That Was The Year That Wasn’t

When I was small, there was a TV programme called “That Was The Week That Was“. It was the first satirical programme on TV and set the ball rolling for later series such as “Not the Nine O’Clock News” and “Have I Got News for You”. These programmes poke fun at the events of the week – and often have a “review of the year”. Well, looking back at 2017 it is hard to see what they could have put in a special edition called “That Was The Year That Was”. Indeed, last night on TV there was a comedy review of the year on BBC Television and, frankly, it wasn’t that funny because there was so little for them to get their teeth into.

In 2017 we appear to have just “trod water” without making much progress; indeed, you might even think we have gone backwards. Normal policy development has halted as the UK Government grappled with Brexit. Yet we don’t even know what that means. Brexit means Brexit we were told, but then various ministers and members of the Government appear to have different views as to what that actually means. They have spent the year trying to define it, without much success, meanwhile not doing very much at all for education, health or business.

And if you are in the USA, don’t think you are immune from the lack of progress. Donald Trump has spent more of his first full year in office on Twitter and on the golf course than he has in the White House. He has pushed through legislation, that is true, but much has been knocked back by the courts. And what he has achieved has met with widespread condemnation from the much of the rest of the world as well as, it appears, most Americans. 

Meanwhile, over on the Internet, things haven’t gone so well either. Fake news has caused immense problems for the search engines and social networks. Facebook is slowly unpicking itself from news distribution, and it looks set to abandon that altogether quite soon. Meanwhile, the company has had to apologise this week for being an abject failure in dealing with hate speech, after a study showed total inconsistency in the way the network dealt with negative posts and comments. New studies also show that teenagers are abandoning Facebook – primarily due to the amount of advertising. Every technology goes through cycles of interest and Facebook looks like it is about to plunge into what is known as “the trough of disillusionment” where it could flounder for the rest of time.

Over at Twitter, the company was rumoured to be up for sale at the end of 2016 to either Salesforce or Google. But they did not complete any deals and in 2017 Twitter has become static. Growth in users has remained mostly flat for 2017, and in the last quarter, the company reported significant losses, again, with revenue 17% lower than in 2015. In the past year, we have seen more voices suggesting that Twitter cannot last much longer.

Meanwhile, Amazon and Google have continued to grow. But their dominance is so significant that legislators are increasingly worried about the impact. Indeed, they are now considering the whole concept of “monopsony” as a threat. That’s where an economic system doesn’t have one supplier (as in a monopoly) but has one purchaser. The parent company of Google, called Alphabet, owns “Double Click” which purchases almost all the advertising space available online. Similarly, Amazon’s desire to sell everything “from a-to-z” online means that many firms now have to price things the way Amazon determines, rather than do it themselves. The dominance of Google and Amazon is changing business dramatically and this year started to see the political backlash against that.

The past year also failed to see any real breakthroughs. Technological developments were minor. Even the iPhone X is really only a souped-up version of an iPhone 7. And all the talk about driverless cars? Well, autonomous vehicles have been around for years – the military has had them since 1995, and the first autopilot was in an aircraft in 1912. In a year when not much happened, we tend to get excited about things that seem new, when they are not.

When I look back at the businesses I have worked within the past 12 months, I notice that they are mostly dealing with the same issues they had in the previous year, such as not getting enough business online or struggling with social media. In spite of knowing what to do, most companies have made precious-little progress online in the past 12 months. 

So what’s gone wrong? The political system has become stuck, like a repeating record on a song called “Brexit means Brexit”. The Internet has started to go backwards with problems in social networks and with the dominance of the big players. And most businesses (other than massive global firms) have remained relatively static, struggling to cope with the pressures of the modern world. 

The problem is the Internet. It has allowed people to have a voice, but in doing so has created “echo chambers” where a proper debate has been stultified, and this has led to political chaos. The Internet has also damaged productivity, with the average business person now having to cope with around 300 emails per day, as well as unlimited social media messages and notifications from dozens of services all interrupting work routines. 

What does this all mean for 2018?
In the coming year, we can expect the backlash against dominant online firms to grow, leading to changes in the way you interact with them. We can also expect the impact of social media to lessen as some services disappear or get swallowed up, and other networks become marginalised with users giving up due to disillusionment. We will also be likely to see more and more businesses realising that they either have to use the Internet properly – or not at all.

In other words, 2018 is going to be the year of the “online reality check”. We are going to see increasing numbers of companies re-focusing their social media work, for instance. They will also be reviewing how they use email effectively. Plus they will be considering the damage the Internet does to their staff regarding the significant impact it has on mental health issues, such as anxiety and work-related stress. This will all happen in the background of the realisation that whatever Brexit actually means, we simply have to “get on”. So 2018 will be the year when companies start to pull up their socks, put 2017 behind them and say “let’s check this Internet thingy – are we really using it productively and getting a return on it?”

For me, in 2018, that means I will be re-focusing my work somewhat too; I’ll be helping companies get to grips with the psychological impact of the Internet on productivity. The past year has demonstrated that the Internet is actually holding us back more than we realised. This coming year will be the time to change that.

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