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Embrace the Spirit of the Web, Not the Technology

We all know that the Internet has indeed changed the world dramatically.  It wasn’t a fad, it’s not going away.  However, it has been and continues to be a place where terrible ideas are encouraged to prosper. That’s the foundation of the web’s instability. As a marketer, I see this all of the time. People get so easily taken in by the promises of the technology that they fail to realize that the technology is not the point.

What’s behind the Web 2.0 craze, for example? Is it about technology? No! It’s about the spirit. What makes all things Web 2.0 so great is the spirit of community, of change, of collaboration. Ruby on Rails has nothing to do with it. AJAX has nothing to do with it. Flash-based video players have nothing to do with it either. Those are all technologies, and they are incidental.

What makes YouTube so world-changing isn’t the technology, impressive as it may be. YouTube’s brilliance lies in the community. It’s in the way that the community generates, responds to, categorizes, and ranks the content. The YouTube community IS YouTube. Yet I frequently see colleagues, both programmers and marketers, look at YouTube and say, "we can do that." They build YouTube clones for their clients. Instead of participating in the YouTube community, they see only the technology. Which is exactly why, tragically, they will fail.

The same thing is happening all across the board.

Take Google’s search, for example. Most people think Google’s brilliance is in their technology. It’s not. Their brilliance was in tapping into community wisdom when ranking websites. The more people link to a site, the better it ranks. Behind all the algorithms and the server farms, the secret to their success was tapping into the community.

Second Life’s brilliance is not their virtual reality platform.  Their brilliance lies in the fact that everything in-world, from buildings, to avatars, to events, to even their floating currency, is driven by the community. Linden Labs provided a platform, and not the most impressive one. It’s buggy, to say the least. But they let the Second Life community direct the entire project.

I could go on and on, naming one success after the next, but the point is clear: Technology is not what’s changing the world, though it does enable it. Communities change the world. Communities can take your brand to superstardom, or pummel it into dust. Communities make the difference between your latest campaign going viral, or going completely unnoticed.

No amount of technological sophistication is going to change that basic principle.

What’s a marketer to do about it? You can start by reviewing your ongoing projects:

  1. Do they involve any aspects that could be served by a community-driven platform? An obvious example would be video streaming which could be handled by a service like YouTube or Viddler. Photo galleries could potentially use Flickr. Regular articles could use a blog platform like WordPress and leverage the technology to make their content available in multiple formats and on a large array of websites, like Technorati or niche websites. Although you give up some control when using public platforms, you gain a new audience and allow users to embrace your content as their own. People get very attached to things they feel ownership over.
  2. Could certain features be transformed in such a way that would be friendly to community control? For example, if a website asks for feedback or customer reviews, instead of having these comments simply sent to your email box, have them immediately posted on a public forum. A great example of this is Amazon and how they encourage users to rate and review their books. By giving up control, you’re allowing users to cooperate in deciding what succeeds and what doesn’t. Which, again, gives them that precious sense of ownership.
  3. When entering a new platform that you are unfamiliar with, such as Second Life, do not be impressed by the technology.  Never, ever, allow yourself to get swept away by what you can do with the technology. Realize that the community is the driving force. Instead of creating massive islands to your own glory, instead ask yourself how you can help. Could you sponsor any events? Offer any expertise? Do you have anything to offer of real value to the community? Could any of your offline products or services be translated to this new platform?

The basic principle is this: Can you appeal to a community? If you can, no matter how much it may pain you to give up control, do it! The spirit of the web is communal. The entire reason the web works is because it connects us and renders everyone an equal. It’s not about technology. It’s about connecting as people. Don’t fight it. Or, better yet, do fight it and, as a result, make your competitor’s job a whole lot easier!