Why we need to create a movement for digital anthropology

James Ingram
3 min readOct 2, 2018


Reflection on the Creative Intelligence podcast — Episode One

With more than five billion smartphone owners worldwide and 51% of the global population having access to online content, the amount of data available on how people behave online is enormous. Simply put, the internet is the biggest focus group in the world.

It was this topic that was under discussion in the first of my Creative Intelligence podcasts, recorded earlier this week. My guests were Katie Hillier, lead digital anthropologist at ?What If! Innovation Partners in New York, and Chris Duffey, who spearheads Adobe’s Creative Cloud strategic development partnerships across the Creative Agency enterprise space. It was remarkable how similarly they saw things even though their vantage points are so different.

Thanks to advances in AI which can now do much of the grunt work, we have the tools to extract, sort, and even provide simple analysis of vast swathes of data. But with so much information available, marketers can forget that there’s a human being at the other end of that interaction. Companies look at innovations or insights through the prism of what their business is trying to achieve. “What can this do for our business?” versus, “What can this do for the person experiencing it?”

How you reframe that question changes things. We need to rewrite that statement into, “What do people need?” It’s a simple change of language, but it transforms the way companies think. In order to do that, creative leaders turn to a new skillset: digital anthropology.

When I think of anthropologists, I think of the people who, armed with Moleskine notebooks, set sail for new, previously unexplored places to observe native people. In the context of digital anthropology, I see data science and technology as the new ships that are taking them there. What we need now are the people to get off those virtual ships to interpret the data. More and more ships are getting built every day, so these ships (data collectors) are going to get less expensive and more plentiful. It’s time to start a movement to fill these ships with digital anthropologists so that data is not only collected, but applied based on what we know about human behavior.

Digital anthropology is a not a new concept, but one that is increasingly being picked up by universities and research laboratories globally. By examining the way consumers behave in certain moments as a group, businesses can gain insights into the emotional triggers behind purchasing decisions.

From a research perspective, we can use different types of platforms to actually study emotion and look for trends. Using AI to solve business problems by putting the human first can amplify, accelerate and automate current creative processes — but it’s not a one size fits all.

How you bring humans and automation together could actually help teach AI how to be more emotional, to sense and empathize with people based on language, to understand their language, and have more empathetic conversations with them — perhaps even creating emotional maps and getting a sense of emotion at scale.

The next layer up would be where AI is almost a peer to bounce ideas back and forth so it could start to predict future behaviors. The ability to predict movements, and subsequently help to create trends, is a huge opportunity.

It’s not about the technology, it’s what we can do with it — so it’s time to take a step back and look at AI as a strategic differentiator within the marketplace, to bring in these digital anthropologists to extract insights and create a faster feedback loop to the content creators. I think that’s a recipe for success.