV viewing accounts for 41 percent of total hours of information consumption. In total, more than three-quarters of U.S. households’ information time is spent with non-computer sources.

Interestingly, although adults frequently complain about how much time children spend watching TV, the facts show otherwise: American teenagers watch less than four hours per day while the largest amount is watched by older Americans, those 60 to 65, who watched more than seven hours per day. And Video never did “kill the radio star” which is still alive and kicking, especially in the US where more people spend longer in cars.


It is quite likely that by 2010, the total number of hours that Americans spend on their cell phones will overtake their use of landline phones in the household. As a factor of total hours of information consumed by U.S. households in 2008, it was already a close race.

Computer access the big change

The five major categories of home computer use are all on the rise:

1. Accessing the Internet such as web browsing, communications (including email) and social networking;

2. Uploading, downloading and watching videos on the Internet;

3. Playing computer games;

4. Mobile devices and applications;

5. Offline computer activities that don’t require Internet access; such as writing a letter in Word, putting together an Excel spreadsheet, or editing home photos.

The average American spends nearly three hours per day on the computer, not including time at work. That is 24% of total information hours. Rise of interaction Interaction is an interesting extra dimension in that most past sources of information were passive, such as movies, radio and TV. The computer is a game-changer as it is highly interactive, with computer games, social networking, email and other functions being intensely interactive.

In an interesting aside, the authors make an interesting point about evolution here. Our evolutionary past did not prepare us for enormous doses of passive information, it was a highly interactive environment full of conversation, so tradition media such as books, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio are far less aligned that the telephone, txting, msn, computer games and social networking.

Future is complicated

There’s the other complication which is multiple streams of information into the home and switching rapidly between laptop, TV and phone. It is not uncommon for one home to have computers, consoles, telephones, iPOD music, TV and radio all flowing into the one home, while people flit between them or get interrupted and switch in and out of these information flows. There’s also the domino effect as something on one medium stimulates the use of another. A news item on TV may stimulate internet browsing, hearing a song on radio may spark off a download to your iPOD.

1 comment:

Paul Angileri said...

Interesting stuff. I would definitely say my word consumption has grown, although I perhaps didn't realize that it had until I read your synopsis. I get most of my words from podcasts, news sites, email, periodicals, and books. I do frequent YouTube a lot, but usually to consume content that, while it is a video, works equally fine as audio while I work.

One of the most interesting statistics in that report, for me, is that kids are apparently spending less time in front of a TV than popular culture would have us believe. I do see a potential issue here though, as kids may simply be using video facilities of the internet as their television. How much time, for example, do they spend watching clips on YoutTube or similar services? How much time do 18-34 year-olds spend watching news video on versus a TV? There are some ways in which these stats can be skewed, and perhaps the report explains how it accounts for these (since the PC is so good at aggregating so many different kinds of media).