Thursday, July 07, 2011

We stopped being ourselves without realising it

Back in January Laura Miller wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian about the faltering way in which the novel has slowly acknowledged the existence of the internet. The point being that literature tends to be reticent about subject matter that's likely to date the text; Miller points out that big names like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx tend to stage their drama amongst the mountains and plains of ranchland America where laptops (let alone iPads) never threaten to puncture the mythical mise en scene.

It was this article that turned me on to Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit From The Goon Squad', which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As Miller writes, this is a book that manages to address both the culture of social media and the cultural implications of this new world. The 'voice' that social media gives the individual is, she claims, presently only heard when it sings in harmony with enough others - providing enough data to tease out valuable analysis and quantifiable results - to become of note to the corporation. Or put another way - did you try getting most of your friends to communicate with you through any other platform than Facebook?

Egan's novel envisions a future in which a toddler demographic, just capable of operating simple mobile handsets is referred to by marketers as 'pointers'. For music mogul, Bennie Salazar, these mini consumers represent the 'reach' he needs to revive his ailing music empire, once founded on, you know, music. In this world, bloggers are 'parrots' and 50 such parrots are enough to create 'authentic word of mouth' for the live debut of a dismal musician. Operating this marketing infrastructure are young professionals whose "every bite of information" is "stored in the databases of multinationals who swore they would never, ever use it." As Egan puts it, this generation sold themselves "unthinkingly at the very point in [...] life when [they'd] felt most subversive."

So far, so much dystopian literary analysis of consumer culture. But can a vision like this really be considered dystopian at a time when we're learning that our media institutions consider news gathering to be the business of private detectives and hackers, when evidence in the murder of a child can be tampered with in the name of the communications industry? Perhaps it's not so far fetched.

What the book fails to acknowledge though, is the disruption and anarchy that we're seeing in digital channels right now. If you use Twitter, you can't possibly have failed to feel the impact of the News Of The World story and, certainly, News International has felt its impact as the advertisers have been (let's be honest) forced to withdraw, at least for a spell. In the brand world, other great examples abound. My favourite from recent months was that in which US fashion retailer Urban Outfitters was hung out to dry on Twitter after ripping off an independent designer's work - a practice that's long been rife in this industry but will surely now be reassessed by the major brands in the light of the damage it can do (we can do) to their reputation. Take a look at the story in full - it's a little bit heart-warming.

So, could it be that Egan's analysis is one of old world expectation applied to new world potential? Isn't there just a glimmer of hope here that, rather than turning us into drones to be co-opted into colouring the myth that propels the dismal musician to superstardom, we can in fact call out the emperor in his new clothes through these very channels. Unless we recognise the potential of the tools we have, there's a danger that we'll fail to notice as they're slowly taken away from us (Twitter users should keep a watchful eye on developments there over the coming months as they try to make good on their need to become a more effective channel for advertisers).

This isn't about some anarchic dismantling of the status quo but simply the emergence of a communications environment in which some truth and substance are returned to brand promises, where great products and businesses succeed by communicating their intrinsic values and their message is carried by their audience. Here's hoping that the novel is still just a little behind the people where digital communications are concerned, then.

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