The Myth of Personal Agency

I’ve been fairly quiet on this blog for the past few weeks as I resolve a few issues, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to continue to engage with fascinating conversations as well as some productive work for my clients. However, the time has at last come to explore a few of those conversations further, and the first of these would have to be the issue of autonomy and agency in constructed social environments online.

Man meets Robot: From http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enon_robot.jpg

Man Meets Robot. Source: Wikicommons

As a social media consultant, I often find myself challenging corporate clients with the notion that they can no longer control the opinions and activities of their end-consumers. It has both amused and slightly puzzled me that some clients find the concept of the loss of control over their audiences to be so terrifying. Perhaps naively, I always assume it must be better to have thinking and productive consumers, potentially operating as advocates for your firm/product, than to have lemming-like automatons who unquestioningly accept and repeat a carefully constructed series of marketing messages? Yes okay, the lemming process is cheap and keeps bringing in sales, but you have to do all the work in finding new customers, and as a result you have to resort to broadcast style, generic messages rather than engaging in tailored conversations for specific user/consumer groups.

But while the advent of social media technologies and consumer behaviours has emphasised the need for authentic engagement practices, and a loss of control for corporations and organisations, it can be possible to overstate the true autonomy and agency of users of social media. After all, we are sharing online spaces and we are influenced by the behaviour of one another. And interaction design has framed the manner in which we engage with companies and products as well as one another. The very act of filtering news by networks of ‘friends’ is going to influence awareness, popularity and protocols for engagement with content in feeds.

This framing of content and interaction is even more pronounced in games and immersive reality environments. Augmented reality quite consciously frames the manner in which we engage with the real world, and it would be foolish to believe that such framing fails to influence opinion and advocacy among users. While we may have agency in such augmented experiences, we are not autonomous, and our agency is influenced by the information available to us, as well as the behaviour of the networks around us.

In game design, human agency is even more framed, not just by the design of the game, but by the obligation that players have to the missions and to other players in their guilds. Indeed for some players in real time online games, the act of entering into the game is as much a duty (work) as it is desirable.

This sense of obligation may seem exclusive to the world of online gaming but the philosophy is seeping into social environments as well. Beyond the merely novelty activities of tending a virtual farm on Facebook, there are the more subtle obligations to follow up on family and friends who may post photos and updates on twitter or Facebook, and which you may miss if not vigilant. And then there is the need, once you adopt a piece of technology, to be seen to be using it, or risk being labelled as an uncaring, or itinerant creative user.

I believe that we are entering in to an age where traditional corporate control over opinions and actions is being stealthily replaced by an era where human autonomy is just as artificial and even our own agency in decision making is being shaped and framed by our networks and experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s certainly better for us to make decisions whilst being cognizant of the needs of our communities rather than doing as corporate or political figures bid. But I think we need to be careful before we make assumptions about the ‘me-generation‘ and absolute consumer control. We may not yet be a global community – less than a third of the world’s population have internet access – but among the digitally connected, we are communitarians. And our individual agency is as much a myth as it ever was.

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