Online Consumers – Edward McQuarrie

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Has the Web fundamentally changed how we live?  Edward McQuarrie thinks so, but not everyone is convinced.

The Web has changed the world.

Let’s imagine two responses to this naked assertion, one from a college student interrupted at his iPhone, and the other from a senior scholar, looking up from his morning newspaper.

College student: “Duh! What could be more obvious?”

Senior scholar: “Nah—plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose. Scratch the new gloss, and you’ll find the same old media business underneath.”

Has the Web fundamentally changed how we live? I think so, but not everyone is convinced.

Here’s my argument:

  • The Web is a new medium of communication.
  • The gulf that separates the Web from television, radio, newspapers and magazines is greater than the superficial differences that distinguish these old media from one another.
  • Specifically, the Web changes how ordinary people communicate with strangers, and it changes how many strangers a person can reach.
  • The Web makes it possible for ordinary people to gain a public—a special kind of mass audience consisting of strangers who will remain strangers, but who nonetheless enter into a relationship.

Yelp and online reviews

Consider Yelp as an example of how the Web has changed the old world of the mass media.

Newspaper reviews of restaurants date back to the 19th century. When I was a young man in the 1960s and 1970s, every large newspaper had a food critic, who would write one or two reviews per week. If it was an elite newspaper like The New York Times, that food critic became a member of the elite: a published author, able to communicate his or her views and tastes to millions of people. These reviewers held positions of power and respect. They drew this power from their institutional position, as carefully screened and vetted employees of esteemed and trusted publications.

Before the Web, only members of the elite had access to a mass audience. Your writing could not appear in a newspaper or magazine unless you held institutional credentials. You had to be employed by the publisher, or have achieved prominence via some other institutional route. A business or government leader could publish; a Hollywood celebrity could publish; also a public intellectual or famous author. Otherwise, the mass media were closed to ordinary people. You could serve as an anonymous member of a mass audience, but you could not gain such an audience, could not publish to strangers.

Before the Web, the mass media were closed. Now, with a site like Yelp, anyone can publish a 500 word essay; and millions have. You can even publish 500 such essays—thousands of Yelp reviewers have written that many reviews or more.

Yelp is a machine for making publics available to the masses. And one of the great discoveries of recent years is that many ordinary citizens do desire a public—it is not only academics and journalists who want to publish.

You might accept this point, yet argue that rooting the analysis in Yelp and online review sites is a mistake: what about blogs? Did not the explosion of blogs, about ten years before Yelp hit its stride, already demonstrate a widespread desire to publish? And what about Facebook: hundreds of millions of people have posted many hundreds of words on that site.

Let me contrast writing for Yelp with posting to Facebook and with blogging. Facebook enables written communication at a distance in space and time, same as Yelp. But on Facebook, we communicate within our social circle to known others. We do not publish our work to a mass of strangers, as we can do on Yelp—or with a blog.

The problem with blogging is that you can write whatever you want, whenever you want; but you cannot compel an audience of any size among strangers. Tens of millions of blogs go out; most are read by no one, or by no larger number than would read a Facebook post. The small number of ordinary people who do gain a mass audience for their blog—some fashion bloggers, for instance—is a topic I pursue in my recently published book The New Consumer Online.

Back to Yelp: only by reviewing a restaurant or other good for sale can you be guaranteed a public for your work. You can publish, and succeed, if you write to consumers; otherwise, for the ordinary person, writing for publication remains a crapshoot. But consumers provide a ready and willing audience whose thirst for market information can never be slaked. I need to know where I can find a good sushi restaurant; I am constantly on the lookout for new restaurants I might wish to try. Yelp manufactures consumers as readers, and makes publics publically available. The production line is automated; and as a consequence, millions of ordinary people gain the opportunity to write and be read. Reviews of consumer goods and services will be read, by thousands; blogs, not so much.

9781784715991_2This analysis of the Web and of online reviews presents a challenge to economic and market explanations for human behavior. Economic theory proposes that online reviews exist so that consumers can help one another save money and time, and achieve more satisfaction with what they buy. But Yelp reviewers are not compensated: they write for free. The paradox: why should any ordinary person lift a finger to write a review, for free, to help perfect strangers save money? You can get all the benefits of Yelp’s enormous trove of reviews without ever writing one. The economic explanation for online reviews appears to require a non-economic motive.

Another problem: why should you trust a review written by a complete stranger? How do you know this glowing review wasn’t written by a paid shill? How do you know that scathing putdown was not written by an aggrieved competitor?

The new world of the Web poses old problems of trust and credibility. These require a sociological rather than economic treatment, as I attempt in the New Consumer Online: A Sociology of Taste, Audience and Publics, from Elgar.

Edward McQuarrie is Professor of Marketing, Santa Clara University, USA.

The first chapter of Edward’s new book The New Consumer Online can be downloaded for free on Elgaronline.

Also available for subscribing libraries on elgaronline

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