Feature

Digital Essays: The night before

The internet is the world's biggest 24-hour party. Will we look back with pride at what we've done or wake up the morning after with a hangover?

We are being changed. The way we live our lives is being changed and so too are the people around us. What is the catalyst for this change? The internet.

The online world has undergone exponential growth in the past five years and has developed an interesting new persona, light years away from its sober roots in academia and universal information access. The internet has revealed itself as the world's biggest 24-hour party, full of every type of human being and behaviour (from the fabulous to the socially inept, the crazy to the genius, the dull to the brilliant), all hanging out in amazing places, sparking off one another in unexpected ways and trying new experiences.

In 2005, people split their time online almost equally between the core tasks of pure communication, such as e-mail, and functional stuff such as shopping, banking, entertainment and news content.

A year later, these activities had to make room for the new kids on the block, driven by the broad church of Web 2.0 and its easy access to simple online publishing tools. From YouTube to Facebook, and Flickr to LinkedIn, consumers are actively combining communication tools with their own individual content creation and using online as a social space. These new activities have given people the opportunity to meet others, shape their own environments and create their own content. Something quite alien to the internet of five years ago.

We no longer surf alone on a solitary journey akin to going out down the high street from shop to shop or online from website to website. The internet has become more of a personal space that we inhabit and customise, and into which we invite people, products and services.

Imagine an empty space with your living room right in the centre. Now remove the walls and place all the weird, wild, safe, sensible, conservative and challenging things that fill the real world you live in around you. None of them can enter your space, but you can invite any of them in - if there is a good reason to - simply by beckoning. This is the internet reality many people are experiencing, and it is causing some dramatic headlines.

"Teenager trashes parents' house while they are on holiday," for example. Rachael Bell took advantage of her parents' absence on a caravan holiday to host a house party. She posted an invitation on her MySpace page and was engulfed by teen-strangers who trashed her parents' home, causing damage to the tune of £20,000.

When 17-year-old Rachael was released after questioning by police, she emerged to blame internet hackers for the chaos and apologise to her parents. She claims schoolfriends took over her MySpace page and tempted revellers from across the country with the prospect of drink and sex to a quiet cul-de-sac in County Durham.

Even celebrities are not safe. Annie Lennox's daughter Lola staged a similarly wild party organised through her MySpace page and the family home was besieged by random teenagers.

Some of the best advertising is happening for free.

No-one could have anticipated that the confectionery brand Mentos would be at the heart of an internet phenomenon based on what happens when you drop its mint sweets into a bottle of cola. "Mentos Eruptions" were first popularised by Lee Marek of Naperville North High School and, as clips of the eruptions mushroomed on sites such as YouTube, sales of Mentos are rumoured to have lifted by 15 per cent in the past year. Although Mentos' owner Perfetti Van Melle may have been pleased with the unexpected sales hike, it was also faced with the challenge of how to manage potential consumer injuries from re-enacting the trick.

Who would have thought that one of the biggest digital stories in recent years would come from a 21-year-old trying to fund his education? When Alex Dew set up The Million Dollar Homepage (www.milliondollarhomepage.com) selling pixels on his site, he expected nothing. But somehow he caught a wave and finally netted a handsome $1,037,100 from his project. But this was a unique invitation to brands and it's little surprise that Dew's latest venture, Pixelotto, and other copycat sites, have failed to find the same success. Yet how many ad agencies had wished they had been first with the very same idea for their clients?

What is most striking about the big "digital" stories is that they are the same as the old ones. It's just that the speed, scale and spread of the event have changed. Parents will always suffer wrecked homes by wretched offspring, unexpected social events could always lead to big sales increases, and some crazy ideas have always hit gold.

But if you accept that the experience of the internet is moving from the public (stranger, beware, closed, reserved) to the private (friends, family, open, relaxed), then it helps to explain why online behaviour is changing. A person's network of friends and contacts is no longer limited by work, home or school. It reaches across continents and time zones and connects with individuals sharing weird and wonderful personal interests. Similarly, a social event is not confined to the single grouping in which it occurs but can be transmitted and received throughout the privately shared spaces of the internet.

Given this, it is entirely logical to expect brands and people to change the tone of their behaviour to fit into the new environment. But in the rush of brands wanting to catch the latest consumer wave, many have floundered and their mistakes have, too, become digital folklore.

People say that they don't want to be controlled - but, as we all know, children left to their own devices have a habit of screwing things up. Perhaps we should all welcome a little bit of "mediation" every now and then. Otherwise the big question in five years' time, when people look back at 2005/06, will be about whether we were all pioneers of a brave new world, or simply people who got a little intoxicated by the enthusiasm of the times, and woke up with a hangover. Older, wiser, and somewhat discomforted by our behaviour.

- Mark Iremonger is the head of digital and Mark Hancock is the strategy director at Proximity London.

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