Revisiting a Critical Theory of Commercial Media
Edited By Lee McGuigan and Vincent Manzerolle
The primary objective is to appraise its relevance in relation to changes in media and communication since the time of Smythe’s writing, principally addressing the rise of digital, online, and mobile media. In addition to updating this perspective, contributors confront the topic critically in order to test its limits. Contextualizing theories of the audience commodity within an intellectual history, they consider their enduring relationship to the field of media/communication studies as well as the important legacy of Dallas Smythe.
Chapter Twelve. Capital’s New Commons: Consumer Communities, Marketing and the Work of the Audience in Communicative Capitalism: Detlev Zwick & Alan Bradshaw
Capital’s New Commons: Consumer Communities, Marketing and the Work of the Audience in Communicative Capitalism
Perhaps Dallas W. Smythe’s most central insight from his analysis of the role of mass media in monopoly capitalism relates to how the superstructure (the Consciousness Industry) has become engaged directly in production. This production is two-fold: first, mass media produces the audience commodity, and second, mass media “beckons” into action the production of commodities through the production of the audience as commodity. By discovering the role of mass media in the development of an audience market, Dallas identified a key contradiction in the logic of this mode of commodity (re)production: audience commodification in turn commodifies people in audience markets who are consciously seeking non-commodified group relations. This contradiction between the needs of capital for managing demand and the desire of people to remain outside of capital relations, in the sphere of communication has become markedly more acute and visible in the age of participatory media. Resolving this contradiction has become the great challenge for contemporary marketing managers and, in their search for innovative ways to commodify the audience without antagonizing it, marketers turn increased attention towards the idea of consumer communities. The language marketers produce around such communities is particularly noteworthy as it appears to borrow more from Gerald Winstanley and Karl Marx than Milton Friedman and Michael Porter. So the question ← 157 | 158 → arises: are marketers becoming the new communists? Towards developing some initial answers, this paper considers the recent rise in marketers’ interest in consumer communities and argues for the need to theorize this marketing innovation within the context of communicative capitalism’s unique challenges for customer government, market control, and value creation.
The Real of Virtual Consumer Community
The last decade has witnessed the appropriation of the Internet as a global marketing communication network and thereby amplifies what was already recognized as the age of dotcom marketing madness (Jacobson and Mazur 1995). As a result, we witness renewed interest in the study of marketing practice in general and advertising practice in particular, with scholars trying to disentangle the implications of an increasingly global, networked, and decentralized mode of marketing communication (see e.g., Araujo, Finch, and Kjellberg 2010; Zwick and Cayla 2011). Some Foucaultians have sought to understand the world of ubiquitous marketing as a form of government (Beckett 2012; Skalen, Fellesson, and Fougere 2006; Zwick, Bonsu, and Darmody 2008), while others focus on marketing as a material social practice in the business of qualifying commodities and creating markets (e.g., Callon, Meadel, and Rabeharosoa 2002; Cochoy 2007; Slater 2011). Especially with the emergence of the Internet as a participatory medium, attention has turned to new ways in which companies attempt to incorporate the consumer directly into the firm’s marketing processes (see e.g., Cova, Dalli, and Zwick 2011; Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). Arvidsson (2006) discusses how consumer labor in online environments is first encouraged and then appropriated as economic value by the firm, and Andrejevic (2011), Pridmore and Lyon (2011), Manzerolle and Smeltzer (2011) and others analyze how marketing adopts the Internet as a technology of surveillance, manipulation and exploitation.
In this vein, our paper looks at the current popularity of virtual consumer communities in marketing practice. We focus less on the mechanics of such communities, i.e., how to set them up and how to manage and maintain them. Instead we seek to understand, from a critical theory perspective, what the idea of an online consumer community allows marketers to do and why we encounter this desire to think of consumers as community. In other words, we are interested in the ideology of the virtual community and what we call commonist marketing. We situate our discussion of consumer communities and commonist marketing within a larger critique of contemporary marketing’s attempts to capture its users in intensive and extensive networks of ← 158 | 159 → entertainment, production, consumption and surveillance. Jody Dean (2010) calls this economic-ideological form communicative capitalism, a formation—simply put—that relies on the exploitation of communication.
Smythe (1981) in his most central work on the audience commodity also singled out the exploitation of communication via mass media as the central driver of what he called monopoly capitalism. Mass media, Smythe argued, turn the superstructure (i.e. the Consciousness Industry) into a key site for capitalist surplus production. This mode of production has two distinct dimensions. The first dimension is the production of the audience as a commodity for sale through mass media. A second dimension emerges when the media-produced (and thus now “real-existing”) audience commodity “beckons” into action the production of consumer commodities.
This double dimension of media’s productive role remains valid under communicative capitalism, and so does a key contradiction in the logic of this mode of commodity (re)production: audience commodification commodifies people in audience markets who are consciously seeking noncommodified group relations. Indeed, this contradiction between the needs of capital for managing demand and the desire of people, singularly or collectively, to remain outside of capital relations in the sphere of communication has become markedly more acute and visible in the age of participatory media. Resolving this contradiction has become the great challenge of contemporary marketing managers and, in their search for innovative ways to commodify the audience without antagonizing it, marketers have turned to the consumer community.
The idea of the online consumer community is not an entirely new idea. As McWilliam (2000, 43) pointed out quite some time ago: “The popularity of communities on the Internet has captured the attention of marketing professionals. Indeed, the word “community” seems poised to overtake “relationship” as that new marketing buzz-word.” Interestingly, though, the buzz about these communities subsided relatively quickly among marketing professionals, partly because the collapse of the 2000 technology stock market bubble threw into question the economic viability of the Internet as a driver of marketing and commerce. Only with the emergence of what we now call Web 2.0 around 2005/2006—the birth of the social web, as it has come to be known—did communities return to the forefront of marketing attention. And, in recent years we have seen a deluge of blogs, popular consulting books, and business conferences that deal generally with the concept of virtual consumer communities. Authors like Li and Bernoff (Groundswell), Tamar Weinberg (The New Community Rules), Brian Solis (Engage! With an exuberant, quasi-revolutionary Ashton Kutcher—co-founder of online marketing consulting outfit Katalyst—writing the foreword) to name but a ← 159 | 160 → few, captured large audiences interested in how marketers can find value amongst networked, communal consumers. It is hardly overstating the matter to say that many consultants and academics see a community of consumers everywhere they look.
Such a resurgence of the idea of community is interesting for a number of reasons rooted in the ideology of marketing. And we will discuss them in detail below. But one reason should be mentioned up front, namely that the actual existence of online communities is significantly overstated (see Arvidsson 2013). In other words, consumer communities are more of an idea, indeed a fantasy, than a reality. McWilliam was certainly correct in predicting the success of the consumer community as a buzzword. Not least due to his own seminal essay, the idea of community quickly gained significant purchase with marketers struggling to make sense of the way consumers acted in this emerging networked world of the Internet. From a sociological perspective, however, as Arvidsson also points out, user aggregations such as the “now defunct Geocities web space with its ‘more than three million members’ are not to be understood as communities, at least not in anything that resembles the significance that that term has originally held in social theory (not to speak of Facebook or YouTube that are most definitely not communities).”
Despite all the talk about communities—especially marketing scholars’ and professionals’ favorite version of such a community, the brand community—they remain difficult to locate as real existing social formations characterized by dense webs of interpersonal interaction and a durable attachment to a shared territory or identity (for the classic reference see Tönnies 1973). This is particularly true for social formations with any kind of commercial purpose, whether user-managed or company-managed. Indeed, online communities, such as they are, arguably conspire against meaningful community building because communication online is at the same time radically massified (and often anonymized) and highly fleeting (Dean 2010) leading to a decline of meaningful communication and lasting social engagement. Social media in particular have increased dramatically the number of people that participate in collective communication and, more importantly, how they participate. Short-lived and uncommitted forms of communication such as (re-)tweeting, clicking “like” on Facebook, or posting random pictures from one’s recent get-away to New York City with few if any descriptive words have become dominant forms of “participation” online. Indeed in this non-enduring character of communal engagement social communication perhaps finds its parallel in the transitory and energetic but ultimately meaningless forms of “pure participation” such as the flash mob. As Arvidsson (2013) argues, social media accommodate and constitute ← 160 | 161 → many hit-and-run forms of engagement, especially when it pertains to brands and products: posting once or twice on a blog, looking up an online forum on motherhood to ask a question about a product and then never coming back again, and so on.
To be sure, online communities, when defined as a social formation of sustained and meaningful interpersonal interaction, are hard to find. Especially brand or product-related communities which, we submit exist more in the minds of marketers and marketing scholars than in actual reality. Rather, there is accumulating evidence, according to Arvidsson, “that when such direct forms of interaction do occur, ‘membership’ is highly transitory.” Thus, just as buzz flows quickly in and out of networks of influencers and influenced, individual affiliations flow in and out of groups because affiliations are not based on strong webs of interpersonal interaction but on weak forms of mediated association (like re-tweeting a message).
Empirical evidence against the existence of virtual consumer communities is not surprising because promoting “hit and run” style communication is exactly what the social online network is all about. Such a mode of communication, however, forecloses the possibility of collective meaning creation and understanding. Instructive in this context are Slavoj Žižek’s early essays on communication and meaning in cyberspace (1996, 1997), where he rejects the dominant view of the Internet as the coming of universal meaning and total understanding. Instead, for Žižek computer-mediated interaction ushers in the decline of symbolic efficiency as our ability to “transmit significance” from one individual to another and also from one setting to another diminishes. Ultimately, the decline in symbolic efficiency leads to a failure of transmission. In the final analysis, then, the concept refers to a type of communication inherent to cyberspace that cannot but produce radical uncertainty of what it is that is being said and on what grounds it is said at all. Therefore, virtual communication does not provide the conditions of possibility for collectively shared and co-produced meaning. What computer-mediated interaction does allow for and fosters is a universe of radically individualized utterances (without committed reference to previous statements by others) occurring in a space that is a collective space only in the most formal sense. In addition, Jody Dean (2010) points out that communication in cyberspace also reconfigures the relationship between communication and the communicating subject because of the ease with which the communicating subject can withdraw from his or her utterance. As Dean (2010, 7) puts it, “[S]ince exit is an option with nearly no costs, subjects lose the incentive for their word to be their bond.”
Perhaps the form of community at stake is best exemplified in a typical Žižekian example—the Masturbathon (Žižek 2008); an event in England ← 161 | 162 → where hundreds of people masturbated in a mass phenomenon to raise awareness. According to Žižek, inasmuch as the event generates a collective out of individuals whose very narcissistic isolation forms the basis of their group immersion, a contradiction emerges. Precisely what is excluded from such a collective of individuals is their “intersubjectivity proper” and an “encounter with an Other.” As Žižek (2008, 25) puts it:
Is the typical World Wide Web surfer today, sitting alone in front of a PC screen, not more and more a monad with no direct windows onto reality, encountering only virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever into the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire globe? “Masturbathon,” which builds a collective out of individuals who are ready to share the solipsism of their own stupid enjoyment, is the form of sexuality which fits perfectly the cyberspace coordinates.
From a critical theory perspective, it is not surprising that the breakdown of the tissue of social relationships and experiences of intersubjectivity are re-stated as its opposite—as a growth of community. More specifically, Ben Fine (2010) has directed critical attention towards the rise of a related concept, social capital. As advanced in such texts as Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone, the idea is that the more relations that people develop, the better off they will be. However, Fine critiques that the idea of social capital is a displacement of more traditional forms of community and civic society and amounts to a conceptual reconfiguration of the idea of human relations according to an entirely neoliberal agenda.
From this analysis, we can see that the nature and structure of (even what we call “social”) communication conspire against the possibility of community (at least in any meaningful sense of the word). That does not mean online communities do not exist. We argue, however, that the ever increasing speed and volume of communication make communities less likely to persist, if not to form in the first place, and less and less relevant for marketing practitioners. However, in proceeding with this argument, it is important to problematize the idea of a disappearing authentic community used as a critical counter-foil to marketing mediated communities. An example of such problematizing is presented with reference to a further idea that exists in parallel with marketing communities—relationship marketing; a marketing practice predicated on the idea of fulfilling relationships emerging between corporations and their consumers. As Østergaard and Fitchett (2012) argue, the idea of exchange transactions taking the form of a relationship is very much an idea that belongs within the symbolic realm and so they analyze the discourse from a Baudrillardian perspective and accordingly conclude that what is needed is a third level of understanding that “moves beyond” either ← 162 | 163 → considering relationship marketing as a serious and authentic practice or as a shallow, superficial rhetorical strategy. Instead they argue that the nostalgic yearning for an authentic relationship or form of human intersubjectivity as much belongs to the inauthentic symbolic realm as the obstinately symbolic realm of relationship marketing. Hence Østergaard and Fitchett (2012) conceive of relationships as a construct that results from the complex interplay between signs, code and program which, in this case, become manifest as the market, marketing institutions and marketing technologies.
The Ideological Function of Consumer Online Communities
And yet, marketers hail the power of the virtual consumer community. Public relations and brand guru Brian Solis writes that online community cultivation is now at the essence of any business success, and Larry Weber (2009) identifies ways of how consumer communities can build one’s business (to just name a few of myriad writers on the topic). In the absence of any convincing real evidence for such claims, we ask: why is the industry for consulting books on consumer communities booming? We propose the answer that the online consumer community fulfills an important ideological function in communicative capitalism. Recall Smythe’s insight into the contradictions caused by monopoly capitalism’s attempt to commodify audiences. He was very aware of the tension that would arise from mass media’s attempt to produce and sell to the highest bidder an entity, a collectivity of viewers, that does not consider itself to be for sale. Hence the need of monopoly capitalists for an audience commodity culminates in the making into a commodity people who are consciously seeking group relations without and outside capitalist commodity relations. In the age of participatory media, this contradiction—to manage demand through the commodification of collectivities of people—has become more pronounced. Resolving this contradiction has become the great challenge of contemporary marketing managers and the consumer community has come to function as an ideology of marketing where the commodification of the audience can proceed without openly antagonizing it.
Below, we explore three specific ideological functions of the community mobilized by contemporary marketers in order to overcome a key contradiction of communicative capitalism: the commodification, or as Arvidsson and others (see e.g., Arvidsson 2005; Foster 2011; Zwick et al. 2008) put the matter, the valorization and subsumption under capital of the social media audience while appearing to do the opposite. ← 163 | 164 →
1) The function to dispel the belief that marketers actually do the marketing.
The idea of the online consumer community was associated immediately with the claim that these communities spell the end of marketing as we know it. In fact, in the popular marketing and consulting literature, the term un-marketing has come to describe how marketing changes in the age of social communication and the community from a company-controlled technique of persuasion and selling to a people-driven activity of friendly advice-giving and idea-sharing about brands and products (e.g., Stratten, 2010). Such a formulation of what virtual consumer communities mean for marketing is instructive because it points to the fascinating contradiction of appropriating for marketing practice a particular socio-cultural figure—the community—that appears to be against such appropriation and is in fact recognized as such by the marketing professional. Each consulting book on the topic spends a significant part of the text getting the reader into the “right marketing mindset” required to deal with this contradiction. Advice sometimes takes a more straightforward and sober tone as in Weber (2009) and Qualman’s (2009) texts, which goes something like this: “communities represent the best and the worst of the social web. If you tread lightly and engage on the community’s terms, you will be richly rewarded. If you hope to control the community by simply replicating marketing as usual, the community will turn on you.” Sometimes, the tone turns more blustery and theatrical such as the pleas of Solis and Stratten. In the words of social media guru Ashton Kutcher (in Solis 2011, xiii): “New media is creating a new generation of influencers and it is resetting the hierarchy of authority, while completely freaking out those who once held power without objection […] In the end, everything starts with engagement. This is our time. This is your time. Engage.”
In the typical Silicon Valley style of Wired magazine, Kutcher, Solis, Kelly and others disseminate the news about the consumer insurgency we are witnessing (ix): “[T]he roles are reversing and individuals and brands have the ability to reach and rouse powerful and dedicated communities without ever having to pay for advertising. I’m just part of a bigger movement of empowering the people who care enough to change the world. Social media is socializing causes and purpose and inciting nothing short of a revolution.” As Kutcher implores his clients, “[M]arketers, don’t control us, support us; don’t talk to us, listen!” And Kevin Kelly (2009), former editor of Wired magazine, proclaims that communitarian projects such as Wikipedia, Flickr, and Twitter “aren’t just revolutions in online social media […] They’re the ← 164 | 165 → vanguard of a cultural movement” that will ultimately de-throne traditional marketer-to-customer marketing.
Brands, for Kutcher, need to “be there,” but instead of running the show, they need to surf on the energy and passion of all those who “believe in themselves and their ability to push things forward.” Marketing, for Kutcher, faces a huge opportunity by latching onto potentially legitimate movements of emancipation and anti-capitalist collaboration and he, apparently, sees no conflict here. In the world of virtual communitarianism, marketing and political struggle are heralded as coming together in harmonious matrimony.
At first blush, the case of Ashton Kutcher and his countercultural comrades might seem innocuous enough: another proselytizing proclamation in the recent tradition of cyber-entrepreneurial boosterism extending from the New Communalists (Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog  and later his Global Business Network) to the cyber-libertarian writings of Howard Rheingold (1993) and John Perry Barlow (many essays in Wired magazine, the New York Times, and others) during the 1990s to, more recently, the neolibertarian thoughts of Kevin Kelly (e.g., 1998, 2010) and Christopher Kelty (2008): a discourse on individual empowerment, information sharing, and networked collaboration extolling the virtues of technology and total individual self-reliance as a personal and, in extension, collective ethic. In his 2009 Wired essay entitled “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online,” Kevin Kelly defends the communism of open source by reassuring us that “[I]t is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation.” For Kelly and his cyber-neolibertarian audience, this new digital socialism is palatable because digital socialism is socialism without the state, operating in the realm of culture and commerce, rather than government.
Similarly, the anti-state, communitarian ideal of the new cyber-marketers presents itself as a countercultural approach to the militarist, bureaucratic, and corporate forms of marketing. Consumer communities reverse to its opposite—the oppressive, top-down communicative violence characteristic of the pre-digital age. Marketing is now cast in terms of collaboration, flexibility, and the ability to generate and share information which requires treating consumers as agentic and empowered equals who have the will to determine their own preferences, opinions and communication and definitely are not manipulated dupes. In the age of cyber-communitarianism, as per the discourse of its proponents, marketers must give up their aspirations to absorb consumers into technocratic projects of corporate control. Instead, marketing must become communist by enabling local practices, supporting practices that free consumers from commercial-corporate attempts of persuasion, and helping to cultivate a variety of ways of being. Understanding how ← 165 | 166 → communicative capitalism ensnares speech and action, commonist marketing is produced in networks that favor decentralization over centralization, the multitude over the unified, bottom-up power over top-down control, and experimentation over the planned.
This, then, is what is meant by the countercultural aspiration of un-marketing: to do marketing without the marketer, even as an army of unmarketing experts consult for companies on how to market their products effectively. Hence, what is really at stake in the push for this kind of “unmarketing marketing” is not an end to marketing, but a desire of marketers to make themselves disappear as the other of the consumer. Indeed, we claim that the ideology of the virtual consumer community aspires to make marketing out of, and through, the other.
2) The function to establish the belief that marketers no longer control consumers.
Espousing an especially exuberant kind of techno-utopianism, cyber-community consultants such as Solis, Weinberg, Kutcher, and Stratten (but also cultural anthropologist Christopher Kelty, albeit somewhat more nuanced) reject any aspiration by marketers to pursue what they see as outdated marketing projects aimed at manipulation and control of demand. In communicative capitalism, according to this discourse, control of consumers is not only not possible but unethical; it runs up against the ethos of the network—an ethos of self-organization, individual freedom, collaboration, and experimentation. Hence, from the perspective of the cyber-commonist marketer, the cybernetic definition of consumer control is the antithesis of centralized and corporate marketing, because the latter presupposes—or at least aspires to—a complete knowledge of each individual component of the overall system, which is a notion that must be rejected as impossible to achieve in these open, self-organizing and decentralized consumer community systems (Terranova 2004).1 Put differently, from the perspective of online community, marketers’ consumer control means control of a community, which can only be done from within because the community is respected as a self-organizing, self-determining and always emergent organism.
In commonist marketing the consumer subject is addressed as a moral individual with bonds of obligation and responsibilities for conduct that is assembled in a new way: a consumer in his or her community is both self-responsible and subject to certain emotional bonds of affinity to a circumscribed “network” of other individuals—unified by some kind of shared passion or interest, perhaps by a moral commitment to environmental protection, or to child safety, to exploring teenage angst or animal welfare, or ← 166 | 167 → personal hygiene. Communities thus constructed, whether by the marketer himself or by a collective of individuals, must be understood as a particular moral community—or as Miller and Rose (2008, 91) put it “a network of allegiance with which one identifies existentially, traditionally, emotionally or spontaneously, seemingly beyond and above any calculated assessment of self-interest and monetary expectations.” Simple-minded forms of self-interested communication with thinly masked commercial interests must fail in this environment. Neither the medium nor the message can any longer be controlled, and thus neither can the recipient of communication.
Hence, we arrive at another contradiction: there is a tension between the right to free self-determination of the community and its members and the generally unquestioned right of the marketer to be a part of this determination (recall Kutcher’s claims above). The management of this tension becomes the craft of the commonist marketer. It requires a new technique of management, or put differently, marketing becomes governmental at this particular moment when communities of consumers become at the same time a technical problem and a new technique of marketing.
Initially, community in general, and the virtual consumer community in particular, is invoked by marketers as a possible antidote to the psychological simplification and sociological isolation of the individual generated by traditional marketing. This idea of community as an authentic expression of consumer desire and interest is now deployed in the marketing field as part of the language of critique and opposition, directed against remote and bureaucratic marketing. In contrast, community-touting marketers utilize the language of community to comprehend the problems they encounter in dealing not just with populations partial to marketing messages but, more importantly, with difficult zones—“the anti-Starbucks community,” the anti-sweatshop community, and so on (Miller and Rose 2008). Consumer communities here become a point of penetration of a kind of ethnographic sociology—now called netnography by marketing and consumer researchers—into the vocabularies and classifications of these communities. As commonist marketers intensify their investigations of collective life and its moral order, what began as a language of resistance to and critique of traditional marketing was quickly transformed into an expert discourse and a professional vocation in it its own right—community is now something to be programmed by chief community officers, developed by community development officers, policed by community monitors, and rendered knowable by netnographers pursuing “consumer community studies.” Even as consumer communities are touted as essentially uncontrollable and unmanageable (see Gabriel and Lang 1995), commonist marketing experts made them zones to be investigated, mapped, classified, documented, interpreted, their vectors explained, to ← 167 | 168 → enlightened marketing managers-to-be (or enlist new doctoral students) (Miller and Rose 2008).
This discussion, of course, borrows from what Foucault (1991) termed government. Unlike the more top-down approach of disciplinary power, aimed at shaping the actions of individuals through the imposition of orders, rules, and norms, government works from the bottom up and represents a form of power that “acts through practices that ‘make up subjects’ as free persons” (Rose 1999, 95). It is, hence, a political form of power that aims at generating particular forms of life (Rose 2001, 1999), which in the context of new strategies of customer management, means “the provision of particular ambiences that frame and partially anticipates the agency of consumers” (Arvidsson 2006, 74).
Thus, commonist marketing’s central idea is that control over consumers and markets can best be achieved by providing managed and dynamic platforms for consumer practice (cf. Lury 2004) which, on the one hand, free the creativity and know-how of consumers and, on the other, channel these consumer activities in ways that are desired by the marketers. Customer management, then, as the exertion of political power to produce particular forms of life, clearly does not mean domination because marketers presuppose and, in fact, expect, the consumer subject to act, innovate, tinker and run free. Therefore the marketing challenge posed by the consumer community model rests with establishing ambiences that program consumer freedom to evolve in ways that permit the harnessing of consumers’ newly liberated, productive capabilities. In short, marketing with and through virtual consumer communities is a technique of the conduct of consumer conduct.
3) The function to dispel with the belief that marketers create value.
It is the task of marketing to make sense of and shape the market, to understand the motivations of consumers, and to find ways and means for connecting a product with a buyer. In other words, marketers of products and services must find a path to ensure that consumers perceive the offer presented to them to be of sufficient value. Marketing, then, is a particular mode, or strategy, of valorization.
When in the early 2000s management scholars Prahalad and Ramaswamy (2000, 2002, 2004a, 2004b) began to write a series of essays suggesting that the locus of economic value creation is shifting from the firm’s research and development department to the interaction between the firm and the consumer, traditional conceptions of marketing as valorization strategy became challenged in a fundamental way. Accordingly, the writings ← 168 | 169 → of Prahalad and Ramaswamy caused great excitement among scholars of markets and marketing, giving birth to an area of research that is now, a decade later, commonly referred to as value co-creation. The term denotes that the production of value that takes place increasingly via the interaction between firm and consumer is the outcome of both collaborating in manufacturing products, services and, increasingly, communication. As anthropologist Robert Foster (2007, 715) points out, “this engagement has been identified as a trend, dubbed ‘Customer-Made’ and defined as ‘the phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services and experiences in close cooperation with experienced and creative consumers, tapping into their intellectual capital, and in exchange giving them a direct say (and rewarding them for) what actually gets produced, manufactured, developed, designed, serviced, or processed.”
Co-creation, as Ritzer (2009) reminds us, is neither historically new nor specific to twenty-first century communicative capitalism. Rather, by recognizing that production and consumption are two sides of the same coin, co-creation is intrinsic to all forms of capitalist and noncapitalist economies. Nevertheless, recent social transformations such as the emergence of the internet and, in particular, its user-generated version commonly called Web 2.0 with its more social-communitarian character, have moved practices of co-creation to the center of a firm’s economic value creation (Ritzer 2009; Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). Accordingly, recent marketing and management discourses of co-creation aim to reconfigure the production of use and exchange value—previously considered internal to, as well as the sole purvey and “competitive advantage” of, the firm—as increasingly dependent upon the active participation of formerly passive(ied) consumers (see e.g., Donaton 2006; Lagace 2004).
In addition, marketing practitioners like to allude not only to the inevitability of rising consumer power but also to the strategic imperative of voluntarily handing over control to consumers in order to ensure future value creation (Zwick et al. 2008). Behind this “surrender” is marketers’ widespread belief that consumer masses provide a stock of almost unimaginable creative and innovative talent that awaits exploration, development and exploitation by smart companies (Prahalad and Ramaswamy 2000; Thomke and von Hippel 2002; von Hippel 2005). The growing role of customer co-creation in producing economic value and driving innovation in communicative capitalism has seen many commentators, including some from the critical camp, wonder whether we are witnessing a shift towards a new type of capitalism—a kind of “co-creative capitalism” where firms become enablers and resource providers for customers to create economic value (Arvidsson 2006; Lusch and Vargo 2006). The newly emerging consumer subject has ← 169 | 170 → many names: prosumer, produser, protagonist, post-consumer, consum-actor, etc. (see e.g., Cova and Dalli 2009; Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). What these terms have in common is that they refer to a vision of customers as active and productive creators of economic value rather than passive users of goods and services, and that such production of value substitutes, if not replaces, traditional forms of value creation by the marketer.
The role of commonist marketers, then, is to find new ways to valorize communities, or more generally, the activities of all new commons, increasingly to be found online (see e.g., Bonsu and Darmody 2008). Herein arises a difficulty because at the same time that the collaborative ethos of communities becomes a viable alternative to forms of collective value production and collective ownership, commonist marketers must find ways to align these productive potentialities with the need of capital to capture and privatize the economic value produced in communitarian associations—associations that may even consider themselves as operating outside the logic of capitalism (Dyer-Witheford 2009). In short, the challenge for the commonist marketer is not only to understand that he or she is no longer in charge of producing all of use and exchange value but to find ways to nevertheless appropriate all the economic value from the cultural, technological, social, and affective labor of the consumer masses (see e.g., Zwick and Ozalp 2011).
Marketing managers love the idea of the virtual consumer community replete with dedicated brand ambassadors, idea generators, and problem solvers that revel in the pleasure of self-determined productivity and fun. The reality, as described in the many case studies found in the books of Solis, Weinberger, Stratten and others, is often a lot more sobering and boring. Conversations among consumers are more likely to be purpose-driven and pragmatic (e.g., getting advice on how to fix a software problem or how to get a discount for a specific product), customer participation is often transitory, and relationships between community members are weak and socially insignificant. And yet, virtual consumer communities represent a strong fantasy for marketers operating in the context of communicative capitalism, not least because of a veritable avalanche of practitioner-oriented consulting books and articles declaring their strategic importance and marketing benefits. Undoubtedly, there are some virtual customer and brand communities that attract a sizeable crowd, although when measured against the total number of customers of the brand, the number is likely to be trivial. In addition, empirical evidence seems to suggest that the notion of community is simply not appropriate to ← 170 | 171 → describe the often transitory and generally uncommitted flocking behavior of consumers online. Finally, drawing on Žižek and Dean we have suggested a theoretical basis from which to evaluate the (im)probability of virtual consumer communities to form and persist.
Yet, even if virtual communities represent an unlikely entity, we claim that its plays an important ideological role in the transition and legitimization of a new form or marketing that is based on notions of bottom-up peer marketing, consumer empowerment, and democratized value creation. By its proponents, consumer communities are elevated to the status of a subversive countercultural force that challenges the oppressive “command and control” structure of traditional corporate marketing approaches. The community comes to represent the new reality of communicative, rather than corporate, capitalism: a capitalism that is based on individual empowerment, self-realization, respect for the will of customers, free information sharing, and networked collaboration afforded to us all by the virtues of new communication technologies. As Ashton Kutcher knows well, marketers must adapt. For the cyber-libertarians—on whose ideological coattails today’s commonist marketers ride—communicative capitalism promises freedom from both a regulatory (freedom-denying) government and a monopolistic (information exchange-denying) corporate class, while at the same time providing the conditions for unencumbered spaces of collectivity, solidarity and self-determination (see e.g., Kelly 2009). “Open source” becomes the new paradigm for everything, from writing software code to building a new society. Not surprisingly, then, Kelly’s vision of the coming of global virtual communism includes the idea of a non-state/non-corporate community as at the same time constitutive of, and constituted by, this virtual communism.
Marketers must, nevertheless, find ways to reach customers, appropriate value and sell things; but they must now do so within the discursive frame of communicative capitalism. In other words, marketing must find ways to persuade and control consumers, push messages and products, and create economic surplus without appearing to do any of these things. It is for this reason that we refer to the community as an ideological mediator because, to put it in Lacanian terms, the transition from one form of marketing to another is a transition on the level of the symbolic. Note how in their attempts to overcome today’s three main antagonisms of marketing—Who does the marketing? Who has control? Who creates value?—commonist marketers never challenge the existence nor the purpose of marketing itself. In the final analysis, marketing cannot change its objectives. To survive, it must, however, always re-create the symbolic structure through which we come to understand what marketing is. Marketing thus remains a technique of consumer commodification, just as Dallas Smythe observed long ago. What ← 171 | 172 → has changed since his ground-breaking work is the ideological sophistication with which theorists and practitioners of marketing pursue the commodification of the audience.
1 It would be fair to criticize this argument for setting up a straw man because such knowledge is impossible to achieve in any business function. In addition, theories and practices of traditional marketing have never been based on complete knowledge of each individual consumer: marketing strategies as such have always been virtual, exercised as a potentiality—that is, as a desire, aspiration, or threat. ← 172 | 173 →