On becoming a “damned slave” to the product.. Crowd sourcing, data mining, and the ‘market revolution’ of Web 2.0

•November 25, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Confusing advertising conflating communist iconography and rhetoric with M&Ms and democratic elections..

Democratic, revolutionary rhetoric transformed into marketing iconography.. Corporate Reddolution!

Today I attended a thought provoking seminar by Richard Kozinet on “e-Tribes and Marketing: The Revolutionary Implications of Online Communities”. It was from a marketing perspective, and its opposing orientation to most sociological perspectives on online privacy, interaction, participation, critical engagement, commercialisation and consumerism forced me to reflect upon about my assumptions and attitudes, and indeed my ideological position as a sociologist towards capitalism. Buried in sociology and cultural studies I tend to forget about the political aspects of my discipline- indeed, despite my interdisciplinary interest in technology- I tend to neglect the opinions of many other disciplines. Yet with something like marketing, which has such an impact on the strategies of consumerist media strategy which pervade so many aspects of both offline and online existence, aspects, it really pays sometimes to sit up and take notice of what they are saying, if only to help solidify a resistant position with regards to it.

It was a fascinating experience. I felt like I was listening to the viewpoint of an ‘opposing side’ – not an enemy, per se- that would be taking it too far, but he took an almost totally opposite perspective on the implications of online interaction to that typically taken by sociology- framing positively the very aspects of contemporary online spaces which some sociologists find suspect, whilst problematising the less controllable, more messy, democratic and critical aspects of online interaction which many sociologists would find interesting and positive instances of critical engagement.*

His description of interaction and the development of group specific codes of acting and of relating to specific products and ideas, as well as his depiction of overall trends towards ‘passion-centric’ communities and away from ‘traditional forms of community;, were in fact in my view quite accurate, sociologically informed and grounded well in his data. It was just the interpretative spin that was flipped around. He stressed the usefulness of the ‘wisdom of crowds’, the use of internet users and internet communities to organise and sort data – to create advertisements, to promote and even create products, and provide endless free, easily accessible feedback on brands and products. He spoke of the ways in which large conglomerates have built a marketing superstructure over online social spaces, turning them into giant marketing panels of data- exemplified by social networking sites. To hear that starkly put from an uncritical perspective was jarring indeed.

What really hit home for me about the ideology of marketing and how different it is from sociology was when he was displaying a newsgroup poster’s account of their transformation into what might be called a ‘consisseur’ of coffee through interaction with others in a coffee related group. This news group user was talking semi-humourously about how he had become a ‘damned slave’ to quality coffee, how interaction on the group had soured him towards the easily available stuff, and how now he had learned to be so distinguished in taste that he was researching ways to roast his own raw coffee beans.

From a sociological perspective it was an interesting account- the group had apparently developed a very specific and informed consensus about what constituted good coffee, similar to things I have observed myself in some forums. From a marketing perspective, Professor Kozinet singled out that phrase “I’m a damned slave to coffee” as something that marketers would be interested in- implicitly, something they would want.. a way to reproduce and direct this community negotiated expert consumerism towards their own products.

I could imagine the alter ego of that lecture- with the same descriptions, the same illustrations, the same underlying data, but just flipped round, critiquing and problematising market driven attempts to mobilise the participatory, individualistic rhetoric of Web 2.0 to facilitate and legitimise the mining of data and the sourcing of free labour and the exploitation of the relationships built up in online communities, but also stressing in a more hopeful tone the the myriad of ways in which people online nonetheless often manage to take up critical orientations towards companies and capitalism, and develop discourse internet in ways contrary to the intentions of marketers.

Phrases from Tribor Sholz’ thought provoking and amusing article on ‘market ideology and the myths of Web 2.0’ were crowding into my brain about marketing’s concern for how best to ““to manage the marriage of money and nonmoney without making nonmoney feel like a sucker.” Sholz’ perspective is a refreshing. somewhat cynical peeling away of the fluffy, euphemistic, almost utopian ‘rhetoric of democratisation’ and participation surrounding Web 2.0 in its suggestion that Web 2.0 is a “framing device of professional elites that define what enters the public discourse about the impact of the Internet on society.” I have a very critical attitude towards Web 2.0 and Sholz’s article underscores some of the reasons why we should question its usage and be careful whose discourse we are perpetuating.

After this lecture I watched an interesting popular video about Web 2.0 by Michael Wesch called “the Machine is Us/ing us”. We need to stop being dazzled by the pretty new Web 2.0 rhetroic ask and critically reflect on who and what is behind this ‘machine’, who is owned by, directed by, in whose interests? Who *really* is us/ing us?

I did find myself reflecting, however, where some of my strongly negative attitudes towards the manipulation and use of online interaction for marketing purposes stem from. Is the commercial inherently negative? In my worldview, it often is, especially when it’s huge and powerful, when I can see it uprooting and rearranging things, even though I recognise that profit is a necessity for many online enterpises. I think I retain in my subconscious some original utopian ideal of the internet as a space where content should be diffusely distributed, freely available, owned and hosted locally and not by global conglomerates. I resent the creeping centralisation of online spaces for interaction and the growing normalisation of the use of private data for commercial purposes, even if, as yet, I haven’t identified any particularly insidious unethical uses of these data.

Incidentally It’s interesting to me that for such a thoroughly consumerist and capitalistic culture, there’s a surprising amount of negative connotations to terms like consumerist, capitalist, and commercialism. Commercialisation connotes amongst other things, exploitation, banality, sanitisation, the crushing of creative expression, appropriation, assimilation, staleness, safeness and cliche. Consumerism has connotations of conspicuous consumption, at best ambivalently positioned by such opposing notions as ‘bling’, ‘luxury’, ‘tackiness’, ‘class’, ‘glamour’, ‘glitter’ and ‘trashiness’. Not to say that culture is anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist by any means, more that when we do talk about it reflectively, it’s usually in negative terms.

Perhaps it’s just another example of the same kind of paradoxically contradictory rhetoric of culture and the media that encourages us to indulge ourselves in drink and rich food yet at the same time stigmatises indulgence as ‘greed’, as unhealthy, immoral and corrupting.

*This is not to reflect badly on Richard himself – I get the impression that his attitude is in reality quite neutral and that he likes both the corporate friendly and more corporate unfriendly aspects of the internet, and that his strategy of comparing them with the goals of marketing is really a pragmatic one, as most business perspectives must necessarily be. I perceived an enthusiasm for the media, his true excitement at its ability to promote creativity. I just disagree with his uncritical overall perspective.

** Brain hurting M&M image courtesy of studio seventy7.com

Social Networking Sites for Roleplaying??

•November 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

As part of my research I’ve been looking at profiles on the most popular and accessible Social Networking Sites just to get a feel for what users tend to do with their profiles and how they use them. Although I’m aware that there are many celebrity/fictional character/embodiment of abstract idea profiles, I tend to view Social Networking sites as very much prioritising the presentation of the ‘real life’ self – located geographically and represented visually in photographs, and tied to ‘real life’ personal details of age, locale, education and gender.

I was very surprised then, to find that some people are apparently using Social Networking Sites for serious roleplay, despite their extreme structural unsuitability for the development of a coherent narrative. I found it surprising enough when I encountered extensive roleplaying in a forum- even though the forum structure is ideally suited to roleplay with its long, traceable sequential threads of posts- because I’d just never thought of forums that way. I would have thought roleplay on SNS virtually impossible. Yet there was the evidence!

On Bebo I found the profile of an anime character. What was especially puzzling was the confusing way in which most of their profile details were relating to their fictionalised persona, but there was continual slippage into real life preferences and details.

Of the actual roleplay going on, it was well nigh impossible for an outsider to follow due to the responses of other characters being spread throughout a variety of other people’s profiles. Obviously keeping track of these developments and participating in the storyline was dependent on having the other characters as friends, and of course, anyone viewing from outside couldn’t really participate. They were not co-creating a story, as in the forum example, more involving themselves in small in-character interactions with their in-character friends.

I’m going to have to have a look at how MySpace roleplayers do it, and compare it with Bebo.

What’s this about? Research into Identity, Gender and Online Social Media

•November 11, 2008 • 2 Comments

Hello invisible non-existent audience! I’m doing a PHD in Social Research at Edinburgh University (Scotland, UK) into issues of gender and identity in Web 2.0 ‘networked social media’- mainly Blogs and Social Networking Sites.

This is one of my most likely futile attempts to make a blog to document the research process, post links to articles and resources I find useful, and generally build up a disorganised mass of material that should hopefully be helpful to me and might eventually be helpful to other researchers. I will hopefully keep angsty teeth grinding and woeful headdesking to a minimum.

Occasionally, I may cross post my various dispersed musings on Internet Research, social networking sites, blogs, and the world.

My Research area, as of 2006 or so, courtesy of xkcd