Community, technology, Web 2.0 Musings

Citizens, not Customers

This post stems from yet another great talk on Ted, which as well as using the phrase “technosis externality clusterfuck” with reference to urban archictecture, also leaves you with the fantastic “don’t refer to yourself as a consumer, you are a citizen”

The point being that a consumer or customer is passive, they are served. A citizen has responsibilities as well as rights.

This idea appeals greatly and is highly relevent to what is happening in social media, with “consumers” wanting to become participants . However where it is most relevant is with council engagement.

I have heard several councils refer to their Constituents as Customers, no doubt there is some logic as the council provides a service. However it is a dangerous linguistic channel to follow. The Constituents are Citizens, but are sadly quickly forgetting it, a consumer led culture has allowed them to detach themselves from their social responsibilities and such language only serves to perpetuate this myth.

The Council should not merely serve the Consumer, it should work in partnership with the Citizen to achieve shared goals. Reducing society to a series of market segments, will not help it solve it’s problems, as Barnet Councils honest YouTube vision (hat tip to Dominic Campbell, FutureGov) highlights


5 thoughts on “Citizens, not Customers”

  1. “The point being that a consumer or customer is passive, they are served. A citizen has responsibilities as well as rights.”

    This passivity is a real issue – reminds me of the voter apathy debates. People spent a huge amount of time getting involved in order to make positive change in society and to have the right to have certain powers within society. Now we’ve got them all – seems like a certain amount of complacency has kicked in, and responsibility is shifted back to ‘them’ – the politicians, decision makers – whoever else.

    Another point is that being a ‘citizen’ is not very cool – consumers are cool – they have a good time making lifestyle choices, and have spending power without having to consider consequences of purchases. (though more people are doing so now).

    Citizens on the other hand seem more serious, worthy and dull – so how are we going to shift that perception and make it socially less acceptable to be passive or completely consumerist? (Or is this just my own judgemental perception of the situation…?)

    Also good to check out “citizens or consumers: What the media tell us about political participation” by Justin Lewis, Sanna Inthorn, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen.


  2. right on. timothy garton-ash has a good take on this through the idea of the “uses of adversity”. his argument, to simplify horribly, is that eastern european peoples’ rose up against the oppressive communist regimes because of the adversity they were under (and that actually adversity can be a positive thing cf. the couch potatoe consumerist society we have now). Likewise, Ballard has a similar argument in his later books esp. ‘cociaine nights’. Mix things up a bit, make people uncomfortable, scared and well, you get more sociable, better citizens. Be a great social experiment. Get your council to buy into that πŸ™‚


  3. Thanks Alice, James.

    So on one hand we have to make it cool to be a citizen, and on the other we have to make it so bad that people participate.

    Is the government already attempting the later with the continued removal of civil liberties πŸ™‚

    It is quite pluasible that the existing economic environment may well end up being the catalyst for social change.


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