Consumer knowledge, empowerment and the internet : critical research into the provision and use of eCommerce
From a Critical Social Theory (CST) perspective this research critiques assumptions that the internet brings about consumer empowerment through increased product information. and opportunities to communicate and share knowledge with companies and other consumers. It demonstrates that this assumption derives from the technologically determinist school of Information Systems (IS) thinkingt,:ý w hich is 9 rounded in the myth that technology pet- se brings huge benefits, including wealth and empowerment. Illustrating that information systems development traditionally lacks a sense of "audience" failing to provide what the users want, it suggests that this phenomenon merits more sophisticated consideration of not only the technology, but also of eCommerce providers and users. The research demonstrates that complex phenomena such as that under study here require a multi-method approach to explore the range of voices or relevant perspectives of the stakeholders. A lens for reviewing the power relations governing the construction and use of consumer knowledge is developed and applied. The knowledge construction lens is used to review the synthesized findings from the multi-method assessment to reveal how congruence is connected to extant power relations, and positions those findings in the context of information provider / user relationships. Drawing on both theories of hermeneutics and serniotics the phenomenon is initially explored from the perspective of both companies and customers through questionnaires and reviews of commercial websites. This phase of the research sets the scene for a series of twenty-two in depth interviews with individual consumers to explore their experiences of using the internet in commercial activity. The research concludes that vast incongruity in the needs and values of customers and companies exists. Consumer empowerment remains a myth. Ingrained company / customer power relations distort communication and prevent 'true' empowerment. In the shadow of company power. customer inertia and feelings of powerlessness remain strong. Ultimately this serves companies well as increased buyer power continues to be regarded as a threat to competitive advantage.