Davos07: My big conclusion

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.

  • Collectives fail.

    – Amanda

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  • greg0658

    Keep an eye on net-neutrality. Push your local governments for city wide wi-fi. This distribution method is most tyranist free.

    Newspaper downfalls and swipe ups by investors has me wondering if we the masses are building the internet to have the rug pulled out, thus returning newpaper power. The business cycle.

  • Interesting and I hope you are right but I think “they” do comprehend the Internet, some of these people own it, in the sense that they control bandwith and other things and that they are way ahead of us, those with the power of huge financial leverage and connections with other powerful businesses who don’t want to be overthrown in this revolution of the “common people” using the Internet as the method that will end the Old Order; the New Order has probably unintentionally already been put in place by these same people. I think the main problem for modern man in the Western civilized world continues to be his feeling of being separate and maybe we who use the Internet believe that by doing so we are making the world a manageable, a safe place to turn for comfort and consolation. I think this is an illusion. There are no safe places. The circles of power remain secure.

  • I thought Hillary’s “conversation” was just a ruse to avoid stating her true beliefs? I doubt she cares what anyone really thinks.

    Otherwise a great post.

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  • Some interesting criticisms from Wikipedia:

    “Other criticisms include:

    * that the WEF costs the state millions per year in order to guarantee safety against protesters, criminals and terrorist threats (as a private happening, the WEF should bear its safety costs itself)
    * Davos and its surroundings are a military security zone during the WEF, the right to congregate is cut drastically
    * that the total costs of US$60 millions would be better invested in actual development aid
    * that the WEF as a forum – many statesmen meet each other – is not democratically legitimated, but important decisions are done nonetheless
    * only a very small part of the people at the WEF are actually from developing countries, and the role of NGO is minimal”

  • I can see why someone (most?) in traditional media (I’m liking the term “traditional media” better than “mainstream media” about right now) would think “anarchy.” That just shows how little they (as an indie individual, not part of an institution) have experimented in the realm of social media.

    Just from my short year and half or so of total immersion (in new media), the community that’s grown around me and with me, either geographically or otherwise, never EVER lets me stray too far off the reservation.

    Sometimes they might encourage me to go a little further into some woods I don’t really want to get into (feminist politics in my case), but only those deep into the blogosphere can really comprehend the bloggers’ inherent “system” of checks and balances, nor the deep and strong sense (and place) of community we:
    a.) already have
    b.) are continuing to build every day.

  • Sue

    If they had a clue about the power of the internet, they would have already shut it down.

  • LOL Sue! Ain’t that the truth.

  • Guy Love

    Here is my conclusion …

    With great front line reporting (thanks Jeff!) through blogging at places like Davos, the conspiracy industry is going to really struggle as the layers of insulation between “us” and “them” get peeled back.

    My other thought is why has it taken bloggers to finally inform everyone about the discussions that take place when the movers and shakers get together? It boggles the mind why the traditional media never covered this stuff in the past. I am looking forward to a future, when the highest insider group decisions get exposed to the public for critical review on a routine basis.

  • demba

    wsf in nairobi was a significant respose davos as it gave opportunity social mvts to express their voices against neoliberalism

  • penny

    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

    Translated to mean, we’ve lost control of our monoply, our product and are losing our control of setting the cultural and political agendas that we’ve rammed down the public’s throat for decades. And worse, the Great Unwashed have an alternative, a voice and are publically exposing our entrenched flaws.

    Tough times for veteran editors. The anarchy of it all. No tears shed here. I’m sure that to the journo elite this must be a very frightening time. One good thing about democratic people is that they will organize themselves in an orderly manner which is exactly what the internet is doing.

    Watch these people, veteran editor and his ilk would love to muzzle the internet.

  • And Mr Dell is back in charge at your favourite computer firm. Did he give any indication about that when you met him at Davos?

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  • BobH

    Blah blah blah. I, Jeff Jarvis, GET the Internet, where all these other idiots are just to slow on the uptake. And they can NEVER catch up, because I keep moving on to new buzzwords: It’s a conversation, it’s a distributed world, it’s about coaslescing around issues.

    Really, Jeff, you’re so tiresome.

  • Dave’s posts are great.

  • Well I think many of them have already understood the Internet lesson.
    Many have become bloggers themselves.
    Many are using the Internet as a new way to reach an audience.
    And many are actually quite succesful (see Beppe Grillo in Italy)

    The simple reason is not in the fact that the Intenet is about individualism or communication.
    The simple reason is that the people (mostly young people and among them I include us, members of the “boom generation”) spend many hours a day on the Internet.
    And the Market follows the people, doesn’t it?

  • p.lukasiak

    conclusion from Davos?

    Its easy to get a self-important “media critic” to cover you obsessively by treating him as if he is as important as he thinks he is — and you pay his way, of course.

    You can even get him to ignore the truly “revolutionary” inter-tubez thing that is happening at the same time — the liveblogging of the Scooter Libby trial, and the interplay between the bloggers and the corporate media covering the trial.

    I mean, big freaking whoop — Davos caught up with the interwebs finally — and held a bunch of the same basic panel discussions that you’ve been attending/organizing/participating-in/commenting-on for years. Just because a few people with more money than God on the dais doesn’t make it more significant.

    But what is happening in the Prettyman Building in Washington DC is truly revolutionary—(oh, and the revolution is also being “televised” on PoliticsTV via YouTube). Too bad your have been too busy patting yourself on the back to notice it….

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  • Collectives fail? Perhaps. More likely, though, it is rigid collectives which fail. Ad hoc collectives, forming and unforming and reforming with ever-shifting memberships to meet each new challenge or opportunity will be far more adaptive and less likely to fail.

  • Dan

    My my.

    Waxing triumphant about the Internets and being so much -quicker- and -faster- than the “lamestream media” (democracy! whiskey! sexy!) isn’t very revolutionary. I thought this dizzying display of libertarian onanism would be at least tempered by the following:

    – bloggers, with notable exceptions, merely comment about the news and do little actual journalism

    – “netroots”-heavy political campaigns are still unproven paths to success (see Howard Dean, and the thus-far unimpressive polling numbers for Mitt Romney)

    – you can wall yourself from uncomfortable reality very, very easily (look at what the right-of-center blogosphere was pedaling last November, and if you want to go back farther, at the left-of-center in 2004).

    Then again, I don’t have that hip new communication down as well as the rest.

    But I do think a *wee* bit of humility helps for those of you out on the front lines in the Army of Davids.


  • Paul A’Barge

    the most important ‘ding’ moment I had at Davos was … understanding of the true significance of the internet

    Let me get this straight … in the middle of some of the most evil, nefarious NGOs, surrounded by people like Iranian leaders and John “bash America” Kerry, this is what rang/dinged your bell the most?

    Either you’ve become immune to the horror, or you’re part of it.

  • Jeff

    Hate to be the one to tell you, Dan, but the vast majority of the old media only comments about (regurgitates) the news and does little actual journalism as well. The only difference is that the old media still can draw more eyeballs than the new even in its downward spiral of recent years.

  • Paul A’Barge

    the most important ‘ding’ moment I had at Davos was … understanding of the true significance of the internet

    Again, I just heard the comments made by George Soros at Davos, that America needs to be de-nazi-fied.

    As I reread your statement about the most important ding I am even more horrified by your lack of seriousness as a commenter and at your inability to be more than a simplistic poseur.

    How could anyone take you seriously?

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  • ronbo

    Well, Paul got there first but I am very disappointed that you are so bound up in the process that you ignore some of the most atrocious content. I assume you don’t agree with Kerry and Soros; do you think you can gin up a little outrage or are you worried that you might not get asked back?

  • Paul & ronbo:
    You expect me to comment on and distance myself from every stupid thing that was said by any of the 2,500 people at Davos? I didn’t hear Soros there. Do I think his denazification crack is idiotic and offensive? Yes. There. And what difference did that make? It has nothing to do with the point I’m trying to make above about the media and technology events I did attend.

  • ronbo

    It has nothing to do with the point I’m trying to make above about the media and technology events I did attend.

    Sorry, Jeff, but I believe it does. Content matters. The democratization of distribution has not eliminated the advantages the wealthy and powerful enjoy in terms of access to eyes and ears. Calling Bush a Nazi at Davos (with little attendant outrage, IIRC) is different from calling him a Nazi at an antiwar rally in Berkley.

    If I understand your point, the Davosians are behind the curve on both the technology and the sociology of new media. They don’t understand how completely the barriers to unmediated content have fallen and they don’t understand its implications.

    One of the implications is that idiotic and offensive content spreads very quickly and with almost no institutional controls. Apart from copyright and defamation claims, there is almost no disincentive to either intentional or negligent hatefulness. So, the question I hoped you would have addressed in light of Soros’ comment is, what will keep Gresham’s law from limiting the value of new media?

  • Paul A’Barge

    And what difference did that make?

    Well, very little, now that you’ve been called on it. Lots of others, including Glenn had lots to say about the moral depravity on display at Davos. Their big ding was indeed big.

    When modes of human interaction is reduced to the usage of cool technology, then for those whose bell is dinged in this way, I have one name for you to ponder:

    Leni Riefenstahl

    Jeff, meet mirror. Sad.

  • So you proceed to make a connection just as absurd and offensive as Soros’. Pathetic.

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