What politicians need to know about social public information pt2: How commercial monopolies were broken

If you like gadgets (I do) you will be familiar with the way that users research and buy them. Imagine you are a hi-fi enthusiast or an amateur photographer. You want to buy a new amplifier or a camera. How do you do it?

Traditionally, you’d talk to your friends. If it was a well-established marketplace and there hadn’t been much change in recent years, that could be enough. But increasingly, the pace of change means that this year’s best-buy is obsolete next year.

So maybe you buy one of a handful of consumer magazines and narrow down your choices before going to a specialist shop to get a bit of advice from the staff? Maybe pick up a few leaflets and look at the display models? Once you’re ready to buy, the specialist shop might get the sale. Or, if you’re a bit price-conscious, you may do the dirty, steal the good advice and then go to Argos for a cheap deal.

How has this changed as access to online information has changed? The magazines often have websites where you can read the reviews that are published online. You may drop a few questions in and get rapid responses from the forums attached to the magazine websites. Alternatively, Google may throw up a few other forums that are quite busy and informative.

And then there are the blogs. Some of these may have busy threads under reviews of particular items. Whereas the magazines catered for large-ish communities of interests (either capital-E Expert Buyers or ‘idiot guide’ consumer mags), the forums and blogs may cater for much narrower, more granular consumer groups.

If you’re a real enthusiast, you may have social media ‘followers’ – people who share your interests. You may ask them for some pointers. Alternatively, the more mainstream consumers will ask their mates (either offline, or increasingly, using email, Facebook or Twitter).

You look up the recommendations on the Amazon website and use it to find comparable products. Every product there has a related link: ‘People who viewed this item also viewed….. So you drop questions about these products into the forum, or to your online social networks.

Eventually, you close in on a handful of possible purchases. You need to do two things:

  1. Specification checklist: Which items perform all / most of the functions I’m looking for – is my TV set-top box compatible with my new HD TV, for example?
  2. Once you’ve chosen, you want to get it as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The second question is easy to answer. Price comparison websites and a bit of Googling can rapidly get you to the best retail option.

The first question, though, is for the geeks. Many users will never bother going to the manufacturer’s website to look at the sample online manual, the detailed mechanical specification or the diagram that shows the connection panel on the amplifier in question. Most users will probably be able to rely on the advice they’ve picked up from the forums / blogs / social networks / friends.

Learning to relax and learn from the feedback

The crucial point here is that the manufacturer has long-since given up the idea that they can be the monopoly provider of product information. They actually don’t want it any more. They know that …

  • users can sniff a sales pitch from a long way off. They prefer reviews from their peers
  • they will never be able to anticipate what potential customers needs really are
  • they aren’t very good at knowing where to place their sales pitch anyway
  • any attempt to monopolise the way that their product is marketed would kill the feedback loop that tells them whether they are marketing a killer product or a turkey.

Government services won’t make this leap yet – often for good reasons. They face all kinds of regulatory demands that give them good reasons to cling on to the near-monopoly status that they enjoy as the supplier of information about the services you use.

There are good reasons for them to do this as well. If they step too far back, commercial interests or pressure groups can step in. Mumsnet may be a great forum, but it also could be seen as a amplifier of a particular social group of women – as David Cameron found when he announced Child Benefit reforms.

What if religious organisations are the dominant suppliers of information about birth control? What if financial service providers are an unmediated source of information about pension provision?

Trust is essential here. We have to be sure that things aren’t being simplified for us to serve someone else’s interests.

Those of us that want to see government behaving like a camera-manufacturer in relation to the information they provide about their services have to come up with answer to these questions. They’re not easy to address, but they’re not impossible either. The ‘hive mind’ of the internet is on it already!

In the next part of this essay, I will look at how various existing online networks are slowly cracking this issue.

About Paul Evans

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland, Paul is the curator of the Political Innovation project. On twitter as @paul0evans1, blogging mainly at the Local Democracy blog and working mostly for Memeserver Ltd.
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