30/09/2015 9:04 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Men Have The Internet All Over Their Face

Portrait of thoughtful bearded man on concrete wall background
Pinkypills via Getty Images
Portrait of thoughtful bearded man on concrete wall background

It's probably best to be upfront about the fact that, even if I ever did want to grow a beard, I couldn't. My genes simply don't allow for anything more than an awkward attempt at facial hair resembling that of Captain Jack Sparrow. Regardless, this article isn't an opinion on beards themselves, but rather an explanation as to why the commonality of sporting one grew into existence last year.

The Internet, amplified by smartphones, has thrust us into an era of unprecedented connectivity. Never in human history has it been easier to discover vital information like what Taylor Swift's cat had for lunch or see the 21 times Leo DiCaprio rocked a 'dad-bod'.

And we all love it, especially Millennials. The Internet has become an addiction, gobbling up 37 hours of the average Australian's waking hours every month, and that figure (naturally) skyrockets among 16-34-year-olds. For young people today, any down time -- whether it be on the train or on the toilet -- is spent with our faces in our phones. It's the first thing we do in the morning and the last thing we do before bed. We're hooked.

Now, I have no objections to this behaviour and I'm not preaching that we all "switch off" -- who cares if someone prefers to crush candy over sitting in uncomfortable silence next to a stranger on the commute to work. All I'm saying is that we've replaced a lot of our time spent in the physical world with data-eating forays into the digital one.

This isn't a groundbreaking insight though; you don't even need to work in the communications industry to have picked up on this. But what may be less apparent is the resulting attitudinal change and cultural shift that all this digital dwell time has catalysed.

In a recent cross-generational study, 72 percent of Millennials said they felt disconnected from the physical world, well ahead of the less digital-native runner's up in Gen X on 50 percent. The same amount of youngsters said they crave experiences that stimulate their senses and over 80 percent said they value experiences over material items, again higher than any other generation. A similar finding was made by Junkee Media in a study, which found experiences to be held in higher esteem than possessions by 93 percent of Millennial-respondents.

This makes sense. We spend all our time online so we feel disconnected from the physical world and crave and value experiences that reconnect us. But the problem was our data-dependency was only getting worse, with increasing amounts of time spent online each year. So despite our desire for more real, tangible experiences, we weren't actually prepared to spend more time having these encounters and this fuelled a collective cognitive dissonance.

By 2014 we'd already hit breaking point and as a compensatory reaction to all this, we sought to intensify the 'realness' of the experiences we did have time for. We started upping the ante on genuineness and authenticity in a sort of back-to-basics retroversion to juxtapose our technological obsession.

Exposed brick and plumbing suddenly became a suitable décor for hatted restaurants and the food they served had to be ethically-sourced, organically-grown, grass-fed, farm-matured and handpicked off the coast of an obscure African nation. Design became rustic; people became paleo and marketers had cottoned-on meaning that everything was handcrafted, small-batched, bespoke or all three.

As a result of our over-immersion into the artificial world we were over-emphasising representations of the physical one and using them as shortcuts to feel human again. And what is more human than hair on a face? It's the ultimate vision of man-untamed, a relic from the animal kingdom from which we've drifted so far and it represented the in-touch-ness we were all roaring for.

So the stubble begun to bubble and, once it had, it was the Internet which yet again straddled real life and defied any possibility that this face-bush-fetish would be just a flash in the pan. Beards begun to blip onto the Instagram radar revealing their primal-selves to society at large and there was no shaving us once this had occurred.

With the cultural climate rendering adoption frictionless, beards had found homes on cheeks and chins of what seemed to be every second person you walked by. Before we knew it, they were so mainstream that one needed to host a bouquet of flowers in the growth to afford any sort of uniqueness.

The beard had become a conversation-starting, lady-magnetising, food-catching badge of the new cultural cool, and while this symbol may have physically sprouted from follicles, in reality it had grown from the Internet.

A year on, and while beards are slowly starting to meet their fate at the hands of razors, this battle between the physical and digital worlds for share of our time will continue to boil. We are human and we will always thirst for the things that make us feel that way.

So, for marketers, while digital spend should and will continue to feed on marketing budgets, it's equally important that we counter-balance by showing up in culture in ways that allow consumers to touch and experience our brands in a palpable way. We can't just talk; we need to live.