The way we communicate is ripe for upheaval in many ways, primarily as a result of digital innovation. The internet put as much information as we could possibly use (and more) into our hands. The ubiquity of connectivity and the vanishing cost of transmission means we now live in an always-on world with the capacity for rich-media and entertainment. The internet of things and immersive media like augmented reality will be the next steps in this inexorable progression.
Yet total access to people and media has not been trouble free. We live in a more data-paranoid world than ever. And most people would find it very hard to decide who to trust – even among major media brands. We also suffer from information overload and deep biases. Finally, despite Facebook reaching half the globe, loneliness is at an all time high. Trends in communication in the next decade or two will reach into the very nature of what it means to be a participant in society and how we think about the world around us. Here are two ideas to watch:
Text To Visualisation
Traditionally, two cultural norms have made text the natural way to communicate ideas. Firstly, text has always been easy to produce when compared with pictures and video. Second, we have had an inherent respect for complexity – it’s why academic texts and corporate white papers can be hard for the lay person to read. Today, however, both those shibboleths are being broken down. We can shoot high-quality video on our mobile phones, and the number of tools available for visualising ideas is constantly growing. Visualize.me is a one click tool allowing people to turn their LinkedIn profiles into an infographic. Canva allows presentation-quality graphics to be produced in minutes; and the Typorama app puts elegant graphics in the hands of people with no graphic design experience at all. Tools like these are being developed at an incredible rate. And as the need to communicate clearly in our world of information overload becomes more acute, particularly in the challenge to be heard above the noise, the desire for clarity has overtaken the desire to impress with depth. People simply don’t have the time to devote hours to individual issues; and if they do, they want it to be on their terms – to choose to examine it in more detail.
The revelation for communicators and brand owners is that for an overview of a subject, visualisation is enormously efficient:
- 90% of the information transmitted to the brain is visual
- The brain can see - and therefore begin to comprehend - images lasting just 13 milliseconds
- The eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour
- We can get a sense of a visual scene in less than 0.1 seconds
- Visuals are processed by the brain an incredible 60000 times faster than text
Not only are visual communications processed many times faster, they are more easily shared and comprehended irrespective of the consumer’s knowledge or education; making it easier for them to make decisions. This is why everything from car dashboards to airline safety cards use iconography and visual representations to get a message across.
Visualisation also fits our modern consumer lifestyles. In 2015, the Cisco Visual Networking Index reported that mobile video traffic accounted for 55% of total mobile traffic. The amount of total data per smartphone also increased from 2014 (648mb per month) to 2015 (929mb per month). Cisco predicts that by 2019, 80% of internet traffic will be video. The mobile interface is not great for reading text, whereas it’s perfect for video – and a plethora of businesses are starting to use mobile video for education, on-the-job process management and other information-intensive applications.
There are of course risks. In our information-saturated world, it is easy for us to put our trust in elegantly presented ‘facts’ which have little or no validated basis underneath. You certainly cannot trust everything you see online, and consumers will have to be vigilant. But to present rich data usefully, visual cues will become essential. We must simply realise that visual presentations are the tip of an iceberg, under which will be much more knowledge, or very complex analytics to number-crunch towards a visual executive summary. Google, for example, is surely the epitome of big analytics: its music timeline product uses huge amounts of information to help people make sense of musical genres. This allows us to understand key aspects of a subject rapidly, to act on them, and to share them easily, too.
Mediated To Filtered
The first giants of the internet made very successful businesses out of putting as much information as possible in front of users, allowing them to make powerfully informed decisions. Ebay, for example allowed us to search for millions of items around the globe, rather than being restricted to our local small-ads newspaper. We bought holidays, read newspapers and found insurance bargains by removing informational disadvantage.
But today, we’re stuck in information overload. The technology world’s universal solution has been to relentlessly filter. Our media consumption is increasingly designed and personalised to our profiles; often without us even knowing. Google’s personalised search and Facebook’s personalised news feed are good examples: your Facebook feed is by no means a simple timeline; instead algorithms make guesses about what you want to see based on factors such as location, your past click behaviour and search history.
This is especially seductive now that multiple platforms share information and browsing data - you have probably witnessed this as your web searches follow you around relentlessly in the form of irritating advertisements. (It’s also why in 2016, ad blockers have become so popular).
However, profiled filtering has a significant downside. We see the world through a ‘filter’ bubble leading to confirmation bias: as the browser window through which we see the world progressively tailors itself to our world-view, so our world-view is influenced by what we see.
As a result, we become more separated from information that disagrees with our world-view. By its very subtlety, this is an insidious and damaging trend. In the words of Eli Pariser, political and internet activist, “Left to their own devices, personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.” It demands incredible vigilance to counter.
We need a broadening, challenging world view if we are to progress and become more tolerant and understanding. Especially when making sense of the future, an ability to challenge our own prejudice and be exposed to taboos will be critical in our work. Equally, if we are to profitably encourage innovation in our businesses, we must avoid the herd and challenge the status quo by following paths that are less travelled.
There is hope. There is a technological backlash; for example the Duck Duck Go search engine, which doesn’t track usage. And there is a significant groundswell of consumer opinion against filtered intermediation from brands: in February 2016 Twitter launched a mediated stream to replace its timeline – and has been roundly condemned by its user base. Above all, though,, we owe it to our personal judgement to expose ourselves to contrary opinions, to learn new skills outside of our usual skillsets in order to keep our questioning and learning skills fresh, and to meet people offline, in real-world situations, to expose ourselves to the nuances of real human opinion.