Is the Internet Changing our Brains?

I have been involved in a debate about whether the internet has changed marketing. It began in an exchange between myself and Paul Feldwick in Market Leader, the UK Marketing Society’s journal, and then moved on-line. There have been, as we hoped, some great contributions, including one from Elen Lewis who referenced an article in The Guardian that features several very eminent scientists (and a novelist) debating whether and how the internet has changed our very brains. I was interested in this since a big part of my argument that marketing has fundamentally changed as a result of the internet is based on the fact that society and people have changed. To be able to show that our brains have changed is therefore a killer point.

The article is worth reading in its entirety and being given some quiet consideration rather than surfing this short post to get the gist – you will realize the relevance/irony of this recommendation if you do. However, if, as a child of the internet, it is gist you want then here it is. Yes the internet is changing our brains. Some argue that it is for the worse, some argue it is just different with pro’s and cons, others argue it is our choice whether or not we allow it to change our brains (reading more books would help us retain our intellectual reasoning apparently).

For me the most interesting comment in the Guardian piece comes from Ed Bullmore, Cambridge Professor of Psychiatry no less. He argues that the internet resembles a human brain and how it works and therefore we can learn a lot about how we think by studying it. He calls the internet “a prosthesis of our collective memory” that’s an artificial brain to you and me. I know extrapolation is a dangerous thing but it has struck me before that if, at some point in the near future (near being imminent in evolutionary terms) everything that has ever been written and conceived, everyone one of us, every artifact and idea is digitally coded and available on the internet, and if every person on the planet is uploading their thoughts and conversations in real time, and if there are search engines and social networks able to allow each and everyone of us to access and connect all of these things again in real time, that is in effect one global brain is it not? This sounds a bit far fetched I agree. So do the views of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Far from being shame-faced that community information has leaked out he believes that everything should be transparent and publically available. He thinks – this is really crazy – that the world would be a better place, we would all behave better, if there were no secrets, if we were all honest with each other. Actually there must be a flaw in this argument since I have only one brain and I’m not honest with myself.

Anyway, the fact is that the big brains agree the internet is changing our brains and how they function as well as how we interact in our global cyber society. I think that means marketing must be changed fundamentally since at its heart it is about influencing how people think, behave and choose, individually and collectively, to the commercial benefit of a business. In fact I’d say that was game, set and match Paul! I’d now like to move on to a debate about the cult of celebrity and its role in our slide into destructive global decadence (aka Paris Hilton will be the death of all of us).

Any takers?

Social Media or Social Forum?

I’ve written in the past that marketers made a telling mistake by calling digital and the internet – “New Media”. By doing so they associated it with traditional one-way media such as print/TV etc. The internet is essentially a multi-dimensional exchange and probably its least effective use is as a medium for banner ads. The same people, in my view, are making the same mistake by calling Twitter and Facebook “Social Media”.

Twitter is a social forum, a big on-line conversation involving 100 million people and 65 million tweets a day (and counting – the new generation of mobile devices with Twitter as a main page app is going to make this explode). Of these Tweets 91% are people (yes – people, NOT ‘consumers’ another word that gets us into the wrong mindset). The balance comes from brands and just a tiny percentage – 0.4% – from celebrities. Celebrities are people too but the key difference, apart from their desire to make themselves a profitable brand, is that they reach, on average 300,000 followers, which is 1000 times more than the rest of us.

I have got all these stats from an excellent report by 360i published on the equally excellent Brandchannel. Definitely worth a download. Another telling stat from the report (completed in March 2010 so fairly up to date) is that 92% of all tweets are public so this is an on-line forum brands can and should tune in to. But that’s the point – people use Twitter to converse and air their views. Only 12% of the Tweets mention brands and most of these brands are technology, entertainment or other social networks. The rest are things like cars, cameras, music, restaurants – in other words brands that are a part of their lifestyle and interests. Not a lot are about Persil or Coke. Only 1% are engaging in conversations with brands which is hardly surprising since only 12% of brand tweets are conversational. The brands are talking AT them, not with them, just like they do in other ‘media’.

Here is how I think marketers and brands should think about social forums or networks. Imagine you are Coca Cola or Persil and you were sitting at a table in a pub or restaurant and on the table next to you were a big group of friends, talking loud enough for you to hear.  You would listen and learn but you would not interrupt unless there was a socially acceptable opportunity. For example one person complains that they have a stain in their favourite shirt they just can’t shift and have had to throw it away. Or someone complains that they think the draft Coke they are drinking always tastes watered down. You would pick your moment and you might say something like this:-

“Excuse me, I hope you don’t think I’m being rude but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I am actually Persil or Coke and I’m really sorry you’ve had a problem but I think I might be able to help you”.

If they had not mentioned anything to do with you but you have gathered from who they are (by the way, quite hard to do with Twitter other than by inference) that they are people you’d like to talk to, you would take a different approach.

“Hi guys, sorry to interrupt but I’m from Coke and I just wanted to let you know we’re having a party you might like to come along to (for ‘party’ read anything you are actually doing that could be of interest to this group). Let me tell you about it and you tell me what you think”

You see the point I’m making – treat it like the social discourse it is. Don’t barge in, don’t talk at them, talk with them, be helpful, be relevant, be interesting.

And recognize that most of the time, they do not want you involved in their conversation. There is no socially acceptable moment to interrupt them and introduce yourself. That said we have to be careful with percentages. Based on 360i’s figures I reckon that even if it is only 1% of the 12% of tweets that mention brands other than technology/entertainment etc this is still close to 100,000 conversations a day you may be interested in and where the participants may be interested in you. That’s 3 million a month. How many people do you talk to in focus groups? How many effective messages from your very expensive conventional media actually get through? But please, just remember to be sociable. As 360i say in their report – Twitter is not a megaphone.

If you don’t have the patience for all of this then get hold of a few celebrities and get them to plug you but try not to make it too obvious.

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