Louis CK recently quit. Stephen Fry threatens to do the same in a blog post about how digital media can actually make us less connected. He proclaims, “I haven’t yet jacked out of the matrix and gone off the grid. Maybe I will pluck up the courage. After you…”
This phenomenon of media figures encouraging people to quit not just social media, but the internet entirely, is gaining momentum. You won’t have to search very far to find a constant flow of articles in this same vein. When we talk about wanting a “digital detox,” we’re really talking about feeling burnt out by our constant dependence on emails, social media, texting, and everything else we look to our devices for throughout the day.
We long for meaningful human connection in a world oversaturated by media stimulants. The writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston chronicled his 25 day digital detox for Fast Company, during which he reported having more meaningful interactions and creative ideas, as well as less noise pulling him in multiple directions at once.
As communications professionals, this urge to “jack out of the matrix” is a serious conundrum, especially as we contribute to the use of devices within organisations that encourage colleagues to share via apps and devices. My industry is now in the middle of the second-wave of digital innovations promising to change healthcare as we know it. These are changes that inevitably will mean even greater use of our devices.
Are we hopelessly hooked?
My partner is also a comms professional. Last Friday when I returned home to London, I fed the dogs, and we chatted as we sat down for what was a typical Friday night dinner at home. After eating, we usually retire to the living room with the dogs where we sit in front of the fire to read or watch a movie. This time, without discussion, we both opened up our laptops and began doing what one normally does on laptops. That we both did this, instead of reaching for a phone or iPad, was what was new.
A recent New York Review of Books article provoked my own thinking, not aboutwhether we are hooked on technology, but how much. Scenes similar to my Friday night play out in countless living rooms around the world every night—and usually after being in front of technology all day at work. The article pointed to sobering statistics of our addiction, including a UK study that found we look at our phones, on average, a staggering 221 times a day.
After reading this article, I downloaded this books (on my Kindle), Reclaiming Conversation by clinical psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle (also author ofAlone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other).
The bad news first from the central hypothesis of this reading: digital interaction is eroding our ability to empathise as humans.
Are comms professionals contributing to this erosion?
I work in a field that is increasingly driven by technology. In my office we work hand in hand with business leaders to extend their engagement to audiences and make connections with colleagues and external collaborators. In short: MORE digital, not less.
We also contribute by producing content on websites and intranet, much of which, let’s face it, doesn’t get read as nearly as much as we’d like.
As Turkle makes clear in her book titles, we cannot turn back the clock on this trend. Instead of just giving up and going off the grid, conversations happening within these channels need to be ‘reclaimed.’ We can use the same digital forces to reclaim conversations, and build, rather than undermine, empathy. Within my work, I have had the freedom to explore, in an organizational sense, what this means. We have started our experiments with avatars within our intranet platform – but it hasn’t ended there.
One avatar we were explored on our collaboration platform was a persona of a fish who, like the rest of us, is trying to understand digital. The character is neither male or female, and can’t spell correctly (especially names). The avatar, due to forgetfulness, needs to ‘write stuff down’. The avatar asks odd and sometimes challenging questions in the name of learning.
The business goals of this internal avatar are quite simple: to convert the current flow of internal conversations on our chat and collaboration channel, Yammer, in order to make them more ‘human’ and encourage greater empathy between fellow employees. The avatar can’t count, which makes him/her ask even more questions to achieve better understanding and more of a connection. In a way, the avatar is aiming for connections that humans are trying to achieve.
Can an avatar achieve empathy on a digital channel?
Within the first four days on the channel, colleagues thought the Yammer network had been hacked. It was interesting to witness how ‘thrown’ people were by the concept of an Avatar (except for our IT colleagues, who ‘got’ the character immediately). It is still too early to fully tell, but since it debuted, the conversations on Yammer between the avatar and colleagues has shifted to a lighter and more playful exchange. The avatar asks colleagues how project x will improve the lives of patients, what it means, and by when? Colleagues don’t often ask each other such direct questions, so the avatar is effectively reclaiming the conversation around our customer-centric goals. It’s a form of role play, but entirely experimental, leading to learnings we will use in upcoming projects. It hasn’t been smooth sailing either. Writers for the avatar encountered IT system issues (which still persist…) – issues not uncommon in any org with single-user sign-on systems.
Does this technology build—rather than undermine—empathy?
An avatar might contribute to additional empathy between colleagues, but there is more work to do. An Avatar can provide a permissive environment allowing people to ‘jump in’ and engage, especially when difficult-to-talk-about topics could get in the way of real dialogue. No matter how awkward the question a colleague might ask, the presence of an avatar (at the ready to ask an even sillier question) sometimes frees up the conversation. Yammer exchanges in some forums ended up a bit freer and lighter, and colleagues took more effort to explain their posts, sometimes with humour, eager to prod and poke.
As comms professionals we have a responsibility to find meaningful ways to exist on the grid. And if we can’t, we probably should stick to the old-school tools.
We can choose our digital engagements based on a revised criteria, such as is being hinted by researchers, that create meaningful connections, actively build empathy. We will work with collaborators and patient groups to create an experience that is respectful of their reality. Digital platforms have a role to play in exploring different ways we can all learn about the patient experience. I am not saying we’ve ‘cracked this code’, but a group of creative colleagues are putting in a concerted effort and giving it a go.