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Digital Developments: The Tech is Ready – Are We?

[In this column, we take a look at the possibilities of the digital sphere for engaging the public on a broader scale, have a brief moment with co-ownership and try to find answers where everyone is looking.]

Looking at Facebook these days, there has been a great couple of changes and not just in the numbers and ways that Mr. Zuckerberg is harvesting our data and making it all more ad-friendly. One major change that has occurred in the time from a few years ago to now is the different style of using it. A surge of people, companies and institutions joining the network led to a professionalization of its usage; We have all become increasingly cautious with private matters being publicly discussed in a way that we would have thought normal in 2009, many of us are now friends with our employers, co-workers (because it would seem socially awkward otherwise), and are following people from all kinds of professions, backgrounds and fame. It is even possible to get paid just for being online and represent someone or even just tell people how to do so.

One thing though, are we doing that, talking to non-people people? And are we being motivated to do so?

Social media in particular stand for the technical possibilities coined as “the Digital Revolution”, something that will very likely bring changes on scales and levels not yet imaginable and that promise fundamental changes in how we conduct our affairs. So, the technology is ready – but are we? Looking at the way companies, societal institutions and organizations are conducting their social media, we are still far away from a truly interactive state of mind. The main paradigm of conducting a brand/company/ organization can still be broken down to “Look at me, I am awesome!” We are still putting posters on walls to be recognized by the world.  Be it a project worth promotion, a cause or article written, the intent of posts is an imperative one most of the time: Read! Like! Share! Promote! Invest! And we do: read, like, share and sometimes even invest. But do we interact?

Also: how do we measure social media success? In likes, people coming to our website, in comments? And what is the exchange-rate of those? How many Likes make up for a discussion in the comments, how many pageviews for a social media ‘share’?

Using digital tech that includes the ability to comment doesn’t make something 2.0 in the same sense that having legs doesn’t make us long-distance runners. When using social media, it will not do to declare what you want to communicate and to whom, but also what you want from your audience and what degree of interaction you would like to see on your Facebook page. This goes especially for organizations highly dependent on people’s emotional ties to them and nothing bonds as well as co-authorship, no matter how small the contribution.

Crowdfunding is a great example of that: you may only have invested €10, but when in the next project update the speaker is thanking “you, our awesome backers, thank you so much, this would not have been possible without you! Much love…” they mean you. They may mean you only among 10,000 others, but they do actually mean you (yes, you!) and the gratefulness is real. This has the effect that the emotional investment in the project is even stronger and the emotional rewards add immensely to what we get out of it other than the knowledge of having donated money to whichever charity we chose.

In terms of politics, policies and campaigning, the digital sphere is a double edged sword. The aim of using any kind of media for politics is predominantly an ancient, one-sided one: you want your heralds to get your message ‘out there’, want the arguments you represent to be heard, agreed with and avoid shitstorms if possible. As much as we want to engage with ‘the people’ online, a truly two-sided conversation is hardly possible, simply by strength of numbers, quality vs quantity of comments and the oft-forgotten 24-hour limit of each day. Even if tech-savvy and interested in this kind of outreach, it is simply not possible for politicians to engage with ‘everyone’, and anyone who has seen those 30-second ‘dear internet’ videos that are occasionally shot with politicians will probably agree that many if not most of them are quite frankly awful.

There are myriads of ways to provide and present information and arguments online, and while grassroots initiatives and civil society can relatively easily align their bottom-up approach with the workings of the internet, the approach of policy makers, politicians etc. to the internet is by default more on the top-down side of things. As much as they and their staff may want to include everyone, engaging with the public online is both time and resource consuming. Digital media are still on the way to reach total numbers of people comparable to more traditional media outlets to the point where it would be cost-beneficial for a politician to go online for a debate/Reddit AMA/Google Hangout or podcast instead of the next-best TV-talk show of choice.

Of course, true interactivity does not always make sense and cannot always be the aim for approaching people online (after all, you do(!) want to sell something or make a specific point), let alone it is a phenomenon where no one has found a consistent answer yet. That however is the good news, there is still lots of room to experiment. Yes, we may in the end still be putting up posters with our faces on them, run ads that basically say ‘Buy me, I am awesome!’ or invite people to events with the principle headline “We’re smart, come and listen!” but until we come up with something better, this is what we have. When wanting to get to know our audience, there is still no other way to find out than trying out different things/approaches, keep the things that worked best and work more on what didn’t. Same as it ever was.

by Moritz Borchardt


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