Reality by Design

The New World Order

MIT researcher Deb Roy’s modeling methods help us see the effects of social networking technologies and the ways it contributes to social restructuring. People build conversations around common interests and ideas within entirely new social structures. The nugget: increasingly, to understand a person’s opinions, community, culture or worldview, we need to understand their online activities and interactions.


Corporations as community organizers

Earlier this summer Novosymes, a company that manufactures enzymes for detergents, launched its ido30 campaign, a promotion to foster community around the idea that if all European households wash clothes at 30C (about 86ºF), they’ll reduce CO2 emissions roughly equal to taking 3 million cars off the roads (ido30’s Facebook page has about 9500 fans as of this publication date).

ido30 is an example of how interactive technologies have re-invented paradigms for the role of the corporation in local and global cultures–and how that requires us to develop new modes of thinking to make sense of it all. For decades, branding practices have promoted the anthropomorphization of the corporation or brand. We tend to think of brands or companies as beings with values and sometimes even feelings. With emerging internet technologies, we now can interact with brands and corporations, creating relationships with the abstract concept of “the brand” on a whole new level.

Novosymes’s use of social media and its environmental mission might draw a broad array of criticism. Those who support minimal interference in the free market system might argue that corporate citizenship practices distract from businesses’ primary economic roles. On the other end of the spectrum, critics of capitalist practices might assert that corporate social responsibility efforts comprise merely another level of simulacrum (a lá Jean Baudrillard), a fabrication of reality that stands in for (and many people accept as) reality itself.

But internet technologies may complicate these thought paradigms even further. So-called consumers are increasingly savvy in seeing beyond the veil and spectacle of corporate marketing rhetoric, and many expect more of the corporations and brands than they had in the past. They recognize shallow hype, and many expect a brand’s story to represent a commitment to more than short-term profits. Their new skills and resources enable consumers to level accountability in ways previously unattainable.

Enter corporate responsibility models like Novosymes’s. Novosymes’s campaign isn’t new, but its efforts have drawn attention from the global community. In 2002 the company signed on to the UN Global Compact’s strategic policy initiative for businesses committed to aligning operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption. Novosymes’s commitment may represent the corporate practice of the future, a dedication to social responsibility even as it satisfies shareholders.

Perhaps in the process Novosymes has indeed succeeded in constructing a distraction from governmental regulation of its products and practices, hoodwinking the UN and others in corporate machinations. It could be that the company’s relationship with the UN exemplifies the kind of corporate and governmental/NGO entanglements so many critics fear. Or maybe we need to re-assess our thought processes around corporate social roles, and acknowledge the increasing complexities of technology and capitalist cultural practices. The idea of the corporation won’t disappear, only evolve. And corporate responsibility is proving to be the only sustainable evolutionary adaptation right now.

For the record, yes, we wash in cold, have for years…

What Madison Avenue taught a “traditional African culture”…and what we might learn in return…

In Namibia I toured a “traditional Himba village” with a group made up of mostly Europeans and a handful of Americans and Canadians. As our guide walked us from our campsite toward the village, we followed in near-complete silence—he offered little to shape our expectations for the experience. Along our walk, several Himba children—maybe nine-, ten-, eleven-years-old—approached us, grabbing our hands and alternating handshakes as they repeated words in their local language: moro; perivi; nawa. The word “moro” was accompanied by a grasp of the right hands, familiar to us Westerners as a handshake. With “perivi,” the grasp shifted so the thumbs entwined and one’s fingers curled around the back of the other hand. On “nawa,” the greeters returned to the original handshake. Down the line each child went, from tourist to tourist, repeating the handshakes and words: moro; perivi; nawa. Eventually our guide explained that the children were teaching us greetings in their local language: “moro” means “good day”; “perivi” is “how are you”; “nawa,” “I’m well.”

Eager to employ our new language skills, we tourists “explored” Himba culture—Himba community members approached us one by one, and in unison we parroted our new linguistic tools…moro; perivi; nawa; moro; perivi; nawa…

In unison, I say. At some point it occurred to me: none of us was actually engaging with these people in their local language. Rather, we aped back these phonemes—and participated in the equivalent of an interactive museum display. Push button, utter phrase, feel enriched by our newly acquired knowledge.

Thinking that I was more-thinking than my travel mates, I took initiative with one Himba resident as she approached me. Before she took the opportunity, I extended my hand saying, “Moro.” She shifted her grasp in rhythm, replying, “Perivi.” “Nawa,” I returned. My new acquaintance sized me up, nodded her head and gave me the slightest wink. I felt conceitedly triumphant—I got it, and I knew she knew I got it. I saw through the veneer of this “cultural experience” as a touristic construct—and was knowingly acknowledged by an insider.

Now I recognize that this Himba community had not only appropriated my American-capitalist culture, it had bested it. I come from Brand Culture, whose members are marked not by ethnic divisions, but by social-interaction-through-commodities. Whoever constructed this “traditional Himba village” recognized my Western-Consumption traditions of soundbite- and snapshot-driven social interaction. They also recognized how our practices produced tourists hungry for contact with the Authentic—in the process the members of this Himba community appropriated our parochial ideas of “African culture” and attempted to give us what we expected. Our fantasies were their most valuable resource.

So the Himba combined resources available to them—my Western/American post-colonialist imaginings of “traditional African culture” with my sound-bite information gathering habits and my hunger for some Authentic social interaction.

Though brilliant at first blush, the strategy failed this Himba community in a few ways. Several of us tourists (as a very small social network) reflected on our tour as pretentious, belying the promises of Authentic experience with something called Himba. We judged the Himba residents to be exploited cogs in the Himba revenue-generation machine, and several of us bristled at how we were invited to participate in that construct. In the process both Himba and Tourist were objectified: Himba as museum piece, Tourist as Culture Consumer. Despite our well-developed practices of objectifying commodities and relationships, I think we Westerners were the more offended at being objectified.

But we don’t seem to recognize this contradiction with our own marketing and media, and marketers seem slow to capitalize on true relationship building. In recent years several ad campaigns attempted to engage with audience members by offering a veil of Authenticity—Unilever’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” (for the Dove brand) springs to mind. Despite positive feedback from many online bloggers and YouTube posters, several railed against the campaign’s pretentious manipulation of people’s ideas of beauty. Even as the Dove ads appear to challenge beauty standards, many people pointed out how the Campaign is contradictory within itself. Even as they purport to challenge American cultural beauty standards, ads like Evolution and Onslaught were criticized by several on-line posters for further objectifying and manipulating people’s beliefs, and shaping on-line social discussions for the benefit of the Campaign’s bottom line (several smart parodies made me crack a little smile). Our current marketing-communications efforts don’t reach out to people with resources to purchase as much as appease Consumers, who are objectified by quantifiable statistics and generalized by behavioral models. Similarly, the Himba didn’t relate with “people” as much as they did Tourists—just as we tourists didn’t relate to “people” as much as we did our fantasies of “traditional African culture.”

Maybe I’m wrong and the Himba succeeded much like the Dove campaign did: many marketers believe generating any kind of buzz is more productive for a brand than ensuring positive experiences. But I believe today, as people gain ever-increasing technological access and understanding for how ads and Brand Relationships are constructed, people will continue to question Authenticity in Brand Culture. Most people are savvy if not cynical about their relationships to brands—they recognize ways they’re constantly solicited for money without regard for their humanity. Perhaps if we asserted social values in equal weight with profit margins—as opposed to advancing commodities wrapped in the veneer of value sets for the sake of revenue generation—perhaps then we’d learn that (A)uthenticity doesn’t have to be a fabrication feeding a Bottom Line.