shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
RIP THE CONSUMER, 1900-1999

"The Consumer" is the internet's most recent casualty. We have often
heard that Internet puts power in the hands of the consumer, but this
is nonsense -- 'powerful consumer' is an oxymoron. The historic role
of the consumer has been nothing more than a giant maw at the end of
the mass media's long conveyer belt, the all-absorbing Yin to mass
media's all-producing Yang. Mass media's role has been to package
consumers and sell their atention to the advertisers, in bulk. The
consumers' appointed role in this system gives them and no way to
communicate anything about themselves except their preference between
Coke and Pepsi, Bounty and Brawny, Trix and Chex. They have no way to
respond to the things they see on television or hear on the radio, and
they have no access to any media on their own -- media is something
that is done to them, and consuming is how they register their
repsonse.  In changing the relations between media and individuals,
the Internet does not herald the rise of a powerful consumer. The
Internet heralds the disappearance of the consumer altogether, because
the Internet destroys the noisy advertiser/silent consumer
relationship that the mass media relies upon. The rise of the internet
undermines the existence of the consumer because it undermines the
role of mass media. In the age of the internet, no one is a passive
consumer anymore because everyone is a media outlet.

To profit from its symbiotic relationship with advertisers, the mass
media required two things from its consumers - size and silence.  Size
allowed the media to address groups while ignoring the individual -- a
single viewer makes up less than 1% of 1% of 1% of Frasier's
10-million-strong audience. In this system, the individual matters not
at all: the standard unit for measuring television audiences is a
million households at a time. Silence, meanwhile, allowed the media's
message to pass unchallenged by the viewers themselves.  Marketers
could broadcast synthetic consumer reaction -- "Tastes Great!", " Less
filling!" -- without having to respond to real customers' real
reactions -- "Tastes bland", "More expensive". The enforced silence
leaves the consumer with only binary choices -- "I will or won't watch
I Dream of Genie, I will or won't buy Lemon Fresh Pledge" and so
on. Silence has kept the consumer from injecting any complex or
demanding interests into the equation because mass media is one-way media.

This combination of size and silence has meant that mass media, where
producers could address 10 million people at once with no fear of
crosstalk, has been a very profitable business to be in.

Unfortunately for the mass media, however, the last decade of the 20th
century was hell on both the size and silence of the consumer
audience.  As AOL's takeover of Time Warner demonstrated, while
everyone in the traditional media was waiting for the Web to become
like traditional media, traditional media has become vastly more like
the Web. TV's worst characteristics -- its blandness, its cultural
homogeneity, its appeal to the lowest common denominator -- weren't an
inevitable part of the medium, they were simply byproducts of a
restricted number of channels, leaving every channel to fight for the
average viewer with their average tastes.  The proliferation of TV
channels has eroded the audience for any given show -- the average
program now commands a fraction of the audience it did 10 years ago,
forcing TV stations to find and defend audience niches which will be
attractive to advertisers.

Accompanying this reduction in size is a growing response from
formerly passive consumers. Marketing lore says that if a customer has
a bad expereince, they will tell 9 other people, but that figure badly
needs updating.  Armed with nothing more than an email address, a
disgruntled customer who vents to a mailing list can reach hundreds of
people at once; the same person can reach thousands on ivillage or
deja; a post on slashdot or a review on amazon can reach tens of
thousands.  Furthermore, the Internet never forgets -- a complaint
made on the phone is gone forever, but a complaint made on the Web is
there forever. With mass media outlets shrinking and the reach of the
individual growing, the one-sided relationship between media and
consumer is over, and it is being replaced with something a lot less
conducive to unquestioning acceptance.

In retrospect, mass media's position in the 20th century was an
anomoly and not an inevitability. There have always been both one-way
and two-way media -- pamphlets vs. letters, stock tickers vs.
telegraphs -- but in 20th century the TV so outstripped the town
square that we came to assume that 'large audience' necessarily meant
'passive audience', even though size and passivity are unrelated.
With the Internet, we have the world's first large, active medium, but
when it got here no one was ready for it, least of all the people who
have learned to rely on the consumer's quiescent attention while the
Lucky Strike boxes tapdance across the screen.  Frasier's advertisers
no longer reach 10 million consumers, they reach 10 million other
media outlets, each of whom has the power to amplify or contradict the
advertiser's message in something frighteningly close to real time. In
place of the giant maw are millions of mouths who can all talk
back. There are no more consumers, because in a world where an email
address constitutes a media channel, we are all producers now.



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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source