Being a member of a club was always about being part of something exclusive.
Becoming a member wasn’t meant to be easy — you had to meet criteria, jump through some hoops, prove your value to the whole — but it was worth doing because it conferred special status, gave you exclusive benefits, separated you from the merely mortal.
With American Express, the price of membership was having good credit and then paying your way to an even more special status.
The last few weeks remind us of that club called the Olympics, one reached only through immense commitment and sacrifice, and rewarded by a lifetime of a special kind of glory.
And, let’s not forget the old clubs of England, where the cost of entry was nothing more by one standard and nothing less by another than being a member of a particular social class. See Downton Abbey. Or, shamefully, some clubs of yesteryear which were designed less for inclusion than for exclusion.
But what does being a member mean today when every retailer and service provider asks everyone to join? What are the criteria. What’s the reward? What’s the value exchange?
The standard price of admission has been your email address. So easy to do without even thinking. Aye, but there’s the rub…
Increasingly, people are being asked to log in with Facebook or through Google Plus. And more and more, making that commitment has become the price of entry.
Google and Facebook are, of course, doing this bit of encouragement (or arm twisting) all in the name of the Holy Grail, collecting data. Google Plus, which is in and of itself not a particularly compelling offer, connects all of your activities on Google platforms, which, depending on your perspective, either lets them understand you with greater subtlety or complexity, or makes the notion of Big Brother that much more real.
Google is also putting the strong arm on big brands, who are courted by the advertising incentives and coerced by the need to stay high in search rankings.
All of this is drawing a finer line between advertisers offering suggestions — a good thing — and others stalking their targets, not so good…
This circling round consumers has not gone unnoticed. There are privacy watch groups seriously raising the question of monopolies and the potential for anti-trust litigation. And others are just plain opting out. When YouTube announced that you had to be in Google Plus in order to leave comments, one of YouTube’s founders deleted much of his account.
So we go back to where I started. People join clubs because in giving something they get something back. It’s the value exchange that’s important.
But I think the watch out today is that the rewards for membership aren’t necessarily going to the initiated — the “clubs” are taking and keeping them for themselves.
I am reminded about Groucho Marx’s oft-quoted line: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
Need I say that in this instance I am a pure Marxist.