Presented in the public defense of Salla-Maaria Laaksonen on June 16th 2017, at the University of Helsinki. [Lektio suomeksi täällä] [PDF version of the doctoral thesis here]
Dear Custos, Mr Opponent, ladies and gentlemen,
Once upon a time the Internet was born.
The Internet that allowed us to find information, send messages, to express ourselves. The Internet that grew up and became an essential part of our everyday. Or so it is told.
Last autumn, I attended a professional workshop. The consultant asked us to write down the name of the biggest influencer of our life. Four out of seven participants wrote down “Internet”. I believe this is a feeling many of us can identify.
Indeed, it is a compelling narrative to tell how technology changed everything. We humans are programmed to tell and hear stories. We imagine narratives even to places where they do not exist. For us, narratives are a way to organize our lifeworld, and a means to explain changes such as the one brought by the rise of modern communication technologies and social media.
Actually, it is a more complex narrative to tell. It would be far too easy to say technology did it all. Instead, as I argue in my thesis, we are in the middle of not technological but a technosocial revolution that affects, among other things, the ways how we, as customers and citizens, interact with organizations.
A central concept in my thesis is the concept of hybrid media system. This concept refers to our current media environment, mediated and maybe even amplified by technology. It is a reality, where the forms and logics of traditional media become merged with the forms of social media.
An illustrative example of the hybrid media space is the newsfeed of Facebook, in which updates written by ones peers are shown side by side with news produced by traditional media – either shared by media themselves or by one’s friends. Another prominent example is the collaborative online encyclopedia Wikipedia, where the content produced by users is to a large extent built by referring to news content or content elsewhere on the web. A third example is Google, the search engine that plays a very central role in our everyday, showing and sorting various media content for our queries and needs.
In my dissertation I explore the hybrid media system as a place of telling stories. From this perspective each blog post, status update or tweet is a small story, a fragment of a story, that the technology invites us to share about our everyday experiences. These small stories have become important building blocks of our daily lives. Certain online technologies act as storytelling tools in a very special way: they organize, curate and modify the stories we tell by combining and remixing them. For example Wikipedia functions exactly in such a manner, as well as does any search function in a service.
As we are using these technologies, every day, narratives are formed, and the narrators of these stories are both us humans and the technology on which we narrate. Next, let me explain how I came to this conclusion.
In this dissertation I investigate, how reputation narratives concerning companies and other organizations are formed in the hybrid media system. That means that I am not that interested in the ways how the organizations themselves do marketing or communication. Instead, I am interested in the ways how human actors and non-human actors such as technology together write stories about the organizations.
This approach is actually quite common to reputation studies. Reputation is a concept that refers to the views the stakeholders of the organization have regarding that organization. What makes reputation special compared to its sister concepts such as brands or company images is that reputation always reflects the full historical performance of the organization. That is, reputations connect to the actual doings and deliverables of the organization. Brands and images can be constructed, but reputations need to be earned.
Thus, reputation narratives are not stories told by the organizations themselves. They are narratives told by customers, partners, reporters, analysts and by laypeople. They are stories, that are often based to the real encounters between the organization and its stakeholders – to the real experiences people have had with the organization or with its products and services.
Of course, such stories have always existed. They have been told on market squares, on coffee tables, and in swimming hall saunas. Maybe a friend has told he had a good experience in a restaurant. A neighbor recommended a good handyman to help with renovations.
Technology, however, changes the ways how stories about organizations are born and how they spread. What happens now is that emotional tweets made by fired employees are embedded in the news about shutting down a factory unit. A customer dissatisfied with a hotel room can go and make a public YouTube video that shows the ugly room, and then ends up in the Facebook feeds of thousands of people, and most likely will be eventually covered by traditional media. A horror story of a dishonest car dealer is anonymously spelled out in Suomi24 and ends up in the Google search of a random user – and this happens even years after the original post has been made.
In this dissertation I study these stories from two perspectives. First, using online discussions, Wikipedia material and interviews of professionals I study how such reputation narratives are formed in the hybrid media system. Second, using an experimental setting I investigate how these stories affect the people who read them, and how they are shown as psychological and physiological reactions in our bodies.
Thus, from the perspective of organizational reputation studies I am building a novel approach to reputation by seeing it from the perspective of communication. Traditionally organizational reputation has been studied either as a form of capital, an intangible asset, or as an interpretative element of the organization. In this dissertation I put forth a suggestion that reputation can be seen as a communicative phenomena, which exists as individual mental frame but also as socially constructed narratives. These narratives can have measurable effects to the people consuming them, and hence, to the mental frames of reputation.
One important factor behind these effects is emotion. The results of my dissertation also show that reputation itself is not only rational but also an affective concept. Traditionally reputation research as well as various reputation measurements have focused on rational aspects of reputation: quality of products, leadership, financial success.
However, the psychophysiological measurements conducted in the sub studies of this dissertation show, that good and bad reputation companies elicit different physiological responses in out test participants while they are reading online news and comments concerning these organizations.
Reputation is thus not only about rational evaluation, but also an emotional assessment, embodied in our physiology. That is why reputation unconsciously affects our decisions when for example making choices between brands. And that is why for organizations both reputation and reputation narratives indeed are a form of intangible capital.
Emotions are also a prominent element of the hybrid media system, and of the reputation narratives themselves. The narratives concerning organizations online are often very emotional. Organizations make us love and hate, they drive us to create fan communities and noisy hate groups. The properties of the technology from emojis to like buttons are also inviting us to express our emotions.
The importance of feelings shows also in the ways how communication professionals interpret and evaluate different media forms of the hybrid media. There is an aura of rationality attached to traditional media and an aura of emotionality attached to social media. In particular, the professionals see social media as an arena overwhelmed with emotion and therefore difficult to grasp.
As the main result of this dissertation I propose that the reputation narratives that are born in the online are very specific forms of narrative by nature: they are hybrid reputation narratives.
Hybrid reputation narratives are polyphonic and emotional narratives born in the interaction between human and non-human actors. They are narratives in which the story elements can be stored in databases, searched, and hyperlinked by various, interacting actors, who through their use of the technical platforms generate the reputation narrative from fragmentary story pieces, one time after another. That is why there are no two similar reputation narratives.
So, narratives in this dissertation, are not conceptualized in a traditional sense, as a coherent story that has a beginning, the middle, and the end. Instead, they are new kinds of stories enabled by technologies, which allow for the participation of many authors and many platforms, collecting a narrative from various story pieces here and there. I argue that in such a technological environment the narrator can also be the user who is searching, selecting and clicking; navigating through different texts and images and creating their own, non-linear storyline.
This is a process in which opinions and facts, as well as rational and emotional content become merged, and in which the storytelling power of the technology interacts and intervenes with the storytelling power of the human actors. In the hybrid media system, the user is bestowed with agency and storytelling capacity, but this agency is both limited and enabled by the technology through which the storytelling takes place.
For years, social scientists have been arguing over the relationship between technology and the society. The most extreme stance is known as technological determinism, that is the assumption that the technology determines the development of the social structure in a given society.
In science and technology studies a reconciling approach has been called the mutual shaping approach, suggesting that society and technology are not mutually exclusive to one another but, instead, they influence and shape each other.
This dissertation suggests that technology changes the ways how stakeholders are telling reputation narratives. In the hybrid media system the users’ storytelling capabilities are both enabled and constrained by the technology, on which the stories are being told. Technology and society studies explain this agency with the term affordance, the possibility of an action given by an object or environment.
This influence, however, is not purely technological. It does not refer only to like buttons and smart phones, but also to the forms and social practices born on a given platform, or in the hybrid media system as a system: practices such as taking pictures of our everyday lives, sharing media content to our friends, updating Wikipedia pages according to the editing rules, or expressing emotions using small yellow faces, are all examples of the media logics of the hybrid media system.
In the end the social action and human choices while using the technology affect what kind of stories are told. The specific ways of using technology, the media logics, are affected by the cultural and social context of the hybrid media system. Therefore, hybrid media cannot be studied only as technology, but they cannot be studied without the technology either.
A concrete example that shows the importance of social action is that social media tools were created for personal communication. They were not created to serve as media where people could express their dissent towards organizations or politicians or to start revolutions. Nonetheless, they have grown to have a role as such tools.
This is why it can be stated that the technology changes the way how business and society relationships unfold in the current media system. That is why technology matters, and why also social scientists should show pay attention to it.