“May you live in interesting times”: Why digital will never replace the power of shared experiences

“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression purported to originate from an ancient Chinese curse which seems very apt in light of the global pandemic we now find ourselves in.  Generally speaking, it means that life is deemed to be much better for us in “uninteresting times”, i.e. the more “uninteresting times” are much happier for us all as they tend to be less troublesome and worrying, and much more fun. The “interesting times” however tend to be much more fraught and troublesome, the ones we do not want, which is of course, truly a curse.

So now we all find ourselves in the “interesting times”. Oh joy. So, what next?

In the events industry, we seek to create those indelible, never forget moments that will be shared with friends and family with smiles, laughter, and happy memories. Cherished moments of physically being there, immersed in an experience that simply cannot be achieved through any screen or social media share, despite the number of ‘likes’ you might get.

How many people would boast that they saw a music gig or sports event on a screen as opposed to being there to experience it for themselves? You can certainly enjoy the banter with your friends, but the ultimate bragging rights must surely be for the full-on sensory explosion of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. For being right there, in that emotive experience; To have heard the rumbling roar of the crowd; To share that moment together with loved ones; To witness the dimming of the stage lights and hush of the expectant crowd before your most favourite rock gods strut on stage to an explosion of pyrotechnics; Losing your voice as you sing along to every lyric; The celebratory scoring of a goal together in chants, hugs, and spilt beer. There is simply no comparison.

I challenge anyone to think back to an amazing memory that was experienced purely on a screen. Is that the gentle rustling of tumbleweed I hear?

So, to the here and now, while all of these things we love are out of bounds (for the time being at least). We wonder will people ever want to gather again en masse as we start to ease the lockdown? Will they feel safe, and can they enjoy the unbeatable feeling of a group experience ever again? 

To me, the answer is a simple one. Yes, we will, but it will take a series of adjustments as we acclimatise to what has now been coined as the ‘new world’. The power of being together in a live experience, despite everything right now, remains unparalleled. I would go so far as to argue that our hunger to be together will be heightened and appreciated like never before when this lockdown ends. An even finer appreciation of what it feels like to be together again. A shared experience of emotions.  

To quote Luke Johnson (a previous chairman of my all-time favourite restaurant Pizza Express) “We need to meet people, make friends, celebrate and have fun- these are the behaviours that can only happen in the company of others. Doing them via Zoom is like pretending that online porn is as good as real sex. There is no comparison!” …I can’t argue with that.

Undoubtedly there will be a period of adjustment where we need to consider social distancing and ensuring the safety of people will be paramount to make them feel comfortable again. Despite living over the last six weeks in quite an intense world of perpetual Zoom meetings, it has also been amazing in so many ways. Aside from bad lighting, double chins, and random pets and children making an unexpected appearance on our screens, we all have a newly found appreciation for how digital can connect us when we can’t be together.

Many of us will have watched ‘One World: Together at Home’ concert which brought together musicians from across the globe to perform from their homes and raise money for the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Whilst it was enjoyable to watch, and hugely admirable for raising over £100m to date, it certainly was not the same thrilling experience as seeing them perform live on stage

Virtual experiences aren’t replacing the real ones. They will compliment and extend them.

Experiences together, in person, are still THE ultimate. But having seen just how much we can extend our audiences through digital will only widen experiences and engage even larger numbers in the future.

Whilst not entirely new (the tech has been with us for some time), digital will become much more commonplace, giving people more options and open access to events, be that in person, or digitally. The question is, which one do you want to boast about to your friends down the pub? My money is on being the former, and of course with some hammed up exaggerated stories afterwards for maximum laughter from your friends.

The power and sheer joy of being together is truly like no other. Despite digital channels playing such a large and pivotal part in our daily lives, the only way for brands to truly connect with people is through the power of shared experiences. As the Queen said so eloquently when she addressed the nation earlier this month “Better days will return. We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”.

The experiential flame is still flickering, and there will be a fire rekindled which will burn brighter than ever for all those intense feelings we so long to feel again. Together.

By Sarah Hazlehurst, Managing Partner & Head of New Business at MKTG