Why should the cultural sector change their existing digital practices to prioritise deeper human connection?

Our human need to connect

In these fraught socially divided times, there is growing recognition of the importance of human connection and relationships for individual and societal wellbeing. It’s easy to see how so many of the challenges we face in our society today have been produced, or exacerbated by, a breakdown of understanding and connection between people. (Yes, Brexit, I’m looking at you!)

Humans are social beings and we need to belong. Human connection refers to our innate need to create a social rapport with others, to feel heard, seen, and valued, and to belong. We evolved into social beings through necessity: cooperation with each other enhanced our ability to survive under harsh environmental circumstances. Cave paintings dating back to 30,000 BC were a way to communicate warnings and celebrate success, and demonstrate how early people conveyed information to each other. Our living circumstances today may have changed, but this fundamental need to be nested within social relationships has not. As human beings we need to feel part of something connected: a family, a group, a team or a tribe.

The impact of digital technology on human connection

Having moved on from cave paintings, connection and communication today can be actual, or virtual. Our digital culture has developed the tools to help us belong to the ‘global village’. With our daily use of digital technologies we live in an age of instant global connectivity. We are more connected to one another today than ever before in human history. Digital technologies have also enabled individuals to use these connections for social betterment, for example by mobilising quick and effective civil protests in times of societal unrest, which would have been impossible in a purely analogue age.

Yet digital culture also has a significant shadow side when it comes to fostering deeper human connection. Over the last few years, the connections we seem to be making are less interpersonal and more individual, focused on the digital devices in our pockets. Intuitively, this feels like it’s having an adverse impact on social relations. Ride the Tube or walk down the street, and it’s not hard to notice how increasingly people have their heads down, deeply lost in their own customised individual worlds mediated by their smartphones, completely unaware of everyone around them. You might argue that public transport isn’t a particularly social environment to begin with, but these new behaviours interrupt our planned social interactions too — like dinner with friends and family. Now we increasingly become confronted by the ‘tyranny of the buzz’ — the constant checking of phones amid the relentless tide of nagging notifications, providing immediate gratification for the user, but negatively impacting on others present.

The adverse impact of digital usage, in terms of human connection, can also create damaging effects for the user. This is supported by research which demonstrates that while real life face-to-face social connectedness seems to be strongly associated with feelings of well-being, this can change when our interactions happen virtually. For example, one study demonstrated that those who spend the most time digitally connecting on social media — more than two hours a day — had more than twice the odds of feeling socially isolated and lonely, compared to those who spend only a half hour per day using social media.

The Prince’s Trust, who have been gauging youth opinion for 10 years, found that just under half of young people who use social media now feel more anxious and ‘inadequate’ when they compare themselves to others on social media sites. Its seems that the initial promise of digital technology in being connected more widely to people than we ever imagined has morphed into something far darker for us in term of the real human impacts. If, now more than ever, we need greater mutual understanding and connection, then is the answer to turn all our devices off?

It’s complicated

There is certainly a credible case for limiting use. However let’s not start letting our knees jerk too wildly. A careful review of the literature paints a more complicated picture. It’s certainly true that a number of studies have found a connection between social media use and a decline in well-being. But other studies have found the opposite results, with people feeling more socially connected as they spend more time on social media. For example, some studies have shown that Facebook helps reduce barriers that students with lower self-esteem might experience in forming the kinds of large, heterogeneous networks that are sources of necessary social capital to build esteem. Other research has demonstrated the positive benefits of social media usage for children in care. Rather than presenting a risk to their wellbeing, seeing updates about everyday life events actually provided them with a sense of belonging and connectedness.

Social media also offers opportunities for the development of social-emotional skills that are vital in forming relationships, in ways that face-to-face interaction may not. danah boyd in her study of the social live of networks teenagers argues that young people are doing what they have always done as part of their journey into adulthood, including socialising with peers, investigating the world, trying on identities and establishing independence, but now they are just doing so online. The ability to access public spaces for sociable purposes is a critical component of the com­ing-of-age process, and yet many of the public spaces where adults gather — bars, clubs, and restaurants — are inaccessible to teens. Social media channels are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life.

To complicate matters further a review of the research linking loneliness to internet use found that using the internet socially can lead to both increases and decreases in loneliness — depending on how it is used. In short, the relationship between digital culture and human connection is a complex one that is impossible to address in absolutes. To navigate this complexity, its specific use, context and conditions need to be better understood.

The roles and responsibilities of cultural organisations

So what does all of this have to do with cultural organisations? After all, we create exhibitions, put on performances, and showcase collections. All this discussion about human connection via digital channels is interesting, but does it really have much do with us as organisations and as a sector? Well — yes!

The work of cultural organisations is vital in building mutual understanding and relationships. So much of what we do is about nurturing human connection, whether through the art or exhibitions we showcase, through the human stories we mediate and through our civic spaces, which are open to everyone to engage and participate within. Arguably, human connection is our raison d’etre.

As cultural organisations we are also trying to embrace digital technologies to build more meaningful relationships with our audiences, communities and society — particularly through social media channels. Given that digital channels provide an essential route to these publics, if we want to remain relevant to our audiences and society at large, it’s imperative that our digital activity prioritises our desire to promote deeper human connection.

Unfortunately, the reality is starkly different. The existing digital activity of many cultural organisations is operational rather than purposeful. This means that their use of digital channels tends to prioritise organisational orientated objectives, like driving footfall, increasing brand awareness or promoting ticket sales, rather than promoting social values such as human connection. Even when cultural organisations develop a human voice on their digital channels, showcasing an online personality and engaging in forms of digital storytelling, the primary focus is often still the organisation, its profile and objectives. There may be genuine positive human impact, but it’s usually of secondary importance.

We have a social responsibility to prioritise meaningful personal connection in all our work as cultural organisations, and that includes our digital activity. This does not mean that the current organisational objectives we are aiming for in our digital work need to be ditched — far from it, actually. It’s about re-prioritisation, focusing on why we exist as cultural and heritage organisations, and what makes us unique. If we can look at our digital activity in a different way, by focusing on the need to drive human connection first and foremost, then the necessary business benefits of increased footfall, brand value, ticket sales etc. will follow naturally.

So how do we practically do this? This isn’t straightforward, given the challenges that digital technologies present in sometimes creating social isolation rather than connection. But at the same time it’s important we don’t approach this challenge by doing something entirely new that is alien to us as cultural organisations. We need to use digital technologies in different ways, according to the principles we adhere to in our other work. We need to critique and challenge what digital channels can do and test their boundaries. We need a new mindset when approaching our digital work.

Testing out a new way forward

Culture24’s Let’s Get Real 7 (LGR7) collaborative action research project, in partnership with Carnegie UK Trust, Common Cause Foundation and the Wellcome Collection, is investigating just that. We are exploring how cultural organisations can align their digital activity more closely with the values-led practices that are beginning to happen more overtly in their physical spaces. Building on emerging values-based digital design thinking, we are testing out small-scale interventions to our existing activity on digital channels, seeking to prioritise and respond to human purpose, meaning and values.

More information about the importance of such an approach and how we begin applying is detailed in my next blog post.