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Unfuck digital ! — Why we should reboot the digital revolution.

In 2020, even the biggest tech enthusiasts have to admit: the digital revolution is at a turning point. After years of endless euphoria, the techlash strikes back — and we have to figure out how to deal with it.

Sure, in the last 25 years alone new technologies have changed our lives on this planet beyond imagination. But the progress had some ugly side effects nobody expected — that lead to a great disillusionment in society and several industries in recent years.

  • Social media has a huge trust problem — especially since the refusal of some platforms to take responsibility for their technology that was abused to manipulate human behaviour, surveil people and spread fake news and hate speech.

To put it short: It looks like we really fucked up the digital revolution.

And now? ‘Business as usual’ is a shitty option. Turning back time and ‘un-digitalize everything’ won’t work as well.

„Even if we could turn back, we’d probably never end up where we started… .“
— Haruki Murakami, 1Q66

We should consider a third option: A reboot for the digital revolution!

How to reboot the digital revolution.

I know, ‘reboot’ is a very techy term that seems counterproductive to solve problems caused by too much tech enthusiasm.

But I believe it’s the right metaphor — because we will need technology to correct the wrong ways from the early days of digitalisation and overcome the global challenges we face today.

Imagine the world as a giant operating system. A reboot would clean up causes for crashes, update useful functions and maybe even implement some new features.

It could help to create a new narrative for a world where technological progress is not considered a threat, but also not the solution for every problem. A world where we finally find a conscious, sustainable way to deal with technology.

The good news: there are already great approaches out there to unfuck what went wrong in areas like communication, online advertising, business innovation, internet architecture, privacy and design. We just have to use und build upon them. One baby step at a time. Or, to remain in the metaphor: One version update after another.

In the end, it’s pretty simple: We are still only at the beginning of the digital revolution. If we want to change pace and direction towards a better future — why not now?

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

#1. Reboot communication: Tell better stories, but less.

The digital revolution enabled us to summon the worlds knowledge with our fingertips, connect with everyone on the planet and share ideas in real time from almost everywhere we are. It is hard to understate how fundamentally our communication behaviour has changed in just a short period of time.

Humans and brands use this new freedom to communicate excessively. But maybe we have gone too far.

More and more people are annoyed and overwhelmed by the information overload through the steadily swelling streams of social networks, messengers and the like.

One reason: marketers have drastically increased the frequency and therefore the volume of content in recent years. Following the mantra of “More is always better“, being in the feeds was all that counts – but at what cost?

“In our quest to produce dynamic real-time marketing in the digital age, we were producing thousands of new ads, posts, tweets, every week, every month, every year. I guess we thought the best way to cut through the clutter was to create more ads. All we were doing was adding to the noise.”
Marc Pritchard (P&G), 2016, at ANA “Masters of Marketing” conference

As a result, at one point in time not only the quality of communication decreased dramatically — the meaning itself very often went lost.
Who really needed social media pseudo dialogue with insurance brands wishing a “Nice weekend”? What effect on brand had engagement fishing posts with „activating questions“? Or clickbaiting articles? None of these added any value for people — nor did they do anything for brands.

Maybe these times are already over now — I mean, organic reach of brand posts and stories is dead anyway, isn’t it? Nowadays, only lots of ad spending lets you pass the feed algorithm bouncers that control the access to the audience you built up with hard work over the years. At least now every marketer should ask himself if the effects of mediocre contents really justify the effort for production, distribution and media.

THOUGHT STARTER #1:
What if we prioritized communication quality over quantity?

Why don’t we just stop the meaningless “filling of channels with contents”? This does not only feel like work for works sake, it’s also pretty close to spam.

Let’s create less communication instead — but more creative, relevant, visible and with higher production quality. One great video used until the ‘wear out effect’ sets in will do way more for a brand than bombarding people with a high frequency of thousand trivial, badly produced posts.

Photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash

#2. Reboot advertising: Kill digital ads.

Once upon a time, digital advertising started with a big promise: finally measurable advertising effects. For performance oriented kinds of ads like search this was and is (mostly) true.

But let’s be honest: the major part of digital advertising today is just a means of money destruction. Even though media and platform companies will claim the opposite.

„For several years the advertising industry has been engaged in a conspiracy to deceive its clients and the public about online advertising.“
Bob Hoffmann, 2019, Newsletter Nr. 175

Banner click rates and facebook video views are one of the biggest jokes in history. Impressions in the middle of nowhere and inflated views of up to 900% burn billions of ad dollars every year. Of course, only if they don’t go straight to the ad fraud mafia who is really creative when it comes to inventing new ways to hack the ad tech systems. And it doesn’t matter how sophisticated ad tech gets — the ways to manipulate it do as well.

What about programmatic? Even the new saviour in ad land can’t guarantee that automated ads will appear in places where people can see them. Or that they don’t appear in places where people should not see them (#brandsafety).

But maybe it doesn’t matter. Many ads are not served anyway. More and more people use ad blockers to avoid ad trash in the first place, not to mention being stalked by it.

And even if we ignore all that: There seems to be evidence that the advertising effect of digital ads itself is way smaller than we think. Because the common algorithmic targetings put ads in front of people that already have a high probability of purchasing a product or brand.

THOUGHT STARTER #2:
What if we radically changed advertising in the digital space?

Why don’t we just stop the annoying asset mass productions and budget destruction by outdated ad concepts without measurable advertising effects?

Let’s use other ways to generate awareness and consideration for brands. Hey, maybe even something with real value for people? An entertaining video, a helpful article or a useful app will definitely be more effective than a stupid banner ad that was theoretically 50% visible somewhere on an unknown website for 1 second.

And if we consciously decide to continue using digital ads, because we really believe we have to — let’s work with transparent, external trackings and all available means to achieve brand safety and prevent ad fraud.

Photo by Verena Yunita Yapi on Unsplash

#3. Reboot innovation: Monetize beyond advertising.

You can love or hate digital advertising: without it, the internet would be very different from the way we know it. Search, maps, mail, social media — many services we take for granted today would not exist. At least, not for free.

Unfortunately, advertising as the dominant business model of the internet economy has lead to many pretty ugly developments.

Let’s not talk about the fact that many websites today are so stuffed with ad spaces, overlays and notifications they are hardly usable. What’s really critical are the data theft, abuse and surveillance scandals that were only possible through the excessive tracking and data collection by ad technology. Or the behaviour modification of people through interface, interaction, algorithm designs that were optimised to maximise user engagement and time on site — in order to show more ads. Or the decrease of trust in brands, politics and society through fake news and engagement baiting.

Nevertheless: Don’t panic! No one wants to abolish or terminate advertising overnight. That would neither help media and platforms depending on it as revenue stream, nor users of their services and especially not brands.

But it’s time to think about other ways to earn money in the digital age — instead of using the same old approaches that work constantly less and brought us into this mess.

THOUGHT STARTER #3:
What if we stopped using advertising as only business model?

Why don’t we just stop to monetize digital products, services and content offerings with advertising that stops people from doing what they wanted?

Let’s use smart subscription models with low monthly fees (like Medium), or Micro Payments for single contents (like Blendle) — instead of insisting on overpriced legacy subscription models or invent performance protection laws that completely ignore the way people consume content today.

We could also start to create completely new concepts that turn traditional value creation approaches upside down. Imagine if we rewarded users with contents or services for their data or created contents (like Minds).
Or pay people directly with cash, crypto tokens etc. for using their processing power, bandwith or storage space (like Gladius and Orchid).

And if we decide to stick with advertising for a while — let’s at least try to diversify business models and make it just one of several revenue streams that can be used in moderation (like Tencent).

Photo by fabio on Unsplash

#4. Reboot internet architecture: Decentralize IT.

The early internet was founded on a romantic idea: To create a way for people all over the world to share information without boundaries on a peer-to-peer-basis. Open, equal, without single centralized institutions or censorship.

Today we know, that this was obviously pretty naive. The current state of the web is everything, but not open. Giant tech corporations control large parts of the internet infrastructure that is optimized for their traffic — which means we are more or less living in a world of 3 centralized networks now. On top of that, little computers called smartphones have become a means of mass surveillance. Sounds like a script from a bad 80ies science fiction movie like Robocop or Running Man, doesn’t it?

But let’s be serious: Google, Facebook and Amazon are (very likely) not having secret conspiracy meetings behind closed doors where they sit together and develop evil plans for world domination. They became direct entry points in the search for information, connecting with others and buying stuff because they are just insanely useful and convenient.

Still, with great power comes great responsibility — and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Maybe it would be smart to protect the big three (and us) of themselves?

THOUGHT STARTER #4:
What if we would (re)build internet architecture and services differently?

Why don’t we just stop to centralize the net further and create steadily stronger network monopolies?

Let’s use more decentralized software solutions and data center technologies when we build new services and applications (like Inrupt, IPFS, Blockchain etc.).

And sign the ‘Contract for the web und follow the according principles for all our projects and initiatives.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

#5. Reboot privacy: Data to the people.

One of the major promises of the internet was anonymity and freedom of speech. A precious promise, especially in states where freedom of press and freedom of expression are limited.

But as we learned in recent years: anonymity can be a double-edged sword. Because it also seduces people to spread hate, insults and spam without hesitation. Anyone who has ever experienced shitstorms and verbal abuse without legal consequences will probably agree that privacy is precious — but at some point it can do more harm than good.

The same is true for commercial services. The more apps, websites and platforms know about us, the better the experience: Personalised services, more relevant ads, convenient single sign ons, one click-shopping etc.. In turn, they collect more data than most people realise — and these information enable total surveillance.

We are living in the world’s most advanced surveillance system. This system wasn’t created deliberately. It was built through the interplay of technological advance and the profit motive. It was built to make money. The greatest trick technology companies ever played was persuading society to surveil itself.
New York Times, 2019: “Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy

The origin of our modern problems with privacy goes back to design decisions that were made during the development of the internet architecture back in the nineties.

For one, the packet-switched network design that prevents the backtracing of an information’s source. Originally, the idea was to connect the computers of the world in the most effizient way and use the network anonymously. As a consequence, nobody knows today if the other person in a comment section, tweet or email is a troll, bot, hacker or salesman.

But in hindsight, another decision was even worse: There is no independent, secure, open protocol for identity management. Therefore many platforms developed their own, with a fatal consequence: Users don’t own their data — giant, centralized, private companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon do. And what do they do with these billions of user data? They collect, mine and sell it to advertisers and other parties — without any individual or governmental control. In the end, Big data leads to Big brother.

Many people still ignore this. Using these services is just too convenient. And in the end, Google and Co. probably don’t care about individual users at all. All they want is to sell ads.

But as the increasing usage of ad blockers, alternative browsers with do not track-technology etc. indicate — awareness for the importance of data sovereignty and privacy is growing fast.

At least now, not only platform companies but brands as well have to take privacy more seriously. In the end, it’s also a chance to gain (back) people’s trust and restore credibility.

THOUGHT STARTER #5:
What if we would give people the control over their data back?

Why don’t we just stop the excessive tracking of user behaviour? The random collection of totally unimportant information to giant data mountains? The development of even more proprietary login solutions?

Let’s give people the control over their data back. For example by using open source technologies like Solid for the collection of user data, that enable users to own and control the access to their data — versus creating own big data pools or supporting those of the big four.

Let’s take privacy more serious, by relying less on 3rd party data and creating new ways to personalize services without excessive cookie collections — with the new GDPR-laws, we have to anyway.

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

#6. Reboot design: Design for value.

It sounds like a cliché from a Steve Jobs memorial movie, but apparently it’s true: a driving force behind the digital revolution was the dream to make the world a better place through technology. An ideal that ultimately lead to the disruption of communication, business models and whole industries.

A crucial success factor for many new services and platforms were upcoming design approaches that focused on user value and lead to radical new ways to get jobs done and fulfil needs people didn’t even knew they had.

Buying, navigating, communicating, finding an apartment or random sex partners — continuously improving user centric design of websites and applications made all of this so convenient that even tech-averse people couldn’t imagine to live without it ever again.

At some point though, economic reality kicked in. Sooner or later Wall street and Venture capital came around the corner — and brought the innocent hippie dreams down to earth again the hard way. Ambitious growth and revenue targets made many companies no longer prioritize user value, but totally different KPI — maximization of time spent on platform, engagement rate and user growth.

In other words: Make as many users as possible stay as long as possible on the platform and interact with as many content and other people as possible — to display as many ads as possible and cash in big ad dollars.

This mantra lead to many, often very questionable design decisions that increasingly blurred the lines between good and dark UX. For example, steadily more intrusive notifications that nudged people to fire up an app for trivial reasons like “Someone poked you”. Or ‘like counts’ that motivated people to constantly produce content for the affirmation by other users. The omni present ‘pull to refresh’ interaction to update the newsfeed that works like a giant slot machine and — together with an unpredictable algorithm — lures people to remain steadily longer in the app. ‘Continuous autoplay’ and ‘recommended videos’ features that enable content discovery, but also provide constant stimuli to consume way more than that one video that you initially wanted to watch. Gamification elements like badges that encourage people to perform completely meaningless actions for virtual rewards.

What started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. It’s a horrible thing that was foreseen by science-fiction writers. It’s straight out of Philip K. Dick or 1984.
Jaron Lanier, in “An apology for the internet from the people who built it”

In hindsight, everyone could have known from the start that experiments with behaviour modification on a global scale were probably not really a good idea.

Now, in the face of a growing mistrust of tech companies and an apparent rise of mental health issues through social media usage, many big tech companies have begun to launch countermeasures to support digital wellbeing like screen time limits for app use, tools and services against cyber bullying, implementation of Do not Disturb-Modes in OS etc..

It remains to be seen, if and how much the big platforms are really able to change. In the end, all those measures will affect their bottom lines and endanger their business models. But what about all the other applications and services that we use and create every day?

THOUGHT STARTER #6:
What if we would design for maximum user value again?

Why don’t we just stop to build digital services and products with persuasive and manipulative design patterns that aim to capture peoples attention longer than necessary?

Let’s use value centered design approaches and (re)focus on actual value of content and services for people. Use different KPI like „Time well spent that aim for quality, not quantity of a contact with brand.

Or increase the support for mental wellbeing of people, e. g. through minimization of interruptions or reduction of behaviour modifying patterns like variable rewards.

We could start to design services in ways that increase transparency and make it easier to check authenticity and truthfulness of information.

Or even develop digital products that empower people to do things and feel better — instead of stealing their time and attention.

Last but not least: Let’s think about digital ethics at least once in a while and develop technology that does not exploit human sensibilities.

Wrapup.

The digital age is at a turning point — and we have to decide which way to go towards a better future. I believe it’s time for a reboot of the digital revolution that corrects some bad choices from its early days. And leads to new, conscious ways to deal with technology in our lives on this planet.

This reboot is not only necessary. It is also a huge chance to unfuck digital and move forward.

A chance for brands, marketers, tech and media companies: To take on a new role in peoples life’s as guides and designers of the digital age. To create new stories, sustainable awareness and revenue for brands beyond interruptive advertising. To develop new, sustainable products and business models with caution.

And of course a chance for people: To live in a world where technology is not a thread, but a tool that takes their privacy serious, increases their wellbeing and improves the way they work, live and communicate.

These six ideas can be a starting point to reboot digital:
Tell better stories, but less. Kill digital ads. Monetize beyond advertising. Decentralize IT. Data to the people. Design for value.

Are there more or better ideas? Pretty sure, if we just start looking for them. All we need is the mindset and the will to make it better.

“ The future is still so much bigger than the past.”
— Tim Berners-Lee

Note: If you prefer a german version of this article, check out my website.

Digital strategy consultant from Berlin with a passion for tech, travel and writing about marketing in a post-digital world.

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