The Good and Downright Sinister of Being Part of a Connected Community

Margot GranthamHave you ever stopped to think about the wider community you belong to, and I mean the community beyond where you live and work? Most of us have access to the internet and wifi so we are part of a connected universe which has its good points as well as its more sinister. For good, think of the viral effect of Stephen Sutton’s blog and his incredible courage played out on social media which has resulted in raising £mns for teenage cancer research.

Another form of ‘goodness’ is how the internet is able to bring business closer to their customers. Marketing to customers is no longer straightforward so digital marketing and related online activity now takes a large share of the budget pie, which for market researchers like me means adding online communities and social media monitoring to our toolbox.

A bit about/shameless plug for online communities as a contrast to our wider online community. They can come from all parts of the UK, they can be global, it all depends on the marketing brief. My company has managed online communities where the clients have requested defined populations of consumers with a shared interest – some derived from their own customer database. The community is invited to engage with one another on a social level, rather like they would on a Facebook page. Their continued engagement is important so when asked to perform a task such as co-creation of ideas, survey responses, attend a focus group they do so willingly and with real interest. When their interest and engagement withers we replace them with new community members. Of course, all members are ££ rewarded according to the level of activity they get involved in, and everybody is happy.

Managing an online community is entertaining and enjoyable; having a large group of interested and motivated people to work with who deliver real benefits to our clients is the stuff of successful companies. The difference is that we are like Orwell’s Big Brother, controlling what they are exposed to and what they do, and ruthlessly controlling who stays and who goes. We monitor their conversations and interactions, we reward good behaviour, and we encourage community members to report on bad behaviour amongst the population. Unlike Big Brother however, our community members understand the rules and sign up with the knowledge that they will be rewarded for their contributions and removed from the community if they don’t contribute.

Now comes the sinister bit. Imagine that you are part of an online community that you haven’t signed up to, and that your activity is being monitored. I am sure that we are all aware how advertisers target your online space, government agencies have surveillance software and GPS can geo-locate you. But how frequently do we think about this?

We (I mean the agency I work for) conducted a media usage study recently and found the people in our sample (240 = recruited on the basis of personal usage of the internet) use more than one connected media at any given time: smart phone constantly alert to receive calls, texts and emails, laptop used at work and home, although latterly tablets replace laptops for private use. They, like me, have a basic understanding of algorithms and receiving content based on their daily internet trawl and we are okay with it. If we want we can switch off some but not all monitoring devices, but at the rate that internet and wifi is gaining global coverage and sophisitication, how practical is it if we desire to live in this connected world. We make it easy to be monitored, reported and controlled 24/7 and think little of it.

As a good citizen in the online and physical community is this fair and just? Do we have to accept Big Brother in our lives simply because we want the benefit and convenience of connectivity? Not accepting this infringement of personal liberty is not an easy option and we cannot simply erase our digital footprint. Moreover, attempts to do so may alert suspicion that you have something to hide more than just a desire for a life lived free of surveillance!

There are plenty of sites explaining how you can get Big Brother off your back, though I am not sure how legal any of the suggestions are. In checking some of them out for this article I may have alerted some interest in what I am up to. It feels like there is no way out of this ‘Truman Show’.

If anyone has any legal solution to this I would like to know what it is – I’m not paranoid, really I am not..

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