Mal Fletcher
Cyber Monday - Does the Internet Feed our Anxieties?

If you believe the newspaper reports, today is Cyber Monday. Shoppers across the UK are expected to log 113 million hits on retail websites in the mad scramble for Christmas gift bargains.

We've just had Black Friday, which is to bricks-and-mortar stores what today is to their online counterparts. This year, it saw customers lining up for hours and fighting - in some cases literally - to grab the best of the much-hyped deals.

The Sunday Times yesterday revealed (surprise, surprise) that online retailers jack up their prices come the end of November. Then, predictably, they drop them again immediately after Christmas.

Sites like ZeeZaw.co.uk now use the power of internet algorithms to track price movements on selected items, so that consumers can buy when costs are at their best.

So much is said in the press and media about Cyber-this and Black-that, though, that one wonders whether retailers have their PR companies working overtime to promote these terms as brands in themselves.

Mightn't all this talk about shopping peaks be just another exercise in nudge marketing; an attempt to convince us that a new social norm has emerged? Is it designed to use the power of human sociability to influence individual choice?

That may seem to give retailers too much credit. However, nudge marketing is so respected as a means of inspiring social change that even the British Prime Minister has read up on it. So there's every likelihood that it is being used by retailers in very strategic ways.

For all its undoubted benefits, the internet operates as a conduit for and a mirror of human emotions. It should not be seen as an autonomous, purely technological machine, but a product and reflector of human aspirations and fears.


In some cases, it reinforces our emotions - particularly, at times, our anxieties.

The most overt examples of this revolve around debt anxiety and particularly the services of payday lenders, who offer instant loans.

Though their huge interest rates are openly declared - by law - lenders know that customers desperate enough to consult them are unlikely to be thinking too clearly about what they'll have to repay a few weeks later.

Other examples are less overt, yet just as potentially life changing.

Shopper anxiety is a case in point. It may not come close to being classified as a clinical condition - we hardly need more of those - but for some Christmas shoppers the fear of not getting the right gift is very real.

In an age of globalisation and a highly mobile population, many of us find the shape of our families and friendships shifting almost constantly. Urbanisation, combined with an increasing reliance on digital communications, has arguably increased the effects of social isolation and loneliness for some people.

A number of studies bear this out. It seems that, at least for sections of the population, the more connected people become, the more isolated they become. Relationships often become more transient and shallow - or as psychologists express it, more horizontal than vertical.

This can make shopping a challenging, if not daunting prospect. The question isn't any longer just 'What will I buy?' but 'For whom will I buy?'

Shopper anxiety is further affected by the timing of the purchase - everything must be in hand by December 25.

What difference would it really make to a close adult friend or family member to receive a gift a day or two after Christmas? That's the problem, though. At Christmas, timing is everything - arguably even more so than on birthdays.

This brand of anxiety feeds on the now infamous FOMO, the fear of missing out. It is also exacerbated by what someone recently called The Tyranny of the Amazing.

With every new toy and gadget on the market, the element of surprise becomes harder to maintain. Designers and manufacturers have to work that little bit harder to maintain any kind of Wow Factor.

Of course, with the post-Millennial teenager your Twenty-Something, there's not much of that anyway. For those a little older, though, the delightful 'Amazing. How do they do that?' moment has become an important part of the gift-receiving experience.

The question for the giver becomes, 'How can I find something that gets that kind of response?'

Linked to shopper anxiety is debt anxiety. I've argued elsewhere that if we continue to move quickly toward a completely cashless society, levels of personal debt will surely increase.

For all their undoubted convenience, contactless payment systems such as Visa's payWave card, will encourage people to spend more with less forethought. Once we had to sign a receipt to use our cards. Then it was as simple as entering PIN numbers - provided our data-overloaded memories could remember them.

Now, just a casual wave of a card is enough to remove hard-earned money from our accounts.

This favours the merchant; it is not always in the best interests of the consumer. Cash has weight and substance, which means we can readily see when we're running low. Digital coinage is a collection of 1s and 0s that most of us don't understand anyway, and certainly can't see.

Another type of fear the internet sometimes feeds upon is health anxiety. Stories emerged this week of a genetic screening company, 23andMe, which sells cheap, take-home DNA kits.

For $99, customers in the US can exchange a dab of saliva, sent to the company, for guidance about how likely they are to develop various conditions, such as heart disease or cancer.

The Food and Drub Administration (FDA) has ordered the company to withdraw the kits from sale. It fears that people are making important life decisions based on fallible technology.

Closer to home, we've seen the emergence of a range of companies offering in-clinic readings and advice on likely future health risks. These are marketed on the internet and appointments are often made online. One wonders whether the British government, like their American counterparts, ought to take a closer look at this idea.

Whilst it is much easier today than it was even a decade ago to 'read' the DNA sequence for an individual, deciphering what the code means is far from simple. Much is still unknown, for example, about the impact of certain combinations of proteins on the likely development of diseases.

It is too early to start using DNA sequencing as a definitive means of predicting health problems.

Of course, there are hundreds of companies offering more familiar health services online, including those selling vitamins and natural remedies. The law requires that these sites offer no medical advice and customers usually have to agree that this was the case before they can buy.

Yet it's not hard to see how someone shopping online for a particular pill might also buy another product on the basis of a promotion that says, 'Others who bought this product, also purchased...'

Online communities and companies also simultaneously fuel and feed upon relationship anxiety. Studies suggest that young adults, particularly those in their twenties, often fear they're missing out whilst in a steady relationship.

Young married women, for example, are often anxious that they may have given up too much by committing to their partner. They've spent many hours on building up an individual micro-brand based on who they are and what they have to offer the world. This brand has been carefully constructed online.

For some women, marriage and particularly childbirth may mean a period out of the workforce. This might conceivably damage their brand or make it outdated.

For young men, the fear is often related to the narrowing of options. By committing to one partner have I too quickly given up my freedom?

Both fears are played up by unscrupulous married dating sites. One of Europe's largest calls itself the 'trusted married dating site'. Using the word 'trusted' when talking about cheating on a partner is strange, but it reflects the logic used to justify the service.

A similar service says: 'Life is short, have an affair.' Again, this feeds a sense of anxiety about lost opportunities. It is FOMO applied to sexual experience.

For teenagers, the sexting trend feeds the same fear, along with predictable teen anxieties about acceptance and independence.

Sexting represents an insidious form of soft porn; in the end it degrades both parties and cheapens their sexuality. It also depersonalises intimate relationships, separates the body from the person and provides a platform for cyber bullying.

Information anxiety is also a feature of our use of the internet.

We are seeing exciting developments in the world of education, many of them driven by the internet. In just a few years, we've seen the internet move from being a predominantly data-exchange medium, to a commercial enterprise and then, more recently, to a social medium.

In many ways, the latter is the most powerful development. We can expect to see the internet moving even more in that direction in the age of the ubiquitous Cloud.

Commerce is becoming more socially-based online, with the emergence of geofencing and social shopping.

One allows marketers to pitch products at people based upon their geographical location - and their online shopping preferences. The other allows someone to buy a product token on their mobile phone and send it to a friend's phone, so that he/she can redeem it in a store.

Education will follow the same trend. We can expect to see learning, even formal education, becoming a more social endeavour. Social media will move from being a secondary education platform to more of a primary one.

Already, person-to-person (P2P) education is taking off, with education entrepreneurs like Salman Khan offering thousands of high-quality video sessions on everything from biology to geography, history, maths and more.

Meanwhile, the movement toward mobile, open, online courses (MOOCs) is gathering pace worldwide. Major institutions like Harvard University and MIT are offering full courses via remote instruction, using sites like YouTube.

The largest university in the world is Indira Gandhi Open University in India. It has two million students and 2300 study centres for its online student body.

At the same time, however, the power of the internet as a data-exchange presents important challenges to mental health. Conditions such as Communication Addiction Disorder are now recognised by psychiatrists as bonafide problems linked with internet use.

Earlier this year, a number of similar disorders were included for the first time in the American Psychiatric Association's 'bible' of mental health conditions.

Even among well balanced people, time starvation is a cause of anxiety. An estimated 20 percent of British office workers are dealing with 50 emails per day from colleagues alone.

Some large European companies are taking steps to reduce the impact of communications technologies on productivity. The head of Atos, the French technology service giant, has said that he wants to ban all company emails from 2014, as people are being bombarded with useless information.

Henkel, the makers of washing powders, instituted an email moratorium in the lead up to Christmas a couple of years ago.

A great boon to business in many ways, our relationship with the internet often poses problems caused by distraction, shorter attention spans and increased mistakes brought on by multi-tasking.

Arguably, the modern internet ranks among the greatest of human achievements. Yet it is still a nascent technology. We've not yet finished with the digital revolution and it's full impact is not yet known.

In the end, as with most things, it is human decision that will make the difference in the way this exciting technology shapes our future.

We must be clear about one thing, though. The internet is not a merely technological entity divorced from human concerns, frailties and foibles. Our use of it both reflects our aspirations and potentially heightens our fears.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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