It is time for all the digital messiahs to recalibrate
A view from Claire Beale

It is time for all the digital messiahs to recalibrate

I've spent big chunks of the past few weekends reading entries to WPP's internal Atticus Awards, which I'm judging again this year.

Sheesh, it’s been hard work judging the shortlisted papers. Because almost every paper is stuffed with valuable learning, judging them is a bit like trying to cram for a major exam: you just hope not too many facts and thoughts will slosh straight out again as your brain begins to overflow. 

Young people actually don't want to be changed by digital; many are starting to tire of being always-on

Anyway, what was unusual about this year’s judging was the presence of several entry papers that focused on what the authors had identified as a nascent digital backlash. What a relief. We’ve had years of reading clever stuff about how digital and social are fundamentally changing not just the way people do things but people themselves. And they have – but not at the expense of everything pre-digital. Now several Atticus papers have offered some very clever thinking around the idea that people – many of them young – actually don’t want to be changed by all things digital; many are starting to tire of being always-on, always connected, always interacting, always being watched and monitored and tracked. They would like a bit of quiet, unconnected, uninteractive time, please.

This always seemed inevitable to me: as digitally native teenagers grow up, have kids, get mortgages and spend all day sitting in offices working on screens, coming home and sitting back and simply being entertained becomes a brain-salve. It’s why TV viewing (on whatever device) is as popular as ever.

I reckon a year or two ago, even the smart people at WPP wouldn’t have been very keen to write this down in a paper to put before the boss. Trying to frame any sort of reality check around digital communications was tantamount to writing yourself out of the future. Sir John Hegarty put it brilliantly a couple of weeks ago when he said that the messiahs of digital are "a bit like the Taliban; if you don’t believe what they believe, you’ll be taken out and shot".

Now there’s a groundswell of thinking and research around our tolerance limits for our connected digital world – limits that will have been hardened a little more by this week’s revelations that Facebook has been manipulating our emotions by doctoring our news feeds to test the impact of positive versus negative news on our state of mind. Standard(ish) research practice, perhaps, but disturbingly creepy.

None of this amounts to a full-scale recalibration to analogue, of course, but it’s a sobering reflection of how militant and carried away our industry can get in its obsessive pursuit of the new. And it’s nice to have a bit more balance at last. @clairebeale