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The Rise of a Betterverse.

In the next decade, young people will grow up with a greater understanding of the effects digital media has on their lives – a digital awakening if you will. A betterverse, rather than a metaverse.

We’re nearly at the halfway mark, so no doubt you’ve been busy executing all the digital trends of 2022.

By now, your brand will be on TikTok.

If you work at a more forward-thinking company, you’ll do business in the metaverse.

You will have dabbled with NFTs.

You’ve stopped using influencers. Instead, you have ‘pivoted’ to more authentic, human voices such as content creators to endorse your brand.

Perhaps you’ve been grappling with the impending doom and gloom surrounding personalisation. Baffled that while the general public loved the dystopian movie The Minority Report, they don’t like living in it.

I’m pleased to say I’ve finally read all 1,000 digital trends reports, which is like reading the same pamphlet 1,000 times. The thing is, I feel like there is one glaring one missing.

If I can be all futurist for a second, I’d call it a digital awakening, and for brands and digital media companies, it could be a rude one.

I don’t know when this will happen. Probably not this year, possibly soon.

Indeed, in the next decade, young people, let’s call them Generation Alpha (otherwise, I have no credibility as a futurist), will grow up with a much greater understanding of the effects digital media has on their lives – a digital awakening if you will. A betterverse, rather than a metaverse.

It won’t be a revolt or a revolution, simply a better understanding of digital media.

I’m not for one second saying digital media things will die. Like TV, radio, or the printed press before them. That would be silly. Because they all still seem to be here, despite everyone saying they will die. I’m simply saying kids born in the last few years will grow up thinking that the way we use digital media now is ridiculous, even harmful.

The thing is, digital media is still very new. At least in terms of mass access to the Internet, social media, smartphones, VR, AR, NFTs, the metaverse etc.  

Apparently, it takes up to one hundred years for technological revolutions, like the industrial revolution, to become fully formed, adequately regulated and for society to understand the downside and the upside.

It’s fair to say, we’re probably in the; ‘it’s cool not to be working in the fields doing back-breaking work, now I’m in a slightly warmer factory, working 12 hours a day, for more money, six days a week, with food on the table. How much better is life?’ phase.

After the novelty and hype died down (about 30 years in), people went, hang on a minute. Whilst all this technological progress has made my life better and easier, I feel exploited. Things could be much better. I work long hours in dangerous conditions, missing out on the old stuff that was good, like working outside, with people and not inhaling fumes that cause black lung.

In the beginning, the promise of technology moves fast, whipping us all up into a naïve frenzy, pushing the boundaries of social norms until we get to grips with it all, discovering that perhaps, it’s all a bit too good to be true.

As I’m often told. I’m not a digital native, I don’t get it. But there are too many signals to suggest a digital awakening isn’t upon us.

I don’t have a trendy trend forecaster hype cycle, I’m afraid. Just a list of observations that makes me confident a reaction is starting to emerge. But rather than a lengthy summary of every single observation, I’ll provide a list of things to read, watch and listen to.

In our industry, it’s easy to be myopic about the promise of technology, but I encourage you to be open-minded about what’s going on and why rebalancing our relationship with digital media could be a very good thing. Perhaps, it’s too late for us, but hopefully not for our kids.

There’s some actual research. By independent, objective researchers.

From productivity, anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, suicide and ADHD to name a few, there’s simply too much evidence from multiple peer-reviewed studies to deny there isn’t direct causation between the excessive use of digital media and these issues. If there’s one thing to read, check out Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus. You won’t be able to think about digital media the same way again. Even the best of us touch our phones 2,617 times a day.

There’s a worrying body of evidence showing how the digital media ecosystem is easily manipulated and how disinformation spreads. According to Ed Coper in his marvellous book, Facts and other Lies, disinformation spreads six times faster than the truth. Why this happens is complicated, but one reason concerns smart people knowing how to push our buttons. And we respond as they predict we will, pushing their buttons.

Outrage machines getting outed.

Social media companies and far too many media publishers for my liking know what makes us click. The infamous Facebook Papers prove the company actively prioritises content that causes outrage and elicits negative emotions, (even if it’s disinformation) because that’s what we’re wired to pay more attention to. And the more attention they have, the more ads they can serve us. Go Zuck, on your mission to make the world more connected.

The same goes for a lot of media publishers who know we have a negativity bias. Essentially, we’re more attracted to news that has a good dose of fear and drama in it. It’s what draws more eyeballs, clicks, shares and comments. Again, all much better for ad revenue, but not for us.

The last couple of years have been tough, but believe it or not, we live in the most peaceful and prosperous time in human history. Of course, it doesn’t feel like that, because we get served a firehose of drama every single day, designed to make us outraged. If we had a positivity bias, the world might look a lot different.  

So, we know misinformation travels faster than the truth and media companies actively serve us content that makes us outraged. But fear not dear reader, help is on its way. Kind of.  

The tin fist of government.

As mentioned, it takes a while for government to work out what’s going on. It needs stuff like Brexit, Donald Trump and Covid conspiracy theories to spur them into action. So, whilst things haven’t gone far enough (anybody else get a text message from Craig Kelly lying his arse off in the last couple of weeks?), GDPR in Europe is a good start, but I’d imagine a genuine Royal Commission into the entire digital media ecosystem could be on the cards and not just the flimsy media bargaining code. The faster government regulation can catch up, the better.

Education. Education. Education.

Quite possibly, one of the most important organisations in Australia right now is The Australian Media Literacy Alliance.  

Imagine growing up and not needing to learn to drive. You could basically drive about, endangering yourself and others. That’s ultimately what we’ve been doing for nearly three decades with digital media. You might think I’m being dramatic, but what’s the point of addressing the cost of living and inflation, if we have an entire generation suffering from mental health issues and a democracy that cannot function?

Thanks to organisations like The Australian Media Literacy Alliance, young people will grow up being something we aren’t – media literate. Hopefully, media literacy will be given the same amount of attention as all other forms of literacy.

Popular culture.

If this has all got a bit heavy and academic, one of the biggest signals about things changing relates to what we’re seeing in popular culture. When societal issues are turned into entertainment, a reaction will always emerge. From Black Mirror, The Social Dilemma, Fyre Festival, Don’t Look Up, XX, Anthem and Snow Crash (admittedly written 20 years ago, but it’s popular again for a reason) there is a wealth of evidence to suggest we might be starting to think about technology differently.  

Who really knows whether we can ever have a healthy relationship with digital media, but in encouraging signs, we’re seeing ‘anti-Instagram apps like Be Real gain in popularity. Currently the number one free app on the App store in the US, users can only post once a day at a set time. Encouraging people to share a photo at the exact same moment, unfiltered.

You could be cynical a say it’s just shady characters using them, but sales of ‘dumb phones’ grew 150% to 1bn units, just 400m shy of total smartphone sales. Teenagers are increasingly attracted to them as it forces them to avoid the temptation and distractions of a smartphone.  

We could of course ignore all this. But if we believe advertising is a powerful force. It must come with a responsibility. We could choose to manipulate digital media given we know how easy it is to do, or change things for the better.

If you’ve read to this point, thank you. I’ll come back to you in ten years to see if I was right. Here’s hoping.

Words by Carl Moggridge.

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In the next decade, young people will grow up with a greater understanding of the effects digital media has on their lives – a digital awakening if you will. A betterverse, rather than a metaverse.