So today sees Wikipedia go blank (sort of) for 24 hours on its English language pages. Once again, the power of silence is being brought to bear, this time in protest at proposed US legislation on web piracy.
It’s prompted me to think about the times when there can be great power in silence. Either silence that someone has chosen, or silence that someone has reluctantly thrust upon them.
Being flippant, one of my first conscious memories relates to the latter. As a disappointed five year old waiting in front of the TV, I remember tears on my face as my mother tried to explain why something called unions had decided to blackout ITV and so I couldn’t watch the Muppet Show. That was my earliest lesson in the power of the enforced blackout as a tool of leverage.
But the enforced blackout, cruel as it is, is so often misplayed as a hand. It is the typical tool of dictators (no offense to the ITV unions of the ‘70s in the comparison), and in the court of world opinion it almost always backfires.
So long as the object of the enforced silence has a genuine cause behind them (Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela), the enforced silence actually magnifies the perception of injustice to them as individuals, and to the people and causes they represent.
But today’s Wikipedia action is interesting as an example of the other model of silence – that of the self-enforced silence. From Gandhi through to silent street protests, many a political individual and campaign has used silence as a choice, to demonstrate moral purity and strength of argument. But in Wikipedia’s case we have a new phenomenon, an organisation choosing the corporate equivalent of silence – withdrawal of service – as part of a political campaign.
Now it’s true that Wikipedia is an unusual organisation, so I don’t want to draw too many automatic comparisons with other companies. And we have yet to see feedback on whether its normal visitors are supportive of the political passion of their favourite online encyclopaedia or whether they are just annoyed at losing access to their quick source of semi reliable information.
But, imagine a new debate around boardroom tables, companies debating whether the loss of custom and goodwill is greater than the political climbdown they might secure, and using their economic and place in life muscle to enforce what they want.
Hard to picture isn’t it? Mainly because the mind automatically jumps to the big name brands and the thousands of unhappy customers who would forever curse their name. But it is happening already I believe, just more under the radar. It’s the power of the business that threatens, or hints, that it will move its operations and stop being part of a nation’s economy, it’s the power of companies who increasingly refuse to participate in public tenders, holding out until the tender is re-structured in such a way that it is commercially beneficial for them.
The freedom loving part of me thinks this is exactly what companies should have the power to do. The worrying about the small guy part of me worries that big companies in some markets have the power to dictate exactly what they want, with the threat that they will ‘go silent’ and leave just too big a bluff for any government to be willing to call.
Do competition authorities maybe need to pay as much attention to the power of silence, as they do to the obvious signs of action? And if they start to, then Wikipedia’s silence today really will have had a political impact, even if not quite the one that they intended.