People make great inventions, and then consumers make some of them them great successes.
#2926 Created 06/04/2011 Updated 01/16/2019
'Engagements, then, are structured encounters between brands and potential customers, in a context designed to focus the user’s attention and change his or her behavior (however incrementally)'. [NASDAQ OMX newsletter, Global Newswire 2013] (http://blog.globenewswire.com/post/50509941611/social-media-engagement-is-an-activity-not-an)
We struggle to see the big picture.
All of us are pretty good at watching the path right in front of our feet, but much less adept at seeing beyond the horizon. And yet, we all practice the art of anticipating the future by watching the present. We watch children grow up; we see teenagers become adults. We see Spring follow Winter, and we recognize that life is composed of patterns and rhythms.
We're interested in how things change over time, and also how they stay the same. Of special interest is how the role of the consumer has been linked structurally to the dominant media technology, from the dawn of mass media through the heyday of social media.
Many media theorists (cite) search for a causal link between media content and consumer behavior. Others (hungry for a citation, eh?) speculate that media have changed over the last two American centuries, and that people have watched these changes as if spectators. But consumers are more than just spectators in the media; they are, and have always been, an intrinsic part of both the creation and content of the media. Media are often the artifacts of various relationships among people.
But that role has not been consistent. It has changed over the years, repeatedly, as waves of technological change have been sucked into the media landscape. Determinists view technological shifts as the "effects" of developmental events, such as the development of movable type, the evolution of steam power, the harnessing of electricity, and the building of railroads. However, it's not so much about any of these developments; it's about the continual shift, the continual change of direction of change, the creep of technological improvement at the touch of human hands.
Another common view, of course, is that people make great inventions, and then consumers make them great successes. A more nuanced view would show that the pressure of consumer demand makes space for technological and conceptual innovation, and new features and services emerge gradually, incrementally, at various places around the world. Some reach a critical point of recognition or penetration, and seem to suddenly explode into view. Others creep in like a slow tide. This historic pattern has repeated in the stories of the development of the printing press, gunpowder, automobiles, aircraft, the telephone, electronics, computers, email, chat, the Web, and FaceBook, and Pokemon.
All right, Pokémon is a stretch.
--Behavior in each era has been guided by the physical and economic structure of the media, which is limited and enabled by technology.
--Consumer media behavior in each era has been expressed within the confines of business models constructed around technologies.
--Consumer choices are always limited to those that are available. The range of choices is limited by the combined effects of contemporary economics and technology.
--The structures of media impose the primary controlling effects on consumer behavior. The consequences of content are secondary.
Facebook, as an example, is a slightly different way of doing something that has been done many times before, but with unique twists. Without much effort, you can trace Facebook's DNA back past it inception to Web pages, AOL, Compuserve, and community dial-up bulletin board systems.
Does consumer behavior drives it all? The contemporary enthusiasm for Facebook mirrors, in relative scale, the enthusiasm consumers showed through the 20th Century for electricity, the automobile and land-line telephones is mirrored in the domination of radio and TV sets in homes and businesses, the enthusiastic crowds that rushed to the big dial-up services in the 1990s, the throngs who embraced Home Pages and surfing at the Millennium, and the surge of bloggers, lurkers and social media "likers" into the second decade of the 21st Century.
There are many more examples. But with each, be it the rush to the automobile in the '20s and '30s, the heady adoption of rock and roll in the '50s and '60s, or the Apple Fanboy phenomena today, the "behavior" of consumers controls the outcomes.
I know that last sentence sounds, ummm... hollow? Incomplete? "The behavior of consumers controls....." Aren't consumers influenced, guided, herded like sheep, led like children, fooled into unwise purchases? Aren't billions spent on promoting, positioning, and placing products, propositions and postures into the psyche of consumers through continuous cycles of repetition? Haven't a hundred years been spent analyzing the complex relationships between media content and consumer behavior, searching for the precise magic formula for transmuting leads into gold?
Well, a little over-stated, perhaps. Yet, the preponderance of behavior by the majority of consumers ultimately guides "production". Not radical, just simple capitalist truth. The path to wealth has been to get consumers to consume through a variety of techniques, most of them involving media.
And, yes, consumers are influenced along the way. By media. You can say, casually, that the behavior of consumers reveals the presence of significant, complicated relationships between consumers and media.
How are consumers influenced by media? Many smart people have looked at that question over the span of a century, and it continues to intrigue. Yet, there is another question of equal curiosity that stands alongside; that is, the role of "structure" in forming consumer behavior.
Yes, "structure". It's the wrong word, for so many reasons. And yet, it's the only word that fits.