“We are sensation junkies, predisposed to excitement, and if that means danger and death, we are ready for it.”
~ Doris Lessing, ‘Under My Skin’ (part 1 of her autobiography)
Since Labs was founded in 2008, at the end of every year we’ve written a round-up of our favourite memories of the previous 12 months: the people, the products, the posts. And I like to think this has reflected the fact we’ve spent much of the past six years engaged in a sort of happy, virtuous circle of accelerated learning and application; of thinking and doing. Taking everything we’ve learned about the Internet and technology and applying it to client business, for the company we work for, with a generous community around us and even together with our families. And, personally, I was proud of the balance I was striking for a lot of that time. Although who needs work-life balance when you can have the merge, eh?
This year we’re taking a different approach.
When Lessing wrote the sentence above she was describing mid-20th century life, bearing witness to a ‘regret for intense experience’ that was voiced openly in the aftermath of two world wars. She wasn’t referring to Internet culture in the early 21st century, although that was the association that immediately suggested itself when I read the sentence. I’m going to use the fact she makes her assertion in the present tense as my excuse.
Looking back over the past year or two, I’d argue we’ve reached the nadir – or the height, depending on your perspective – of our generation’s sensation junkydom. I say this as someone who has disagreed vehemently with Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier and the rest of the-Internet-is-making-us-shallow gang, smiled blithely through Sherry Turkle’s ‘Alone Together’ (“c’mon, I’m not that bad” I said to my family as I swiftly sent another 5 tweets over lunch) and I have declared my undying love for the joys of the social web, several times, in public.
Certainly by 2012, the point at which this post becomes harder to write, we had started to sense a shift from the visceral burn of excitement, the learning curve we were all on, to something else, something more akin to a collective burden, that – god forbid – we’d helped fuel. At worst, a pressure to overvalue and prioritise what we could call the “‘nesses” truthiness, newsiness and, the king of all things real-time: nowness.
Now, whether you are a journalist questioning the very purpose of your existence when a casually fact-checked Upworthy or BuzzFeed piece beats your thoughtful op-ed hands down again, or the brilliant poet Kate Tempest beautifully and poignantly nailing how it feels as a teenager to have your life documented, duplicated and fetishized over, or a blogger satirically sending up copy-cat millennial marketing, our social status quo is being questioned from multiple perspectives.
Taken to the absolute extreme this year in The Circle, Dave Eggers paints a (fictional) portrait of a totalitarian world where the pursuit of ‘completion’, or total information, is the sole, unrelenting goal. Warning: if you’re mildly paranoid about privacy, this book will push you over the edge. Back in the here and now, Alexis C. Madrigal puts things perfectly in his article, 2013: The Year ‘The Stream’ Crested:
“Nowadays, I think all kinds of people see and feel the tradeoffs of the stream, when they pull their thumbs down at the top of their screens to receive a new updates from their social apps. It is too damn hard to keep up. And most of what’s out there is crap… I am not joking when I say: it is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the Internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished.”
These are not crackpot Luddites frothing at the mouth about the evils of technology or, for that matter, New Age Cassandras prematurely worrying about the End Of The World As We Know It. These are people who have helped conceive the best products and thinking in the corner of the web we traverse daily; people who consistently, visibly and tangibly crank open their minds in the pursuit of making things better.
By the end of 2013 our unease has become a dull roar of disquiet. A palpable sense that the exhilaration we experienced a few years back has passed, to be replaced on a bad day by a mixture of exhaustion and that worst of all things, ennui.
When something is ‘under your skin’ it’s an itch that needs continuously scratching: addictive but never wholly satisfying. And after a while, it’s finally dawns on you that you need to stop doing that and move on. I don’t mean ‘embrace continuous change!’ in a brace-yourselves-through-gritted-teeth-for-more-new-stuff sense, I mean: some things need to stop, in order for new things to start.
So 2014 is going to be different. But it won’t become different on its own: we have to make it so.
At Labs and BBH, we’re taking some steps to balance things out a little. Here are just a few:
1. Valuing both ‘stock’ and ‘flow’.
A master metaphor for media today coined by Robin Sloan back in – jeez! – 2010, also via Madrigal, ‘stock’ is the durable content and behaviour that stands the test of time, whilst ‘flow’ is a continuous feed of updates. Both are modern necessities, but, as the sheer newsiness of nowness deflates (see what I did there), the importance of more contemplative content bubbles back up.
We’re seeing evidence of this in the lovingly created, more durable digital publishing evidenced by the likes of the NYT Magazine’s ‘A Game of Shark & Minnow’, the oft-mentioned Snowfall, the Guardian’s brilliant ‘NSA Decoded’ (for more of this ilk, see this helpful spreadsheet via @neilperkin) and closer to home, the likes of Toshiba and Intel’s Beauty Inside and Complex Media’s The New New for Converse Cons.
2. Looking inward for a while.
This year, we deliberately reduced our external focus and instead designed an end to end New Skills training course for BBH and our clients. At BBH London it began with a #bbhexpo in November and continues with a series of 2 day workshops throughout the first quarter of 2014.
We’ll publish the assets and what we learn here once it’s completed end of Q1 2014.
3. Switching up the leadership of Labs in London.
Agathe Guerrier, or AG to her friends, formally took over the leadership of Labs in London alongside @Jeremyet from me a few months ago. For those of you who don’t know AG, she is the perfect leader for a new phase in Labs’ development: her name translates as ‘the warrior’, yet she is a practicing Yoga teacher and has a Tumblr aptly named ‘Wegan Wednesdays.’ She’s also a peerless Strategy Director & Partner at BBH and the brain behind the New Skills training course above.
4. Taking a lighter, more open source approach to Labs Experiments.
It isn’t all about depth, contemplation and stopping to smell the flowers. Historically at Labs we’ve tried, failed and sometimes succeeded at lots of different approaches to experimentation: amongst other things, crowdsourcing our own logo, attempting to reinvent street newspapers, providing a useful catch-up web app and also an entertaining little service that displays your social data as a personalised robot unique to you. A lot of the above took blood, sweat and tears carefully collected in our downtime. In 2014, we’re deliberately adopting a lighter, more open source approach to experimentation instead, opening up the Lab and its resources beyond the core Labs team. More on this from Jeremy and AG in the New Year.
5. Less, but Better.
More individual time spent on fewer clients. It’s not radical but it is profound. We hope it will help everyone regain a sense of equilibrium and clarity of focus, making our work better along the way.
Finally, what about the intense experience Doris Lessing reminded us of, the thing we long for, despite ourselves? Patently, it doesn’t go away. It’s simply about a concerted effort to get some balance back. In 2014 there will still be flow: of course there will be a multitude of memes, ideas and products that catch fire and light up the Internet for a day or two. But I’d wager we will recognise that we need both durable stock and the adrenaline rush of flow in our lives.
Perhaps the most ‘now’ thing we can choose to do next year is to do this: remember to take stock.
A huge thank you to everyone who’s written, shared, commented and generally made the BBH Labs world go round this year. And a particular thank you for the thoughtful writing, links and provocation that have directly fed this post (whether they knew it or not) to the following people inside and outside BBH: Agathe Guerrier, Jeremy Ettinghausen, Adam Powers, Yuri Kang, Chris Meachin, Alex Matthews, Simon Robertson, Nick Fell, Tim Jones, Jim Carroll, Tom Uglow, Ben Malbon, Tim Malbon, Neil Perkin, John Willshire, Amelia Torode, Anjali Ramachandran, Pats McDonald, Alexis C. Madrigal, Nathan Jurgenson, Saneel Radia, Len Kendall, James Mitchell, Ben Fennell, Charlie Rudd, David Spencer, Jon Peppiatt, Sarah Pollard, Heather Alderson, Kate Roberts, Dan Hauck, Kirsty Saddler, Jonathan Bottomley, Ben Shaw, Helen Lawrence, Sarah Watson, Olivia Chalk, Dav Karbassioun, Tim Nolan and last but very definitely not least, Jason Gonsalves.
For a more straightforward look back at some of the themes of 2013:
– Maria Popova’s excellent ‘The Best of Brainpickings 2013’
And for more on looking forward to 2014: