Andy Warhol said that in the future we will all be famous for 15 minutes. George Orwell predicted constant surveillance. Maybe it’s only with hindsight that we see these two things as inextricably linked: our “fame” always comes at a price.
Online social networks offer us free connectivity and the ability to broadcast edited versions of our lives. In exchange, we give them our data. Trouble is, the details of this contract have never been clearly articulated or explained, much less negotiated.
Last week I went to Facebook’s new office in London for a Design Jam. The Design Jams are open innovation – a series of hackathons to help Facebook users better understand, improve and navigate the legal complexities of its website.
Facebook is understandably concerned that it may be losing younger users and that hours spent on the platform are declining. Last week’s event focused on data transparency for young people.
Words like “collaboration”, “community” and “engagement” are used frequently in organisations, but check the subtext – you may find they’re little more than sticking plasters on the same old creaky top-down, hierarchical models (or, worse still, a deliberate ploy to distract from real, less inclusive, agendas).
Eliane Glaser’s recent RSA talk on How to de-spin a party conference (a topical take on her new book) looked at the way people – specifically politicians but also brand managers and marketers – appropriate the language of “social” business into traditional “business as usual” models.
Glaser’s critics describe her as a conspiracy theorist, and it’s easy to see why. She paints a picture of a Matrix-like world where we are all kept happy with rustic, homespun consumables while just below the surface rumbles a monstrous, corporate machine dedicated to serving a wealthy elite. This machine cares nothing for the long-term welfare of humankind – in fact, it will ultimately destroy it.
If you presumed for a moment that this was true, you’d find yourself in good company: it’s a familiar argument used by environmentalists, NGOs and the Occupy movement. You would find that George Orwell and Larry and Andy Wachowski (creators of The Matrix) were right: if only we could wake up from our mass prole-like sleepwalk, we might see the horror for what it is and build a better world.
Glaser’s book is a call to arms: a manifesto for revolution. If you take her anger on (and be warned, she’s quite persuasive), you may find yourself dusting off your student copy of the Communist Manifesto and questioning the painfully slow evolution of business.
But as Francis Fukiyama wrote in The End of History (and Glaser herself admits), revolution ain’t what it used to be. The “workers” have been seduced by Sky TV and warm shopping malls. The language of “isms” has long since disappeared from everyday conversation. Unemployed teenagers are interviewed on TV saying their sole aim of rioting was “to get free stuff”.
Glaser’s argument is that we are unable to articulate what we want. We are doing a lot of talking (on social media). It is up to us to make it meaningful.
Brands are trying to appear more ethical, and that’s a good sign. We forget that social computing is still relatively new – to some extent we’re like children playing with a new toy. When a child first starts to speak, they imitate. And that is what the big brands are doing now – imitating. Some are doing more than that, they are following through – they are actually creating more ethical businesses.
The great thing about social media is that we now have the tools to hold the non-ethical businesses to account. So, what are we waiting for? Bring on the social revolution!