The risk of confrontation posed by hashtags sits at odds with another great theme of the conference – disintermediation. Stephen Fry, in his keynote, was the first to raise this – his comments became the lead story for most reports on the event. Fry’s point is that Twitter allows celebrities to break away from the journalist/interview cycle. They can communicate directly to their millions of followers, and the journalists’ difficult or intrusive or mocking line of questions can go hang.
Fry presented this as a democratising force. Andrew Keen, presenting directly after, was far less sure. The “flattening of power” that Fry had presented is an illusion according to Keen. Power is never flattened, it simply shifts, and now it’s shifted from the organisation to the individual. Fry is simply giving a new performance of power.
This shift is best illustrated, I think, by thinking about the difference between corporate brands and ‘personal brands’. The corporate brand entering social media is urged to give up control, to surrender some of its autonomy. But Twitter’s most popular users – its A-Listers, the celebrities – are using it to regain a level of control over their presentation and perception, through disintermediation. The celebrities themselves are happy with this – so are their core fans, who get to feel closer than ever to their stars. Its the uncommitted, the casually interested, the non-fans who lose out – they might have preferred interviews in which journalists got some chances to be prickly.
There’s not much harm in it, even so, if the disintermediation is happening at the level of the celebrity PR puff-piece. But it goes further than that. At the Police Who Tweet panel, one member pointed out that the collapse of local news has hit police reporting – it used to be they could take a local journalist with them on, for instance, a drug raid, but there are far fewer reporters to spare. No matter, thanks to social media the police can put up their own video of the raid on YouTube or Facebook. This was particularly beneficial, said the policeman, because the journalists might have reported the police action in a “negative manner”. Disintermediation at work again!
If power shifts to the individual, says Keen, and authenticity becomes something power is arranged around, then the risk is that will lead to more charlatanry not less, as the key is simply to perform authenticity well. Individual digital power is also highly unequal – on the telecoms panel, talking about how these large, highly regulated companies could become more agile, one member talked about profiling subscribers based on their online influence: the unspoken implication being that the more influential you are, the quicker and better your service will be.