Excerpt from the Times, 20th November 1997:
An elderly couple drove nearly 100 miles from Portsmouth to BBC Thames Valley Radio in Caversham, Berkshire, to visit their local web site. They had seen an advert inviting them to visit the BBC web site, and had imagined it was a building.
That was fourteen years ago, and the story stuck in my head as a classic example of how different generations view and experience things differently. [Incidentally, I tried to get to the original article in order to get the quote verbatim. Easier said than done. But I did find it quoted elsewhere.]
Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods.
One of the places where such clashes occur is the world inhabited by terms and metaphors, particularly when it comes to “transitional periods”. That’s probably why we get “bridging” terms like horseless carriage and wireless telegraph, somehow trying to define the new in the context of the old.
The Internet has been rife with strife in this regards: above and beyond the execrable series of tubes, the number of different metaphors used to describe the internet itself probably exceeds the population of China by now. The importance of metaphor was impressed on me by Doc Searls, who introduced me to the work of George Lakoff in this context; I had also had the opportunity to think harder about anchors and frames: an erstwhile colleague, James Montier, wrote often about these things from a behavioural finance and investment perspective; I’d also read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice early on, which brought these ideas into the popular domain.
Yet, despite appreciating the importance of metaphor, one particular controversy I have kept away from is that concerning the use of the terms “digital immigrant” and “digital native”. I was born a foreigner; such things don’t bother me any more.
That controversy, however, flared into life in a different shape in the latest issue of First Monday, a journal I have enjoyed reading since its inception. This article on the subject of visitors and residents, by David White and Alison Le Cornu, is well worth reading. Why did I find it useful? I’d never really been comfortable with the idea that “being digital” was somehow a function of your date of birth; I’d met too many digital Peter Pans for that to make sense. So the work by White and Le Cornu to fashion terms that were agnostic to age and background, while focusing on skill, motivation and context, made sense to me.
Which brings me back on to the subject of the social enterprise. The first time I read Cluetrain, page by page I found myself nodding like a car accessory, only worse: after all, I’m Indian — I nod for yes and I nod for no, with just a subtle change of nodding axis :-)
The images that Cluetrain evoked for me was that most enterprises were walled gardens, sometimes even fortresses, keeping everyone out: consultants, trading partners, supply chain, the lot…. and, most importantly, the customer. Companies had stopped conversing with customers, preferring to broadcast to them instead; relationships and conversations had fallen by the wayside while the focus on transactions grew. There were walls between the companies and their customers, and these walls would come down as the internet really took hold and created a class of empowered customer.
That was the promise.
But the reality didn’t live up to it. As firms migrated to the Web, they opted for the sledgehammer route when dealing with cyber security: fortress firewall was the order of the day, erected around the perimeter of the enterprise. Citizens were empowered by the web, two-way communications were available to all: but the enterprises didn’t want to play. The Web had apparently accelerated and enhanced the evils that Cluetrain focused on.
The consequences were predictable. Customers weren’t able to talk to companies, were denied the ability to form meaningful two-way relationships with those they traded with. Yet they had the tools to do so, they just didn’t have anyone to tango with.
So they did the only thing they could. They started talking to each other. And leaving the companies out of the conversation. (Now this was not because they wanted to leave the companies out of the conversation; rather, it was because the companies didn’t want to talk to them.)
These conversations were taking place where the customers congregated: the social networks. These conversations traversed the companies, their brands, their reputations, their products and services. They just didn’t include the companies as participants in the dialogue.
Things were therefore at a pretty pass, where, to stretch a point, you could imagine customers to be visitors in corporate cyberspace, while living in the social networks. If you look at the data that tells you where customers spend their time, it’s in the social networks. If you look at the data that tells you where the volume of conversations takes place (for example, comparing email volume to social network volume), it’s in the social networks. If you look at the tools and apps customers use on their mobile devices, it’s in the social networks.
Mountains and Mahomet time. So it made sense for companies to go to where the customers resided. Except now there was a big difference: this time, it was the companies who were the visitors, not the customers.
More to follow.