2009: A Year of Transparency

 

As the Great Recession, the arrest of Madoff, and the Somali pirates were writing the end of 2008, we kicked off 2009 with many a good reason to be cynical. And while it’s easy to say that a skeptical society often brings about a more answerable one, even exciting developments like Obama’s victory (for some, not all) and new technologies added to what I want to call The Year of Transparency. Many are extremely happy to see 2009 come to a close, but we shouldn’t confuse the roller coaster with what is actually a stunning conjunctural moment.

The term “conjunctural moment” is one I’ve only heard uttered by history academics, but it might be the perfect way to describe 2009, a year riddled with the collisions of many different trajectories. There was the uncertain path of journalism meeting the certain path of greed, the new political direction meeting the tides of the semantic web. The result was a sometimes-tumultuous confusion. But action-reaction behavioral models aside, unpacking 2009 can teach us a lot more than we thought.

Accountability – This, I hope, is the future fodder of history textbooks. The rise of accountability is its own conjunctural moment. Beginning with the seemingly endless laundry list of power mongering, we became rightly suspicious of things (executives couldn’t even bear to buy power suits anymore!). We called for retribution from shady CEOs, more answers about where our tax dollars were being spent, and even more details about how the White House works. The accountability trend of 2009 is also felt in ways that can’t be illustrated in surveys and studies. 2009 saw a visceral questioning of authority as the little guy David looked askance at the Goliaths all around. If there was a way to measure the amount of questions received by companies (all kinds, I dare say), I think we’d see that in 2009 Americans felt more justified in holding companies responsible for their work on a scale we haven’t seen before. But it’s not just that we feel betrayed by the global events that predated 2009, it’s also that accountability supports and is supported by all the other factors. And that’s the point.

Twitter – We all know Twitter has been around since 2006, had its first big moment in 2007, and has been growing ever since. But it was in 2009 that Twitter changed the world. Just as transparency needed the medium (ta-da!), so did the elections in Iran. Twitter was a communication tool, a symbol, and a lesson. Back in the States, it let the average Joe take a swing at the big guys – and the big guys listened! People turned to Twitter to comment on the world around them and in doing so the audience became the producers. In 2009, we had more content to sift through and more ways to share it. Reviews were (are still?) the revolution. As Clay Shirky puts it, “The moment our historical generation is living through is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” That, I say, is why we ought to be more excited about what happened in 2009.

Marketing 2.0 – The realization that yes, the conversation is happening all around you, sent marketing executives into frenzy. Those that got it right realized that they could no longer dictate; they had to inject themselves into the message they wanted – an idea first recognized in 2007, but not felt until the downturn of 2009. Some, like this unexpectedly brilliant Best Buy commercial, nailed it right on the head. Best Buy’s CMO, Barry Judge, uses the idea of candid honesty (read: transparency) to actually advertise his advertising. Did it work? He seems to think so. Will it last? I think yes.

It’s not just that 2009 saw a rise in social media that connected new people in new ways and that we tried throughout the year to recover from our open wounds. It’s also that these kinds of things interacted with each other to produce a transparency with which we are still grappling. The point? Being transparent actually made 2009 all the more visible.

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