One of the most powerful and disruptive aspects of the web is its ability to facilitate low effort, large scale sharing. In the beginning the primary disruption came from our new-found ability to share information. This is a force that has transformed the communications landscape forever, as well as radically altering the fortunes of the music, film and news industries. It may, however, be only the beginning. The power of the web to enable sharing started with shared information but it isn’t stopping there.
Marketers remain primarily concerned with this pesky information sharing problem. In the beginning (let’s call it the viral video era) marketers embraced this as a wonder of our time. We could get people to watch our TV ads without having to spend money on media-nirvana was here! The assumption was that a broadcast model would endure, with consumers acting as millions of convenient distribution points for our content.
Then of course, we realized that people could not only spread the messages we wanted them to, but a host of other, far less favourable ones. People were saying mean things about our brands on the internets! We may call it the “United Breaks Guitars” era or “The Rise of Buzz Monitoring”. Now we live in age when savvy brands are all too aware that they do not control the dialogue and that, as a result they need to get ever better at listening, monitoring and responding to that dialogue. To understand just how seriously some brands are taking this challenge, just take a look at Gatorade’s or Dell’s buzz monitoring war rooms-this is no minor investment.
So, yes, the free and easy sharing of information has changed the way we communicate forever. Far more disruptive, however, is the potential the web opens up for the sharing of goods and services.
In Clay Shirky’s truly excellent speech at South by SouthWest last year (nicely summarised here), he outlined three types of sharing. Sharing of information, sharing of services and sharing of goods. Drawing on Michael Tomasello’s primates research, he explained that we are evolutionarily hard-wired not just to share our information but to enjoy sharing it. This is in part, he explained, because sharing information costs us very little, whereas sharing goods and services costs time and potentially assets-something we’re mostly hardwired (through loss aversion) to avoid. The music industry was transformed forever, Shirky pointed out, when sharing music became not a question of shared goods (tapes and CDs) but of shared information (digital files). So we have an inherent willingness to share information-what the web has done is transform our ability to share.
It was a inspiring and exceptionally intelligent talk. Just a year on though, I believe we’re moving towards a scenario where the ease with which we share information has created both an infratructure and a cultural climate where we are ever more comfortable with the notion of sharing goods and services as well. Or perhaps one where that distinction is less and less relevant. The power of a maturing social web has increased both our ability to share goods and services and our willingness to share. Continue reading