How do you think of the Internet? If you were to try to imagine it in your head what would it look like? Does it look like that picture of the globe with highways of light connecting various places? Do you think of it as a network of roads or high-speed rails? Or does it look more like a huge marketplace with people walking or running, creating commotions or just stopping for conversations?
This matters because your view of the Internet influences your understanding of how to use it.
For a very long time, I thought of the Internet as a whole other world with its very separate rules. A separate but a complete world. A world that was missing physicality but had everything else. People, relationships, marketplaces, connections, content, feelings, etc. Everything you find in the real world. So what you needed to do was not very unlike what your do IRL, but accounting for the lack of physicality. The truth is this view of the Internet helps only up to a point. It creates a bit too much complexity and becomes harder to explain and hold inside your head so after a while I decided to give up on that for professional purposes :)
Now, I think of the Internet as similar to the climate or weather patterns. First, because we need to realise that, at least for the time being, the Internet is one thing. While we may be thinking there is UK Facebook and Romanian Facebook and threads on Reddit that people don’t read and language barriers, it ultimately all does come together and planning something with national or language barriers on the Internet is reductive. Stuff carries through and surfaces in places you’d never expect so really, it is, for all intents and purposes, one thing.
Second, the way the Internet “moves” operates across three layers:
- There’s medium-sized, local “weather fronts” — patches of information that move within a set “space”, defined by various coordinates: a community of followers on social, a specific forum, a newspaper’s readers, etc. This is why where you “live” on the Internet is important and this is what some people describe as your internet bubble. Because it forms around people with similar beliefs and generally stays there. It helps to understand what the bubbles are, to really carve out what bubble you’re in and to find a way to realise what bubbles brands operate in. For instance, I used to work on an infant nutrition brand and it soon became obvious that while the brand wanted to operate in the parenthood bubble, it had somehow entered the baking bubble in Latin America. People were making cake with it and lots of it and the brand had no idea how to operate in this bubble :)
- There’s small but intense storms. You know these: memes, trends and virals. Things that form small, grow exponentially in size, and hop from one community to the next. Think of them as tornados. That visualisation is important because it reflects how this information cluster circulates. Tornados are punctual and sometimes expand, but mostly they move fast in a direction. Very much like virals or memes leave the communities where they grew and move on to “attack” other spaces. It’s hard to understand where and how these tornados will form, much harder to get them to form. But not impossible. They are also hard to control and usually not brand-made :)
- Finally, there’s the jetstreams. The big guys, those who pretty much decide everything else above and below. This is things that really form in people’s heads over time and then begin to influence how people behave online. Think of adblocking. Think of widespread adoption of better data practices. Think of people using password storage software. These are widespread practices which are not temporary, they grow hand in hand with, and as a response to, the development of the Internet itself. William Gibson speaks about loas in his Neuromancer series. These huge, sentient algorithms that sweep the Internet like ancient Polynesian gods. We don’t have these yet, but we will, and some of the upcoming “jetstreams” will probably be facial recognition and VR (see it starting to gain shape with Google Maps). BTW, as much as people like to think AR/VR are jetstreams already, believe you me they are barely more than a tornado :)
Why is it helpful to think about this? Well, primarily because I find the highway metaphor pointless. It suggests the Internet is a carrier of something between clearly defined points with clearly define handover areas. It is not. If we use that metaphor, we might delude ourselves that our job is to make something, put in on the highway with enough fuel (budget) and it will get to where it needs to get. That’s not how it works. I mean, some of it works like that and lots of us toil everyday trying to make little things to put into a distribution channel and hope it gets to consumers when it needs to.
If you embrace the idea of the Internet as something less directional and more networked and entropic, you can start thinking about your role as less of a provider of direction and more of a provider of hierarchies of influence. You can start to understand how content works and why influencers do matter. You understand how and why you need to harness the contributions of your brand’s users and you will be able to grasp the meaning of social commerce.
How we create things in our heads is fundamental to how we then use those things.
How do you think about the Internet?
This will decide how you use it.