Media Concentration, Mind Share, Free Markets and Market Sharing

That’s a lot of ground to cover – so let me cut to the chase. I want to begin by picking up one topic from last week’s “Start Here” post: The bit about how Robert Reich called many Internet media companies too big. Somewhat oddly, the wikipedia.org article about Media Concentration doesn’t mention any of the companies singled out by Robert Reich – not even once. Wikipedia.org notes some „Debates and Issues“ associated with media concentration:

  • Commercially driven, ultra-powerful mass market media is primarily loyal to sponsors, i.e. advertisers and government rather than to the public interest.
  • Only a few companies representing the interests of a minority elite control the public airwaves.
  • Healthy, market-based competition is absent, leading to slower innovation and increased prices.

[the article also goes on to discuss other debates / issues, including e.g. „Freedom of the Press“]

In my opinion, it seems noteworthy that something which is very obvious to many commentators is nonetheless overlooked by wikipedia.org – I feel this seems like wikipedia.org may in fact be biased (note that wikipedia.org has received a lot of financial support from Google).

The notion that there might be a high degree of media concentration on the World Wide Web may appear rather implausible – after all, there are many millions of websites on the web. On most browsers, you can quite simply type in the names of these websites. Why don’t most people do that? Because most people are apparently not very literate when they use the web. Most people will type in one of just a few brand names – such as „Google“. So even though there is not – in fact – a great deal of media concentration on the web, there is indeed a very strong degree of concentration with respect to „mind share“.

Again according to wikipedia.org:

Mind share relates generally to the development of consumer awareness or popularity, and is one of the main objectives of advertising and promotion. When people think of examples of a product type or category, they usually think of a limited number of brand names. The aim of mind share is to establish a brand as being one of the best kinds of a given product or service, and to even have the brand name become a synonym for the product or service offered.

Almost universally across the globe, Google has nearly 100% of mind share when it comes to searching for information. The vast majority of most populations have been trained – even mesmerized – to think of Google whenever they use the World Wide Web to find answers to almost anything. Most people seem to have a similar level of trust in Google as they had in banks before the financial crisis of 2008.

Most people also still seem to have a similar sort of blind faith in something called „free markets“. This week’s news about the ICE acquisition of the IDC probably didn’t change that very much (even though it could have). With institutions that appear to have a „social“ function (whether banks or stock exchanges, or hospitals, schools or Google), many people seem to feel at a „gut level“ that there is some kind of community ownership involved – people seem to think that simply because they are stakeholders, they also have some say in how things should be done.

In fact, that is rarely the case. Indeed, in some cases the actual ownership structure and the actual decision-making structure do not actually align with each other. Just about a day after I wrote the „Start Here“ article last week, The Economist published an article ( „Reinventing the deal“) about how difficult it can be to bring these two structures into alignment.

Yet this is precisely what I feel a successful social business needs to do successfully in order to be a success: It must enable the members of a community to engage, each according to their kind and level of interest, and all towards a mutually beneficial outcome. Sometimes this may seem like a simple and straightforward case of matching „supply“ with „demand“ – of simply bringing together buyers and sellers of some product or service. Yet oftentimes it is far more complicated than that. It may be, for example, that a commodity like corn or oil may also raise issues related to the environment or other factors that have traditionally been referred to as „externalities“. It might even be more appropriate to say that the standard case is one in which any change that happens in the world will probably affect everyone, and not just two interested parties.

In my view, a social business must engage the involvement and participation of all stakeholders. Therefore, any social business requires some kind of organizational structure that can facilitate as much engagement as people are ready, willing and able to offer. These organizational structures may very well differ according to the kind or type of organization or business or activity (or whatever it may be).

To succeed, a social business needs to be open and transparent, not closed and proprietary. Increasingly, we see proprietary organizations holding proprietary secrets on the verge of failing. Banking institutions may have been among the first and most obvious of such cases, but there is little doubt that other gigantic companies with secretive business models will follow.

Last week I described a trend towards more and more entrepreneurship, towards more and more face-to-face engagement, and away from impersonal companies. Now I want to add an alternative approach – one that is more open to incorporating more contributions from a broader perspective: If we are able to build corporations in which each and every individual is able to not only manifest their own personality but also live out their own personal goals by engaging in such corporate enterprises, then we would have built something very personally empowering. If people can do this openly and transparently, then they will also be able to share their own personality with others (and vice versa). The lives of each and every person in the entire community could thereby be significantly enriched by sharing ideas, allowing each and every person to contribute their own expertise and know-how in a sort of „exchange“ towards an optimal outcome for each and every member of the community.

Such corporations do not need to be complex – indeed, they might not even need any corporate structure at all. There might be a middle ground to be found in the „small pieces, loosely joined“ tradition.

Yet I also need to underscore that even if the corporate structure required might be quite minimalist, there does need to be some assurance of who is responsible for what. In other words: transparency does not actually mean a complete lack of structure. Instead, it means that the organizational structure required must be adequate and sufficient to meet the needs of any individual to be adequately and sufficiently informed. This involves two kinds of „literacy“ requirement: Social and Individual. The social literacy requirement means that society must have rules that enable transparency. The individual literacy requirement means that individuals must understand how society’s rules work. Let me explain this with an example from „traditional publishing“.

In traditional publishing, books (and similar publications) have title pages and also imprint (also known as „impressum“) information. Society has developed the rule that there ought to be some kind of „statement of responsibility“ on the title page which describes who is responsible for creating the publication (usually referred to as the „author“). To qualify as sufficiently literate, an individual is expected to understand this (and also other information – such as when the publication was published).

In the „online“ world there are also rules society has set up for the statement of responsibility information with respect to domains. The nearly universal rule used in most cases is the one whereby any top level domain (TLD) registry is required to offer some way of looking up who is the registrant of any domain name (this is commonly referred to as a „whois service“). Although most people who use the Internet seem to be unaware of this method, it is usually considered to be sufficient. Above and beyond such whois services, there is also quite often information available from the website regarding the statement of responsibility for the site (this is commonly referred to as a site’s „about“ page).

About pages are not required. Nor are many other pages such as a „Terms of Service“ page, or a „Privacy Policy“ page. Such pages are also not standardized (though they often seem to be created from common templates). In many, probably in most cases, they are not read. The information is usually seen as only of interest to lawyers. Rarely, if ever, can an individual find information about his / her role in the organizational structure.

For example: A person who visits google.com definitely has a role. He or she is supposed to enter a string into a text box, and press „Enter“ or „Search“. In recent years, such an individual has also performed other roles – such as carrying a device that is able to provide location information, or taking pictures, etc. All such actions are roles the individual plays in providing Google with information. Many people do this, because they expect that Google will likewise give them information that might be useful to them.

However, in most cases the individual’s role is actually quite small. On most websites, the information provided is no more transparent to an individual than the Earth is flat. Of course websites vary to a large degree in this regard. Every user of Facebook, for example, has an About page. It may be empty, but if it were then that would be so primarily because they have decided to provide no information about themselves (or perhaps because they do not understand how to use Facebook).

Social businesses must focus on these issues. Making social engagement open and transparent is an imperative, not an option. Any business that shirks this responsibility will be passed by – just consider, for example, how much time people spend on Facebook versus Google. Many people consider Google to be a powerhouse – but when I think of Google, I think of a dying dinosaur (it may be as big as a brontosaur, but that size will do very little to help it survive).

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about these issues – what do you think? I think many of them are quite difficult to solve. More importantly, I think they must be solved socially – by communities of people working together to produce the world we want.

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