One of the dictums of the internet at the moment is that of the ‘power and/or wisdom of crowds’. Roughly summed up, the implication is that, as a group, people can make smarter decisions and wield more influence than the sum of their parts; politically, socially…and, it would appear, commercially as well.
The Huge Entity linked to this interesting little snippet at the Economist about ‘team buying’, a new phenomenon that is gathering pace in China at the moment. Team buying leverages the social interaction power of the internet to bring people together for a common purpose – in this instance, getting a cheaper price on domestic consumer goods such as electronics and household appliances.
What happens, then, is that people meet on social-buying sites (such as 51tuanguo.com and teambuy.com.cn), and plan a time for a large group of consumers to descend on one particular store en masse, and demand lower prices using their numbers as economic weight. Reports indicate that the economies of scale seem to be working favourably so far, with the groups often getting their cut price deals, and sometimes little extras to boot.
So, let’s chalk one up for social networking, eh? I like seeing people (especially the economically disadvantaged) getting a bit of an angle on the fat-cats and money-makers for a change. If the internet can empower this, then all the better – and it adds weight to the argument that China’s government selectively screening the internet isn’t going to stop social change from spreading like a rash.
But…violent mob rule is a bad thing; consensus is great, and social pressure can enforce changes in the behaviour of individuals far better than legislation and political bluster can (in my opinion, at least), but I’d hate to see the internet become an arena for vigilantism (as there are already hints of it doing). Its enablement of crowds to bring down wrath upon perceived wrong-doers can happen so quickly that mistakes can be made in ignorance of the situation. While the buyer-power leverage of these new Chinese sites is an excellent thing to hear about, are we reaching a point where networked groups are going to become uncontrollable forces for the wrong sort of disorder? I *like* disorder, but I don’t like innocent people getting hurt, ostracised or outed (and no, the two are not necessarily inclusive).
Recent (and indeed not-so-recent) history is replete with examples of governing powers finding ways to lure the people into traps of their own devising, and then blaming either the people themselves, or any enabling technology that ‘assisted’ the situation. Call me paranoid, but I wouldn’t put it past a regime like China’s (or sadly, like the one that runs the country where I live) to encourage such things behind the scenes, and then use them as an excuse for clamping controls on the technology, precisely to prevent the sort of people-empowering activities that it could create, such as crowd-buying.
My overall point here is that, as individuals the world over, it is our personal responsibility to become savvy, to clue ourselves up, to be on our guard. The huge success rates of spam, phishing and 419 scams indicates an alarming gullibility in a large proportion of net users, many of whom in the ‘West’, thanks to their privileged education and economic location, should be wise enough to know better. The gullibility of the populace is one of the most convenient tools for any government, repressive or otherwise. A gullible population is easily duped, framed, and then convinced of its own complicity in engineered misdeeds. We, as a planet, as a unified world, must be wise to the potential pitfalls of a networked human race, as well as revelling in its benefits. There are too many manipulators who stand to profit from our ignorance should we get complacent. We have in our hands an excellent tool for the emancipation of the average man. Let’s make sure we don’t cut off our own fingers, eh?