Media Perspective: Why sharing and openness can lead to global success

One of the things that freaked people out about Web 1.0 was the idea that you could get to be rich and successful by giving stuff away.

It just didn't seem right somehow. So it might be even harder this second time around to accept that the best way to grow your business is to share, to be open, even to co-operate with your competitors. Yet that seems to be the lesson that's emerging - especially for British brands who want to compete globally.

The Guardian is a great example. Depending who you ask and what day you measure it, The Guardian is around the ninth-biggest newspaper in the UK; not a platform, you'd think, for pioneering global expansion. Yet it's also one of the most significant online newspaper voices in the world, dwarfing its UK rivals. It got there through a willingness to experiment, to take some risks and through a commitment to openness: so it didn't keep its best content behind a pay-wall, as The New York Times did.

This meant its writing was easy to find, easy to read and easy to link to: which gave The Guardian influence and importance across the web. (The New York Times has now given up on the pay-wall.) And The Guardian created Comment Is Free, a site devoted to the idea that the opinions of readers are as interesting and valid as those of Guardian talent. Comment Is Free now rivals the more traditional elements of the Guardian Unlimited site in traffic and influence.

Or look at Tate. Who remembers that stuffy, unvisited gallery it used to be? It has transformed itself into a world-leading art institution through real accessibility and openness (and an enormous former power station). Visitors, customers, the people formerly known as the audience, are invited to participate all the time, so the recent exhibition about photography included thousands of contributions from regular folk delivered via Flickr, many of which were better than the photographs actually on display.

Tate is becoming the leading global voice on contemporary art because it's willing to do more than broadcast its views: it's willing to contribute, to host and to listen to the community that's interested in that world.

But this isn't just about some pointy-headed liberal brands giving stuff away out of altruism. This is about hard-nosed commercial competition. Microsoft seemingly out-manoeuvred Google by acquiring a stake in Facebook - famous for its willingness to let people develop on its platform. But Google struck back with a programme called OpenSocial - allowing all sorts of social networks to easily share and interact. If you're still in a business worrying about proprietary techniques and ideas, maybe you should wonder whether there's a way to share your way to global success.

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