In a recent interview with Wired Magazine, Tim Berners-Lee voiced concerns that his vision for an Internet that is ‘decentralized by nature and thus remained open to all’ has not materialised. In a turn of irony reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Berners-Lee’s creation has arguably become more controlling than liberating. The Internet facilitates heightened social interaction and unprecedented access to multi-media content and information through search engines. However, Berners-Lee’s fears are fed by the reach of the very Internet profit monopolies we perceive to be so liberating; namely, search engines and social networks engendering what has been aptly named ‘the balkanised web.’
Revelations surrounding the mass surveillance programmes of the US’s NSA and the UK’s GCHQ have added political weight to an already developing sense of digital unease that could, as Berners-Lee fears, unpin his vision of a liberating digital space. Indeed, Edward Snowden’s revelations have forced us to consider our complacent assumptions around digital privacy and content ownership.
A digital manifestation of these fears (and an antidote of sorts) is the Indie Web, a ‘people focused’ antithesis to the ‘corporate web’ which aims to secure the ownership we have over our ‘own’ content, enhance cross-service engagement and leave control with the author. It’s impetus recognises the importance content ownership has acquired in an age where content is becoming increasingly important to our lives yet is being stored by ‘random ephemeral start-ups or big silos’. The Indie Web, described by tech blogger Dan Gillmor as ‘classic Internet innovation: created and deployed on the edge, not in the centre’, proposes that the solution to this lies in providing freedom and empowerment through author-centricity.
Some brands have started to recognise the importance of nurturing user generated content (UGC). Burberry’s Art of the Trench campaign in 2009 was among the first to harness consumer conversation; other standout campaigns include Lynx’s Space Academy and The Guardian’s Own the Weekend. What do they all have in common? They are all hosted on social ‘silos’. The next step is for the same conversations to be initiated and carried out on neutral digital ground. But where is this neutral ground? The truth is that it doesn’t exist, not yet. This is precisely what the Indie Web seeks to address.
Brands must move away from the one-dimensional model of creating content for user consumption and towards one of engagement with content created and owned by the consumer. The Internet has facilitated a shift away from standard business culture and towards one of DIY entrepreneurship. Access to capital made possible by crowd funding sites means that brands and idea creators no longer have to operate within traditional channels; instead, they can create channels of their own. Brand-consumer channels are no longer linear spaces where all we can do is send and receive, create and consume; instead, they are digital spaces where channel transparency and unrestricted format engenders decentralized conversation.
Brands should see the Indie Web as a rendering of the ideal digital consumer space. In this regard it is essential for brands to recognise its validity as a marker of consumer behaviour. If brands can create an environment, akin to that of the Indie Web, where both brand and consumer can create, consume and engage with content alongside one another, then brand engagement becomes self-sustaining with consumers engaging on their own terms whilst retaining ownership and control. This is becoming particularly relevant in China, where peer-to-peer reviews carry more importance than what brands say – highlighting that people trust people rather than brands. This represents just another step towards validating the Indie Web, where consumers are king.