Digital Sharing: An Unavoidable Force

Sharing has never been easier. Information and ideas are shared across the globe with greater efficiency and speed than ever before. With the click of a mouse, text, pictures, sounds, and moving images flow through the digital ether. More than 137 million Americans and over a billion people worldwide are clicking their mice to send email, share pictures, download movies, and post to their blogs.

That’s a whole lot of sharing goin’ on!

Are you sharing? How much and what you share depends on who you are and how old you are. Do you swap files? Upload photos to a photo-sharing site? Do you have your own Web site or a personal page? What about a blog? Have you written a review? Would you send a friend a detailed email about the all the things you researched and discovered for last year’s vacation? Have you ever taken images or music and made your own remix? These are all examples of people generating and reusing content. Sharing, that is.

What about your company? Does it share? Does it share customer feedback? All or parts of the content it produces or owns? Does your company invite people to mash up (define) its online site or service in some way?

Obviously, these may be the wrong questions. What a company shares depends on what business it’s in. The real question is this: does the organization you work for at least dabble in sharing and with letting customers easily remix and share its content?

In an economy where intellectual property ownership and rights are a central pillar, new sharing technologies create great uncertainty. No wonder companies respond to the proliferation of sharing with fear and legal actions.

But is that the right response? Can this train be stopped? The Internet was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. It has no center or national boundaries. Sharing technologies are mostly open and increasingly decentralized in their own right. Open source, standards such as RSS (define), and the proliferations of open programming interfaces (open APIs (define)) make exerting control over technology use very difficult. Sharing applications are proliferating.

Most of us were taught from childhood that sharing is good, yet our economy isn’t built on sharing principles. I’m not arguing against the right to protect investments in research and development or be guaranteed a financial return if you create successful intellectual property. I fully support these principles. Remove IP protection and we’d stifle innovation. But I’m concerned resources that could be devoted to innovation and finding new ways to leverage sharing technologies are being used to reactively defend the status quo. Is taking a defensive posture with respect to sharing technologies a smart strategy?

Nobody knows what the world will look like as a result of sharing technologies. Without that knowledge, the natural thing to do is to defend the way things are done today, protect the bread and butter. But isn’t the best defense an active offense? With that, I don’t mean a legal offense.

What’s your offensive sharing strategy? How will you operate in the one-click-to-share economy if your technical defenses are overrun? Can you afford to risk that they will be?

The face of the future has sharing written all over it. Sharing must be part of many, perhaps most, product, marketing, and customer strategies. Here are some things to keep in mind as you navigate the evolving sharing landscape:

  • There’s no single nor simple answer. Sharing technologies are in their infancy. New business models are evolving in real time and parallel with the new technologies. The only thing that’s certain is “protecting” intellectual property the way you have in the past won’t work in the future.
  • Sharing doesn’t have to be free, but it does have to be easy. iTunes is a great example of how a sharing “problem” has been turned into a successful solution — OK, a partial solution. iTunes demonstrates that if it’s very easy and relatively cheap to buy music by the track, people will pay.
  • Free is powerful. Sharing doesn’t have to be free, but people do like it when it is. Free online services have become a powerful way to draw people in. In the end, there’s no free lunch. Ad-supported models in which ads are contextualized to the point of being helpful have proven a very powerful, lucrative business model. We’ll see whether it also becomes possible to up-sell premium services to users that start with free.
  • The sharing infrastructure and technologies will become more pervasive, making it easier for virtual smart mobs to form around topics, events, entertainment, and news. They’ll very quickly determine the success of products; create buzz; virally promote good products, services, and ideas; and rant about stupid behavior. More important, it will become much easier for individuals to tap into smart mob knowledge, making it increasingly harder to use marketing to overpower the voices of the discontented and disgruntled.

Sharing is no panacea. It’s full of challenges. But sharing is to the all-digital ecosystem what gravity is to the physical world — an unavoidable force.

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