Debating Internet’s role in business success at FFWD Advertising and Marketing Week 2015

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“Is the Internet the answer?” is a big question to ask, but its ambiguity left little room for middle ground in a spirited debate as  FFWD Advertising and Marketing Week 2015 began this week in Toronto.

Moderated by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, the talk pitted Andrew Keen, author of The Internet is Not the Answer, against Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image. While Keen sees a somewhat dystopian image of the future in this new digital age, Joel is optimistic about the opportunities it can provide — along with what he says it’s already provided.

Keen began the talk with the three main points of his book. First, that the Internet is contributing to the “gaping chasm” between the rich and the poor. Second, that it’s contributing to the crisis of unemployment. And third, that it’s increasingly turning users into products through mass surveillance.

He illustrated this point by talking about the case of photo company Kodak, which once employed 145,000 people. The company was effectively killed by Instagram, which, at the time of being purchased by Facebook, employed about 35 people. To this end, Keen called the current economic recovery “a jobless recovery.”

But Joel saw the death of companies like Kodak — and many newspapers — not simply as a casualty of the Internet’s supremacy. He said these companies made poor business decisions, and proved that the companies weren’t willing to make the change as digital caught on more and more.

“Choice” was the crux of Joel’s argument. While Keen argued that companies such as Uber and Google have created monopolies in their respective fields, Joel said that the reason these companies are in such an enviable position is because they’ve made the superior product. Several competitors to heavyweights like Google and Facebook have risen and fallen because users just didn’t like them, he argues. Remember Ello?

Besides, Joel said, the Internet provides new avenues for people to make a living in an economy with fewer and fewer jobs. He used Etsy as an example, saying that before the site existed, artisans had little control over how they could sell their product. In contrast, Keen sees it as a “winner-take-all” economy, in which there are only a few success stories.

Keen also mentioned the “hidden costs” of online businesses, namely Amazon, who make life easier for people. He says that while everyone can use it to get items cheaply, the company is accused of poor labour practices and demolishing the idea of retail, not to mention attempting a monopoly on publishing.

While use of personal data is something both Keen and Joel agreed needs to be better communicated by companies, Joel is more optimistic of potential benefits. He says as companies get better at personalization, it will become easier and easier for websites to make smarter recommendations. Meanwhile Keen said that a machine is still not even close to making the same type of recommendations as a human being.

Most importantly, Joel and Keen don’t see the huge businesses of the Internet age as good or bad. They’re simply a consequence — for better or for worse — of the new digital age.

Look for more coverage of Advertising Week Canada later this week on B2BNN

Photo via Twitter account @TheSirenGroup

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Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas is a staff editor at Digital Journal Inc. He is a graduate from Ryerson University's School of Journalism in Toronto. He also founded Grayowl Point, a Canadian music blog that's been online since 2009.
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