Be the (online) change you want to see

In an absorbing online lecture, CIPR 2018 President’s Medal Award winner David Weinberger revisits the web’s founding values and reveals how technology can and cannot impact human behaviour. The full the lecture is available to view at the end of this post. Here, Koray Camgoz explores some of its key themes.

This week marks the 29th anniversary since Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed a type of digital information sharing at CERN that came to be known as the web.

Much of the modern discourse surrounding the internet focuses on its capacity as a moral, political or indeed, societal threat – the antithesis of what Sir Tim and the internet’s early adopters had predicted. But is that the case?

Dr David Weinberger – co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto – was one of few who predicted the impact of the internet on business and wider society.

We’re social beings

One of the concepts that David and his co-authors nailed in 1999 was the idea that the web is a social space.

“We are on the web so we can talk with other people about things that matter to us, and do so in our own voice,” says David.

The concept might seem primitive but it’s a truth that even today – almost two decades since Cluetrain’s publication – many businesses fail to grasp.

“We’re not on the web because we want to be publishers or because we want to buy things. We want to talk with one another in our own voices and to talk about what matters to us, not what matters to merchants, not what matters even to news media.”

For marketing and communications types, Weinberger’s words take on biblical importance.

We’ve heard it many times since 1999 – the need for businesses to ‘be human’. But how many organisations persist with uninspiring means to promote their agenda? Smart businesses, David advises, find “new and conversational ways of engaging”. They back out of conversations at the right time and don’t insist on being the loudest voice in the room. They acknowledge the limitations of their products and services and enter market conversations with humility.

Audiences vs publics

Public relations theorists stress the importance of referring to key stakeholders as ‘publics’, rather than audiences. There’s good reason for that.

The word ‘audiences’ suggests ‘we’ll talk and they’ll listen’. The term categorises stakeholders as passive and encourages one-way communication. ‘Publics’ cultivates a more democratic approach, one that acknowledges stakeholders as active groups – each with their own with interests, ambitions and desires. David reflects on the importance of terminology impeccably.

“If you’re targeting somebody, that’s like an act of war. If that’s your terminology, you may want to think about what your relationship is to your market. That’s not comfortable for anybody.”

Trading on trust

For David, the fundamental question businesses must answer is “Are you making the place better?”. If an organisation is increasing sales at the cost of eroding customer trust they’re “making the place worse”. For public relations professionals, this issue often manifests in the clear labelling of third party endorsements. The public have a right to know the difference between authentic endorsements and paid-for content and any attempts to blur the lines diminishes trust.

As David argues “Paid content that tries to maybe get mistaken for real content trades on our trust and makes us trust the news sites or media sites less”.

Did the internet really lose its way?

In modern society, the common narrative dictates that the internet has lost its soul. Big business moved in, commercialised free spaces and restricted our use of the web. Facebook is often used to evidence this shift because of the way it dictates people’s use of the internet. But is such a cynical view really warranted?

David argues that even in Facebook – an environment that is controlled meticulously by a small group of people – the values of the internet are alive and well.

“You learn that there are billions of people who are connected one to another in this vast network and learn that you can move through this network. You learn that you have a voice, that what you say can be heard by anybody on the planet. You have the sense that there is this web, in Facebook and outside of Facebook, of unending ideas that are connected person to person.”

The benefits of the modern web don’t stop there. It’s easy to forget how difficult it was to access basic information only thirty years ago. David offers a compelling example of how privileged we’ve become in this respect.

“Just imagine, when I grew up, we got a newspaper thrown on to our stoop and I’d read the newspaper, as my parents did every day. If you came across an article that was interesting to you and you wanted to know more about it, there was nothing, literally nothing you could do about it. You got this rectangle of information. That was it.”

Whether there was scientific discovery you wanted to know learn more about, or a political scandal you wanted the details on, additional information was simply unavailable. That scenario seems unimaginable in today’s world.

The power of humans

Examining the values of the web’s architecture helps us to appreciate that the internet is by no means corrupting society in the way we’re often led to believe. The internet provides a platform for us to be human. It’s an outlet for bad impulses but it also gives good impulses, character, and ideas an opportunity to manifest in a way that wasn’t previously possible.

David’s final message summarises this concept perfectly.

“I do think that the Internet is shaping us, but not because technology is our master and shapes and controls us, but because it has enabled us to be more of who we are and we’re not going back.”

The internet’s advancement is inevitable. But what does David believe to be the driving force behind its progression?

“It’s not the tech, it’s us. It’s our spirit, our commitment, our joy, our creativity, our desire to connect with other people.”

David Weinberger, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls were recently awarded the 2018 CIPR President’s Medal. More


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