How digital is redefining human identity

Last week the government’s Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington published a fascinating futures report asking ‘How will changes in the next ten years affect notions of identity in the UK?” It couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time too; with the digital age completely reinventing the way we look at ourselves, an unfathomable amount of data being created on a daily basis and social media treacherously straddling the line between good and evil.

Identity is always an incredibly intriguing subject to delve into, because it’s such a personal concept. The report discusses how traditional ideas of identity are becoming much less meaningful in the face of the web, with identities subsequently becoming defined primarily by our more innate human characteristics. The web isn’t producing a new form of identity per se, but as we become more connected and data even more prevalent, it’s “raising awareness that identities are more multiple, culturally contingent and contextual than had previously been understood.”

Through the proliferation of technology, the report suggests the UK should be considered a virtual environment, in addition to the traditional physical one. In the short term, technology allows migrant communities to remain connected to those on the other side of the world. But in the longer term, social plurality is cited as an increasingly important consideration for marketers. As the traditional barriers between communities dissolve, along with the emergence of online virtual communities; the report suggests that there are also subsequently new life stages to consider as well. There has been a 20 percent increase in the number of adults between 20 and 34 who are still living with their parents between 1997 and 2011; meanwhile more people are finding themselves caring for older parents. Traditional customer understanding has been rooted in a certain set of fundamentals, which in turn form the basis for which we go onto craft insight; demographics for example. An individual’s sense of identity can evoke some of the strongest emotions, but that will soon erode away. As even the boundaries between childhood and adulthood are now beginning to blur, marketers need to adapt to fully understand the context of who they are engaging with.

While identity will become less meaningful, data and hyper connectivity, are going to be the primary drivers of profound changes to society in the next ten years. Today, data is currently driving a customer-first approach across the breadth of marketing and allowing us to push boundaries in terms of engagement and brand experiences. But in the quest to gather more qualitative, detailed and nuanced insight, it’s easy to overlook the overarching human traits, natures and behaviours that bind us all.

Hyper connectivity, for example, is in many ways an incredibly exciting prospect for marketers. Working and collaborating with connected offices around the world has its obstacles today, but tomorrow it could be as instant and seamless that they could be working across the corridor. In an industry where an extra three hours in the day may not be enough to get everything, such connectivity can’t come quick enough.

But outside of the realm of work, marketers need to ask what hyper connectivity means for us as human beings, because those ramifications will be the ones that truly shape how we really work with each other. Judging by the astounding technological progress we’ve made in the past ten years, it’s not a stretch of the imagination at all that working with a colleague in Singapore will feel no different to working with one sitting in the adjacent desk.

Currently, cultural influences drawn from the context of our lives define us: where we come from, the environment we grew up in, our accent, fashion sense, etc. But in a hyper connected world, the localities and communities that allow us a sense of belonging are likely to become less easily defined as culture becomes further globalised. What if the cultural factors that currently define our identity, are increasingly rooted in the online space rather than region?

Due to the development of smart phones, social networks and this trend towards greater connectivity, disparate groups can be more easily mobilised where their interests temporarily coincide; flash mobs for example. Traditionally communities are forged over time and through particularly strong shared bonds, but these new communities are much more spontaneous, temporary and impulsive; tapping into immediate waves of emotion. This can equally be a positive or a destructive force (see both the cause and aftermath of the 2011 riots). While potentially a powerful tool for marketers, it can easily be their downfall too if a community mobilises to directly target a specific brand. Individual consumer sentiment can be volatile; combine it with a herd mentality and it could be fatal for business.

It’s also apparent that the distinction between the online and the real world will continue to diminish. Currently many of us are able to craft differing work and social personas, each relating to the appropriate context and arguably only ever blurred by the office Christmas party. But while we can ‘escape’ on the web currently by creating new identities for ourselves, whether it be through gaming or social media, the proliferation of technologies such as biometric identification, facial recognition and spatial tracking will likely make it highly difficult for us to create any kind of distance between our actions and our identity. Certainly, balancing the preservation of individual rights and liberties in the face of all this data will be a key concern in the coming years.

What is certain is that data is the new digital currency; and in the transformational stage we currently sit at, it’s incredibly important for brands to carefully construct relationships with consumers now as we move towards a highly uncertain digital future. Data and insight hold the key to developing such relationships, and consumers increasingly understand that by sharing data, it can subsequently be used to improve the service they receive. But such a secession of control is inherently scary, and any perceived misuse of data can immediately unsettle consumers and erase progress made.

Businesses need to successfully walk this proverbial tightrope by fully understanding the implications of the role they play in their consumer’s lives, and how fragile trust can be.

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By Amanda Phillips