What If Humanity is the Market and Our Future is the Product?
Posted by Emily Hayes
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.
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.
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.”
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