The Digital Divide: Understanding Our Relationships and Behaviour Online

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how – in this digital age – can brands navigate their ‘relationships’ with consumers (i.e. ‘people’ if you’re a hip-down-to-the-beat-brand that doesn’t go in for such labels). There has also been a lot of hyped-up talk about ‘youths’ relationship with each other over digital.

And I have to say, of all the fluff I’ve read, ‘relationships’ marketing, as a theme, really is the king of fluff. Speculative, buzzword-filled and total misunderstanding of ‘today’s youths’…

it really annoys me when these things are taken seriously and rolled out in the form of talks at expensive events. People nod (or tweet where they are paying zero attention to the actual content of the session) and go away being really impressed by a powerpoint, having learned nothing. Oh alright, as a capitalist I am somewhat impressed by creating money out of nothing… but the respect ends there.

OK so you’ve probably guessed by my use of inverted commas I’ve got a reason for that. Here it is.

The big issue is that nobody seems at all bothered at defining what they mean when they say ‘relationship’ in the first place. We spend our lives defining, reforming and testing relationships but we don’t do it when it comes to brands or talking about consumer behaviour. I suspect a great deal of this is down to the majority of these brand managers / strategic planners not actually believing what they’re saying either. But for those of us that do care…

How can we stand over reporting the state of our brand ‘relationship’ with consumers or how digital is changing relationships… when we don’t even know what it means?

It’s a question that has become more convoluted with digital but it’s been a question that been around in marketing for decades.

So let’s actually talk about relationships for a second.

Our minds have such a different interpretation of relationships and the neurological rewards from digital interaction – it’s literally changing our brains through neuroplasticity.

(Did you notice how I put that in bold there? That’s because it deserves a re-read to sink in). Allow me to explain…

Our brains are physically changing because of our relationships with [insert device you’re reading this off while doing 40 other things simultaneously here]. Certain pathways get strengthened and others weaken.


And it’s not over years, it’s over a matter of weeks.

Yes, very interesting, but what does that mean for relationships? Well, the reason human’s are so successful (as opposed to say, the humble potted plant) is that we thrive by working socially, in relationship groups. You are sitting here today because your ancestors were the smart sort of homo-something-or-others, whos brains self-rewarded them for collectively sharing things like emotions, resources, tools, knowledge and work with other homo-something-or-others.

The ones that didn’t? The backwards, isolated and rejected ‘homo-phobics’ (perhaps that’s the wrong word, maybe not). Well, they just sort of died alone in their caves.

How sad.*

The good news is – if you’re ever feeling unpopular or lonely – you just have to remember, there is nothing wrong with you – your ancestors were super popular for millions of years!

The bad news is – it means you’re brain is 100% hardwired to place your popularity as its primary concern. We’ve been literally aware of our ‘social status’ for millions of years before Facebook. And what’s more, we read threats to that social status (e.g. someone not commenting positively on my new blog post or how many followers you have) as an actual threat.

The very same way our brains would register a sabre tooth tiger – back in the day of toothy-types-of-dangers. Our brain is our very own personal drugstore – feeding us ‘happy drugs’ when things go well socially and then ‘bad’ drugs and adrenalin to the same place that triggers physical pain, at our social hiccups, upsets or rejections.

We receive cues, that trigger social behaviour that lead to a reward or a  punishment. If our brain gives us a reward, we’ll repeat the behaviour. If we’re punished, we change it. In doing so we create habit loops online and in the real world. Those habits are actual pathways in our brains. And (much like a woodland pathways), the more they are used, the more they expand and strengthen into super-highways.

I take it back, our brains aren’t our drugstores, they’re our dealers. And we are just helpless addicts.

This ‘trigger-behaviour-reward’ loop is why we want more followers, its why ‘gamification’ works, it’s why we’re all on LinkedIn. It’s the why you’re anxious or stressed unnessarily. It’s why your teenage son has so many ‘pretend’ friends online that seem to have more importance to them than many of those in ‘real’ ones in physical proximity. It’s why you’ve just checked who’s viewed your profile. It’s how behaviour changes, why you can’t quite give up smoking when Friday pints comes around, how social movements happen… It’s the why of everything really.

And it’s why brands talk about relationships.

Which is right to do, but we are completely incorrectly defining those relationship.

Originally (if we go back to school for a moment and talk about the ‘presentation of self in everyday life’). There have always been two kinds of relationships we’ve concerned ourselves with – Gemmeinschaft (personal social interactions, roles such as ‘mother’, values, and beliefs based on such interactions) and Gesellschaft (indirect interactions, impersonal roles, formal values, and beliefs based on such interactions). Both have pluses and minuses… I’ll get into that in another post later.

But long story short, my hypothesis is that digital (both through robotics and comms), through neuroplasticity, are shifting our relationships to more gesellschaft. Digital is triggering us to reward the ‘habit loops’ of the more selfish gesellschaft relationships – because those are the ones that predominantly exist and thrive online.

We are rapidly becoming hardwired via digital, to seek more gesellschaft relationships.

This, I would argue, could potentially be the biggest change to human society, since someone first pointed at the sabertooth tiger and said ‘ugg’ to warn others.

But to come back to brands…

If you want to talk about brand ‘love’ or relationships with a consumer like you are their best friends, I have no time for you. Please stop bothering us all. I am 100% confident nobody can name a single brand that had a pure gemmeinschaft relationship with it’s customers in the first place…it’s always been gesellscahft.

So just stop the waffle and get back to understanding real human behaviour please.

*Incidentally the same thing is happening to dogs and cats at a rapid scale over meere decades due to breeding the ‘nice’ sociable ones and our rejection of the angry-bitey-wolfy types.

Image by M.A.C.

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