Distractable v/s indistractable audiences

A classical Carnatic music concert is little different from a Hindustani music one. In the Hindustani concert, the musician often announces the raag he/she is going to sing or play. In the Carnatic music concert, the musician starts with a slow rendering of the notes of the raag. No words are sung. The audience is trying to figure out the raag, murmurs are heard (as Carnatic singer T M Krishna observes in his book A Southern Music — The Kar­natic Story). And then the song’s first stanza or the pallavi starts and by then all in the auditorium know the raag and some novices like yours truly would have located the song in the little raag book collection that is part of the Carnatic concert bag.


These days we are observing a different phenomenon. As the song starts you see numerous mamas and mamis reach for their smart phones searching for the song and its raag. They then follow the song by reading the lyrics that are often available in a Carnatic music website like karnatic.com or rasikas.com. The song goes on and the audience are reading about the raag, the song, the lyrics, the composer and may be even about the temple deity about whom the song was composed.


I ask myself: Is the audience en­ga­ged? Are they ap­p­reciating the music or are they distracted?


A recent report said that on an average a 35-year-old spends up­wards of four hours a day on social media (Forbes India, January 31, 2020). The younger cohort spend an hour or so more than the older audiences. Rajiv Makhni, in his column Phone Slaves, says that 58 per cent of the people use their smart phones while in toilet, 81 per cent check the phone during a wedding ceremony, while making out or during a funeral. Biju Dominic in his column in Mint quotes a research from Rescue Time to confirm that a smart phone user spends three hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day. The top 20 per cent spend more than four-and-a-half hours. We check our smart phones an amazing 2,600 times a day; with fanatics touching their phones 5,400 times.


So nothing is surprising about people checking their phones during a concert, right?


I think the situation is a little different. In the case of an uninspiring lecture or a talk, the phone is pure diversion and distraction. A device for you to escape what was boring to start with. In the case of a Carnatic music concert, the smart phone may actually be enhancing your musical experience. By following the music with the lyrics you may actually appreciate it a little bit more.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
Extending the logic further it is possible to argue that we could improve learning outcomes during a class by encouraging the participants to reach for their smart phones at appropriate moments. In some of my classes (I teach the Consumer Be­haviour course at SPJIMR), I often ask a question and allow the class to search the internet for answers. The first guy to actually locate the author of a book... say, No Logo... is then asked to explain what he learnt from his search. Some professors I know have used smart phones to conduct a spot quiz in class. I should admit that the phones are off at all other times in the class. But would it just be possible that in the future we will have classes where we encourage distraction of a planned kind, if we know that learning is improved?


Seminar organisers have tried usi­ng an active Twitter wall which captures the tweets from the audience. Some speakers have taken offence to the sudden burst of laughter, unconnected with the talk but a reaction to a funny tweet. For that reason probably, the practice has not gathered ground.


There have been many books that have come out in the recent past about the need to reclaim our attention from smart phone and technology distractions. One of the more readable ones is Indistractable — How to control your attention and choose your life by Nir Eyal. The author has dissected the issue of distraction from multiple lenses. For instance, there is the “internal trigger”; our desire to escape discomfort and reach for the phone or computer. And there is a way to master the internal trigger. Then there is the “external trigger”, an alert on your mobile phone. Does it distract you? If yes, who is it serving? The author has suggested doing “pacts” to ensure that we don’t get distracted when we don’t want to be distracted. The book suggests ways of making the work place “indistractable”, making children “indistractable” and even make your relationships distraction proof.


In the world of marketing, we are worried that our consumers are too distracted. What do we do to keep their attention focused? Or should we actually encourage some level of distraction? For instance, will all video ads in the future come with their own cues to click and explore? Will a television ad featuring a brand send a message to your phone to open a e-commerce site for you to or­der the product? Will ads in newspapers carry compulsory QR codes so that distraction is in the right direction (though QR codes did not work too well when they came out first)?


At a personal level, we need to figure out how to become “indistractable”. And from a marketer’s point of view we probably need to figure out how to ride the distraction tiger better.


The author is an independent brand strategist, author and founder, brand-building.com


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel