One of my colleagues recently told her daughter that she had been asked to present at a digital conference. Colleague: “Digital? Well, it’s all the things you see and do on the internet, it’s the games, YouTube, Websites, mobile apps, Facebook, Instagram.” Daughter, aged 10: “What?…but that’s just STUFF, that’s like just…everything.”
A few weeks ago, The Economist published an article entitled the World Wild Web. Part of the article raises the usual privacy issues, whilst part of it paints an Orwellian picture of intrusiveness, invoking the spectre of consumer revolution at the big data feast. This part of it is, in my opinion, somewhat nonsensical. In fact, I’d argue that only someone who grew up without the Web would take the position that it’s a scary and invasive place. Today’s interconnected young consumers have only ever known a digital world and are very different from the previous generation in that they see no boundaries, are more informed and passionate about the world and have learned to use the Web to their advantage. They know that it is they, the ‘digital natives’, who shape the Web, not technology, and hence they know that the future is in their hands and rooted in their behaviour. They expect new ‘stuff’ to replace old ‘stuff’ otherwise they’ll simply discard it as not working for them. This has resulted in what I think of as the democratisation of the Web.
By the people, for the people
In broad terms, the democratisation of the Web refers to the way consumers access and and collaborate with the internet. One of the early practitioners of democratisation, Allrecipes.com, allowed users to create personal accounts, submit their own recipes and modify and review others. Suddenly, anyone could be a chef and/or a food critic. And when visitors began using recipe reviews to guide selection of the site’s brand partners, it meant that Allrecipes.com’s members were helping to shape the whole browsing experience.
These days, of course, everyone, not just home cooks, can contribute to the Web. And whether their contribution is highlighting social issues or good causes, inviting collaboration through crowdsourcing or using creative new ways of working like Fiverr, the Web has become an instrument of social and industrial change.
The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in one
Thanks to the Web, we’re living in times of unprecedented information and empowerment. Children in poor, remote communities in India, for example, are getting the internet in their villages and through it have access for the first time to a decent education which they can use to change their circumstances and build a better future.
Or, for a different instance of community involvement, take the recent Ice Bucket Challenge. Through social media, awareness of the previously little-known disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was promoted virally to stratospheric heights around the world, raising nearly $100 million to date. The learning we can take from this is that today’s Facebook and Twitter users are effectively using the Web to run their own little media houses, powered by social capital.
There is enormous significance for industry, too. Realtime manufacturing businesses are now able to build on consumer demand for product, trial and scale, enabling a new wave of artisanal creativity. A prime example of this can be found at Mission Motorcycles, where only a strictly limited number of the pioneering Mission-R all-electric bikes are built and then customised to order. In the field of health manufacturing, plaster casts have, after 300 years, been given a 21st Century makeover with the revolutionary 3-D printed Osteoid Medical Cast, which not only enables injuries to be treated faster and more easily, but also speeds healing.
Ironically, The Economist was, in a way, right to predict a consumer revolution. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary was recently forced to announce that his government would abandon a proposed tax on internet usage that had drawn tens of thousands of outraged demonstrators to the streets of Budapest.
So, to sum up, I believe that the Web gives users far more in terms of value than it takes away in terms of data. Today’s marketers treat the collection and dissemination of data carefully and responsibly and respect their consumers. This is sound common sense as today’s consumers wield singular power over their own digital ecosystems and they demand a value exchange – being rewarded for giving their data – between brands and their friends to keep it alive.
Click here for The Economist’s Special Report on Advertising and Technology.
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