The #future of digital communications?

Mike Ramsden

Let's go back in time. To when all mobile phones had buttons with numbers and letters on them. To a time when twitter was what birds did. To a time when TV programmes didn't start with things like ‘#strictly’ appearing on screen.

It’s seven short years ago. We’re talking about 2006. The iPhone was an internet rumour. Few businesses talked about how ‘social’ they were. Email, and maybe blogging, was about as social as most people got online. From the beige plastic box called a PC, stuck resolutely to a desk at home or in the office. Tweeting a pic of an amusingly-shaped crisp to your favourite comedian from the pub, in a message your friends could see too, just didn’t happen.

Some people did see what was around the corner, in terms of the mobile, social communications now enjoyed by those in the world wealthy enough to afford a smartphone. Among the visionaries were Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, who published their book ‘Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers’ in 2006. It gave a series of examples of organisations who were benefitting from engaging with customers online. They also showed what happens when it’s done badly.

In the last seven years, what’s surprised me is the pace of change in how we communicate. James Frayne, in his book ‘Meet The People’ talks of a revolution in the way organisations communicate externally. Gone are the days of top-down press releases, giving a one-way, corporate view. Social media has the power to shape image and reputation. Businesses ignore it at their peril.

So what’s next? Israel and Scoble have just launched their second book, ‘Age of Context’. I was lucky enough to hear them speak at their only UK public engagement, organised by the CIPR at Google’s Campus building in London. The theme of their new book is a technological convergence, that will change our work lives and personal lives again. Scoble started proceedings by wearing a snazzy pair of ski goggles, upstaging his own introduction. His point was the goggles had a GPS sensor and phone coverage, allowing them to tell you where you are on a mountain, where your friends or family are, how fast you’re going and even how much ‘air’ you’ve got on your last half-pipe. His point was that sensors are one of five things that will bring big changes, in another few short years. Just as long as your goggles don’t mist over from the inside.

Sensors and social media are two of the five technological factors they say will combine to form a new generation of personalised technology. When added to big data, mobile technology, and location information, you get a device that knows who you are, what you like to do, and when you like to do it. Scoble’s illustration of this was iBeacon, built in to the latest iPhones. It provides greater location accuracy than GPS, and means your phone knows exactly where you are, and who or what you’re near. All the time. So it’ll know whether you’re in the cereal aisle or the fruit aisle in a shop, allowing advertisers to target your phone with appropriate offers.

Another example they spoke of was Google’s self-driving car. If and when it comes to market, not only will it be able to drive you to your destination, it’ll be able to make a pretty accurate guess about where you want to go. Monday night? Football practice. Monday night when there’s a match on? The stadium.

Of course, the ‘digital spy’ in our pockets raises all sorts of questions about privacy. Indeed, the last chapter of The Art of Context is titled ‘Why Trust Is The New Currency’. We’ve seen the negative reputational impact suffered by companies who’ve had customer data stolen by hackers. Beyond that, a point of differentiation in the future could be how easy it is for people surrounded by sensors to go off grid. Which would you choose; the map app that’s easy to switch off, or the one that never stops telling advertisers where you are and what you’re up to?

The fact is that when we type a few words into a search engine, we make a trade. We get an answer, while the search engine gets a snapshot of our needs and wants. For me, this feels benign at the moment. There’s no closing of the loop, where the tech I use understands what I’m thinking with any credibility. Perhaps that’s what’s about to change.

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