Defining Digital

..or rather entirely failing to do so.

Recently I had one of those questions that rocks you a little bit. When someone asks you something that you had taken for granted to such an extent you had stopped thinking about whether anyone else outside of your circle really understands.

In this case the question was;

“Just what do you mean when you talk about ‘digital’?”

Now I’ve been around long enough that I used to be a ‘Web Master’ and then later an ‘Online Manager’ and I can’t quite remember when ‘digital’ became the term du jour. Sometime around the rise of social media I’m guessing. Rather than try and define it myself I thought I would look to see what smarter minds than myself had come up with.

Digital has become a word with considerable implied meaning beyond what anyone seems to be able to clearly articulate.

The most appropriate dictionary definition is;

involving or relating to the use of computer technology.

Though I think I prefer;

relating to a finger or fingers.

In the recent review of Parliament Online services the authors from MySociety talked about digital as follows;

..the collapse of the internet and ICT services into a single activity.

and is shorthand for we accept the internet values of usability, needs focused agility.

Though I am not sure that really answers the ‘what is digital?’ question if you are coming at from a position of minimal understanding.

The Government Digital Service talk a lot about ‘digital by default’ but don’t really set out what they really mean by ‘digital’.

In the foreword to the ‘Revolution not Evolution’ report that accelerated the uptake of this activity in Government Francis Maude spoke about ‘digital organisations’;

Central government where possible must become a digital organisation. These days the best service organisations deliver online everything that can be delivered online. This cuts their costs dramatically and allows access to information and services at times and in ways convenient to the users rather than the providers.

Not sure that is very helpful apart from the fact that in order to contextualise the idea of digital he uses a different word; online. I’ll come back to that.

I asked the question on Twitter and got a mix of answers but the main message that came across was that while the word is prevalent in our working world nobody was really that comfortable with it.

To paraphrase Sam “I know digital when I see it..” So what about all those people who don’t recognise it?

David Pearson summed up the problem with the word in this context on Twitter. It means different things to different people.

Sarah Lay pointed me to her blogpost that rounded up a very similar discussion that took place at the recent LocalGovCamp — it looks like it was an interesting debate but I’m not sure they got to the bottom of it either.

Someone sent me a link to this slide that I very much disagree with to show the difference between digital and social — it gets me no closer to understanding digital and also shakes my understanding of social a bit but it demonstrates it is something being tackled elsewhere.


Another Sam pointed me to this great blogpost that Russell Davies wrote a few years ago about ‘post-digital’. It is a brilliant, insightful piece. Though I do find it slightly amusing that Russell is now working for the Government DIGITAL Service.

Inspired by the conversations I did a quick experiment on Google Trends — I was originally looking to see when the use of the word ‘digital’ peaked (as much as you can using this method) but then I decided to look at a comparison between digital, web and online. The three terms that have been most associated with my job titles.


It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that ‘online’ was the runaway winner. I mean we shop, bank and date ‘online’. Like yet another Sam said yesterday “digital has the whiff of 80s Casio” not the new car smell transporting you to a bright future.

So I guess I’m wondering why we in Government at least started talking about digital services rather than online services. Why the break with a pretty strong convention? Back even before Directgov the first stab at a UK Government-wide website was called UKOnline and the Tinder Foundation still runs UKOnline Centres as part of their digital inclusion work.

[aside — does anyone else feel for the Tinder Foundation a bit these days — whenever I see their name I think of a dodgy mobile dating site.]

So anyway here I am fast approaching 1000 words and I am no nearer to reaching a clear definition of what digital means. Which could be considered a problem given my last few job titles :/

Like the first Sam though it is something I know when I see it but that still doesn’t help anyone else.

In Sarah’s post she talks about a session Carl ran somewhere when he asked participants to answer the simple (ha!) question ‘Digital is..?’ and I liked that.

So here is my stab at defining what digital means to me;

Digital is a belief in the ability of the internet to transform…whether that be society, businesses, education, government or whatever…and the understanding of how that might be achieved.

Does that even make sense? I’m not sure but I think there is something there that works for me albeit horribly expressed.


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