GUEST POST: SEAN MATTHEWS, VISIX
English doesn’t have a word for it, so we appropriated the German term zeitgeist, which translates as “spirit of the times.”
Today, there is certainly something afoot – we can all sense there’s been a shift in the way we think as a culture, and there is much talk about the Millennials who are entering the workforce, and how they perceive things. Many of the changes to the zeitgeist are digitally-driven, and communications professionals need to understand current expectations and where things are most likely leading.
We are in a time that’s being called post-postmodern. That’s two “posts” – meaning after, so we should take a quick look at what was going on in the past, so we can better understand the present and the future.
The rapid industrialization of Western societies, and the growth of cities, led to the notion that everything would one day be understood, provided we approached things in an analytical and logical way. Darwin finds that all things are subject to evolution, photography and film capture the world around us for study and appreciation, humans travel faster and further with the invention of the automobile and the airplane, electricity banishes the night.
But then WWI happens, the worst conflict the West has ever known, and people begin to realize that all this progress can also be used for destruction on a scale unheard of before. The certainties of the Enlightenment are not so certain anymore, and there’s a movement in art and philosophy against realism and towards abstraction, multiple perspective and self-awareness, yet always with the faith that everything can be worked out to be the best it can be. This is modernism.
In communications, it is now possible to send information to people over huge distances – radio waves blanket the earth, telephone cables are being laid everywhere, cars and planes allow packages and letters to be delivered in days rather than weeks. The world is being knitted together and organizations can reach more and more people with content. It’s still a push model, but with the invention of radio, telephones and later television, communications can now go directly to people’s homes and offices instead of just out in the public sphere.
Though the first work on Relativity and Quantum Mechanics is done in the first decades of the 20th century, it’s said that it takes a full generation for scientific innovation to trickle down into the collective mind. Einstein’s theories tell us that everything we measure depends entirely on our perspective and own movement relative to the thing we are looking at, and quantum tells us the very fabric of reality behaves totally differently than we’d expect at very small scales (and that it seems an observer is required for reality to even exist).
The certainties of the Newtonian universe only exist at a certain scale of measurement – at other scales, there are other rules. This informs Postmodernism, where we see the rejection of objective truths and the rise of pluralism and relativism, even in discussions of morality. In the 1950s and 60s, we see whole segments of society reevaluating the entire value system of the West, sometimes seeking alternative forms. We also see the economy shifting to a more technology-driven, service-oriented model, as industrialization seems to be winding down.
No Objective Truth
The term “postmodern” simply means “what comes after Modernism.” In Modernism, knowledge was gathered using rational logic, but in postmodernism there is more emphasis on the intuitive and the subjective; spontaneity, involvement, and appeals to emotion and individual creativity become more of a focus, especially in advertising and technological development. If there is no objective truth, then there can be no objectively “correct” way to process and analyze information.
Unidirectional communication methods, such as radio, TV and print, start to give way to models that involve delayed responses (like email), and also to geographically dispersed communications that occur in real-time (like conference and video calls). Eventually these extend to include social media, IMs and chats, and location-based notifications (such as geofencing). And irony – lots and lots of irony is a hallmark of postmodernism. The postmodern era takes us to the end of the 20th century, and communications are becoming more two-way in nature.
But the irony of postmodernism has grown stale and even grating, and the relaxing of this cynicism makes room for a mild optimism; the certainty that there is no certainty gets replaced with a comfort level with the gray areas of life. The idea that “everything is relative, so nothing matters” is turning into “everything is relative, so maybe everything has some value.”
The “Truth” (with a capital T) might actually be made up of lots and lots of smaller, relative truths (small t), and is in a constant state of flux, change and growth. Instead of there being one way to do things (the rational, analytical methods of modernism; the never-ending state of change and flux of postmodernism), maybe things fluctuate and oscillate between ideas and models, depending on contexts. This is the time we are in now, the time of post-postmodernism (or hypermodernism or metamodernism or post-structuralism/-materialism/-humanism).
We are in the information age, brought about by the wireless internet, and mobile computing and communication devices. In an article on Big Think, Dominic Basulto lists some examples of how postmodernism has become expressed on the internet:
- Searching for the unknowable but you might “get lucky” – Google
- Irony, cultural nihilism, snark – Gawker
- The lines between consumers and producers of culture almost totally erased – social media
- The term “friend” deconstructed to almost meaninglessness – Facebook
- Communication reduced to its bare essence – Twitter
- The cultural elite replaced by cultural relativism, many niche markets added together become just as important as the main market – long-tail analysis
He goes on to ponder what comes next:
“In their place, will come a new form of post-postmodernism. Call it trans-modernism or whatever you like. It will be a reaction against the post-modernist age. It will be more rationalist (data and raw information transformed into meaning, rather than meaninglessness), more participatory, more hopeful (search engines like Wolfram-Alpha pre-supposing that answers can be known rather than searched for), and more hierarchical (people rejecting a cultural niche of one for a cultural mass of many) – but what else???”
We are beginning to see some of the “what else” now. Digital technology is connecting people together into an ever-changing collection of temporary tribes and interest groups; the only constant is change, and people choose what groups or configurations to be a part of, and how deeply to be involved with them. In many ways, this same technology that is weaving the planet into one huge never-ending, ever-evolving conversation is also freeing up the individual to truly discover and express himself. And she doesn’t have to settle on one identity and stick with it – a person can have multiple identities depending on the context.
Communicating With Millennials
What does this mean for communications professionals?
First off, this is how the Millennials think – they are the ones who are beginning to embody post-postmodern ideas and ideals. They are very social, are constantly adjusting and tweaking based on feedback, and are comfortable with having multiple interests and identities (even if they seem to conflict with one another). People from older generations (Boomers, whose mindsets were informed by modernism, and Xers, who grew up in the postmodern era) often say Millennials waffle and can’t commit to things, but they are actually quite comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainly, exploring the gray areas of life. They will change jobs frequently if not inspired, and see nothing wrong with that.
Millennials also value “walking your talk,” the business correlative of which is “dog-fooding,” which means a company actually uses its own products (eating your own dog food if you are a dog food company) to iron out the kinks.
In the same way, if an organization is using something like digital signage to try and communicate certain ideas, then that organization needs to also embody those ideas and make use of them.
Let’s say the admin people at a university find that “green” is a buzzword that appeals to the younger generation on campus. The people at the top are probably either Boomers – so they come from a tradition of push communications, or Xers – so they come from a cynical tradition in which certain terms and phrases act as psychological triggers. So, the messages go out to the screens “Think Green!”, or “Go Green!”, but there’s no comprehensive recycling program on campus. The university doesn’t walk their talk.
Millennials will simply disregard those messages. Not only that, they will disregard the entire digital signage system as unreliable and untrustworthy. They have plenty of other things to spend their time on, so why should they bother with an unreliable source? Yet there’s also an entrepreneurial spirit with this generation, so someone might try and create their own program, independent of the university, which simply further highlights the uselessness of official communications (“Yeah, they said we should be ‘green’ but had nothing in place, so I had to do it instead. How lame is that?”)
Time For An Overhaul
What is needed in a post-postmodern world is a complete overhaul of the way we conceive of communications. A digital signage system is about as comprehensive a communications tool as there is, so it’s worth thinking about how to use it for maximum impact for a modern audience.
The first thing is that you have to get people involved at all levels. You need to engage your audience and get them talking about your content. Single, one-off messages are now less effective than well-thought-out campaigns. So, rather than a single message that reminds employees to recycle, develop a series of related messages that tells a story about the environment and how our behavior affects nature and each other. Each message in the campaign reinforces all the others, creating more impact, and getting people invested in the “story” and the “characters”.
But you also need a community involved behind the scenes – you need someone to champion your internal communications, getting department heads and others on board and participating. You also need dedicated people to create and schedule content – people who are engaged in this process, who believe in the value of the digital signage system, and are willing to go the extra mile to accomplish your communications goals.
You also have to be flexible and responsive. Coming up with a single strategy and sticking to that is no longer an option. A digital signage system is dynamic, and not just in that things move around on screen or that messages can be added or changed quickly. Any modern communication strategy needs to be constantly changing and evolving. This requires getting feedback, conducting audits and making detailed observations of how effective or memorable certain campaigns are. The digital technology now available allows for unprecedented data mining, especially from interactive touchscreens – you can immediately see how often people use certain areas of the screen, which calls to action they are following and so on.
And you want real-world interactivity as well. Gamification has been shown to have amazing results in engagement, allowing organizations of all types to get people interested and involved in their environment. And integrating with mobile tech people are already using means that your internal communications are extended to everywhere your audience is, and a part of their daily routines.
As digital systems get smarter (some say that AI is coming soon), what will the next few years look like? One thing is for sure – successful communications strategies will use comprehensive, multi-channel tools like smart signage to create an environment that involves and engages the audience, that is filled with two-way information flows, and where communications is a constant, ever-adapting part of the very fabric of organizational life and culture. Every data point is useful, every person is part of your community as well as your audience, and every interaction is potentially meaningful to someone. This is communications in post-postmodern times.