‘The Rise of the SmartPower Class’: Measuring the Pulse of America through Anonymous Online Engagement

by Marcella Gadson on July 15, 2012

The Rise of the SmartPower Class by Lauren deLisa Coleman is available electronically on Amazon.com. All proceeds will go to Raise Hope for Congo.

The new millennium has ushered in an era of continually evolving technology, fast-paced communication, and the rise of opportunity – and power – among the historically disenfranchised.  Few appreciate this phenomenon and all it means more than Lauren deLisa Coleman, socio-economic digital analyst, consultant, entrepreneur, and author of the e-book RISE OF THE SMARTPOWER CLASS: Navigating the New Digital, Leaderful Era.

In her e-book, Coleman detailed the importance of not just reading articles online, but reading the ensuing user-generated comments to gauge the uninhibited opinions of individuals and thus society as a whole.   In Coleman’s words, “Comment sections are a fascinating place to witness the emerging attitudes of the modern era.”

To deconstruct this phenomenon, Coleman analyzed news stories on everything from Kim Kardashian to last year’s near government shutdown in an effort to study the impact of the new digital age and the rise of what she has branded as the SmartPower class.  According to Coleman, this class is “a specific and growing tribe of hip, young (though not exclusively) neo-humans who are self-determinant, socially conscious and use tech extensions to explore and express the creation of a new power dynamic.”

Power in the Hands of the People

The mainstream media and news outlets have referred to this SmartPower class as the everyman who has been given a voice, any group of people who can use social media and technology to start a “leaderless” revolution, as that of the Arab Spring.  Coleman, on the other hand, posits that the SmartPower class leads to leaderful revolutions, mass social movements where instead of one central figurehead, everyone is a leader in his or her own right, thanks to the power of digital tools.

Coleman’s SmartPower dynamic is made up of three main elements: the Kryptonite Factor, Boundary Swipes, and the Treaty of the Leaderful, in addition to a fourth “bonus” element, the Wildcard Factor.  While power has been redistributed into the hands of the people, these elements indicate how online interactions have impacted companies, leaders, and other public figures, including celebrities.

Coleman analyzed the complex relationships between the SmartPower class and its interactions online as a tool for measuring users’ attitudes toward society as indicated by their reactions to news on celebrities, technology, race, and politics.  Coleman points out that “the comment section could continue to grow as a unique area of study simply because it provides a view into thought around a societal topic like no other space.”

Blue Flame Marketing’s Aubrey Allen agrees.  In an interview with Coleman, he stressed the importance of harnessing the abundance of unfiltered information, opinions, and preferences voiced by millions of commenters online.  “The comment section is a great way for engagement,” Allen said.  “For example, what we’ve found out is that the comment section is just as engaging as the article itself, if not more so, so we now try to participate in that conversation organically.”

Indeed, companies, activists, and world leaders can use the raw information of comment sections to identify and understand both consumer preferences and societal issues.

Racial Differences

One factor Coleman was careful to note was the disparity in both the treatment of racially-oriented news items and the differences in reactions to any news story by different demographics, an issue BBSJ has covered before.  “Because of historical factors linked to slavery and racism in this country, sociological perceptions are oftentimes different depending upon race,” said Coleman,  “but when merged with the dawning of a new perspective in society and more ways to express them (and growing number of people expressing), most will probably not be ready for the impending and deepening shift in balance.”  Coleman defined this shift as the Wildcard Factor.

While Coleman avoided pointing to stark differences in treatment of certain news stories directly, it was difficult to overlook the differences in passion expressed by various demographics.  Coleman’s careful selection of a small set of representative comments from thousands of users on certain news stories on specific websites indicates a disturbing pattern.  In her chapter on race, for example, Coleman referenced the controversy surrounding Vanity Fair’s selection of all white females for one of its “New Hollywood” issues.  Common sentiments on Yahoo! News were quite passionate and often incensed:

“Does EVERYTHING have to be diverse?  For goodness sakes…we have a black president…We don’t have to balance every time and on every cover…”

“Seriously, shut up…why the hell do people feel the need to be outraged at every little thing.”

“…QUIT WHINING.”

On the other hand, comments took a markedly different tone on an article from thegrio.com about Ann Coulter’s statement that “our (Republican) Blacks are better than their (Democratic party) Blacks” on MSNBC’s “Hannity” program:

“…she can’t even disguise how she feels about African Americans.  It sounds like she is comparing lawn jockeys instead of human beings.”

“Last time I heard-tell of a public statement like that…I was reading a passage from a history book on slavery in the United States….Yours truly, Old Black Joe.”

“Tell me Mizz Ann: do yo’ blacks be bedda in da fieldz, or in da house…?”

Coleman points out that “the tone of this primarily African American outlet in regard to this incident is almost one of curiosity and that of a satirical nature rather than the anger one might expect.”  She stops short of specifically calling out the vitriol posted on non-African American targeted outlets like Yahoo! News, but the contrast between the two examples is easy to see.  Coleman does contend, however, that “there seems to be a persistent desire by some people to either operate in silence on the subject, or to deny, such as many commenters above, that there is an issue.  In fact, comedian Bill Maher has stated that “the new racism is denying that any racism exists at all.”

On the racially-focused comments in general, Coleman stated, “Most of these comments help us to understand that we are in no way comfortably seated at a post-racial America table at all, but rather an America which is simply in the midst of examining race from a digi-socio perspective.”   She asserts, “One thing is certain, topics related to race in America are probably not going to disappear any time soon, and neither will the comments.”

SmartPower for SmartChange

In the rest of her book, Coleman analyzes user comments on celebrities, technology, and politics, examining the types of comments submitted, the reasons behind them, and their implications.  On complex issues like technology and politics, Coleman states, “While it could be argued to the contrary, everyone at least thinks himself competent.”  This makes it all the more important to seriously study and analyze the sentiments left on comment boards.  “We can see each other’s thoughts, thanks to tech platforms, rather than being confined solely to those whom we know, or with whom we work,” Coleman said.  “This just may be the next step as we usher in the new era.  Boundaries could be further stretched, and further weight and credibility given to the leaderful comment chorus.”

Coleman ends her book by briefly describing the conflict in Congo, the millions of lives lost, and the thousands of women raped as a direct result of the “conflict materials” industry.  This oft-ignored issue centers around gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum – minerals and elements that are heavily used in the high-end electronics the SmartPower class uses to start revolutions and the tech industries make billions of dollars off of.  Coleman suggests to her readers that, rather than boycott the technologies, they should make some noise about the problem through enoughproject.org.  Coleman is doing her part by donating all proceeds from her book sales to Raise Hope for Congo.  She will also provide some free sample copies to attendees at MMTC’s Access to Capital Conference next week.

“It is one of my greatest hopes that we will use technology, particularly mobile, not only in helping us to exhibit greater tolerance and understanding for each other, but also to generate a deeper respect for all people worldwide,” Coleman said.

  • Marcella Gadson is the Editor in Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Blog and Director of Communications at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).

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  • StewB

    This is a really important issue! I hate scrolling down and reading all the racist comments. It didn’t occur to me that this could be the “pulse” of America though. But It’s definitely a problem that needs to be addressed – there’s too much racism in our “post-racial” society.

  • Dan

    The question is how we change the mindset. The comments come from people
    having an outlet to express what they REALLY think that they would
    never say out loud. How have we gotten to this place, and how can we
    change the way people think about race?

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