Feature

Digital Viewpoint - The sound of the web

Audio is to play a key part as people look for more direct communication on the web, so can the net of the future provide something to shout about?

Having spent the past few months on active duty in the service of WAR (Sound Strategies' Web Audio Research programme), it is interesting to see the polarities that are appearing. At one end, silence. At the other, a fair amount of media shouting with little relevance to the subject matter or the likely recipients. Some might even say "baying at the moon".

The sonic environment guru Raymond Murray Schafer once postulated that early human settlements were limited in size to the distance a man could shout and be heard. Shouting is still something we do rather well. At its most developed, it mutates into opera; in other circumstances, it prevents accidents, marks the end of relationships, scares intruders, signals authority and probably helps win football matches.

When humans shout, raw emotion takes precedence over verbal content. Shouting is close to singing, close to music, close to our atavistic need to communicate on super-conscious levels, non-verbally, and without recourse to logic, context or social convention. It's immediate - of its time and place. It stops us thinking ahead or remembering the past; it demands that we pay attention to the here and now. A shout draws together everyone who hears it into a common emotional and temporal bond. We seem to be forever seeking such experiences and increasingly so, if reality TV is anything to go by.

Of course, no sooner had the first human community evolved than people began looking for ways to communicate that didn't put such a strain on the lungs. The successes are easy to identify: beacons and smoke signals, loud musical instruments, alphabetic writing, printing, telecommunications, photography, cine-film, reprographics, digital encoding etc ...

Two interesting common features: one is that their purpose is to maximise the communication reach in terms of distance, number of people and time displacement. The other is that factual information is easier to encode than raw emotion. We can transmit facsimile emotions; we can create metaphors and symbols; we can even induce emotional responses across time and space so that we get art, music, literature, dance, sculpture, cinema. But just as we strive to extend the communication reach, we also strive to preserve the essential directness of the emotional content of a shout.

We tend to shout at, rather than shout with, people. Although shouting often hits an emotional trigger, it doesn't leave much room for response. It's perhaps not surprising that marketplaces (both real and virtual) contain a lot of competitive shouting. Until recently, mass-media transactions have been largely unidirectional: from broadcaster to recipient, perfect for those inclined to shout at people (or assume authority in other ways). In spite of its technical sophistication, mass communication hasn't moved on much from the caveman era.

The audio nature of shouting is important - the voice is more immediate and carries a stronger emotional subtext than writing, reading or responding to an image. We can say that speaking (and by extension, music) has a direct, inductive emotional element, whereas, with non-sounding media, the emotional content often has to be decoded or filtered through the recipient's literacy or understanding of the medium. That's why there's nothing worse than speaking without being heard - down a telephone to an automated answering service, for instance.

What Web 2.0 offers is a form of two-way, immediate response interaction much closer to the face-to-face context of a conversation. It can begin to recreate the contexuality and immediacy of emotional engagement, enabling people to respond instantly, even when separated in space.

Web-based gaming, virtual reality sites, social networking, interactive TV and web-enabled portable telephones are all being used by people trying to make direct, emotional connections. BlackBerries or similar such devices, touted as the ultimate executive communication facility, now appear to be welded to the hands of their users, acting almost as their sole passport to instant existential validation in a hyper-connected world.

The virtual universe was developed almost exclusively by people with visual or textual skills, so it has evolved with a visual-textual bias that affects some of its fundamental operating assumptions and the ways the people who have an interest in managing it think about it. But, with the increasing functionality and 3D web just around the corner, audio - the medium of speech, shouting, music and directly transmitted emotion - often struggles with establishing its own unique credibility and codes of practice.

Shouty, attention-grabbing ads made for cinema or TV, where the chances are that groups of people are watching together (or, more likely, not paying much attention), come across as intrusive or aggressive through the "up close and personal" medium of a computer screen. Traditional advertising playing times (20", 30", 50") always seem to feel wrong via the internet. Surfing behaviour can be more personal, quixotic and unpredictable than even the most frantic channel hopping. Sound/music bites need to be either much shorter or - bizarrely - much longer. Our own experience suggests about two minutes is the optimum maximum length for a web-based video. Musical structure depends on playing time. A two-minute video is not just an extended 50-second video. It requires a different approach.

A different approach to measurement is also needed. We are told that the web enables much more insight into a consumer's lifestyle, but to what degree does it encompass the level of emotional engagement, particularly with regard to the use of sound (the ultimate hidden persuader as it has been termed by one academic)? If our connection with sound is so primal, is it possible to drill down and understand these deep-seated connections? This is one of the reasons why we have teamed up with the market research expert Brainjuicer, and the work we have been undertaking is throwing up some interesting hypotheses.

As more people look for direct personal communication experiences on the internet, the audio aspects of its functioning will become increasingly important and we need to be equally as vigilant about its use as we are about the visual components.

So here is your starter for ten. Have you ever thought about how your brand relates to sound? Is there an authentic and sustainable relationship to be had? If so, how do you know it when you hear it, or rather, how does your consumer know it - without being told? And before deciding on what sounds are to be used, have you asked yourselves what the context or its purpose might be?

Finally, how do you relate to the bigger universe of sound, not just the current limited outpourings of the record industry? Because you are the one who is quite likely to have to dig into that hard-won marketing budget and be able to convince yourself and others about the effectiveness of your decision. And the web is much less forgiving than conventional media platforms, with the "off" button just a click away ...

- Michael Spencer is the managing director of Sound Strategies.

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