The Internet is shifting everything we know and understand about privacy and communications.
Winston Smith was a civil servant with a unique job. Every day, he would go to the office and falsify records and political literature that would push forward the propaganda from the government. As his dislike of his job and his situation in life unfolds in the classic George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-four, his rage against the machine is symbolic and, ultimately, futile. That book, published in 1949, brought forward the very real concept of Big Brother – a world where the government is not only controlling each and every message we see, but also watching our every movement and breath.
While 2008 looks very little like Orwell’s 1984, there are some striking similarities. The Internet is shifting everything we know and understand about privacy, the news, and journalism. With a few simple clicks of a mouse, you can learn pretty much anything you need to learn about someone. Don’t believe me? Check out the profile of any twenty-something on Facebook. When you were growing up, that weekend bender with your buddies was a story that was only recounted as legend at reunions. Now, those stories live online forever through pictures, videos and blogs, with date stamps, comments from friends, and much more. In the end, it turns out we don’t have to be afraid of Big Brother, but rather each other.
Instead of waiting idly by for updates on CNN, many of the people "on the street" in front of the Taj Mahal hotel began using Twitter to give eyewitness reports about what was going on. Instead of a couple of news sources, Twitter created a virtual network of reporters who were feeding real-time information, updates and news to the entire world, in 140 characters or less.
The results were both fascinating and frightening.
This river of news streaming through Twitter added a complex layer to our understanding of "news" and "journalism." This unfiltered feed of information demonstrated what happens in a world where the mass media has become completely dis-intermediated. Essentially, Twitter and all of these citizen journalists used these free publishing platforms to cut out the media middlemen. And while the news was unfiltered, unsubstantiated and – at times – inaccurate, for the most part, we have never seen these two very distinct worlds of the big news media collide with the person on the street. In the good ol’ days (two years ago), the mass media would interview people on the street for these eyewitness accounts. Now, the mass media relies on Twitter feeds as the de facto source of information for live and "as it happens" moments. In a world where individual publishing platforms are free and big media newsrooms are increasingly expensive to maintain, we’re seeing a new era in which everyone (including you) has become a citizen journalist.
It’s a powerful shift.
Clay Shirky teaches New Media as an adjunct professor at New York University. He is also the author of an amazing new book called Here Comes Everybody – The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He summed up this new world best in an interview for a Time magazine article, The Beast With a Billion Eyes, in December 2006: "It’s hard to argue that a paparazzi is more of a photojournalist than the person who takes a picture of the London train bombing and uploads it."
There’s a new kind of website coming that illustrates this very powerful shift in communications. If you have spent time on the website TMZ or any other of the celebrity news and gossip sites, you have already seen how everyday people are becoming the paparazzi that Shirky describes. Whether it’s a racist tirade by Michael Richards in a comedy club or U2’s Bono looking a little too cute and cuddly with a woman who is not his wife on a remote island vacation getaway, everybody has the power to report and publish. Those mobile devices have little to do with making phone calls, but more to do with shooting pictures and video that can either be immediately uploaded to a website or – in some instances – streamed live to the world.
What would it take to leverage the power of everyone having a mobile device to keep tabs on all of the famous people?
How cool would it be to type "Angelina Jolie" into a search box and have her last known location immediately at your fingertips? What if you could simply activate your built-in GPS functionality to see which famous people are closest to where you are right now? Don’t shudder, this is not a vision of the future… this type of website is already on its way, and the technology to make it work has been around for a long while.
How long will it take for us to move from using this kind of technology to more mundane interests, like businesses or people we know and want to follow?
A key indicator would be to look at how quickly the online channel shifted from our interest in mass media to our interest in blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, where the real celebrities are our friends, peers and each other.
All of us are capable reporters, and when the tools are this cheap, it changes everything we know about communications, business and one another. How does your business really stack up when each and every one of your customers and employees has the ability to broadcast who you are, what you do, how you do it, and how that compares with your competitors to the world?
Nineteen Eighty-four was not supposed to be an instruction manual.
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:
Update: The Montreal Gazette also had a small side-bar called, Journalists or just eyewitnesses?, that is worth checking out too.