“Rate everything!” This video for the Jotly app, an app which rates everything, demonstrates to us how this positivist and excessive frivolity of collecting user data can be driven on ad absurdum (or, in other words, social media cannot only create a lot of buzz, but also a lot of noise.)
We hover between Web 2.0, the participatory web with features such as rating systems, comments and like functionalities, and web 3.0, the semantically enriched web, which holds new promises for us. The methods of web 2.0 to collect user-data will be slowly outgrown by more sophisticated technologies for sure. Data as such doesn’t say much about the user who participates in a range of activities across a range of networks on- and offline. This is stated also as a conclusion by Mark Granovetters in his network study called The Strength of Weak Ties:
“The most pressing need for further development of network
ideas is a move away from static analyses that observe a system at
one point in time and to pursue instead systematic accounts of how
such systems develop and change. Only by careful attention to this
dynamic problem can social network analysis fulfill its promise as a
powerful instrument in the analysis of social life.” 1
Since the online marketing world has focused on social networks, the question is still quite puzzling what to make of all this data and also what does it actually tell us about the user’s desires.
Studies show that social media platforms and services will soon reach market saturation. Mainly because social media consumers only have a limited capacity of time to click, rate, comment and update. Coincidently, bold voices are claiming the death of social media. Why is that? Maybe we still lack a proper understanding for the form of new media? But that’s a different topic.
Let’s go on asking then what is actually so new about online advertising and marketing? It has become clear by now that just by opening a Facebook fan page and inviting everyone to click like, or the Groupon strategy to slash numbers and percentages onto the user, isn’t exactly smart communication. It very much stays within traditional models of seeking attention.
It is rather disappointing that platforms like spotify and youtube now play jingles or clips and are becoming more and more reminiscent of radio and television. Have we not left the mass media market to the mass men long before the arrival of the WWW?
More sophisticated applied technology makes use of collected user data. It follows the trends of customization and personalization. The customized advertising leads to what Chris Anderson in his book “The Long Tail” has claimed to be a market where less is more, where any desire can be fabricated. Or one could also call it desire calculation.
What is different in this model from older marketing paradigms? On the one side, it strictly follows the more recent one:
In the 1960s a revolution in advertising took place. No longer did the product stand out by distinguishing characteristics, no longer did it feed to any real demand of the consumer. But through higher competition in the markets, the strategy was to assign somewhat imaginary desires to the product that could be marketed to targeted groups with differentiated lifestyles.2 With the advent of the post-modern consumer subject in a society of affluence, there was a turn in marketing from the object (the product) towards the subject (user, consumer).
We can see this in the online world, too. Apple and google apply this philosophy to make it as easy as possible for the user to use the product. In the case of google providing a search engine with a single search bar and in the case of Apple to make operating the system more intuitive. The same logic is applied to the new services in social media, where social becomes almost synonymous with “easier” to get the information across or to access the relevant information.
On the other side, brands seem to show more and more their human side. They demonstrate that people work behind the brand. They share common values, tastes and so on like their customers. Brands (want to) identify more and more with their customers. Brand and customer come closer to each other by evaluating what they have in common.
The key here is, of course, to know what I want or need and when I want and need it. This brings me to my current topic of interest: desire. What do we want? Well, what do we really want?
Let’s clear up first the easier question: What does capitalism want? The capitalist form is the appropriation of surplus value. The object of desire is its unconstrained expanding productivity, the object cause is the surplus value.
“[…] the capitalist logic of integrating the surplus into the functioning of the system is the fundamental fact.The explosion of the hysterical capitalist subjectivity that reproduces itself through permanent self-revolutionizing, through the integration of the excess into the “normal” functioning of the social link (the true “permanent revolution” is already capitalism itself).”3
This circle of desiring, the imperative to enjoy in advertising, never really reaches a point of satisfaction. It only drives the capitalist desire on the back of our own desires.
Worse, it could possibly happen, that marketing-to-user desires is soon be replaced by marketing-to-user data. Furthermore, with content-driven marketing campaigns and user-generated content, the free services on the internet are actually financed, as we know, by the free labour of the user.
A rather new form of user data is data of user behavior. The next step in the evolution of computers is a computer that can speak and is able to communicate with us in order to receive more meaningful information about our desires. Users feeding the personal assistants like Siri with data not only provide free labour to improve the algorithms, they also feed the machine with data that makes it possible to track and dismantle human behavior.
“Siri is collecting a monster database of human behavior. Siri goes beyond “need” to “intent” – not what somebody wants, but why.”4
As Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic pointed out:
“The quantified self is just getting going on its path to the programmable self.”5
Which of the two is actually more terrifying?
Customized products, entertainment on demand, machines reading from our lips what we want… BUT, does it not also shift power over to the consumer in the end? Isn’t it nice, first of all, that somebody listens to us. If not in the political sphere, then at least in the commercial world, as consumer subject, one seems to have a voice and impact.
Once the user/customer/consumer is let in on co-creating the experience together with the product, this can also shift power to the consumer/ customer, which is what I would like to see more of. Examples of consumer victories by using social media have been posted in this info-graph here:
Another example and learning lesson could be the online best seller “50 Shades of Grey”. It shows first that word of mouth recommendation still works best, because it is more trusted. (And that’s where social marketing wants to place the product.) And second, what the user actually wants is somewhat surprising, something naughty and not a substitute for that.
The web is slowly turning into centralized, privatized commercial space, where data is owned and swallowed in the cloud and hence the rules as to what happens with the data are made and controlled by the ones who own them. Full Revolution ahead! Of course it is important to keep the web as an open space for community services, open access and information sharing. But the question remains, what to do (meaningfully) with all this user-generated data and user data? What will the cookbook for social media marketing and online advertising look like that caters to a consumer subject who is in multiple networks, performing multiple roles and being conscious about their behavior online.
I think what will become more crucial in measuring desires and identities in future social networks is to realize that what makes each one of us unique cannot be put into an equation based on what we “like” or “rate”, but by the quality of individual experiences, knowledge and culture. What’s new is the two-way street between brand and consumer, the co-creation and mutuality created by further customization and targeting online. Products could be produced and consumers could find what they actually want. Not by creating artificial demand, but by knowing better what to offer. This could possibly substitute for an economy that drives on the particular ideology of promising never-ending happiness, more success, perfect bodies, and so on. So long, enjoy!
Mark Granovetter: The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network theory Revisited, Sociological Theory, Volume 1 (1983), 201-233. ↩
see Thomas Franks 1997 book The Conquest of Cool. ↩
Slavoij Zizek: Object a in social links, In: Jaques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis, 2006. ↩