Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Complexities of 'Belonging' in the Digital Age, Part 1

I recently read an interesting article on Fast Company by Sebastian Buck titled "The Best Brands Are The Ones That Build 'Belonging'." There is much to recommend this article, but I want to focus on 2 things:

First, I buy it. When I think about where my brand loyalties lie, they are clearly influenced by that sense of community. I'm a Mac person. I'm a Disney fan. I'm a Google user. All of these companies have sold me a lifestyle, but also a community. They have made it possible for me to find others who share my interests, and they have encouraged my ongoing interaction with their products. They have designed a culture that I can describe and contribute to. That's powerful stuff.

To be clear, I am not "buying in" blindly. I have the wisdom of age and experience. I recognize that the purpose of these companies is to get my money. They have an ethos that they are selling, and I am buying off the rack. I could just as easily have been a Dell person, a Universal fan, and a Microsoft user. I picked the brands that felt like who I wanted to be, and then (to the extent that I could), I did the work of personalizing my experience. I convinced myself that among these options, I chose wisely. To do otherwise would have meant that I had succumbed to Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice, and accepted a less satisfying life. My complicity in brand-loyalty (an act of self-deception) has to be driven by something very primal, which leads me to my next point...

The power of Buck's article is that he lays out a compelling argument for why we are likely to desire and seek out belonging, especially now. We do seem to live in a time of social isolation in which we have fewer institutional options for finding our tribe while, simultaneously, we have many more individual options for doing so.

Technology has made it possible for me to connect with more people (and brands) who are more like me. I can get really granular in my search for the ideas, things and people who reflect my tastes back to me, AND I have 24/7 access to those things. Once I find them, automation and algorithms ensure that I remain in contact with them at the expense of other ideas, things and people, because really, with the limited time I have, can I waste it on something I know I won't buy?

I think you can see the good and the bad here.

It's small wonder that with the exponential growth in choice and the immediacy and convenience of access, that our sense of civic obligation, our trust in our institutions, and our empathy for others are all in decline. As long as there are brands that are capable of filling my particular needs, not only will I be less likely to look elsewhere, I will grow to trust my choices of brands uncritically, while seeking every reason to disparage competing brands (whether it be my choice of cell phone, my preferred place to buy my groceries, my source for news, or my political party affiliation).


This has enormous implications to those of us in education.

It was difficult enough to think critically and independently before the Internet and 24-hour news and market research. Thinking is hard. Asking yourself if you are wrong in a world of personalization is even harder. Everything is set up to affirm our notions, to satisfy our appetites, to cater to our preferences, and to ensure our choices remain predictable.

Additionally, given this level of personalization, I am reminded of a passage from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in which the character Beatty explains the demise of the book. Essentially, in this dystopian universe, people's interests became so personalized that books that held a particular point of view (and that could consequently offend someone) fell out of fashion. It was better to be distracted by fun, non-controversial diversions than to have to confront someone else's beliefs. As a result, society self-selected away from challenging ideas and toward meaningless drivel.

I wonder if we are at the beginning of that process. There are still plenty of controversial ideas, and they are pitted against one another daily on cable news, in our mobile news feeds, and through social media. Right now, it feels like we're anything but avoiding controversy.

HOWEVER, I also know how tired of it many of us are. We aren't engaging in meaningful dialogue or truth-seeking as much as we are broadcasting our truths into the void of our individual echo chambers. How easy would it be for us all to just give up the fight and instead be distracted by mass media designed to make us feel good?

Maybe that is what is already happening. Perhaps the fact that we can all pick the people who inhabit our virtual islands is a twisted form of happiness. Yet, we are still at war with the other islands. Inclusiveness is easier when it is enabled by exclusiveness.

The next natural step might be Bradbury's world. In our world, brands are facing big choices today. They can either stand with one camp and risk the backlash of another (for example, Dick's Sporting Goods' recent announcement) or avoid controversy at all costs (for example, L'oreal and Revlon's responses to the political statements of their representatives).

If multinational brands are struggling to navigate these waters, imagine how our kids will fare?

It may have never been more critical that we teach our students media literacy than it is today. Our kids deserve to have a clear understanding of how all brands seek to influence us, how big data uses everything we do online to target us with messages, and how the algorithms that social media uses gradually isolates us from new ideas. It's equally important to help them develop the wisdom they will need to make thoughtful contributions to a complicated world and the empathy and interpersonal skills they will need to live in a world filled with a rich diversity of beliefs.

In future posts, I plan to look at two related issues: 1. What are the roles and realities of educators and schools in this age of hyper-personalization, and 2. How can classrooms and schools create a more sensible space in which students can find and create belonging.

In the meantime, I'd love to know your thoughts. Are we a match for the persuasive power of brands?  Are there benefits to the role brands play in creating a feeling of belonging? Are there sensible choices we can make to repair the isolation our digital world can create? Do we still live in a world that is capable of deliberation, compromise, and productive dialogue? Do we want or need to? What is the role of education in all of this?



  1. Tim! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It was like you reached inside of my brain. I can't not comment here because I just LOVE Fahrenheit 451. My favorite quote from the book, which closely ties to your topic here, is "We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

    And as you mention, are we taking the time to be bothered? Probably depends on the person and what we are choosing to explore as individuals. What role do we as teachers play in helping students realize they need to be bothered in order to find their true beliefs?

    Oh, and to respond to your question , "Do we still live in a world that is capable of deliberation, compromise, and productive dialogue?" I think yes. It is just hard to find true examples of this right now. We have to model this for all. I recently listened to a Podcast by Dax Shepard called "Armchair Expert" where he interviews his tv wife from the show Parenthood Joy Bryant. While the conversation is long (and definitely not PG), they do touch on racism and sexism in America. It is one of the best examples/models of tough conversations I've come across lately.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to reading more. MT

    1. Thanks for your response, Megan! I love that quote :) The idea that we need to be bothered is a great one. Bothered implies that we are uncomfortable in a way that is driven from within. I don't like something that has no chance of changing my mind, but I am bothered by something that is hitting home with me.

      I think that is what is driving my concern. Do we live in a society that can tolerate the uncertainty of being bothered? Or is our ability to "find our tribe" actually contributing to our inability to empathize?

      Like you, I think that depends on the person. From an educational angle it depends on the teacher and the school as well. How often do teachers and schools make choices to not address hard questions because of the potential for backlash?

      It reminds me of the scene in Emperor's Club in which Kevin Kline's character, Mr. Hundert, is chastised by Senator Bell not to overstep his role by attempting to teach his students character.

      Loved the Podcast by the way. Thanks for sharing that!