Two giants of the online intellectual scene recently brought their thinking together in a website called WorldOfEnds.com to do just this.
Doc Searls is a writer and speaker and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. Co-author David Weinberger is a former comedy writer for Woody Allen, and helped create the engine behind Yahoo!
Their premise in WorldOfEnds.com is that businesses in particular have insisted on mistaking the internet for something it is not, hence so many businesses have failed online, such as “thinking that selling toys for pets on the Web is a great way to get rich”.
The internet, they write, is not like television where advertisers can run amok, expecting all their banner ads and spam emails to be read and digested. Nor is it a place where “telcos and cable companies should filter, control and otherwise ‘improve’ “. They dub this case of mistaken identity the repetitive mistake syndrome (RMS), and charge media companies, the entertainment industries, lawmakers and telecoms firms with suffering from “RMS”.
Despite the efforts of government, law and business to tame the internet’s inherent ability to shift content, legal or illegal, around, WorldOfEnds.com predicts it will continue to confound everyone. Crucial to its argument is the notion that “the internet is stupid”. Unlike a network such as the telephone system (which knows who’s calling whom, for instance, the internet’s designers “made sure the biggest, most inclusive network of them all was dumb as a box of rocks… The internet only knows one thing: this bunch of bits needs to move from one end of the Net to another”. As Mr John Gilmore, the online Libertarian, is famously quoted as saying: “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
In the long run, say Searls and Weinberger, “internet radio will succeed. Instant messaging systems will interoperate. Dumb companies will get smart or die. Stupid laws will be killed or replaced”. It’s this guaranteed ability of the internet to move content and information around, under or over any problem it encounters that is forcing a change both in business and in the media.
I’ve written here before about the ‘Web logging’ or ‘blogging’ movement – where anyone can create a simple, easy-to-run online journal and post their thoughts and opinions on any subject. Blogging looks like it is on the cusp of invading business. Why? For the very same reason that people’s activity cannot be contained online.
“Corporate blogging” is catching on, especially among internet companies, as firms begin to experiment with using weblogs for both internal and external communications.
The rationale behind this emerging trend is twofold. Firstly, blogs are now thought to have potential for a company’s “knowledge management” efforts – the processes whereby firms capture the ideas and information created by its employees. These have been dubbed the “Knowledge Blogs” or “K-Logs”. Meanwhile, external blogs say a lot about a company’s stance towards its customers, indicating that they are open with information and want to listen to customers – assuming they can handle the replies.
Secondly, there is gradually a recognition that if online discussion about your firm is bound to break out internally and externally, you might as well have it break out where you can see it. Research firm Gartner Group says its “Emerging Storm” weblog is “an experiment”, but admits it sees “a lot of future in blogs”. Macromedia, the software firm that created the basis for animation online, is also running blogs among its employees. Internet experts Jupiter Research allows its analysts to run blogs where they air their thoughts for the day and preview their research in bit-sized pieces.
Of course, a blog that isn’t truthful won’t work. Certainly many would argue that a corporate blog is always going to be tainted with the charge of either being obsequious or having an interest in toeing the company line.
But blogs about business and by key business people are also starting to route around the traditional business media – allowing business people to air their thinking, unfiltered by journalists and the constraints of the business press. The newly launched AlwaysOn.com, a “group blog” founded by Tony Perkins (former editor of the defunct Red-Herring magazine) is now trying to turn its network of business bloggers into a profitable business.
The flow of information online is also routing around the traditional media outlets. Journalism.co.uk recently reported on how Americans are flooding international news websites to get a different perspective on the Iraq crisis. In Iraq, CNN reporter Ken Sites is posting a regular diary and photographs of his experiences with the allied forces at Kevinsites.net. Freelance US journalist Christopher Allbritton even plans to hitchhike and bribe his way into Iraqi Kurdistan, filing stories directly to his Back-to-iraq.com blog as he goes.
It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. But in a networked world where access to information online has almost become a touchstone of the right to freedom of expression, the internet is helping to minimise those casualties.