What If Humanity is the Market and Our Future is the Product?

Nightly News anchor in 1980’s

In an earlier blog post, I referenced my parents daily connection to the world through the newspaper and nightly news programs. At the time, there was one major regional newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and three or four channels hosting news programming between 5:00 and 7:00PM each evening. Then it was on to Seinfeld and Cheers. That was the late 80’s and into the 90’s. Then we gained access to cable and the internet, and the amount of information sources increased by an amount I can’t even guess at. Instead of feeling plugged into the world after a maximum of three hours reading and viewing, the news cycle stretched to 24 hours and “printed” news could come from around the world by turning on the computer. My parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents, etc… made informed decisions about their families, their careers, their charitable giving, their health, and their vote with a fraction of the information I navigate and can consume in a single scroll through Facebook. 

This isn’t about information overload, though. Or at least, not in the way of how it impacts our well being or mental health. It’s about how humanity is now the product shaped by the hyperconnected social media spaces available via the internet and our technology. The fight is on for the future of our country and the world, but for perhaps the first time in history, the voices participating in the discourse are not limited to those with wealth and political power. In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson explores the “world of abundance” created by the limitless spaces of the online world. He writes, “Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody… This is a world of scarcity… we are entering a world of abundance and the differences are profound” (p. 7-8).

He’s right for more reasons than just those retail-driven examples of music, books, and movies that he highlights. He means the availability of more diverse consumable products here: “the cultural benefit of all of this [the economics of the Long Tail] is much more diversity, reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit,” (p. 26), but he might as well be predicting the current Black Lives Matter movement, calls for living wages, affordable healthcare access for all Americans, or women’s rights to control their own bodies. In the Long Tail, everyone’s tastes can find space. On social media, everyone’s opinion can find space. 

social media icons

Whose voice sways the masses can be difficult to predict, but we can find some clues in Rachel Spilka’s 2010 book, Digital Literacy For Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice. In that text, R. Stanley Dicks writes in “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” that user-centered design and iterative design support agile development. These strategies are intended for use by companies needing to get products out to consumers at ever-increasing speeds, but they can also be used to predict which voices are more likely to influence social movements. If that voice is a person engaged in the process themselves or is carefully connected to those who are, they are more likely to craft messaging that is user-centered. The comments section and more simplistic “like,” “love,” “dislike” reactions of their audience allows for dramatic user involvement and real time feedback to use for iterations. If they have a history of activity on their social media engaging in a particular discourse or others like it, they’ve been and will continue to be iterating their message and messaging. The voices with the most staying power will be those who are able to adapt their message with as much agility as the masses respond and adapt to everything impacting them via the 24-hour news cycle and all their other social media inputs, as well as the realities of their daily lives. 

When the murders of George Floyd, Amaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many other BIPOC individuals found space in the Long Tail of information available for the public, one of the products in question became the fallacy of American equality, and individuals have had to reckon with their own participation in this economic product that is the American Dream. Once this happened, businesses were suddenly encouraged to act in alignment with this evolving national conscience. The NFL finally acknowledged the systemic racism that they allowed to reframe Colin Kaepernick’s protests into a political statement. It was now good business as indicated by the fact that Nike’s release of a Kaepernick jersey sold out in one minute. 

Kaepernick jersey sells out in less than a minute

Locke, Levine, Searls, and Weinberger break down the complex relationship between businesses and the communities they exist within to an easy-to-follow chain in their “95 Theses.” One of those theses states, “To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities,” and that’s followed immediately by, “But first, they must belong to a community.” The community is struggling to redefine itself in the midst of this abundant space and un”blanding” that Anderson identified as the Long Tail. Neither our country or our economy will settle until the community determines how to move forward in a new reality that has space for everyone, not just those that have been identified as the “hits.” 

Posted on September 20, 2020, in Blogs, Social Media, Society, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Excellent post and your points about Anderson pretty much predicting current day online movements also got me thinking about fundraising sites like kickstarter, gofundme, and even patreon as well as petition sites like change.org. There are countless examples of people using these sites to benefit those in need with one of my favorite’s being for this woman who was never paid for all the food she made leading up to and during the failed Fyre Festival: https://www.gofundme.com/f/exuma-point-fyre-fest-debt

    • YES! What a great example of how social media sites can harness the good of the masses! I love it. I’m thinking about the larger implications of the corner of the social media web you focused on. I’ll have to let it marinate for a bit and come back when I have something more substantive to say. 🙂 Thanks so much for the ideas!

  2. Your post includes a great reflection on the past and future in response to the age of information. It is striking how the world did work without the interconnected online world that has only been with us for a few decades. I like how you talked about the way this affects our decision-making: I wonder about whether people of the past were truly informed or did the lack of instant information limit them? The movements of recent years show that it is not only easier to find information, but also to be exposed to ideas that challenge us. You mentioned that people had to reckon with ideas they did not need to confront in the past: an opposing view is no longer being written across the street or printed in a journal someone may choose not to read. Now it is in the same space, shared through social networks, and easily spread in real time. It also seems that each movement is learning how to improve and continue beyond one moment in a single news cycle.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Liz! I’m considering your point about being more confronted by those opposing viewpoints today than we once were. I tend to see it as the opposite. Google algorithms tailor our searches to the preferences they’ve learned about each of us by observing our web searches, every ‘click’ we make on the internet, things we ‘like’ in our social media feeds, the online purchases we make, the online payments we schedule, as well as our texts, emails, and direct messages. I wasn’t fully aware of this level of integration until I guided my students through a sample search for credible sources online. As I scrolled through the first page of results, commenting on what I noted regarding whether or not I’d click in for more information, they told me their search returned different results in the first page, even thought we’d typed in the same terms. And our news sources, even independent of those online, tend to skew ever further one way or the other. Sometimes it feels like we’ve managed to construct numerous different so-called realities within the same time and space. I’m hoping my perception is wrong, though! 🙂 I’d love to hear if you have different experiences.

  3. You bring up something that has become popular in the past few years. Businesses are taking stances on social issues. While it’s probably been common for small businesses, corporations had always steered away from controversy. However, even though these social issues are controversial, there are also very likely to be proven morally and ethically right in the future, which suggests to me that they don’t see it as much of a business risk. The cynical side of me would argue that they don’t care so much about the social problems as they do about the ROI of using the issues for marketing and publicity–industrial populism, maybe.

    • I agree with you, Aaron. There seems to be more than enough examples to support the assertion that companies only have a conscience when it’s profitable. There have been companies who have made social justice or climate change or [fill in the blank with ethical/moral issues] a cornerstone of their mission (like, truly, through the production process to sales and advertising), but the majority coming out in support of an issue only when customers start demanding it with their purchasing power reeks of hypocrisy, or at the very least, apathy. To that end, I don’t give them much credit for leveraging the profit margin in a social movement, but I do take some solace thinking these movements might be more successful today than they have been in the past simply because they’ve managed to reach that point where businesses have had to align themselves with progress.

  4. I can imagine how much your parents felt inundated with the flow of information when they first got the internet. I also felt overwhelmed when I had to type my assignment instead of handwriting it. As joining the world of technology late, I was a slow typer at first. However, I got used to it as time went by. Now I find myself making typos when I handwrite things, used to the auto-correction on MS (maybe) too much. As you mentioned, in The Long Tail, “everyone’s tastes can find space. On social media, everyone’s opinion can find space”: my questions are “How deeply can everyone’s opinions be reflected on social media?” “Do people express their sincere feelings and opinions on social media?” “Can social media be a sincere, profound ground or outlet for communication in modern society?”
    Thank you for the nice post.

  5. Those are deep questions, YJ!

    “How deeply can everyone’s opinions be reflected on social media?”

    I feel like I could probably develop another whole post on the ways social media either does or does not foster any depth of thought or conversation. Do you think it maybe depends on the platform? A blogger posting on their own site would probably have more freedom to deep dive into an idea than I would bother doing on my Facebook page. My thoughts on this question seem to centering on what I observe as a shortening of attention spans in readers. Going deep takes time and space, and it seems to me that most readers on the web prefer the TLDR version, which must lose the nuance in favor of brevity.

    “Do people express their sincere feelings and opinions on social media?”

    Whether or not sincere feeling and opinions are expressed, I think it again depends, but this time on both the reader and the writer. If a writer is looking for the most “likes” possible or to go viral, their message will certainly be informed more by the what they think their audience wants than what the writer might truly believe. On the other hand, social media seems to provide a perfect (and I don’t mean that in an entirely positive way) environment for a person to say whatever they want to without consequence. Like Taylor Swift says, “If you say it on the streets, that’s a knockout, but you say it in a tweet, that’s a cop out.” 😉

    “Can social media be a sincere, profound ground or outlet for communication in modern society?”

    This seems to be the question we have to figure out, right? It’s amazing to have a space where all voices can be heard and included in conversations, but until we adapt our society to a more communal or cooperative one, these conversations need to find a way to translate to those who hold power in ways that will make them listen. I don’t think that’s happening effectively yet.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts and questions!

  6. Great post, Emily!
    I find the Kapernick jersey story comparable to Pride festivities becoming focused on commercialism rather than political and social progress. In recent years, I’ve noticed more tweets and Facebook posts reminding people that Pride is not about rainbow swag: it’s about justice and inclusivity. And if people do want to buy pins and flags, they are reminded to support local LGBTQIA+ companies or companies who donate money to support the LGBTQIA+ community.

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