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Why narrowcasting on the web is crucial

It’s slightly sensationalist to say my brother is a meme, he’s not likely to give Grumpy Cat a run for his bitcoins any time soon. He did, however, pop up in meme form during a family friend’s travels in the World Wide Web. This friend then sent it to my other brother, who sent it to me.

It got me thinking about how small the Internet can be. My brother (the minor meme) lives in Canada. He hasn’t seen the friend that came across the meme in years, and yet the Internet had brought them spookily together last Thursday afternoon  – it’s a beautiful, strange thing.

According to Guardian writer Aleks Krotoski, who wrote her PhD thesis on the topic, the Internet is infinitely smaller than most of us think, given most of us think it’s fairly infinite. 571 websites are created every second. But despite this incomprehensible scale, Aleks argues – if you’re not careful – the Internet will narrow your horizons instead of broadening them.

In the days of yore we were exposed to a fair amount of ‘random’ media. Stuck on a train from London to Manchester, you’d read a stray Daily Mail cover to cover despite being loyal to The Independent.  Most of us caught the 10 o’clock news every night, where neutrality and balance of opinion is (thankfully) enshrined in law.

Now we get the bulk of our news through search or social media networks that we set up; choosing people to follow, research shows, who are broadly like us. Because we have so much more freedom and power to chose what we read (via our smartphones in particular), the ‘randomness’ element is reduced, and overall we’re exposed to less diverse thoughts. Essentially, more than ever, we read news and opinion we’re inclined to agree with and all this does is re-affirm what we already believe. We find ourselves hanging out in the same corners of the web our friends do, so bumping into each other – as my brother did as a meme – isn’t all too surprising.

It’s a counter-intuitive proposition, but one I’m inclined to agree with more and more with every small World Wide Web experience.

So what does this means for comms? Really, it’s just a reminder that the Internet is a mass of fairly defined, insular networks. This is a far less overwhelming proposition than the alternative – the Internet as an enormous, unstructured blob.

It does mean, however, that a broadcast approach to communications on the Internet doesn’t fly. Understanding how and why people consume, and tracing the wormholes by which they travel to content is critical. Tailoring comms in this way is, in essence, narrowcasting. Not only does it hit target audience more efficiently, because audiences are receiving content in a way that they are familiar with, it feels more authentic.  For this reason, it’s the future for online comms.

By Madeleine Scarlett-Smith