On the Record: Who Could Care Less?
The empowered consumer is something we have heard a good deal about since the web took hold. As a concept it stands up to a certain amount of scrutiny. More people are accessing more information to inform more decisions in their everyday lives, including what to buy and what not to buy. Gone are the days when the salesman had the deck completely stacked in his favor and the consumer had to rely on trust and dumb luck.
However, it's not a concept that can be applied universally as not everyone wants to be empowered - and certainly not all of the time. After all, one consequence of being empowered in one's decision making is the marked absence of a scapegoat if it turns out your decision was a bad one (apart from yourself of course, and we know how good a lot of people are at facing the consequences of their actions).
But while the concept of the Empowered Consumer clearly holds water, what about the Empowered Citizen? Has access to ever-more information from different perspectives on issues of the day seen an increase in the general sense of citizenship? Political wonks - particularly those on the left - have long talked of the Web's great ability to enable participatory democracy and to motivate and mobilize people's interest in issues of collective importance. Basically they've been speaking in the same terms as the marketing community speaks of Empowered Consumers.
But while many aspects of the core concepts are the same, the realities of each are very different. While Empowered Consumers have continued to grow in number and influence to the point where large corporations have had to be more responsive in the way they communicate and do business (let-go media; user-generated advertising competitions; customer recommendations etc.) and new competitors have emerged over new communication channels, in the political world, the Empowered Citizen has remained relatively rare and impotent.
Sure, once in a while the occasional blogger sets off a story that is then swallowed up by the mainstream media, but the general audience never gets to see the original blog, which is all but lost in the feeding frenzy. And despite the fact that we now have access to ceaselessly updated news feeds from multiple sources delivered over the Web, we seem to know (and care) less as a population about the world around us than previous generations who had less news less available to them.
Everyone has seen or may recall images of protest against the Vietnam War, civil rights marches, anti-nuclear demonstrations and so on. If nothing else, they showed that at least a portion of the population cared and wanted to be heard. What had motivated them? A combination of what they had seen in the media and heard from speakers at events. Now, at a time when there are many points that in those times may have been expected to draw similar reactions, we see little or no protest. How come?
In November 1984, in the midst of a terrible famine in war-torn Ethiopia, coverage on British television news and in newspapers moved musicians such as David Bowie, Sting, Bono, Bob Geldof, the Eurythmics and many others to record a song ("Do They Know It's Christmas?") in one day that would normally have taken weeks to bring together. It debuted at number one on the British charts, was number one in the U.S. just two weeks later, and went on to sell 50 million copies worldwide and lead to a similar recording the in the u.s. ("We Are the World") and the Live Aid concerts.
What's interesting is that, while so-called traditional media - in a time of less hard news - was able to inspire such responses, why do we appear to have lost our capacity to participate in a time of wall-to-wall media and 24-hour news?
Is the media choosing to ignore it or are today's news formats (keep it light and moving fast) just not getting into real issues in any level of detail or depth? Are we overloaded with information or do we just not care? Would we really rather play Fantasy Football and watch Heroes than seek out alternative viewpoints?
Or, worst of all, have we become so complacent and disillusioned with the system that informs us and governs that we really can't be bothered? Are we becoming a society not of Empowered Consumers but Apathetic Citizens?
Mike Bloxham is Director, Insight & Research at the Center for Media Design, Ball State University. (firstname.lastname@example.org)