September 24, 2017

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The Internet, Tom Friedman and Tibet

The Internet, Tom Friedman and Tibet

I love Tom Friedman. His books like “The World is Flat” and “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” reinforce that the ability to communicate quickly – and globally – have truly lowered barriers to communication in unimaginable ways. Just this week, we have seen major troubles in the global financial markets – countries that worry about another country’s currency or economic performance “dragging down” another’s stock market. So yes, we are connected, globally in ways that we could not have imagined in years past.
In my class at Georgetown, I often talk about the breathless, pre-bubble busting hype that preached that “the Internet [is] going to change everything!!!” But in the beginning, what really happened was that print pages became Web pages. It was only when the Internet became so big that it became, not a big glob of people, but a series of networks that its true value was demonstrated.
Whether you know it or not, if you go to ESPN.com to fill out an NCAA bracket, to BabyCenter.com for parenting tips or Morningstar.com for financial news, you are part of a community. These communities make up the larger whole, but things work well only if people have unfettered access to information. People who are part of groups trust each other more than they trust people outside of communities. Pre and post Internet, this is true.
Moreover, trust communities evolved into consumer-generated media, which is now what many believe to be the backbone of the Internet. You Tube, Facebook, MySpace and 130 million blogs have demonstrated that as communicators, aren’t really in charge any more. We are mediators more than we are communicators. Millions of people are producing content, and people are finding it and reading or viewing it.
So in this world of millions of Web pages, the explosion of consumer generated content, how do people find the information that they are looking for? Most would answer “Google.”
To me, Google truly became THE dominant force in the Internet not after their successful IPO, but when the word “Google” when from a noun to a verb. You don’t say to the guy in the office next to you, “Hey, look this up on the Internet using a search engine,” you say “Google this.” It has entered our lexicon to levels when making a photocopy turned into “xeroxing something.”
So we’re all one, big happy, global, connected family, right? Not completely.
As you may have read, the Chinese government, as they have done in the past, [blocked You Tube and Google](http://www.infoworld.com/article/08/03/17/Google-News-YouTube-blocked-in-China-amid-Tibet-riots_1.html) in response to information and videos being pushed that offered demonstrable evidence of the riots in Tibet. Google has not said much on this, likely not wanting to antagonize a the main client of a billion-person potential audience, but did say:
> “We believe that YouTube offers citizens the world over a vital window on their cultures and societies and that they should not be denied access to video information.”
So with all respect to Tom Friedman, with roughly one quarter of the world’s population without unfettered access to news and information, filtered by what the government deems acceptable, the world is indeed NOT flat. You Tube and Google will likely be restored soon and people will turn their attention elsewhere, but this is an important lesson for those who say, “the Internet has changed everything.”
If the “new” Internet is consumer-generated media being produced and viewed unedited by a global audience, the answer is “no.”
*[Mark Story](mailto:mas353@georgetown.edu) is a part-time, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a full-time communications professional at a government agency in Washington, D.C. Prior to the government, Mark worked for 11 years in some of the largest online public relations shops in the world.*

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