Innovations in technology, particularly in digital media, increasingly are changing the way people use Media, Entertainment & Information (MEI) services. More than this, the very fabric of daily life is being altered. People are interacting and connecting with each other in different ways. Their sensibilities and psychologies are changing. Blurring boundaries between private and professional lives, and the hunger for immediate information are driving online connection time. Trust in individuals’ relationship with digital media has become an increasingly prominent issue. In some ways, new generations are leading the evolution in changing behaviour, but in others, older generations are “catching up” surprisingly quickly.
The World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society project was launched to provide insights on today’s media, entertainment and information consumer, as well as on the broader impact of digital media use on individuals, organizations and the larger society.1 As part of that project, the Digital Media and Society report aims to highlight opportunities in digital media that can be encouraged and nurtured. The report also signals potentially negative consequences that need to be tackled – individuals and families can address some; others require the attention of institutions, from schools to corporations, and states to national governments.
Digital Media and Society is based on evidence collected through desk research, project workshops, expert interviews and an online survey. Although the scope is large, it is not intended to be comprehensive. Rather, the report presents a broad picture of developments in digital media and their implications, in order to raise awareness, spark further discussion and stimulate the MEI industry and policy-makers to cooperate in two crucial ways: by cultivating the positive implications of digital media use and by addressing, and then re-dressing, its potentially negative impacts.
For the purposes of the Digital Media and Society report, digital media is defined as products and services that come from the media, entertainment and information industry and its subsectors. It includes digital platforms (e.g. websites and applications), digitized content (e.g. text, audio, video and images) and services (e.g. information, entertainment and communication) that can be accessed and consumed through different digital devices.
People’s online behaviours shape their digital identities. Individuals may show different behaviour patterns in different contexts (e.g. private versus professional), which may be described as different digital personae.
User behaviour, preferences and concerns
People are spending more and more time online. Consider these approximate figures for 2015:2
- 3 billion internet users
- 2 billion active social media users
- More than 1.6 billion mobile social accounts
While laptops and desktops are still most commonly used, mobile devices are gaining fast on them, causing a significant change in people’s engagement with digital media. Growth in mobile encounters is particularly strong in emerging countries, where consumers are leapfrogging from “no digital use” straight to “mobile use”.
Increased online connection time appears to be driven mainly by work or information seeking, followed by social and entertainment needs, based on findings from the five countries surveyed for this report. Digital media consumption for private and professional motives is more and more integrated, with individuals using digital media to move seamlessly back and forth between work and personal activities.
Sharing content has become a very important element of using digital media, with users most likely to share content that entertains, informs or inspires. Digital media also has made it possible for billions of online media consumers to participate in content creation. One-third of respondents to the Implications of Digital Media Survey conducted in October 2015 for this report, say they post written content, pictures or videos on social media sites either daily or a few times each week.
The main characteristics of today’s consumption patterns can be summarized as follows:
- Mobile: People now spend an average of two hours daily on the mobile web, one-third of their total online time, with Millennials and digital media users in emerging countries emerging countries leading the mobile revolution.3 The obvious advantages are that mobile usage is less dependent on place and time, and devices are more affordable than laptops/personal computers (PCs).
- Social and interactive: Social networking is by far the most popular online activity, clocking in at an average of 1.8 hours or 30% of daily online time.4
- Flexible and personalized: Users can have a more active role and more control over the digital media offerings they use and engage, compared with traditional media. User accounts and cookies allow for customization of content displayed based on user characteristics and usage patterns.
- Fast, instant and convenient: Fast internet and new technologies (hardware and software) allow for easier access and use, and enriched content.
- More content: As content creation and distribution become simpler, a greater amount of content and services are becoming available. Content is more diverse, but consumption is potentially focused more on breadth than depth, as capacity is limited. The importance of content filtering, curation and recommendation has grown.
- Collective: The possibility to connect, share, recommend and communicate creates a collective experience that shapes not only behaviours and preferences, but also a collective consciousness of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes.
- Fragmented and multi-channel: The huge number of channels and creators makes content ever more fragmented. Users access multiple platforms from multiple devices. Adapting content to these multiple platforms becomes imperative.
- The higher the usage of digital media, the higher the willingness to pay: Increased connection and use of digital media should tip the revenue scale in industry’s favour, but innovation in creating better user experiences is crucial, as it is clearly evident that traditional digital advertising is losing its appeal and efficacy.
But new consumption patterns, along with the presence of more players and creators in the market, bring challenges. Consumer trust is at risk because of fundamental concerns about:
- Truthfulness of content, given its volume, the large number of creators and sources, and need for more clarity around filtering mechanisms.
- Integrity of the company/consumer value exchange.
- Security of personal data and digital identities from cybercrime, given the significance of this information to a consumer’s professional, financial and social well-being.
Engaging consumers through digital media requires much more than simply “pushing” marketing content or services at them. Consumers have become savvy at ignoring ubiquitous display advertisements and more and more are using ad-blocking software.
Instead, engagement requires providing valuable content that meets user needs for information, convenience and entertainment, stimulates content sharing and “pulls” in consumers. For any brand or service, critical elements of this engagement strategy include:
- Entering into a conversation with consumers through social media
- Engaging employees to advocate the company through their social media activities
- Exhibiting socially responsible behaviour, particularly regarding use and control of users’ personal data.
The impact of digital media on individuals, organizations and society
The greater use of digital media today is changing people’s everyday lives and the way they connect and collaborate in the broader societal context, at work and in civil society. This project’s research into five countries from different regions concludes that this is a global phenomenon. Much of the impact of this heightened use is beneficial to both individuals and society. Digital media has empowered people so that they no longer are passive bystanders or recipients in the transformations wrought by the digital revolution, but are actively shaping digital media and its meaning for society.
The benefits to both individuals and society of increased digital media usage include the following:
- Assists social interaction and empowers individuals, connecting the like-minded across vast distances, as well as connecting those usually separated by social, economic, cultural, political, religious and ideological boundaries
- Offers the means to increase civic participation and facilitates the creation of communities with a common interest or cause
- Enhances flexibility for workers and employers, boosting productivity and enabling greater work-life integration
- Facilitates education and life-long learning to build and source skills
The main risks of higher digital media consumption include the following:
- Can be used with harmful intentions to spread propaganda and mobilize followers
- Influences human decision making as a result of content filtering mechanisms that can target specific information to certain people with potentially discriminatory effects. This can happen through information sharing or manipulation of information, for example, during an electoral process (“digital gerrymandering”)
- Potential for near term inequality due to the disruptions in labour markets and different skill requirements brought about by digital technology
- Changes in social skills and sense of empathy as children and adults spend more time online. Facilitates bullying, harassment and social defamation, reflecting threats and patterns seen in the offline world
- May impact mental and physical health if screen time is excessive. The harm includes stress, greater vulnerability to addictive behaviour, and less time spent in physical activity. Can pose health and developmental risks for young children if usage is not monitored
Outlook and call to action
The report’s research suggests that action from diverse social players will make it more likely for people to take advantage of more-frequent use of digital media even as they mitigate related risks:
- Public and private sectors should partner for multistakeholder collaboration to drive action on the effects noted in this report. The World Economic Forum can facilitate public-private collaboration. Both regulators and industry can engage with academia and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to incorporate research findings and initiatives in creating and implementing new socially responsible MEI industry offerings or public policies.
- The public sector can help to update, promote and enforce evidence-based standards and regulations in order to facilitate the benefits of digital media and innovative solutions to mitigate the negative effects. It can also facilitate the creation of social institutions and programmes that assist individuals and the private sector in making digital culture healthier at home, in education, at work and in public life. For example, the European Commission’s DG Connect group has a directorate dedicated to digital society, trust and security – every governmental body should establish similar resources for their country or region. However, any model of guidance and support should be adaptable to changes in the marketplace and user behaviour.
- The private sector, principally industry, should consider the implications for individuals when designing platforms and services or creating content. The private sector can deepen efforts to build trust with consumers, for example, by becoming more transparent about how personal data are used and showing a corporate ethos of accountability and social responsibility. An effective tool is sponsoring public and non-profit organizations that help to promote beneficial use of digital media. From an employer’s perspective, organizations should forge a strategy to integrate digital media and technology into workflows, and should be proactive in addressing the opportunities and pitfalls that increased connectivity brings to the business and employees.
- Finally, individuals are encouraged to enhance their digital literacy and skills, and use digital media responsibly. Individuals thus can protect themselves and others, especially those who are vulnerable. Individuals can also get involved with civic organizations and NGOs on digital media issues that have an impact on their lives.