New technology is driving us to mass individuality

One of the great joys of technology is how it allows us to personalise, to mark out our own individuality in creative ways.

So, of all the groovy applications for mobile phones - music, photos, even video - the biggest and most enduring have been ringtones and wallpaper: applications that you can make your own.

This is what Web 2.0 is all about - try Netvibes.com, your own homepage created by you and populated by RSS web-feeds from any site you find interesting.

The total sum of editorial content consumed by humanity is now more diverse than at any time in history because of this phenomenon.

But there's a conundrum. We remain community animals, we live in tribes and we thrive when we know where we fit in our community. Much communication online and in person is designed to negotiate these positionings, and sites such as twitter.com enable participants to stay on the radar with a series of one-liners about what they're up to right now.

MySpace and Bebo users are happy to reveal their mobile phone numbers and where they are going to be on Saturday night, as well as autobiographical minutiae that astound their parents and other older, "wiser" people.

It's a conundrum: we want to be individuals, but we need to belong.

At the Google Zeitgeist conference last month, a 23-year-old guy called Josh Spear finally began to draw these apparent discrepancies of the human condition together for me. He called it "mass individuality".

It's an idea that has spawned fascinating new businesses such as Threadless.com. Here, users design a T-shirt and upload it to the site where the community votes on it. The designs that are liked the best are then produced in limited-edition quantities and made available for sale. The company is shifting a million T-shirts a year.

Or there is Startmobile, the self-styled "premier source for wireless content from the world's top emerging and underground artistes". Very much more interesting content for your mobile than the lame stuff that came before it.

This desire for individual expression, ostensibly a rejection of crowd consumption, is made to work alongside the undiminished desire to belong by this notion of mass individuality, powered by technology.

It didn't exist before, because it couldn't have.

- Richard Eyre is chairman of the IAB, richard.eyre@haymarket.com.

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