When Tim Berners-Lee conceived the World Wide Web, he envisioned something that would not only make it easier for citizens of different countries to communicate with one another but also a technological means of increasing understanding and empathy among different people.
When looking back on 2016, “empathy” would likely not be the first word that comes to mind.
As Internet-based communication has become used more often and by more people, we have found ourselves in the paradoxical circumstance of more information arguably leading to less understanding. The “echo chamber” – identified in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer as a major factor in feeding fear and distrust of institutions – is a phenomenon that reached a tipping point in 2016 and with potentially epochal implications. And, seemingly, without warning.
How did we go from the idealism of the early Internet to our new state of cursive connectivity?
It was 2006 when YouTube went online and one year later when Facebook was lit up. So 2016 represented the 10th anniversary of the birth of the social media age. And like teenagers everywhere, social media is now starting to act out. But we are not talking about “fake news”—the influence of social media on the way we perceive the world goes much deeper than that.
Social media is, in essence, tabloid media. It’s not that social media platforms and users are not interested in “hard” news, it’s just they are just much more interested in things that are happy, sad, funny or violent. So far, so what; tabloid media has been around almost as long as media.
What makes the social media experience different is that our friends are both the sub-editors and the subjects of our media. They both choose the general news stories we see and feature in stories about themselves. Over time, the very concept of “news” becomes blurry. Important things happening to strangers is not interesting; mundane things happening to our friends is.
Because our social circle is determined in large part by our socio-economic circumstance, our news diet easily becomes a daily double-down digest: facts adjusted and prejudices reshuffled to fit a pre-set point of view. But because so much information is now in digital form, there is never any shortage of raw material to feed that framework, no matter what it happens to be.
Hence the disconnect between the broad content spectrum and the narrow perspective it feeds.
Which leads us to another, related paradox: never in human history has so much information been so readily available (and at no cost) to so many people, yet never before has a majority of people been so entrenched in their opinions. Instead of expanding our minds, the Internet age – and especially the social media age – has for many people contracted and blinkered them.
The impact goes beyond the socio-economic (important as that is). For years, marketers and communicators have been grappling with a real-time, omni-channel, media-neutral and fully integrated environment that makes the combination of getting the right message to the right person in the right market on the right device at the right time an exceedingly complex equation.
Yet, consider the two biggest world events of 2016: Trump and Brexit. The Trump campaign went through three campaign managers, spent more on hats than on data and was a famously fractious affair. The Brexit “leave” campaign was not even one campaign but three (later two, after a merger of sorts) who were as much at war with one another as with the “remain” crowd.
But both campaigns had something their opponents did not: a single, memorable message:
- “Make America Great Again!”
- “Take Back Control”
At the end of the day, this was enough to convince the right voters in the right places, despite each campaign (and one subsequent Presidency) having a loose relationship with the facts.
And this leads us to our third paradox: in an age of software and hardware accessibility that was unimaginable even at the turn of this century, it is only the most brutally single-minded messages speaking directly to our reptile brains that cut through. It seems that in order to capture the attention, focus and trust of audiences in 2017, we need to spend at least a little time thinking like we did in the day-glo hard-sell days of 1987… or maybe even much earlier.
This applies to what we do in the consumer, corporate and communications marketing space. The right brand with the right meaning, and the authenticity to back it up, could potentially not only gain attention for itself but even help shift us all out of the comfort of our echo chambers.
But there is also no escaping the new reality. Those of us who have been in digital marketing since the days of 50 percent banner click-throughs know that being digital is all about being human, and virtual space is a fun-house mirror of the physical world. But that thinking needs an upgrade. Yes, you must be omni-channel. Yes, you must be real-time. Yes, you must be media-neutral. But you also must ask the question: How would my message look on a red hat?
Gavin Coombes is managing director, Asia Pacific, Edelman Digital.