On the limits of individual empowerment

I’ve always enjoyed Internet hysteria– like this and that silly episode of Homicide about a staged online murder. Lately, we’ve seen excited headlines about the dangers of MySpace. But that’s not to deny that our interactive media world isn’t all peaches and cream.

Joe Turow had a piece in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, that addressed some unsavory aspects of online marketing. From “Hidden messages: Is new technology empowering consumers — or marketers?”:

New technologies do give consumers unprecedented leverage over the marketplace. It’s crucial, however, to realize that marketers are using these same technologies to undermine that leverage, making it harder than ever for audiences to escape, and resist, their advances…“We are not in control anymore, but that’s OK,” Benjamin Palmer, president of a hot Internet ad firm called The Barbarian Group, was recently quoted in Advertising Age. “If we do this right, we can actually have a good relationship with ‘the consumer’ for once.”

That’s the current line of many marketing and media practitioners. The problem is, from a consumer standpoint, they are not doing it right. Media firms are creating a new world order in marketing communication to make sure that their messages get through to us — and in ways that make it increasingly difficult for us to know who the messenger is, whether the message is trustworthy, and whether we’re getting the same offer as everyone else.

So we’re liberated but in the dark.

Turow has a new book, Niche Envy, coming out next month.

From Niche Envy’s Introduction:

By emphasizing the individual to an extreme, the new niche-making forces are encouraging values that diminish the sense of belonging that is necessary to a healthy civic life…Consumers have little knowledge about retailers’ power over information, government agencies focus mostly on scams and narrow meanings of privacy, and advocacy groups’ views of database marketing do not get much coverage in the popular press.

(I suspect that bloggers don’t cover the advocacy groups to a much greater extent than does the popular press?)

Turow uses pubic opinion research from the Annenberg Public Policy Center to conclude that “database marketing is beginning to engender new forms of envy, suspicion, and institutional distrust” among and by individuals. His solution? “A well-developed, critically informed understanding of how the media and commerce now work together…”

New York Attorney General candidate Sean Patrick Maloney— a corporate lawyer, former Clinton aide, and father of three– might agree with that last point. Maloney has made child Internet safety a central issue of his campaign. He discussed his proposals last week with Brian Lehrer. Maloney seems to have little chance of defeating high profile figures Andrew Cuomo and Mark Green in next week’s Democratic primary, yet his proposals are still worth a gander– and can’t we call agree on his final point?

  • Require MySpace, and other social networking sites, to adopt a Code of Conduct that includes: 1. Credit card requirement for setting up a user profile;
    2. A “buddy system” whereby minors are required to provide an email address for their parents when they create a personal profile so that parents can be notified of any potentially dangerous activity involving their children;
    3. Flagging of emails to and from users under the age of 17 that contain sexually explicit materials with automatic notification to parents.
  • Expanding the Internet Bureau within the Attorney General’s Office to include an Internet Safety/Child Protection Unit that specializes in the prosecution of these crimes.
  • Forming partnerships with outside organizations, especially watchdog groups, which focus on Internet safety and education such as Cybersitter, Netmom, and Cyberangels.
  • Increasing education and awareness in schools to teach children and parents about how to stay safe on the Internet and how to report sexual solicitations to the authorities.

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