The Death Of The Remote Control Syndrome

If you work in digital, and in particular in ‘social media’, you’re often challenged with the idea that somehow this world is just for the young, the tech savvy, and is essentially a niche that isn’t of interest to major brands. Having just spoken at an IAB event on the subject of how you can use social to reach a mainstream audience, it’s worth looking at this and showing exactly how far from the truth it is.

Let’s start with the stats. Facebook today announced that it has 400 million active users every month. YouTube serves 1 billion impressions every day. These numbers alone should silence even the most vocal doubters. After all, you show me anywhere, outside of TV or radio in China or India, where you can reach this many consumers. And they’re not just kids either. Facebook’s fastest growing audience in the US is women over the age of 55.

The reasons for this growth, and the way that this growth has particularly been amongst older demographics, are too numerous to go into here. But there’s one that’s worth mentioning, and that’s the rise of social gaming.

Just as the Wii has done offline, these games, often devoid of the guns or violence that so often pervade ‘serious games’, can appeal to a much wider market. And as well as driving the older audience’s usage of social, it’s also making them more accustomed to spending real money for virtual goods, but that’s a topic for another post.

Because what I really want to talk about is how advances in technology are only likely to continue to push social, and all forms of digital, to an audience that is both older & more mainstream than the ones we have all become used to. This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but really it’s not.

For years there was a cliché of older people (i.e. just about anyone over 40) being left confused and feeling excluded by technological advances. How often have parents had to get their children to help them use the video control, or to programme the TV, or to use a computer? But that’s all changing.

Last year there were, according to stats I heard from Google yesterday, 240 million web enabled phones sold around the world. In contrast, only 200 million desktop computers were shippped. And more and more of these phones are touch-screen devices, following in the iPhone’s wake, which make using the web an entirely intuitive process.

I’ll give you an example: last year my Mum was bought an iPod touch for Christmas. A couple of months ago I lent her my Blackberry to check her email, but she couldn’t get it to work. The reason? She was trying to scroll by touching the screen.

Apple had taken away the barrier between her and mobile web use, and she didn’t like it when that barrier was rebuilt. The competitive pricing for the iPad is only likely to build on this trend.

But it’s not just phones or tablets though.

The Nintendo Wii has brought gaming to a whole new audience, not just because the games tend to be more family friendly, but also because the interface is so easy to use. No more clicking multiple keys, or being glued to a joy-stick (surely these should be renamed as joyless sticks now?)  Suddenly games were fun and easy to play for people other than young men.

At the end of this year Microsoft plans to release Project Natal, which is essentially a Wii on steroids (feel free to insert your own Ben Johnson jokes in the comments): it removes the need for a controller altogether, and responds to your body movements, and your voice.

Want to play a game? Just tell it so and then start waving your arms around. Want to watch a movie? Just tell it so and then flip your way through the catalogue.

All of a sudden there are no barriers between the user and the technology, meaning it will be as simple and intuitive for a 61 year old to interact with digital content, as for a 16 year old. Whereas previous advances have put barriers up between older generations & technology, now they’re pulling them down.

And so the intersection of social activity, touch & voice activated technology, and people of all ages accustomed to paying for virtual goods (whether that be seed on Farmville, or Jackie Lawson cards), the video control syndrome will be dead, and the mainstream will be media that’s social in every way.

Farmville image by taberandrew, remote control by oskay, header image by schnaars, all on flickr.


  1. I was just trawling the internet hoping to find an answer to the problem of old people and remote controllers . your comments are most interesting, it occures to me that if my car can respond to voice activated software then surely that is the way to go for older people who are unable to cope with remote contollers . the lady two doors away is 90 years old and has great difficulty operating her new digital tv.
    being able to sit in front of a tv and say “tv on” and “channel one” or “sound up” , ” sound down” would I am sure be a revelation to them. keep thinking in the direction you are going and oldies everywhere will thank you.

    Bernard newton

  2. Thanks Bernard, I’m glad you found them interesting.

    I don’t think there’s a huge problem as such, but do feel that, for the first time in a while, new technology will act as a bridge, rather than as a barrier, to older, less tech-savvy users..

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