On Monday Leo Burnett Chicago closed its office for a day to immerse the whole agency in all things digital, with guest presenters from places like Google and Joost explaining their latest technology and opportunities. I tagged along for the ride.
The best part was a great opening talk by David Weinberger, one of the authors of the ClueTrain manifesto and one of the internet's village elders. He made many of the same points about markets being conversations that he's been making since the manifesto's publication in 1999, which only makes it all the more amazing to realize how much of the corporate world is still not listening.
One of his observations in particular resonated with me. It was about the fundamental difference on the internet between human conversations and corporate marketing: that human conversations on the internet tend to be open and selfless while marketing tends to be closed and selfish. This is a point that's often made but he illustrated it elegantly with a simple examination of hyperlinks.
On the average person's blog or personal website, there will be dozens of links, directing you to other interesting content the author recommends. This is such an obvious feature that we don't even notice it anymore, but it has deep meaning. This means that at every opportunity the author is trying to send the reader away. Rationally, that shouldn't be very good behaviour for self-preservation. But of course that openness, generosity and selflessness is very successful for self-preservation and even growth: it generates trust, builds relationships, and most importantly it is actually what makes the web work. After all, the link is the basic unit of the web, its ultimate currency.
Most corporate sites, in contrast, generally only use links to point you deeper and deeper into their own content. Corporate sites, even the ones we think of as good or creative, will rarely send you away - they crave your precious eyeballs too much (unless of course they can collect money for sending you away, as in from a partner or from ad revenue). That should be good behaviour for self-preservation, but of course it's often not. A good corporate site may generate attention for a while, but without linking externally it becomes an island, a walled garden. It fails to become part of the broader conversation, has a harder time sustaining interest or earning trust, doesn't build relationships; all of which mean its success will be short-lived.
Of course, all of this language around self-preservation is borrowed from biology, and what's even more interesting is it turns out cooperation isn't just the driving force behind the web, it's also the driving force behind evolution. Today there was a great article in the NY Times on Martin Nowak, a professor at Harvard who studies cooperation.
In recent papers, Dr. Nowak has argued that cooperation is one of the three basic principles of evolution. The other two are mutation and selection. On their own, mutation and selection can transform a species, giving rise to new traits like limbs and eyes. But cooperation is essential for life to evolve to a new level of organization. Single-celled protozoa had to cooperate to give rise to the first multicellular animals. Humans had to cooperate for complex societies to emerge.
“We see this principle everywhere in evolution where interesting things are happening,” Dr. Nowak said.
I like that last sentence a lot. It's as good and succinct an expression as any of what a lot of people have been talking about: "we see co-operation everywhere interesting things are happening." That's good. That would make a nice bumper sticker.