In 1962, when the Internet was still no more than a paranoid glint in the eye of the U.S. department of defense, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the global village." For more than two centuries since the Industrial Revolution, the countryside had been disgorging its residents into cities. The traditional, close-knit structures of villages and hamlets that had supported society for millennia were removed, replaced by new, wider networks driven by such technologies as the train, telephone, and telegram.
With his concept of the "global village," McLuhan hoped to recognize the way new communications technologies could reduce the sense of distance between the world's disparate cultures and nations. But in the decades that followed, the phrase became more entrenched in society than the trends that inspired it. It became a message without a medium, a village without its defining feature: a network with the scale to police itself.
Then, in 1994, the medium the "global village" had been waiting for appeared: the Internet. It was conceived by its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, to be a read/write medium, a place where conversations could be started and developed a virtual garden fence over which the world could chat. Although its real impact was largely hidden amid the hype of its first decade of growth, the Internet created the foundation for true global-village connectivity.
Now, via the Internet and other emerging technologies, a village mentality is returning, and it's being eagerly embraced by consumers. From self-regulating entities such as Wikipedia, self-policed virtual communities like Second Life, or tracking technologies (see Plazes.com) that can identify your location at the click of a mouse, we now have the solution to the industrial revolution's ripping and rendering of the established structures of society. You can make friends, contact old ones, trade, barter, spread gossip and rumor, or deny it all on a personal scale not available during the 20th century.
The appearance of a truly global digital village has significant implications for companies and the marketing of their products. Brands and the 20th century marketing model that still guides most communications were forged in the globalized market economy prophesied by McLuhan's original vision. The technologies of this model gave companies access to quick distribution of products and product messages, but provided few routes for consumers to express displeasure or voice their feedback. The brand created to provide a label of product quality and consistency as people moved from close-knit societies to new towns and new countries had turned from being a tool created for consumers into an entity to be protected from consumer input at all cost.
So, as the 20th century progressed, the natural balance between buyers and sellers once managed within small communities tipped in favor of the sellers. The technologies of the digital village are now rapidly tipping the balance back to consumers.
Smart companies are recognizing that successful business is again becoming a conversation rather than a monologue. Many of these are digital companies like Google or Flickr, which, rather than launching perfected products for consumers to lap up, launch Beta versions, thus engaging the public in the final stage of development and testing. While the likes of Google have this approach built into their company DNA, more traditional companies still struggle with the concept of their product being part of an open conversation.
Some have seemingly opened the dialogue by inviting consumers to "create your own advertising." This is the marketing equivalent of C-list film premiere party, saying, in effect: You're not good enough to be allowed into the inner circle, so please have a little play with our ads. Others, such as Muji and Nokia, have taken it a step further and allowed consumers to give their own opinions on design. Though this is still monologue marketing brands taking consumer skill without really opening up their own work to scrutiny it's a strong first step in restoring the balance between brands and consumers.
The heady mixture that's forming the freedom of the industrialized society, combined with the proximity of the digital village is one that consumers are rushing to embrace. Companies will have to meet them in this conversation.
Tom Johnson is partner at Hyper Happen, the digital sister agency of Naked Communications. (firstname.lastname@example.org)