Becoming digital

I blogged elsewhere that I have been re-reading Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book, Being Digital. Many future-looking books (and blogs!) age poorly, but Negroponte’s work is a notable exception.

Toward the end of Being Digital, Negroponte talks about four defining characteristics of a digitally connected world, one in which we are “decentralized, globalized, harmonized and empowered”.

Negroponte predicted a future in which:

  • the traditional centrist view of life will become a thing of the past;
  • “the sole limitation of geographic proximity as the basis of collaboration, friendship, play and neighborhood” will go away;
  • “previously partitioned disciplines and enterprises (will) find themselves collaborating, not competing”; and
  • participants will be empowered, and “the access, mobility and ability to effect change are what (will) make the future so different from the past”.

These four characteristics of “being digital” help explain why associations may feel challenged by the persistent expansion and widespread use of social media tools: they reduce or eliminate the barriers to entry that associations, once established, have classically enjoyed.

Often formed and maintained as the central voice of a trade, profession or interest, associations have leveraged their ability to bring together geographically dispersed voices. However, as digital tools reduce the impact of geography, the value of traditional resources like associations begins to decline.

Associations have responded in a variety of ways: becoming more local, emphasizing in-person opportunities; becoming more global, exchanging and leveraging skills and resources across a national or international landscape; or becoming broader, bringing together the collaborative parts of an industry, often using media tailored to the needs of a range of members and associates.

Successful business-to-business media companies illustrate that these options are not mutually exclusive. These companies have “surrounded” their audiences with a range of content and services across multiple platforms. They have also consolidated, something that few associations have yet to try.

If Negroponte’s vision holds true, associations will change what they do and how they are organized. They will also need to adjust the extent to which they must serve as the voice of their trade, profession or interest.

With the digital generation now the membership recruiting target, associations may need to shift from a primary focus on products (a magazine for mailbox members) or services (certification) to solutions (providing the physical or digital marketplace and directing participants according to their needs). Those that are slow or unable to adapt risk will no longer have centrality or geography to protect them.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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