Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What are we talking about? Social media utopias and dystopias

Mike Arauz's blog post on Twitter and Digital Conversations got me thinking about another moment in history when there was a change in the power-structure of society driven, in part, by the emergence of more open conversation, what Habermas famously called the emergence of the "public sphere." Arauz does a solid job articulating some of the tensions at work, but ultimately, it left me wondering what we are talking about?

Here's my comment:

Agreed. Great, but what are we going to do with it? Habermas famously theorized that 18th century London coffee shops and the development of "public spheres" were central to helping develop liberal democracies because they helped facilitate free and open discourse among people normally divided by class, status and social boundaries According to Habermas, these public spheres connected the sphere of "authority" (gov't) with the needs of the "people." But these people wanted and needed something: civil rights, voice in the gov't, greater equality. Social media is similarly breaking down boundaries between the producer and the consumer but to what end? the role of social media as a powerful political tool is now self-evident. But as a business tool? How many conversations do we want to have with "brands"? And to what end? Better products?
The most socially progressive social media advocates might make a bigger claim. They'd say social media is going to help brands and companies change the world for the better. I certainly share those progressive values, and hope it's true, but I don't really believe it, for the simple reason that brands and companies or at least for-profit companies aren't in the business of making social policies. (And to the degree they are, it generally isn't so great for the rest of us).

But to be honest, I'm not even sure that's what the strongest advocates of social media are claiming. What are we trying to achieve here, beyond more efficient marketing? Not a bad thing, but not really a politically progressive ideal. Is more chatter between brands and consumers really a good thing? I could easily imagine a dystopian version of this scenario, one that the late great JG Ballard would be the perfect author to describe. One in which all of our social and emotional lives are more fully colonized by brands than they already.

Or to put it another way: what happens when all of our conversations are about consumer experiences?

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