The Myth of the e-Commerce Serf to Sovereign Powershift

The Myth of the e-Commerce Serf to Sovereign Powershift

Rachel McLean (Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch048
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As a social activity, the shopping experience can not be recreated or improved through technical design alone. This chapter proposes that there is incongruence in online retail provision and the needs or requirements of customers. It argues that a greater social awareness or sense of “audience” is required by retailers who adopt E-Commerce. Web sites and service provision need to be more closely related to social requirements to reduce the socio-technical gap. This chapter will attempt to deconstruct the belief that E-Commerce in its current format is bringing about a power shift. It focuses on five of the most prevalent strands of the myth that E-Commerce empowers customers. A critical social theory (CST) epistemology is adopted. Through a series of semi-structured interviews with consumers and consideration of the wider empirical evidence the myths are deconstructed. The chapter raises the question “how far can commercial enterprises afford to empower consumers” and reflects that rather than a “power shift” there has been a “responsibility shift”.
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If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along.

—Tim Berners-Lee, 2006



It is frequently suggested that e-commerce facilitates a new consumer experience, and brings about “true” consumer empowerment. Levine et al. (2000) state that “the Internet invites participation. It is genuinely empowering”. The idea that technology in general, and more specifically the Internet will bring about a social revolution is not new (Howcroft, 1998). It is particularly prevalent in both academic and journalistic writings on consumers and the Internet. Professional literature suggests that customers empowered through the Internet bring benefits to the organization (Stewart, 1997). While academic literature (Wathieu et al. 2002) and consumer rights groups welcome the power that the Internet bestows upon consumers (Pitt et al. 2002; Office of Fair Trading, 2003). With few exceptions, conceptual and empirical literature in the field is normative, presenting e-commerce as beneficial to business and empowering to customers. For example, the proliferation of literature on creating and building trust in e-commerce stands in stark contrast to the neglect of its counterparts of fraud and deception (Wareham et al 2005). The majority of existing literature fails to explore the ‘real’ experience of customers interacting in this new electronic channel in any depth.

Despite a growing body of ‘sociology of technology’ literature highlighting the evolutionary rather than revolutionary effect of technology and its adoption (Bijker, 1999), the utopian / dystopian duality of technology (Kling, 1996; Howcroft and Fitzgerald, 1998) and the recognition of people’s natural resistance to technology (Venkatesh et al, 2003; Markus, 1983), each new application that emerges is heralded from a discourse of technological rationality. Through hyperbole and the creation of myths (Barthes, 1973) surrounding the revolutionary, transformative effect of the technology under study an illusion or promise, which falls short of the practice, is created and maintained. In academic and popular literature, news reports, and government rhetoric e-commerce has been hailed as the emancipator of customers from the power of commercial enterprises. The ‘reality’ suggests that e-commerce in its current form is unable to deliver on this promise, or to live up to the myth which enshrouds it.

This chapter will attempt to critically analyse (or deconstruct) five of the most prevalent myths surrounding e-commerce and the benefits it is claimed to bring, namely; e-commerce will revolutionise retailing. Offers greater choice and convenience, offers greater access to information, enables better communication (C2B and C2C), brings about personalisation of services to customers.

It will show the incongruence between the myths of e-commerce and the experiences of customers, and argue that a greater sense of “audience” is required by retailers who adopt e-commerce. The deconstruction (Derrida, 1978) (taking apart of a narrative, hypothesis, or theme to reveal the underlying vested ideology) of myths is a relatively well established technique in both information systems and marketing research (Hirschheim R. and Newman, 1991; Grover and Ramanlal, 1999; Howcroft, 2001). Myths promote a consensus view of solidarity and cohesion and often perpetuate a shared misconception of the phenomena they describe (Bolman and Deal, 1984). For example, (Howcroft, 2001) explores the myths of the “ share bubble” questioning why investors were drawn into financially supporting Internet start-up companies with no attempt at a traditional evaluation. This chapter will explore and deconstruct five myths that continue to perpetuate the justifications for the claim that e-commerce is empowering customers. Through this, it will highlight the socio-technical gap, or deficit between what online retailers provide and what customers need or want.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social implications: Effects of the phenomena under study on the wider context and actors.

Panopticon Theory: Theory based on the design of a prison building which facilitated undetected surveillance.

Praxis: Practical action encouraged by the Critical Social Theory approach.

Critical Social Theory: A philosophy of research which focuses on power relations and creating an “ideal speech situation” where parties may communicate on equal terms.

E-Commerce: Commercial interaction through a digital channel.

Mythology: Common belief pervasive in the status quo.

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