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How to keep the faith in the digital revolution: The Stickiness Factor

21 May 2019
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Ever wondered what makes certain ideas stick in our minds more than others? It has been said that we need to see an ad about six times before we really remember it and the message it is supposed to be communicating. It's this idea of a message being memorable that lies behind Malcolm Gladwell's idea of the 'stickiness factor’.

In this third in a series of four blogs, we're looking at the impact of the digital revolution and beginning to consider what factors could help shape a Christian response. To help us we're drawing inspiration from Gladwell's book The Tipping Point - that seemingly magical moment when ideas and trends reach a certain point and spread like wildfire. Gladwell identifies three key factors which help to achieve the Tipping Point:

1. The law of the few

2. The stickiness factor

3. The power of context

The stickiness factor helps to identify and describe the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea. One example from his book describes a research project conducted in the 1960s on the campus of Yale University which explored the importance of fear in learning. Two groups were set up; one was given a booklet about the importance of tetanus inoculation, whilst the other was given a booklet about the serious dangers of getting tetanus. Those from group B were found to be more much likely to say that they would have a tetanus jab, yet the rate of follow through was pretty low. They appeared to know the information but didn’t appear to act on it. The research team tried the experiment again but with one significant change. A handout was given out to both groups which included a campus map with the university health centre clearly marked and the times when students could come and get inoculated. The result was that more students followed through on actually getting a tetanus jab. What was needed was not more information but rather how the information related to them and their lives. Once the information became practical and personal, it became memorable. The message stuck.

Looking at the effects of the digital revolution it appears that it is inherently ‘sticky’. On average, research indicates that in the UK 38 million adults access the internet every day and internet users aged 16 and over spends more than 20 hours online each week [1]. Digital technology is compelling us to pay close, sustained attention to our mobile devices in so many different ways. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other of the many platforms and apps available, there seems a plethora of options from which to choose from in order to stay connected and keep our nearest and dearest informed of what we’re up to and our current thoughts on life and the universe. It’s practical, personal and memorable. What’s not to love?

Despite our use of the term ‘social media’ to describe these platforms, at times they can be anything but social environments. They have given us the freedom to literally express ourselves, no holds barred. Whether it’s lies and fake news or internet trolling and social disinhibition, far from being a liberating experience social media has led to new social phenomena that doesn’t exactly show humanity as its best. A study conducted by the world renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) looked at 126,000 messages spreading false stories on Twitter. They concluded that the truth takes six times longer than fake news to be seen by 1,500 people on Twitter.

These platform also appear to give us freedom to behave in ways that we would never think of if we were meeting them face-to-face. Bullying and insulting others through social media, often referred to as trolling, is a product of this new found social disinhibition. Social media provides a very real and valuable opportunity to engage and exchange points of view with one another, enriching dialogue and understanding. Yet there are those who passionately argue their case at the same time as denying the same right to those who hold to contrasting or conflicting perspectives. Sadly the words of French Enlightenment writer Voltaire seem to be largely ignored when it comes to our use of social media: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

It appears the ‘stickiness’ of digital technology compels us to engage, but at times with serious consequences on the rest of our lives and what it means to be human. In recent years much has been written about the use of technology and mental health. Despite our apparent connectedness online studies have consistently shown that one in 10 of us is lonely and a report by the Mental Health Foundation suggests loneliness among young people is increasing. Yes, digital technology can help to reduce social isolation but research indicates cognitive function improves if a relationship is actual rather than virtual and involves ‘old school’ face-to-face interactions. There is something inherently different between a Facebook ‘friend’ or a Twitter ‘follower’ and a real, human friend.

Ridding our lives completely of all digital technology may be one response but it would be largely impossible, such is the impact of technological change on how we live our lives. Taking time to re-assess what we do with our time may be a better starting place. The stickiness of the online, connected lifestyle and extreme compulsion to sustained engagement has led to what is now known as internet addiction (now a recognised mental condition in the US and other countries). Higher rates of depression and anxiety, and lower measures of self-directedness and cooperativeness have all been attributed to this kind of addiction.

The word ‘addict’ originates from the Latin term “addictus”, used to denote the time served by indentured slaves. In the ancient world, the addict was the slave. In today’s digital world, we must make the decision who is to be the master and who is the slave. Our mental health and what it means to be human could well depend on it.

In his book, Gladwell addresses the stickiness of the attention grabbing techniques used by the pioneers behind the hit children’s TV series, Sesame Street. The show was built around the idea that by capturing the children’s attention, you could then begin the process of educating them in reading, writing and maths. Essentially, the children came for the stickiness and stayed for the education. In a similar way, the challenge seems to be to harness the stickiness of the digital revolution to sustain connection and contact with one another by helping to augment our human, relational interactions as opposed to replacing them.

Given the current state of affairs with trolling, loneliness and social disinhibition, maybe the stickiness of the digital world could help people to connect and then educate how best to engage and relate to one another before encouraging them to go experiment with 'old school' biometrics: meeting and relating face to face. To quote John Naisbitt as our desire for 'high tech' increases, there is an equally growing need for 'high touch'. Bringing the two together is what truly makes a personal, practical and memorable experience.

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