Leading up to Theorizing the Web 2013, we’ll be posting a series of previews of some of the papers we’ll be showcasing at the conference. This is one of those. Stay tuned for more!

Mohammad Kazeroun – “Social Media and reproduction of prosumer identity: Re-considering advertising strategies in the age of ubiquitous social media”

Panel: The Facebook Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

‘Decentralised’ structure of the Internet does not seem to have resulted in ‘democratisation’, at least in a universal and straightforward format. Commercialisation of the Internet as well as state control and surveillance revealed a darker side of the new media technologies, which is less explored in the academic literature. The rise of collaborative and interactive Web technologies and the emergence of Web 2.0 in the past decade have made the matter more complex. Although the new technologies seem to have ‘empowered’ individuals and allowed them to challenge the traditional information gatekeepers, the increasing tendency to share different aspects of ‘private’ and everyday life in the, so called, ‘social media’ seems to have some serious negative consequences on individual’s freedom and privacy. The dominant culture of ‘confessional society’ (Bauman 2007) forces individuals to provide bits of information that ultimately result in domination of a new form of capitalism.

This ‘culture of sharing’ is rapidly becoming the main theme in the digital era, and commercial corporations cannot afford to miss some invaluable opportunities that it could bring for them. They were, in fact, amongst the pioneers of the Web 2.0, and invested a lot in developing commercially-driven online communities and social web platforms, as well as monitoring information and communications in the third party Web 2.0 environments such as social networking websites. Advertising and PR agencies also did, and they are still doing, all efforts to exploit different aspects of social interaction online, and they have implemented different methods and techniques to ‘monetise’ the new Web environments. They systematically monitor, ‘data-mine’ and ‘harvest’ user-generated information online, in order to target the most relevant customers according to their individual desires and interests. The ‘big data’ in the social Web, therefore, is a new potential source of power, by which commercial companies (as well as states and other traditionally empowered institutions) try to monitor and ‘control’ individual’s behaviours. The new strategies of control, however, require software ‘sinking’ into everyday lives and ‘sorting’ bits of personal information, which will results in a ‘softer’ and more intelligent power structure (Beer 2009).

This notion of control, however, is in contrast with the notion of ‘democratisation’ and ‘empowerment’ that was considered before, and demonstrates that even ‘decentralised’ media are not inherently liberating, and they are limiting our freedom in a more complex and intelligent way. Although consumers, in the age of collaborative and interactive Web, are ‘smarter’ and better considered as ‘prosumers’, capitalism is reconstructing itself by adapting with the new conditions. The same old-fashion logics of ‘exploitation’, ‘commodification’ and ‘hegemony’ still rule the market, but new forms of power are emerging. This ‘post-hegemonic power’ (Lash 2007) is more complex, more insistent, and less visible, and rules from inside.

Technical developments in advertising industry were crucial to sustain capitalism in the age of new media. New marketing, advertising and PR strategies are being implemented to maintain the established structure of power in the Web 2.0-mediated communications. The ‘social ads’ should be consistent with the culture of social media, in order to remain ‘persuasive’ and effective. To grab attentions in the over-crowded and noisy environment of social networking websites, for instance, brands and ad agencies need to use new creative and intelligent techniques. They use the social Web to build a ‘personalised’ relationship with individuals and also to gather as much information about their habits and interests as possible in order to improve their ‘algorithmic control’. This will allow them to predict individuals’ behaviours and chose the best path of marketing and advertising, based on the mathematical calculations. They also tend to exploit prosumer culture of the Web by creating participatory ad campaigns and highly developed methods of crowdsourcing.

These strategic improvements, in my view, indicate a shift from traditional advertising to ‘commercialised communication’, which is aimed to be more persuasive and entertaining (or ‘cool’). The ultimate consequence of this shift, however, is to maintain power by generating and regenerating ‘prosumer identities’, which have absorbed the ‘post-hegemonic’ power structure, and are ‘controlled’ from inside. This softer version of domination rules over individuals who have internalised the new structure of power, and is reproduced in their everyday interaction within the Web 2.0 environments. That is how the ‘prosumer capitalism’ (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010) builds itself.

In the age of Web 2.0, the ‘hidden persuaders’ (Packard 1970) are even more ‘hidden’.


Cited works:

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2007. Consuming Life. Wiley.

Beer, David. 2009. “Power Through the Algorithm? Participatory Web Cultures and the Technological Unconscious.” New Media & Society 11 (6) (September 1): 985–1002. doi:10.1177/1461444809336551.

Lash, Scott. 2007. “Power After Hegemony Cultural Studies in Mutation?” Theory, Culture & Society 24 (3) (May 1): 55–78. doi:10.1177/0263276407075956.

Packard, Vance. 1970. The Hidden Persuaders. Pocket Books.

Ritzer, George, and Nathan Jurgenson. 2010. “Production, Consumption, Prosumption The Nature of Capitalism in the Age of the Digital ‘prosumer’.” Journal of Consumer Culture 10 (1) (March 1): 13–36. doi:10.1177/1469540509354673.