'Digital populism' governs consumer world

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COLUMBUS, OH - Trends such as the growth of YouTube and the increasing role of cell phones in our lives are centered around consumers but also combine culture, community and commerce.

This was the opening message delivered by Resource Interactive founder/CEO Nancy Kramer at the company's two-day client symposium here last month titled iCitizen. It included representatives from Target, Hewlett-Packard, Borders and Procter & Gamble.

The message for marketers: A shift in power has begun, Ms. Kramer said. "Consumers expect to be engaged by the [marketing] process instead of managed by it."

An example of this shift is the way the Internet has empowered common people. In the "Digital Populism" panel, Derek Lomas, director of the Social Movement Laboratory at the California Institute of Telecommunications and Technology, discussed the significance of MySpace.com. The lab is conducting a large-scale ethnographic study of common social behaviors within MySpace.

In July, 44 percent of Internet users ages 12-24 visited MySpace.com at least once and spent an average of 225 minutes, Mr. Lomas said. They built profiles, gathered with friends and, most importantly, posted comments that anyone on the site could read, with everyone competing for attention.

Social interaction is the "real power" of the virtual online community Second Life, said Giff Constable, vice president of business development for Electric Sheep Co., which is involved on the creative and conceptual side of Second Life. Players, who number more than 1 million, feel like they're actually spending time with other people, who might really be halfway around the world. They get married, divorced, buy homes and conduct other "real life" interactions using virtual alter egos called avatars. Second Life is gaining a following among marketers as well, with brands such as Lego, Sony BMG and Nike appearing.

"Social computing is not a fad," said David Cooperstein, vice president/editor-in-chief of Gather.com, a year-old social networking site targeting adults. He likened Web-based social interaction to the water-cooler conversations people once had. Now they go online to discuss business, restaurants and whatever else informally. Marketers such as Smartbargains.com and Starbucks have created promotions to try to engage the site's community.

"Something has happened to the consumer; [marketers] can assume that you are going to keep up," said Steven Berlin Johnson, author of the book, "Everything Bad Is Good for You." His keynote discussed how consumers have evolved to where they can juggle an infinitely wide social network on MySpace.

"There is a distinctive upward trend in the complexity of [pop culture]," he said, citing the TV show "Dallas" for how simple the plot lines of popular entertainment used to be. In contrast, the show "24" has many more characters and relationships.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, discussed his book, "The Long Tail." The premise is that in the past 10 years we have seen the rise of marketplaces with infinite shelf space and near-zero costs, such as Amazon and Rhapsody.com. In the process we have discovered that, contrary to common perception, a significant market exists for niche products.

In other words, the iCitizen, who exchanges product recommendations with friends online and is more culturally complex than before, isn't interested in blockbusters. There's "a rich culture that was there all along and suppressed by tight distribution channels," Mr. Anderson said.

That's why 40 percent of Rhapsody.com's business is music that is not sold in Wal-Mart and 21 percent of Netflix's sales are DVDs not available in Blockbuster.

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