I read an article yesterday in The New York Times about E-malls. Presently shopping on the Internet is a solitary experience. E-malls, however, work along the lines of a site showing the shopper a particular item and then when the shopper wishes to purchase it, the shopper is routed to the actual vendor. The displayed item is one that might be trending or one that members of the shopper’s social network purchased or browsed.
As I read the article I kept hearing a voice in my head saying, “No, this is terrible.” The voice kept getting louder, too.
It’s taken me awhile to figure why I don’t like the idea. Actually, it’s not that I don’t like the idea, rather it raised a strong negative response in me.
I realize that this distinction may be splitting hairs. In one sense this is a brilliant idea in that it encourages people who shop on-line to purchase more stuff using subtle or not so subtle peer pressure. It adds a bit of serendipity to the on-line shopping experience. Shoppers get a chance to “browse” rather than going directly to a specific item. But I still don’t have a positive feeling for it.
At first I thought about data mining and how it gathers information on our consumer preferences. As we shop and browse, we add to our “database” of personal information, which makes it easier for companies to target ads to our specific interests and to refine their consumer profiles of us so that companies can predict our behaviors. If we purchase enough stuff, the E-mall will be able to know when we are about ready to run out of shampoo and will send us a reminder to purchase another bottle.
But, that would be the case even without E-malls. Purchase enough stuff from Amazon or any other on-line retailer and they will gather more information for the profile they have on you.
I took awhile to figure it out, but it eventually came to me.
Our consumer choices often reflect the social circle in which we live. While we have individual tastes, we tend to purchase items that are generally acceptable within the social circle. An example. I wouldn’t purchase a picture in black velvet and I’d venture to guess that most of the people I know wouldn’t purchase one either. Another example might be a particular article or style of clothing, such as a casual shoe or a particular consumer electronic that can do some sort of cool thing.
The E-mall offers the experience of shopping with a friend. Your friend spots something you would like and says, “Hey, this looks really neat. I think you’d like this.” By showing trending items or items browsed or purchased by people in your social network, you get this sort of effect.
But it takes our relationships and commodifies them. It’s as though we go to shop with friends only to buy things. It ignores the idea that shopping with a friend might place the priority on being with a friend above shopping.
Shopping can be a social experience. An example might be browsing with a friend and making comments about a product without having any intention to buy it. While we make comments we might be making jokes about it or maybe the item prompts us to recall a time when that item or a similar item figured into some crazy story from college days. After shopping we might go for coffee or burger or a beer. Or maybe shopping with a friend just satisfied the need for company. Whatever, the premise of the activity was social and shopping happened to be the shared activity.
I’m not trying to be some social network, techno-Luddite. I like using the technology, but I fear that these innovations will gradually shift us away from the social capital we build when we are physically with each other. We will lose sight of the value physical presence has in our lives.
Technology is thinning the social bonds we once had. Example. Depending upon the generation, some people maintain that leaving voice messages on an answering machine consumes valuable time. People should leave a text message – short and to the point. While expedient, it removes the social pleasantry of “Hi. How are you? I’m sorry I missed you. I’m calling to let you know … Talk to you soon.” Sure the crux of the message is there, but there is no social capital with it. The message becomes a pure transaction.
Seriously, this technology can give people the illusion they are connected with other people and yet, the user can go for days without any physical human contact. Consider on-line shopping. Open my computer, find my commodity, buy it, done. I didn’t deal with a salesperson. I didn’t have to wait until the salesperson finished with another customer. I didn’t have to deal with the rude person who stole my parking space. On-line shopping is super efficient. It also re-enforces self-centeredness.
While one could think that dealing with a salesperson is a pain, it helps to build our skill in talking with complete strangers. And while waiting for a salesperson is annoying at times, it also teaches patience and re-enforces the kindergarten lesson, “wait your turn.” And though the jerk stole the parking space, we’re reminded that being a jerk makes others angry, which may lead us to being less of a jerk.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the E-mall as I’m really not a big fan of shopping, except for food, cookware, and books. When I shop I prefer shopping in a store because it is a social experience for me. I think of it as “slow shopping.” When I buy books it is as much a social interaction as a commercial transaction. Even when I go to the deli and the fish counters at the supermarket there is a social component.
Our social interactions, especially when they are physical over electronically mediated, are what really makes true community.