The great digital divide

What’s going on in digital? Once the saviour of advertising, marketing and fundraising, digital’s riven by scandal, confusion, hype and the occasional wild success.

Everyone knows it’s the future. No-one knows what that future looks like.

There’s a yawning chasm opening up at the centre, a great digital divide that’s pulling in two mutually exclusive directions.

On one side of the divide is technology and data. Programmatic ad-buying, AI, and the ability to target users based on demographics, interests, even mood – they all promise a future that’s largely automated. Creativity becomes a science not an art (as Facebook automatically rearranges images and headlines on your ads) and we, the people, largely get out of the way. Function wins.

But this high-tech future focuses on a very traditional model of marketing – the binary, direct marketing approach that shows people things and asks them to click on them. Click or don’t click. Buy or don’t buy. It’s a one-to-one, on-off paradigm that largely ignores the powerful opportunity created by our newly networked lives. Essentially this way of thinking is a hugely modern, clever, data-driven way to serve very old ads, offers and asks.

(Which is why there’s an incredibly ugly piece of clickbait about getting a flat stomach at the bottom of your article about building trust online. And why ad-blockers are growing exponentially.)

On the other side of the divide, we have values, behaviours, instincts and emotions – raw humanity, in short. This is the internet that’s sharing memes, asking for a friend, sending love to the people of Manchester, Nice, London & Paris. It’s the internet of co-operation and reciprocity, of strangers arguing, Corbyn memes and ‘You OK hun?’.

This is the internet that brought us the Ice Bucket Challenge, Boaty McBoatface, the Helen Titchener appeal, Humans of New York and Find Mike. It’s profoundly modern in that it embraces the recursive model – results bring more results, because people share what interests/moves/angers them, and people like to show other people it interests/moves/angers them too.

The question is, which side are you on? Or perhaps it should be, can you straddle the divide?

Can you make the best of the tech-and-data driven world by building seamless transaction processes and platforms, getting search right up to scratch and making sure you’re running a robust digital DM programme?

And at the same time, can you make sure you’re thinking, behaving and believing like a human being? Can you invest time, effort and money in the very raw human creativity that might help you break out of the binary prison?

Digital has entered our lives with such rapidity and profoundly transformative power that it’s left millions of us feeling dislocated and dissociated. We’re served more and more alienating, worrying, angering content by click-hungry news networks. We’re all desperately using emojis to inject warmth and emotion into what seems like a colder, harder, faster, less forgiving way to exist.

That’s because, at root, we’re still human beings – no matter how much we’re treated like fleshy data sets. We still want to believe, belong, and matter. Digital can do that too. It can make us feel more human. If we let it.