Reading this fascinating blog post about the 2010 web from Robert Scoble has made me think about online developments, and in particular about how they’re helping make the web’s central revolutionary feature – its replacement of a physical geography with a geography of interest – even more dynamic.
Before getting to that, though, it’s worth thinking about why the easy availability of a geography of interest is such a big change.
Historically, your relationships were defined by who you were physically close to. For most people, in most of history, that meant a relatively small group, located in a space extending maybe ten or twenty miles from your birthplace.
Of course, that’s not to say that you couldn’t move across the world in service of a particular interest. But it was expensive and time consuming, which made it an option that was only available to relatively few people.
The web’s changed that, removing almost all barriers to creating relationships based on shared interest, rather than shared geography. Now, anyone with internet access can type an obsession into Google, and within microseconds find whole communities of fellow travellers.
That geography of interest makes it easy to build relationships with people who share your passions. Objective physical geography has been replaced by subjective intellectual (or emotional) geography.
The changes that Scoble points to are changing the terms of that geography. Until recently, online conversations have mostly been relatively static things. You’ve needed to be sat at your PC or laptop, in at best a wireless enabled space.
You’ve talked to people through one particular portal – on their blog, or in a particular chat room, or on a message board. Web searches have been based on what people have read about in the past, not what they’re reading about now.
But, as we move towards 2010, that’s no longer the case. Online engagements are becoming increasingly dynamic, increasingly focussed on the now. The mobile web, real time search, social media, fragmented web presences, and so on, are combining to create a new style of online engagement.
We’re used to a web that’s like reading and writing (you write in the past, I read and respond to your writing now, you will get my response in the future), but these new technologies are letting us engage in ways that are more like talking (you say this now, I respond now, you get my response now).
That’s very intriguing, but – in practical terms – what does it mean? For us as individuals, I’m not sure how much of a difference it’s going to make. To some extent, the revolution has already happened. Since the mid 90s, most personal web users have been living in a geography of interest.
Now that that geography is more dynamic, it’s easier to have live, creative conversations within it; but as humans, we’re habituated to communicating through conversation, so (being admittedly very reductive) all we’ll experience will be a set of interesting new ways to carry on a process we’re all already very skilled at – finding and talking to interesting people.
I suspect that the step change is going to come at an organisational level.
First of all, existing organisations aren’t remotely habituated to living in a more and more dynamic geography of interest. That’s because they’re not very good at conversation. For the most part, they talk to the outside world through the discipline of marketing, and marketing speaks in monologue.
Most marketing activity looks to repetitively pound a simple message into a passive, undifferentiated mass of people (very reductively) defined as consumers. That model will come to seem increasingly dated and ineffective as people develop a sense of media as a vehicle for live, interest-driven, two way conversations.
The Terminator promotion I talked about below is one example of more conversational marketing. It’s more sophisticated – and more involving, and more *live* – than traditional film promotion materials, by several orders of magnitude.
Then, there’s T-Mobile, who are reverse engineering flashmobs to turn them into adverts, which are then made live TV events by being unveiled in specific ad slots (did you ever think you’d hear the words ‘exclusive commercial break’ on Channel 4?).
On a much smaller scale, there’s also Vodafone UK’s recent Treasure Hunts, which had their Twitter followers competing to solve clues to work out where free phones (fones?) could be found – if you search #VFTH on Twitter, you can track back over the action.
Secondly, new kinds of organisations will be enabled. A dynamic geography of interest means that people with shared interests will find each other very easily, and then communicate in real time.
Crowds will form instantly; some will coalesce into longer lasting tribes, defined by shared interests, and some of these tribes will generate teams wanting to do something practical that relates to those interests (on this process, more here and in upcoming posts).
Such organisations could be driven by political, commercial, creative or other interests; some will no doubt be substantial enough to compete effectively with existing, more traditional organisations.
The first manifestations of this kind of organisation have been political. For example, according to the Evening Standard, London Tamils are winding up for a summer of protests, organised spontaneously through Twitter and Facebook, and Twitter is playing a key role in Moldova’s ongoing revolution.
Of course, these are just initial symptoms of far reaching changes – changes that won’t happen overnight. Scoble makes the very valid point that these changes might not start filtering through into mass consciousness until far beyond 2015.
I don’t doubt that they will filter through, though, because we’re all social creatures, and living in a dynamic geography of interest will offer us all fascinating, rewarding, and increasingly easy to access new ways of being social.