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There was a time not so long ago when home computers sat on desks away from the main action in households. People used them for basic productivity tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets. Now, things have changed to the point where our home computers have become a center of our entertainment universe, offering up music, videos and photos.

That point was driven home to me forcefully when I was hosting a party last week. I used my new 24-inch iMac (similar to the one pictured above) to run the music, and a friend loaded it with some MP3s and started DJ’ing from it spontaneously. As the party continued, different groups of people commandeered the iMac to show others a project they were working on or a favorite website. Later on, one friend started steering us from one weird YouTube video to another, and the rest of us critiqued his computer skills while howling in laughter at some of the better videos.

What was most interesting was that I didn’t consciously decide that my computer would play a starring role at my party. I made food, bought drinks and figured my friends were more inclined to conversation and connecting with each other rather than going online on a computer. While the iMac wasn’t the center of attention for the whole party, it was a regular stop for most people there, serving as a conversation starter and perhaps as a place to back up a contention.

Now it’s true that some of my friends are into technology and work in Silicon Valley, so you would think they would be drawn to a computer at a party. And it’s also true that I had the iMac in the living room of my apartment, right next to my kitchen, in a place that few people could miss it. Plus, the iMac itself has a huge 24-inch wide screen, with a quality that rivals the best TV screens. Even poor quality online video is enticing when it’s blown up big on the iMac.

Shared Experience vs. Solo Pursuit

But this wasn’t the first time I had seen the computer playing the role of party lubricator. At a party at a friend’s house, a group of people sat around a computer watching various YouTube videos for hours, with people rotating on taking the controls while others jumped in with comments or howls of pleasure with each new one. Not only was the computer coming out of the shadows of the home office, but it was also becoming a more shared experience, instead of a solo pursuit.

Instead of one person using the Net to do research or online banking, here was someone playing VJ or video jockey, pulling up videos of their band or something funny they had seen the other day. Or at my party, someone might showcase their graphic design work while another person could show off a website they had launched. At one point, I was in a conversation about politics and then went online to show a friend the various videos that Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig had done in considering running for U.S. Congress. (He’s since announced he is not running. A shame.)

What is important to note is that I don’t remember one person just going on to the computer to check email or surf around the Net. In every case, it was multiple people gathered around the computer, and using it as a source for information, inspiration, or just group entertainment. Even though there was a stereo system and large flat-screen TV only 10 feet away in my living room, neither one was ever turned on for a moment.

While the TV might entertain a group of folks who gather for the express purpose of watching a favorite TV show or movie or sporting event such as the Super Bowl, it doesn’t work as a catalyst for conversation in the same way as a computer connected to the Internet. Watching TV is generally passive entertainment, while watching a computer as a group means that each person might jump on to steer the attention of the group and there’s more control over the experience. The computer might be at the center of attention at times, but it doesn’t dominate the way a TV does with the volume turned up.

At the end of the party, when I was marveling at my computer’s starring role, I wondered: Is this a good thing? Shouldn’t I have just shut the thing off so that people could enjoy each other’s company without the intrusion of the iMac? Perhaps, but I guess I have mixed feelings about it.

As a source for music, the iMac was great, allowing me to play my music, others to jump on and play theirs and I could even hop over to play online radio stations via iTunes. And it did come in handy when I wanted to show off my work or let someone else show us their favorite sites or goofy homespun videos. As long as it is one center of attention rather than the center of attention, I am OK with the iMac as party hub.

What do you think? Have you noticed computers becoming a bigger part of the entertainment at parties? Do you like that or does it bother you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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