Having just come from a meeting of the Kinsale Chamber of Tourism committee, I am struck by the level of disengagement by members (and now ex-members) of an organisation which has been a ‘backbone support’ for local tourism businesses for a long time. Now, like all voluntary organisations, it has had its ups and downs, been more and less effective over the years. Being part of the current management group, I might argue that it is doing more now (and more cost-effectively) than it has in the 14 years I’ve been a member to support the membership’s marketing needs. That would be arguable on the grounds, mainly, of relatively recent developments in online marketing. I could also argue, as a small business, that such organisations, which are very low on cost, and generate their impetus through network (shared) marketing effort, are the only economic route to targeting consumers for us. It’s a fallacy that the internet is a cheap way to reach the consumer, and it’s increasingly a fallacy that you can talk about something on social media and you will reach the people you want to reach, without cost.
I think I’m getting more bang for my buck (hate that expression, but hell, we are in the age of the American sound-bite), from my membership of this organisation than ever before. So my question is: “why are the local businesses disengaging with it so much now? And on a broader front, why does it feel like people are disengaging with messages, both commercial and political (small p) a lot more now than, say 3-5 years ago?”
On the local issue, we might be disengaging because tourism is up and bookings are full and if we could turn off the resource provided by the Chamber until times are hard again, we would. In the era of boosting posts on Facebook within minutes, of switching utility providers at the press of a button, perhaps we can no longer accept the continuity such organisations need in order to survive. We might think:’I can cancel my membership now and take it up again when I need it more’.
We might be disengaging because the mission of the organisation, or its focus, or the positioning it has adopted are no longer appropriate to our needs. In the case of Kinsale Chamber of Tourism, it’s true that selling the town to tourists as The Gourmet Capital of Ireland is no longer appropriate or true, and that may not have been replaced with a strong enough alternative. I think, though, that in this case, the focus is still strong, the mission is more defined than it ever was in the past, and the positioning isn’t misguided. The Chamber IS doing its job.
We hear that politicians around the world are failing to engage with the people, and are increasingly seen as being at odds with the needs of their electorate. So many established institutions are seen as edifices which alienate more people than they engage. And yet, individual politicians and leaders of institutions often show themselves to be passionately engaged, rather than cynically disinterested, in the causes they take on.
I’m not convinced that this disengagement, not to say malaise, is caused by a failure in the organisations set up to represent people (or in the local case, small local businesses). I think the change is in people’s inclination, or even their ability, to engage in anything, and that may be driven by the shift in communication from face to face, phone and snail mail to electronic. Electronic communication (such as this one-directional blog posting process) is isolating, and while isolation should be unpopular, it is in fact addictive. It’s all about control, something which two-way interpersonal communication lacks. Online forums, where several people do interact in real time, are very popular, but the anonymity they provide may be a clue to their success.
So few people attend networking events because the disinclination to engage is self-fulfilling. You get too many emails, and read too much irrelevant pulp on your social media services and you stop wanting to go where you expect to be offered something you expect to be irrelevant. You’ve been target-marketed so effectively through the use of profiling and Big Data that you no longer feel free to pick and choose your stimuli, and you begin to want an ever more personalised, self-driven information experience that makes you feel in control of what you’re being served.
So what’s the prognosis? Where does the trend line point? We will increasingly opt for ad blockers, search-and-sort software which reduces irrelevant content. We already use Google to choose, and we only wade through one or two pages of results. We will choose to use digital assistants to select for us more and more – you know the “people who bought this also like that” approach to choice. We will believe we are being selective, but we will be in an information straight-jacket, controlled but providers, and not in control of the content we are offered. We will lose the chance encounter, the lateral thought, the 1+1=3 moment. We will become unsociable drudges. We will fail to support social and community infrastructures which build networks, in favour of centralisation. This will increasingly support our feelings of alienation from the organisations which we have built. We won’t know whether we’re hearing an individual’s views, or whether they’re just being labelled as such. We’ll be sucked into the Turing Test without choosing to participate.