Long ago, before Facebook and Twitter; before MySpace even, there were simple html-rendered pages and IRC, and forums devoted to everything from discussing the finer points of Klingon grammar, to the very first pro-ana boards. Long ago, people were talking.
They were having multiple, myriad, overlapping and multidimensional conversations about the things they loved to talk about. With people who understood them. And even better, wanted to hear what they had to say.
Every misfit, freak, and geek, found a place to call home. Where their values were valued. Even the most fringe found a flock, was drawn into the embrace of a fold.
The United States of the internet
And so the internet brought acceptance. And millions felt loved and valued and put their titles and their labels aside to become the denizens of a world that connected them across geographies, time zones, cultures and races. Boundaries fell away, humanity grew in all its best and worst (mostly we hope towards its best, but we know better) and the heady anarchy of this space slowly resolved social systems, underpinned by like-minded communities. We had email addresses and instant messaging and web-based intranets and the beginnings of an economic system, and people being people, disagreed on all of it.
The flame wars
Forum moderators worked hard dousing flame wars while factions hurled fighting words. But the disagreements melted away, the forums grew quiet, the moderators slept more at night and went back to their paying day jobs.
Peace and love and government
And then, more humans joined the United States of the internet; with more interests and less tech savvy. Conversations around motherhood, fatherhood, cars, off-roading, health food, dieting — everything — proliferated on new forums, around new websites as those with commercial and personal interests harnessed open source and custom-built CMS to herald the call that “content is king”.
Publishing was still for the geeks, the rising blogger class and media houses and yet, lo, the Man saw that this was an opportunity to make much more money from advertising.
And user-generated content stepped aside for commercial content and pretty websites and we called it web 2.0 and digital marketing spend increased a lot more and control spread across the medium, and the world spun along.
Banners, buttons, pop-ups, rollovers and all manner of interrupters crowded our browsing experience, but we persevered and were rewarded with online shopping, banking, learning, videos, music and e-books. We clicked the irritating adverts and bought stuff and behaved, because we were all a little more grown-up and that’s what grown-ups do. Anarchy seemed long gone.
And then, things changed.
Someone, who — if all the things we’ve heard are true — was like those first misfits and saw something was missing; had been lost maybe. And he built it.
And all these new people with families and jobs and cars and lives beyond the computer screen suddenly felt compelled to ‘friend’ a colleague, or find a ‘friend’ from years ago across the globe. And those people friended more people.
And they didn’t need to know html, or be a journalist, or even want to buy something online; they just wanted to talk to someone and tell other people about what they were doing.
Social Media: talking, eating, drinking, laughing, singing, sharing
And they posted pictures and sent emails and ‘liked’ what their friends said and felt like they were accepted too, into this digital tribe, at last. They weren’t the freaks and geeks, but they too needed acceptance and conversations and places to vent. And finally, someone had made it very, very easy.
The only advertiser at the dinner table
And marketing saw these people living online just like they did in real life – and called it social, and joined these social spaces to also be heard and seen. Because those banners and buttons and interrupters were not being seen anymore, so they had to become visible again.
But they seem to be talking to themselves about themselves, only really paying attention to the real people surrounding them when they have a thing to sell.
But these people aren’t here to buy that stuff. They’re here, like long before, to talk about things that are important to them; their hopes, dreams, values. They again want to find acceptance and learn how to accept themselves beyond the messages they’re used to hearing.
What are you talking about? GTFOOH with that BS man!
You know those messages don’t you? You’re still creating them; the ones that say “buy me and you will feel happy, sexy, rich, thin”; the ones that tell them what they need to be, to be loved and accepted.
But they’re not really listening to you anymore because they believe differently now; they speak to others who are not perfect either and have begun to realise they will never be, so they pass on the product that promises them a shot at perfection, and love, because they know better.
And they only talk to you to tell you that you suck, because you lie (and yes you know you do); and make them feel bad (and you know you do this too) and put them into little boxes you have created to make selling to them easier (that sounds very familiar too hey?).
They don’t care what you think; they care what they think
They don’t care what your name is, or who your daddy is, or whether you think they should buy what you’re selling. They also don’t care what you think about them. They don’t care that you’re an agency, in PR, a media house, or any of those people who have always been in the business of shaping thoughts and needs. They too can do that; in fact, they seem better at it very often because they are truly — wait for it — authentic. They don’t do labels and they don’t expect you to anymore either. Get with it man; everyone has a camera phone. You don’t have the creative power anymore.
They’re wresting back that control that crept so invisibly across this world wide web of humanity; they’re telling you what they want and if you listen very closely, you’ll hear they want you to care.
Talk to me, so you can see, what’s going on
They want you to care about the things they care about; they want you to mirror their values; then they will talk to you without shouting at you so much.
Then they may trust you too, because instead of telling them what they are not, you are listening to them tell you what they are, and then, if you’ve really heard them, you will give them what they want.
The old order is back; the anarchy, the user-generated content, the fierce dissent, and this time, it’s not just those few freaks and geeks and misfits.
This time, it’s everyone.
Do you know what they care about enough to have a meaningful conversation with them?
Author | Aneshree Naidoo
Aneshree Naidoo has been on the internet for ten years; writing, editing and hanging around inappropriate chatrooms. But eventually she grew up and is now a freelance writer and copy editor. In her spare time she reads bad chick lit and good sci-fi, and works on a long-term wetware... More