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The Internet Grows Up: Goodbye Messy Adolescence

Posted: 06/16/11 12:36 PM ET

I'm off to take part in the 58th Annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Tim Armstrong and I will be speaking on a theme that we have been talking a lot about lately -- the fact that the Internet has grown up.

Its adolescence was, like most formative years, filled with late nights, video games, loud music, junk food, and trying to figure out exactly what it wanted to be when it grew up.

Now, it has matured to the point where our online and our offline lives have merged.

Indeed, the qualities we care most about offline are being increasingly reflected in our experience online. We're leaving behind worshiping at the altar of algorithms and entering a brave new world of community, connections and engagement.

And the companies and brands that succeed in the coming years will be those that most take advantage of the fact that there is increasingly little distinction between "virtual reality" and, well, reality. People don't want to give up their humanity when they go online. The Internet is no longer a "virtual" public space where we have the semblance of connection -- it's a real public space where we really connect.

Remember all those scary movies about how humans were going to become machines in the future? Well, as it turned out, the machines ended up enabling us to be more human instead.

The long prelude to this coming-of-age moment has been a time of amazing change. We have watched the Web evolve to meet our hunger for connection and community. But it hasn't always been easy. As Clay Shirky recently noted, history shows that changes in the way we relate to information are inevitably accompanied by resistance. "Every increase in freedom to create or consume media," he wrote, "from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid." It was, after all, predicted that the printing press would lead to "chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life."

And yes, along with our increased access to ideas, information -- and each other -- comes the tendency to create what Shirky calls "throwaway material." And the Internet is certainly no slouch at producing throwaway material -- a tendency that won't be going away. But something else has emerged among all the random searching: a search for greater meaning.

We're now more thoughtful and deliberate about choosing our friends and how we spend our online time. Adulthood is a time when our lives become about curating, selecting, saying "no" more often than we say "yes," being forced to decide what we really value, realizing what's really important to us. Increasingly, that's exactly how people are using the Internet as well.

To be sure, the adolescent Internet will always be with us. But now there's a choice -- not just for individuals, but for companies as well. One way forward is to continue down the path where noise and half-truths trump facts, where confusion and data overload overwhelm any possibility of balance and wisdom. The other way is to stake out a place in this new world of community, connections and collaboration.

The Internet of the future, the mature, grown-up Internet, has the potential to take what's best about the human experience -- our passion, our knowledge, our desire to connect -- and channel it into an online experience that truly resonates with how people live.

The bridge to this more connected, more human future is to be found in directing our energy and resources to the foundational pillars of trust, authenticity and engagement -- principles that can help all of us navigate the world, whether it's the real world or the World Wide Web.

Let's start with trust:

In the newer, more mature, more human Internet, trust isn't something that comes because an old institution or authority figure demands it. It comes the same way it comes offline: It's born out of connection and relationships. If brands and institutions want to have our trust, it must be earned, and then continually maintained -- the same way it is in relationships we have in the offline world.

Truth is an important element of trust, but truth isn't just about facts. As NYU professor Jay Rosen says, "information alone will not inform us." Information free from any context isn't meaningful to us and is not going to be trusted. So those who supply the context to the facts and information become extremely important. We know where our friends are coming from, we know who they are. So the information we get from them is more trusted.

The second pillar of the mature Internet is authenticity.

As users of the Web have become increasingly overwhelmed with information, and with competing messages, so too have they become increasingly sophisticated about sorting out the real from the fake, the genuine from the manufactured. The modern media landscape requires authenticity in order to make an impact.

In the new, grown-up Internet, the ordering principle is social, not hierarchical. It's person-to-person, not top-down. And social media turns out to be an incredible tool for recognizing, building and fostering authenticity. That's what it's about -- and this holds true not just for individual users, but for brands as well.

New media and social media tools have enabled people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation -- millions worldwide now want in on the creative process and have much to contribute to it. And companies are eager to use that passion and connection. But it's a two-way street. Through social media, people tell companies who they are and what they value, and companies also tell people who they are and what their values are. And increasingly, companies that have both of those figured out have also figured out that doing good is good business.

Our third pillar is engagement... the grown-up Internet is all about engagement and community -- after all, we're social animals. The human desire for connectedness is universal. The Knight Foundation and Gallup recently conducted a survey to find out what emotionally attaches people to a community. The results were instructive -- and they were consistent, from people in big cities to those living in small towns. The study found that the key drivers of people's emotional attachment to where they live are: an area's physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a community's openness to all people.

That's just as true online as off. People will eventually find a way to make any activity into a tool for engagement, connection and community, and the Internet is the most effective tool for community building the world has ever seen. In fact, this invention -- this thing we think of as a piece of technology or a series of machines -- is now at the stage where it's actually allowing us to tap into our full humanity.

So now that the Internet has arrived at adulthood, the next stage will be what we euphemistically call the Golden Years. That Internet won't have the drawbacks of our old age, but I'm hoping it will have its main benefit: wisdom.

 
 
 

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