As Digital Media Gets ‘Horizontal,’ It Acts More Like Local Businesses

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Worldwide communication and social media concept art.A few years ago, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen coined a concept about the new media landscape, calling it The Great Horizontal. Traditional modern cultures communicate top-down — everything, including authority, power and, of course, influence “comes” from the top and flows “down” to everybody else.  But in Rosen’s view, it is the growing ability of people to communicate sideways, without filters, that is so disruptive to the culture at large. If everyone can behave as a media company — and now they certainly can — then media in our new age is distributed horizontally instead of top-down. This seems counterintuitive, however, because money still flows in its same, modernist direction.

Facebook, for example, has morphed itself from what was a horizontal network to one that is top-down in order to satisfy its bottom line. So-called fan pages or business pages, for example, are not interactive but designed to “message” a composed “audience.” A “Like” is not a “Friend,” and so it goes. Twitter is doing the same thing, because, surprise, the modern money for influence is in one-to-many. In this way, however, social media applications are gutting the very core competence that made them what they were by turning themselves into preferred pipes that deliver media in one direction. This will not be favored by fans for long.

Young people especially will keep searching for an untainted horizontal network, and one day there will be one that resists the investor-generated urge to transform it into an instant money machine. This will likely not come up via Silicon Valley, because investor ownership cannot serve both the people and its own pocketbook. The corrupt concept of serving the people to achieve “scale,” then switching so as to provide a profit for those whose money built the thing is the essence of greed gone to seed, and people can increasingly see through it.

Great Horizontal

So when we look at what’s taking place today, we see a lot of people playing defense against the Great Horizontal and investor groups shifting to what has “always worked” in order to make a quick buck before it’s too late. We must always balance the business moves that we read about in the news today with the bigger picture of the cultural shift, and its inevitable devastating effects on the status quo. This includes the National Security Agency and its spying on citizens.

The NSA, market researchers, marketers, media, etc. all miss the point. It’s not about the ability of the one to manipulate the many; nor is it about the ability of the many to speak back to the one. It’s not that the one can listen in on the many. The Network isn’t, in fact, can’t ever be Big Brother, which was fundamentally a one-to-many and many-to-one command-and-control system. The problem for all influence in the 21st Century and beyond is that it is spread sideways, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril.

In the network, influence is about collaboration, a touchy-feely term that drives MBAs nuts (The brilliant JP Rangaswami channels Ghandi to make the case that collaboration is actually winning). Assuming we’re able to maintain net neutrality (a big assumption), influence would then be spread across the network instead of being concentrated with the few, and that will be seen as revolutionary. The manipulation of people through false claims (advertising) is today increasingly transparent, and it will only become moreso as the network gathers strength.

People in business who ply their wares or trades at the local level do so by directly interacting with their customers, and the inevitable effects of the network are more evident here, because it doesn’t take much for family, friends and neighbors to interact horizontally before, during and after acts of commerce. Hence, it’s even more urgent for local businesses to adopt the behavior of the network in their everyday interactions with customers.

Umair Haque’s seminal work on Media 2.0, The New Economics of Media made the strong case that business money would be better spent in the future on products rather than on marketing, because promotion would be seen for what it really was. The ability for people to discuss and dismiss has a chilling effect on hyperbole, so doing business in the 21st Century is influenced by the horiztonal.

Here are eight concepts that all businesses will have to practice:

  1. You must always be honest, even to the point of admitting mistakes. A half-truth is a lie, and that will never do in a horizontal world.
  2. In a competitive market, your value props must be stated clearly. How about: “We answer the phone.” Once stated, you must live up to them.
  3. Your products must be awesome. Since hype doesn’t work — or potentially has the power to blow up in your face, you must approach the market with products and services that are truly a cut above.
  4. Your customer service must be best-in-class. Customer service has become a borderline oxymoron in these days of lawyers, rules and profit motives, but it — perhaps even more than your products — will determine your reputation within the network.
  5. It helps if you are entertaining. Life’s short and humor or a sparkling personality can connect with people where even the best business deal cannot. So lighten up, and others will pass you around.
  6. You must support the community you serve. This is the blessing and the curse of local businesses, but it is especially important in the world of the horizontal. Silicon Valley companies will one day have to reckon with their disrespect of, for example, the local community chest. People expect those who make money in the community to support the community, and this can be a significant competitive advantage in the network.
  7. You must always account for human nature — your own as well as that of your customers. As businesses, we’ve tried to shield ourselves from this, but the truth is the network is human, and as such, we’re going to run into very human problems. Local businesses have an advantage here, for we deal with customers as real people, and the same is true via the network.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers for help. This, in many ways, is the essence of influence in a collaborative, networked world. Don’t believe me? Try it sometime. I think you’ll be amazed at the result.

Local businesses are the most suited to life in the network, because they already deal with people directly, and often on a first-name basis. To the extent that local businesses have learned to do this, they can teach the rest of the business world how to behave in our increasingly collaborative, horizontal environment.

Stowe Boyd recently wrote that, in the future “brands will try to look and feel as much like people as possible, online.” I think that’s a very prescient observation, and to the extent we can all do that, the better off we’ll be in the 21st Century.

TerryNaplesTerry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.