Perhaps the most important ‘ding’ moment I had at Davos was that the powerful are, no surprise, one step behind in their understanding of the true significance of the internet: They think it is all about individual action when, in truth, it’s about collective action. And so they don’t yet see that the internet will shift power even more than they realize.
The powerful at Davos are just starting to talk about the internet and individual empowerment; we heard that often up in the Alps from media (this has become editors’ cant), leaders in politics (like the U.K.’s Gordon Brown and the EU’s Viviane Reding), business (Bill Gates), and even technology (Gates, again). They are not alone; we have heard this for quite a while back down on earth. And it’s certainly true that the internet enables each of us to find the information that matters to us, to publish what we think, and do what we want. But that is only a step along the way to the fate of society after the internet.
The internet is more about collective action. It is about connections. It gives us the power to find each other, to join together, to coalesce around issues, ideas, products, desires, and activities as never before, leaping over all borders, real and cultural. That is the historic progression of power that we are witnessing. That is what we heard from the people who truly understand this mechanism because they are building it: Caterina Fake and Stuart Butterfield of Flickr, Chad Hurley of YouTube, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. At Davos, these pioneers didn’t contradicted the machers when they said that the internet is about individualism; on that plane, they were talking past each other. But as I sat down to make my notes about what I learned at Davos, this is what hit me between the eyes.
In media terms, I said at Davos and here on the blog that we have seen a small-scale version of this progression:
1. First, big media let us interact with them, about their stuff.
2. Then big media beg us to give them our stuff.
3. Now we realize that our stuff is ours — not user-generated content for the big guys — and we expect them to come to us.
It’s a distributed world, but I also said at Davos and on the blog that that doesn’t just mean big media can distribute its stuff to us in new ways; it means that all our stuff makes up the corpus of media, that we have the means of creation (bless my Mac and WordPress), marketing (that is, linking), and now distribution (thank you, YouTube). So the wise media macher will figure out how to try to enable people to create and share their stuff, not just big media’s, how to get into the middle of the conversation that’s already occurring– and not just start those conversations, which they still think is their role.
In political and societal terms, this means that institutions themselves are — like media — disaggregated and protean. I sat next to a veteran magazine editor at a dinner one night as he lamented the loss of institutional power and feared the rise of anarchy. Ah, but that’s what you might conclude in the face of the internet if you think it’s all about individualism, about each of us going our own way. If you realize that the internet is, instead, about connections and collective actions, you come to see that institutions will reform, that they will become fluid and ad hoc, like the parliamentary system of multiple parties joining in coalitions to rule. Now we can form our own coalitions to reach the critical mass still needed to be heard and to act. (See my Guardian column about the political essence of the internet, inspired by the Euston Manifesto.)
This editor’s fear of individual anarchy is a corollary to the argument that some societies — China and the Middle East and parts of Africa and, not long ago, Latin America — are not ready for democracy because they will collapse into anarchy without the power of their paternal institutions. I find this deeply offensive, for I strongly believe that every individual on earth has the right to self-determination. And what that means is not murdering in the streets — as, indeed, we see in Iraq today. What that truly means is gathering together into a society if, yes, the conditions allow, if there is the means to assure the security that allows this to happen. Critical mass will rise and a just society — the kind of society we all want — will not allow the tyranny of a minority or, in the case of a dictator, the minority of one. Society is balance and the internet is a new balancer.
So we see a similar path as in media:
1. The powerful realize they have no choice but to let you speak (even in China and the Middle East).
2. The powerful are forced to listen.
3. The powerful will realize that this isn’t just about mutual discussion but mutual decision.
Gordon Brown made noises like that. Whether he means it, we will see when he comes to power. The same for Hillary Clinton and her talk about conversation as campaign.
In business terms, of course, the internet allows the customer to finally, truly be in charge. I’ve written about that often enough.
And in technology terms, I believe, the future is not about establishing social networks as walled playgrounds but instead realizing that the internet is the social network. And so the question is how to enable that, how — in Zuckerberg’s term — to find an elegant organization for what is happening there already.
That is the job of media, government, business, and technology: to enable us to make better connections, to set the conditions for our collaboration. But this will frighten them more than it has already. For individuals don’t seem threatening on their own. But coalitions? Now that’s scary for the powerful. And the powerful don’t yet realize what’s happening. As Jackie Ashley said in a Guardian column — with which I otherwise have a few disagreements — inspired by Brown et al’s embrace of bloggers at Davos:
So when politicians and tycoons excitedly echo one another in hailing the new democracy of the internet, and promise that it is upending the old order, a little scepticism is required. If they really thought they were about to be overthrown by bloggers, would they sound quite so cheerful about it?
Exactly. This is the best indication that they don’t yet comprehend the impact of the internet — they don’t, as we say, get it. Oh, they’ve come a distance from their old ways; they realize they can’t dictate to all of us anymore. They know they have to do a better job of at least appearing to listen. But the realization that the internet is really the means for us to gang up on them hasn’t fully dawned on them yet. In that sense, I’ll bet that my new Davos pal Michael Dell is ahead of the rest, for he faced the gang, the coalescing critical mass of connections that the internet enabled.
So let them think that interactivity and social networks are ways for us to amuse ourselves while they still wield the power. They will wake up one day and realize they no longer own the world and can no longer look down at it from the top of the mountain. See Alan Rusbridger on one of the Davos media sessions, where the head of what can still be called the most powerful journalistic voice in the world looked up to find himself facing a just-out-of-college kid who reportedly turned down $1.5 billion for his company and who understands this new world in his soul; it’s not the money that should make the moguls jealous but that understanding. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook explained to the media moguls that the job of media — and, for that matter, government, business, and technology — is to bring people together to find distributed and elegant solutions to their problems. That is not web 3.0. That’s society 2.1. And we’ve only just begun.