I am known to be a bit pessimistic at times, so I wanted to sanity check some thinking I have had recently that to me raises a warning about blogging, or more generally, consumer-generated content.
As the evangelists have stated, myself included, blogging (and other participatory communications tools) gives consumers the ability to more easily express their opinions about products, companies, and so forth, either through their own blogs, commenting on others, advertising co-creation, emerging web 2.0 services, etc. Sometimes the opinions are positive, other times they are cries of anger/frustration about a product that doesn't work as promised, about bad service received, etc.
Here's my question. Does this consumer commentary represent a safety valve, allowing them (us) to blow off steam, ease frustration etc. with little real expectation that something will change, that their problem will be solved? Or do consumers truly expect real change to occur or real action to be taken?
I have been emphasizing in my discussions with people recently that their organizations really need to pay attention to expectations of real change, i.e.,if they say they are listening, they will need to prove it. However, I am well aware that moving from online conversations to action in the physical world is a true challenge.
So, can companies afford to pay lip-service (or simply ignore) consumer complaints in the blogosphere? Because the same challenge is at play here too: It is easy for consumers to talk, but harder for them to band together to take action via a boycott, lawsuit, visit to the board meeting, etc.
If blogging/consumer commentary online is simply a safety valve, then companies can work to defuse issues via conversation in the most radical cases, but perhaps safely ignore the more marginal cases (a risk-benefit analysis aiding them to assign resources appropriately to participating in the online conversations).
But what if that commentary is a symptom of something bigger? Of a more widespread, pervasive cultural discontent with the interactions of business and society? Might the blogosphere then become a source of a positive feedback effect, increasing the numbers of unhappy consumers while bolstering their perceived ability to force change? And if these consumers are, in fact, ignored [a crisis of expectations ensuing] will that confirm their feeling of general powerlessness, tipping them into rage that explodes beyond the online world?
In one respect, it seems kind of silly that anger about a computer issue could lead to people marching in the streets, but think about it. That issue is just one of many where consumers feel completely powerless these days. Compounded, all these issues combined with the ability to easily share their anger with others, could indeed create action in the physical world. Scary action.
So, from this wider perspective, perhaps organizations should indeed work hard to diffuse issues online and make changes offline to prevent future issues. That may serve the greater societal good. But that is not necessarily an argument that will result in an increased budget to handle the problem. A true conundrum.
Now, I am clearly pushing the edges on this one to be a bit provocative, but I am truly interested in discussion the questions I have raised. I look forward to hearing from you!