Shift in power

On: September 27, 2010
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About Hanneke Mertens
My name is Hanneke Mertens and I am currently busy combining studying for the MA New Media and working at Capgemini. I am trying to keep my focus on social media, design, marketing and usability in my study and work. But there is so much more what gets me interested, especially since I started my Master at the UvA. For two years I have been working at Capgemini where I have done a lot of project management assistant roles, currently I am working as content manager for BNP Paribas. It was quite interesting for me to start working in business. Before I started working there ,I finished the Master Controlling Creative Design at the PSAU (UU). In this study I developed a videogame with a team of game designers and did an internship at the European Culture Foundation. Definitely more idealistically and creative than business life. That’s why I am happy to study again. For now, I think and feel that I have the perfect combination, studying and getting my curiosity gratified but also working and being a bit more pragmatic.


If you google “social media” or “social networksites” you will receive tons of links. Everybody seems to use social networksites and you need to be involved soon. Most of the links use a kind of paranoia, to make you aware of how you are left out if you are not using social media. Next to those kind of links, which are focused on private users, we find a lot of links for corporate institutions. Most of them are also based on a certain kind of paranoia. The basis is that if you as a business don’t do something with social media, you will lose customers to companies who do use it.

This hype is affecting the marketers from the corporate institutions, one the one hand they have this new stage to brand their companies on the other hand there are private users who also have access to this stage. And precisely the last assumption, is what the branding companies and marketers are afraid of. They fear that customers have gained power and can act against companies. How can marketers control what is being said about them in a public space?

An example that confirms this fear is the Carglass incident on Twitter. In this case, some people on Twitter were making comments on Carglass, who wasn’t very pleased with this because of the fear of a bad reputation. So, Carglass responed by sending a Tweet warning everybody that they would take legal actions if they would Twitter about Carglass again. This tweet caused more and more tweets and was retweeted over and over again. In this case the corporate world responded in a dominant way, which was misplaced, and probably worsened the case.
Marketers who are afraid of social media like to set this as a reason for their company to keep away from social media. They believe something has changed and feel out of control over their strategies, since consumers can react now. There are many articles about this shift in power, which all tell us that the monologue has changed into a dialogue. Before the massive use of social media, marketers used platforms as television, magazines etc. These platforms where perfectly for one-way communication. The marketer would sent the consumer a message and the consumer would receive it. Today, a marketer can sent a message to the cunsomer and the cunsomer can react on that by using social media applications such as Twitter. Marketers believe the power-relationship with their consumers is changed.

In Control and Freedom, Power and the paranoia in the age of fiber optics, Wendy Chun explores how the internet is conceived as a medium of freedom, while it is a commercial medium that thrives on control. In her work she questions various myths that are build around the internet. One of these myths she mentioned is the myth of empowerment.

In her work she uses the MCI’s commercial “Anthem”(1997) to show how internet has been branded as “cyberspace”, where the user leaves it’s physical body behind. It presents the consumer the possibility to buy an ID, free of a body, to access the realm of rational critical ‘debate’. Chun states that by doing this, the internet makes it possible again to believe in liberal and consumer equality and the consumer is portrayed as an empowered agent.
She deconstructs this myth by presenting statistics that show predominantly white people have access to the internet. Next to that she brings forward Cheskin, who writes in The Digital world of the US Hispanic that Hispanics are a lucrative overlooked internet costumer category. Chun states that this article displays how race and ethnicity become a consumer category and are constructed as a category to be consumed.

Chun deconstructed the myth of empowerment by researching who is empowered and showing how this empowerment is constructed. This myth of empowerment can be linked to the idea of consumers being empowered to stand up against corporations. Consumers can organise themselves on the net and react instead of passively watching what corporations are doing. Is this idea of consumer empowerment a myth as well? Is the power-relationship changed?

To research this idea of empowerment of the consumer we have to analyze this powerrelationship. How is a powerrelationship between a marketeer and a consumer constructed and how is it exercised? Did this relationship change because of the change of a new platform?

In the work The Subject and Power Foucault focuses on power-relationships and how human beings are made into subjects. He displays the subject as a free agent engaging actively in power relations. In the work of Foucault, the subject can be a person “who is subject to someone else by control and dependence” or a person who is “tied to his own identity by a conscience of self-knowledge”. These use of the term subject implies a presence of power, since the subject is always in subject in relation to something else. In response to this power, Foucault describes how subjects engage in one of three different types of struggle: struggles against domination, struggles against exploitation and struggles against subjection. Foucault describes how the struggle against subjection had become more and more important.

Foucault claims that we can only understand the idea of the idea of subject and power relations, when we research the resistance against these power-relationships. With power relations he means relationships who have a certain degree of negotiation build in it. These aren’t relations of pure domination. Power relations manifest in the structuring of possible choices and actions a subject can take. Foucault insists we should focus on how power relations are constructed and exercised.

If we want to research the power-relationship between marketeers and consumers, Foucault suggests we have to research the resistence against this relationship. We could compare the amount of resistence agains old media marketing and new media marketing. To see if there is really a shift in power, we should also direct ourselves at researching the consequences of the resistence. Did the companies listen. Next to that, we have to see who is resisting and who is listening to them.

Since it is to ambitious to research all resistence, we are limiting ourselves to a case. This case should have experienced resistence in new and old media. I would like to propose to research resistence cases against BP and Shell. Both companies are in the same sector and have a lot of power in the industry and over the consumers. In these cases the research is focused on how the old resistence and how the new resistence is managed by the marketeers of Shell and BP.

The main question is then: Did social media change the power balance between marketers and consumers? The main problem with this comparison is that we are comparing old and new media in different times. This means other factors, we are unaware of, influence resistence and reactions.

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