Coinciding with the rise of digital is the decline of trust in strangers, and the shrinking of the middle ground in politics. Digital echo chambers proliferate, where we read stuff we already agree with and communicate with people we already agree with.
Physical communities tend to be quite similar in make-up, at least from an ethnic or national point of view. However, even within these communities there are major differences of outlook and opinion. I grew up in a rural community and not everyone liked or agreed with everyone else, by any means, but we all had to learn to get along.
They call it the World Wide Web. It may be worldwide in its physical reach, but is it leading to a worldwide culture, or a sense that we are citizens of the world? A recent study by GlobeScan indeed did find that people in emerging economies see themselves as citizens of the world.
However, in many countries today where the Web is most mature, we see the emergence of a new hyper-tribalism led by populist, strongman, authoritarian figures. It’s like we’re going back to the Nineteenth Century rather than advancing forward into the 21st. There are indications that the Web is a web of the like-minded. A Web where we search for what we’re interested in and ignore the rest.
When was the last time you searched on Google for cheap flights to Dublin and you ended up buying a lawn mower? You are as likely to get hit by lightning as to click on a banner ad these days. On the Web, we only see what we want to see.
The Web is not a great place to get attention. We have gone from passively ignoring advertising to actively seeking to eliminate ads by installing ad blockers. Our attention spans continue to contract. A 2015 Microsoft study found that the average attention span has reduced from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds today. (The attention span of a goldfish is estimated to be 9 seconds.)
Impatience is the defining word for web behavior. People multitask more, scan more, channel hop more, and respond with brutal dismissiveness to anything viewed as wasting their time.
For a great many, the Web does not expand horizons, or change minds or attitudes. Instead, it reinforces existing attitudes and intentions. The War of Attention has been lost. The customer has won. They know what they want and they use the Web to get it.
The establishment, the brands, the traditional organizations and power brokers are currently in a state of denial and delusion. They still think they can win the war of attention with bigger banners and smarter catchphrases and even more emotional messages. There will be events that might look like victories but they are PR mirages. The experts and the thought leaders are leading, directing and influencing less and less every year. We are entering an age where the very concepts of authority will be challenged and reinvented.