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There was a time – not too long ago, I’m told – when Facebook was nothing more than an online portal filled with millions of college students listening, absorbing, and creating what amounted to almost daily paradigm shifts in everything from technology to citizen journalism. It was a simpler time, a time driven by the boundless energy of human potential…which is why the world sighed as the locks were thrown off, the developers and the world were invited in, and the average status updates once filled with witty repartee and commentary were now populated with Farmville addicts asking for help in populating their chicken coops.
Of course, this festering resentment among a select few didn’t happen at once. It took time to realize that that which we had loved was slowly being stripped away. Users were now interacting with each other in ways never before seen, yet somehow these games of consumption and endless news repositories (often repeated dozens of times across one’s friend list) had a sterility to them no one saw coming. And even better: we’d soon be able to express our thoughts in 140 words or less, Twitter not being far behind.
All of this should explain why this April Fool's Day TechCrunch post almost got me. Lest you think this post is nothing more than a collection of shameless nostalgia-driven ramblings, I point you to my realization that almost every supposed technological advancement over the past several years has been directly tied to consumption over creation, whether it be manufacturer alliances with the publishing, recording, television, or film industries, or simply via the devices on which to play the content. Consumption even, in the case of Twitter, extends to web-based relationships and is deemed an unspoken mutually beneficial one in which users absorb their favorite news outlet’s biases and retweet them to the world absent any direct intervention from the publication. If we explore publishing further, we see that the advent of citizen journalists who often report more in-depth, accurate, and timely news than their dead tree cohorts has forced the industry to seek an ally willing to play by its pricing rules under the guise of promoting consumer choice.
Enter Apple’s line of iPhone OS-based devices, including the newly launched iPad. At their core, they remain DRM-laden fortresses whose apps and developers are subject to the whims of the keeper of the keys. To purchase apps or buy music, videos, and books, the mandatory one-stop shop is iTunes, and it even dictates its own application sale kickback (30 percent). Content restrictions abound for developers, and they are even caught in the middle of the company’s nasty game with Adobe in the court of public opinion as Apple tries to destroy its longtime Flash software for the more open HTML5 video standard. The only REAL creativity happening here, one might argue, is that of the iPhone Dev Team and associated projects, groups of hackers dedicated to freeing the platform from Apple’s shackles and allowing the devices to run “unsigned” applications that open new, heretofore unavailable doors.
“But Kevin,” you might now be sighing incredulously, “people actually DID create the very things you rail against for bringing about the downfall of technological creation!” I, however, would argue that the development of and our acceptance of such systems has transferred the real creativity from the minds of the people to the hands of corporate developers only exploring the creative end of a business to disseminate their content through the same bloated, locked-down channels.
Why, then, do we as consumers readily embrace platforms that stifle creativity? It can’t be solely because we’ve all bought into the Apple “it just works” philosophy; by all accounts, Google’s Android is the most transparent platform in existence and is widely regarded as easier to develop for. Nor, I believe, is it because we particularly trust Apple to shepherd us through the confusing maze of the digital revolution (in fact, recent sniping between Apple and Google in the mergers and acquisition space has raised questions about both companies’ motives). If we were truly involved in the “chase for choice,” we’d all be using obscure Linux distributions while surfing the web on our hacked Motorola Droids. Instead, we use it because the combination of app choice (a direct result of the company being viewed as a savior) and “we know what we’re getting” is too strong to ignore.
All this creates quite the quandary for the public relations profession, one caught between the ideal and reality of creation. The question now becomes: how do we balance our duty to create for our clients with the realization that we have become part of the ever-influential group of producers dictating our nation’s content? The key, described so eloquently in this recent report from GolinHarris, is authenticity. 2010 is the first year in which many global companies can truly say they’ve started to connect with their customers. Allow them to dictate the pace: feature real people with real stories solving real problems using real products, and a true environment of transparency in your company won’t be far behind. In one fell swoop, you will have distributed influence to an increasingly underrepresented group while retaining your ability to create and distribute your content.
What does the future hold for the pervasive nature of consumption over creation? We’ll get our first glimpse today, when Apple unveils its long-awaited iPhone OS 4.0 preview, expected to include third-party multitasking and a host of other refinements. There is also, interestingly, the potential for the company to make the private developer modules used to bring its iWork suite to the iPad available for public consumption. But while such moves would certainly make the inevitable cultural transition more palatable, I for one would like to stay away from any device or service that enhances our ability to become consumers of content without providing equal opportunities for growth in the opposite direction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check my Facebook page, tweet about this blog post, and update my LinkedIn profile.
This post was written by Kevin McElligott. Kevin is an intern at Walker Sands currently studying Marketing and Public Relations at Columbia College.