In Defense of Godin, Google, and Open Systems

Pity Seth Godin. The management guru and überblogger poured a tempest into a teapot in late September when he announced Brands in Public, a series of Web pages that collect online chatter about companies. Godin wanted to build a portal for brand conversations, but he made a critical mistake. Instead of inviting companies to participate, he launched Brands in Public with 200 sample pages, posting public gossip from Twitter and blogs about brands, whether they opted in or not. Marketers could "curate" their pages, such as by adding their own comments, if they paid a monthly fee of $400.

Faster than you can say "brandjacking," bloggers, usually in love with the kind Mr. Godin, cried foul. Posting discussions about brands without their permission? Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media called it "hostage taking." TechCrunch said Godin was forcing brands to "unlock" their pages for a price. Nevermind that all of Brands in Public's material was readily available from other free online sources, including Google (GOOG) and Twitter Search. Godin quickly took the sample pages down and made theprogram opt-in only.

Come on, companies, bloggers, and even you, dear reader. The world has changed. And guess what: You don't own your ideas anymore.

Ideas are Free to Roam What's that? Can it be that ideas themselves, the offspring of innovators and organizations, cannot be protected once they are released into the wild? Well, yeah. I'm hardly the first to make such an audacious claim. Social media has been eroding ownership of brands and ideas for years. Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield puts it bluntly in his book The Chaos Scenario. Consumers, Garfield says, are "using your products, your brand names, your iconography" as if it belonged to them, which, in a way, it all does, because after all, haven't you spent decades, and trillions, to convince them of just that?"

And this isn't just about brand ownership. Bloggers and private citizens are coming to terms with the idea revolution, too. Here's proof:

On Sept. 23, Google launched "Sidewiki," that lets users mark up sites with notes and opinions. Trick is, these comments are visible in a Google-powered Web browser window, not on the Web page itself. Even Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor who has urged newspapers to loosen restrictions on content, seemed stunned. Sidewiki, Jarvis blogged, "is not adding value to the conversation by organizing it but instead trying to hijack it".

Microsoft (MSFT) announced this spring it will shut Encarta by the end of 2009. Apparently the world's largest software company couldn't create an encyclopedia that can compete with Wikipedia, a collection of 13 million articles written for free by avid contributors without anyone's permission.

Microblogging site Twitter is set to receive investment valuing it at $1 billion. Twitter has risen to popularity by allowing scores of other companies to play with, even bastardize, its name and system. And now some investors believe Twitter could become the next communications revolution, on par with telephony and e-mail.

These stories tell it all. Google lets anyone scribble on any Web site; Microsoft couldn't compete with crowdsourced content; Twitter grew by allowing anyone to experiment with its business. Everyone is playing with other people's ideas, creating power for the idea manipulators such as Google and Twitter, and fear for the idea losers like Microsoft or even you.

The Facebook Fracas Like big brands, you individuals still don't get that your ideas are becoming unowned. Consider the Facebook terms of service foofaraw. In February, The Consumerist blog noticed Facebook made changes to its service terms that gave it access to users' material even after they deleted their accounts. So the blog wrote a scandalous headline: "Facebook's New Terms of Service: 'We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.' " Within days, 50,000 Facebook users had signed online protests, fearful that Facebook wanted to "own" their information, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg soon issued a public apology.

Really, people? A free social network wanted rights to repurpose user data in a way that probably resembles what Experian (EXPN) does with your credit-card habits? Does it surprise you Facebook might want to make money from your public data? The intriguing pattern here is that the very thing consumers like —the ability to manipulate free content, such as MP3s, videos, and Wikipedia entries—is what they abhor when it is their own information being shared.

Fighting this trend can create a comical effect. Kraft Foods' (KFT) Vegemite warns the world not to link to its Web site. The Washington Post (WPO) discourages editors and writers from posting their own opinions on Twitter; in response Post columnist Howard Kurtz tweeted, "Under new WP guidelines on tweeting, I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes."

Information is Free Go ahead. Try to stop the flow. The hard lesson for all of us is that anything you plug into the world's information system is no longer private. Open systems flourish, and closed systems are often derided, or worse, ignored.

You may have lawyers, trademarks, and copyrights. Good luck with those fingers in the dike. We can't promise that if you give up control you'll be as valuable as Twitter. But it's pretty obvious that those ideas will soon escape anyway. You'll succeed more quickly if you embrace it. As management consultant Don Peppers once wrote, it's not a single idea that will make you wealthy, but your continued ability to produce new ideas.

So Mr. Godin, on behalf of the hypocritical universe of beings trying to lock up their creations while playing with the ideas of others, we apologize. You should have kept Brands in Public public, because information no longer yearns to be free. It already is. If you can find something, repurpose it, and leverage it, then bully for you. Heck, that's why we're writing this column about you, Seth Godin, without your permission.

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