Brain Numbing Ideas on a Friday Afternoon

I can’t help but get the feeling that when we look at online marketing, we tend to get blinded by the technology and lose sight of what’s really important: how it affects people.

Right now there’s a flurry of attention surrounding YouTube because of copyright issues and other factors.  And YouTube isn’t alone in this.  The majority of things I did in my in box focus on technology.  What will be the next killer platform?  I see mobile search, I see online video, I see social networking. It’s hard to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s really important.  I find it useful to step back a little bit and see how these things affect real people: people not like you and I, who are caught up in the promise of technology, but people like my daughter’s principal, people like my mom, people like my next-door neighbor.  People who are wary about technology and who will only embrace it if it makes their life better in some way.  This is not to discount the importance of technology, because it truly has turned our lives inside out in the last decade.  But there’s a distillation, a time when we have to get comfortable with change.  The dotcom boom and bust was not because of the lack of technology or its inadequacy.  To technology all things are possible.  But to people, it’s all about what’s in it for me.  And that, ultimately, is the success factor that has to be considered in all this.

So, is YouTube hot?  Is online video hot?  Is social networking hot?  All these things are, but not because of the technology that lies beneath, but rather because of the social change that they empower.  Consider online video for example.  A couple of items in my in box talked about how, at this point, we won’t watch television online.  Even the person at Google who was responsible for online video admitted that at this point, even with Google’s tremendous resources, online video at the quality that we’ve come to expect is not a scalable proposition. 

We interact with video in a far different way online.  For example, YouTube is all about the viral spiral.  It’s all about that cute little two to three minutes of video: something that is either funny or outrageous or awful.  There’s no tremendous requirement for engagement for this.  YouTube is the repository for a million different “in” jokes.  It’s the basket where we collect what titillates the fancy of our collective consciousness at any given time.  It gives us an easy reference point so we can take what interests us and forward it to others if we think they are interested as well.  We’re not ready to watch a one or two hour documentary on the web, simply because we’re not used to interacting with our computer screen in that way.  Our computers are things we do things on, not things we watch passively.  A commitment of two to three minutes to watch a little video screen is fine, but we don’t look to the Web for passive entertainment.  That’s not to say we won’t, some day, as connectivity and convergence moves our channels beyond the current paradigm and as we evolve and learn to interact with them in new ways. 

And it’s there that we start to pick apart at what truly makes technology, at least as far as it’s manifested on the web, really interesting.  It stitches together the fabric of our society.  It’s a synapse that allows our collective brain to fire more effectively than it did before. Communications can zing back and forth between us at a far faster rate.  What we find interesting, what we find intriguing, what we find funny, what we find painful to watch is now available for anyone to see.  It’s cataloged and categorized for our convenience.  It occupies a finite space in the virtual world that we can point to and say, “Look at this, it impacted me and I think it will impact you to.”

I recently had the opportunity to watch Dr. Gary Flake from Microsoft talk.  He started his presentation with the claim that the information technology revolution that we’re currently in will be more significant, as far as the change factor for our society, than anything that has gone before.  More important than the Industrial Revolution, more important than the invention of the printing press, more important than television.  To me the real power of the Internet is that it’s rewiring our society in ways we could never dream of and in ways we never anticipated.  To focus on the wiring or the technology of the Web is to take the mechanic’s view of the world.  To a mechanic or a car buff, a vehicle is a wonderful thing because of the internal combustion engine, because of the horsepower and how fast it can go from zero to 60.  They focus on what it is.  But when you look at how the automobile has affected our society, it’s not about what it is, it’s about what it does.  The automobile brought the world closer.  It allowed us to travel and see new things.  It allowed us to live in one place and work in another.  The macro change that the automobile engendered had nothing to do with how an internal combustion engine worked, it came from moving people from one place to another quickly, cheaply and efficiently.  It mobilized our society in a way that never existed before.

Likewise, the Web is not powerful because of Web 2.0 technologies, or speed of connection, or the ability to host video.  It’s important because it connects us in new and different ways.  It moves power from where it was stuck before into new hands.  It breaks down existing power structures and distributes that power amongst all of us.  It puts the individual in control and allows one individual to connect with another, freely and without paying a poll to the previous power brokers.

The really interesting thing about the Internet is the underlying social current, the groundswell of change that is redefining us and how we live together.  These fundamental factors are exerting a tremendous force within our day-to-day lives.  They’re precipitating change so fast that we haven’t been able to step back and see what the full impact to us will be.  We can’t see the trickle down effect of the things that are happening to us today.  The Internet is changing the very DNA of our society, and we are unable to take a long-term view of what those current mutations will mean for us.  One only has to look at the generational difference between the 45-year-old parent, myself, and my 13-year-old daughter, the first generation that has been fully immersed in online technology.  She interacts with the world in a completely different way.  She searches for information in a different way and evaluates it differently.  She takes these things for granted because she’s never known any other way.  What happens when this entire generation emerges as the shapers of our society?  What happens when they take control from us, with their innate understanding of what the Web makes possible, and redefine everything?

Here are three things that I believe are the foundations of social change being pushed by the Internet:

Access to Information

The amount of information we currently have access to is mind-boggling.  Never has so much raw information lived so close to us.  You can now think about any given topic in the universe of our consciousness, and that information exists just a mouse click away.  And, as the saying goes, information is power.  It empowers each one of us to take a more active role in our destiny.  This information has completely changed how people buy things.  It’s completely changed the relationship between vendors and buyers.  More and more, we go direct to the source, as educated, knowledgeable buyers who know exactly what we want and what we will pay for it.  The challenge on the Internet is that not all information is created equal.  There’s good information and there’s bad information.  However, we are becoming extremely good at being able to differentiate between the two.  We’re becoming amazingly adept at being able to recognize authenticity and we can sniff out BS.  In picking through the multiple threads of information that are available to us out there, we can recognize the scent of truth and quickly discount hype, spin and sheer lies. 

Again, as we begin to recognize the shifting of power to the consumer, the full impact has not shaken out yet.  When we can buy anything online, quickly, easily and confidently, will what will that mean for the entire bricks and mortar retail world out there?  Will there be shopping malls in 20 years?  Will there be stores at all?  Will we buy directly from the manufacturers, cutting out distributors, wholesalers and retailers?  Or will distribution of products to the world of consumers lie in the hands of a few mega, long tail retailers such as Amazon?  I certainly don’t know, the future is far too murky to be able to peer down this path.  And I don’t think it’s important to be able to predict the future, but I do think it’s vitally important to consider the quantum change that is likely in the future.

Searchability

As the amount of information available to us continues to multiply exponentially, the ability to connect with the right information at the right time becomes more and more important.  I’ve always maintained that search is the fundamental foundation of everything that will transpire online.  It is the essential connector between our intent, and the content we’re looking for.  But more than just the connector, the sheer functionality of search, both as it is today and as it will be in the future, creates another catalyst for change in our society. 

We are becoming used to having the answers just a few mouse clicks away.  We are becoming a society of instant gratification.  In the past, we accepted that we couldn’t know everything.  In divvying up the world’s knowledge, some of us were experts in one area and some of us were experts in another.  Some of us were experts in nothing.  But we held no pretensions that we would become experts in areas where we had no previous experience.  There was no path to follow so there was no reason to start the journey. 

But today, you can become an instant expert in anything, depending on how you define the scope of that expertise.  Within 30 seconds I can tell you every movie that Uma Thurman ever appeared in.  I can look up a medical condition and have access to the same information, likely more information, that a doctor 20 years ago would have access to, based on his own experience, education and reference materials.  But again, what is the impact of this?  Does having access to the information about a medical condition makes me an expert in treating that condition?  I have the information but I have no context in which to apply it.  As we gain access to information, will we use that information wisely without the experience and domain expertise that used to accompany that information?

And how will instant access to information alter education in the future?  I remember hearing an observation that if we had a modern day Rip van Winkle, who had gone to sleep 20 years ago and suddenly woke up today, the one place he would feel most comfortable would be in the elementary classroom.  While the outside world is changed dramatically in the past 20 years, the classroom in which your child spends the majority of their day has changed very little.  When I help my children do their homework, there isn’t much difference between the textbooks and the worksheets I see today and the ones I saw 30 years ago.  I recently had to explain to my daughter’s principal the difference between a Web browser and a search engine.  The classroom is like a backwater eddy in the rushing torrent of technological change that typifies the rest of the world.  And it’s not just elementary school where this is an issue.  We often speak to students who are currently going through marketing programs at the university level and are always aghast at how little they’re learning about this new world of marketing and the reality of consumer empowerment.  They’re learning the rules of a game that changed at least a decade ago.

So to bring the point home once more, what will the organization of the world’s information mean for our society?  As search gets better at connecting us to the content that we are looking for, what are the ripple effects for us?  Will our children’s and grandchildren’s brains be wired in a different way than ours are?  Will they assimilate information differently? Will they research differently? Will they structure their logic in a different way?

Creation of Ideological Communities

The Web has redefined our idea of community.  It used to be the communities were defined along geographic lines.  You need a physical proximity to people in order to create a community because physical proximity was a prerequisite for communication.  Communities could exist if there was two way communication.  That’s the reason why community and communication are extensions of the same root word and concept. 

Perhaps the most powerful change introduced by the Internet has been the enabling of real, two way communication between people where physical proximity was not required.  Consider the chain of events that typifies online interaction.  You become aware of someone who shares an ideological interest, usually through stumbling upon them somewhere online.  You initiate communication.  Depending on the scope of your shared interest, you may create the core of the community by inviting others into it.  The Internet gives us the platform that allows for the creation of ideological communities.  We see this happen all the time on properties such as YouTube or MySpace.  Ideological communities are created on the fly, flourish for awhile, and then fade away as interest in the idea that engendered them also fades away.  The Internet, at any given point in time, is a snapshot of thousands, or perhaps millions, of these ad hoc ideological communities.  They form, they flourish and then they disappear.

But in our real world there was physicality to the concept of community.  The way our world is built, our political boundaries, come from physical considerations.  There are distinct geographic boundaries like mountain ranges, oceans and rivers that, in the past, prevented the flow of people across them.  Because of the restricted ability to move, people spent long enough together to share ideals and create communities.  As time moved on these communities became larger and larger.  Transportation allowed us to share common ideals over a greater expanse and nations became possible.  The more efficient the transportation, the larger the nation became.  But throughout this entire process, the concept of geography defined communities and defined nations.  Our entire existing political structure was built around this geographic foundation.

With the Internet, geography ceases to have meaning.  It’s now a virtual world, and I can feel closer to someone in China with whom I share one particularly strong mutually held belief then I might with my next-door neighbor.  More fundamentally, I can belong to several different communities at the same time.  Again, the restraint of the physical world usually restricted the number of interests we had that we could share with those immediately around us.  Our sphere of interest as an individual was somewhat dictated by the critical mass each of those interest areas had within the community in which we lived.  If we thought particularly strongly about one interest we could physically move to a community where there were more people who shared that interest.  So we tended to move to communities that felt “right” ideologically as well as physically.  But with the Internet, does that need for ideological “sameness” where we live eventually disappear?  Does our physical need for community decrease as our ideological need for community is fulfilled through the Internet?

And, if this physical definition of community begins to erode, what does that do for the concept of nationhood and all the things that come along with it? Increasingly, communication and commerce travel along lines not defined by geography.  The idea of a nation, as we currently understand it, is inextricably bound to the realities of geography.  Politics, trade, laws and defense are all concepts that are rooted in thinking developed over the past several centuries.  In the past 30 years we’ve seen the erosion of the concept of nationhood through the creation of common markets and free trade areas.  The very breakdown of the Soviet Union comes from the inability to isolate the population from the concepts which flourished in the free world.  And that was before the Internet ever became a factor.  What happens when we take this movement, already afoot, and add the tremendous catalyst that is the Internet?

It’s in these macro trends that the true power of the Internet can be seen.  It’s not about an individual technology or even the cumulative power of all the technology.  It’s about how the sum of all that affects us as individuals, how we interact with the world around us and how we connect with other individuals.  The seeds have been planted, we can’t turn back, and we can’t foresee what will be.  The world is evolving and truly becoming a global community.  We are entering a time when change will accelerate faster than our society may be able to keep up.  There will be costs, certainly, but my hope and belief is that the rewards will far outweigh the costs.

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