Back in 2012, I started looking into what digital culture is doing to our sense of identity. I was especially curious about how the Internet is affecting the interplay between identity and ambition–our drive to become someone, to make something of our selves. Because if you think about it, our most cherished plans, career goals, personal pursuits, and even our place on the map are all ambitions tethered to our sense of self.
This is a rich area for marketing and communications strategists. After all, people are more likely to respond to messages that align with their own hopes and visions for themselves. On the flip side, in a noisy and uncertain world, it can be counter productive to put forward content that shakes people’s sense of self.
Gathering insights took five years. During that time, I followed the lives of 90 Millennials across a plethora of social media platforms. I downloaded scientific research by the kilo. And about mid-way through the research, I gained access to a high-powered algorithm that could scrape the web and analyze sentiments gathered from 30 million sources across 500,000 million daily posts. I’m still sifting and sorting. Still, the early discoveries are pithy.
What still matters
Work ethic, it turns out, is foundational for the American identity. Striving to achieve a life goal still matters to people. Whether it is entrepreneurial ambitions or the desire to be a change-agent in more traditional work settings, a reverence for a robust work ethic is tightly held. Individual achievement might be expressed by playing a key role on a team, or as someone who can take turns leading and following. But clearly, having a sense of one’s personal enterprise is an idea that people still identify with strongly. I took to Linked In to discuss my discoveries about what digital culture is doing to us.
Consensus points to a new set of aspirations for our lives. Overall, our sense of self is less about discovering who we really are, a trope of the 20th century self-help movement. Now it’s all about self-determination. We define who we want to be, and how many versions of ourselves we want to project across social media platforms.
Across the board, I found acceptance for the idea that a rich life has a messy self at its core—one that iterates.
Why it Matters to Brands
Savvy communicators have always understood that people’s hopes for themselves are powerful motivators. In the digital age, winning means going along the grain of this new set of motivations that are defining us, not against them.