Is Digital Tearing Us Apart?

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Social media and digital communications have made the world a smaller and more connected place bringing us all closer together. The internet has given us a boundless source of information and knowledge on any topic at our fingertips.

However, what has been often heralded as the savior of free speech has developed a darker side. A seemingly counter intuitive reverse effect of turning people inwards and towards polarized extremes, as we’ve seen more than ever before in the run up to the election.

How can this be? And how can both the increased connectedness and polarization be happening simultaneously?

There seem to be four interrelated forces at play and all have both good and bad elements.

More Content Than We Can Handle

Digital content overload

Picture Credit: Jason Casteel

From the first message boards and blogs, the barriers that used to stand in the way of the average person producing and distributing content have rapidly disappeared. Now anyone who wants to can get their opinions out to wide audiences through a whole variety of channels.

With the massive increase in volume there has inevitably been a reduction in quality – and many of the traditional professional checks and balances have either disappeared completely or have been seriously eroded.

Reduced Attention Span

The increase in volume has forced the reader to adapt to prevent drowning in a sea of content. They have acquired the skill to assess and filter information much faster than used to be necessary. Attention spans have dropped precipitously and small bite-sized “snackable” pieces of content have become the most common form of consumption – the headline has become more important than story in grabbing attention

Reduced Importance of Truth and Facts

The fabric of social media is built on engagement. The more engaging a piece of content the more in will be shared both by humans and by technology algorithms which are designed to mirror and amplify the engagement. For commercial and personal brand reasons, “sharability” and “virality” are what many content producers seek and in many cases is more important than factual quality. A shocking, sexy, catchy story with no factual basis beats a dull truth.

The increasingly blurred line between paid advertising and editorial content also make it a lot harder to spot a paid plug from a carefully-researched, objective article.

Personalization

Whether it’s automated (as in Facebook’s newsfeed) or by our own selection (choosing and then personalizing our news sources) we increasingly receive information which is aligned with our interests, beliefs and inherent biases.

It’s happening gradually as personalization gets more sophisticated and the net result is that over time we are all being exposed less and less to alternative points of view and different perspectives. This has become very apparent in the run up to the election, where many people have expressed disbelief in the polls when what they read online and hear from their friends supports what they think.

We are becoming more self-centered, living a lot of our lives in a virtual digital world created for each one of us, surrounded by people and opinions that predominantly think like us and reinforce our current beliefs, making it much harder to understand and accept those that see the world differently.

Takeaway for Marketers

Marketers are another group of content creators competing for precious attention and looking to engage and influence opinion and purchase behavior. It’s getting increasingly hard to get to that customer in their individual digital environment. The best marketers are thinking of the content challenge through the eyes of the customer and customizing their message to be engaging and personally relevant to the individual micro-segmentation preferences such that it gets through the attention and personalization filters.