The shifting sands of social context

March 29, 2021 | Share this article

A profound shift is underway, as users migrate away from faceless public squares and toward tighter collectives in digital settings. For marketers, this shift suggests a way through the looming problems of data privacy, writes UM’s APAC chief strategy officer.

We are an industry that has been obsessed with two unhelpful polarities: either reaching all the people, in one go, with a big famous story. Or, stalking individuals, one-by-one with remarkable levels of precision. Is it possible that between these two extremes we might be missing out on a growing opportunity?

The last few years have seen the fracturing of our media landscape, marking a shift away from the generations-long race towards a global culture and economy. While this “splinternet” continues to take the spotlight on the platform side, consumers’ appetites are quietly changing too. We’re seeing a profound shift in social context, with users migrating away from public squares and into more private digital settings.

With more than half the world online, and many more to come in the next decade, it turns out we don’t all want to be in the same room all that often.

We can recognise this shift across the region, including in China, from the success of brands like Keep—the at-home fitness collective, and Poizon—the resale app riding China’s sneaker craze.

In simple terms, there’s a move away from our present multitude of weak ties, toward a world where we look to have more in common with less people. Think subreddits, not the Reddit front page. Around the region consumers are starting to get disenchanted with their impulse to share for external validation; spending less time chasing basic, hollow “popularity” metrics in favour of a more nourishing approach to online connection. For example, local Facebook Group membership grew 3.3x this spring according to Facebook IQ.

We can see this as a shift from broad, faceless communities to tighter collectives.

For example, Rooter in India is a sports-oriented social platform enabling a cluster of different sports collectives to bond over their shared interest, all of which is delivered in their preferred language. The brand successfully pivoted to livestreaming of video games last year when sporting events were put on pause, tripling daily active users. Elsewhere, MeWe and Signal are on the rise while Dcard and PPT are popular with a young audience.

As governments across look to impose more local values on the big platforms, they’re just catching up to users—users who have been resisting technology’s imposition of a singular identity upon them. This is nothing new. More than a decade ago, Sherry Turkle from MIT used the term “turbulent mirror” to describe the ways we remake ourselves in the mirror of our machines.

Consider, in your own online life, whether you can relate to these code shifts: from a witty intellectual stance on Twitter; to a warmer tone with family on Facebook; perhaps a more playful, irreverent mood for Twitch while gaming; projecting a buttoned-down proficiency on Linkedin; or a more honest and open presence in a group text platform like WeiXin.

All these are facets of the same person, just overlaid with different filters of tone and topic. We can see this as not all that different to how we might shift our behaviour when moving between groups at a party. Today, all across the region users are embracing groups that allow them to fluidly redefine the face they present to others around them, depending on the audience. Platforms like invite-only podcast chat app Clubhouse, winning in Malaysia and with huge potential across the region after challenges in China, deliver well to this growing appetite.

As a futureproof marketer, all this is critical. This reinvention of social context can provide a solution to some of the looming problems of data privacy. We’re increasingly able to once again use rich data around the context, rather than just the individual to target our messaging. In some ways, we can choose to see this as a partial return to the media practices of the analogue world; buying adjacency again, just at the higher fidelity enabled by today’s tools.

For us as an industry community it should feel exciting: the smaller a group of people, the more they have in common and the easier it is for us to forge a meaningful connection through advertising, content or partnerships.

Tantalisingly, these connections can now be supercharged by the scale of the internet, allowing us to programmatically find just the right subreddit or Twitch stream where a well-crafted message will not just be well-received, but welcome. Rather than using our data to solely target individuals, we can use it to target context; reaching communities within platforms.

This is nothing new.

Technologies may come and go, but as neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley would remind us the human behaviour driven by our paleolithic brains changes very little over time. Further, we’ve known for some time that people only have enough emotional bandwidth for a certain number of connections. Decades ago anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested a hard limit to the number of people we can maintain stable social relationships with.

That number? 150.

This rule remains true for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern groupings: office and factory teams; residential campsites; military organisations; 11th-century English villages; even greetings cards lists. We see the same thing again and again: exceed 150 and a network is unlikely to last long or cohere well.

Sociologist Jib Fowles created the magnificent term “chronocentricity” to describe each generations’ collective tendency to think of a given trend as unprecedented, or never seen before. With this in mind, we can look again and see this remade social context very differently. We can see how the past decade of unfettered global growth, on monolithic platforms, among huge faceless communities might just start to look like a blip. A moment in time we might look back on as an anomaly, not the unquestioned set of stable norms a more chronocentric marketer might see.

Social context is shifting. Within this shift lies an opportunity for marketers; as consumer attention moves to these tighter, more meaningful groups, the way futureproof brands reach them online must evolve as well.

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