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Are we approaching the age of digital disengagement?

Cover image for Are we approaching the age of digital disengagement?

Photo: note thanun

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Digital entertainment, despite its mild correction from the lockdown-boom period, is still at record levels of engagement. More content is being created than ever before, more efficiently and cost-effectively, across games, music, and video. Consumers are able to access it anywhere, at a wide range of price points (including free) for an even wider range of propositions and quality thereof.

But with AI having breached the horizon and begun to flood the digital-content market, a riptide is beginning to pull away from the momentum of infinite expansion: the culture that underpins audience engagement is changing.

The point of overwhelm

Fandom is being diluted by content overwhelm; audiences’ attention is being fractured again and again into ever-smaller pieces by increasing demands for their focus. Some big entertainment powerhouses still manage to hold fast to the broader popular culture (Marvel and Taylor Swift, for example). Yet these are holdovers from before the era of digital domination, having emerged in the times of comic books and CDs. What happens to the culture being created today? What distinguishes it – where does it come from, and how does it break through? These are growing challenges across entertainment industries, and they are going nowhere fast. If anything, they are worsening.

Meanwhile, audiences are adapting, and the cultural trajectory is shifting in response. Authenticity – or the perception thereof – is overtaking ‘polished’ content as a driver of views and affinity; YouTube has found that ‘green room’ content can drive two to three times the rate of artist views, for example. ‘Dumb phones’ are coming back into vogue, as is vinyl. Meanwhile, the predominant hold social platforms have over audience attention is facing mitigation by way of regulation. While current generations may largely continue to hold the same digital habits today, the rising Gen Alpha is watching their parents go through life with their noses in smartphones, and they may (perhaps rightly) do the normal generational thing of rebounding the other way entirely. Analogue is back, as a natural continuation of the growing cultural value for experiences and simply being involved, rather than being a passive consumer. Hence why companies are having to take public social stances as a part of their highly scrutinised brand identities, and lean-through consumption is emerging as a bigger distinguisher for audiences than simply lean back.

A digital reality check

This is not to say that digital is doomed. However, it is worth questioning whether we are approaching the end of the peak of the digital content hype cycle, two decades later. Digital integration over lockdowns perhaps hastened this on through the overwhelm of accelerationism, but it was likely to come sooner or later: digital is simply one facet of a much larger world that is increasingly being faced by very (comparatively) ‘real’ problems, from war to the climate crisis (and generative AI’s server demands truly put Bitcoin’s ecological unfriendliness to shame). Enthusiasm for the latest smart device or 100th TV show out this week is naturally waning in favour of other, bigger things.

This is a long-term trend, and digital engagement is not going to drop off a cliff-edge anytime soon. But a generational cultural adjustment is beginning, and it will see, in many ways, a return to pre-digital norms and values: cinema trips, live events, board games (the chess resurgence being but one example), with digital as a singular stream of engagement that will find its place within the broader picture, rather than being the central focus of it. Fortunately, this will hugely help industries staggering beneath the demands of exponentially increasing amounts of digital content for exponentially decreasing expectations of, and ability for, available spend. Unfortunately, it will require some choppy adjustments of expectations as we turn our focus away from ‘digital everything’ to a balance of ‘digital some’.

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John Gaenzler
Spot-On. Establishing digital identity will be key in regulating content flow moving into Web3.