The Consumer Consumed

Claudia Grinnell

In pursuing the convenience of a Web 2.0 world, we are consenting to being incorporated into a finely tuned marketing machine, with ever more subtly adapted gears, to our meet our needs -- manufactured and otherwise.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Publisher: Anchor
ISBN: 0385721706
Author: James Surowiecki
Price: $14.95
Length: 336
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2005-08

Many people are rightfully suspicious of Web 2.0. Is it a bubble, in the style of the “new economy” of the last century? They remember how dotcom turned into notcom practically overnight and wonder if this is just the second wave of Internet hype, a similar rabbit hole where billions of dollars will potentially disappear without a trace. Or could it really be different this time? Might it take root deep in the Web, yet transcend its boundaries at the same time?

In the early days of the Internet, roles were clearly delineated. Companies used the Web to offer information; users called up this information. The medium was organized along the logistics of transfer of goods: Supply here, on the company's servers, and demand there, in the brain of the Web surfer. Not all that different than the brick-and-mortar economy.

Thus the old Web's main feature was the portal, which, like a shopping center, bundled as many different kinds of offerings as possible. In the early years of Web commerce, the goal was to become an online mall of information, shopping, and services.

With Web 2.0, this paradigm is changing. Its applications give consumers a new role. They are now not-so-silent partners in a business relationship. While portal was the buzzword of the early Internet, platform is the keyword for the second act. Internet companies today want to profit by giving users a platform, a framework they can use and advertisers can then exploit. No longer is the producer on one side of the economic fence and consumer on the other. In the Web 2.0 business models, customers are not only served; they are also integrated into the transactions, adding value by volunteering information that's useful and attractive to other consumers.

Ebay, the online auction site, exemplifies this approach. It sells nothing itself; instead it offers its customers a platform for selling things. Although Ebay offers a sort of safety net for transactions, in actuality, most transactions regulate themselves. In the world of brick-and-mortar transactions, the customer can remain anonymous. But on Ebay, the customer is evaluated publicly through the site's feedback system, whereby customers supply the information that Ebay needs to secure users' willingness to use its service. Thus, with little intervention from the company itself, customers do the work to make it viable.

Amazon, too, has a similar strategy. Its customers review and evaluate books, films, gadgets, clothes, food items, beauty items -- anything that’s for sale through the site. Potential shoppers are not coaxed or persuaded or suckered; they are encouraged to do the research and exercise their judgment.

Of course, neither EBay nor Amazon is new, nor are blogs and photohosts like Flickr or Photobucket, other exemplars of Web 2.0. Still, the term is useful for labeling the trend of how more and more applications are fusing two seemingly antithetical elements -- social networking and niche marketing -- and reconciling them at the bottom line.

The point of Web 2.0 applications is to manufacture new marketing possibilities by cross-referencing the individual preferences of (inadvertently or not) networked people. Economic advantages go to those services designed to target individuals, even if that design comes by way of an algorithm. Amazon for example, supplies personalized recommendations simply by calculating a customer’s preferences based on the profiles of other consumers: “Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed…” or “Customers viewing this page may be interested in these Sponsored Links…” or “Customers Who Bought Items Like This Also Bought…” translates this principle to the music business. If you add a song to’s player, you will subsequently receive similar tracks. The catch phrase for this is collective intelligence or the wisdom of crowds, as New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki's book on the subject was called.

Even as these applications point toward more interactive participation and networking, they also supply users with a greater sense of individuality. Everyone is allowed a frame, an area of influence, a platform to supply uniquely tailored content and derive personal recognition for it. And with content we reach the heart of the matter. Selling content has always been difficult on the Web. Users want free content, and are usually persistent enough o find it. Both Salon and The New York Times have abandoned their efforts to charge for content, realizing that the antiquated distribution monopolies were no longer working in an age where blogs provide often better and more insightful commentary than somewhat anachronistic mainstream media.

Also, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) undermines the concept of destination sites. RSS allows people to subscribe to content and read it on their aggregator, without the extraneous design or advertising the site wants to couple with it. To cope with this, marketers and designers must now think beyond site design and figure out how to brand the content itself.

But the same forces that have changed the Web are also democratizing content creation, letting users make and distribute their own content (often based on the expensively produced content from theentertainment industry) with more and more ease and sophistication. This explosion of sharing and voluntaristic creativity makes it tempting to regard the social net as a socialist paradise, but before we get too comfortable, it's important to remember that blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, mashups, tagging, folksonomy, and the semantic web are merely underlying technologies. The notion that "data wants to be free" was a mantra for the original tech bubble, after all. But Web 2.0 is not about sharing anymore than the original boom was. The new Internet technologies are being sold as turning passive consumers into active ones, but they are building for free the content that they will made to buy back later -- whether with time, money, or energy.

So the new business model is really the old business model, and the key to monetizing Web 2.0 lies in mobilizing content, not controlling it with gated sites and proprietary systems. Microsoft was the avatar of the old tech business model, making its fortune by manufacturing, licensing, marketing, and protecting software -- selling content. But the software it thrived on selling is rapidly becoming open-source or integrated into the Web itself. The successor to the tech throne, Google, has already begun exploiting this evolution with its Google Applications, which emulates Microsoft Office but is free and operates entirely on the Internet.

With all the participation and personalization and sophisticated marketing possibilities, what could possibly be wrong with Web 2.0? Think about what Web 2.0 aims to achieve: a global social net where business news, information, videos, and viral ads zoom through the online population and stick for a moment or two to a couple of eyeballs at every intersection before zooming on to the next knot in the matrix. But the problems with this vision revolve mainly around two issues: Who owns the content created by consumer/users and how will their personal information be kept private? And with the extension of targeted advertising that taps into social networking sites, your friends and contacts on the Web become a marketing platform.

Facebook exemplifies this: When users make an addition to their page, all their contacts are notified. So when a Facebook user, say, adds an application sponsored by Red Bull, everyone on that user’s contact list knows about it. If one considers that profile-pages can be mined for user-specific information to target advertising, one begins to see Facebook’s immense commercial possibilities. No wonder tech entrepreneurs are calling for a global graph of all the various social networks: a system that would connect them all in one giant metanet.

One such place is It advertises itself as "the coolest way to unify your mail from multiple accounts. View your mail and social networking messages in one convenient location. It's easy and secure." For marketing gurus, this completely connected platform is a dream come true: an Internet where each Amazon item bought, each song downloaded at iTunes, each plane ticket purchased at Orbitz is connected, connectable, and, best of all, available for immediate transmittal to all the contacts on the user’s list on every social-networking platform.

But is the convenience that derives from all this interconnectedness worth the privacy risks? To many, the danger seems remote and diffused: a few extra pieces of targeted junk mail, another telemarketer calling in the evening, another online form to fill out. No totalitarian Big Brother seems to be staring back from our televisions. And Web 2.0 are specially designed to make us feel at ease, coddled and catered to. But the web of surveillance is slowly closing around us, and we are weaving it ourselves.

For example, consider the growth of “I report" platforms at the mainstream-media outlets. CNN, Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC -- they all want us to provide the pictures, the words, the moving images. If we have them, they want us to upload them. Consumer-generated content has been a growing among marketers, too. Converse and Sony have both aired user creations on TV. Frito-Lay held a contest for customers to make a Dorito ad; the winning spot ran during the 2008 Super Bowl. Thus encouraged, we all turn our cell phones and iPhones to interesting scenes, upload them to YouTube, and hope to become an overnight celebrity, as with the infamous “Don’t tase me, bro!” clip in 2007. So in addition to the thousands of surveillance cameras in all public spots on every possible square foot of earth (and don’t forget Google Earth!), we are all busy filming one another and posting it online, seeking our own notoriety.

Photo (partial) found on

The increasing convergence of spectacle and surveillance makes it possible and for the first time, desirable, both to see and be seen simultaneously and continuously. Web 2.0 technologies make it possible for society to become truly panoptic: It can be seen as a medium through which everybody can watch everybody all the time. But what type of animal has to show its relevance to itself to believe in its own existence? Imagine the panic this animal must feel when the iPhone battery dies and the creature is rendered invisible?

Of course, the original panopticon was conceived by Jeremy Bentham as a model penitentiary. Today, we are not forced into such a prison; instead it enters our lives as electronic data gathering, online and in the real world via RFID tags, designed to make consumption more convenient. But in pursuing convenience, we are consenting to being incorporated into a finely tuned marketing machine, with ever more subtly adapted gears, to our meet our needs -- manufactured and otherwise. But these gears may one day grind us into finely consumable bits and bytes. Happy meals for all.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.