From the year dot until Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the printing press, information had no means of mass distribution, except through storytelling.
Gutenberg’s invention made the widespread distribution of information possible and it also cemented a marriage between information and its means of distribution that lasted for 600 years. Within this marriage, distribution became the dominant partner because it almost always cost more money to distribute stuff than it did to create it in the first place. This relationship between information and distribution – which could be termed the Gutenberg principle – meant that the flow of information within our society became institutionalised to generate the revenues necessary to pay for the high costs involved (printing presses, TV and radio networks etc).
The institutions that evolved around the Gutenberg principle were not just media and publishing, although these were the most notable ‘children of Gutenberg’, almost every institution present in today’s society fundamentally owes its existence and structure to the basic rules about information distribution established by Gutenberg. A bank, for example, at is most basic is simply a mediator of information about people who have money and people who want it.
The social media revolution represents the breaking of the fundamental equation that marries information to distribution. Broadband internet access and the tools of what is being called social media mean that it now costs nothing to distribute information to a mass audience. Information has been separated from its means of distribution and it is now free (in a liberty sense as well as a costs nothing sense). Information can now flow between one individual and all of the individuals for whom that information may be of relevance, without any form of institutionalised intervention, except the provision of a freely available technological infrastructure. I call this the post-Gutenberg, or socialised information, principle.
As a result the political, economic and social advantages that lay within the control of information channels are gradually dissipating. Power is shifting away from institutionalised channels (think newspapers and ads) into processes of information facilitation (think Google) and forms of community (think social networks).
This new world is in its infancy, but its principal characteristics are starting to become apparent as is the significant transformational challenge for organisations that wish to manage the transition from one world to the next. It is only by understanding the shifts that are taking place and switching investment from channel based assets into assets and competencies that reflect the collaborative, collective and communal characteristics of the post-Gutenberg world that organisations will be able to succeed.
This revolution is not going to happen overnight – but it is happening and almost nothing can stop it.
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