Collective consumption

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I wrote last week about the success of RSA Screens, at which film makers discuss their work with an audience prior to it being shown on Channel Four.

On my way into Clapham Picture House last week I saw an advertisement for a series of screenings in which operas at New York's Metropolitan Opera are broadcast live to cinemas around the globe.

In the summer months BP and others sponsor big screen showings of ballet and opera in town squares across the UK.

By its nature going to the cinema is a collective experience, but there is a difference. Unlike just happening to sit next to a stranger at the Odeon, these events involve people using film as the focus for a group activity, or exchange, recognising that this adds something (beyond the size of the screen) not gained by watching the same material in your front room.

This desire for collective consumption will be vividly displayed tomorrow when millions of us choose to watch the Rugby World Cup final in noisy, crowded pubs and clubs.

A few years ago, in the face of falling cinema and live sport audiences, it was widely assumed we were on the road to the complete privatisation of leisure. As home entertainment options expanded and improved why would people bother with the effort and expense of going to see live performance?

But then things turned round. Film makers rediscovered the blockbuster and cinema developers went multi-screen. Sports clubs (football in particular) starting treating fans like paying customers deserving of comfort and safety; investors and sponsors saw that live sport could be good business.

The growth in collectivism goes further.

Every large town and city (and even some villages) seem to have a growing book, film, theatre or comedy festival. Then there is the expansion of the lecture circuit, the multiplication of rock festivals.

It seems we do like doing stuff together.

And something interesting is happening to our attention span. A TV executive told me the other day that it is getting harder and harder to hold viewers for longer than a few minutes. A fifty minute drama can't succeed with one pay off at the end. It must be full of sub-plots and mini-climaxes.

Similarly, we are apparently very intolerant of websites that aren't up to the minute, fully functional and speaking precisely to our interests.

Yet, we will sit in a muddy field and wait for hours to hear a band, watch a boring 0-0 and be delighted with a last minute winner, or listen to an author's lecture with only a small chance of being picked in the Q and A.

It seems we are willing to put up with things live and together, that we would never accept as individuals consuming bytes of access-anytime information.

Others I'm sure have written more eloquently and authoritatively on this subject, but I find these trends interesting and encouraging.

Is there something here that links to the RSA's broader 'pro-social' debate? I'd like to know what you think.

Then again you've probably stopped reading by now - maybe I'll have to do this post as a lecture instead.

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