Live Experiences vs. Recordings — What We Pay to Engage Attention

David D. Friedman recently posed the question of whether or not YouTube recordings of his lectures were adequate substitutes for the live experience. DDF wrote:

Quite often, when I give a talk, someone records it, often as video, and webs it. That raises a question relevant to what talks I give: Is watching the video a reasonably close substitute for attending the talk? …

This links to a question that has puzzled me for a long time. One common pattern in schooling is the mass lecture—a professor speaking to an audience in the hundreds with students taking notes.  In the fourteenth century, that made a lot of sense as a low cost way of spreading knowledge, but why did it survive the invention of the printing press?

For me, this question firmly centers itself upon the subject of attention, and how much attention people are willing to give a recorded experience that is given away for free (“Free” being simply defined, ignoring non-trivial opportunity costs of consuming the content).

Many chimed in with thoughts on the matter, but I didn’t find anyone directly tackling the issue from the perspective of engaged attention. These days when our attention comes at a heavy price (something I will write more on), engagement is everything.

So I left the comment below.

… I think it’s all about attention. More specifically, it’s about how much I am willing to engage in a live experience vs. a recorded experience. There are a few things to unpack here:

  • Upfront costs. Almost all live experiences have non-trivial costs associated with them. You have to get to class. You have to pay tuition. You have to adjust to the environment (that is, listen up, direct focus). When we “pay” for a live experience, we are more likely to feel like we’re wasting our time if we don’t pay attention. In a way, note-taking is arguably yet another way to force paid attention. I don’t think I’ve ever taken notes while watching a recorded lecture or talk.
  • Perceived value of a live experience. Live experiences are necessarily more unique rare than recorded ones that can be watched at will (at low cost). Mind, this isn’t binary: a 3x/week live mass lecture to 500 students will have a lower perceived value than a one-off lecture by a guest speaker to the same 500 students; or 3x/week lecture given to 20 students. Every scenario you can imagine will signal things about value. Can a lecture that is free (b/c it’s a recording) really be worth watching? Of course! But the signals to interpret value are going to be derived from other aspects — views received, expected content, production quality, vouched value by others who’ve consumed it, and so on and so forth.
  • Optionality of the live experience. There must be some non-zero potential value of attending a live experience. This can be the opportunity to ask questions of the presenter, the chance of meeting other like-minded people in attendance, and the value of being able to discuss the lecture with other attendees when the content is fresh on their minds.
  • The value of interpersonal connection. This one is probably a little related to perceived value, but what happens when a lecturer can look you in the eye? How does that engage your attention? Related: video conferencing with one other person is incredibly less enjoyable/valuable (to me) that in person communications.
  • What else? I’m sure there are other reasons we engage our attention more with a live experience as compared to a recording.

Today with the sky-rocketing volume of “free” content, I find I’m resorting to many new signals as to the value of content and whether or not it’s worth my attention. Recorded experiences are great, but they suffer from harder to read signals as to quality. To make matters worse, when I consume this content, the medium of consumption makes it trivial to abandon the recording (either literally closing it or letting my mind wander off).

All said, I wonder to what extent better VR will mitigate some of these negative (and in my mind, undesirable) effects of recorded content by simply engaging more senses and increasing the price of shifting my attention away (due to having to take “goggles” and headphones off).

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