Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Tess Alps: The problem with the word ‘digital’

By Tess Alps, Chair, Thinkbox

So, this is embarrassing: “Write 750 words about why you hate the word ‘digital’ “ came the request from … New Digital Age.

OK, let me get this out of the way upfront: yes, I am a pedant.   I was born in the 1950s (not the 1950’s.) I like three dots in an ellipsis.  You and I know that this is an issue that matters to you and me (not to you and I). 

‘Digital’ is an excellent word to mean the opposite of analogue, but it is not a synonym for the internet.  You might spend an entire day with digital tech – creating a PowerPoint presentation on your desktop while listening to a CD and in the evening watching telly or popping a DVD into your player – without ever once going online. 

It’s not as if there aren’t suitable alternative words available.   I like ‘internet’ best, a broad, elastic and generous word, born from ‘interconnected networks’, whether the open web or closed apps.  ‘Online’ is also good; both words convey the essential quality of connectivity.   The names of the IAB and UKOM contain ‘internet’ and ‘online’ respectively, so why do they persist in claiming the entirety of ‘digital’ media on their websites?  

But pedantry is a poor reason to rant.  In my own case, ‘digital’ causes great confusion in the world of television — and broadcasters are as guilty as anyone, I assure you.   Broadcast Magazine still runs the ‘Broadcast Digital Awards’.  A quick look at this year’s winners shows that their definition of ‘digital’ includes any non-PSB channel (including family channels from the PSB broadcasters like BBC4 or E4) to  web-based support material for a show. 

When agencies talk to me about ‘digital TV’ I have to check what they mean exactly; sometimes they mean a channel only available via a pay-TV platform (eg Discovery) but sometimes it’s an online TV app like the ITV Hub.

Readers, all TV in the UK is digital — live or playback, linear or on-demand, broadcast or online.  Remember that digital switchover thing that happened in 2012?  The analogue signal that delivered broadcast TV was switched off completely; at some point the same will happen to broadcast radio.

When agencies and journalists talk about ‘digital media’ they don’t mean all media that is digital, they invariably mean internet-based media.  If we’re lucky, they might include the online versions of TV, radio, newspaper, mags and any OOH that is connected, but they never include live, linear broadcast TV and radio. 

Please don’t think I don’t love and value the internet.  It’s amazing.  I can research online every type of rose that exists and instantly buy the one I fancy.  I am a Twitter addict.  I am a genuine enthusiast – maybe even an evangelist.  But I am not an internet fundamentalist.  I don’t like the way ‘digital’ has become so tribal. 

Self-labelled ‘digital’ bods align themselves with other ‘digital’ people at the expense of connections that might be more insightful or productive. The rest of us aren’t calling ourselves ‘analogue’ specialists, you know.  This slightly arrogant ‘them and us’ mentality keeps people in silos and discourages people from learning from everyone around them. 

Social media has more in common with PR, email has more in common with direct mail, online video has more in common with TV than any of them have with each other.

So, by all means, keep saying ‘digital media’ if you are truly embracing the entire digital spectrum but, if there’s a more precise word, please choose that instead.

At the risk of terminally offending my hosts, are we really are living in a ‘Digital Age’?  I suppose if we accept a Bronze and Stone Age, when hunting, gathering and fire-building remained the fundamentals of life but enhanced by a few bronze or stone tools, it’s probably fair enough.  Why have we never talked about an Electrical Age, I wonder? 

But human beings are analogue creatures.  Growing, cooking and eating food will always be an analogue experience.  Holding and kissing babies — and making them in the first place — is analogue behaviour.  Even in the worlds of marketing, the smell of the shower gel, the sound of a closing car door, the taste of the pasta sauce, the fit of a training shoe will remain the core product features. 

Digital technologies can certainly enhance all of those development processes even when they are not the central offering.  Don’t get in the way.  There’s pride in being the ‘helpful tool’.