Drink the Water

My three-year-old looked at her bottled water the other day and asked what the picture on it was. "A waterfall," my husband replied. She followed up with the tried-and-true, "Why?" He hesitated and said that, uh, maybe it was where this water was supposed to have come from. The likelihood of any bottled water originating from pristine tropical falls may be questionable, but it does arouse my thoughts about evolving perceptions.

I was a city kid. Water came from a tap. Sure, Perrier has been around longer than I have, but I never drank a bottle of it until college. While I now live with my family in the country--and there's a vernal pond on our property and a large creek with falls at the foot of our driveway--my daughter doesn't really think about where water comes from. It is a commodity, often manifested in the form of bubbly seltzer and designer bottles, so her questioning the relationship between the picture on the bottle and its contents isn't all that surprising.

Like me, she never doubts the availability of water, but unlike me, she is a child raised in a world in which things are increasingly available on demand, often dislocated from their origins. Water comes from bottles and information appears at one's whim.

Our 700-channel cable and DVD collection once seemed the pinnacle of choice. Yet now with VOD, we can watch a multitude of movies and even original series on premium cable channels any old time we want. If we didn’t get on the latest hot-show bandwagon at premiere time, we don't have to wait for reruns or the DVD to catch up--we can watch all of the episodes aired to date at any time. And since we do that, why would we bother to program the DVR (only recently a time-shifting godsend) to capture the first-run episodes on cable? We'll watch what we please, when we please, if you please.

While we may be relatively early adopters, my husband and I are far from digital natives. He dabbled in BASIC in high school and I was introduced to DOS in college. I used LexisNexis at my first job, and it was like a divine intervention that transformed the library-based research process I grew up with. So while we enjoy them, we do not take these digital tools for granted and still wonder at their capabilities.

The newest member of the EContent team, editorial assistant Ashley Jones, is a digital native. When she heard that the email had been down at my husband's office for five days, she nearly choked on her single-bean espresso-strength brew. How, she wondered, could he even function? A friend of mine (also in her twenties) failed to show for a play date and expressed near-panicked worry on my answering machine that I'd assume she flaked, bemoaning my lack of a cell phone so she could have immediately informed me of her perfectly sound reason for the no-show.

Yet my husband did, in fact, get full days of work done, resorting to calling people. And I did not at any time assume I was being blown off, but rather that my friend would let me know what happened soon enough and in the meantime, the playground is not a bad place to be--with or without playmates.

However, the response of these 20-somethings is indicative of our audience today. They cannot envision a world without omnipresent communication. They may pay a premium for water, coffee, and cable, but online, they expect everything, immediately, for nothing. Everything has its price, though.

While young content users don't expect to pay for content online with currency, they willingly trade privacy for information, a cost too dear for many from previous generations. So often I am asked what users are willing to exchange for content: Will they watch ads? If so, for how long? Will they complete surveys? If so, how many questions before they click away? And will they reveal valuable personal information in exchange for content access? If so, how much?

I can't answer all of these questions, though I'd sure love to provide valuable, definitive answers. However, I do know that my perception of the value of privacy is out-of-date. Today, people increasingly live lives in the public eye--from exposing their seamy underbellies on talk shows or reality TV to letting it all hang out on MySpace or YouTube. Twenty-somethings share it all--and even bare it all--online, so without a doubt, they will be willing to ante up a good amount of personal information to keep content flowing freely.