Digital Choice



This month I’m handing over the baton for our Create Hub Industry Experts article to Matthew Jelfs, Head of Content here at Ammba. We’ve been having a debate in the office about ‘digital choice’ and here’s what we’ve been pondering.


Does Digital Really Offer the Choice we Think it Does?

Matthew Jelfs



One of our colleagues was stuck for something to listen to in the office recently. With millions of songs available to her, she just couldn’t settle on something she could enjoy. This irritation got us thinking.

Although we have so much cultural content at our fingertips, how do we make sense of it? How do we choose what we want and what informs these decisions? And do our choices really expose us to genuinely new and unexpected experiences? As you can imagine, it was an afternoon of debate and one that kept on going…

As consumers of cultural products, digital gives us the freedom to choose what we want to watch, listen to or read whenever we want. This is a wonderful thing.

Digital has made curators of us all. We’re able to assemble our own highly individual patterns of consumption that can be reconstructed anytime we fancy.

Take music as an example. There are no longer any limits to what we can listen to. Platforms like Spotify and Apple Music give us access to millions of tracks from across the history of popular music. We’re now free to plunder back-catalogues, explore genres and discover new favourite artists. Amazon, YouTube and Google Books offer a similar expansion of choice.

One of the great things about these platforms is how remarkably immediate and hassle-free they are. No longer do we need drag ourselves around town to buy products or wait for release dates. We can get them in seconds and in any combination we like.


‘You May Also Like…’

But here’s the thing.

Despite powerful and ever evolving algorithms, is digital really providing us with genuine choice? Although we have access to vast catalogues of culture, are we really being exposed to new experiences or just being offered products because they’re like something else we’ve used before?

There was a time when cultural products were accessed through gatekeepers such as TV, radio, magazines, shops and libraries. We might have gone to these channels expecting one thing, but been exposed to a whole load of other experiences we weren’t bargaining for.

Sometimes this was extremely tedious, for example, who remembers aching fingers whilst taping the Top 40 on a Sunday evening? However, there was something genuinely thrilling in unexpectedly stumbling over an exciting new song or artist.

It’s important to remember that these channels were sometimes heavily curated, but at their best they provided serendipity through their varied output, recommendations or advice.

Until recently, Edward Nesbitt was the guy responsible for Spotify’s ‘Discover Weekly’ algorithm. Earlier this year he was asked to describe how the playlist works.

Fundamentally it seeks to model a user’s behaviour: their taste, the things they listen to and how they use the platform. According to Nesbitt, its success is based on its ability to personalise their experience, to know what they like and to provide music that is either familiar to them, or similar to their tastes.

In a sense this is discovery, but is it one that’s far narrower than those traditional gatekeepers? Are we mining the diversity that exists within pre-defined limits?

So whilst we can choose pretty much anything to enjoy, do we often just dig deeper into something we’re already familiar with? This may be based on a platform’s algorithms, but it also seems to be a very human response to such overwhelming choice.

When presented with choice comprised of many different options we can sometimes be regretful of those we didn’t choose, or become indifferent to the lack of structure we’re faced with. With this in mind, it seems entirely appropriate to search out cultural products we know we’ll already like.


Would We Want to go Back to the Way Things Were?

No, of course not. The pace of traditional cultural consumption seems incredibly stifling and slow to us now. There was also the high risk back then that you’d buy something you didn’t actually like. Whilst you’re never going to enjoy everything you read or listen to on a digital platform, the risk feels less impactful. You just skip and find something else.

So that’s broadly how our conversation and debate resolved (well, not exactly, but you get the gist). Although our colleague didn’t solve her listening dilemma, we felt that we’d started to explore something interesting.

It’s got us thinking about all the content we help open up with organisations across the cultural, heritage and education sectors. How can we provide a more divergent choice, so that users get a very varied and more eclectic view of archives and collections?

What do you think? Do you hanker for a slower, physical engagement that may provide you with a random encounter that you may never have expected? Or do you thrive on instant availability, mining vast and unfathomable catalogues of culture? We’ll leave it up to you to choose.


rebecca bartlett

Rebecca Bartlett

Rebecca is Director at Ammba, working with organisations that are eager to explore new ways of delivering digital content and developing audiences. A content curator and strategist at heart, she works as a translator between technologists and organisations, guiding them through the cultural change that often comes when adopting digital.

Rebecca has worked with a range of organisations including The British Council, The Library of Birmingham, Yorkshire Film Archive, North East Film Archive, Imperial War Museum, The Royal Pharmaceutical Society and Royal Observatory Greenwich. Rebecca has over 16 years experience working within the cultural heritage and education sectors, including a BAFTA award-winning multimedia company. She is director of 2 sister companies Nymbol and ReelLearning.

Author: Naomi Curston

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