What do the events in Egypt over the last few weeks have to do with your business? More than you might think.
For starters, I want to be clear about my intent. The events of the last several weeks are far more important to the lives of the people in Egypt than anything we’re going to discuss here and I’m by no means qualified to comment on what happened other than to say I wish the Egyptian people nothing but peace and success as they move forward. At the same time, important parallels exist that demonstrate how the Internet really works—and how you can make it work for you.
The Internet—especially in its social, local and mobile forms—played a crucial role in the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Alexia Tsotsis at TechCrunch notes,
“Mubarak shut down the Internet, and the Internet paid him in kind.”
Why? Egypt lacked independent broadcast media for years, without causing the results we’ve seen in the last few weeks. Why was this time different?
To answer that, you’ll need a tiny piece of history. If you’re not interested, skip ahead a few paragraphs. But, if you hang around, I’ll try to make it worth your while.
There’s a popular—and false—story that claims the Internet was designed to address the United States Department of Defense’s worry about a single nuclear strike “decapitating” command and control, (this was the the early 1960’s, after all). Supposedly, their goal was to ensure that messages to attack U.S. enemies got where they needed to go, even if much of the communications infrastructure of the day was wiped out by incoming missiles. How’s that for a cheery thought?
Even though this story is false, the Internet was designed to route around “interruptions,” regardless of the form they took and get the message through, kind of like the Post Office’s “Neither snow nor rain…” creed on steroids.
Again, the key point is the Internet sees a disruption to service and routes around the problem. That’s how it was designed. The culture that’s grown up around the Internet increasingly views society the same way (see the whole WikiLeaks mess for an extreme example as well as the Egypt scenario). As recent evidence suggests, that view isn’t necessarily a Bad Thing or a Good Thing. It simply is. (Clearly, though, some uses are “Badder” or “Gooder” than others).
(There’s a great article about the version of this view known as the Streisand effect—along with many examples—at Wikipedia. Kind of wild that such a libertarian mindset grew out of supposedly Cold War military thinking, but, that’s probably just a testament to its utility).
Hosni Mubarak didn’t learn this lesson and thought he could interrupt the service. Turns out, he was wrong. The Internet enabled Egyptian citizens (“customers” from a certain perspective) to route around traditional controls and demand the result they were looking for. (And, yes, I’m confident this is a gross oversimplification of what happened in Egypt. That doesn’t make it false).
It’s the first time I can think of where this has happened on a national scale or with such significant consequences. But, anyone who remembers the “United Breaks Guitars” story or Motrin’s brouhaha with new mothers has seen this happen before. Admittedly, I’m not aware of one yet that resulted in a CEO leaving in disgrace, but I suspect that’s coming.
I once heard a panelist at a conference legitimately suggest ways to “head fake” your customers (i.e., “astroturfing”). What?!? Here’s an idea borne of the lessons in Egypt: if you want to seem like you respond to customers and give great service, why not actually respond to customers and give them great service?
Don’t get me wrong. Neither consumers nor the Internet require you to do anything you don’t want to do. You can choose to offer limited service, fewer features, tiered pricing—and still succeed. What you can’t do is pretend you’re doing something you’re not. Southwest Airlines has thrived for years by delivering only a few things to their customers. But those few things were exactly what they promised.
Your customers are continually finding new ways to access the information they need to decide what, when, where and how to buy. You can try to shut down that access. But, ultimately, don’t be surprised if the only thing you succeed in shutting down is your business.
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