New Olympic Competition: Hacking the Olympics

The 2012 Olympics are going to get hacked. We're about to see what happens when an irresistible force -- angry teched-up people linked by social media -- collides with an immovable object -- the corporatized branding colossus known as the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

A quick refresher course on Olympics governance and economics.

The Olympics are run by the cheerfully unaccountable IOC. Cities compete to host the Olympics in the belief that doing so is a net economic positive. There is lots of data that suggests this benefit is chimerical. It is certainly hard to pin down.

Regardless, cities do compete for the privilege, which puts the IOC in a position to grab the would-be host cities by the short hairs and twist tightly. In London's case, the twisting was savage, resulting in draconian, "bespoke" legislation governing how the sanctioned Olympic brands can be mentioned and how non-sanctioned brands cannot be mentioned, displayed, tweeted, discussed or, on pain of lifetime incarceration, dreamed about. I exaggerate, but only slightly. Here's one representative snippet from a must-read Guardian article: "Pub landlords will be banned from posting signs reading: 'Come and watch the London Games from our big screen!'"

Don't forget: This is London 2012, not Beijing 2008. This is where an open society is going to be able to show itself off in all its cranky ebullience. And this is 2012™ (really! it is trademarked! And so enthusiastically...) in a city with a lot of critical, disaffected, poor and/or angry people, a fair number of whom are digitally skilled and not compulsively law-abiding.

The London vs. Beijing part is pretty obvious. The new legislation and its criminal (not civil) penalties notwithstanding, the ability of the City of London to enforce discipline amongst its unruly citizenry does not approach that of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

The 2012 vs.2008 part is pretty fascinating. Brands still matter, of course, but how are brands propagated today? Clearly, the traditional approach of ad placement in major media has been complemented by a new emphasis on the viral campaign, which rise and fall on the motivation of individual consumers to participate.

In the new paradigm, individuals earn "reputation" and build influence accordingly. Successful brands motivate individual influencers to become their de facto marketers.

That's "successful brands" as in actually competing in the marketplace, and therefore having to listen to the marketplace. Then, there's the IOC.

What is happening in London, I think, is that the IOC is worrying about precisely the wrong thing. They are worrying about 36 pretty women in short orange dresses engaging in ambush marketing. What they should be worrying about is that their approach of 'sanctioned branding, uber alles' is spitting in the face of an angry, empowered and increasingly activist generational cohort.

I think the pushback against The Dystopian Olympics™, in Cory Doctorow's felicitous phrase, is going to take two forms. The first has already started and consists of leveraging the prominence of Olympic brands to shame those brands on the world stage. Remember Bhopal? Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide after the disaster, would prefer you didn't. But Dow's Olympics sponsorship is a perfect opportunity to refocus world attention on the ongoing atrocity of the failure to address the original tragedy. Most companies that are big enough to sponsor the Olympics are big enough to have socially transgressed royally some place along the way and we can expect militant exposures of the officially-sanctioned sponsors, hoist in full view on their 'official Olympic brand' petard.

The second kind of pushback is going to be new. These Olympics are going have the living daylights hacked out of them. It's a train wreck waiting to happen; how can it be otherwise? It's not just a matter of Anonymous' YouTube threat. Everything the IOC has done, with official London's complicity, paints an irresistible bull's-eye, not only for what has been called, "the paramilitary wing of the internet," but for a much larger cohort.

You might want to check out the "We, the Web Kids..." manifesto that is circulating rapidly around the web to get the fuller flavor. If I had to summarize the salient elements of this 'something much larger', I'd point to despair at the state of the world economy; disgust with the inability of governments to meaningfully address climate and poverty issues; dismay at nationalism, war and corporate greed; distrust of established authority (governmental or corporate); insistence on evaluating people and institutions on their current merits (the "reputation" piece); a dramatic sense of technological empowerment on an individual basis, and a fascination with what Bruce Sterling and others call "the New Aesthetic" (of which London is, by the way, ground zero).

It's rather brilliant, when you think about it, how thoroughly the IOC's approach to brand protection ticks every possible box for infuriating a huge swathe of the public. The IOC has sowed the wind and will reap the whirlwind.