27 October 2007

ComDays07 / Stefana Broadbent: The 20 people we communicate with

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Stefana Broadbent
Bruno Giussani reports on a recent talk by Swisscom anthropologist Stefana Broadbent on how people really use technology. The talk was delivered at the 6th Communication Days conference in Bienne, Switzerland.

“In traditional marketing research, she says, if you ask what the main constraints on usage of communication services are, the obvious answer would probably be price and some personal attitudes towards tech. But what we find in our research, observing people closely, is that actually the real discriminants are time and social networks.

Time: we collect hundreds of timelines and logs, we ask people to reconstruct with us their previous day of communication: who they communicated with, how, etc. We ask them to describe their social environment. Let’s consider teenagers. The image adults have about teenagers online is lots of friends, connected all the time, etc. Swiss teenagers: all use instant messaging; e-mail is used only for communicating with adults and institutions; all of them have a mobile phone and send SMS daily; more than 50% have a profile page on social networking sites; they read blogs and use Youtube etc. BUT there is something very specific to the Swiss educational system. In Switzerland, there is a high proportion — 75% — of professional/vocational training (“apprentices”). Teenagers are in a professional setting; receive a salary; they are in constant contact with adults during the day; etc. If we compare the structure of the day of the teen apprentices and that of their parents, it’s often not that dissimilar, except for the evening hours. And their patterns of communication are also very similar: balancing between work and private life; have a rather limited set of contacts. Apart from instant messaging, in Switzerland from 13 to 50 year old the patterns of usage of communication channels are very similar.

The other factor that has an impact on communication behavior is social networks. The close circle of contacts is composed of about 20 people: 7 in the “intimate circle”, 13 in the “close circle”. A further 37 are “weaker ties”. This core of 20 is a number that’s consistent across countries in Europe and the US. Who’s in this core? About 60% are “given” contacts (family, schoolmates, work colleagues, neighbours), only 40% are “chosen”. If you look with whom people communicate, 3/4 of the contacts happen with the people within those 20 “core” contacts. What does this mean? It may look obvious, you only communicate with the people you know. But to me it means: those 20 people are our (telecom operator’s) playing field. When we think of services for our customers, we have to keep in mind that their space is 20 people wide.”

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