From the beginning of time, mass communication was reserved for royalty, collective religions and governments. The barriers to entry – from the logistics of propagating a message across distant and hostile lands to regulation (laws promoting one religion over another, for instance) – were sufficient to protect that monopoly for 10,000 years.
From pre-history cave paintings and pyramids, to cathedrals and temples, such ‘absolutes’ defined the First Age of Collective Consciousness. During this age, a restricted group of ‘authors’ uniquely able to create and diffuse messages. In most instances, such messages were conveyed as stories; often to regulate behaviour, justify beliefs or ideologies, or to maintain a particular regime.
Starting with the development of moveable type, the cost and complexity of mass diffusion of content declined to an extent that private organisations could embed their messages within the collective social consciousness. By the send half of the 19th century, the advertising agency promoting brands as diverse as travel and tourism, medicines and department stores. This Second Age of Collective Consciousness lasted over 100 years; when brands (and, particularly corporate buyers) defined and determined trends.
The arrival of television, radio, telephones – later PCs and mobiles – stretched that dynamic further, any organisation, or brand, could diffuse the message of its choice on an unprecedented scale. This was the culmination of the Third Age of Collective Consciousness; where every brand was, in effect, a media company in its own right. Barriers remained sufficiently imposing to prevent only the biggest products and services of the day becoming household names. Brands set the agenda and told the story, which was invariably about them – from washing powder to the benefits of a particular brand of aftershave.
Affordable Internet – and, particularly, mobile – changed that dynamic again; the advent of two-way conversations, peer-to-peer communications and multiple platforms removed the last barrier to mass communications for ever. This is the Third Age of Collective Consciousness, where everyone is a potential storyteller, broadcaster or editor-in-chief. Today, it’s the people who decide and define the stories . . . . ones which are invariably by, for, and about them, and not governments or brands.
According to the New York Times, nearly half US adults already rely on Facebook as their principle source of news; others cite Twitter as the real news source of the 21st century. Such so-called alternative or ‘first person’ news sources are even more important to younger generations; 61% of US millennials source political news from Facebook, for instance, compared to just 39% for Baby Boomers.
This ‘democratisation’ of content has huge implications for organisations and brands looking to engage; for the first time in 10,000 years it is individuals who are setting the agenda. We are entering the Third Age of Collective Consciousness, and only brands who realise and adapt to tell stories about their audiences, will prosper.