In the short time I’ve been playing on the Internet with a few cutting-edge media and networking toys, I’ve seen a trend that will encourage any fan of peace and prosperity. It reverses a troubling tendency from the 20th century that led to great domestic strife, mistrust and inefficiency. Two former enemies are coming together in a happy middle ground. “Wow,” you’re thinking, “Twitter [or insert favorite social media geegaw here] did all that?” Yep.
The worst of it was in mid-century, when “labor” and “management” may as well have been two different species. There was such hatred of capitalism, building up since the heyday of socialism, that corporations had to invent a way of reaching around the frakas and telling their story to potential customers—thus the birth of Public Relations. And the near lack of middle ground for the average American had most of the middle class thinking of income in terms of wage, and the government keeping statistics that assumed the middle class either earned a wage or starved. A low point for single-person entrepreneurship.
Public Relations had a tough row to hoe. Human mistakes, they realized (correctly), were not as bad for the company as admission of said mistakes, which would only serve to fortify the anti-corporate argument. So they were spun out of existence, which of course just heightened mistrust as the truth inevitably leaked out, often via a whistle-blower.
Around the 1980s, things started to turn around. This middle ground, the small independent business, was a vacuum which began to fill with disgruntled former corporate drones as well as upwardly mobile citizens, both natives and immigrants, who understood the true promise of American economic freedom. Smart capitalism replaced stupid capitalism, made necessary in light of global competition, and American industry lost the need for strong unionism. If we didn’t like our wage slavery, the alternatives were more attractive, the excuses fewer.
Notice what’s happening here. Corporations, divested of social Darwinism, feel more responsible to employees, customers and the public at large, and find profit there. The average American sees the entrepreneurial hoop lowering, sees more friends and neighbors leaping through it, and gets an appreciation for an alternative to wage slavery, even as they’re conscious of a failure rate.
Enter the Internet.
On the “management” side, various recent and famous calamities have given savvy corporations cause to use the New Media to show their human side, to admit stumblings and bad decisions, thereby using reality to limit our perception of their severity. This practice has come to be known as Radical Transparency. Its deployment has been the job of Public Relations departments. Who else?
On the “labor” side, we have an innocuous invention: the blog. One (like me) starts a blog, and soon wants its look and functionality to be as much an expression of his personality as the content is. So he tricks it out. This costs a little money. But some of the functionality can make him money, namely provisions for advertising, maintained automatically by someone else. It then occurs to the blogger that if he maximizes readership, he can actually make an income. So he pours his heart into his content, and he also—there’s no other word for it—markets. He uses social tools to summon readership, which boosts responses to the advertising, which…well, you get the idea. And so does he. What he gets is a little taste of entrepreneurship.
We also see easier entry into the world of robust Web apps, such that a guy giving as much attention as to a serious hobby can code together a social tool that can take off, with the blessing-cum-curse of scalability waking him up sooner than he scheduled. His tribulations are dutifully blogged, of course, for the Web 2.0 community to follow along, with a growing feeling that one of our own stuck his neck out, and perhaps deserves some of our solidarity and support, even as we complain about his service’s outages. (Hint.)
All of this leads to a bottom-up realization of just how tough capitalism is, and how deserving of respect are those who reach their hands out to grab an audaciously big piece of the pie. This combined with Radical Transparency coming in from the other direction, and you have the makings of a meaningful truce, if not an outright capitalist love-fest. Where the vicious cycle of mutual mistrust is replaced with a virtuous one of empathy, assumption of innocence, a recognition of human fallibility, and a mutual realization that we want to make some money.
It’s what we wanted all along, but had no real means of achieving, until now, with the Web. Like so many things.