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Digital isn’t a Channel

Submitted by on February 3, 2014 – 10:00 amNo Comment

Society chooses its words and phrases through democratic process.  They are sanctioned by being repeated over and over.  Thus it is futile to argue against common vernacular. That said, there is one turn of phrase in the communications world that I have waged a constant (and losing) war on:

“Digital is a Channel”.

Another common variant is ‘Digital is just a channel”.   The phrase is used (with good intention) to demystify aspects of digital communications.

  • It isn’t free.  So treat it like other media channels; radio, print, TV.
  • It can and should be measured just like any other “channel” etc.

Fair enough.  But ultimately the phrase obscures more truth than it reveals.   Here is why digital is not like any other channel…and, in fact, isn’t a channel at all.

Digital (as we know it now) is fundamentally participatory.
All previous mass communication systems (Radio, TV, Print) shared the same operating norms.   You needed a large outlie of cash to have a voice.  Thus all publishing was monopolised by some form of heavily capitalised group, mostly corporations and governments.  Digital media drops publishing costs to zero and invites all forms of frictionless participation and voice; from the simple like button, to ratings and reviews, comments, retweets, reblogs, etc.    This highly decentralised, dead-simple publishing model makes it easy for news to travel along a just-in-time circuit of public opinion.  This  allows everyday voices to gain fame as they are distributed forward by a peer network.  The canonical viral video sees the “audience” serve as a publisher; judging the suitability of the content through likes, retweets, email endorsements etc.  and promoting it into the mainstream.    You don’t need money to get reach.

The culture of digital (as we practise it now)  is founded upon the social contract
In all previous mass communication systems the viewer/listener/reader was a passive recipient of information – you could talk back to your TV but it wasn’t exactly called publishing when you did so.    We have always wanted to talk back.  Now, when we do, we are publishers.  What’s more. as the medium becomes flooded with everyday voices (bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers etc.) the cultural norms of communications shift from big-company jargon (self-aggrandising marketing, cold legalese, narcissistic branding) to everyday language and behavioural norms.  The Net rewards a humanising tone and punishes navel-gazing communications.  The interactivity at the root of most digital platforms is radically new and it changes customer expectations.

Digital is the meta-medium; Krishna showing the universe in his mouth or perhaps Vishnu, transformer of media
Digital is swallowing everything.  Nearly all other media are resolving themselves into digital.  TV, radio are in the process of being subsumed.  Yet even for the moment if you can find it on TV, radio or print it will find it’s way into the Internet (just Google your favourite TV ad, radio spot or print article).  Digital is consuming all other forms of media, putting them a click away from one another and making them subject to a very public discourse.  Physical packaging (another channel) now points customers online in one form or another (web site, hashtag, QR code, social sites etc.)… Everything that can be digital will be digital.

Channels are barriers, digital is a solvent
A channel implies a discreet transmission; a groove meant to contain a flow.  Digital is architected in fundamental opposition to this notion.  Digital is a solvent.  It is eroding channels that once were discreet.   A long time ago having a bad customer service experience that  became a public fiasco was a fluke.  Not anymore.  Corporate communications could manage reputation totally independent from how marketing ran the brand.  What you said to consumers, customers, stakeholders did not need to line up.. because you used separate channels to communicate to each audience.  No longer.   Digital, as a solvent, unifies communications into a single field of view for the customer.   It makes corporate reputation a matter of very public debate.   From a customer point of view It reveals the schizophrenic organising model within most organisations – where divisions operate in complete isolation from one another.   Corporation as Sybil; unpredictable and untrustworthy by the very nature of our direct experience engaging on any given day through its multiplicity of “channels”

Channel-thinking is not only false – it is harmful to corporate reputation.  It tells you that you can treat digital like old media. It reinforces the idea that there is still an old media (there isn’t) .    So why use the word?

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