Engagement (and what is not)

The liner notes to Hugh’s drawing have it. Now it’s engagement. Just having finished Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus” , I wondered why it is that, despite the fact it being easier than ever before, people do not engage in meaningful conversation, supporting a cause or starting their own movement. And the answer is quite simple (again): fear.

In a world where people are connected 24/7, it is technically easy to find something you care about. What hinders the engagement is the inconvenience of the process, and more important, the risk you’re putting yourself at. Risk in terms of reputation. As Chris Anderson points out in “Free!”, reputation is something that people are very keen on especially in online social networks. In this context, for some people virtualization has not brought more freedom but more restraints, because they submit themselves to peer pressure not only in the workplace or in private, but since they usually have the same peers online they are now feeling (and sometimes being) watched continuously.

The other important issue is (in)convenience. Most people who have grown up without the Internet are still in a consumer mindset today. They still have the notion of the web being an extension of traditional media, a circumstance which traditional media is still enforcing on their web sites. With their online content being just a repetition of the broadcast or the print, they keep pushing back their visitors to the traditional channels, be it the TV screen or the newspaper stand. They don’t want people to engage online, because everone who does is one consumer lost. But they don’t have to worry, because people act the way they’ve been trained to, they consume web pages. Clicking a “Like” button is not engagement. Re-posting privacy warnings on Facebook isn’t either.

Engagement generates long-term value, and long-term value is the enemy of consumption, because it relies on immediate decay of value after purchase, which doesn’t necessarily have to include a monetary transaction (it does, but that’s a hidden one between the provider and a third party, say an advertiser). And once people figure out something has no long-term value, they stop supporting it. You can see this when we revisit the Pretzel vs. Tokio Hotel fad: 5 months later, the Pretzel group now has about 644,000 members (and remember, they got 500,000 within their first 15 days of existence), whereas the Tokio Hotel fan group now has more than 650,000 . Once again, the reason behind this is quite obvious: Being the fan of an artist has a long-term value, what happens here is the prerequisite to engagement: a tribe is growing, so now whoever is inside this tribe has an organized platform to start engagement. On the other hand, being the fan of a pretzel is fun for the moment, and the inevitable media hype rewards ervery member with the satisfaction of having been part of it, but no more. This is not a tribe, because no one seriously cares about the reason the have gathered for — this is consumption.

I’ll do an experiment today: I’ll ask people to post an important question, on Facebook. I’m curious to see what happens if you ask people to do something instead of waiting for something to happen. Results coming soon.

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