The winter of our discontent
Posted January 22, 2014on:
There’s been a reflective mood in the industry of late. A recurring theme in many end of year roundups was the need to stop, to look inwards, to step away from the perpetual motion of the stream. I was relieved in many ways to read it, to realise that I wasn’t alone in finding that the noise was increasingly drowning out the signal.
Like many others, I was struck powerfully by Alexis Madrgial’s post: “The Year the Stream Crested”, where he laments the rise of “newness” as the sole organizing principle for the web:
“The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on newness.”
It’s a fascinating read, that touches on any number of interesting themes, from the polarisation of our attention span (from 7 second Vine videos to “bingeing” on House of Cards) to the pursuit of disposability as a response to surveillance culture.
In response both to this post, and to an overall sense that enough is enough, lots of clever folk- from Mel Exon to Andy Whitlock to Toby Barnes-have come up with their recommendations for stepping back, for finding islands in the stream. I wonder though if there’s more at play here than simply feed fatigue. If the problem isn’t just the stream but the same-ness.
Like many of these commentators, I found myself feeling that what seemed exhilarating and dynamic just a short while ago was feeling not just overwhelming, but somehow stale-dulled by sheer volume and ubiquity. It was harder to get excited not only about the next post or list but about the next big acquisition or the next social sharing app-and I say that as someone who is deeply passionate about the power of technology to transform.
So what lies behind this broader sense of ennui?
I think there are two factors in play:
1. The revolution has paused
2. We have created a new consensus
1. The revolution has paused
In the last decade, two huge developments have enabled change on an unprecedented scale: the rise of the social web and the invention of the smartphone.
These structural changes-enabling ever more connected consumers and ever more connected devices-set the stage for almost every trend that has consumed us in recent years, from crowdsourcing to wearables, location to the sharing economy, big data to crowdfunding to social activism to mobile commerce.
There have of course been important developments which have fuelled these macro trends-peer to peer payments, ubiquitous WiFi and 3G access-but a third great structural leap forward has been slow to emerge.
Which means rather than having a world of brand new possibilities to evangelise, we have some now familiar technologies to perfect and mature, which is nowhere near as easy to do.
The promise of the social web in particular feels slow to come to fruition as the major players wrestle with monetisation challenges and become ever more like broadcast channels and less like the transformative forces for change they first appeared. Yet it’s important to remember that the social web is more than the social networks-that the gift of those networks is a web of data and connections that creates an infrastructure we can build all manner of services on top of-inspiring and delightful services built on the power of peer to peer sharing, from Waze to Ushahidi to Kickstarter to AirBNB.
Our challenge is to remember it’s still early morning in the evolution of these channels. That much of the hard work of the last few years has been groundwork. That we will get things wrong, go down some cul de sacs, feel disenchanted and start again. That when we do build products and services that are genuinely social-social in that they empower users to share their data, their wisdom, and their property-we make a difference. That as familiar and ubiquitous as these technologies now are, that is the very thing that makes them so extraordinarily powerful. As Kevin Kelly puts it:
2. We have created a new consensus
Much of the fire and energy that has ignited the blogosphere in recent years has been about rejecting older truths. The spirit of challenge and iconoclasm has been rife. In the process we have created new orthodoxies together:
• That brands are now built as much by what they do as by what they say (From Big Ideas to Big Actions)
• That we live in the age of a vocal, connected consumer where peer to peer influence-ever powerful-is now powerful at scale
• That ideas are used, shared and propagated in networks, not solely in agencies
• That consumers are telling us, in real time, more about what they need and want than ever before and that we can and must respond to this in real time
We have been distracted, at times, by some flawed assumptions:
• That a mass of consumers want to actively participate with brands-they don’t
• That the campaign was dead, long live the platform-it isn’t
• That it would be easy to mine and integrate social, location and brand data-in practice, it can be extraordinarily difficult
And we have remembered that some old truths should not be forgotten:
• That brands grow, in the main, though scale not depth
• That most consumers, most of the time, don’t care very much about brands
• That they care, enormously, about the things they have always cared about-connecting with their loved ones, building social capital, connecting around their passions, improving themselves and their communities. Old motivations, new techniques
Along the way, some amazing brains have created some of the Ur-texts of this new consensus-Gareth Kay, John Willshire, Mel Exon, Edward Boches, Martin Weigel, Mark Earls, Mike Arauz, the brothers Malbon to name but a few- all big thinkers and always worth a read. Some of these new orthodoxies will be challenged and upended, some will stick-but for now, we hold many of these truths to be self-evident. (Which is enough, in itself, to make an iconoclast twitchy).
So despite stream fatigue and perhaps even some innovation fatigue, we live in extraordinary times, with amazing new infrastructures and exciting new brand imperatives. So what do we do in this new environment?
Be your own inspiration
In this new world order, we need to be our own inspiration. To work harder to add value, not simply have a presence. To develop social applications and services that harness the power of sharing to disrupt, empower and enable. To develop mobile applications that genuinely transform a brand’s availability, distribution channel or service model.
Make less, but better
Despite the wealth of new work springing into our feeds everyday, there are perhaps a handful of pieces of work we look to again and again for inspiration-gems like the aforementioned Waze and Ushahidi alongside Nike Plus, We Feel Fine, Aaron Koblin’s experiments in data and crowd-creation.
What pulls these pieces of work apart is that they are labours of love, perfected over time. There are executed beautifully, not fetishing design for design’s sake but with care and reverence for the user experience, motivation and reward.
They make leaps forward in what is considered possible. They invent. They avoid becoming what Tim Malbon describes as “digital landfill”.
Think invention, not (just) innovation
A culture of innovation as important. Whatever strategies we put in place to help navigate the stream (and we certainly need them), it is important of course to remain connected to the new. But it is equally important to remember that trends are tools, not ends. More important is a culture of invention, of making things that never existed before. Creating our own inspiration.
Or as the late, great Seamus Heaney put it:
“Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’