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Dr. Michael Bull on the iPod-as-Icon

By Elizabeth Millard MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jun 24, 2004 4:42 AM PT

The iPod's success has become an item of interest to consumers, analysts, and executives. Now it has reached the groves of academia as well. Dr. Michael Bull -- also known by many as "Professor iPod" -- is a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, and he has embarked on a research project to study the cultural impact of iPods and other digital music technology. In an interview with MacNewsWorld, Dr. Bull chats about iPod owners, cultural icons and trying to stay objective.

Dr. Michael Bull on the iPod-as-Icon

MacNewsWorld: What made you want to study iPods and music consumption?

Michael Bull: I'm writing a book on every mobile technology that makes a noise, like mobile phones and MP3 players. I'm interested in how people use these things in different spaces. Basically, it's a development of my earlier work, which included Sony Walkmans. I needed to do work on 21st century technology, and MP3 players worked well for that, so I put a call out for information to get people to tell me how they used the players and how they felt about the technology. I got so many responses from iPod owners that I'm actually now planning to do a whole book on iPods after the mobile technology book is finished.

MNW: How did you find research subjects willing to talk about their music use?

MB: Initially, I interviewed users in the UK, but I thought that was a bit too local, so whenever someone interviewed me, I asked them to include a call for subjects in the article. It got published in Wired News, and then it got picked up in syndication. Pretty soon the BBC put out a request for me, and it went global. I lost control of it then, and I even saw mention of the request in women's magazines like Elle. The result was that I had over 2,000 replies over a five-week period.

MNW: Why do you think so many iPod users responded, as opposed to users of other MP3 players?

MB: I've had a few non-iPod users, but essentially, the iPod has become a cultural icon. The other players don't have that. It's very much like the Walkman in that regard. Everyone says "Walkman" rather than "personal stereo" for a reason. As I collected people's responses to my questionnaires, it became obvious that it would just be easier to focus on iPods. The industry might want to compare all the different machines but personally I'm interested in the phenomenon of the iPod, as a state of the art device.

MNW: Do you own an iPod?

MB: I don't. When I'm researching something, I don't like to use what I'm researching because my own use gets in the way of me listening to other people's experience. It allows for a critical distance.

But when I'm finished, I'll probably get one. Unless Apple wants to send me one for free!

MNW: What kinds of questions did you ask the people who responded?

MB: I gave them a 32-page questionnaire that included questions about their playlist, what they like best about their iPod, what they don't like. I asked how they listen to music, how they select music in relationship to mood, and about relationships they have to their environment and other people when they're listening. I'm quite interested in how people manage their relationships through technology.

MNW: What were some of the common responses to your questions?

MB: Most iPod users say it's the nicest piece of technology that they use. Nearly all are amazingly positive about the machine. They like the aesthetics and design, and they also like it as a status object. In a quiet and important way, there's status to the Apple brand that other MP3 players don't have.

I had many interesting replies about design, with the majority of people saying they like the fact that Apple has gone back to the original design. They also said that they listen their music much more because they have the iPod, because it gives them access to their whole music collection. It also enables you to take your music with you, and plug it in at work or in the car, so you have the ability to listen to music in lots of spaces that weren't so suitable before.

MNW: What were some of the things that people did not like about iPods?

MB: There weren't many negatives, actually, except about the battery. That was a huge one. Occasionally, someone says that other MP3 players do more than the iPod. But in general, apart from the battery life, and Apple playing around with design in the second generation, there wasn't much they didn't like. Some mentioned fear of theft as a negative. In London, iPod theft has superceded mobile-phone theft. Which is interesting, because to use it, you have to have a certain level of technological sophistication. So, I suppose we've got some educated, articulate thieves out there.

MNW: Has anything in the initial results surprised you?

MB: I think it's been eye-opening, to see how many users feel that the iPod has allowed them to rediscover their zest for music. Some people that I interviewed are in their early 30s -- ranging up to their 50s -- and they've downloaded a lifetime of music. Using the iPod allows them to revisit music they may not have heard in 15 years, so it's produced this notion of being able to access the musical treasure trove of your own past.

It's not just a nostalgic thing, though. People often define significant parts of themselves through their music, and being able to revisit old music has inspired them to buy new stuff and dabble in genres they might not have explored otherwise. It's produced a kind of resurgent taste for music that they may have lost.

MNW: Why do you think this kind of research is needed?

MB: You might say there's a massive transformation in the music industry right now, which is important from a business and a technology standpoint. But it's also important from an academic standpoint, because people are consuming music differently. What I'm really interested in is the way that all of these mobile technologies like iPods change how we construct our sense of the social. Walkmans used to isolate people to some degree, but with iPods, people are sharing their music, they're using them as jukeboxes. That changes our relationship with music, and with each other.

I think also that in academic circles, research on sound and music is under-researched. Most often, you see research on visual epistemology, as if people look but don't listen. But auditory experience is a large part of people's relationship to the world, and I think that's why I've gotten such an amazing response.

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