x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Trendspotting: You're not alone - ever

Once, we knew what it meant to be alone. Now friends are only a touchscreen tap away: whatever you're doing.

Digital technologies allow us to do everything from buy Louboutins to connect with business professionals from our smartphones.
Digital technologies allow us to do everything from buy Louboutins to connect with business professionals from our smartphones.

Not so long ago, life was packed with solitary activities - or, at least, the potential for them: watching television, reading, going for a long walk with no one to talk to. Just you and your thoughts.

Today, we've become used to the idea that we're never truly alone. For most of us, mobile connective technologies mean that wherever we are, we carry in our pocket the distant whisper of a billion voices, just a touch screen tap away.

Hasn't this changed the way we think about what it means to be alone? That beautiful countryside vista that we might once have simply have noticed and remembered now presents a whole matrix of options to be negotiated. Should we Facebook the moment? Tweet it, Instagram it, turn it into yet another piece of content to feed the digital/social machine? Even the choice to not do those things is, in the end, a social decision. We've enabled always-on connectivity and there's no going back.

Not that going back is, for many, the preferred option. Now, increasing numbers of services aim to ensure that whatever we're doing, we have instant access to others around the globe doing the same. Those technologies are bringing into being a whole new kind of social connection, one that transcends geography and instead arranges social connection around real-time shared activity.

Television is at the forefront; the US talk show Conan now makes available an app that allows viewers to connect with one another and chat while they're watching the show. Meanwhile, last year's US presidential debate in Denver was the most tweeted event of all time, racking up 10.3 million tweets in 90 minutes as the vast television audience discussed what they were seeing with one another while it unfolded.

Activity-based social connection is also being fuelled by mobile internet. Here on Biz (available in the Apple Store), for example, is an app that allows business professionals to connect in real-time with others in their LinkedIn network. At a business conference or stuck at the airport waiting for that flight? Why not strike up a conversation with another executive in the same position? Meanwhile in Brazil, the Spotwish Go! app (spotwish.com/go) lets users broadcast their current activity and connect with others nearby who are doing the same.

Human beings are social animals. When we talk about the digital technologies that are transforming our lives, we often observe that they allow us to watch endless Justin Bieber videos, buy Louboutins from our smartphone, negotiate group discounts or a million other things. But all of those are really just a way of saying that these technologies allow us to connect with one another in new ways. How long will it be before even the definitive solitary activity - reading a book, ideally a long, dense novel - becomes social, so that iPad readers of page 457 of War and Peace across the globe are chatting in real time about the plot turn they've just encountered?

These technologies have reconfigured the boundaries between alone and together, private and public. Soon enough, we'll find out what that really means. And we'll tweet about it.

David Mattin is lead strategist at trendwatching.com