Let’s Hypothesize: Impact of the Internet

We can’t deny the huge impact of the Internet on consumerism, and the other way around. Ever since we went through the industrial revolution, capitalism has been on the rise. And it is apparent that we have entered a consumer society. We seem to be much more preoccupied with buying and owning new products. And because the standards of living have increased, we are able to replace old products much faster than before. Less emphasis seems to be put on repairing broken products, instead we look for new ones.

The amount of Internet users has been rapidly increasing over the last couple of years. Plus, aside from this, Internet usage is also on the rise. We are more and more able to rely on this form of media to get goods and services. I probably don’t have to explain to you that you can buy anything from food to clothes in this virtual space. But it also means that illegal goods are also more available to the general public (think Deep Web).

The number one difference between buying products from the Internet and traditional buying, is the fact that you can just sit at home and shop away. Whereas before the existence of Internet shopping, you actually had to leave your house. In the past, people camped outside of stores to get tickets to see their favorite band. But now everyone just frantically sits behind their computers, refreshing til they ‘get in’. Also, if you have a friend that lives on the other side of the country, you can easily get them a gift with just the click of a mouse.

Apart from actually buying products, we can look up information about a variety of brands and models. Years ago we relied on information from store clerks or magazines, but now we can do our own research as consumers. Though, this overload of information means we have so much more research to conduct. However, a myriad of comparison sites exist that can do this type of work for us. There is a difficult aspect to anything on the Internet. Do companies pay to seem more favorable? For example, an energy company could pay to be listed much higher on a comparison site, while they might not deserve a higher spot on the list. The cognitive load of looking, judging, and weighing information is growing.

And on the other hand, an innumerable amount of review sites have come into existence as well. Plus, many online shopping sites have their own rating system. So not only can we rely on objective information, we can also read other people’s opinions on products and services. Which means that you can look up hotel reviews before actually booking. Though, there is also the problem of whom to trust. A quick look at someone’s profile on a review site can clear up a whole lot. Some people are just more critical than others, so they might be more prone to give out bad reviews.

Sadly, reviewing is linked to more issues. You might have received emails from companies asking you to review a product that you have recently bought.How often and under which circumstances would you go and review the product? Because we could reason that people only review when certain conditions are met. First of all, when we really like or dislike a product we might be more likely to give our opinion. But when we are ‘just’ satisfied, we couldn’t care less about letting others know what we think. Second, some people are just more into reviewing. So whether you actually post your opinion might be related to your personality or values.

Product-wise, it seems as if the amount of brands and products are on the increase. A great deal of brands only exist on the Internet, and do not have physical stores. Apart from this, brands and products can become specialized. For example, it’s easier to find merchandise of bands or TV series that are quite obscure. Additionally, because of the Internet, more subcultures are being brought to life, and as a result of the diversity of lifestyles is expanding. And if we were to look at, for instance, Halloween costumes, the variety and possibilities are endless nowadays. We can be or become anything we want to be.

Not only can we look for information, others (companies) can also look for information related to us. It is known that companies will try to gather information on our Internet behavior. If you do not have anything like AdBlocker installed, you might have been confronted with ads (on social media sites) of products that you were checking out a few hours ago while being on a online shopping site. So while you’re scrolling through your Facebook News Feed, you end up seeing the same sunglasses you were contemplating to buy earlier. This setting makes it easier for ads to become more personalized and accessible. And Facebook can include sponsored content in your News Feed, based on your demographic information and other pages you already liked.

On top of advertising, online shopping sites can alter their websites to make you more likely to continue browsing or buying. This can be achieved through the amount of products shown on a page, or the specific listing of products. More and more sites are starting to use A/B testing. This means that you might be seeing 10 results on a page, while I might be seeing 20 results on my computer screen. Researchers will constantly be checking which alteration will generate more traffic and longer stay on their site.

Furthermore, another impact of the Internet is globalization. The quantity of sites that deliver outside of one particular country is also on the rise. This means that we can buy products that are available outside of the country we reside in. And because the Internet is perpetually creating new cultures and trends, this can influence the types of products that are desirable at any given time. So we can buy candy from Japan, that is not purchasable in our own country. And Beyoncé’s music is spread even faster around the world, which means that it will become more accessible and her fame will expand even further. Thus since a new form of culture has been created, we have a new influence when it comes to learning about and liking products.

We can also sell our own products with much more ease, and we can offer these to a wider audience. But this also means that we ourselves have become merchants. Suddenly we have to adopt selling strategies to get rid of these products. Therefore, unexpectedly, we have to come up with our own ideas and ways on how we can get the highest offers, and to make the most money. We have to become even smarter.

But there are also downsides to the existence to Internet, at least for the creators of content. First of all, it is not to difficult to ‘steal’ and illegally share digital content like music, series, or movies. And second, there is still a big problem with user-generated content, which these users earn money with. Because others can easily share and redistribute this content, and make money off it, without the artist’s consent.

Then there is also the issue with trustworthiness. Which sites can we trust? Will they actually deliver the product? Will they deliver the exact product that was shown on the picture? To solve this problem, some countries have a quality mark, which trustworthy online shopping sites can earn. And on websites were everyone can sell their own products, there is often a reputation system. Using this system we can check if a person has had a good reputation in the past. Furthermore, when buying clothes, we aren’t always sure if they will fit us. Therefore some of these sites will have a return and refund policy.

The only big problem we still have is the delivery. Many delivery companies will have time windows that aren’t very convenient. Though, in some places it’s possible to get your products delivered to a pick up point close to your house. And since most of us probably don’t own a 3D printer, we’re gonna be relying on delivery for a while longer.

Despite the delivery problem, Internet shopping means a bigger diversity in products, more information, new cultures / trends, and new types of advertisement. Therefore our psychological processes might be changing, for example due to the bigger cognitive load, or different information presentation. Which means we will have to start from scratch on consumer behavior when it comes to consumerism and Internet use.

‘Let’s Hypothesize’ is part of an article series in which I do not rely on scientific references. Instead I will speculate on topics related to consumer behavior. Plus I will include more historical facts and sociological theories.

Photo by Robbert Noordzij

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