Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Labour of Love: An Archaeology of Affect as Power in E-Commerce

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Labour of Love: An Archaeology of Affect as Power in E-Commerce

Article excerpt

Within the discursive environment of electronic commerce, particularly Web-based commerce, there are many claims of the empowered nature of the consumer. Some of this empowerment is alleged to lie in the social relations built in commercial online communities. In e-commerce literature, including industry, popular and academic sources, affectivity is adjudged a key means for consumers to assert and develop their power relative to that of producers. Questions can naturally be raised as to the validity of this claim and the nature of these communities (for instance Fernback, 1997, 1999). However, the fundamental question for this article is not whether the affective relations of e-commerce consumers are truly empowering, but the issue of why this question exists in the first place. Why has the affectivity of consumers been recognized, represented and interrogated in terms of power? What is it about contemporary socio-historical conditions that makes it a reasonable statement to assert that online consumers are empowered, and specifically that they are empowered through their affective relations? These questions, archaeological in a Foucauldian sense (Foucault, 1969/1972), allow us to reveal not the truth or falsity of affective consumer empowerment, but the underlying environment that sustains it as a discourse.

The empowered e-commerce consumer

First, though, we must specify what the industry literature claims is empowering about e-commerce. The fundamental argument is that consumers are empowered by the interactive nature of the medium. (1) With the ability to 'talk back', to engage with the content rather than passively absorbing it, the e-commerce consumer is viewed as exploiting and exploring a new power dynamic between themselves and producers. In effect, interactivity is claimed to offer the consumer control of the consumption process. This premise is the starting point for the literature of the e-commerce industry. Murphy, for instance, begins Web Rules with the declaration that:

   We're witnessing the greatest transition of power in history, one
   that will take power away from the mightiest corporations and social
   institutions and give it to ... consumers. That's right, the
   consumer: you and me; our neighbors, parents, and friends; even our
   enemies. In fact, we're already very powerful. Individual consumers
   are gaining the power to shake corporate giants, to force
   politicians to respond to our concerns, to demand a better bargain
   in the marketplace, and to shape what's in the media. (2000: 1)

Many of these claims are associated with the opposition to traditional marketing paradigms provided by the interactive medium. The unidirectional, mass marketing message of advertising is alleged to be subverted by the 'near-perfect' information and feedback functions available to online consumers (Tapscott et al., 2000). This shift to interactive consumers is described by Bell executives John MacDonald and Jim Tobin as that from a 'couch potato' model to a 'couch commando' scenario 'where the consumer takes control of the information environment' (1998: 208). The utilization of these technologies, it is argued, means the balance of marketplace power markedly shifts to the consumer.

However, the conceptualization of empowerment through interactivity in these arguments is based on a specific characterization of the consumer. It is centred around the idea of consumers, not as a mass phenomenon, but as unique individuals, with a range of specific and subjective wants and desires. Most importantly though, this framework also relies on the conceptualization of the consumer as a rational and self-interested creature who actively seeks to maximize their returns from engagement with e-commerce producers. This idea of the self-interested consumer reaches its zenith in discussions about the value of information generated and offered by customers online. Hagel and Rayport (1997/1999), for instance, argue that consumers' concern for privacy:

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