Article: A Flat World Splinters

Author: PROI Partners: Jeff Altheide, Gibbs & Soell, and Sharif Rangnekar, Integral PR
Publication: The Business Standard (India)
Date: PROI Partners: Jeff Altheide, Gibbs & Soell, and Sharif Rangnekar, Integral PR

"The world isn’t flat,” is a concept that modern communicators may find hard to grasp. It isn’t because they genuinely believe an abyss awaits foolhardy adventurers somewhere at the Earth’s edge. Their view is more likely based on the writings of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who proclaimed a new and level playing field for international business in his 2005 best-seller, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

Friedman’s analysis cites a number of driving forces, most notably, a slew of technological advances that made information on the Web easier to access, consume and share, besides helping people connect across the globe. For the modern communicator, a faster and better connected Web was like a dream come true, offering universal, real-time access to everyone. It was heralded as the great equaliser, putting businesses on an equal footing with existing customers, new customers, domestic markets and international markets. No more layers. Just one very big global audience.

Fast forward just five years and Friedman’s brief history appears to be just that. The Web is no longer a single-source platform that provides audiences with free and uncontrolled access to all the information that resides in cyberspace. It is, instead, an increasingly fragmented domain driven by overlapping technological, economic and social influences. Public relations and marketing strategists who embraced the Internet in its earlier, idealised form are now struggling to maintain connections with their audiences in the same direct and open manner.

What can be done to hold on to existing relationships and foster new ones on the Web, while still ensuring that the dialogue remains meaningful? Welcome to the “splinternet,” where one size does not fit all.

The Worldwide Web is no longer a single-source platform that allows universal and uncontrolled access to all the information that resides in this space. Forrester Research calls this trend “splinternet”. This concept says the mass audience once available on the Web is rapidly splintering into compartments: 

  • Technological barriers are segmenting the audience (for example, an application created for your iPhone users won’t benefit customers who use a Blackberry and so on);
  • More content is housed behind paywalls. More conversations are occurring in secluded forums and thus away from the eyes of search engines; 
  • Language or political barriers (such as government-mandated content blockers) still prevent the growing riches of content from benefiting all Web users around the world.

Free is becoming conditional. Universal is becoming specialised. In many ways, this is a reflection of the ‘real’ world.

When the Worldwide Web came into being, it was intended as a platform for the free flow of information through easy means of connecting. Now there are layers driven by the development of new technology channels and divisions driven by audiences segmenting themselves — by language, culture, beliefs, behaviours and countless other factors. These audiences communicate with the spaces on the Web and with each other based on their unique interests and perspectives, and choose how much they wish to share with the outside world.

In some ways, the Web is becoming more democratic and plural, giving everyone their spaces and often control over the same. New gatekeepers of different types are stepping in as owners of the content they host. And, while these gatekeepers may easily gravitate to one or more communications channels, the ability for a large multinational organisation and governments to effectively interact with all the emerging segments becomes a daunting task.

Does this sound familiar? The evolution of the Worldwide Web mimics the ongoing effort of multinational organisations to globalise and connect the world with a firm handle on global affairs. The failure of some economies and the emergence of others, the inability to find a constant common platform or need, the distinctions in the ways of life, consumption, languages and cultures have countered such an effort. Hence, global aspirations are paving the way for local and individual focus in both the real and virtual worlds.

This is no different from how the World Trade Organisation has evolved (and lost its way to a great extent) and how bilateral talks and agreements have gained significance, or for that matter, why coalition governments and the representation of local (and not merely national) groups are more important than before. The online space has also aped traditional media — the Web is creating vertical spaces for specialised audiences.

In India, according to research conducted by Indiabiz News & Research Services, about two hours are spent daily online on social networking sites, with Facebook taking the lead. This number is expected to grow with time, what with the growing mobile phone market, the launch of iPad (and similar gadgets) and with 3G (increasing efficiency). So should one fear this space or engage with it?

The answer perhaps lies in who you are and whether you wish to use this space as a tool for information or engagement. Corporations by and large would need to give this a look, given that they have offline ‘real’ world chat becoming a talking matter online. And this can often be traced on search engines. They can’t help but notice more apparent and visible expressions of their consumers — something that could often be ignored in the ‘real’ world.

As the early days of Web tools and then Web 2.0 channels flourished, many organisations rushed in. Standard content was generated to reach as many audiences as possible. Certainly, the traditional use of the Web as a broad information base will continue. However, the splintering of the Net has helped people connect, let corporations and governments reach out to their audiences and given a platform for two-way communication. In some cases, companies have turned social networking spaces into a business model.

Dell claims to have made money. Pepsi relocated funds from Super Bowl television advertising into the Pepsi Refresh programme. This cause marketing effort allows consumers to nominate and vote on charitable ventures that can qualify for millions of dollars in grants from Pepsi. Hippo in India uses Facebook to get to know stocks at a store directly from the end-consumer rather than the retailer. Air Asia functions almost like a friendly call centre online, connecting directly with existing and potential travellers. All of this is virtual but real!

The emergence of the splinternet promises a bumpier ride through what used to be Friedman’s flat planet. However, communicators should be less concerned about a disruption and instead embrace this natural evolution of digital communications. They may have to get used to a business landscape that’s no longer flat, but the upside is that it’s a smaller world after all. 

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