The Detox Paradox


As a strategist at Ogilvy, I read or contribute to dozens of creative briefs every month. These are designed to condense mountains of research and insight into something that inspires creative thinking. It’s equal parts art and science.

Read through enough briefs and you’ll start to see common themes. One of the themes I’ve seen recently is the idea of unplugging. Our audience wants (no, needs!) to detox from their digital life. Information overload, constant access via mobile, combating FOMO (fear of missing out)— these trends pull toward a more disconnected and authentic life. Unplug to find one’s true self.

Like all good paradoxes, “digital detoxing” is ripe for debate and disagreement, with some truth at both ends of the spectrum.

One end of the tension is easy to find in big ways and small. Planners cite digital detoxes and smartphone roulette as little nuggets of evidence of this trend. I’ve certainly included these trends in my own work as well.

As an arts and humanities major during the early 2000’s (read: lucky to have a job) we were exposed to ton of hand-wringing on this subject. From Putman’s Bowling Alone to Turkle’s Life on the Screen, many social scientists were careful to draw a distinction between what was real and true and what was virtual and inauthentic as the social web was taking flight.

But on the other end of the spectrum are those who suggest there’s no nirvana at the end of the detox. That, in fact, the web isn’t an unhealthy addiction to be tamed but rather something we do with one another, and thus as human and real as anything else. Those at this end of the tension argue our lives are just as real online as they are off.

Research into “cyber bullying” is a great example of this. Teens don’t think in these terms. One child in a focus group described the term as “an old lady word.” To them, bullying online is just as hurtful and cruel as it is in the offline. The duality in that case doesn’t make sense.

Another example is the common charge that social media fuels “success theater.” Again, it’s not so simple. An excellent rebuttal there comes in the form of an essay from Nathan Jurgenson who says:

“the degree to which inauthenticity seems a new, technological problem is the degree to which I can sell you an easy solution.”

His great piece refutes at many of the Buzz Feed-friendly headlines about unplugging, disconnecting and finding one’s true self in an offline world. Check it out here in full.

One hand many people really are struggling to find balance in their always-on lives. On the other, the line between what is online vs “in real life” was never really there.

I’ve found there’s real value in seeking out these paradoxes or what Ogilvy calls cultural tensions. It’s difficult to reserve one’s own judgment, but good planners are able to simuntaneosuly hold what seem like two mutally contridictory beleives and turn that paradox into a spark for creative approches.

For now, I’m signing off. Or maybe not.