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This week, I spent the morning at an event for a certain global consumer electronics brand where I ran a series of six, 20-minute workshops on how to harness the web. It was fun, if slightly disconerting for some of the participants who were taken aback that the man who’d come to talk to them about technology and the future was using Artefact Cards and black Sharpie pens.

As part of my session, I spent five minutes talking generally about the web and how it could be used by brands in much better ways.

I felt sure, when I was putting together this opening presentation that everyone would have used the web at least once. I mean, you don’t get to be part of a European marketing team responsible for all sorts of communications and online retail platforms without knowing something about the internet and the world wide web. And so, I was certain I needed a decent metaphor on which to hang the delivery of my opening remarks.

The thing is, does the world need another metaphor for the web?

You see, the web is itself a metaphor. And countless others have been applied to it, mostly incorrectly. From ‘It’s a series of tubes’ to ‘The Information Superhighway’, it’s clear that adding a new one to the mix wasn’t going to make it any clearer.

And then, as I sat pondering my dilemma, I cast my mind back some 30+ years, to a time before the web existed, and only a few military or academic types knew what the internet was.

It’s 1980. It’s summer. I’m in a tiny coastal village in Norfolk called Caister-on-Sea. I’m staying at my uncle’s house, a stone’s throw from the beach and the RNLI station. I’m 7 years old and learning to roller skate. I have some coins to spend in the local shops, buying what I thought at the time were the ultimate treasures but turned out to be flimsy plastic toys, buckets and spades and alike. Around the corner from the beach car park stood a building like no other. It was the town’s amusement arcade.

As I sat at my dining room table putting together my Keynote, so I thought more and more about this building and the place it held in my memories.

I could recall the darkness as I walked in, how it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the lack of lighting. I remembered the cacophony of bleeps and beeps, the flashing lights and the higgledy-piggledy collection of video game machines, one-armed bandits and other arcade staples. Almost as if it was happening right there, I ran back the memory of having my 10 pence coins converted into a fistful of 2 pence coins at the change counter. How they made my palms sweat, not just from holding the metal but also from the anticipation of pushing them into the slots and having a few minutes, or as I got better, hours, of entertainment.

It struck me as the perfect metaphor, the one I’d been seeking to describe the web.

You see, the web is the amusement arcade of our time. It houses numerous opportunities to be entertained. There are flashing lights to tempt us away from what we should be doing. We lose hours in there. It costs very little, relative to other things we use for entertainment in 2014.

There are dark corners; within the gloom are strangers who can school us in how to get the best out of certain video games, or perhaps may offer us things we know we really shouldn’t touch; or we’ll find people who are outright dangerous to know. Yet still we visit. Every day. Pushing our two pence pieces into slots. And as new people come along, so we become the strangers looming out of the half-light to see if this newbie will take our place on the high score table.

My youth was shaped by the amusement arcade, just as the web is shaping many people’s lives.

Aside from two people out of the 50 or so I spoke to on Tuesday, everyone got it. They laughed at the thought of the dark corners of the web – a nervous laugh – but they all understood that by playing every day with the tools that is has to offer would make them get better at the game. And how many of those skills on one game could be transferred to a different game – or how learning to use Twitter in an interesting way could then be used to make Pinterest or Snapchat feel like platforms that could be added to the marketing mix.

In the end, I took away 82 ideas written on cards. Of those, 47 had ideas that felt relevant to the brand’s strategic positioning. And of those about 13 were fully formed concepts; two people had even come up with a similar idea without either knowing what the other had written.

All made possible through play. A workshop designed to entertain. The perfect metaphor for brands trying to harness the web.

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