The iPad Divide: Creators vs. Consumers

Watching the reaction to the iPad release in the buzz-o-sphere over the past few weeks, I consistently notice that reactions tend to fall into one of two camps–writers, critics, and opinion-makers are often underwhelmed by the device (myself included), while the general public fervently loves it.

I’m traveling in Europe right now where the iPad is due to be released May 28th, and while reading on my Amazon Kindle in an airport the other day, an English woman walked up and demanded to see my iPad.  When I explained to her that it was merely a Kindle, she looked visibly disappointed–almost disgusted. I actually apologized. This woman, like many throughout the world, is enthralled with the idea of the iPad.

Over the weeks since the U.S. release of the iPad, all we internet writers have picked up on the public’s love-fest with the device and started to reevaluate the iPad’s worth, given that our initially tepid reactions seemed out of sync with the zeitgeist.  This gradual about-face among the digital press has gotten me thinking.  What follows is my hypothesis, some pure speculation, and probably some grandiose claims.  Simply put, I think writers are annoyed that the iPad doesn’t have a keyboard*.  Why they are annoyed, however, may be a bit more complex.

Forrester Research has created a social technographics ladder for classifying individuals on the spectrum of social media consumption vs. creation.  Peter Burris from Forrester was kind enough to share some of their data. They found that when looking at tech industry insiders or the general public, the majority of each group is active in social media, and nearly everyone that is active in social media is also considered a “Spectator”.  The minority of each group falls into the “Creators” group, but among the tech industry subset, they are much more likely than the average person to be a “Creator”.  I tell you this simply to lend some gravitas to the common sense conclusion that “normal” people (the general population) are content to simply be consumers of media, while creation of media has become “normal” among those of us who make our money and live our lives online.

Back to the iPad and its detractors, the thing they all have in common is an annoyance with the fact that iPad is essentially just a consumptive device.  All the billboards advertising the iPad, even in the former Communist East Germany, show someone in repose, enjoying the sensuous presentation of content from the comfort of their couch, feet up and shoes off.  Simply put, this is not a creators device, and what the creators of the world are finally starting to come around to seems obvious with a little distance–most people don’t use the internet the same way they do.  Much more interesting is what this means for the internet as a medium.

For years now, we online media folk have been chanting the mantra “content is king,” yet so many times during the last 15 years the general public has turned on their computer, taken a look at the content currently available, gotten bored and flipped on the TV instead.  In the U.S., at least, it seems that tide is finally turning in favor of the net.  It’s one thing to read an email, check the weather, and watch a short clip of an animal being cute.  It is an entirely different thing to turn on your computer to read a book, watch a feature length movie, or settle in for the night in front of hulu on auto-play mode.  With so much rich content now available online, the hardware we use is and will continue to adapt to meet our needs.  Assuming you’re part of the majority of consumers with no desire to contribute content, why get a desktop computer for your home when a wii or an ipad will suffice?  I think this perfectly logical evolution of form and function scares the hell out of online creators, and for very good reason.

If the minority of internet users are contributing as well as consuming, the ability to contribute to the internet may get harder.  I think there is a fear that if you take the keyboards off our computers, the renaissance of digital creativity will dry up.  In Cory Doctorow’s post on Boing Boing entitled “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either)” he comes right out and says “If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.”  I think he is exactly right, but the numbers show that most people don’t live in the creative universe.  Most people just expect that universe to show up at their home, pre-packaged like sliced cheese, and ready to consume while zoning out on the couch.  I think it’s futile to argue that we should all be whatever the rugged-individualist version of an internet user is (creating and consuming our home-made content).  People are going to consume mass media because it’s easier.  How, though, do we make sure that choice doesn’t dry up in a world without keyboards?

Unfortunately, I’m forced to just end this with more questions. Were tomorrow’s iPad buyers ever really using their old keyboards in the first place, or is the iPad just intended to be a plaything of the rich, like a vintage sports car that only comes out on the weekends?  Only time will tell.

And finally, I leave you with…  Tosh destroys an iPad

* Yeah, I know the iPad has an on-screen keyboard, but if you’ve ever tried to type anything longer than “lol, steve jobs!” on it you’ll quickly understand why I don’t classify it as such.