Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Social Networking & Anti-Consumerism

    The lady changed the subject, gently.  "My husband tells me that you're a famous philosopher.  Say something witty or wise."

'Bollywood' Azalea - Color Year Round -Sun or Part-Sun    Dr. Wraxtiorre pointed out the window diffidently, muttering, "The Dog is in the yard, peeing on the Azaleas."

    The lady thought for a moment, looking up at the ceiling.  "Nah, I thought you would have said something poignant and inciteful, like something about possession not being the intended consequence of acquisition, and perverting the value of worth.  Or some jibberish like that."

    Dr. Wraxtiorre cupped his hand at his forehead and furrowed his brow.  "I think it was something about 'When the manufacture of products are outsourced from those who sell them, then the worth of a product becomes divorced from its value.'  Some economists have taken that as a death-knell for the community which would follow that path, but I think that people are much more resilient than that."

    The man in the dark suit sneered, "Hogwash!  The American consumer has always considered itself to be the customer of the products it purchases from the marketplace.  When the people realize that they are not the customers anymore, but rather the product, then the market will be in for some turmoil."  He looked around proudly, as though acknowledging accolades for his intelligence in all matters of finance.

   Standing outside the Director of Accounting's office, the CEO turned the doorknob and released his grip on it, allowing the door to creak and whine as it slowly found its way across the floor to the wall.  He stepped in eagerly, purposely, quickly, proudly.  "Hello, everyone.  I'm here now."

    Dr. Jeremy Wraxtiorre, the (un)famous philosopher, backed further into the front office and face-palmed himself.  "Ugh!  Not another ego-centric optimist!"

    The Director's secretary sneered.  "Is that an observation or a request?"  She looked down at her hands again, where she had been pulling stray hairs out of a hairbrush from her purse.

    Dr. Wraxtiorre pointed out the window and abruptly asked, "Look, what's that?"

    The Director's secretary jerked her head towards the window and scanned the horizon, the branches of trees, the fence-line, the rows of parked cars, the hedgerows, and the sidewalks for whatever interesting thing or event that Dr. Wraxtiorre was attempting to show her.  While she searched, he furtively pulled a tube of Super Glue out of his pocket and generously sprinkled it across the bristles of the hairbrush. 

    The CEO held up his hand and announced, "To quote a recently-heralded addition to pop culture:  What a bunch of frickin' morons!  You fools wouldn't know a credit card transaction from a cash withdrawal!  Haven't any of you ever read Lewis Carroll's Symbolic Logic?"

    I stepped back from the Director of Accounting and p-shawed dismissively.  "I see that you still haven't bought a copy of Mangled Doves yet."

    Once the CEO caught sight of the Director of Accounting, he scowled angrily.  The Director of Accounting was still tied to his chair using heavy ropes, and I had duct-taped his mouth shut.  Sweat rolled down his cheeks to his chin, and dripped noisily onto his shirt.  Once his eyes met the CEO's eyes, the  Director of Accounting flinched visibly.

    The CEO waved his hand snobbily.  "I haven't the time to talk about your book, with its silly novella about metafiction!  I am here to teach you about the power of effective economics.  It's a simple logical progression which any child can understand.  Do you remember the axiom that 'The customer is always right?' Well, it still rings true.  Only you have to understand that the consumer and the purchaser of products is not the customer anymore!"

    The secretary grunted angrily as she staggered awkwardly across the room, yanking at a hairbrush that was stuck in her hair.  She hopped wildly with every yank at the hairbrush and yelped in agony as more and more hairs were pulled from her scalp.

    Ignoring her, the CEO continued.  "A company's job is to earn money, so the customer's job is to pay the company so that it can continue to remain in business.  In the old days, that meant providing a product or service, because people would only pay for a product or service if they actually received one.  But, as the insurance industry began to become a successful enterprise, people learned how to pay for a product or service in the hopes of not receiving the product or service.  While customers were still able to enforce the distinction between product-based and service-based mercantilism, and coverage-based mercantilism, the customer's job changed slightly.  They were now expected to pay for what they called 'Brand Loyalty.'  Marketing had taken hold of the market, and customers also began to be expected to pay for products and services in order to pay for the commercials they liked."

    As she struggled blindly with the hairbrush, the Director's secretary leapt fitfully across the room several times, shrieking and whimpering each time she pulled at the hairbrush.  Eventually, she hurled herself onto the Director's desk and rolled over the side as her skirt fell across her face.  As she stood up, she inhaled defiantly and gave one last tug on the hairbrush's handle.  A subdued whimper-scream escaped her lips as the brush tore free from her locks.  Then she inadvertently stepped through the open window.

    The CEO's wife lowered her arms and stepped forward in concern.

    The CEO stretched upward as he leered out the window at the courtyard below.  The Stoic Cat had just scampered away from the lobby to flee the falling body.  The CEO quietly muttered, "The Dog is in the yard, peeing on the Azaleas."  He grabbed his wife's arm roughly and pointed out the window.

     I shrugged.  Dr. Wraxtiorre stepped in, holding his hand out figuratively.  The Director of Accounting wheeled his chair around, pulling at the ropes which tied his arms to the chair's arm.  He leaned forward and tried to shout through the Duct Tape which covered his mouth.  "Mmmmmmmph!   Mmmmmmm-mmmm-mmmph!"

    Dr. Wraxtiorre waved off the Director's complaints as he strolled over to the credenza.  "Nonsense.  You can pee later.  Look at me.  I farted and it was partly solid, but I'm okay!"  He draped his boxer shorts across the credenza, smoothing out the fabric so that they would dry faster.

    The CEO waved his arm dramatically, freezing his swing as his hand was cupped just above his head.  "You children aren't listening to me.  It all comes down to the fact that the company must kow-tow to the customer, and the customer is the person (or persons, if you will) who keeps the company in business.  People who dump venture capital into a company, or provide it with lots of funds in order to manage startup costs, don't become customers because they have ensured the company continues to exist by making sure that it provides other people with products or services.  However, when people buy stock in a company, they are doing the same thing except they are becoming customers in doing so.  They are buying a product or service of the company--the yield that results from an investment--the dividends you earn from the stocks you own.  And so they have the right to tell the company what to do in order to become more successful, or rather what the person with the most stocks thinks will be more successful than what it is now."

    He walked over to the credenza and pushed Dr. Wraxtiorre aside.  Grabbing a highball glass, he clumsily poured a drink in it, spilling Scotch all over Dr. Wraxtiorre's boxers.   "And so, the stockholders dictate the company's actions because they are the biggest customer.  Naturally, when the silly consumers complain about a corporation's actions, they are ignored because they are NOT the CUSTOMER!"

   The CEO stepped bravely up to the Director and quickly jerked the Duct Tape off his face.

    The Director of Accounting screamed horrifically.  "YEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWW!  I can't believe that!"

    The CEO smugly shrugged and asked, "What?"

    "You defenstrated my secretary!"

    The CEO took a swallow from his Highball, winced and inhaled with satisfaction.  "Not to worry.  We'll get you another one.  Just call the temp agency." 

    Holding my hands up in defense, I backed away from the Porsche in dismay.  "No, no, we are not going to do the Quantum thing here again.  I finished the article series on De-Constructing Quarks!  We came to talk about Economics, not Physics."

    The CEO shrugged.  "But I have said my piece.  What more is there to say?"

    I looked around, baffled.  "I still don't get the whole 'Consumer is not the Customer' thing.  How can an economy function in a market where the consumer is not the person (or people) providing the company's revenue?"

    The CEO's wife stepped forward, arching her back to display her bosom more prominently.  "Take a look at big government.  You pay your taxes to Uncle Sam, but most of the government's activities are funded by lobbysits and PACS, subisidized by illegal corporate donations to campaign funds."

    The CEO reached over and covered his wife's face and glared at her sternly.  Then he turned to me with a forcibly calmer and more polite face.  "I think that what she's trying to say is that your taxes may pay for the more basic functions of government like paving roads and building schools, but the more progressive government programs are supported by well-funded marketing PACs who have more experience and clout in matters of international propaganda and long-term environmental goals."  He released the airlock grip that he had on his wife's face, and she staggered backwards while gasping for breath.  The CEO cocked his head apologetically, then returned his gaze to me.  "I think that your Facebook is a prime example of the argument here.  There was a big flap about a year ago when Facebook was considering making its membership a paid subscription, but you so-called customers made a big uproar.  So, Mark Zuckerberg made a subtle change in his revenue structure and turned the consumers of his quote-unquote 'social network' into a product that he could sell to the marketing companies who wanted to buy advertising space on his website.  In a very literal way, the marketing companies became the paying customers and the consumers became a product that he was selling to them."

    My jaw dropped in realization that I had been participating in somebody else's marketing scheme.  "So, that's why Facebook is still a free membership website?  Because the revenue comes from somewhere other than the consumers?  Well, what's wrong with that?  If it wasn't free, I wouldn't sign up, so the marketing companies are making money off the fact that they are enabling me to participate with the Social Networking thing.  I don't get why that's a problem."

     The Itinerant Philosopher stepped up, waving his hands defiantly.  "No, no, no, you see, that's precisely where the problem is.  When the power structure of an environment is displaced from the people who populate it, then decisions are made with little or no concern for the needs and desires of the consumers.  People are constantly complaining about the fact that Facebook's security changes always default to the least secure settings and members are usually not notified of these changes until fellow members warn them about the Identity Theft dangers which result from this lack of disclosure.  Facebook keeps these defaults on low security so that their true customers--the marketing companies--can have more access to the products that Facebook is selling to them."

    Dr. Jeremy Wraxtiorre held up a finger and spoke up meekly.  "So, if Facebook's customers were hungry, and Facebook were a fast-food restaurant . . . "

    The CEO answered promptly.  "You would be a slab of ground beef to them.  You are the makings of a cheeseburger that they would wish to eat."

    Dr. Wraxtiorre looked down, scratching his chin in thought.
    The Itinerant Philosopher nodded.  "Yep, take the example of Lee Perkins, the guy who started the Boycott BP movement which attracted over 800,000 followers on Facebook alone at one point.  In a suspiciously coincidental bit of timing, Facebook's automated TOS-tracking software caused the Boycott BP page on Facebook to be shut down and removed from Facebook during the three days that Lee Perkins was appearing in Washington DC for the Boycott BP Rally that he had spear-headed, organized and spoke for.  Facebook later called the deletion a glitch of technical error which they manually undeleted, but the damage to the Boycott BP movement had been done and Facebook walked away safely without even apologizing because they could blame the censoring act as an unforeseeable glitch."

    Dr. Wraxtiorre mumbled something under his breath, still gazing distractedly at the pavement.

    The Director of Accounting's secretary looked over and asked, "Well, if their automated systems deleted the page, then why did it coincide with the Rally?  That page had over 800,00 followers for over three months, so why didn't their automated systems delete it before then?"

    I held my hand up in a halting gesture, and retorted, "But, didn't anybody complain about the logical conclusion that if the Boycott BP page had been active and popular for several months before it got deleted and suddenly it happens to get caught by this automated system which didn't flag it before, and that timing happened to coincide with the Rally in Washington DC, that somebody was hiding some intentionally timed effort, or somebody incompetent should be fired for permitting such a lapse during all the months that it didn't matter quite so much? Don't they make their Terms of Service clear to their customers?  I mean, even I have a definition of TOS in the Glossary of my book, Mangled Doves."

    The Director of Accounting stepped forward, not noticing his secretary sitting up on the roof of his Porsche.  "Ahem," he cleared his throat nervously.  "They did.  Loudly.  But the excuse was made that the glitch which deleted the Boycott BP page wasn't wrong, that the Boycott BP page did in fact violate the rules which the TOS-watching software should be enforcing, and that no problem resulted from the fact that this TOS-watching software didn't flag the Boycott BP page before, but then Facebook put out a memo saying that the deletion was in error--which renders the 'rightful' announcement a political excuse.  But there isn't any formal grievance process for Facebook, is there?"

    Dr. Wraxtiorre mumbled something under his breath again.

    I turned around antagonistically.  "What!?"  I watched expectantly, waiting for him to repeat his mumblings.  He didn't.  I turned back to the Director of Accounting and interjected, "You know, Yahoo!Answers had the same problem when they outsourced their whole 'Conflict Resolution' Department.  The automated software that they adopted for complaints about TOS-violating content simply deleted the contended content and delivered a 'Notice' email to the person's account who had posted the content, and appeals were apparently rejected by default.  The situation became known as 'apparently random bludgeonings'.  It's one of the reasons that I stopped visiting the service."

    Dr. Wraxtiorre mumbled something under his breath again.

    I swatted Dr. Wraxtiorre across the back of the head and shouted, "Speak up!"

    Rubbing the back of his head scornfully, Dr. Wraxtiorre loudly said, "A Cheeseburger is a place where one notices things like mustard and pickles, especially when they are missing."