“The eyes are the mirror of the soul”

How the Web Transforms Consumerism and What That Means to Organizations

“The eyes are the mirror of the soul”The web has changed a lot of things about the way we consume media. It’s flipped our primary communications infrastructure from a one-way, to a two-way flow of information – and that change in the way we communicate is redefining who we are.

Businesses and organizations of all types need to understand that their customers and other stakeholders are no longer just passive “consumers.” The new media landscape is turning them into active participants in the value creation process.

Medium = Message

It was Marshall McLuhan who helped us understand that “the medium is the message.” By which, he meant that to understand communications, you need to look at both the content of a message as well as the method by which it is delivered. You can experience the story of a lion cub through a book, a stage, an IMAX mega-screen, or an iPad – and in each case, it will feel quite different.

Media can be used both to create and to communicate. The word “medium” can mean a “material used by an artist or designer to create a work“, or it can mean “the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data.”

In the golden age of television, most of us experienced TV as a communications medium – one that delivered programming to us. For actors, writers, and producers, however, TV was a creation medium – extending the physical medium of film and creating an experience for the rest of us.

Creators and consumers were separate and distinct back then, but as we’ll see, that is no longer the case. With social media, we the people are now the medium – we are how information now moves – and that shift blurs the line between creation and communication.

Television, the Drug of the Nation

Back when TV was king, we could count on Walter Cronkite’s nightly “and that’s the way it was” to help us make sense of the world that day. Sesame Street showed us how to count with cookie-chomping monsters, School House Rock taught us about conjunctions and the legislative process, and a single teardrop helped us think twice about polluting. There’s no denying that TV, like any communications medium, can be a tremendous force for good.

But this silver lining also had its cloud. Sitting alone, together, TV dinners on our laps, we learned to settle for watching “All in the Family” rather than experiencing the real thing. TV helped us tune in and tune out. We trained our attention on the tube, gobbling up its slick, hilariously addictive content for a simple bargain: we exchanged our identities as citizens for new identities as consumers. That’s the advertising-funded economics of television. You watch stuff I pay somebody else to make, and then you buy my stuff.

And in this bargain, the complex wonder that is our humanity got reduced down to a set of eyeballs – receivers for an all-powerful signal that transformed everything in its path into an object to be consumed. As a crucial element of this one-way, broadcast communications experience, we too became objects; objects to be manipulated by ever more sophisticated advertising and marketing techniques in order to fulfill our end of the bargain: consuming more stuff.

Or, as Michael Franti put it:

Saved from The Tube – by a Series of Tubes

And then we were saved – by something called “the web.”

It took us a little while to figure out that the the web wasn’t a broadcast model like TV. After a second round of tweaking, we learned that the web’s two-way flow of communication fundamentally redefined what we could do with it.

We learned that the web allowed us to connect with each other on a scale never before possible. It’s helped us build and harness social capital in fundamentally new ways. We’ve used it for noble social change purposes, such as exposing violence and suffering in Kenya and other places, and organizing movements for democracy in the Middle East and throughout the world.

On personal level, we also learned to use the web in ways that change the way we connect with one another. Many of us have re-connected with long-lost friends on Facebook or made important new acquaintances on Twitter.

The web isn’t just a tool for communication; it’s a tool for building social capital.

New Wrench, Same Sockets

We are still discovering all of the wonderful things that this young medium will allow us to do, but there is one thing it does that isn’t new. On the web, we still look at lots of ads. And where there’s advertising, the fundamental economic formula that drove television remains unchanged. You interact with stuff I pay somebody else to make, and then you buy my stuff.

Now to be fair, the web does change a few things about advertising. It’s much better at understanding our personal context than TV ever was. Ford Motors knew something about fans of M*A*S*H, but thanks to cookies and other tricks, Ford now knows a lot more about fans of Mashable.

This isn’t just about information flow though. The web also allows us to interact with information, and that has turned it into a powerful engine for conducting transactions. In the old TV model, companies could only us media to stimulate demand. Now, they can fulfill it too. Whether it’s 1-click buying on Amazon, or group buying on Groupon, the web retail experience adds “getting a piece of the action” to the small list of basic business models now driving the web.

Socket To Me

But none of this changes the underlying model and none of this is the really interesting part of the story. What is the interesting part of the story is that average people are now using the web to distribute information themselves, and this two-way flow of communications is actually changing us. We’re no longer just passive consumers, as with the TV model. We’re now producers and distributers of information – similar in function to the writers, producers, and broadcasters in the golden age of TV.

So how have businesses and other organizations responded to this marvelous new communications medium, this new facilitator of social capital for humanity?

The “like” button. By and large, they’ve responded to this amazing new communications medium by essentially asking us to click a button that says we like them and their stuff. Why? Well, for one thing, “liking” something signals interest, and could prove even more commercially valuable than searching for it.

The other, even bigger, reason for all the excitement about “liking” is that when an organization get us to “like” their stuff, our friends see that we like that stuff. And when that happens, there’s a chance that they’ll buy that stuff and maybe even “like” it themselves, in an ever accelerating spiral of liking and consuming.

So now we’re not just a set of eye sockets, there to stimulate our own body to buy more stuff; now we’re a set of eye sockets, connected to other eye sockets, and therefore able to stimulate other bodies to buy more stuff. Great.

No, We’re More Than Just Sockets…

Don’t get me wrong. I know we need economic models to make the web work, and I know that a good portion of that will ultimately tie back to buying stuff. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that all this eye-socket crap is still working with outdated assumptions about organizations’ relationships with stakeholders. These people are not passive consumers anymore. What they are telling organizations, what we are telling organizations today is that we want to play a more meaningful role. We are people, not consumers. And as people, we have tremendous, untapped potential as partners in creating real economic value with the organization.

It is time for organizations to stop seeing their stakeholders as objects to be manipulated, and to start seeing them as people to be engaged. The web is a natural collaboration platform. It is built to facilitate co-creation. This is the power of third-order engagement. Organizations that learn how to fully tap this power will not only unleash a new wave of economic value creation, they will also build enormous loyalty with their stakeholders.

Liking will pale in comparison.