THE BLOG
07/03/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Internet's Most Challenging C: 'Control'

How many industry leaders have we heard cautioning us on the sacred C-words of the Internet-enabled world? It started with the Consumer because the new order had the consumer at the centre of its universe. Eventually that became a fundamental view that was not sexy enough to solely base discussions on.

Other talking points became more fashionable.

'Content' was probably the most recurring of them all because if you didn't have that right, you didn't have anything at all. An offshoot of that was 'Conversations' -- everyone wanted to engage the consumer; it had to be a two-way exchange than the traditional 'talk down to' approach. Next was 'Connected.' This was initially specific to younger consumers who were living a life caught up between multiple devices at the same time. Later however, everyone was young enough to be in this bracket. So if you were Internet smart, you knew 'connected audiences.' 'Connections,' very different from connected, or understanding the world of influencers and audience aggregation was yet another 'C' that is discussed with some passion. 'Commercial', essentially implying ways to monetise search and social platforms of the big technology-led media owners, always found its way in deliberations because how else would these companies sustain themselves.

The C-List can go on because web wizards discover a new concept ever so frequently. But the one 'C' that needs some deliberation is 'Control' or the lack of it.

For now let's spare the imagery that comes when content, control and government is mentioned together. This conversation is not about that. Not entirely.

In 'DigitalLand,' social media has found a powerful place for itself. The reason is very simple. Consumers/ users/ audiences -- irrespective of the term used -- treat social media platforms as a 'haven' of sorts. It is their place, they create it, they choose their friends, they trust these friends, they find witnesses to their lives here and they love it. It is not providing a service like search or offering entertainment like videos or display but social can appear to combine the best of everything.

The first thing that experts teach brand owners and everyone else when it comes to this space, is let go of control. In this world, brands will be treated as consumers want to treat it. The right moves (and the right skill-set of digital teams in companies) can impact the discussions to some extent but nothing is guaranteed. No one can predict tomorrow's winner or whose career is going to be challenged. And many have been learning to live with this, at least to some extent. There will always be those big, legacy brands that are not in a hurry to quickly learn new things but they certainly try.

But when one focuses on the 'media' part of social media, the discussion had to take another turn at some point. And that point came last month, when Facebook faced criticism for offensive content against women on its platform. The problem is not limited to Facebook. Tumblr too has been frequently asked about the porn content on the blogging site. Twitter, Pinterest, video services are no different. All such platforms see content creation in real time. For a long time, it has been fine because the basic premise of these platforms is 'freedom of expression.' Now it appears that there is a need to regulate this freedom.

On one side of the argument, 'control' is needed. Social media owners have to take responsibility for the 'media' side of their offer. Meaning, for the content that the platform generates, the platform owner should be accountable. No media publication would be forgiven, irrespective of its checks and balances, if it had content that was not in public interest, or is influencing opinions of young audiences in incorrect ways or that makes wrong look cool. True this cannot apply to social media. Granted it is against everything that 'social' media stands for but as these platforms gain traction, they are more than just fun, hangout zones. Facebook took a big step in reviewing its policies for pages and groups that had offensive content but did it have to wait for advertisers to pull out their advertising before it did so. Have there not been enough indications in the past that pointed to such platforms taking a much closer look at some of these aspects. Perhaps not, and the right step is taken. But what next?

And this is where the second side of the argument comes in play. As a community (yet another one from the C-List), we have forced social media platforms to exercise control on their content. They are not doing it overtly or directly because lord knows that means they are not going to be as popular as they are with audiences but they are doing it nonetheless. The 'behind the scenes' or the less transparent side of digital media, that has been a sore point of conversation for the search domain, is now active for social as well.

When will a platform know where to draw the line between exercising control and allowing a voice to be published? And who will decide this line? What is going to influence these decisions? What aspects of things that we learnt about letting go of control will have to be unlearnt? How will organisations that have constantly looked to 'control' a medium like the internet view this?

As a woman and a believer in human rights, I would say someone has to take responsibility for the offensive content available on public platforms. And if it is not the platform owner, then who? But as a woman and a believer in human rights, I would be very wary of who is deciding how to 'regulate' this content. The nascent nature of the medium has made Control the most challenging C of the web-enabled world -- a challenge that has to be collectively addressed.