The Internet as Society’s Subconscious

One of the most interesting things about the stock market has always been its value as a zeitgeist indicator. What’s hot and what’s not may not be a perfect look into the business world’s psyche, but it’s as close as anyone can get to the world’s pulse.

Why? Because the market is a place where information is aggregated, sorted, judged, and acted upon by millions of people all over the world, then recorded for the rest of us to see. The sheer amount and democratic nature of the information (insider trading aside) smooth out the influence of any single person over long periods. Sure, folks like Warren Buffet can stir the pot once in a while for a short time, but over the long haul the marketplace is consistently a pretty good indicator of what people are interested in because it’s where they put their money.

I thought about this recently when I came across something by John Battelle I’d never read before: his seminal post on what he calls the “database of intentions.” His article contains more subtlety than I can do justice to here, but the bottom line is this: the aggregate information about every search ever done on the Internet is really a vast database of the intentions, hopes, dreams, fears, and desires of humankind.

This struck a chord with me. For the first time in human history, we have the ability to truly tap into what people really want. Not what they tell pollsters. Not what they say when asked by their friends or colleagues. The real, raw data about the state of a big chunk of humanity and what it wants.

As a marketer, the implications of this should stagger you. They blow me away. Knowing what people want has always been the Holy Grail of anyone trying to influence people or tap into the collective unconsciousness with messages that will resonate. This kind of information is what drives us all toward market research and analysis and what drives everything from account planning to media buying. Knowing what people want and what’s going on inside their heads is the key to what we’re trying to do.

If the information contained in the stock market gives us a glimpse into people’s financial hearts, the information contained in the database of intentions shows us what people really care about in all aspects of their lives. Some might make the argument that Internet users aren’t a representative sample, but a glance at just about any current demographic research on Internet usage proves that viewpoint is just plain wrong. Yes, there are still people who haven’t crossed the digital divide, but as far as the overall marketplace of ideas goes (and that’s what the Internet has become), the Web’s demographics are pretty darn close to America’s demographics (if not the whole developed world).

Understanding this idea and grasping its implications offer an amazing new point of view to anyone interested in what the (arguably developed) world thinks. Yes, the marketplace can be manipulated in the short term, but overall trends are impossible for anyone to influence simply because there are too many people and too much information on the Web for any single entity to influence. Just like the stock market, over the long term the Web represents a truly democratic view. The numbers are beyond the influence of any one person, regardless of how fanatical or manipulative he (or his followers) is.

Knowing this is both incredibly enlightening and incredibly scary. Check out Google’s Hot Trends (formerly Zeitgeist) on a regular basis if you don’t believe me. While many of us have high ideals about what the world really cares about, it’s tough to ignore millions upon millions of searches. We may all brush off popularity contests because they represent the lowest common denominator (and may not match our values or aspirations), but what’s popular is popular for a reason and offers a mirror (however flawed) for our own hopes, dreams, and desires.

But while looking for the culture’s pulse on Google is interesting, even more interesting are all the other places where we can go on the Web to find out what people are thinking about, doing, reading, buying, wishing for, sharing, and worrying about. None of these outlets might in and of itself be representative of what the world’s thinking, but taken in aggregate they offer us a view into people’s heads that’s never before been possible.

Wanna peek into the collective unconscious? Here are some really interesting places to go:

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.