As someone who works online I use Google and Facebook and Twitter and a dozen online social networks as tools. To me, at one level, they are the means through which I market my books, help clients find my services and advise companies and individuals to use correctly.

At an entirely different level however Facebook, Google and Twitter are much, much more than just tools. They represent active facets of the online landscape, they are part of my own personal belief system in a wired, borderless world where information is empowering and where success can be found a little easier and a lot more profitably than in the offline world. As such what they stand for and what they represent are important considerations because they also reflect on the world I want to live in.

Prior to the web the world was in the grip of power games where bulk and deep pockets was the only thing which counted. Based on the principle of ‘might is right’ business interests superseded human rights and freedoms, the individual was seen as a negligible unit to be safely ignored and the world was ruled by bottom line priorities which made wage slaves of each of us.

It’s all different now, right? Well, ok, not quite. But you have to concede that the web has changed the balance of power. When a guy like Dave Carroll armed with a guitar and a grievance can make a faceless airline finally admit responsibility and try to change its ways, it is a victory of the single person over the faceless behemoth that’s a corporation and it is only possible thanks to the viral power of web tools like YouTube. Dave Carroll's video is nothing less than enthralling:

We are creating a digital world

Because so many of us are now online we are slowly creating a digital world that’s every bit as complex and interactive as the offline one. I have friends on Facebook, for instance, I regularly chat to about things which catch my attention, much as I would if I saw them down the pub. I meet many of my clients remotely and often advise companies based from St. Luis in the States to Sydney’s Opal strip of retailers on the same day and in their time zones.

In many respects you and I are part of a new digital world in which we are netizens. I want this world to adhere to the principles which made it possible in the first place: openness, freedom of information, equality and empowerment. This is why it matters to me what companies which go online, or are born online, actually do and how.

Google and Facebook were both born on the web. They understand the medium and are driven by it much as they, themselves, drive many of its developments. They have little excuse of offline world hang-ups concerning transparency and freedoms. While they are both, global corporations, with massive profits and I understand they need to make money, I also want them, at a personal level, to reflect my values.

Google’s guiding principle, for instance: ‘Do no evil’ has often been criticized and, occasionally derided, but the company has, so far, been willing to put its money where its mouth is. When, for instance, Egypt underwent a web media blackout it was only Google which had the manpower and expertise to provide a Speak-to-Tweet service where Egyptian people could get tweets out over the phone. It was something which must have cost money and served little apparent purpose beyond the freedom of information and a chance to not allow the old evils of the past to re-occur way from the world’s eyes.

It has been a similar story with Libya where Google, again, rose to the challenge. The Japan earthquake and tsunami combination also gave the company the opportunity to again lead the way by providing a means through which to donate. This was an action the company took in 2004 with the Indian Ocean tsunami which struck Indonesia.

Now I know that Google still benefits from the expense of manpower, man-hours and expertise through branding awareness, growing ‘market’ penetration (in Egypt and Libya to mention just two) and growing proponents and even increased loyalty. I think that’s fair enough. It is after all a business and I do not mind it pursuing business interests and profits when it is prepared to combine them with non-profit activities and egalitarian principles.

Facebook struggling with itself

Facebook, on the other hand, has no overriding guiding principle other than to collect as many people as possible in a larger and larger walled garden of the sort recently criticised by the father of the modern web Tim Berners-Lee. As such it has had a very sketchy history, trampling over individual privacy issues on the one hand, while on the other employing a totally faceless process to ban anything it does not like on a seemingly arbitrary basis.

For instance an app on relationship status was summarily banned and at a time when we all know that a quick troll through Facebook user’s photos will reveal almost anything you may need to know regarding the human anatomy and the rules of procreation, it goes and (equally facelessly) bans a cancer survivor’s picture of her breasts.

It is easy to get polarized here along the lines of ‘this site good, that site evil’. It’s not the case with either. It’s just that Google started out with the right pedigree and Facebook is still struggling to understand what it should be and what it shouldin’t whilst all the time evolving under commercial pressures.

The final responsibility actually lies with neither company. Power on the web rests with each of us and it is our use and patronage of sites which gives them the power to become what they become. What the final shape of the online world  where each of us lives and works and does business in will be, actually does rest with each of us and our willingness to make out displeasure felt through active response when we feel that the principles we want to see on the web are not present.
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