Who are you on the web?

Understanding the new consumer in the online world

(An excerpt from my article in New Media Age)

Famous or anonymous. Vocal or viral. Brand advocate or brand enemy. How you’re perceived online is entirely up to you. The internet is egalitarian. It’s the great leveller. Politicians are lampooned, socialites get spoofed, authoritative institutions are questioned, and all with unequivocal ruthlessness. Blogs get personal as they scrutinise manufacturers and brands. Celebrities don’t always make it to the top of search results lists (often pipped to the post by a small-towner with the same name who has been protesting against gutter maintenance in the town square). From a state of it being about not what you know but who you know, the new mantra is ‘Who knows you?’

Of course, the internet has created a whole new set of competitive metrics. How many followers do you have on Twitter? How many Facebook friends? How many YouTube videos? How regular are your blog posts? But despite the competition, the web is ultimately very democratic. It’s up to you to make your LinkedIn profile a collector’s item. Content will always be king and connectivity can ignite people’s awareness and appreciation of this.

As social media brings people closer together, organising them into likeminded communities, we find ourselves questioning hierarchies we once took for granted. Online growth is multi-directional, almost cellular and certainly exponential rather than pyramid-like. There’s no one top dog: everyone has an opinion and the right to air it.

A community generates its own momentum. It can fuel change, propel people to action, snowball into something much greater than the sum of its parts. A network of mothers banded together by a determined code is a storehouse of powerful maternal instincts. Groups watching their carbon footprint have an impact on the virtual world in ways that persuade others to do likewise. And alumni gatherings are being mined for their loyalty quotient. It’s all about the effect of your cause.

But it’s easy to follow the misguided notion that there’s a formula: make some friends, widen the circle, spread the word, then measure the social value. Today, even the casual mention of the phrase ‘social media’ seems to indicate that the user has an understanding of the new web. But here’s where the leveller comes back into play: you can’t manipulate, dictate or dominate. The online space is community property bound by the ethics of free speech and equal rights.

This is the time and place where age, gender, geography, history, belief and behaviour aren’t the yardsticks of who you are. It’s all about how sticky your social glue is.