In the past week, two stories have emerged which demonstrate both the benefits and challenges of life in the every-fluid cyber-age.
The first dealt with the growth of collaborative consumerism.
According to the collaborativeconsumption.com website, the term refers to the ‘rapid explosion in swapping, sharing, bartering, trading and renting being reinvented through the latest technologies and peer-to-peer marketplaces.’
Interviewed on this trend by BBC radio last week, I said that it is perfectly natural for people to want to turn mass communication into mass collaboration.
I refer to the trend as the emerging ‘culture of collaboration’. It has powerful implications for everything from politics and business to science and exploration.
The drive to solve problems in a collaborative fashion is nothing new. What some now call the ‘Hive Mentality’ represents something that’s always been strong in human nature.
Intuitively, I think, we understand that the greatest problems we face as a human community will only be solved through collaboration rather than competition alone.
Perhaps we've become more aware of this need for open sharing in the wake of the Great Recession, coming as it did on the back of the destructive, inward-focused behaviour of some financial institutions.
The digital revolution, which began with Tim Berners Lee and the creation of the World Wide Web, now allows us to collaborate on a previously unimaginable scale. That’s especially so since the introduction of the ubiquitous ‘wiki’, the coding device that allows us to shape web services as we use them.
The wiki has given rise to what the online gaming fraternity has dubbed the ‘architecture of participation’. Whenever you or I use a popular website like Wikipedia, we face a liberating choice. We can come to the experience as consumers, or we can take on the role of co-authors.
Everyone from politicians to toy manufacturers is picking up on this principle.
President Obama was elected to office partly on the back of what is arguably the most successful viral brand in history: ‘Yes we can’. The most powerful and infectious word in that sentence is ‘we’. The slogan cleverly plugs into the drive for participation in the age of digitization.
Meanwhile, Nike has said it came up with the ‘Wii’ brand while trying to find a word that sounded like ‘we’. The O2 phone company picked up on the zeitgeist with its branding: ‘We’re better, together’.
Science, which has always been about collaboration, is also taking this to a higher level. Nasa is involving what it calls ‘Click Workers’; tens of thousands of public volunteers who’re carrying out basic scientific tasks on their computers at home. These amateur science buffs have, for example, helped process new images from the Mars Global Surveyor.
In business, there is a shift away from the pure consumer to the prosumer - the customer who can help a company fine-tune its products while using them.
Even the internet itself is becoming progressively more collaborative. The Cloud, the latest adaptation of the net, is driven by cooperation between the big players in the internet world – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and others.
Behind the drive for mass collaboration is what I call the Trust Revolution. It started with services like eBay: person-to-person online trading where the key currency is trust.
The same idea then spread to micro-enterprise lending. Sites like Kiva.org allow people in the developed world to loan small amounts of money to entrepreneurs who’re setting up Third World micro-enterprises. In effect, anyone can become a venture capitalist.
The Trust Revolution is also inspiring new forms of venture capitalism in the developed world. Crowd Funding allows entrepreneurs to gather relatively large amounts of investment capital from many smaller investors, again via the internet, on the basis of trust.
The other story to emerge over the past few days relates to a relatively new internet phenomenon called ‘planking’.
As the BBC News website has it, planking involves ‘people lying flat on their stomach in unusual and sometimes dangerous situations, and posting photographs on social media websites.’
Yesterday, a young Australian man fell to his death after balancing on a balcony railing during a planking session. A local police spokesman has warned that ‘as planking gains popularity, there may be more injuries and potentially further deaths.’
The Australian Prime Minister has called for the practice to be ‘banned’ – though how this could be accomplished when we’re dealing with the frontier-world of the internet is beyond me.
Planking reveals two things. The first is the need in some people to use social media as a platform for a little showing off. This is hardly a new behaviour pattern, but one for which we can now more readily find an audience via the internet.
It also demonstrates the awesome, innate creativity of young people. The fact that one case has ended in a death shouldn’t distract from the fact that most planking is fairly harmless and probably even quite inventive.
The very idea of planking as a form of expression is quirky. People lying on their stomachs for the camera; who’d have thought there’d be entertainment value in that?
I suppose the next thing we’ll see is ‘Plank-Mobbing’: hundreds of people gathering in public places to have a spontaneous mass lie down.
The key to understanding planking and why people do it is once again to understand the power of collaboration – especially, in this case, among the Millennial generation.
It’s not only about self-expression; it’s about connecting to something bigger than oneself, even if that something doesn’t actually amount to much in terms of producing change.
Planking is not just an exercise in vanity, a form of cyber-showing-off. It is an extension of a fundamental tenet of Digital Think - things work better, and are more fun, when shared.
In the age of Digital Think, people assume that information is going to be shared. With digital gadgetry has come a new vocabulary – and a new way of thinking. People expect that competitors will collaborate when it matters, to promote the common good.
Rather than banning planking, civic leaders and others should be looking for ways to tap the desire for mass participation which lies at its root.
Leaders need to be giving more thought to providing platforms on which people of all ages, ethnic groups and education levels can work together via online platforms – for fun, mutual profit and producing lasting change.
Hear Mal's BBC Radio interview on this subject