Crowdsurfing revisited

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A book on technology is out of date the minute the final draft manuscript is sent to the publishers. So, we revisit Crowdsurfing, the book we co-wrote 10 years ago, with a degree of nervousness. Have our comments, analysis and predictions stood the test of time?

The decision to write Crowdsurfing began, as do all the best projects, with a late-night, mildly intoxicated conversation in a bar. We were discussing the flurry of books celebrating consumer power – Here comes everybodyThe wisdom of crowdsWikinomicsThe Hughtrain Manifesto and Time magazine naming ‘You’ (i.e. us regular members of the public) as its cover person for 2006 – and wondered why no one had written a book exploring how organisations are responding to consumer empowerment.

Crowdsurfing gave us an opportunity to explore the empowerment phenomenon – was it as significant as people were suggesting and what impact would it have on business? Could a pissed-off individual bring even the largest corporations to heel? What was the role of new technology, especially a nascent social media?  Above all, would the ability to deal with new patterns of consumer behaviour and a willingness to ‘let go’ – what we labelled ‘crowdsurfing’ – become essential skill-sets for successful leaders?

This is how we described crowdsurfing organisations – ‘They have been smart enough to recognise that people around the globe – emboldened by a new spirit of enquiry and self-expression and powered by the Internet – have changed the rules of the game. They realise that letting go – giving their customers, partners and voters and employees a greater say in the way that their businesses operate – is, paradoxically, the most effective way to ensure a degree of control over their corporate or political destiny.’

Even when writing Crowdsurfing we were wary of the over-claim accompanying web 2.0, as typified by this line from Tapscott and William’s much quoted Wikinomics – ‘For individuals and small producers, this may be the birth of a new era, perhaps even a golden one, on a par with the Italian Renaissance or the rise of Athenian democracy.’

This sense of evangelism sounds terribly naïve in a post Trump and Cambridge Analytica world. The rise of fake news, trolls, cyber bullying and the misuse of our personal data has shattered any utopian perspectives of new technology as always being a force for good. In a foreshadowing of recent events, we criticised Facebook for allowing ‘brands to pump ads without user consent’ and described how a ‘consumer backlash’ forced the company to change its policy – it doesn’t sound like many lessons were learned in the intervening 10 years.

The rise of social media, which was in its infancy when we wrote the book, has forced many organisations to be more responsive, at least when it comes to customer service – we expect our tweeted or posted complaints to be answered within a few hours and can potentially engage in social media conversations with the powerful and famous (or more typically, the people managing their social media accounts). The growing use of social listening to inform strategic planning and messaging has also opened-up organisations to the views and perspectives of external audiences, even if this is largely invisible to the outside world.  But true power appears to have become even more concentrated in a handful of corporations, rather than individuals. They have made our lives easier in many ways – facilitating connections between friends and colleagues, opening up access to the world of ecommerce – but its is difficult to argue that, as consumers, we have been truly empowered.

When we wrote Crowdsurfing, many commentators were talking about consumer empowerment as a means of reviving the democratic process, as typified by this Al Gore quote from The Assault on Reason, ‘Fortunately the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by people in our constitutional framework … It’s a platform for pursuing the truth and the decentralised creation and distribution of ideas’.  Unfortunately, our politics over the past decade has been polluted by online manipulation and misinformation. The Arab Spring in 2010, powered in part by social media, gave us a brief glimpse of an enlightened, democratic future, in which power resided with the people, but the autocrats and dictators have learned how to leverage the technology for their own ends. In Crowdsurfing we celebrated Barak Obama’s use of social media campaigning as a model for the future, but Russian autobots, state-sponsored Chinese bloggers and Trump’s rabble-rousing are more representative of today’s political reality.

Our core hypothesis was that ‘relinquishing some control [the qualifier was important – we were not advocating ceding complete control]– encouraging a dialogue rather than a monologue and providing a means to participate’ would ultimately prove more effective for organisations and leaders in building trust and support.

We stand by that today.

Martin & David.

David Brain

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