August – quiet on the blog, busy elsewhere

A quiet six weeks or so on the blog; partially, I’ve been very busy with some really interesting work, partially my digital time has been going elsewhere, and partially because I thought I’d take a bit of a summer break. Of course, as soon as I decided to spend less time at the laptop and more time outside it immediately chucked it down for a month non-stop, but that’s the English summer for you.

So, apart from getting soggy, what have I been up to? Well, first of all some fascinating work for drugs policy foundation Transform, which is already bearing fruit here at Reuters, and (in a less direct way) here at the New Scientist. More’s upcoming in November, when I’ll go into more detail about it all.

I’ve also been helping London Livery Guild The Tallow Chandlers define themselves. I’m a member myself; I wrote our current website a few years back. It’s now looking pretty tired and so – as part of a general website update and brand polishing plan – I’ve been polling other members as to how they see the Tallow Chandlers, and how the company should present itself to the world. We’re meeting to talk the results through tomorrow, and should have a new, much improved site up and running by the end of the year.

More personally, I’ve been teaching myself the basics of HTML, XHTML and CSS. That too has been fascinating; I’m particularly impressed by how flexible and responsive a language each is. Very logical and easy to read, too; in fact, working with it has taken me right back to my 1980s obsession with BBC Basic. Anyway, that should hopefully bear fruit in a new improved website / blog hosting set up, again going live over the next couple of months.

And finally, there’s the creative stuff – so far, more work on the upcoming book (I’m currently working out exactly how a trans-Solar System economy would work in about 2300AD), a couple of Graan gigs (a highly enjoyable jaunt to Southampton, and an opportunity to get stuck into the fantastic sound system at the Corsica Studios, while supporting the wonderful Nadja), and a mysterious film project that will hopefully lead to much interestingness.

So, all in all, a busy summer; September and October will I hope be equally busy (if all goes according to plan I’ll be spending some work time in Japan, and watching lots of documentaries – more on this as it happens), and I’ll be blogging about it all here – so, see you at the next post!

Getting informal at the BBC

Well, a fascinating Friday afternoon at the BBC Web at 20 documentary launch, surrounded by true web royalty, from Sir Tim Berners Lee down. Having been appropriately awed by said royalty, I decided that I am in fact a web urchin, and then sat down to enjoy the show.

There doesn’t seem to be too much point in rehashing the content – you can catch much of it here and here, and it’s been well commented on all over the place – so instead, I’m just going to make a note of a perception about formal and informal media that really leapt out at me as I sat there.

As the introductory video began, with Fatboy Slim pounding out as background music, it struck me that there’s a big difference between the kind of professionally produced content that fills the traditional mediasphere, and the more informal creative work that thrives online.

The Fatboy Slim track was a first cue to formality. If I wanted to use it in a short film, I wouldn’t be able to; I couldn’t afford the licensing costs (in fact, I ran into licensing issues at the Tate only last week). The BBC, of course, can – and so its presence here became for me a signifier of the BBC’s commercial and creative heft, its status as the kind of organisation that works with, and creates, formal, rather than informal, media.

Then, there was the editing of the video itself. It was wonderfully crafted, clearly the product of a highly skilled professional; but again, the  sheen that that professionalism gave it very firmly placed it in the formal media camp. It didn’t feel like the product of a personal obsession, of someone working out a tool as they went along in order to use it to say what they desperately needed to say.

That sense of formality was also present in the broader structure of the event. The main speakers – Sir Tim Berners Lee, Bill Thompson and Susan Greenfield, MC’d by event and programme host Aleks Krotoski – sat on a little podium, variously giving speeches, talking with each other, and responding to questions. The questioners sat on bar stools off to one side; Chris Anderson beamed down from a video screen. We – as audience – audienced before them.

It was a physical structure that mimicked the audience / content relationships of traditional media forms. Experts talked; other experts interacted with them; and everyone else observed. Chances to interrupt the smooth flow of expertise (although in the case of Susan Greenfield, I use that term in its loosest possible sense) were few and far between; chances for informal conversation, rather than formal Q&A, were non-existent.

This formality contrasted very strongly with the various Web inspired events that have been becoming more and more popular. Unconferences, Tuttle Crowd / Tribe / Team workshops, meet ups of one kind or another, and even more traditional conferences and exhibitions – all have made a virtue of open, conversational informality, and deliberately created spaces within which hierarchy is erased and content follows shared personal obsessions.

Of course, that happened at the Web At 20 event – but it happened afterwards, when everyone was chatting over drinks, and felt very separate from the main flow of things. I felt very distant from the main event itself; in fact, I felt like I was watching it on television, rather than actually present. I didn’t even manage to get an audience question in, which is very rare indeed!

And of course, that’s not to say that it wasn’t a very enjoyable event; who couldn’t enjoy really interesting people talking about really interesting things? But it was very formal indeed, and for me it highlighted a fascinating problem that the Web at Twenty production team are going to have to deal with over the next few months.

The BBC – by definition – demands formal content; but the web thrives on informality. Web at Twenty is a BBC production about the web, so it’s going to have to engage with both the crafted professionalism of its parent and the obsessive amateurism of the online world. How’s it going to mediate between the two?

Will interviews be shot by professional cameramen, or by Zi6 wielding researchers? Will the final edit of each show happen in a BBC edit suite, or on a laptop running iMovie or Windows Movie Maker? Will incidental music come from Fatboy Slim, or Golders Green’s finest bedroom kosmische guitarist?

Will all footage come from the production team, or will people pop up online with invaluable content they’ve shot themselves? Once it’s all coming together, will people be able to remix Web at 20 content any way they want to, or will it be licensed in such a way that that’s impossible? Assuming it happens, how’s all that remixed content going to interact with the broader BBC web presence?

The Web at 20 production team are a very creative, seriously sharp bunch, so I suspect that their answers to the above are going to be fascinating. And the launch event? In the end – and despite the above – I think it was a very positive achievement.

It didn’t fully embody the informality of the web, but it’s content did do a very good job of introducing the concept of it to the BBC. It planted an informal media seed, and from now on, that seed’s going to grow. Of course, we can all be a part of its growth, following it and engaging with it here. It should be very exciting watching it develop!

An observation on observation

Johnnie Moore uses this video to make a rather wonderful point about the need to notice what’s round us, without constriction. Certainly, it taught me a thing or two about how unobservant I can be:

JM quotes Castaneda to support his point; I couldn’t help thinking of a William Blake line, ‘the eye sees more than the heart knows’, which concisely summarises our frequent, shared inability to find anything more in the outside world than what we already contain within ourselves.

Co-operative sets, not competitive sets

The world of social media is all about building relationships with people who – in one way or another – share your obsessions. It’s built on a social model that emphasises progress through co-operation, rather than progress through competition. I’ve been thinking for a little while about how that emphasis on engagement through sharing can be applied to marketing.

Brands usually understand their peer group by creating a clearly defined competitive set; that is, a group of other brands offering a similar product or service, to the same consumers. Everyone within with that competitive set is in direct competition with each other for the attention, engagement and money of a finite group of consumers. They are united by a shared need to defeat each other.

In this social age, defining your peer group as the people you most want to eradicate seems at best rather peculiar, and at worst unnecessarily paranoid. It seems to me more constructive to built a co-operative set, rather than a competitive set, and thus to define your brand by understanding who it can work with to satisfy its consumers, rather than who it must shout against to even begin to claim their attention.

As I said, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In fact, in my first ever post-graduate job – back at Birds Eye Wall’s, in the mid-90s – one of my favourite achievements was building a relationship with Creda, a natural frozen food co-operator, to ensure that Birds Eye products, and general frozen food tips, appeared in their brochures. In retrospect, I wish I’d developed a broader frozen food co-operative set; it would have been a fascinating, and no doubt very rewarding, exercise.

But this blog post was triggered by a far more current example of a brilliant definition and use of a co-operative set. Here’s a website for Australian energy drink V-Raw. Instead of trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors by going on about why they’re better than them, V-Raw are engaging with their consumers by sharing the benefits of a clearly defined co-operative set with them.

Their website is a forum for music offers, interviews with interesting people, job offers from V-Raw-like companies, and so on. That makes it a genuinely exciting destination to visit; and – I suspect – it does far more to position V-Raw as an effective, constructive, positive and very contemporary energy drink to a very clearly defined group of people than ranting endlessly about why they’re better than Red Bull or its antipodean equivalents ever would.

The Toy Story’s fear of the Purefold

I’ve been chatting to David and Tom at ag8 about the project that would become Purefold (a further, excellent summary here) since last year, so it’s fantastic to see it finally hitting the public domain; and very exciting that it’s getting such a positive reaction.

However, I’m not how much what’s truly revolutionary about it has really been picked up. In fact, even though I’ve known about it for a while, I didn’t really understand just what is so disruptive about it until – oddly enough – I got sucked into ‘Toy Story’ the other day.

I did rather enjoy getting absorbed in it; it’s a very charming, beautifully put together film. But, as I watched it again for the first time in years, I was more and more surprised by the extent to which, beneath the charm, it dramatises a certain kind of fear of the remix culture that Purefold so strongly endorses.

What struck me first of all was my unexpected sympathy for Sid, the evil boy next door. He’s presented as an all round toy nemesis, a very clearly defined villain; but the more I watched him in action, the more I realised that his ostensibly destructive play is in fact highly creative – particularly when compared to that of Andy, the ‘good’ boy.

When Andy plays, he stays entirely within the pre-created narratives that come packaged with his toys. In fact, the film defines his relationship with his toys in such commercial terms that his shift of allegiance from Woody to Buzz is signalled by the appearance of Buzz Lightyear merchandise (a duvet, posters, and so on) all over his room. Andy hasn’t made a new friend; he’s brought, very uncritically, into a new franchise.

Sid, by contrast, is a natural hacker. He refuses to accept any sort of pre-defined narratives, instead fitting toys into his own, completely unrestrained imaginative world. For Sid, bolting a Pterodactyl’s head onto the body of a doll in order to heal it makes perfect imaginative sense; and in fact, as he does so, we see that his commitment to the craft of toy hacking is such that he has a full set of remodelling tools in his bedroom.

And the Pterodacdoll is only one example of Sid’s creativity. The creatures that live around his room (a robot spider supporting a shaven doll’s head, a pair of legs that animate a fishing rod, a walking car, and so on) are equally striking, equally surreal. Where Andy’s imaginative world is defined (and limited) by preset narrative franchises, Sid is a kind of pre-pubescent cross between Max Ernst and W. Heath Robinson.

But, without exception, his ferocious imaginative drive is presented as a destructive force. The toys are terrified of Sid; he’s constantly upsetting his sister; he’s a major threat to Woody and Buzz; and all of this builds to one of the film’s key climactic moments, which comes when the toys defeat him.

Woody’s speech to Sid at this moment is worth quoting in full. Coming to life in Sid’s hand, Woody says (unsurprisingly, in a very menacing way): ‘We don’t like being blown up, Sid, or smashed up, or ripped apart… Take good care of your toys – because, if you don’t, we’ll find out, Sid. We toys see everything. So PLAY NICE!’ (my punctuation).

In effect, what Sid is being told is ‘Don’t redefine your toys’ – don’t hack them, don’t remix them according to your own imaginative or creative needs. In this context, ‘PLAY NICE’ means ‘Play within the pre-determined parameters of your toys’ – or, more precisely, ‘never replace the story we sold you with the stories you can make for yourself’. And that’s the point at which the film’s fear of remix culture is most evident.

Of course, you might think I’m reading too much into the film; that I’m finding a conservative subtext where none exists, or that I’m overstating the extent to which rights holders seek to protect their properties by preventing them from being remixed. But in fact this kind of mashphobia is very real, and very pervasive.

Don’t believe me? Check out Lawrence Lessig’s opus ‘Free Culture’, or Cory Doctorow’s more recent book ‘Content’. Both are available for free download from these links, and both are very absorbing reads. Or, you can watch Lawrence talk here:

Or just take a wander round the internet; whether it’s Sony protecting AIBO code, publishers battling with Harry Potter fan-fic writers, Fox preventing The Simpsons from appearing for a couple of seconds in the background in a documentary about staging Wagner, or Warner Bros issuing cease and desist orders protesting fair use of its musical properties, fear of the remix is everywhere.

But Purefold content contains and endorses no such fear. All Purefold content is going to be issued under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license, in effect allowing anyone to do anything they want with it, as long as they properly attribute Purefold content and release their new creations under a similar virus.

That means that Purefold is encouraging us to all become Sids; to become people who take what’s out there, whether professionally created or otherwise, and then repurpose it according to our own creative needs and drives.

It’s the anti-Toy Story; and, in thus being, it shows that it understands the form and function of the new world of media that digital culture has enabled far more than the Pixars and the Foxes of this world, and is willing to engage with that world in a way that’s at once entirely disruptive, and entirely democratic.

Dynamic geographies in action

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.

Here Come 45 Social Propositions

Well, it’s been a fascinating few hours at Disappearing Towers, because I’ve been pondering Andy Gibson’s ‘45 Social by Social Propositions’, where he defines ‘a set of fundamental principles to follow to help make a social technology project successful’, and invites people to engage with / comment on / remix them.

I’ve never been able to resist a good tinker, so I decided to give them a light remix – partially just because fiddling with things always helps me understand them better, and partially because I always have a bit of a problem with unbroken down lists.

I find them a bit hard to take in, because the structure behind them isn’t always easily evident. And, if you’re looking to explain them to people, everything can become a bit repetitive, because you’ve got no other option than talking through list entries one by one. You can’t generalize, because you have no broad areas to generalize about.

Of course, that’s not to say there’s no structure behind Andy’s 45 propositions; in fact, I think he’s structured them around a well though out process of project development and execution – but I only realised that after I’d spend a while pondering them (and I could of course be quite wrong).

Anyway, I’ve also just been reading Clay Shirky’s rather fascinating ‘Here Comes Everybody’, so I decided to crossbreed them with Shirky’s definition of the three core factors that sit behind any social media project – ‘a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users’.

By promise, Shirky means the ‘why’ of participation; the offer of a benefit or set of benefits that ‘creates the basic desire to participate’. By tools, he means (unsurprisingly) the social media software or formats that will help people buying into the promise get together in the most constructive way. And by bargain, he means the basic culture of the social group; the norms that will be put in place by its creators, or generated by its members.

As I was doing this, I noticed something else. Some of the propositions seemed to me to be thematically very close, so I tried to group them together. Doing this, I began to end up with what were almost mini-haikus; little three or four line proposition sets, where individual propositions started to bounce off each other and create interesting, evocative new meanings.

So, without really meaning to, I created something that began to read a little like a social project / social media poem. Hopefully you’ll find it stimulating; so, without more ado, here’s my Gibson / Shirky / Robertson mash up, which if I were a DJ or similar I would probably call:

Here Come 45 Social Propositions

Why should people be interested?

You can’t force people to volunteer
Build it and they may well not come
The world is a noisy place

Go where people are
Learn to listen before you start talking
Put your energy where their energy is

Content is king
Be realistic about who will create content
Enthusiasts are more important than experts

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

How do they engage?

People make technology work

Design for real people
Don’t jump for the tool
Know your limits

Keep it simple
Start small
Be a pirate

Keep it messy
Don’t centralise, aggregate
Keep your powder dry

Empty rooms are easier to redecorate
Don’t forget the tables and chairs
Throw a good party; be a good host

Planning ahead is hard
No-one knows anything
Expect the unexpected

You can’t learn to fly by watching the pilot
Eat your own dogfood
Failure is useful

Start at the top
Someone has to pay
Don’t confuse money with value

What are the terms of their engagement?

People want control
Your users own the platform
Empowerment is unconditional

Respect how people choose to communicate
Let people solve their own problems
In user-centred design, everyone is right

Never assume, always ask
Say thank you in public
Be consistent

All energy is good energy
Sunlight is the best disinfectant
Give up on the illusion of control

How the Terminator broke my reality

Right, I’m confused about reality. No, really – a Warner Bros online marketing campaign has triggered an existential crisis, brought on by too much metafiction! Seems peculiar, but it’s the truth. Let me explain…

Warner Bros are currently winding up for the release of the rather groovy looking Terminator Salvation – official website here. As part of the campaign, they’re putting groovy viral material out online.

I came across that part of the campaign through the Skynet Research twitter feed, which then led me to the Skynet website, and then this more overtly promotional resistance site.

A key – and, I thought, fictional – figure in the resistance is someone called Bre Pettis. He’s been posting various Youtube videos documenting his increasing horror at Skynet – this is the latest one:

So far, so standard; we’ve seen this kind of thing before with Cloverfield, with Watchmen, and so on. But yesterday, Bre triggered my existential crisis.

Tooling around on Bad Banana blog yesterday, I found this – a set of 1930s warnings about how not to electrocute yourself. It’s just the kind of thing they put up, and a rather wonderful little piece of graphic history.

Digging around, I realised that it’s part of the Bre-niverse; it’s one of his Flickr sets, and links back to his blog. Thematically, it fits beautifully (and very subtly) with his anti-Terminator paranoia. Rooting around on his Flickr feed, I found lots of robot-related pictures, plus some interesting personal stuff.

‘Wow!’, I thought, very impressed, ‘Warner Bros have really fleshed this character out!’ And of course, I was pretty stunned by the reach of the Terminator Salvation promotional material; it is – I thought – so well put together that it’s appearing on blogs like Bad Banana, quite independently of any mention of the film.

That set me thinking about the kind of background information that the web helps film makers put out. Ever since the original Blair Witch Project campaign, the film industry’s been using the web to enhance films by providing additional backstory, character information, gaming experiences, etc.

These kind of transmedia narratives achieve a certain kind of marketing nirvana; they both enrich viewer experience of the movie in a very real, very satisfying way, while encouraging those viewers to spread information about the film to their friends and associates.

An ideal state of communications co-operation is reached; film makers get publicity and commitment from core fan communities, while fan communities get really cool stuff that they can both enjoy in itself and get kudos by sharing. The new media promotional ideal is achieved, and everyone’s happy.

Anyway, back to Bre. He’s so convincing! And that set me wondering – as I headed over to his website, to catch up on the news from the future – about the limits of the transmedia covenant – about the ethics of creating fictional on-line personae.

At what point do you let people know that they’re engaging with the unreal? Is the Terminator campaign so subtle that the Bad Banana folk themselves had been taken in, leading them to spread promotional material as if it was a real, historical artefact? What are the ethics of augmented reality? What can we learn from Orson Welles?

And then I reached Bre’s blog – and that’s where my existential, metafictional crisis began. Rooting around on it, moving beyond the prominently displayed Terminator material, I began to realise that he’s a real person! Who really exists!

And that completely freaked me out. For the last few weeks, following Terminator content online, I’d been assuming that he was a character in a story, played by a reasonably convincing actor – an effective fictional representation of a certain kind of technology guru.

But he’s real! And that made my head explode! Because all of a sudden, I’m living in Philip K. Dick-world, where nothing’s real but what is not. That confusion between fiction and reality is one of the unique properties of transmedia narratives, where unreality piggybacks on reality to create something utterly engaging and entirely new.

And that – wondering where the joins are – is all part of the fun. And, of course, the fact that Bre can be so convincingly absorbed into Terminator-world is simultaneously a tribute to a truly magnificent bit of real person casting, to a great performance from Bre himself, and to the subtlety and coherence of the broader Terminator viral material.

On becoming an organisation

In his late 50s essay. ‘A Process Conception of Psychotherapy’, noted American psychologist Carl R. Rogers laid out a for-the-time revolutionary theory of how patients progress through the therapeutic process. That essay remains very resonant, often in surprising ways. Re-reading it the other day, I was struck – for example – by how it delivers some really interesting insights into what marketing (and by extension, organisations) should be in our modern, web-fuelled world.

In the essay, Rogers posits two extremes of psychological health. At the unhealthy end, patients are rigid and restricted in their responses to life, testing any new experience against their pre-existing belief and response systems, and only engaging with that experience if it’s in accordance with those systems. They perceive their self to be a static structure, and understand anything that might force change on that structure to be a deep, destructive threat to their very being.

At the other extreme are the healthy – in Rogers’ terms, those who experience the self as a set of ongoing processes, responding flexibly and spontaneously to life as it happens. They welcome new experiences and inputs, and are happy to modify beliefs and behaviours in response to them. As a result, they experience daily life as something consistently positive and stimulating, rather than as something consistently negative and threatening.

Rogers felt that his therapeutic duty to his patients was to help them move away from the former state, and toward the latter. The body of the essay deals with that process, and seeks to understand how it works. Read from the point of view of a marketing professional in 2009, it takes on a very different meaning. It becomes a way of understanding two different definitions of what marketing is, and how it functions within the modern corporation.

Marketing’s role used to be fundamentally expeditionary; heading out into the at best unknown, at worst hostile, worlds of consumer-dom, and returning with treasure – de-contextualised insights, that could safely be fed into the body corporate without overly destabilising or unsettling it. This process was defined as being ‘the consumer’s representative within the business’ – a definition that confirmed the powerlessness of the consumer. Consumers could never themselves be present in the business; they could only ever be represented by a small group of marketing professionals.

Social media has changed that by removing the need for marketing explorers. It allows consumers to talk directly with the businesses that interest them. The point of interface has changed; live conversations between consumers and business representatives can happen on any screen, anywhere within the business, through blogs, Facebook, messageboards, Twitter and so on. The way in which those conversations can take place has also changed. Again thanks to social media, it’s much easier for consumers to form self-organised – rather than marketeer organised – groups, to pool their influence and bring it to bear on a particular business in a particular way.

So, consumers can be directly present within the business, either individually or en masse, in ways that were impossible until very recently – and without any kind of marketing mediation. That change means that marketeers now have a new role to play. No longer explorers, they have to become hosts; rather than going out to find consumers, they have to discover new ways of welcoming them into their companies, and ensuring that those companies can constructively engage with these (one hopes, honoured) guests in as positive and direct a way as possible.

Rogers’ essay helps understand the terms of that change. The most successful businesses will be those that – in Rogers’ terms – move towards health; that are able to quickly and effectively sort and respond to input as it comes in, rather than forcing it through pre-determined channels that exist to ensure that the status quo is maintained regardless of external conditions.

Some brands already understand that. Ben and Jerry’s regularly carry user created ice cream flavours. Innocent began with a question to their consumers, and since then have made their brand as much an experience to be interacted with as a set of drinks to be bought. Amazon couldn’t exist without its user-contributed reviews – and, even as I type, are being hauled over the coals by user groups outraged by #amazonfail; neither the Wispa bar nor HSBC free student overdrafts would exist without a Facebook-based consumer campaigns that brought them back from (respectively) chocolate and banking heaven. Microsoft’s Channel 9 encourages direct engagement with its users. Dell’s Ideastorm website allows Dell users to directly impact on the way that Dell makes computers – and so on.

But that’s only a start. Rogers doesn’t just talk about a change in attitude to the world; he describes a structural change in the self, a complete rethinking of what it is to be a person. The depth of that change is hinted at in the title of the book the essay’s published in; ‘On Becoming a Person’. But I haven’t been using it to talk about people; I’ve been using it to talk about organisations. So, I can’t help wondering what kind of ideal business unit a book called ‘On Becoming an Organisation’ would describe; and I can’t help feeling that we’re seeing the beginning of a process now that will – over the next few years – help us find out.