This morning at PSFK’s “Good Ideas in Digital” salon, the consensus was that 2008 was the year “virtual reality” we’ve been prognosticating for decades has finally arrived. Only, instead of coming to life with some kind of sci-fi-3D-style headgear, it’s taken the form of intuitive technologies like Wii, Guitar Hero, and (arguably) the iPhone.
What makes these technologies so transformational is how they bridge the digital with the analog. “You don’t have to learn anything new,” said Noah Brier, strategic planning head for digital shop Barbarian Group (and creator of the addictive Brand Tags). “They allow you to interact in the digital world in way we intuitively understand.” In other words, explained Mike Arauz from digital think tank Undercurrent, “We’re not becoming more like computers. Computers are becoming more like us.”
The croissant-fueled conversation covered “digital trails” (nothing online will ever be erased), online identities (not only shaped by you, but by others), and what’s being called “passive collaboration” (you may not even realize your online actions are part of crowdsourcing). As someone who personally oscillates between my luddite self and my tech-curious self, I’m thrilled by all the experimentation, connectedness, and new forms of self expression being spawned by Web 2.0. Computer geeks like Jonathan Harris are becoming the Andy Warhols of our time; it feels like we are inside what will become an artistic movement as revolutionary as the Renaissance or Dada. At the same time, the purist in me wrestles with too much technology (the Scrabulous phenom pained me!). I can feel the A.D.D. pull of too many cool devices, gadgets, and apps; these days sitting in a crowded room accented with Blackberries and iPhones often feels empty. Getting someone to be psychologically present is becoming a luxury.
But, let’s get back to brands. The discussion finally shifted to how marketers fit into this constantly shifting Web 2.0 ecosystem. Undercurrent’s Arauz applauded shoe retailer Zappos.com’s social media love affair; all employees are encouraged to interact with customers anywhere, any way, online. However, PSFK’s Piers Fawkes was quick to point out how the strategy recently backfired when laid off employees Twittered the news instantaneously. It’s this vulnerability, the group agreed, that brands need to open themselves up to in the Web 2.0 universe–and if they don’t want to play, others will play for them. But Barbarian’s Brier warned against the panacea approach CMO’s tend to fall for when it comes to new technology platforms: “There’s no magic answer for matching Brand X with Tool Y. Whenever someone says ‘this is good universally’ that usually is the first sign it isn’t.”