There is little in contemporary society that platforms do not touch and alter. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more of our communication takes place on platforms than ever before. We asked Rob Kozinets, Daniela Abrantes Ferreira, and Paula Chimenti, authors of a recently published netnographic JCR study, how platforms might empower consumers.
Our investigation looks at how platforms alter the power of consumers. We consider consumer empowerment to mean the strengthening of a person’s abilities, rights, or authority to consume or otherwise fulfill their objectives as a marketplace actor. These ideas also have relevance for our lives as citizens. According to our research, there are six important elements of empowerment that platforms can affect: choice, voice, justice, inclusion, catalysis, and consciousness-raising. To study how platforms provide consumers with these elements of power –or limit them—we use the important concept of the affordance. An affordance is an opportunity to act on something. Platforms can give people the potential to act in ways that empower them. Or, by failing to give them that opportunity, platforms can constrain our power.
Because we already have some good studies of blogs, TripAdvisor, Amazon Reviews, and Yelp, we studied a new site: the Brazilian platform Reclame Aqui. Reclame Aqui means “Complain Here” in Portuguese and it has over 18 million users, making it the largest consumer feedback platform in South America, and one of the largest such dedicated platforms in the world.
We used netnography as our method. Our findings show how Reclame Aqui offers functions that empower consumers to make public complaints and seeks compensation from companies. Ratings of companies are aggregated and, every day, over 600,000 consumers access the sites to search the reputation of companies on the site. These services empower the Brazilian consumer.
However, those complaints are limited. Rules and moderation soften complaints. No swearing is allowed. Consumers have to register and have their identities verified, and then their data is bought and sold. Consumers are forbidden from mentioning boycotts or protests.
As well, it is impossible for consumers to contact one another using the platform. They can only contact customer service departments. They cannot engage in consciousness-raising activities, for example about companies who exploit workers or who damage the Amazon Rain Forest.
The platform’s business model requires it to aggregate angry consumers and then link them with the companies who have angered them. The platform sells services to companies that help them to deal with their customer service issues. It offers companies awards for improving their service. At the same time, it must convince consumers that it is on their side. It even sponsors public relation events to embarrass and chide executives from companies with poor service.
The platform walks a tightrope, delicately managing the interests of both sides of its network. It does this through the affordances of its functions.
Our article reveals how platforms change the way that power works today. For consumers as well as for citizens, empowerment is increasingly localized in the platforms that connect us. We are subject to a dance of power and disempowerment that is interwoven into platform functions, design, architectures, and algorithms. Companies like Reclame Aqui offer consumers empowerment, but they do it in order to make a profit. Their paying customers are the companies that they serve. However, without keeping consumer happy, they have no business model. That is how platforms work—by bringing together different side. So, the empowerment they offer is real. But it is also constrained.
Our article introduces researchers to the field of digital civics which investigate the role technology plays in understanding consumer-citizens’ power and participation and also tries to imagine governance modes to encourage these forms of engagement and empowerment. Do we need new forms of platform ownership, such as public ownership or private membership, to improve the empowerment of consumers and citizens? Should platforms be regulated? Overseen by non-profits or citizen groups? By considering questions such as these, and continuing to research these important technologies, we might start to build a society where platforms work to empower us more—and constrain us less.
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