Foreign Policy Blogs

The Cost of Credulity

In a recent interviews with MSNBC, Bloomberg and VentureBeat, PayPal co-founder and Slide CEO Max Levchin has discussed the development of social networks and similar online worlds as “self-enclosed economies,” in which all the normal economic rules can be made to apply in the new, burgeoning trade of virtual goods. He suggested that this is the face of the future in business, with the main problem being assigning scarcity and setting the price of the imagined goods for different big brands. These imaginary objects, beginning with the “coin,” “token” or “property” on MMPORGS, widgets such as the piece of cartoon birthday cake on Facebook and the family of Facebook applications, the blinking animated smiley, food for your virtual pet on and bundles of individual consumers’ brand preferences, are ironically the most concrete evidence of the resilience of human nature in the face of current social and economic changes. These phenomena are only one aspect of what Erik Qualman, global vice president of online marketing for EF Education, dubs “Socialnomics.” Levchin claims that distribution of these goods depends on “the social mechanisms that make people share what they love or express themselves when they normally wouldn’t.”

The virtual good has already made its debut well beyond Levchin’s endeavors. What is being sold to the consumer here is his or her own private beliefs in human norms, personal hopes, aspirations, ambitions, dreams—even if those values are summarized in the desire to “win a game,” “find love, happiness, or salvation” or “learn the truth about international crises.” It does not matter that these victories, happy endings and lofty, expert-driven analyses do not reflect reality as it actually exists.

Under bombardment from a multitude of industries—services, entertainment, manufacturing, media, health, research, military, communications, trade—moving to carve up this new terrain, and in the face of the transition from tangible to intangible goods banked on human emotion, what is remarkable here is that cynical members of the public are not more jaded or decadent. In fact, between the onset of the Tech Revolution and the present moment, there has been a lag in human attitudes, a strange, persistent innocence. There are vast sums and huge amounts of political capital to be gained in the grey area where human ideals and credulousness survive, a place where you can literally sell anyone almost anything, if they believe it somehow embodies the essence of what they are, or the way they think the world should be. Consumers may be cautious and savvy, but they still generally believe that any random online merchant is who he says he is; people think they get value for money, even if what they are buying does not exist; and in the realm of foreign affairs, they imagine that the Internet is offering them choices between good and evil. They still fail to recognize the full implications of anonymity in international communications, world politics and global online trade and the associated lack of accountability, not just for a single transaction but for our entire society.

From wildly-popular primetime reality television “talent searches,” with their pre-picked finalists and YouTube-, MSM- and blog-driven hype over planted underdogs, to high-profile humanitarian, religious and military agendas, it is hard to imagine a cause or good in this world that does not factor in old-fashioned sentiments and associated projected values. Despite this new world of imagined capital, be it spiritual, emotional or political, a moral chasm has not opened up. Online merchants like eBay and Amazon develop through customer reviews a communal consensus on values of trust, mutual faith and responsibility. Sites like “We’re Not Afraid” cultivate courage. The Internet seems to be generating mechanisms that reinforce common decency and heartfelt convictions, even as it spawns an economy to sell those very ideals back to us.

No one can predict whether or not humanity’s basic faith in itself will become a metafictional sub-factor in the creation of millennial capital. And marketing experts such as Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, co-authors of Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust, may ultimately see nothing new here. But what has changed is that the stakes have gotten higher, while virtue, trust, innocence and credulity—in all their cultural variations—have together become a hard currency that is inflating faster than the price of gold.