The New York Times
As the lead technology writer for The New York Times Bits Blog and the author of the acclaimed I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works, Nick Bilton is an expert on how our byte-sized and ever-mobile culture affects our brains and our lives, and how companies can harness that knowledge to engage consumers and grow their business.
Outside of The New York Times, he helped co-found NYCResistor, a hacker space in Brooklyn, New York, that offers hardware and programming classes and allows people to collectively work on innovative open source hardware and robotics projects. He also is currently an adjunct professor for New York University’s interactive telecommunications program. His work has appeared in Wired, Engadget, Scientific America, ABC, CNET, O’Reilly Radar, and AlleyInsider.
Bilton holds a degree in journalism and documentary film from the New School University and a degree in graphic design from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Bilton is a keynote speaker at ASTD TechKnowledge 2013.
Can you explain what you mean by “the Internet is creating a new type of consumer”?
The way the Internet enables people to have two-way conversations creates a different type of consumer. If you think about it, in the past with print media and television, and so on, it was always a one-way conversation. You consumed as a consumer and you didn’t have much of a voice to respond to the content you consumed.
Now people have Twitter and Facebook accounts, forums, and comment systems—all these different things. If you don’t like something or if you do like something, you get to speak about it. And flock mentalities form—that allows consumers to help each other.
For businesses, it creates this world where you have to be aware of what your consumer is saying. This could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s something that businesses have to accept. It also creates a system where consumers have the option to go out and find things that they never would have been able to find before.
An example: people who are shopping in local bookstores will pull out their phone to see if Amazon has a cheaper version of the book, or even read online what people say about the book they’re about to buy. So the Internet not only creates a smarter consumer but also a consumer who has the ability to sway opinion about your product in one way or the other. The only way to respond to this is to engage with your customer.
How can businesses use this trend to their advantage?
One example I like to use sometimes is Zappos, the shoemakers, and what they did with Tony Hsieh, who started the company. He said, “We’re going to sell shoes online. It’s going to be difficult. People aren’t going to be able to try them on,” so he decided that customer service would be the most important part of his business. As result, Zappos became a billion dollar business. How? By focusing on the consumer as a long-term solution.
If anyone called up and the shoes they purchased didn’t fit, they allowed consumers to send them back the same day with free shipping, and then they would send them new sizes. This created a brand that people wanted to engage with. You have to be aware that customer service is key in a world where consumers share the same kind of microphone as you—the business. In the past, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
What are some of the common misperceptions about how the rapid pace of technology is affecting society?
One of the common misconceptions is that all new technologies are bad. But that’s a misconception that we’ve had through the history of time. If you look back to when the radio first came out, a front-page story in The New York Times said there is this wonderful invention that allows you to speak through the air at great distances, but there were warnings, too, specifically that people will never leave their home again; they’ll never go to church; they’ll never go to concert halls, and they’ll just live in their home and communicate with people via telephone. Of course, that didn’t happen.
When you look at the railway, people thought that the railway was going to be terribly detrimental to society, too, but the reality was that didn’t happen either. It allowed people to be connected, and it helped businesses and commerce. I think we go through this with every iteration of every technology. We are now going through it with the Internet and mobile phones.
You’ve said that disruptive technology is good for business and society in general. Why?
Disruptive technologies allow us to continue pushing forward. The challenges and the competition that are created out of disruptive technologies in business allow us to try to be better than the competitor or to create a better product. And in doing so, it continues to push the ball further up the hill, and I think that’s a great thing. If companies didn’t try to innovate, we would just have the same exact products that we had 100 years ago. We’d still have horses and carriages—maybe not even carriages. So disruptive technologies allow people to think differently, to innovate.
We are hearing a lot about the growth and multitasking, the frequency and use of mobile devices and how that’s affecting our brains—and it’s usually not good. What are your thoughts?
Well, it’s not a black and white thing. When I wrote my book, I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works, I went around and I spoke to about 30 neuroscientists around the country and asked them, “Is multitasking really bad for us?” And the reality I heard is that we multitask all the time. As I’m on the phone, I’m pacing back and forth. I’m breathing. I’m moving my hands. I’m thinking about the work I have to do when I get off this call, and my brain is multitasking. It’s designed to do that.
I think what the reality is, and what I found from reporting for my book, is that a certain type of multitasking is good and a certain type is bad. Our brains are not designed to send a text message while we’re driving because it’s two completely different tasks. But our brains are designed to be able to interact with things that are similar at the same time. So I can watch a television show and then read tweets about that show at the same time. Because it’s the same topic, it’s less of a cognitive load on my brain. I think it’s just a matter of figuring out as individuals, or as a society, the right multitasking balance.
With so many technologies, many are feeling overwhelmed and can’t stay on top of it all. Any advice?
Yes. There are services out there—websites and blogs—that help people sort through these things. For gadgets, for example, there is a website called The Wirecutter, which does extensive, intensive testing, hundreds of hours of testing or reporting on various gadgets. They find the top three in every category—the top three tablets, the top three laptops, the top three audio recorders.
Websites like Lifehacker helps you navigate different applications. There are tech blogs, like The New York Times Bits Blog, that help distill some of the new technologies that are coming out and give people advice on what to buy and what not to buy. So those are some. You can use the technology tools that are out there to help you navigate the new ones that are coming.
You often talk about storytelling. Why do you feel storytelling is so important today?
I think storytelling is everything. Every single thought, everything we do in life is about storytelling. It’s what we do. The clothes we wear tell a story about who we are. The things we read tell a story about what we’re interested in. And it happens with businesses—the kind of brand and the logo and all these different things that you create tell a story about your business.
In today’s age where everyone is visible online through Facebook, through Twitter, through all these different things, telling a story is paramount. There is no difference between telling a story in 140 characters on Twitter or writing a 90,000-word book. You’re still telling a story, and I think that that’s really, really important—whether you are selling something or you’re trying to create a brand around something, or even yourself.
What do you do for relaxation?
I work. I’m finally writing a new book. It’s the story of Twitter and how Twitter was founded. That’s going to be published by Penguin this year. And I take a lot of photographs and spend time with my dog, who’s appropriately named Pixel. I travel a lot for work so my social life usually revolves around work these days.