New Web Paradigm Poses Challenges and OpportunitiesSociety Culture
Technological Advances Spur Freedom and Individuality
The advances in recent years of high-resolution video cameras made by GoPro and other companies have made it easy for people to capture their outdoor activities, entirely revolutionizing the way we take videos. Thanks to this technology, all sorts of awe-inspiring images have been captured, whether it is a mountain biker riding along a narrow mountain precipice or a baby seal trying to climb onto a surfboard.
Cameras are also installed on small remote-controlled drone helicopters to capture dramatic video footage from the air. This was the technology used to shoot footage of the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong as well as the crater of an exploding volcano. The impact of these unprecedented aerial images has the capability of changing people’s perceptions.
These days, along with footage taken by professionals, amateurs are filming their leisure activities and broadcasting these to the world via YouTube, Facebook, and other sites. Leveraging the power of social networking sites and other media that can impel content to go viral, it is now possible for anyone around the world to access this content. This is the new virtual world that has rapidly emerged over the past few years as an ordinary feature of our lives.
The keywords of this new world are “individuality” and “freedom,” with all of the positive and negative aspects they entail.
Now that products like GoPro cameras and drone-cameras are available to the general consumer at affordable prices, skilled amateurs are able to produce the sort of images that once were only possible by using expensive professional technologies. In other words, it has become possible for people to easily showcase their own individuality in a high-quality format.
And the videos they are creating can be easily edited online to add other features like background music. The tools for broadcasting this visual content, and for attracting viewers, are also simple for individuals to utilize. This is the aspect of the expanding “freedom” that I mentioned earlier.
A New Paradigm Is Emerging
The spread of the Internet over the past 20 years has brought an explosion of digital content, reaching the point where nearly every human endeavor can be recorded and easily accessed by anyone. This is the new reality that is coming into being.
Some foresaw the emergence of this new paradigm early on. For instance, in his 2006 bestseller Theory of Web Evolution, Umeda Mochio was only off by a few details in predicting the sort of mobile devices and communication environment now common, using terms like the “cheap revolution” and “total-expression society” to sketch out the future.
In fact, though, this new world has just gotten underway. In line with the advances in smartphones and tablets, camera technology is set to offer handier products that are even more compact and have higher resolution. Amazon.com, meanwhile, is considering the use of aerial drones to deliver its products, which is just one example of the increasing diversification and specialization of technologies. Such innovative ideas for services can replace existing ones and open up new markets in the process.
Several factors are driving the emergence of a mass market for cutting-edge devices and services that can be utilized by both businesses and individuals. One key force is the urgent need in developed countries with shrinking populations—most notably Japan—to ensure productivity and purchasing power. At the same time, even emerging nations are beginning to face limits in their economic growth, raising the need for greater business efficiency and spurring efforts to create more added value. It goes without saying that in pursuing these aims the trend has emerged toward a broad variety of services that consumers will immediately identify as being fun, convenient, and upscale.
Consumers Will Need to Play a Leading Role
In a market where consumers above all esteem products that have easily discernible value, it is not surprising that the consumers themselves will come to play a leading role in diffusing information within the market. Yet it is important to note that, as consumers, we are not yet accustomed to assuming this role.
This gap is likely to be the source of problems in the future. For instance, it will be necessary to redefine the relationship of trust between consumers and businesses. This is an issue that is also related to how we should interpret the meaning of the term “freedom” spoken of earlier.
There are products or services that at first sight seem to be “free” for the user. But the ability of the provider to not charge the consumer a fee depends on the use of mass online advertising similar to conventional TV advertisement or advertisement based on behavioral targeting through the extensive use of so-called “big data” on individuals. In both cases, the consumer is “paying” in an indirect way, but there is a big difference between the structure of each approach as well as the ultimate impact on the consumer.
Conventional commercials targeting mass audiences are no longer effective for generating revenue in the new era, where cutting-edge devices and services have become easily obtainable, driving the continued emergence of new types of information media and communications. The model centered on the Web-browsing behavior of individuals has taken form as a sort of natural outcome of its great affinity with the innovative technologies that have appeared, and which make it possible to minutely track the online behavior of consumers.
This approach, however, could result in the recording of our private lives without our knowledge in return for the services provided. In order for the relationship of trust between consumer and business to be forged again, it is necessary for the interests of both parties to be made clear. It is this need that has been driving the move toward the creation of rules to govern the use of big data in various countries, including Japan.
Dealing with Online Conflicts
Conflicting interests between consumers have also surfaced. One example of this is the “trash talking” common to Internet culture in Japan and elsewhere. That is, the use of abusive comments on SNS sites to put down other people. In dealing with this problem, many people encourage others to simply ignore such abuse. But since the abusive comments remain on the sites and can come up on search engines, the quarrels on the Internet can often linger.
The troublesome thing about this phenomenon is that online rumors can also have negative repercussions out in the real world. Often people find out more about people whom they will meet for the first time by checking SNS sites or doing an Internet search of their names. This has already become a social problem in the United States in terms of hiring discrimination and other issues. And sooner or later Japan will probably be faced with the same sorts of problems. There is a need to figure out ways to resolve online disputes.
Another issue that is likely to become more pressing in the near future is the relationship between consumers and their online profiles. Through this profiling based on the large-scale collection and analysis of data, online “avatars” are created. If these profiles match the actual consumers and can be used by businesses in a way that respects the privacy of customers, it will enhance convenience to a certain extent.
However, profiling is a matter of guesswork. And when the guess misses the mark, a divergence can arise between the avatars and actual consumers, which can harm the interests of consumers as a result. The US White House document titled “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” warns that the results of mistaken profiling can lead to racial discrimination and other problems. Although ending profiling altogether may be too difficult a task, there is a need to conduct it in a way that minimizes the harm to individuals.
The Need to “Tame” the New Paradigm
Upon reflection we can see that Internet firms are already collecting massive amounts of data that is then used as the foundation for providing us with a range of services. This new business model has been gaining social acceptance and has begun to be seen as a necessary approach.
Rather than being haphazardly rejected, this new paradigm needs to be “tamed” so it can help increase choices for consumers in Japan, as it tries to expand in a way that balances productivity and the level of services amidst the country’s rapidly aging population and declining birth rate.
In recent years, the awareness of the need to safeguard consumers is on the rise in Japan. This is not merely a reaction against the new paradigm, but rather the idea that in our new age of individuality and freedom, consumers have come to be significant actors, with certain rights and responsibilities.
Faced with this trend, some voices within industry are warning that excessive consumer safeguards will harm business. But these industry figures should remember that they are in business to meet the needs of consumers. From that perspective, safeguarding consumers and promoting business are not opposing concepts. Rather, the question comes down to building a relationship between the two sides under the new paradigm and seizing on the opportunities that this will create.
It is a question of what each stakeholder wants to protect and to supply, and how they intend to go about doing that. Whether or not a consensus can be formed on this issue will be a major factor in determining who comes out on top in the twenty-first century.
(Original Japanese article posted on October 27.)