Among the most talked about commercials that aired at the Super Bowl this year were the trio of ads from Groupon that mimicked celebrity "cause" PSAs. Groupon's ads featured D-list celebrities speaking about various causes--saving the whales, Tibet, Brazilian forests--but then calling for humanity to "Save the Money" through coupons discounts on whale cruises, Tibetan curry and a Brazilian wax. You can watch them here, here, & here. The ads were directed by Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) and are hilarious, effective (at getting millions of people to learn of Groupon for the first time), and strangely insightful into the paradoxically self-interested nature of the wiki-world.
The great hope of the networked, power-to-the-collective, wikipedia web world is that somehow the masses will be bound together in common causes more quickly and more efficiently than ever. Somehow we will all become more selfless and more willing to work together across dividing lines now that we're all so interconnected. But this great web we exist within has hardly made humanity more unified. On the contrary, it seems like we're more fragmented than ever--with more and more self-interested cliques and groups and niche blogs vying for the energies of smaller and smaller bands of people.
In his New Yorker article, "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social networks and democratized media will not be the revolutionary force some have hoped for. As Gladwell notes in the article, networks that are free of a single central authority are “enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations” — situations like Wikipedia, where the “anyone can say anything about anything” approach works because falsehoods are eventually corrected by the community. But as Gladwell notes, these networks “have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”
Indeed, the only place where the forceful power of the collective seems to be harnessed on the Internet these days is when self-interest is ensured, as in Groupon. No one will refuse partnership with fellow consumers if a deep discount is at stake. No organization is necessary, no painfully arrived upon compromises or goals are required. You just have to click "buy," along with a bunch of other people. It's a low-commitment activity, but en masse it has the power to triple the profits of a local business and increase the value of Groupon as a powerful gatekeeper/arbiter of consumer behavior. Hence the Groupon slogan: "Collective Buying Power."
Similarly, Facebook is the most powerful social network on earth not because the 600 million users are pooling their intelligence and/or joining forces. They're not. They're playing Farmville or stalking each other endlessly. No, Facebook is powerful because 600 million users equals $50+ Billion of economic value. The power is where the money is, and the money is where the people are.
Meanwhile, the people are just having a good time. They're getting 50% off paragliding lessons and $35 hour-long tours on Segways ($65 value). The huge potential of the aggregated masses on social media mostly just results in 30 million or so views of the most popular YouTube videos, 60k "Likes" on Facebook or 10,000 new fans of a new restaurant in town, thanks to a Groupon deal. For businesses, social media like this is insanely helpful. What better way to get exposure for your small business than to tap into the voracious audience of a site like Groupon, a collection of people for whom consumption-as-adventure is the only tie that binds.