The Next Revolution?

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Imagine if you could arm your browser with a filter that selectively kept marketing information away from you. Obliteratethe ads. Delete the search results. White-out the babble of angry or ersatz reviews.

What if faux ads and social campaigns destroyed real marketing, revealing the facts and falsehoods through spot-on and sometimes hilarious content that looked just like the real thing?

If an online community of people sharing interests in anything — from movies to food — organized to effect change in the real world on topics other than movies and food, would you join it?

All of this and more is happening right now. If the idea of an online network and putting marketing content onto it was revolutionary, I wonder if we’re seeing the nascent beginnings of the next revolution.

What prompted this thought were the anti-Murdoch site blockers I read about over the weekend on BoingBoing. You can run these plug-ins on Firefox and Chrome and either miss or get a warning when you come to one of the sites his News Corp. controls. It’s primarily making a point, of course, but it represents a far bigger idea.

The Big Kahuna for online marketing has always been control. We can be happily distracted by funny videos and friending brands, but the real money is in controlling what consumers experience and what they’re allowed to do with it. This is why Google makes billions from selling ads and search rankings, and how Facebook and every other “social” technology promise to make billions more from managing what people say about products and services, and then teeing it up for other people to make buying decisions (though first selling it to marketers to sponsor and otherwise piggyback on it).

Have you noticed recently how personalized and localized the ads you see on, say, your home page have gotten? This control has been cast as a consumer benefit because it’s supposed to make shopping faster and easier, but it’s really a narrowing of our perspectives and a limitation on our choices. The marketers want to tell us what we should access (and it’s usually inane marketing content) and what our choices should be (usually to interact with them in meaningless conversations about their marketing content, and to flame or otherwise distrust one another).

We’re not online to be consumers; though we might consume, we’re there first and foremost for information, and whomever (or whatever) controls the information controls the consuming. Go read George Orwell’s 1984 and substitute “brands” for “Big Brother,” and you’ll get an idea of what’s really going on these days.

Institutions owned the last revolution. I wonder if we’re seeing the start of a revolution that everyone else will own?

The latest AT&T/T-Mobile spoof ads deliver information that those brands don’t want shared publicly or effectively. The Yes Men’s Chevron ads did the same thing to that brand’s inane “We Agree” campaign earlier this year. Anonymous activists put stickers on Barclays’ bike sponsorship in London that turned its branding into billboards for its corporate irresponsibility.

An online group called the Harry Potter Alliance is organizing its members to get involved in a variety of real-world issues, such as child labor, which goes far afield from what that brand would have told them to do.

Services like ProPublica provide perspectives and organize data so that people can better understand corporate behavior, certainly in ways that companies never imagined such information would be shared.

It’s not such an imaginative leap to ponder other tools that would empower consumers to reassert their citizenhood and wrest control of information back from businesses and institutional authority. What will prompt this revolution will be greater and more pointed awareness of just how much of the mediasphere is controlled, either by brands telling us what they want us to know, or in teaching us to consume only entertainment and otherwise distrust one another.

News Corp.’s recent woes and the site blocker software are a great example of what might be coming down the pike. Maybe more frequent and pointed examples of what control means will similarly be used as prompts to change our behavior. There are a number of peer-to-peer communities that already exist under the radar, allowing people — not consumers — to share information in a trusting environment (think less friending and more factual exchanges). I guarantee that they’re buying things differently, not to mention making decisions overall based on different criteria than what vested business interests would like.

The day when you can take control of your browser and tell it what you want to know may not be far away. It won’t be an assertion of your consumer rights. It’ll be an affirmation of your rights as an individual and a citizen, and how brands respond to this emerging reality will require a complete reexamination of how they define and deliver their communications.

Maybe the next revolution has begun?

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