Can digital be human enough?

Google's Abigail Posner talks humanizing digital by creating ingenious videos that engender deep belly laughs.
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Can digital be human enough? The question, posed by Google’s head of strategic planning Abigail Posner in a presentation at the company’s Think Brand event yesterday, is difficult for one person to answer. So, she did what any highly inquisitive person would do. She wrangled together a team of anthropologists, neuroscientists and psychologists, and had them dig for clues as to whether or not digital could have a deep, meaningful relationship with us humans.

What she found was “digital isn’t just human enough, it actually amplifies human experience, allowing us to tell and unleash deep-seated human needs, desires and aspirations.”


Posner, who is based in the New York office, says she began her exploration of a humanized side of digital by looking at the places and spaces that surround us.

She walked the audience through a typical scene that takes place in Hell’s Kitchen (New York’s famous block of restaurants), explaining when a diner happens upon an interesting restaurant on the street, she pulls out her phone to find reviews through search, gets the best seat thanks to Yelp, and enjoys a meal before taking a selfie with the plate, posting it to Facebook and receiving a comment from a friend about how it’s her favourite restaurant because that’s where she got engaged.

“Researching, taking a picture, sharing, enjoying with others on social media – all of that adds value and meaning to a place,” she says, referring to this as “place-making.”

She points to Google’s Field Trip app as a means of connecting digital experiences with real-life places: when a person uses the app to scan a building, a monument or even a statue, the user is given access to layers of information and stories about that place or space, essentially “turning the everyday street into a museum.”

Synaptic play

Brilliant ideas, she says, happen when a person connects “two seemingly disconnected, unrelated notions or concepts and brings them together to make them amazing.”

That’s how the web’s wackiest videos are born, such as the one where a screaming goat steals the last note of Jean Valjean’s song, “Who Am I,” in Les Miserables. It’s not weird, it’s synapses at play, she says.

“The more we are exposed to random, disconnected, unrelated stimuli, the more connections people make. Neuroscience tells us that we’re hard-wired to want to make connections and we seek it out,” noted Posner. “When you jump into the web, you find a whole array of images and clips from all over the world. You adventure and get exposed to these things, and all of a sudden the synapses start firing and you come up with awesome ideas. It’s here where the video makes total sense. Someone heard the end note of the screaming goat and realized it happened to be the same end note of the song.”

Creatives at agencies are masters of synaptic play, and Posner points to Metro Trains Melbourne as an example of the connections brands are making to pop culture and digital references, taking a serious message and throwing in an unexpected and extremely catchy, yet morbid, song to create something viral. Another example she gave was that of telecom company Three in the U.K. and its #SingItKitty video that mashed a lip-syncing kitten and a kid on a bike singing “We built this city” by Starship.

Energy exchange

Posner’s research has found while this may not be a big “aha,” the videos (like the “Camp Gyno” ad for tampon brand HelloFlo below) that are born from synaptic play, “the ones that kept being shared are the ones that engender that deep, belly laugh, that sense of effervescence.”

And there’s a reason for this, she says – basically, we’re hard-wired to want to share happiness. “By offering others the gift of happiness, we get that much more back. That’s why we tickle our young. Even chimps tickle their young,” she explains of this energy exchange, suggesting brands tap into this. “It gives us that instinctive laugh, because we know that it will [help bond us]. And that extends to our social network as well. We’re no longer just sharing it, we’re sharing in it.”

Photo courtesy of Google, shot by William Suarez.