Some say that when Bob Dylan sang “The Times They Are a-Changin” back in ’64 his song and the same-named album were the perfect encapsulation of the underlying tension and uncertainty (not without a splash of hope) sweeping through western politics and society at the time.
Fast-forward 50 years and that pace of change is faster than ever. So fast, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to stop, draw breath and see just how far we’ve come and, in so doing, to clearly see where we might all be heading.
Until, that is, usually a large corporation (or sometimes a political party, newsgroup or football club) does us all a favour and duly delivers such a stonking, stop-you-in-your-tracks story that gives us all the chance to pause and reflect. Thank you Enron, Bernie Madoff, Andy Coulson…the list goes on.
Now, not only do we get the chance to ask “Is this true?” but we also wake up to the new world rules that operate around us everyday and which we are party to simply by living, working and breathing, whether we like them or not. And herein lies the rub.
I’m talking about the T word, of course. Transparency. Some prefer the D word – disclosure. Either way, Facebook has done us all a favour with the relevation that back in 2012 they conducted an experiment to see if the positivity or negativity of news posts viewed by a sample of 700,000 users had a measurable impact on the emotional quality of their subsequent posts.
The conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this one..not least because here’s more ‘proof’ that the collective ‘they’ have been watching us, analysing us and manipulating our behaviour for years. But what’s the long-term impact likely to be for those of us working in marketing, PR, social policy, behavioural science and beyond? Will there be an online backlash? How are agencies and consultants going to advise clients? How much transparency can client companies really cope with and truly deliver? Is large print going to be the new small print? Will a raft of new data use caveats kill creativity and stifle good, worthwhile communication?
There are multiple issues at play here – big business, big brother – but on one simple level we have a classic perception versus reality gap. The reality is that simply by using Facebook and agreeing to their terms we have consented to the use of our data for commercial purposes. But, Facebook more than any other online community seems so democratic. It’s about social groups, friendships, contacts and community where I, the user, have a choice about who I befriend and allow into my world, and who I exclude. What I share with those friends, and what I don’t.
Looking ahead there are so many choices and decisions to make about how we behave online but ultimately our online futures (as consumers) can really only go two ways. Free services where we knowingly exchange the right to use a platform without payment in clear and ready exchange for the use of our data or paid-for services where that payment buys us privacy, discretion, exclusivity, more choice and potentially freedom from advertising and influence. Trouble is, very few online providers have pursued a paid-for business model to date and our expectations of life online are inextricably linked with two F-words – freedom and free.
The question now is, could Bob Dylan be right….again?