Why internet “troublemakers” are the next big consumer segment
With state secrets strewn across the internet by Wikileaks, company after company publicly flogged for their weak firewalls by Lulz Security, and protests started by Anonymous, it seems like, online, the kids aren’t alright. But for all the concerns of baby boomer and Gen-X onlookers, today’s “hacktivism” is just an internet update on their hippie and punk counterculture of yesteryear. And like the hippie and punk movements before it, this movement will eventually find its place in mainstream consumer society.
The long term impact of the hippie perspective on society is up for debate, but the amount of innovation required by the market to cater to this massive movement was and is nontrivial and effective: the hippies became yuppies and settled in as the cornerstone of the Starbucks-and-SUV-economy.
The hippies and punks saw a world where “the man” imposed conformist mass culture on everyone; they flaunted the traditional expectations and power structures, insisting that they saw a better, freer way forward for society. For all their fond memories of defiance, hippies and punks were somewhat passive: their core choice was to opt out of the mainstream. At first pass these hacktivists look much more active and antagonistic, but most of their digital rebellion takes place in a chair behind a screen. Were the hippies and punks around today, their cultural resistance would probably look like what we’re seeing today: leaks, internet protests, and hacks.
The long term impact of the hippie perspective on society is up for debate, but the amount of innovation required by the market to cater to this massive movement was and is nontrivial and effective: the hippies became yuppies and settled in as the cornerstone of the Starbucks-and-SUV-economy. Consumerism let them grow up without selling out. If someone can meet countercultural needs and wants at a profit, they will. This process is brilliantly documented by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in The Rebel Sell.
For the hacktivist generation we’re going to see something similar, but with mass personalization. This desire to see the internet remain free is often times really the just desire to get things for free (read: piracy) brought on by the big media “epic fail” to address the desires of internet consumers. Consumer society as we know it provides people with the most powerful means yet to affirm and celebrate their individuality, and the internet and technology allow us to push individualization much, much further. When every internet user can shape their online experience to fit their needs and worldview at a fair price, there will be very little left to protest.
While the hippie and punk movements took years to form and decades to be fully subsumed into the mainstream, the presence of the internet now means both processes can happen that much faster. Already internet culture is tapped by marketers and quickly sold back to consumers (in terms of music, look no further than the recent stories of Rick Astley or Rebecca Black). When you can market profitably to every niche of one, the opportunity for cool hunters to market new products and services is virtually unbounded.
We are once again at a time of upheaval and transformation. Counterculture isn’t going to go away, and neither will hacks or leaks. But it’s important to put these acts in the right context: as a new take on something we’ve seen before and know how to address. It’s up to marketers to save the world. Again.