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Small is the Next Big Thing

In the past, the creation and transmission of ideas helped coordinate sophisticated activities like irrigation or architecture which shaped the development of entire civilisations.

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The introduction of the printing press to Europe was the first means of mass media distribution sparking a Reformation which encouraged public education, widespread literacy and, with the first native language Bible translations, the creation of modern western culture. Current shifts in online media may turn out to be similarly transformational.

For example, in a global market now dependent on creating and communicating information, where digital networks touch every major industry on the planet, the collaborative production of everything from open source software and encyclopaedias to consumer product reviews, virtual game environments and news reports by individuals starts to play a much more significant role in the economy as a whole.

In the 18th century, free thinkers and intellectuals exchanged ideas on the progress of science, philosophy and the arts in a network of private correspondence and public articles. In an Age of Enlightenment this became known as The Republic of Letters. Today we live in an Information Age where literate, educated individuals all over the world have the ability not just to communicate but also contribute to the creation of ideas and understanding. This change in the ownership of the means of production is creating a global Republic of Knowledge.

The fact is, what makes today's situation so different is not just that different technological forces are driving progress, but that these technologies (mobile phones, computers, internet connections, Web browsers) are now in the hands of the general population. Capabilities which were only available to the Big are now in reach of the Small, and change is being shaped by the behaviour of individuals and communities instead of just states and corporations.

There's more processing power in the average mobile phone than Nasa used to land a man on the moon in 1969. And media production facilities you could only find in multi-million dollar movie studios not that long ago now exist in the bedroom of any teenager with a connected laptop. These personal communications tools allow us to self-direct, self-organise and self-produce like never before, and we create a greater variety of smaller, more human-sized things in the process.

In short, a fundamental shift is taking place in the balance of power: away from the monolithic, the hierarchical and the centralised, and towards the miniature, the networked and the distributed. Internet technologies are pulling the social, political, cultural and commercial logic of the industrial era back into a different, smaller size and shape.

We're heading into a small new world where billionaires make their fortunes from invisible bits of data like market equities or software code when they once built empires with iron, steel and cement.

Where operating Big means using offices, policies, processes and salaries to concentrate professionals on achieving pre-set commercial objectives; bringing people to problems. While behaving Small brings problems to people by breaking something up into fragments, and handing it all over to as many different brains as possible to help solve.

It's a place of Small 'ad hocracies' within Big democracies; instead of existing solely as an organised assembly of citizens, virtual populations form and spontaneously co-operate as a collective force independent of governments. In fact, sometimes they do so specifically to oppose those in power. On January 20, 2001 President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines was deposed when a flash flood of text messaging synchronised and mobilised over a million such protestors.

It's a time when trust is moving away from Big, institutional authority towards the everyday and the ordinary. We're progressing from a period of monolithic, broadcast media where Warhol once thought people would be "famous for fifteen minutes," to a networked world of discrete groups with shared affinities where it's ok to be famous for fifteen people. And as these minor voices, captured in fifty million blogs and a trillion other online conversations, are amplified and made instantly accessible by search engines, what was once cult becomes popular culture and the marginal becomes mainstream.

Marketers that act Big still communicate to, rather than with, this emerging generation of what we might call ‘non-consumers' -- active participants in creating the services, arts, science and knowledge they share. Smaller-thinking firms understand that people respond to dialogue rather than monologue and relate to brands which speak and behave like individual human beings not remote, characterless corporations. By common consensus the honesty and integrity of ex-Microsoft blogger Robert Scobble managed to give even the "evil empire" a human voice and face.

"It's no longer good enough to be a mass media brand." said Anheuser-Busch executive VP Bob Lachky, trying to get his head around the thought of shifting 50% of all the beer sold in America by reaching fifteen people instead of fifty million at a time, "We have to learn how to sell small." An industrial distribution system geared for what internet entrepreneur, Joe Kraus calls dozens of markets of millions is giving way to a networked model of engaging with millions of markets of dozens. As Larry Light, former Chief Marketing Officer of McDonalds, the biggest of the Big brand marketers, summed it up: "The days of mass marketing are over."

Or, to put it all another way, 'Small is the Next Big Thing'.

Andy Hobsbawm is the European chairman and co-founder of Agency.com. 'Small is the Next Big Thing - the size and shape of commerce and culture' will be published by Atlantic Books Ltd in Spring 2008. A draft introduction is available to download from his blog: www.small-big.com

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