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How digital tech twisted and contorted the world in 2018

As featured on nzherald.co.nz

Whether we like it or not, the impact of social media and the omnipresent digital landscape reached new heights in 2018. As a society, we’re exploring these uncharted waters together.

Unprecedented levels of information is at our fingertips. Unprecedented levels of individual data collected. There were so many eye-catching headlines in 2018 that you’d be forgiven for missing a few.

Don’t worry; here’s your 2018 Digital Cheat Sheet.

Personalisation

Personalisation is hardly new. But with the explosion in data and machine learning it’s now endless. More importantly: a lot of the time we don’t know it’s happening. One great example of this is how Netflix tailors artwork to suit you.

Consider Pulp Fiction, a 90s classic. If you watch a lot of Uma Thurman then the Pulp Fiction artwork Netflix shows will feature Uma Thurman. If you’re more of a John Travolta fan, you’ll see a different version of Pulp Fiction’s artwork.

This kind of personalisation presents a level of brand risk. An algorithm that learns about your users and personalises content accordingly sounds great. And it is. Until it isn’t. See Exhibit B:

Algorithms aren’t neutral. The bias of code is having an impact in very real ways.

The law of unintended consequences always has a knack of sneaking its way into uncomfortable places. And in the age of social media, consumers no longer have to silently observe from a distance. They can actively contribute to the discussions.

Privacy

2018 was the year where the erosion of our privacy became crystal clear. The examples of this are almost endless. But it’s often hard to appreciate what this means on a personal level. That’s not a problem when The New York Times illustrates how your apps track your every move. Or when they reveal that Facebook gave companies permission to read users’ private messages.

My prediction? We’ll continue scrolling, clicking, sharing, and consuming.

GDPR

The EU have dialled it up a notch. The penalties for companies who violate this privacy-protecting legislation can be severe. With fines tied to a company’s global revenue the cost of getting it wrong can be eye-watering. Facebook could be fined US$1.63 billion as a result of a recent breach.

Trust

Every fake news controversy makes the weaknesses of digital and social more clear. And with this, the value of traditional media becomes more obvious.

When KFC ran out of chicken they didn’t rely on clever community management and great social content. They pulled out the big guns with a full-page print ad that caught everyone’s attention.

KFC’s response to running out of chicken was widely applauded.

Digital’s dominance in spend and reach is only growing. But when you want to make a statement does a Tweet carry enough weight?

Influencers

2018 has been the year where influencer marketing has finally had to grow up. ‘Fake Followers’ hit headlines after Unilever called out dodgy practices in the industry. And It’s hard to overstate the problem. A study by Points North Group found that some brands’ campaigns reached mostly fake accounts.

Thankfully, we’re starting to see businesses focusing on what actually matters: influence.

Activism

It’s been a year of activism, both corporate and personal. Nike made a strong and polarising statement with their Colin Kaepernick campaign. And other brands have aligned themselves to political and social causes.

We’ll see how this plays out. The brands who take a position that matches their brand will do well. Those who try to be something they’re not? Time will tell.

Activism in advertising

There you have it. A snapshot of the issues making headlines in 2018 and a taste of things to come. Over 55 per cent of the world’s population have access to the Internet. 400 hours’ worth of user-generated content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Netflix consumes 15 per cent of the world’s Internet bandwidth. Spotify has over 83 million paying subscribers.

To a certain extent, we’ve now taken care of the easier opportunities offered by the internet. The next 10-20 years will see us tackling bigger, more complicated problems.
The Information Age is here, and everyone wants your ears, eyes, heart, and wallet. The future is bright, but let’s keep our wits about us – “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product.”

I’ll leave you with this: In Rwanda, more than 35 per cent of their blood supply is now delivered by drone. And Google’s AI Assistant can now book hair appointments over the phone. It’s terrifyingly creepy.

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