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Friday, 27 January 2012

A brave new (digital) world?

By Gauri Mahtani, Consultant, ReputationInc

Re-reading my colleague Jonathan’s fascinating insight into the world of Eastman Kodak, I cannot help but smile at the thought of a global business head convincing his audience that he was going to “drive [digital] back into the sea”.

Admittedly, it’s much easier to snigger with hindsight firmly on my side. That global leader was not alone in articulating a prophecy which would eventually prove to be completely off the mark.

In 1943 for example, Thomas Watson, then chairman of IBM, predicted a world market for five computers.

Even more bizarrely (in my opinion at least), in 1962, Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles, claiming that guitar music was on the way out.

I could go on, but if your interest has been piqued, Wikipedia probably has an entry on incorrect predictions. If you’re really interested in the subject, there’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a plethora of other social media platforms for you to share your views on fallible futurists. The myriad of possibilities which digital technology and the internet have opened up – from the personal to the political – are relatively well known, well understood and well documented.

Which is why last week’s virtual protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) didn’t surprise me. It’s one thing to be prepared for future challenges and opportunities (more on that another day), but what if the future is NOW?

Digitally mobilising grassroots support, in the manner seen last Wednesday, is far from a weak signal or emerging trend. It is a current reality which has major implications on corporations and legislators alike. Which is why proponents of SOPA and PIPA should have seen the protests (and its potential impact) coming.

Thanks to the protests, I spent a very enjoyable lunchtime on Wednesday doing the following:

Following Guardipedia, the Guardian’s tongue-in-cheek antidote for readers suffering from Wikipedia withdrawal symptoms

Congratulating myself on figuring out how to circumvent the Wikipedia blackout

Skimming through countless Facebook posts and Twitter feeds (The most scintillating of which are too rude to repeat)

But I digress. Beyond being gleefully distracted and amused, the protests testify to the changing dynamic of lobbying and campaigning processes, and the increasing role of social media in galvanising grassroots support.

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not for a moment advocating that legislative processes have previously operated in a vacuum, or that public sentiment and scrutiny or consumer-led activism have not figured prior to the digital revolution.

However, new technologies have undoubtedly amplified the speed, scale and impact of getting one’s message across, reaching out to key influencers and opinion-formers, and galvanising grassroots support in general, with its attendant risks and opportunities. A multitude of new terms have been coined to describe this phenomenon (ranging from social lobbying to e-campaigning and e-activism) and with them have emerged an equally diverse range of perspectives on the effectiveness, ubiquity, cohesiveness and longevity of online activism.

One thing is certain though. Last week’s ‘watershed moment’  could have easily been anticipated, and even prevented. The signs were all there – in the here and now, and not even in a remotely distant future.

Questioning whether the drafting of SOPA and PIPA is well-intentioned is a moot point. Online piracy is a serious issue, and demands a serious solution. And in today’s environment, it is more important than ever to craft such solutions by listening to multiple stakeholders, engaging in constructive dialogue and engaging experts. No matter how sophisticated one’s traditional lobbying tools may be, antagonising and excluding key players is no longer a viable option. As a contributor to Forbes tellingly noted, after last Wednesday, “the time for constructive dialogue, which Congress and industry groups had overtly snubbed all year, was over”.


  1. You have a point but opinions from the public can be diverse, disparate and make total sense. It is going to be a great challenge to sieve through them and figure out which signals will work in everyone's interest.

    1. Thanks for your comment - Absolutely true and it is a massive challenge.

      There are some interesting horizon scanning techniques out there which aim to help you pick out critical signals from all the "noise" in such a massive sea of information.

      There are other tools, like sentiment analysis, which can also help you in decision-making processes.

      The whole process is more of an art than a science though, and while it is challenging, I think an important first step is to be equipped to challenge one's own assumptions and to envision different future outcomes.

  2. I cannot more on the point you make on speed, scale and impact. We are just at the beginning of the revolution in how digital platforms are transforming the way people interact and engage - governments and companies will rise or fall depending on if they can manage this well.