Being Human in a Digital World

Until recently I had been in charge of digital marketing for a business since the beginning of the Internet. I’ve seen many changes in the ways we use online tools to promote a business. It all moves along so fast it barley gives you time to stop and think about what you are doing. Now I am primarily a photographer, I need to apply some of what I’ve learned over the years to my own site, but it’s different, and everything has changed so much.

With Google being the centre of the digital universe, that’s where most businesses will spend their time and money. It’s always been about gaming the system. At first we learned that links equalled ranking, so the world started generating billions of superfluous links from dubious sources. It lead to link rings and microsites, software that enabled you to swap links with others. Google’s reaction was to use its algorithms to identify these pointless links and devalue them. That in turn lead to negative SEO, at Silicon Beach Training we would get them all the time, even now we still get them, cowboy SEO companies who add links to your site from seriously bad sites.

being human in a digital world

All this pointless activity on the Internet needed to be addressed by Google to keep their results relevant to searchers. With time they developed ways of detecting how relevant these links were by the content and quality of sites in which the links were placed. So far so good, but what that lead to was the continuous flood of poor quality, keyword rich content with links to sites. Sites were established for businesses to connect with other business sites that would publish their content with backlinks. The result was lots of pointless, poor quality content. So Google developed ways to detect content for the sake of content, it slammed down hard on these sites and began to penalise the businesses that used them.

Google began to use location as a factor in search too. Google’s local search algorithm update put a lot of people out of business. Local physical businesses with services that cannot be provided over the network, that have (or had) a national or international customer base could no longer appear in search results when searchers were out of their area. This has resulted in many businesses setting up virtual offices and fake Google business locations in areas they want to reach. More pointless activity.

When businesses realised that social media allowed them to connect with the wider world it lead to another wave of Internet activity. Businesses tried to connect with an audience using Social Media, and some did it, and still do it well. But this too opened a can of worms. We are encouraged to get friends and followers; we are still playing the numbers game.

Now the only way really to improve ranking in Google, or even your general online visibility, is to produce content that actually matters enough to others to make them want to engage with it. That should be a good thing, but algorithms are not humans, no matter how clever the engineers are. With almost every business in the world trying to clamber to the top, there are no sure bets anymore, no matter how good your business, your product or content is. You still need to structure your site in an SEO friendly way, to make it load as fast as you can, to use micro data and keep the content quality high. You still need to write content in the right way, with good titles and some keywords. You still need to engage somehow with your clients, using social media and mailing lists, promotions and incentives. Your content must be interesting, useful or entertaining. It should be better, our on-line experience should be relevant, tailored, personal, a joy to use. But it isn’t.

It’s a constant flood of distraction; pointless messages from people we don’t know, spam emails, and spam Facebook posts, endless updates we don’t have the time or energy to sort. We are not physically or mentally capable to connecting to all the (so called) friends and followers we collect. We tend to pick out a few that we recognise, or some that may interest us, but it’s just not possible to take in and respond to the incoming avalanche of messages in a meaningful or human way.

We are bombarded with our own data. What we have liked or looked at online pops up everywhere on our screens. I am constantly unsubscribing to email lists to which I not consciously joined. I friend people on Facebook as I use it for marketing primarily, only to find they put porn on my page at night while I’m sleeping. We spend more time filtering crap than consuming the information we really want. There is just too much data in the world already, and the flow is still accelerating. We spend our lives creating that data. Every purchase, like and comment is collected and used to create more data and content which is then thrust upon us in a never-ending stream.

What about choice? Algorithms decide what we want. In fact ‘decide’ is the wrong word, it suggests humanity. There is nothing human about a machine, it does not make decisions, it makes calculations. We give Google and Facebook endless amounts of data about ourselves and they use this to reconstruct the data to throw back at us weather we like it or not. I read a really heart wrenching article written by a man who lost his young daughter last year. The Facebook machine sent everyone their animated year in pictures. There on the front was his daughters face, he didn’t share it of course, it hurt to even look at it. But even after he had decided not to open the file it was pushed and presented to him every time he logged on with no way of switching it off. A machine is just that, it does not think it merely calculates, and sometimes it gets it very wrong. We are connected or not, and unless we withdraw we have no choice.

By the way, while I’m on the subject of Facebook, I’d like to know who thought it a good idea to allow anyone to add you to a group you are not interested in and let them constantly message you against your will? Are they crazy!

The Internet, built to connect and improve relationships between people and businesses, is consuming us, and nobody can stop it or slow it down.

Where does it leave us? As a business that wishes to connect to consumers we have to take part to compete.

In some ways people subconsciously and consciously filter out the constant noise, I rarely see the ads, I begrudgingly spend time unsubscribing and deleting spam comments, Facebook posts and emails. What the world needs now are human filters.

I want to be a filter. In order to stay sane and engaged, there will be no content for contents sake; I will only write what I might be interested in reading myself. Already I only publish what I consider my best images. I will be more selective with whom I friend. I will not worry if I haven’t updated for a week or two (another of Google’s algorithmic ideas that has backfired is a preference for those who update often). I used to update Google+ once a week because some people use machines to filter out those who do not update so often, but who needs followers that only connect with the constantly connected, using machines not minds to connect. I will endeavour to be the filter that people crave. The one who doesn’t spout for the sake of an update.

Sure I will use these platforms to sell my street photography workshops, where I meet people in person and talk to them, to sell my images, which I constantly create because I love it so much, and to share them online. However, I wish to attract customers, not by pushing, but by pulling them in.

I put my new site out there for critique. The Internet is great for that! I was amazed at how much great advice I received. I posted in creative and marketing circles. The creatives loved it and the marketers kept telling me, I am not a blog, where was my marketing strategy, what was I selling, it is not clear, what about my ROI etc etc. However, right now, I am a blogger and a photographer, I just create, and I believe that that is what people want. Online, I want to create useful and interesting content first and foremost, my writing and my images. When people buy my images and workshops they are buying some of the creative part of me. This is what I want to share online.

Of course for larger businesses and brands, it’s another story, they need to work out how to become perceptibly more human, the ones that achieve this will be most successful. The rest of us need to stop peddling so hard and start enjoying the ride, focus on connecting with genuine people, rather than trying to use the machines to improve numbers.

For me, and self-employed people such as myself, who are providing a craft or service I believe that this is the way forward.

If you got this far, thanks for reading  and if you have anything to say please post here and share your thoughts

8 replies
  1. Renee
    Renee says:

    Dear Heather, I feel your frustration, as I too have been doing similar things like unsubcribing from email lists and removing myself from being ‘targeted’ as a consumer. Ironically, I’m in the process of helping a company with their online marketing. Finding ways to get leads without overloading prospects with too much information is tricky. The company I work for started out doing business on a handshake; how can you shake someone’s hand through the ‘cloud’? By staying grounded, firm to what built the business in the first place, and not getting too overwhelmed with information. Being genuine is key, but now there are new ways to offer your authenticity. Thank you for your post!


    Thanks Renee, I shared this elsewhere and am surprised at how many people feel the same, not just the consumers but even the marketeers. I hope, in marketing terms at least, people will start to realise that less is more. There will always be spam but maybe the compulsion to post for the sake of it is going out of fashion.

  3. Gordon McGoochan
    Gordon McGoochan says:

    Great article, Heather and certainly worthy of publication in a broadsheet magazine. If that is how you feel after your many years experience in the field of online marketing, imagine how the rest of us feel.


    Thanks Gordon, I’d just read the book “the circe” over Christmas, Then watched Black Mirror which was all about being trapped physically whist responding virtually to everything, Then the same theme in Peter James short story, then I open Facebook to see a poor man who had been presented with pictures of his daughter in his “year in pictures” which he could not stop from being presented to him on Facebook, very sad. Whist we control what we reveal, albeit subconsciously, we cannot control what they feed back to us.

    I then opened my linked in account to see hundreds of ecards and Xmas and New Year messages from people I don’t really know, and hundreds of congratulations for being in a business for 16 years, even though I am primarily a photographer now and although still a Director my participation is minimal.

    Thank you to all who clicked but what does it mean? As for ecards, where is the thought, the sentiment, the humanity? It seems so valueless. I would rather get a personal email or message from a good friend or college, a hug, or a kiss on the cheek, a smile or a conversation, something that actually means something.

    I spend my time unsubscribing, un-joining, deleting spam, it sometimes seems the the internet forces us to spent so much time doing pointless activities, we need to stop and breath and maybe change the way we behave online.

  5. Dade Freeman
    Dade Freeman says:

    Totally hear you Heather. Sadly since Facebook became a business instead of a connecting platform the rules changed and we were pushed along with it. In its hay-day Facebook appeared to be the perfect platform to connect and you had much more control of your audience, not to mention your own ‘friends’ got to see your work without you having to pay for them to see it.
    As for Google, they too keep moving the goal posts and keeping their cards close to their chest so no one has a chance at playing the game fairly or even understanding the rules. Hence where all these BS charlatan companies get a chance to come in to play and rip off the innocent/ignorant.
    What is required is a marketing genius whose world this is, who is on your side, works for the benefit of the end-user and is ahead of the curve. Your business seems to understand this industry very well and maybe this is where you guys can capitalise.


    Thanks Dade, It is different though, Silicon Beach Training needs a different approach to me. I think there are certain things a business responsible for paying the wages of others based on the sale of their product or service, need to work really hard now, they still need ways to reach an audience, but they need to concentrate on connecting, enticing, attracting customers rather than playing the numbers game. They need to understand the basic principals of SEO, structure their site in every way possible to please the search engines and keep up with the ever changing challenges. They do need to understand how social media can effect their visibility. They need to worry about their ROI, they cannot afford to have a team of people endlessly clicking and commenting if it doesn’t bring in business. They really need to to focus on using these tools less randomly and more effectively, not so much in a technical sense, all of that can be taught, but in an innovative way that makes them stand out. Easier said than done, but possible. I think the winners will be those who have creative minds in-house or can afford (and be able to identify) agencies that really understand this.

    But I am not representing a business anymore, I’m representing myself. In many ways, we creatives have a huge advantage. Our products and services ARE our creativity, which means by merely showing and sharing what we love to do is more valuable than any marketing plan.

    I think it can be a huge releif to some when they realise, that restricting yourself to just publishing what matters, and forgetting about the rest

  7. Chris Wright
    Chris Wright says:

    Very good article Heather, I completely agree with you and have taken the liberty of including it in the magazine ( Having abandoned the corporate world for the exciting and challenging work of start ups, I’m also reassessing the way I use social media based on approximating the ROI for each channel and frankly guessing on the cumulative effect. I’ve sold a fair number of photographs in 2014 through various channels, but the leads that look like delivering the highest value – i.e. potential assignments have all come through my personal network – which is of course consolidated by Facebook, my web site etc. It’s difficult to separate these things and quantify the value of individual elements and as long as the platforms keep changing the rules, we’re going be kept guessing. Like you I’ve decided that content is the most important asset.

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