Studies into human development (from childhood to adulthood) and psychoanalysis identified the concept of the 'Self' many years ago through defining self-esteem, the ideal self and the real self. This was further broadened with the definition of the Extended Self, exploring the notion that we are also defined by what we own, and by association our consumer behaviour. In marketing circles, these have been rich and fertile grounds for brands for many years, exemplified recently by successful self-esteem-led messaging, such as Unilever's Dove marketing.
Bear with me, there's a point to this.
Recently we have seen the rise of a further extension to the concept of the 'Self': the Digital Self.
There are many things we have all seen and opined on recently, a well trodden path of commentary on devices, technology, youth versus old, disruption, social emergence and a raft of other flavours of the day. However, with a little distance and perspective, it is clear to see that what has been emerging is in effect a permanent shift in how we behave, how we live and how we interact with each other.
The Expanded Self shows that our possessions represent a reflection of our identity and how we attach meaning and emotion to lumps of plastic and metal. The rise of the smart phone shows how highly personal devices become so vital to our lives that we have emotional relationships with them. You feel this with the sinking fear that strikes over a lost phone, it's there in people who cannot go minutes without tapping and swiping.
Technology is only half the story; it is still a servant to the people who use it and how they use it. Now our actions and identity are becoming a currency that we spend to define who we are, and who we are willing to be seen as. Everyone knows they have a value to organisations through their data and attention, and they are increasingly smart enough to demand much for it in return.
We face a world of ever expanding interfaces, channels and services, one where curating and choice will be increasingly informed by digital 'friends' and guides, Artificial intelligence or virtual assistants. We'll need these to navigate the vastness of choice, keep us safe, and, in time, extend and grow our Digital Self.
This time of change often throws up a 'smashed' landscape of disrupted brands and consumers, from those that find it natural and those left behind. A younger generation of millennials thinks differently, showing that it is a challenge to sell stuff to people we don't really understand. It's clear to see there has been fundamental change in how younger people are now living their lives, and how things have changed. Let's just spend a few minutes contemplating the world they live in...
Very little chance of owning a house? Well, live for experiences instead.
Detached from mainstream media? Find your own subset of culture.
Bored by language? Create your own.
Don't like who you are today? Change it and become someone new tomorrow.
This view of identity is where changing behaviour is evolving fast. The myriad of social channels and services has created a world where conversation flows across different places, where managing a constant profile and identity is fluid.
Increasingly, people create multiple identities for specific needs, then burn them and start a new. They are increasingly smart, knowing that what they say in social media is permanent, that their digital identity is becoming more and more important. We see the rise of a more portable digital identity, one that is as virtual as it is physical, where we co-exist in an augmented and mixed world and that allows us to choose and decide on what we do and consume based on what works best for us.
The next question is, can what you do and say digitally be more valuable than what you say and do in the real world? Digitally millions can find and make decisions on you; physically you connect and interact with less people. Increasingly, this social passport linked with a professional profile is more valuable and revealing than whatever lives on your CV to an employer.
Smart companies recognise they need to stay relevant in these changing times, and there are always opportunities for those that stay in front. Barclays Bank UK has made a theme of being seen as helpful in these times with its Digital Eagles advice and content led approach. It advises the young to be mindful on social media where employers could be lurking; and help the older generation understand digital banking.
Banking and finance have been impacted more than most by digital change, from branch closures to new products, but perhaps the biggest changes are yet to come with the next generation of bank account owners freed from any sense of 'traditional banking'. We are seeing people unpacking and piecing together what they need from multiple providers and on multiple channels of choice, without the need for one account or provider. Tandem is an app only bank that smashed investor targets through crowdfunding and without any actual products to use, they are just one more example of a 'smashed' melting pot of services, content and brands.
Digital is also impacting on how we work. Newer generations of workers place less importance on titles and salary, but more on what an environment provides and how a working experience adapts to their lifestyle. Whilst we are well past the retirement carriage clock after 20 years service, this is definitive of the evolution of the Digital Self: if you as an employer don't offer an experience that reflects how people are living their lives today, they'll be gone tomorrow.
We all know the old ways have gone, that we live our lives differently and increasingly digitally in a world where who you are, what you want to be today, or what you want in your life is fluid and changeable. The smart money is on those that recognise the individual and their adaptable and changing identity: their Digital Self.
And why not, after all there is no turning back now*.
(*Unless of course The Walking Dead does happen and you won't need to worry about any of this.)
James Deeley is Creative Strategy Director at Amaze, the leading digital marketing, technology and commerce consultancy.