The Real Rising Superpower – and It’s Not China.

Much has been said of the rising superpower that is China.

We are witnessing an epoch making period where China will become the largest economy in the next two decades to dominate the world stage. After centuries of slumber, the Sleeping Dragon is finally stirring and all eyes are watching it with trepidation.

This 21st century belongs to China.

But in the background, there is actually a much more powerful force rising. One that has already drastically reshaped the global political and economic map, and has even brought the United States to its knees.

We all witnessed that on Wednesday, January 18, 2012. The Day the Internet flexed its collective might to challenge the U.S. Government (specifically, the ill-conceived SOPA and PIPA legislation), and won.

And this is just the latest victory, following in the footsteps of Middle Eastern dictatorships falling in the Arab Spring.

If we start looking at the Internet as a country, it has over 2 billion citizens and still growing, and an economy worth US$8 trillion – significantly larger than even China.

Global platforms like Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook means that the younger generations today have more of a shared culture with other netizens than they do with their native nationality.

And it’s not hyperbole to think that we are still only witnessing the infancy of this new global superpower that will react strongly to being threatened.

So what does this mean for us as businesses and advertisers? Here are four thoughts:

  1. The whole fiasco over SOPA/PIPA that resulted in massive revolts from sites such as Wikipedia, Google, and Flickr was notionally on the topic of piracy and censorship. But what this is actually all about is a content industry that is desperately trying to salvage its business model.The debate about piracy destroying the content industry has been exactly the same since the days of the Walkman and VHS players. Not only did content companies survive, but also profited massively as new technologies opened up new revenue streams.But the Internet is a different beast – it is a distribution mechanism, not just a replication technology. It gives content creators the means to reach vast audiences without the need for middlemen, rendering content companies redundant.So for all the talk of “protecting artists,” this is really about protecting a business model that is obsolete. More than ever, “survival of the fittest” in the business world rules – the environment has changed, and so must we also embrace change to adapt and survive. It’s not a choice.
  2. Secrets don’t stay secret. SOPA/PIPA are obscure bits of legislation that the average person on the street shouldn’t ordinarily care about, especially with more pressing priorities in the current global economy. It is legislation that the political lobbyists could typically get passed by stealth – in fact, there was a great rush to push these laws through.But all it took was one post on Reddit (a popular web community site) for it to snowball into a global protest within weeks. And this is not the only instance – sites like Wikileaks have shown time and time again that it’s harder and harder to keep secrets hidden. Businesses will need to provide unprecedented levels of transparency in the future to stay credible.
  3. Privacy is not the default in a social world. For those who grew up before the Internet was mainstream, the assumption is that everything in your life is private, unless you choose to make it public.For those who grew up post-Internet, the assumption is that everything in your life is public, unless you choose to make it private.It’s a very subtle, but stark difference. Just ask any teenager if they’ve even looked (or cared) about Facebook’s privacy settings. Does this mean we shouldn’t care about privacy as businesses? We most definitely should – but as the Internet population ages, don’t be surprised if this changes.Consumers already willingly provide a lot of data about themselves, and will continue to do so as long as they have strong trust in how it’s being used.
  4. There is no excuse not to pay attention to digital in your marketing. We are well past the days of digital being “experiments” in marketing, or a checkbox in a 360-campaign laundry list. We are already seeing some global clients planning for up to half of their marketing budgets to be spent online.So it’s not something that should just be left to the “digital specialists” or delegated to a junior team member – it’s something you can’t afford to ignore for much longer.The digital world is something everyone has become so reliant on for the smallest daily interactions (see these amusing tweets of how lost and useless students are without Wikipedia during the SOPA/PIPA blackout for instance), and it’s only going to become a larger and larger part of your role. The sooner you jump in, the easier the ride.

As a closing thought, I’d like to leave you with a prophetic quote from Nicholas Negroponte:

“The Internet may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow. It will exist beyond people’s wildest predictions.”

It feels more true today than when it was originally written in 1994.

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