Back to the Digital Future: A Personal Look Back at 2011

The Past Year in Digital May Have Been Dizzying, But It Brought Great Possibility

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How do we even begin to make sense of 2011? My head is spinning.

Information-wise, I probably received more email, reports, presentations, status updates and pitches in 2011 than in the past five years combined. The information flow was nothing short of torrential.

Against this backdrop, 2011 should be nothing short of a blur, right?

The past year saw digital and social media hit new tipping points in our daily lives -- shifting habits, cannibalizing old ways, inspiring new thinking, opening and closing gates to relationships.

But for me, social media remained deeply personal. The connections with family and friends, and especially old friends, powered an almost relentless engagement with social and digital platforms. I cheered friends from afar in their newsfeed pursuits. I cried in comments for those who experienced loss. I reopened relationships with the high-school crowd, even those I once snubbed (or vice versa).

Along the way, I dialed down my pontification level. My personal blog -- -- went a year without a post, and my Twitter account found more substance (and motivating ridicule) in my NikePlus "updates" than in half-baked attempts at digital wit. While I finally hit 9,000 followers, the last 500 took the entire year. Hey, they do call it "earned media for a reason."

I was among the earlier testers of Google+, but got a bit intimidated when A-listers rushed to the platform with almost uncritical resolve. (It made me feel like the party was already closed.) I also got off on the wrong foot by creating too many darn circles. (Lesson for marketers: stop over-segmenting!)

If anything bordered on compulsive behavior, mobile-phone photos took the prize. I took photos of everything, and marveled at how a photo of Saturday pancakes for my kids could generate more "likes" than a "most emailed" article from The New York Times.

Interestingly, I shed a ton of devices: the standalone digital camera, the once-beloved FlipCam, the family video camera, a medley of alarm clocks. My watch, I dare say, is clinging for life. Yes, content quality took a hit, but honestly, I didn't really care. Good enough was my operating principle in a world of lower file-size Facebook and YouTube uploads.

Apps "appsolutely" stole my attention and engagement, but I wasn't the easiest consumer to please or seduce. I tried everything -- even clicked on app ads -- but only found sustained affection in about 5% of them. The apps that made the cut were crazy simple, rewarding and sometimes fun. They added value, and solved real problems.

Must-have mobile apps included Maps, Instagram, NikePlus, the Swiss Rail app, and French for Dummies. IPad winners included Google Earth, TuneIn Radio, Skype, and the brilliant "Charlie Brown Christmas" book.

Speaking of which, the iPad now competes with the sofa and refrigerator for family affection. For the kids, it's both a creative and intellectual stimulus, and an occasional pacifier. Not surprisingly, my digital dissonance over kids and technology notched up, and I'm more convinced than ever of the importance of parental curation and involvement. Sorry, no digital short-cuts here.

I'm pumped to say digital reading hit a tipping point. Thanks to the Amazon Kindle iPad app, I flew through Steve Jobs' biography and Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" at record speed. I didn't blink about paying for NY Times access, and I succumbed to the seductive lure of "most read/most shared" lists and Huffington Post slideshows. I got crazy fast at scouring industry news--- lest my increasingly social-media proficient boss send the "FYI" email first.

Moving to Europe digitized new areas. I haven't written a check in 8 months. Skype's a religion. Online grocery shopping, bless its soul, now accounts for 50% of our food purchases. Despite our large-screen TV, the vast majority of our TV-style content sources from iTunes (except for the kids, who are permitted to watch French cartoons on the regular tube).

Powered by trips to India, Philippines, and Thailand, my global digital and social lens widened significantly, especially around the power and relevance of small screens.

On the digital downsides, I got crazy frustrated with email. The stuff that really matters in my Gmail pile, like family updates, struggled to compete with the garbage. Thanks to Farmville updates, even Facebook junked up a bit.

While I hit new records in saying "Happy Birthday" to countless friends on Facebook, at times I felt insincere and phony in my efforts. It was just too easy. Then again, my heart warmed when superficial birthday likes came my way.

I cursed hotels or events (even the Cannes organizers) with bad or unworkable or complicated WIFI. I tried every to-do list app, from Evernote to digital stickies, but napkins still reigned supreme. I learned that it's pointless to ask a colleague about their weekend in a world of Facebook transparency. Despite my good efforts, I remained awash in digital buzzwords, and I used too many U.S. sports metaphors, such as "that app's a homerun."

But make no mistake. 2011 was a great year. While a bit dazed and confused with the pace of change, I remain infatuated with the dynamic power of the digital landscape -- as should all of us. This is a great time to be in marketing, and a great time to be partners with the consumer. Let's raise our game, and along the way stay grounded in our own personal experiences and common sense.

Pete Blackshaw, an occasional contributor to Ad Age , is global head of digital and social media for Nestle S.A., based in Vevey, Switzerland. He's the author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000" (Doubleday).
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