The Perils and Potential of Real-Time Information

Today’s White Horse blog topic invited us to contemplate the trend toward “real-time information,” as exemplified by Twitter (which, by law, must be mentioned in all blog posts composed in 2009), but encompassing literally any method by which instant data can be displayed and disseminated online.

Stubbornly consistent with my long-held view of most information-processing innovations as Potential Blessing Verging on Massive Curse (see my previous post on Maxwell’s Demon), I’m cautiously optimistic about this trend. The brands with coveted “household name” status that have found themselves temporarily tossed into the consumer doghouse as the result of a Twitter-storm (Motrin and Amazon are two recent examples) might be feeling a bit cursed. But the broader impact is the democratization of information that used to be closely and/or privately held, which creates a more level playing field both for consumers and for smaller brands trying to break into the big time.

I’m heavily influenced in this opinion by a terrific article on the subject of How David Beat Goliath, by Malcom Gladwell of The New Yorker. In warfare, business, and basketball (Gladwell examines all three), access to real-time information has been a critical component of the success of the world’s Davids. Since our agency is something of a David (40 persons strong) often taking on Goliath-sized competitors in the battle for new business, this topic holds special interest for me. Gladwell points out how the traditional withholding and batching of information favors hegemony, i.e., those who already hold power, while access to real-time information allows insurgents to engage in quick-strike operations that challenge that power structure.

We can see this everywhere. Last year the Obama campaign made superb use of real-time information to identify insurgent voting blocs, organize quickly, and mobilize the base. Previously little-known brands like Blendtec (www.willitblend.com) have seized the real-time power of viral pass-along to surpass big-budget branding efforts. Upstart brands who provide their customers with real-time information – JetBlue, for example, responds instantly to traveler complaints via Twitter and tries to address the problem on the spot – are making huge inroads against their big, clunky competitors.

So what’s the Massive Curse side of the equation? Getting faster information doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. As I am overly fond of saying in presentations on social media, a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. History is replete with examples of herd poisoning, the tendency of a crowd to get carried away by a bad idea. Thus far the brands that have been most famously hoisted by their own petard in the social arena kinda had it coming. But as the trend gains speed, some very wrongheaded notions will surely gain false credence in the social media echo chamber before the truth catches up. Pity the Goliaths who fall victim to this fate.

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