[IMAGE VIA ZAP ART]
The word is about, there's something evolving,
whatever may come, the world keeps revolving
They say the next big thing is here,
that the revolution's near,
but to me it seems quite clear
that it's all just a little bit of history repeating
Whenever homo sapiens first walked the earth (please feel free to contextualise this with you own date, theory, religion etc.) clearly there would have been no such things as institutions, governments, and (heaven-for-bid-it) brands. It would have been, more or less, one big social free-for-all; where people could pretty much go off gallivanting around wherever they wanted.
But then soon enough small tribes formed in order to create some form of social system and territorial boundaries. Thereafter, we all know the basic story: this eventually snowballed into villages, towns and cities; with empires, aristocracies, governments, presidents, prime ministers and the like on hand to keep us all in check. So, whereas once upon a time we more or less did as we pleased, now there were geographical, social, political, economic and cultural boundaries in place which limited what we could and couldn’t do.
In terms of the much more recent ‘Internet revolution’ (or other such term - pick your own metaphor!) a question that I keep asking myself is whether this is 'all just a little bit of history repeating?' (to quote Dame Shirley Bassey from a rather brilliant Propellarheads track). To flesh out this thought a little, two examples - the 'communitisation' of marketing-related blogging and regulation of web 2.0 – feel rather apt, so here I go …
The 'communitisation' of marketing-related blogging: a 100% unofficial, partial, incomplete account
Towards the end of 1997 when blogging first started out (in the Jorn Barger sense at least), it would have been rather like a digital ghost-town. Few blogging hosts; few blogs; few users etc. But following the lauch of Open Diary (1998), LiveJournal (1999) and Blogger (1999), blogging soon started to gain momentum. By 2001 blogging was becoming an increasingly visible phenomenon, and by 2002 a number of American political communities had emerged, fuelled, in particular, by discussion of the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the world of business had also caught on, but the marketing blogging scene consisted mainly of passionate early adopters and solus blogging experiments rather than distinct communities per se.
To gain a kind of retro-fitting experience, I decided to follow veteran blogger Russell Davies’ posts from Aug 2003 (well, a bit of the way through anyway), and even then you can get a vibe of what it might have been like. For example, from his first fifty posts he received only four comments - whereas nowadays the reverse scenario is far more likely (interestingly, there is a comment on Russell’s first post, but this actually came much later – coincidentally from another curious blogging archaeologist called Marcus in April 2007). Many of the other earlier marketing-related blogs that I know of such as Adland (2000 - in blog form), Adrants (March 2002), This Blog Sits At (Aug 2002), The Hidden Persuader (Aug 2003) and Living Brands (Aug 2004) also follow a similar development curve. Something that stands to reason about this 'golden age' (as Russell refers to it) is that (I sense) there would have been less pressure and a greater sense of freedom back then. No thousands of ardent RSS feed-readers to entertain; one blog to maintain – not several; no critical onlookers; less need to split up work and personal life, and so on.
Around the end of 2004 something significant was starting to happen. A largely US 'marketing as disruption and conversation' scene was blossoming – notably by Seth Godin and Hugh McLeod – whilst Russell was fast attracting a largely UK-US mix of enlightened planners that had finally found a virtual shoulder to theorise on (now commonly referred to as the Plannersphere). Then slightly later, a graphic design strand started to gain momentum, courtesy of blogs like The Design Observer and Noisy Decent Graphics. In the case of the Plannersphere specifically, we can now see how initiatives such as Coffee Mornings, the Plannershere Wiki and Account Planning School of the Web (which has since migrated shores), combined with Faris’ AccountPlan.ning and Beersphere have fostered and cemented a sense of community even further. Elsewhere, Grant McCracken has also spoken enthusiastically about the potential for a Blogger's Business School with a strong cultural component (a lovely idea I must say – no cultural bias here of course!). This list is far from exhaustive, but we can nonetheless see how an open virtual space is starting to arrange itself into smaller, more manageable, focused virtual communities. Of course, these are far from being independent communities – they overlap considerably, yet, there is still a sense of consolidation and clustering taking shape.
Now, I am certainly not suggesting that this is a bad thing - on the contrary, I think it’s fantastic that like-minded people have been able to come together. But nevertheless, we can see how a process of 'communitisation' is underway. One where marketing, as a floating subject of interest in cyberspace, is being softly institutionalised by a nexus of virtual communities - even if they’re considerably less rigid than their offline, physical counterparts. Moreover, if we take the evolution of the blog to its logical conclusion, it begs the question: to what extent do people really own their blog? After all, if consumers’ own and control brands, then surely other blogger’s own your blog, right? Well, I prefer the idea that both brands and blogs are co-created, rather than purely consumer-owned, but nevertheless, pleasing yourself and pleasing your readers can soon turn out to be a more two-pronged affair.
The regulation of web 2.0
Roughly running in parallel, we have also seen developments on the web applications side. Wikipedia may currently remain open source, but the technicalities are now more technical, and the pressure and responsibility of educating the world accurately is mounting. Google is fast becoming more complex, cluttered, commercial and intrusive vs its minimalist ‘just hit search’ virginity years. And most significantly of all, we have seen MySpace – the daddy of social networking since 2004 - see its crown being eyed-up by the fiercely growing Facebook community. Ironically, given the ‘open’ ethos of everything 2.0, many people feel that Facebook’s competitive advantage has come from its superior privacy settings. As a closed network built on trust, it steers people to others that they’ve already met in the outside world, rather than just cyber-randoms.
Yet many people are still finding the openness of Facebook increasingly challenging. There is something about putting relatives, friends, old school chums and (ex) work colleagues all in one virtual space that can feel uncomfortable. Not to mention receiving invitations from people one barely knows or would rather leave behind at the school gate, yet feel obligated to accept them for the worry of offending. Identities may well be distributed, but within the Facebook microcosm specifically, postmodern-style chameleonism is actually quite tricky. And just as Facebook looks set to trump MySpace by offering greater privacy settings and user control, the question begs whether there is an opportunity for a competitor to do the same to Facebook e.g. by giving people even greater control over the ability to further organise and partition their friends perhaps? The problem with social networking platforms - but one that creates opportunities for competitors - is the difficulty of back-tracking once companies have committed to a certain modus operandi.
An open ended final thought: the freedom vs control paradox
Both of these examples demonstrate how the Internet is subtly becoming more organised and regulated. To revisit my earlier analogy, it is going through a process not too dissimilar to the way in which civilisation evolved over thousands of years; where continents, countries, cities, towns and villages became geographically marked; governments formed; along with organisations and institutions of every colour and stripe.
But just before I push the analogy too far and find myself surrounded by angry bearded historians and red-eyed futurologists, an important distinction is that the Internet is being regulated by everyone – from the big power plays made by Google, Facebook, PayPal and co. to the embryonic stepping stones made by everyday open source contributors. So it’s far from being a simple top-down affair; it’s more top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side, and any other trajectory that takes your fancy. Moreover, isn’t increasing organisation and regulation only a natural counter response to increasing freedom? To name but a few obvious examples, we have Google and Wikipedia empowering education and learning; MySpace and Facebook empowering togetherness and communication; Blogger and TypePad empowering self-publishing and conversation; and Google Maps and Google Earth empowering geographical awareness and mobility.
So, we find ourselves in a situation where we have the freedom to voice our enthusiasm, thoughts and ideas; make interesting friends that we never knew we had; and buy-sell anything going with celebrity cache; but on the proviso that we are (at least) hovering around the Powerblogging standard; shielding ourselves from the other crackpots that skew towards the more disturbing side of interesting; taking precautions against identity theft and buying fake products; and otherwise adhering strictly to the blogger's coffee table manual. Whilst it’s difficult to predict just where this extreme freedom and control duality will ultimately take us (The Matrix ... surely not!), of course we can be sure that it will all seem rather obvious in hindsight. So for now, let us savour the freedom we all (still) have - as the true pioneering Internet generation, and enjoy the ride. As I dare say history is going to look back rather fondly on us, being the founders of civilisation take 2.0 and all that.
Take it away Shirley ... ;)