An entirely new role for brands in social media
I love flashmobs, I really do. And I like those moments of collective subversion, such as making Rage Against the Machine the Christmas Number 1.
But the real promise of collective action will only be realised when there’s money involved as well as time. When flashmobs become cashmobs. Theoretically, one of the greatest improvements in the quality of human life in a generation is already within our reach - it will become possible once we learn to use the internet to enable large groups of people to get together and collectively microfund public goods. This development would also provide a welcome opportunity for consumers to move beyond their obsession with individual acquisition and consumption, and to spend money on a healthy mixture of public and private investments.
The Victorians, being rather public spirited, were much better at collective funding than we are. Take the green taxi hut above. You may have wondered why these huts tend to be found in such upmarket locations (Grosvenor Gardens, Cheyne Walk, etc). The reason is that they were built by public subscription. The residents of these prosperous areas shrewdly reasoned that, with a cabbies’ cafe in their square, there would bever be a shortage of hansom cabs available day and night, so they got together and each pitched in a tenner or so towards the creation of a cafe.
At the moment, even with the internet, we aren’t very good at this kind of thing. So it falls to government to fund most public goods (see here for a definition) – with a few exceptions (such as broadcast TV and fireworks displays – oh and most of the internet) being funded by advertising or brand sponsorship.
The trouble with government is that it has so many calls on its money that it is very difficult for it to do anything that isn’t life saving or economically essential. Things that are merely entertaining or culturally interesting fall outside its remit. In fact one of the reasons the National Lottery was created was precisely to pay for the kind of nice but non-essential things which public opinion (“what with people dying in NHS hospitals, etc”) would no longer allow government to fund.
It seems to me that one possible role for brands would be to enable this collective action to take place. They may need to create a few financial mechanisms first – such as a credit card system where you would not be charged for your pledge until the required number of pledges had been reached. But, thanks to work on game theory by the economist Alex Tabarrok, there is another role which brand-owners can play in enabling collective action. That is to play the role of the entrepreneur in a Dominant Assurance Contract.
Unless you are a keen anarcho-capitalist, you may not have heard of the Dominant Assurance Contract, but it is a vitally useful concept if brands are to find an effective role as magnets for collective action.