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‘The End Of Big’

The end of big: does technology spell the end of big companies, big institutions, big politics? And is David the new Goliath?

Nicco Mele

Nicco Mele (Joshua D. Wachs, Busy Brain Studios)

The Internet has built a reputation as the “great leveler.”  The little guy doesn’t need a printing press to have a voice any more.  He, she’s got the web.

Sometimes that looks awesome – in Tahrir Square when the web seems to be empowering thousands of ordinary folks to change the world.  Sometimes it looks bad – like yesterday when one hack in AP’s Twitter account sent things spiraling on fake news about the White House.

My guest today says get used to it.  Good and bad, it’s new times.

This hour, On Point:  the “end of big,” and David as the new Goliath.

- Tom Ashbrook


Nicco Mele, author of “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath.” Lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Internet operations director for Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Founder of EchoDitto, a leading internet strategy consulting company. (@nicco)

From Tom’s Reading List

Boston Globe: Nicco Mele on how technology radically changes everything – “Big things that are ending include big newspapers, big universities, big political parties, big armies, big entertainment companies, big government, and big manufacturing. It’s the DECLINE OF POWER of these big things.”

Nieman Journalism Lab: The end of big (media): When news orgs move from brands to platforms for talent — “The data behind Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 are the latest terrifying signs of the decline of the news industry. With three of America’s most esteemed papers for sale — The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times — it’s time for a reboot to the fundamental business model for news. News revenue remains overwhelmingly dependent upon advertising, but the radical connectivity of the Internet has greatly diminished both the scale of newspapers’ reach as well as the value of advertising.”

National Journal: The End of Government as We Know It — “In a must-read for political and policy junkies as well as futurists, Mele argues that the Democratic and Republican parties must urgently embrace the bottom-up ethos of radical connectivity — or perish. He also says arguments over the size of government are outdated, because the real question is how we redefine governing for the digital age.”

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  • http://freeourfreemarkets.org/ Steve Banicki

    When was the last time you got good service from a big bank versus a local credit union. You go to the bank because maybe they have a better product or price. Eliminate that and the little guy wins.

  • http://twitter.com/anniesmidt annie smidt

    This sounds good! I was just writing on this topic this evening, vis-a-vis truth in advertising. It’s so much easier to be genuine and have a really real “brand” personality when you’re small (and with access to all the social and self-publishing media channels) than when you’re a corporate behemoth, plagued by bureaucracy, too many stakeholders and too much at stake. And people, naturally, do like the truth when it comes down to it. 
    Just one of a zillion reasons why small, agile, and, ultimately, innovative/disruptive concerns will overtake the old guard — and why it will be a good thing for our economy and our hopes for any sort of sustainability.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Dream on annie. Dream on.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Google is so small.
    Facebook is so small.
    The class size of an edX class is so small.
    Globalization is so small.
    The world economy is so small.
    Global justice is so small.
    Cosmopolitanism is so small.

    The End of Big?


    The Beginning of Big.

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      I think you are correct. I do think that if “ we, the little guys” were afforded more, in the way of, more technology ( faster computers with more powerful algorithms ) , more tools ( I‘m thinking 3D printing ) , more education ( all kinds ), more capital ( more take home pay ), more free time ( we work far too many hours in this country, doing lots of busy and silly work ), —- we little guys just might shake up some of these big institutions with ‘ break out ‘ products and services. Then “ we “ would be the BIG !

      I am betting that the first Trillion Dollar company will be a space mining company. Of course a manufacturer of fully functioning human styled androids could get there too ! Oh wait, one more. Any person, group or company that could corner the market on hyper-computing just might be able to take it all !

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        When the little one becomes big, he/she becomes the new big one. The little guy doesn’t triumph over the big and stay little, they just become the new big. Mark Zuckerberg was just a little college student. He ain’t anymore. The End of Big thesis sounds like the end of mass popularity. I highly doubt that will ever happen. That the whole world will just break up into little splinter factions, and nothing big and massively popular and massively successful will exist.

      • The_Truth_Seeker

        They just get bought out. If you refuse to sell, eventually “something” not so good will happen to you. Happened to Diesel (he refused to switch his great engine overfrom bio-fuel to petroleum). If he hadn’t have died, we’d probably have been driving bio-fueled cars for the last 100 years (and no Gulf oil spill).

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Facts trump “pop psychology” and wishful thinking every time. Most of these “book writers” don’t really have to work for a living. Tom Friedman is another one of these “experts” on everything!

  • Shag_Wevera

    Not even close.  Philosophical navel gazing at best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.kay.7777 Gary Kay

    Ain’t gonna happen!

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    There is such a thing as too big – above a certain size, organizational performance degrades: information degrades as it is passed from the bottom up through 9, 10 or 11 layers of management.

    Leadership risks can create it’s own reality distortion field and feel entitled. Execs cease to view employees as coworkers and collaborators contributing to the success of the business: they become viewed as costs.

    Corporations become the influenced by the concept of ‘shareholder value’ and manage the company quarterly based on stock price even though many of those share holders may be swing traders sitting at home in there pajamas or machines
    executing programmed trades holding interest in the company for all of 2 1/2 seconds. Core values key to success are given lip service.

    The massive power that execs wield and their sense of herculean responsibility compels them to feel entitled to tax incentives because of the blessings they bestow upon the country: skewing the balance of power in the marketplace and in politics as they feel compelled to share less and less of the profits of the company with employees who do the work that creates the success and more with gamblers on Wall Street.

    Although 9 in 10 people in the US want expanded background checks for gun sales, the senate cannot agreed to pass a bill not watered down by the gun lobbyists indicating the level of corruption and influence in Washington. 

    The good that large corporations have bestowed upon us is now, for the most part, eclipsed by the damage that they are doing to our country and our society.

    Smaller companies live and die by the core values of success. Long live small companies!

  • Coastghost

    Are the prospects for “Big Public Radio”–our friends at CPB, our colleagues at NPR, our chums at PRI, our cousins at APM–are the prospects for Big Public Radio equally as dire? The seriousness due Mr Mele’s arguments will be shown: when stations close, when generous salaries and benefits are slashed, when programming and producing are both curtailed, when public radio’s 24/7/365(366) programming schedule is permanently abandoned, when pledge drives get shorter and shorter for lack of available donations.

    Mr Mele might as well be saying plainly that the automobile has already begun to disappear from American life and American attainability.

    I think somehow Mr Mele’s Big Public Radio survives intact. –I mean, unless all our universities croak.

  • Jasoturner

    Bank of America
    American Airlines
    Baker & McKenzie
    JP Morgan

    Seems like the dominant market players are generally pretty big.

  • jefe68

    The end of big. Does the author realize that those glasses he is wearing are are possibly made by one corporation.

    Luxottica, the Italian eyewear manufacturer, owns nearly every recognizable brand of eyewear in the world. Top designer brands like Ray-Ban, Oakley, Coach, Dolce Gabbana, Prada, Tiffany, Bulgari and dozens of others are all designed and manufactured by Luxottica. And it doesn’t stop there. Luxottica also owns a majority of the eyewear stores in the United States. Lenscrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Oliver Peoples, Sears Optical, and Target Optical are all owned by the Italian company.

    I doubt that they will giving this monopoly up anytime soon.

    In most areas of the US there is not much choice in terms of internet service. Cable or DSL. The US is about 30th in terms internet speed in the world. The South Korean national standard is more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States. They pay about $28 per month. My slow Verizon DSL account costs me $50.

    End of big? I don’t think so.

    • The_Truth_Seeker


  • Yar

    Big data! It rules, profile everything.  We know more about you than you know about yourself.  I bet we can even tell who manipulated the market with false tweets.  Why are the most successful stock market players children of insiders?  God in omnipresent. If that is the only definition of God, big data is getting pretty close.

  • http://twitter.com/Mithrandir48 Jeff A

    Many examples people are bringing up didn’t even exist 15 years ago (Google & Facebook).  The internet allows more people to compete, it’s not that they aren’t going to get big but it’s easier to become big quicker than ever before.  Just because you’re a big company and you’re great at what you do doesn’t make you immune to losing a ton of market share, just look at what has happened to Microsoft in the past 5 years and what will happen to Apple in the next 5 years.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      That is just a changing of the guards. That’s always been the American way. We move up and down the economic ladder. Families and companies don’t reign for decades and centuries.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      But who’s getting rich from all this technology? Isn’t it mostly the same people (including the already rich early  investors in the new start-ups)?

  • Yar

    A unconnected smartphone is no cray supercomputer.  The global computer network is not small by any definition. False comparison.

  • http://www.facebook.com/emily.h.lacroix Emily Harvey Lacroix


    I would say that people have MORE power, but there’s still plenty of big.

  • creaker

    It’s the one big constant – change.

  • http://twitter.com/Mithrandir48 Jeff A

    Look at how books and applications are now created…anyone can create them and find them at the click of a button.  I wanted to create an app for Android that accomplished a goal I just wanted for myself (adjust all volume settings from one location) and after a couple of weeks I had an app out in the Google Market place…today the app (Volumizer) is nearing 100,000 downloads.  I even created a paid version of the app (Volumizer Pro) that automatically changes volume settings based on day of the week and time of day; now I receive a check from Google for $5 every few weeks (it’s not much but hey a little extra money).  Basically, anyone can learn to do these things with a little bit of effort and anyone create a product in their own home.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Great! … so pretty soon we will all (but the rich) be working for $2 and hour … GREAAAAT!

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior


    Within large corporations, big organizational and process
    pathologies can develop and stifle innovation and harm customer satisfaction.

    Small companies are vulnerable to such pathology but I’ll wager more likely to
    fail due to the greater impact of such failings.

  • ToyYoda

    I disagree that it levels the playing field.  It distorts the field even more so. I think the author mistakes big for physically big, as in huge number of employees, number of factories, etc, with logistically big. It’s the latter that matters. Who has the most say, influence, power, money, etc.

    The internet allows for word of mouth networking effect that causes those with a random advantage to snowball their advantage.  

    It concentrates success to those who are already successful whether deserved or not.  Instead of a Gaussian distribution of success, you get a power law distribution. This has been well documented effect of well connected networks. For instance take songs. Popular songs just get more popular. Just look at Gangnam Style.

    You end up with a sort of exponential stratification.  Another example is writers, the publishing industry published a table showing the breakdown for number of authors vs book sales. The exact numbers, I forgot, but the distribution looked very much like an exponential distribution. For instance, 1/100th of the writers make 10x more money then the next class below them.

    The internet just changes what big is, from physical to logistical, but the conversion has been happening over the centuries as our society emphasizes information.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      The top 7% of our society got 28% richer over the last 2 years alone, while the bottom 93% lost money over the same period. THAT tells you something about the playing field getting leveled!!! 3D printers, or not!

  • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

    End of big? Are you kidding me?

    Verizon, Comcast, Exxon Mobil, Disney, Clear Channel

    These are being made BIG by technology.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Agree 100%

  • jefe68

    And yet our connection speed is lagging behind a lot industrial nations. We are 30th and falling in terms of speed and we are paying more for internet access.
    How does this play into Nicco Mele’s overview?


    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Excellent point! Also the AIA act will make it all but impossible for those of limited means to obtain (good) patent protection for their new inventions. The age of the small time inventor are over.

  • creaker

    The stability and growth of the internet is what allowed my company to move a boatload of its big operations (and jobs) to India.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.cadzow Daniel Cadzow

    3D printers, which can even print new printers, might also be a helping hand for all the “Davids” out there.  Certainly a way to overcome planned obsolescence with some disposable products.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1819093986 Scott Turnbull

    Wikipedia may settle out as crowd sourced accurate, over time, but it absolutely cannot be trusted as a verified, vetted source in the short term.  The fact that it can be updated by “Joe Average”, with no vetting of Joe’s input prior to it appearing, means that information can be wrong at any given moment.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Indeed the web lacks integrity: not only has the web promoted falsehoods and lies indirectly, or been manipulated to do so, the web is full of webtrash: irrelevant, unwanted garbage.

    It empowers radical ignorace to the nth degree.


    • Expanded_Consciousness

      The web doesn’t do anything but be a receptacle. The people deposit the information and the people make certain information popular.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Yeah, like the results of the 2004 Siemens Science Competition!

  • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

    A $1500 3D printer to make a $10 iPhone case? Sounds like dude needs a course in Adam Smith 101.

    And, BTW. Remember when Inkjet printers were expensive then plummeted in price? The reason was BIG HP figured out and taught other BIG printer makers that gouging printer owners for ink cartridges allowed the printers to be loss leaders. 

    What makes him think 3D printer makers, who will not be eBay mommy-shops, don’t know this?

    Finally, while PC sales plummet mainframes and supercomputer sales are hotter than ever.

    • J__o__h__n

      Can you print a 3D printer?

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Good points! You also left out the fact that most people just like to buy stuff – not spend effort making stuff.

      How many people fix their stuff when it breaks?

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrishoffmeier Christopher Hoffmeier

    A great example of online institutions doing what governments might have done is the blacklisting of WIKILEAKS by pay pal and others. I have heard relatively nothing in mainstream media since the “blockade” started.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Very good point! The traditional news media is deathly afraid of Wikileaks because it is not controlled by lawyers and large corporations – it is raw news (not highly “produced and “filtered” news). Wikileaks will never attract advertisers. I heard that Amonymous will be starting up a similar “uncensored” news service.

  • J__o__h__n

    I’d prefer NPR to be less local.  The national shows have better journalists and newsreaders.  WBUR had the local team blathering instead of airing its own superior On Point on Friday.  And WBUR isn’t even that local with its expansion into Martha’a Vinyard, the Cape, and the other locations that make it a chore to listen to the list of them at the end of every hour.  I’m sure the residents of those communities were better served with a locally based station.  I don’t care about most of the local news in those communities any more than they care about the strictly local Boston news.

  • TomK_in_Boston

    It actually seems there are 2 trends. Corporate power is off the charts, aided by technology, offshoring and union busting, and it’s absurd to say goliath is going down.

    OTOH, the corporate environment has become so toxic that those who can are opting out to start their own companies, often internet based.

    So on average, the USA is f***ed, but if you’re a talented geek or gene manipulator you can carve out your own space. The unraveling of our middle class society into a 2 tier society continues.

    • TyroneJ

       Unfortunately, most Internet companies are like Facebook, Twitter and such, in that they basically produce nothing but distractions, yet consume lots of resources.

      • TomK_in_Boston

        I was thinking more of little companies – in Boston half the people I know are in an internet or biotech startup.

        As for FB and Twitter, they are strictly small time amateurs at producing nothing and consuming resources, compared to companies in the RICO financial sector.

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      Don’t forget the new AIA (“America Invents Act”). The news media was completely asleep when that went into effect on March 16. 

      If we had changed gun laws even 10% of what was done to 230 year old patent law, there would have been riots in the streets and the news media wouldn’t have stopped talking about it for years!

      • TomK_in_Boston

        “America Invents Act” helps big companies, which are doing less and less inventing as they become financialized, and hurts real inventors. Surprise.

  • i_is_j_smith

    To everyone who sold their shares yesterday because of a single tweet, I know a Nigerian dictator who is willing to give you millions if you send him your banking information as well as some really cheap Viagra…

    • TomK_in_Boston

      The selling was done by computers. They won’t seek riches in Nigeria till the singularity.

      • i_is_j_smith

        So let’s just hope that nobody ever tweets “Just saw Timberlake at the White House, and he was the BOMB” or “Love the Spring! Beautiful explosion of color at the White House garden!”

        • TomK_in_Boston

          ha ha

  • i_is_j_smith

    And another thing…while the splintering of Big Media might be great for my choices, it certainly isn’t great for my wallet.  Thanks to exclusivity deals I now need to pay subscription fees to many different companies if I want to experience those multiple choices.  Dish+AMC for one show.  HBO for another. NetFlix for another.  Hulu Plus for another.  Amazon for others.  I’m paying far more than I ever have when everything I watched was all on one system… 

  • Trond33

    I work with small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies in the realm of international business development.  The Internet and new forms of communications have empowered these SMEs.  Today they can leverage inherent flexibility to quickly respond to market forces, bring out new products and segment their product lines to market tastes like never before. An SME can easily out maneuver large and cumbersome multi-national corporations.  … Of course, the issue becomes that the deep pockets of multi-nationals at some point try to buy out the SMEs, putting them in their inefficient corporate structure.  

    — On another note, it is time OnPoint did a segment on H7N9. Indications out of Taiwan is that the virus has mutated to allow for human-to-human transmission.  

    • The_Truth_Seeker

      You forgot about the AIA changes (“America Invents Act”) that went into effect this March 16. Those will change the balance, real quick, back in favor of the multinationals (and cyber-crooks).

  • http://twitter.com/bbelgard Brian Belgard

    Historical political parties as a grass roots network?

    This guy completely lost me on this point, among others. 

  • The_Truth_Seeker

    The new AIA patent rules (“America Invents Act”) will shift the balance back to the large corporations (it was designed by them and their lobbyists that way).

    Why doesn’t the media cover what the AIA will do to American innovation and invention in the coming years??? Why didn’t the news media and more lawyers question the constitutionality of the AIA???

    When it’s the second amendment the news media and the public is all over it, when it’s Article 1, Section 8 of the the original Constitution … Congress gets to change it all they want and no one says anything! They will in about 5-10 years, when we no longer are #1 in innovation and when independent inventors and small start-ups go extinct!

  • The_Truth_Seeker

    The top 7% of our society got 28% richer over the last 2 years alone, while the bottom 93% lost money over the same period. THAT tells you something about the playing field getting leveled!!! 3D printers, or not!

  • Jacob Arnon

    The idea that WBUR on point is campaigning against BIG is. a joke. As long as the. Can blog posters who express a contrary point of view as you have done with my home IP you are the essence of BIG. It is not as if I som kind of radical, but stating my Jewishness and my view that you allow antisemitic posters to post here was enough t o ban my IP. You would never do this to someone complaining about racist comments.

    This says a lot about you.

    Since I have posted very infrequently here it is no big loss to me. It is a bigger loss to you.

  • The_Truth_Seeker

    If you are printing shoes for your kids, I feel sorry for your kids!

    • Regular_Listener

       Haha!  I can see the kids now, cringing at having to wear their home-printed plastic (or felt or whatever) shoes to school, knowing they will be lambasted by their peers! 

  • jefe68

    It’s interesting to note that both of today’s shows featured annoying entitled white men spouting off their wisdom as if they are 21st century soothsayers.

    • TyroneJ

      And your having an issue with that is very telling. What do you want them to have on as guests about environment, economy & business topics? Annoyingly bad “rap artists” who write trivially bad poetry and hire real musicians to write their music tracks?

    • http://twitter.com/p_szabo Peter Szabo

      this is interesting, and I often think about diversity or lack-there-of in any range of situations, but the fact of the matter is that Tom Ashbrook hosts the show and Nicco Mele wrote a book on an current/urgent topic. Diversity of viewpoints is important, but forced diversity is not as beneficial as genuine interest and knowledge. A more telling question might be regarding the backgrounds of the callers because, supposedly, the call screeners took the best, most thought-provoking questions. How are different social and ethnic groups represented? Why might they be mis- or under-represented? what can change that? I believe it all comes down to improving and extending our nation’s public school system.

  • David Palmer

    Reading these comments (and, actually, most comments on most websites, no matter how erudite the content) is truly an amazing experience.  As someone who lives abroad and has to explain American culture regularly, I’m truly at a loss.  (But I used to do radio comedy and even had a piece run on WBUR, so I guess I should see the humor in it all.)  Still …

    • Regular_Listener

       Your comment is interesting, but I’m not sure what you mean.  What is so strange?  How would people do it in other countries?

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