Unrestrained commerce. Soapboxes for every possible voice. Loud, endless arguments. False identities. Hidden agendas. Regulators chasing after the latest innovation. People thrown together in explosively novel, sometimes threatening ways, in a place where the rules of normal society don’t seem to apply.
Welcome to an early 17th Century marketplace. Replace the corsets with computers, and throw in regular bathing, and you have our experience of online conversation and commerce.
As I sit here pondering the last few days of the year, I’m struck by how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In fact, every generation thinks it lives on the cusp of a future that’s exceptionally unique. I grew up expecting to fly a PanAm space shuttle and sit on Scandinavian art chairs at the orbital Hilton. But then the future happens, and it looks a lot like the present. Time and place change, but what we do tends to stay the same. Replace newsreaders and IM with Victorian stock quotes and love letters in Morse Code, and there appear consistent behaviors, irrespective of differences in technology.
So my bet is that 2013 will look a lot like 1613 when it comes to how we interact with one another. Here are three predictions for next year:
First, communities will become meaningful, or they’ll disappear. Guilds were partially an organizational substitute for prior feudal communities run by nobles lording over serfs. Trades emerged during the Renaissance to harness application of new technologies, and unions organized to address changing social structures during the Industrial Revolution. All of these groupings got ever-harder to join, and required things of its members in exchange for real benefits (including dues).
Most brand online content creation strategies are ignorant of this history, since they’re focused on manipulating what marketers believe consumerswant instead of defining and providing things theyneed. The past suggests that there’s no such thing ascommunities of consumers who want relationships with brands, but rather communities of people who may (or may not) do things like produce or consume stuff. Everything else is a glorified distribution list.
Prediction: While lots of cash to get wasted in 2013 on beautiful and funny social campaigns that nobody really cares about, look for emerging brand voices that understand this truth.
Speaking of communities, I wonder if Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the other services in the online engagement ecosystem will face a hard truth: their monetization models are based on using ads (in various forms) to exploit their users, as if in tacit recognition that they wouldn’t pay a dime for their community membership if asked. This is the huge weakness underlying these services that leads, in part, to why every action to make money off of users tends to crap out their experience (remember what happened to MySpace).
Prediction: The established social platforms will continue to struggle with ads and other tricks while new sites will emerge that are organized to accomplish things…and we might see people pay to be members of those communities.
Second, mobs get replaced by order. The idea of self-regulating commerce (or conversation) has fascinated theorists forever (Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair toyed with the issue in 1614). Yet each time a free-for-all marketplace has emerged, people have developed objective authorities to manage it. Mobs blow up institutions and then build new ones.
I maintain that nobody finds more value in anonymous opinions online, but rather those curators of taste and recommendations are less valueless than the biased and untruthful spin that brands have been throwing at us for decades. Only we’re discovering that they are just as biased, if not more so. Pinterest has to cull a fifth of its accounts because they’re ersatz. Lots of product reviews are either “sponsored” or simply the creation of crazy people. Twitter followers can be bought in bulk, and most bloggers can be bought off in one way or another (and all march to their own, usually opaque standards and intentions).
Prediction: 2013 will see more disclosures of spin or outright manipulation of social platforms (and by individuals), and perhaps the emergence of real, transparent accountability standards for content creators. The days of anyone being an expert on anything could begin to wan?
Third, even the best theories return to reality. Practice has never lived up to the expectations of theory, yet the last few years have been filled with new marketing experts explaining the way things should be, especially when it comes to online behaviors. The very idea that any brand (or institution) should have a “social strategy” is laughable, considering every communications activity — if not operational actions overall — has been social since the first caveman oog’d through a hunting story by firelight. The only reason we talk about it differently is because there’s a loud and talented lobby telling us to do so.
After all, even those of us most intensely addicted to our smartphones still spend our lives in geophysical reality, and therein have a variety of other experiences, many of them mediated in one way or another. Maybe we don’t need special stand-alone social activities or components to marketing strategies…but rather a rethinking of operations and communications, taken together, as social behaviors? If we stopped talking about “social” and “digital” as if they were synonyms, it might really whack spending on consumer-facing technology platforms.
Prediction: Naw. The Social Media Industrial Complex took years to build, and it will continue to advocate successfully for more sign-ups and ways to get everyone to spend more time using its platforms (which make money therefrom, whether in outright development sales or that ad exploitation I noted above). Look for truly bold brands to do things like disband their social groups and embed them back into their marketing organizations or, even better, distribute them throughout their operations. Perhaps the best examples of marketing in 2013 will come from campaigns that aren’t described as “social?”
I truly believe that lots of what we observe isn’t really new as much as it is new to us. Four hundred years ago, some kid wearing ruffles and an uncomfortable codpiece saw a new, unprecedented future filled with change emerging from the chaos of an open-air marketplace that today is a paved-over parking lot. He just didn’t have a blog to narrate it.
When we try to understand the function and implications of experiences like online communication, we risk missing deeper truths — and actionable observations — because we’re enamored with the uniqueness of our own experience. My predictions for 2013 will be less overt than apparent to those of us who keep on the lookout for hints of real change.
We’re not the first ones to seek such clues. Happy New Year!
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