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Breaking The Fourth Wall

House of Cards

There has been much commentary about Kevin Spacey’s new series, “House of Cards”. On the blogosphere, the talk has been mainly about the innovative distribution method via Netflix. The rise of Netflix, especially its recommendations of films by your peers, is certainly a great example of the Networked Economy. At Blockbuster, you could see the shoppers drifting among the aisles not knowing what film they wanted to watch. Solving this problem with the power of the network was key to the success of Netflix. The transformative Network effect, promised in the name of the company itself, turned out to be not streaming over the net (a recent innovation, after Blockbuster had already been mortally wounded) but recommendations from your network.

As noted, a well-worked theme. I want to focus on one of the signature artistic aspects of the “House of Cards” series. I was a fan of the original 1990 BBC series, which was wildly popular, as it happened to be screened at exactly the same time as Thatcher’s deposition by her Conservative Party colleagues. One of the memorable aspects—which has been faithfully kept by Spacey’s remake—is when the protagonist turns to the camera to address the audience directly. One memorable line delivered this way  is,  “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.” The line is still used by current politicians, as a suitably ambiguous answer to a penetrating question.

In acting, this is called “breaking the fourth wall”; a phrase from theatre, where the actors perceive the audience as behind a wall, and it is forbidden to interact with them directly. It might be acceptable in pantomime or burlesque, but about the only time an actor addresses an audience in live theatre is to tell them to “turn off that bloody phone”.

In the Network Economy, we break the taboo and breach the “fourth wall”. Our internal processes of production and finance used to be played out in an enclosed walled garden. The stakeholders of suppliers, customers, banks, and other partners used to be passive observers but now—through the breaking of the Fourth Wall—they can engage directly.

Our internal processes become visible to our partners and we invite them to participate with us. They can share production schedules with us and we can exchange financial documents with them.

In certain forms of theatre, the fundamental distinction between actors and audience starts to disappear. I saw the theatre troop called Showstoppers last year: a brand new musical is created from scratch at each of their performances using audience suggestions to create a show on the spot. The audience is no longer passive, but guiding and shaping the show.

As the Networked Economy matures, the distinction between internal and external processes will similarly blur. Buyers and suppliers will become collaborators, joint ventures will become more common, and maybe the difference between employees and contractors will become increasingly more blurred.

It is no longer taboo to involve people who used to be merely the audience in our drama.

About the author
James Marland
Vice President of Network Strategy - Ariba (Twitter: @JamesMarland)

James is responsible for defining and rolling out strategies for the Network with particular focus on Europe. He joined Ariba at the launch of the Ariba Network in 1998 after previously being a Solution Consultant at SAP America. In addition he ha... Read More >>>

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