I came across an interesting WSJ.com interview with author Lee Siegel I wanted to share.
The WSJ summarizes the premise of Siegel's new book (pictured here):
"In his new book Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Mr. Siegel [a cultural critic and senior editor at the New Republic] rails against the worst aspects of the Web, which he views as a vehicle for commerce that devalues serious thought in favor of 'page views.' The Web, he suggests, nourishes a youth-focused culture that prefers gossip and buzz to reporting."
Well that got my attention.
The Q&A which follwed in the article (Qs from the Journal's Jeffrey Trachtenberg) reveals more of the author's thinking, much of which seems pretty far out of touch with how we are seeing people use the web:
"WSJ: Is it possible that you've overstated the significance of the Internet mob in dumbing down daily life?
"Mr. Siegel: I don't think so. You can see the leveling of culture in every aspect of culture. You have a situation now where the audience is so exalted and catered to that at the end of a Broadway play you will have the actors applauding for the audience, and the audience will take a bow. That's the power of the Internet, where consumers are seen to have such powers that they must be heeded. What this masks is a crude commercial pitch. Getting people to participate is just a way of getting people to consume (emphasis added)."
This is the same line of reasoning which would tell voters to stay home on Super Tuesday because it's rude to demand they be heard.
I must ask, why is this phenomenon bad? Haven't marketers been in complete control of their interactions with consumers for quite long enough? We think it's about time that consumers had a say in the relationship, indeed started to drive it. We love the internet because it levels the playing field.
Also, I think more than ever before participation is culture - people have many more ways to touch and feel what's happening in the world, and share it. Yes that could result in a purchase of some kind, but quite often it results in a non-commercial action like sharing an opinion or discovering someone you can relate to and learn from. There is a way for participation to be a good thing, and the internet makes it possible.
Siegel continues: "Popular culture has given way to popularity culture. Popular culture draws people to what they like. Popularity culture and Web culture draws people to what everybody else likes. It used to be that Big Brother is watching. Now it's Big Brother is watching, oh, really, when, and how can he watch more? Big Brother, what's his cellphone number?"
I see the author's point here - but is the web a driver of this phenomenon (culpable for creating in) or merely instrumental in its spread (an enabler of what people want)? I would argue that the web is to be commended for enabling people to take their passions and interests (regardless of what they are) to a new level.
Many find the web's bounty overwhelming, and thus "shortcut" to the choices their friends make (in buying a new product or selecting a hotel for a trip, for example). The web creates a problem in offering too much choice. But this is a good problem, and preferable to having less choice.
We love the internet because instead of forcing people to think one way or another, it gives them many more choices and options, with the added advantage of perspective from their friends, peers, even experts. If it's done nothing else, the web has given the consumer much more control (and choice) than ever before (not less!), and therefore the ability to reach better decisions. What they choose to do with their newfound choice is up to them. If they choose to like the same thing, that's their right.
"My book is really about what it means to be online. The Internet is the first social environment created for the asocial individual. There is no signal of a real presence: not a voice not a face. Just words on a screen."
To this I can only say - bollocks. Ask any teenage what MySpace means in their lives (or Facebook) and you won't be able to shut them up - it's their entire universe, it's how they express themselves to their peers, it's how they experiment with aspects of their evolving identities. Or, check out the stories patients share with each other on illness discussion boards. The web is not just a real presence that morphs and evolves to reflect the user's life, it's a whole new dimension for expressing yourself and connecting to others.
If you have a WSJ.com subscription, check out the video accompanying the article. If you don't, download the article: Download author_qa_wsj.com.pdf