We live in an age of confusion, where it’s getting harder for brands and consumers to tell who to listen to, what to believe and even who they’re talking to at any given moment. The net result of never being sure of what’s real and what’s fake: more and more people feel an eerie sense of displacement and disconnection from the people and things around them, as if experiencing the world as a Matrix, full of glitches.
Over the last few months, three trends have bubbled to the surface of our cultural fabric – themes we’ve seen reflected in many of the most energized and polarized conversations happening online and offline, and that are poised to gain momentum and set the tone for what’s to come in 2019 and beyond.
First is something that we’re calling Identity Integrity. Our identities used to be small enough to fit on a wallet-sized piece of cardstock; now we’re defined by billions of bits of information, scattered across a massive and mostly shadowed digital landscape.
Last month, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos stunningly posted an essay on Medium stating that he’d been subject to blackmail from the tabloid publisher American Media, who’d obtained intimate text messages and pictures he’d sent to his mistress, broadcaster Lauren Sanchez. It was unclear how AMI had obtained the materials — there were suggestions that foreign intelligence operations might be involved, and more recently, that Sanchez’s brother and agent could’ve sold her out behind her back — but for consumers, the incident underscored how little control or awareness they have over their own most personal data.
If even the wealthiest tech entrepreneur in the world could have his private communications hacked and leaked, what ordinary person could possibly be safe? Brands should recognize they’re skating on very thin ice with consumers when it comes to harvesting information, and that opt-in sharing and transparency of use should be considered table stakes in any request for data.
Even as it’s getting harder to pin down who we and those around us really are, it’s also increasingly challenging to just arrive at common ground. The net result of this cultural tug of war is a state we call Negotiated Reality. This trend explores how absolute and universal principles have been replaced by relative and contextual ones. For some, the shift from black and white to shades of grey reflects the death of morality, or even basic common sense. For others, it’s evidence of newfound empathy and willingness to be inclusive.
On January 18, students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School were captured on video surrounding and apparently harassing Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder. The boys were subjected to a storm of recrimination for their intimidation and mockery of the drum-playing tribal activist. But less than 24 hours later, longer-form versions of the video showed that the boys had been subjected to racial attacks from a separate group of protesters, which they claimed was the actual trigger for their actions.
While the truth of the events remains murky, the back-and-forth narrative left no one looking good — not those who rushed to judgment, those who gave in to shifting opinion or those who remained on the sidelines. The lesson for brands: be thoughtful before wading into the fray of controversial social issues, but when silence is not an option, make a choice that reflects core values and elevates the conversation, rather than getting tangled in the weeds.
Lastly, we’re seeing the rise of a trend we call Accepted Deception, relating to the broader impact of the exponential spread of malevolent and fraudulent activity across society. From catfishing to pranksterism to the cascading falsehoods put out by political leaders, as amply documented by professional factcheckers, consumers are becoming increasingly skeptical that anything is fully true.
On January 29, Jussie Smollett, the openly gay star of Fox’s hit show, Empire, checked into the hospital with injuries that he claimed occurred during a horrific bias-crime attack. Three weeks later, he was arrested as the apparent perpetrator of a hoax. While many rushed to support Smollett in the wake of the alleged attack, since the revelations, that empathic response has been overwhelmed by angry backlash, leading civil rights activists to worry that future incidents of very real racist and homophobic violence — which have risen sharply in frequency over the past few years — might be reflexively dismissed.
The underlying lesson: It’s not enough for brands to speak out when issues pop up in the headlines. There needs to be continuous and consistent investment when they’re out of the spotlight as well, to prevent the grinding weight of cynicism and outrage fatigue from erasing the benefits of efforts they’ve made toward changing minds and changing the world.
Overall, these three trends highlight the ways in which abnormal increasingly feels like the new normal for consumers and brands alike. However, the key conclusion isn’t that things can’t change, that trust deficits can’t be repaired, or that hope should be lost. On the contrary, while 2019 will be a year of unprecedented volatility, with virtually everything we might have once considered secure or sacred in flux, this very uncertainty means that the future is more open to change than ever before — for both good and ill.
We ended last year reflecting on a meme that emerged right at the tail end of December: a viral literary movement dubbed "hopepunk." Writing for Vox, Aja Romano called hopepunk "a narrative message of ‘keep fighting, no matter what’…not a brightly optimistic state of being, but an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless."
For us, that effectively sums up the road ahead in 2019, a year that will demand hard work in repairing frayed bonds and bridging gaps in our culture — but the work is necessary, and the reward once it’s done will be great.
Jeff Yang is the VP and head of global futures at Sparks & Honey.
These insights are drawn from Sparks & Honey’s latest report: Strangers In A Strange Land. With an overarching theme of broken trust and cultural alienation, the report highlights 15 of the most powerful and emergent trends poised to shape culture over the next 12 to 18 months – arming business leaders with the intelligence they need to make insightful decisions. Data behind the report were drawn from analyses conducted via the company’s proprietary cultural intelligence platform, Q™, which brings together a wide range of public data sources as well as insights from the consultancy’s Advisory Board and Scout Network.