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Waiting For the Next Watt’s Engine in the Age of Digital Enlightenment

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The foundation of the Scottish Enlightenment during the 18th century was universal literacy. Out of that foundation came intellectual curiosity, discovery and discourse, Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, and Watt’s engine. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Scottish Enlightenment and from my reading of that time I draw parallels between that explosion of discovery with today’s digital world. Where universal literacy helped foster Scottish scientific and economic development in the 18th and 19th centuries, I sometimes think access to Web content creation and participation, while not yet universal, will have a similar impact on economic, intellectual and societal development.

Some of these digital developments — Conversation, SEO, Twitter, social media, crowdsourcing, community management, Web 3.0, semantic technologies, social networks — will be discussed at the PRSA’s upcoming Digital Impact Conference: Learn to Profit From New Media, where many of the speakers will be exploring how to use the world of digital for the next great discoveries.

I’m personally curious about semantic technology or Web 3.0, where people use technology to pull content together from disparate sources across the Web to provide actionable information. I will be talking about building sustainable communities at the conference. I’ve come to realize that the scope of the Web means that today organizations need technological help to find conversations about their industry, and processes for triaging and managing a response to opportunities and threats that exist on the Web. I’ll be exploring how companies are starting to use social media research with customer relationship management, and that in the final analysis technology is merely a tool for helping companies to get to the point where they can interact with people in their industry’s community.

One aspect of the Scottish Enlightenment was that the pioneers of the time came together in taverns, coffeehouses and clubs to share and discuss ideas. After reading about those conversations and relationships, I wanted to build similar relationships with colleagues in my industry, until the Web and social media my attempts seem hollow and fumbling in the dark, the digital world has had a dramatic affect on my world view and the opportunity to learn and discuss ideas. The technology is helpful, but for me and as I will describe in my talk at the conference sustaining relationships in a community has to be a function of personal connection, value and process.

John Cass, Research Fellow/Advisory Board member, Society for New Communications ResearchJohn Cass is the author of “Strategies & Tools for Corporate Blogging,” researches the impact of social media and search technologies on business. He is a Research Fellow and Advisory Board member of the Society for New Communications Research. He was previously Director of Marketing at, Director of Blogging Strategies at Backbone Media. He was 2005/6 president of the Boston chapter of the American Marketing Association.  He has been blogging at his PR Communications blog since 2003, and advises business executives on how to integrate social media into their business.

Join Cass at his session, “Create Sustainable Online Communities: Improve Your Presence on Twitter, Blogs and Forums”, at PRSA’s 2009 Digital Impact Conference: Learn to Profit From New Media, on April 30-May 1 in New York, NY.

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John Cass


  • I agree that you must have a personal connection on the web. Most people do not understand this. With so many social networking sites, blogs etc., people are confused and develop a social ADD. I have to admit that I was becoming victim to this as well. It is important to really connect with people in order to benefit them or visa versa.

    Building relationships for me has been the hardest goal to achieve so far.

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