Cluetrain

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silosThe Forrest of Silos problem I describe in the last post is exactly what Josh Marshall of TPM is dealing with when he says (correctly) “there’s no single digital news publishing model” — and what Dave Winer also correctly talks about here.)

Every publisher requiring a login/password, or using ‘social logins’ such as those provided by Facebook and Twitter, is living in an administrative hell that burns no less because it’s normative in the extreme. That every pub has its own login/pw, subscription system and/or social login is a perfect example of centralized systems failing to solve the problems of centralization.

We need decentralized solutions: ones that work first at the personal level and after that at the social and organizational ones. Only by starting with the individual will we get:

  • One standard way that any one of us can subscribe, and manage subscriptions, for any number of publications, using tools and services that any variety of providers can offer, but any one of us can leave for other tools and providers.
  • One standard way that we can change our address, phone number, email, last name or other personal data, for every publication we deal with, at once. We can do that, for example,  in our own personal cloud — a standards-based one that’s ours alone, using open code at the base level. (A bonus link about that.)
  • One standard way we can advertise our own wants, needs and other intentions to the marketplace, securely, with minimized fear of surveillance or other offenses to our privacy.

None of that can be done with yet another centralized private service such as we get today from Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve believed since long before I co-wrote Cluetrain that distributed and decentralized personal tools were the only way to solve the problems of centralization and create countless new opportunities for personal, social and economic growth in the world. It’s why I started ProjectVRM, and why we have a growing list of developers working to liberate individuals and prove that free customers are worth more than captive ones.

I believed in this work because we already see it proven in the world by personal computers, the Internet and its liberating standards and protocols. Those are decentralized too. All I’m talking about here is standing new solutions on top of those old shoulders.

This is not to knock anything social, by the way. Of course we are social beings. But we are also, as individuals, decentralized, except to ourselves. That’s what I (and others, such as Devon Loffreto) mean when we talk about (for example) sovereign identity.

None of us will solve the Forest of Silos problem by creating bigger and better silos, or by making them ore “centric” toward individuals.

In , opens with this sentence: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Sixty-four years have passed since White wrote that, and it still makes perfect sense to me, hunched behind a desk in a back room of a Manhattan apartment.

That’s because privacy is mostly a settled issue in the physical world, and a grace of civilized life. Clothing, for example, is a privacy technology. So are walls, doors, windows and shades.

Private spaces in public settings are well understood in every healthy and mature culture. This is why no store on Main Street would plant a tracking beacon in the pants of a visiting customer, to report back on that customer’s activities — just so the store or some third party can “deliver” a better “experience” through advertising. Yet this kind of thing is beyond normative on the Web: it is a huge business.

Worse, the institution we look toward for protection from this kind of unwelcome surveillance — our government — spies on us too, and relies on private companies for help with activities that would be a crime if the  still meant what it says. ( more than two years ago.)

I see two reasons why privacy is now under extreme threat in the digital world — and the physical one too, as surveillance cameras bloom like flowers in public spaces, and as marketers and spooks together look toward the “Internet of Things” for ways to harvest an infinitude of personal data.

Reason #1

The was back-burnered when  (aka ) got baked into e-commerce in the late ’90s. In a single slide  summarizes what happened after that. It looks like this:

The History of E-commerce
1995: Invention of the cookie.
The end.

For a measure of how far we have drifted away from the early promise of networked life, re-read ‘s “Death From Above,” published in January 1995, and his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” published one year later. The first argued against asymmetrical provisioning of the Net and the second expressed faith in the triumph of nerds over wannabe overlords.

Three years later  was no less utopian. While it is best known for its 95 Theses (which include “” and ““) its most encompassing clue came before of all those. Chris Locke wrote it, and here’s what it says, boldface, color and all:

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…
we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Note the first and second person voices, and the possessive case. Our reach was everybody’s. Your grasp was companies’.

Fourteen years later, companies have won. Our reach has not exceeded their grasp. In fact, their grasp is stronger than ever.

Another irony: the overlords are nerds too. And  they lord over what Bruce Schneier calls a feudal system:

Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them – or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

Reason #2

We have loosed three things into the digital world that we (by which I mean everybody) do not yet fully comprehend, much less deal with (through policy, tech or whatever). Those are:

  1. Ubiquitous computing power. In the old days only the big guys had it. Now we all do.
  2. Ubiquitous Internet access. This puts us all at zero virtual distance from each other, at costs that also veer toward zero as well.
  3. Unlimited ability to observe, copy and store data, which is the blood and flesh of the entire networked world.

In tech, what can be done will be done, sooner or later, especially if it’s possible to do it in secret — and if it helps make money, fight a war or both. This is why we have bad acting on a massive scale: from click farms gaming the digital advertising business, to the NSA doing what we now know it does.

Last month I gave a keynote at an  event in New York. One of my topics was personal privacy, and how it might actually be good for the advertising business to respect it. Another speaker was , a “gentleman hacker” and CEO of WhiteOps, “an internet security company focused on the eradication of ad fraud.” He told of countless computers and browsers infected with bots committing click-fraud on a massive scale, mostly for Russian hackers shunting $billions from the flow of money down the online advertising river. The audience responded with polite applause. Privacy? Fraud? Why care? The money’s rolling in. Make hay while the power asymmetry shines.

Just today an executive with a giant company whose name we all know told me about visiting “click farms” in India, which he calls “just one example of fraud on a massive scale that nobody in the industry wants to talk about.” (Credit where due: the IAB wouldn’t have had us speaking there if its leaders didn’t care about the issues. But a .org by itself does not an industry make.)

Yet I’m not discouraged. In fact, I’m optimistic.

These last few months I’ve been visiting dozens of developers and policy folk from Europe to Australia, all grappling productively with privacy issues, working on the side of individuals, and doing their best to develop enlightened policy, products and services.

I can report that respect for privacy — the right to be left alone and to conceal what one wishes about one’s self and one’s data — is far more evolved elsewhere than it is in the U.S. So is recognition that individuals can do far more with their own data than can any big company (or organization) that has snarfed that data up. In some cases this respect takes the form of policy (e.g. the EU Data Protection Directive). In other cases it takes the form of advocacy, or of new businesses. In others it’s a combination of all of those and more.

Some examples:

 is a policy and code development movement led by Ann Cavoukian, the Information & Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. Many developers, enterprises and governments are now following her guidelines. (Which in turn leverage the work of Helen Nissenbaum.)

, the Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération, is a think tank of leading French developers, scientists, academics and business folk, convened to guide digital transformation across many disciplines, anchored in respect for the individual and his or her full empowerment (including protection of privacy), and for collective action based on that respect.

 is a Fing project in which six large French companies — Orange, La Poste, Cap-Digital, Monoprix, Alcatel-Lucent and Societe Generale — are releasing to 300 customers personal data gathered about those customers, and inviting developers to help those customers do cool things on their own with that data.

The  in the UK is doing a similar thing, with twenty UK companies and thousands of customers.

Both Midata and Etalab in France are also working the government side, sharing with citizens data collected about them by government agencies. For more on the latter read Interview with Henri Verdier: Director of Etalab, Services of the French Prime Minister. Also see Open Data Institute and PublicData.eu.

In Australia,    and  are working on re-building markets from the customer side, starting with personal control and required respect for one’s privacy as a base principle.

In the U.S. and Europe, companies and open source development groups have been working on personal data “stores,” “lockers,” “vaults” and “clouds,” where individuals can harbor and use their own data in their own private ways. There is already an  and a language for “” and “pclouds” for everything you can name in the Internet of Things. I posted something recently at HBR about one implication for this. (Alas, it’s behind an annoying registration wall.)

On the legal front, Customer Commons is working with the  at the Berkman Center on terms and privacy requirements that individuals can assert in dealing with other entities in the world. This work dovetails with , the  and others.

I am also encouraged to see that the most popular browser add-ons and extensions are ones that block tracking, ads or both. AdblockPlus, Firefox’s Privowny and  are all in this game, and they are having real effects. In May 2012,  a 9.26% ad blocking rate in North America and Europe. Above that were Austria (22.5%), Hungary, Germany, Finland, Poland, Gibraltar, Estonia and France. The U.S. was just below that at 8.72%. The top blocking browser was Firefox (17.81%) and the bottom one was Explorer (3.86%). So it was no surprise to see Microsoft jump on the Do Not Track bandwagon with its latest browser version. In sum what we see here is the marketplace talking back to marketing, through developers whose first loyalties are to people.

(The above and many other companies are listed among developers here.)

More context: it’s still early. The Internet most of us know today is just eighteen years old. The PC is thirty-something. Pendulums swing. Tides come and go. Bubbles burst.

I can’t prove it, but I do believe we have passed Peak Surveillance. When Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations hit the fan in May, lots of people said the controversy would blow over. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Our frogs are not fully boiled, and we’re jumping out of the pot. New personal powers will be decentralized. And in cases where those powers are centralized, it will be in ways that are better aligned with individual and social power than the feudal systems of today. End-to-end principles are still there, and still apply.

Another reason for my optimism is metaphor, the main subject in the thread below. In , George Lakoff and Mark Johnson open with this assertion: The mind is inherently embodied. We think metaphorically, and our metaphorical frames arise from our bodily experience. Ideas, for example, may not be things in the physical sense, but we still talk of “forming,” “getting,” “catching” and “throwing out” ideas. Metaphorically, privacy is a possession. We speak of it in possessive terms, and as something valuable and important to protect — because this has been our experience with it for as long as we’ve had civilization.

Possession is “nine-tenths of the law” because it is nine-tenths of the three-year-old. She says “It’s mine!” because she has hands with thumbs that give her the power to grab. Possession begins with what we can hold.

There is also in our embodied nature a uniquely human capacity called indwelling. Through indwelling our senses extend outward through our clothes, our tools, our vehicles, enlarging the boundaries of what we do and experience in the physical world. When drivers speak of “my wheels” and pilots of “my wings,” it is because their senses dwell in those things as extensions of their bodies.

This relates to privacy through exclusion: my privacy is what only I have.

The clothes we wear are exclusively ours. We may wear them to express ourselves, but their first purpose is to protect and conceal what is only ours. This sense of exclusivity also expands outward, even though our data.

 “the Internet is a copy machine.” And it is. We send an email in a less literal sense than we copy it. Yet the most essential human experience is ambulation: movement. This is why we conceive life, and talk about it, in terms of travel, rather than in terms of biology. Birth is arrival, we say. Death is departure. Careers are paths. This is why, when we move data around, we expect its ownership to remain a private matter even if we’re not really moving any of it in the postal sense of a sending a letter.

The problem here is not that our bodily senses fail to respect the easily-copied nature of data on networks, but that we haven’t yet created social, technical and policy protocols for the digital world to match the ones we’ve long understood in the physical world. We still need to do that. As embodied beings, the physical world is not just our first home. It is the set of reference frames we will never shake off, because we can’t. And because we’ve had them for ten thousand years or more.

The evolutionary adaptation that needs to happen is within the digital world and how we govern it, not the physical one.

Our experience as healthy and mature human beings in the physical world is one of full agency over personal privacy. In building out our digital world — something we are still just beginning to do — we need to respect that agency. The biggest entities in the digital world don’t yet do that. But that doesn’t mean they can’t. Especially after we start leaving their castles in droves.

Tags: , , , ,

I’m on a list where the subject of patents is being discussed. While thinking about how I might contribute to the conversation, I remembered that I once cared a lot about the subject and wrote some stuff about it. So I did some spelunking through the archives and found the following, now more than twelve years old. It was written during Esther Dyson‘s PC Forum, and addressed via blog to those present there. So, rather than leave it languishing alone in the deep past, I decided to run it again here. I’m not sure if it contributes much to the patent debate, but it does surface a number of topics I’ve been gnawing on ever since. 

— Doc


I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals…
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things.

Walt Whitman


PC Forum 2000,
Phoenix, AZ. March 15, 2000.

Source Coders

Six years ago, at PC Forum 94, John Gage of Sun Microsystems stood on stage between a twitchy Macintosh Duo and a huge projection screen, and pushed the reset button on our lives.

He showed us the Web.

It was like he took us on a tour of the Milky Way — a strange, immense and almost completely alien space. With calm authority and the deep, warm voice of a Nova narrator, he led us from the home page of a student in Massachusetts to a Winter Olympics report archive in Japan, then to a page that showed everything useful piece of data about every broadcast satellite, compiled and published by a fanatic in North Carolina.

We all knew it was fabulous, but why? How could you make money in a world of ends where nobody owns the means? How could you make sense of a network that is nobody’s product and everybody’s service? And where the hell did it come from?

  • Not Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy or any of the other online services
  • Not Novell, 3Com, Crisco, or any of the infrastructure companies
  • Not AT&T, MCI, Nortek or any of the phone companies.
  • Not Microsoft, Apple, Sun or any of the other platform companies.

Sure, it ran on all of them; but it belonged to none of them. And since they couldn’t own it, they never would have made it. So who the hell did make it?

In a word, Hackers. Programmers. Guys who were real good at writing code. Lots of those guys worked for companies, including the companies we just listed. Lots more worked in the public sector, for schools and government organizations. What they shared was a love of information, and of putting it to work. They put both passions into building the Net, working cooperatively in what Eric Raymond calls a “gift culture,” like Amish farmers raising a barn.

Hackers didn’t build the Net for business. They built it for research. They wanted to make it easy for people to inform each other, no matter who or where they were.

Several days ago Tim O’Reilly and I were talking about information, which is a noun derived from the verb to form. We use information, literally, toform each other. So, if we are in the market for information, we are asking to be formed by other people. In other words, we are authors of each other. It follows that the best information is the kind that changes us most. If we want to know something — if we are in the market for knowledge — we demand to be changed.

That change is growth. Our identity persists, yet who-we-are becomes larger, because we know more. And the more we know, the more valuable we become. This value isn’t a “brand” (a nasty word that comes to us from the cattle industry). It’s reputation.

What these hackers made was an extraordinarily vast and efficient market for knowledge — a wide-open marketspace for information — where everybody gets to participate, to contribute, to grow, and to increase the value of their own reputations.

Utopia

It turns out that the Net is also good for business, even though it was not written for business. In fact, “good” is too weak a word. The Net is a Utopia for business.Think about it. This is a place where —

  • The threshold of enterprise is approximately zero.
  • All you need to get millions of dollars is an idea that looks like it could be worth billions more.
  • You can create those billions of dollars in value just by impressing people with your idea.
  • The value of your idea can grow from zero to billions in a matter of hours.
  • You see investment as income, because you’re obligated to burn it, and you don’t need to hock your house or your car to get it.
  • Promise of reward far out-motivates fear of punishment, because there is no punishment.
  • Failure informs and therefore qualifies you for more money to fund your next idea, because both your knowledge and your reputation have grown in the process

To succeed in this world, your business only needs to be Utopia-compatible. That is, your people need to be in the market for information — or, in the parlance of The Cluetrain Manifesto — in the market for clues.

Yet many companies, especially traditional industrial ones, are not in the market for clues. They neither supply nor demand them. They put up a Web site, strictly as a pro forma measure. The corporate face is blank, the voice robotic. David Weinberger writes, “Companies that cannot speak in a human voice make sites that smell like death.”

The medium is the metaphor

Their problem is conceptual. They literally concieve markets — including the vast information market of the Net — in obsolete terms. They see them as real estate, as battlefields, as territories, as theaters, as animal forces. And none of those metaphors work for the Net.

Three years ago, at PC Forum 97, George Lakoff told us how metaphors work (a good source is his 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By). We were taught in school that metaphors were poetic constructions. In fact, metaphors scaffold our understanding of the world. Conceptual metaphors induce the vocabularies that describe every subject we know.

Take life. In a literal sense, life is a biological state. But that’s not how we know life. If we stop to look at the vocabulary we use to describe life, we find beneath it the conceptual metaphor life is a journey. We cannot talk about life without using the language of travel. Birth is arrival. Death is departure. Choices are crossroads. Troubles are potholes or speed bumps. Mistakes take us off the path or onto dead end streets.

Take time. Our primary conceptual metaphor for time is time is money. We save, spend, budget, waste, hoard and invest it.

Conceptual metaphors are equally ubiquitous and unconscious. They are the aquifers of meaning beneath the grounds of our consciousness. Think about how we turn what we mean into what we say. When we speak, we usually don’t know how we will finish the sentences we start, or how we started the sentences we finish. Think about how hard it is to remember exactly what somebody says, yet to know exactly what they mean. Conceptual metaphors are deeply involved in this paradox. They help us agree that we all understand a subject in the same metaphorical terms.

Now lets look at markets. This morning Steve Ballmer told us that Microsoft’s first principle was “to compete very hard, do your best job, study ideas, move forward aggressively.” What is the conceptual metaphor here? Easy: markets are battlefields. There are two sets of overlapping vocabularies induced by this metaphor: war and sports. So you can talk about “blowing away” competition and “level playing fields” in the same sentence. (Microsoft’s problems derive from a confusion between the war and sports metaphors. “All’s fair” in war, but not sports.)

There are related metaphors. One is markets are real estate. By this metaphor, companies can own market territory, or lease rights to it. To a large extent, both the battle and playing field metaphors derive from the real estate metaphor.

There are unrelated metaphors. One is markets are beings. The investment community describes markets as bullsbears, and invisible hands. They growand shrink. They have moods. They get nervouscalm or upset. Another is markets are theaters. Companies perform there, for audiences, who they would like to enjoy a good experience.Another is markets are environmentsIn The Death of Competition, James Moore speaks of markets as ecosystems where companies and categories evolvecompete in a habitat, for resources like plants and animals, and evolve or become extinct.

So what the hell is a market, really? The answer isn’t complicated when we subtract out all the modern metaphors.

Markets are markets

The first markets were markets. They were real places where people gathered to talk about subjects that mattered to them, and to do business. Supply and demand, selling and buying, production and consumption, vendor and customer —all those reciprocal roles and processes that describe market relationships — were a handshake apart. Our ancestors’ surnames — Smith, Hunter, Shoemaker, Weaver, Tanner, Butcher — derived from roles they played in marketplaces. They were literally defined by their crafts.

Yet the balance of power favored the buy side: the customers, buyers and consumers who were one and the same. The noun “market” comes from the Latin mercere, which means to buy. That’s why we call malls “shopping centers.” Not “selling centers.”

The industrial revolution changed everything. Our ancestors left their farms and shops and got jobs in the offices and factories of industry. On the sell side, they became labor, and on the buy side they became consumers. As the Industrial Age advanced, the distance between production and consumption grew so wide that we came to understand business itself in terms of a new metahor: business is shipping. Now we had content that we loaded into a distribution system or a channel, and addressed for delivery to an end user or a consumer. Eventually, industry came to treat market as a verb as well as a noun. Marketing became the job of moving products across the complex distribution deltas that grew between a few suppliers and vast “markets,” where demand was perceived categorically, rather than personally. Every categorical subject or population — consumer electronics, cosmetics, yachting, 18-34 year old men, drivers, surfers — were all “markets.”

My work as a journalist flanks twenty-two years in marketing, advertising and public relations. These are professions which, in spite of good advice of gurus from Theodore Levitt to Regis McKenna, conceived marketing as the military wing of industry’s shipping system. Marketing’s job was to develop “strategies” for “campaigns” to wage against “targets” with munitions called “mesages” which would succeed by “impact” and “penetration. Those targets were not customers, but “consumers,” “eyeballs” and “seats.” There was no demand by those people for messages, but that didn’t matter because those people were not paying for the messages we insisted on lobbing at them.

So, by the end of the Industrial Age, we had not only forgotten what a market really was, but we had developed new and often hostile meanings for both the noun and the verb. We also understood both in terms of conceptual metaphors that were far removed from markets as places and as activities that defined those places.

Around the turn of the 90s, I began to float a new metaphor: markets are conversations. I liked it for two reasons: 1) it worked as a synonmym (try substiting conversation for market everywhere the latter appears and you’ll see what I mean); and 2) every other metaphor — with the notable exception of markets are environments — insulted the true nature of markets, especiallly in a networked world built by a gift economy, where product categories and their competing occupants all grow, often at nobody’s expense.

The idea didn’t catch on until it was put to work as Thesis #1 in The Cluetrain Manifesto. Now it’s all over the place. But it also has a long way to go. Conceptual metaphors such as markets are battlefields are huge reservoirs of bad meaning. Even highly clueful e-businesses make constant use of them.

Which brings us to patents, which operate on the conceptual metaphor inventions are property. This metaphor worked, more or less, through the entire Industrial Age; but it runs into trouble with the Net. While patents and properties may have been involved in the development of the Net, we don’t see them among the credits. As Larry Lessig puts it, the Net grew in the context of regulation, but regulation that broaded access to the very limits of plausibility, essentially by making cyberspace a form of public property — or, more accurately, nobody’s property.

But when we frame the argument over patents in terms of property, we must use the conceptual metaphor on which patents depend, and which also that deny the nature of the Net. We will also argue in terms of market metaphors that employ property concepts: war, games, real estate, theater, and shipping. We will not talk in terms of knowledge, information and conversation.

The challenge

This is where we found ourselves today, when Larry Lessig spoke to us. He said,

“…In the context of patents, the passion to regulate rages. Some 40,000 software patents now float in the ether; a new industry of patent making was launched by a decision of the federal circuit in 1998 — the business method patent. Gaggles of lawyers, my students, now police the innovation process in Internet industry. 5 years ago, if you had a great idea, you coded it. Today, if you have a great idea, you call the lawyers to check its IP.

“This change is the product of regulation. And while in principle, I’m in favor of patents, we should not ignore the nature of the change that this creates. Unlike open access, the regulations of patent don’t decentralize the innovative process. They do the opposite. Unlike open access, the regulations of patent don’t increase the range of those who might compete; for the most part, they narrow it. Unlike open access, patents don’t broaden the architecture of innovation. They narrow it. They are part of an architecture — a legal architecture — that narrows innovation.” (You’ll find this and many other speeches at his site.)

A year ago I defected from marketing. I went over to the other side, joining markets in their fight against Business as Usual. That’s why I write for Linux Journal. It’s also why I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Linux is the Amish barn operating system. It was conceived and built on the same principles as the Net. Not surprisingly, much of what we see on the Net is served up by Linux and other software described as “open” and “free.”

Cluetrain insists that we start to understand the Net on its own terms. This means we have to go back to our founding hackers and look at the virtues embodied in the Utopia donated to business by the hackers’ gift culture.

I suggest we start with these three:

  • Nobody owns it
  • Everybody can use it
  • Anybody can improve it

Eric Raymond suggests many more. So do Bryan Pfaffenberger (who also writes for Linux Journal), Larry LessigRichard Stallman,Tim O’Reilly,James Gleick and Dave Winer, to name just a few.

Let’s start there.

If we start with the industrial world, we’ll stay there. And we can kiss Utopia good-bye.

Uninstalled is Michael O'Connor ClarkeMichael O’Connor Clarke’s blog — a title that always creeped me out a bit, kind of the way Warren Zevon‘s My Ride’s Here did, carrying more than a hint of prophesy. Though I think Michael meant something else with it. I forget, and now it doesn’t matter because he’s gone: uninstalled yesterday. Esophogeal cancer. A bad end for a good man.

All that matters, of course, is his life. Michael was smart and funny and loving and wise far beyond his years. We bonded as blogging buddies back when most blogs were journals and not shingles of “content” built for carrying payloads of advertising. Start to finish, he was a terrific writer. Enviable, even. He always wrote for the good it did and not the money it brought. (Which, in his case, like mine and most other friends in the ‘sphere, was squat.) I’ll honor that, his memory and many good causes at once by sharing most of one of his last blog posts:

Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Efforts or Why Social Advertising Sucks

Posted on May 9, 2012

A couple of days ago, the estimable JP Rangaswami posted a piece in response to a rather weird ad he saw pop up on Facebook. You should go read the full post for the context, but here’s the really quick version.

JP had posted a quick Facebook comment about reading some very entertainingly snarky Amazon.com reviews for absurdly over-priced speaker cables.

Something lurking deep in the dark heart of the giant, steam-belching, Heath Robinson contraption that powers Facebook’s social advertising engine took a shine to JP’s drive-by comment, snarfled it up, and spat it back out again with an advert attached. A rather… odd choice of “ad inventory unit”, to say the least. Here’s how it showed up on on of JP’s friends’ Facebook news feeds:

I saw JP post about this on Facebook and commented. The more I thought about the weirdness of this, the longer my comment became – to the point where I figured it deserved to spill over into a full-blown blog rant. Strap in… you have been warned.

I’ve seen a lot of this kind of thing happening in the past several months. Recently I’ve been tweeting and Facebooking my frustration with social sharing apps that behave in similar ways. You know the kind of thing – those ridiculous cluewalls implemented by Yahoo!, SocialCam, Viddy, and several big newspapers. You see an interesting link posted by one of your friends, click to read the article, and next thing you know you’re expected to grant permission to some rotten app to start spamming all your friends every time you read something online. Ack.

The brilliant Matthew Inman, genius behind The Oatmeal, had a very smart, beautifully simple take on all this social reader stupidity.

It’s the spread of this kind of leaky algorithmic marketing that is starting to really discourage me from sharing or, sometimes, even consuming content. And I’m a sharer by nature – I’ve been willingly sharing and participating in all this social bollocks for a heck of a long time now.

But now… well, I’m really starting to worry about the path we seem to be headed down. Or should I say, the path we’re being led down.

Apps that want me to hand over the keys to my FB account before I can read the news or watch another dopey cat video just make me uncomfortable. If I inadvertently click through an interesting link only to find that SocialCam or Viddy or somesuch malarkey wants me to accept its one-sided Terms of Service, then I nope the hell out of there pretty darn fast.

How can this be good for the Web? It denies content creators of traffic and views, and ensures that I *won’t* engage with their ideas, no matter how good they might be.

All these examples are bad cases of Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Efforts (or L.A.M.E. for short). It’s a case of developers trying to be smart in applying their algorithms to user-generated content – attempting to nail the sweet spot of personal recommendations by guessing what kind of ad inventory to attach to an individual comment, status update, or tweet.

It results in unsubtle, bloody-minded marketing leaking across into personal conversations. Kinda like the loud, drunken sales rep at the cocktail party, shoe-horning a pitch for education savings plans into a discussion about your choice of school for your kids.

Perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t so awfully bloody cack-handed as a marketing tactic. I mean – take another look at the ad unit served up to run alongside JP’s status update. What the hell has an ad for motorbike holidays got to do with him linking to snarky reviews of fancyass (and possibly fictional) speaker cables? Where’s the contextual connection?

Mr. Marketer: your algorithm is bad, and you should feel bad.

As you see, Michael was one of those rare people who beat the shit out of marketing from the inside. Bless him for that. It’s not a welcome calling, and Lord knows marketing needs it, now more than ever.

Here are some memorial posts from other old friends. I’ll add to the list as I spot them.

And here is his Facebook page. Much to mull and say there too. Also at a new memorial page there.

It’s good, while it lasts, that our presences persist on Facebook after we’re gone. I still visit departed friends there: Gil Templeton, Ray Simone, R.L. “Bob” Morgan, Nick Givotovsky.SupportMichaelOCC.ca is still up, and should stay up, to help provide support for his family.

His Twitter stream lives here. Last tweet: 26 September. Here’s that conversation.

Markets are conversations, they say. So yesterday I had one with MRoth, head of product for , the company whose service changes the other day caused a roar of negative buzz, including some from me, here.

Users were baffled by complexities where simplicities used to be. Roger Ebert lamented an “incomprehensible and catastrophic redesign” and explained in his next tweet, “I want to shorten a link, tweet it, and see how many hits and retweets it got. That’s it. Bit.ly now makes it an ordeal.”

That was my complaint as well. And it was heard. A friend with Bitly connections made one between  and me, and good conversation followed for an hour.

We spent much of that time going over work flows. Turns out Roger’s and mine are not the only kind Bitly enables, or cares about, and that’s a challenge for the company. Compiling, curating and sharing bookmarks (which they now call “bitmarks”) is as important for some users as simply shortening URLs is for others. Bitly combined the two in this re-design, and obviously ran into problems. They are now working hard to solve those.

I won’t go into the particulars MRoth shared, because I didn’t take notes and don’t remember them well enough in any case. What matters is that it’s clear to me that Bitly is reaching out, listening, and doing their best to follow up with changes. “Always make new mistakes,” Esthr says, and they’re making them as fast and well as they can.

I will share something I suggested, however, and that’s to look at the work flows around writing, and not just tweeting and other forms of “social” sharing.

We need more and better tools for writing linky text on the Web. Much as I like and appreciate what WordPress and Drupal do, I’m not fond of either as writing systems, mostly because “content management” isn’t writing, and those are content management systems first, and writing systems second.

As an art and a practice, writing is no less a product of its instruments than are music and painting. We not only need pianos, drums and brushes, but Steinways, Ludwigs and Langnickels. Microsoft doesn’t cut it. (Word produces horrible html.) Adobe had a good early Web writing tool with GoLive, but killed it in favor of Dreamweaver, which is awful. There are plenty of fine text editors, including old standbys (e.g. vi and emacs) that work in command shells. Geeky wizards can do wonders with them, but there should be many other instruments for many other kinds of artists.

Far as I know, the only writer and programmer working on a portfolio of writing and publishing instruments today is , and he’s been on the case for thirty years or more. (I believe I first met Dave at the booth at Comdex in Atlanta in 1982, when the program was available only on the Apple II). One of these days, months or years, writers and publishers are going to appreciate Dave’s pioneering work with outlining, sharing linksflowing news and other arts. I’m sure they do to some extent today (where would we all be without RSS?), but what they see is exceeded by what they don’t. Yet.

The older I get, the earlier it seems. For artist-grade writing and publishing tools, it’s clear to me that we’re at the low narrow left end of the adoption curve: not far past the beginning. That spells opportunity for lots of new development projects and companies, including Bitly.

I think the main thing standing in everybody’s way right now is the belief that writing and publishing need to be “social,” as defined by Facebook and Twitter, rather than by society as a whole, which was plenty social before those companies came along. Also plenty personal. Remember personal computing? We hardly talk about that any more, because it’s a redundancy, like personal phoning, or personal texting. But personal, as an adjective, has taken a back seat while social drives.

Here’s a distinction that might help us get back in the driver’s seat: Publishing is social, but writing is personal. The latter is no less a greenfield today than it was in 1982. The difference is that it’s now as big as the Net.

Making the rounds is , a killer essay by in MIT Technology Review. The gist:

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.

This is the first time I have read anything from a major media writer (and Michael is very much that — in fact I believe he is the best in the biz) that is in full agreement with The Advertising Bubble, my chapter on this very subject in The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. A sample:

One might think all this personalized advertising must be pretty good, or it wouldn’t be such a hot new business category. But that’s only if one ignores the bubbly nature of the craze, or the negative demand on the receiving end for most of advertising’s goods.  In fact, the results of personalized advertising, so far, have been lousy for actual persons…

Tracking and “personalizing”—the current frontier of online advertising—probe the limits of tolerance. While harvesting mountains of data about individuals and signaling nothing obvious about their methods, tracking and personalizing together ditch one of the few noble virtues to which advertising at its best aspires: respect for the prospect’s privacy and integrity, which has long included a default assumption of anonymity.

Ask any celebrity about the price of fame and they’ll tell you: it’s anonymity. This wouldn’t be a Faustian bargain (or a bargain at all) if anonymity did not have real worth. Tracking, filtering and personalizing advertising all compromise our anonymity, even if no PII (Personally Identifiable Information) is collected.  Even if these systems don’t know us by name, their hands are still in our pants…

The distance between what tracking does and what users want, expect and intend is so extreme that backlash is inevitable. The only question is how much it will damage a business that is vulnerable in the first place.

The first section of the book opens with a retrospective view of the present from a some point in the near future — say, five or ten years out. A relevant sample:

After the social network crash of 2013, when it became clear that neither friendship nor sociability were adequately defined or managed through proprietary and contained systems (no matter how large they might be), individuals began to assert their independence, and to zero-base their social networking using their own tools, and asserting their own policies regarding engagement.

Customers now manage relationships in their own ways, using standardized tools that embrace the complexities of relationship—including needs for privacy (and, in some cases, anonymity). Thus loyalty to vendors now has genuine meaning, and goes as deep as either party cares to go. In some (perhaps most) cases this isn’t very deep, while in others it can get quite involved.

When I first wrote that, I said 2012. But I decided that was too aggressive, and went with the following year. Maybe I was right in the first place. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, here’s what Michael says about the utopian exhaust Facebook and its “ecosystem” are smoking:

Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see “You Are the Ad,” by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).

If you’re inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. “If we just … if only … when we will …” goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you … If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer’s message … get it? No ads, just friends! My God!

But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook.

The buyer is a person. That person does not require either a social network or absolutely-informed guesswork to know who she is or what she wants to buy. Obviously advertising can help. It always has. But totally personalized advertising is icky and oxymoronic. And, after half a decade or more at the business of making maximally-personalized ads, the main result is what Michael calls “the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles.”

That’s one of mine on the right. It couldn’t be more wasted and wrong. Let’s take it from the top.

First, Robert Scoble is an old friend and a good guy. But I couldn’t disagree with him more on the subject of Facebook and the alleged virtues of the fully followed life. (Go to this Gillmor Gang, starting about an hour in, to see Robert and I go at it about this.) Clearly Facebook doesn’t know about that. Nor does any advertiser, I would bet. In any case, Robert likes so many things that his up-thumb has no value to me.

I have no interest in Social Referrals, and if Facebook followed what I’ve written on the subject of “social” (as defined by Facebook and its marketing cohorts), it wouldn’t imagine I would be interested in extole.com.

I’m 64, but married. “Boyfriend wanted” is a low-rent fail as well as an insult.

I get the old yearbook pitch every time I go on Facebook, which is as infrequently as I possibly can. (There are people I can only reach that way, which is why I bother.) I don’t even need to click on the the ad to discover that, as I suspected, 60s.yearbookarchives.com is a front for the scammy Classmates.com.

I’ve never been fly flishing, and haven’t fished since I was a kid, many decades ago.

And I don’t want more credit cards, of any kind, regardless of Scoble’s position on Capital One.

In a subchapter of  titled “A Bad Theory of You,”  calls both Facebook’s and Google’s data-based assumptions about us “pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are.” He also says that at best they put us into the  — a “place where something is lifelike but not convincingly alive, and it gives people the creeps.” But what you see on the right isn’t the best, and it’s not uncanny. It’s typical, and it sucks, even if it does bring Facebook a few $billion per year in click-through-based revenues.

The amazing thing here is that business keeps trying to improve advertising — and always by making it more personal — as if that’s the only way we can get to Michael’s “sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way.” Three problems here:

  1. By its nature advertising — especially “brand” advertising — is not personal.
  2. Making advertising personal changes it into something else that is often less welcome.
  3. There are better ways to get to achieve Michael’s objective — ways that start on the buyer’s side, rather than the seller’s.

Don Marti, former Editor-in-Chief of Linux Journal and a collaborator on the advertising chapters in my book, nails the first two problems in a pair of posts. In the first, Ad targeting – better is worse? he says,

Now, as targeting for online advertising gets more and more accurate, the signal is getting lost. On the web, how do you tell a massive campaign from a well-targeted campaign? And if you can’t spot the “waste,” how do you pick out the signal?

I’m thinking about this problem especially from an IT point of view. Much of the value of an IT product is network value, and economics of scale mean that a product with massive adoption can have much higher ROI than a niche product…. So, better targeting means that online advertising carries less signal. You could be part of the niche on which your vendor is dumping its last batch of a “boat anchor” product. This is kind of a paradox: the better online advertising is, the less valuable it is. Companies that want to send a signal are going to have to find a less fake-out-able medium.

In the second, Perfectly targeted advertising would be perfectly worthless, which he wrote in response to Michael’s essay, he adds this:

The more targeted that advertising is, the less effective that it is. Internet technology can be more efficient at targeting, but the closer it gets to perfectly tracking users, the less profitable it has to become.

The profits are in advertising that informs, entertains, or creates a spectacle—because that’s what sends a signal. Targeting is a dead end. Maybe “Do Not Track” will save online advertising from itself.

John Battelle, who is both a first-rate journalist and a leader in the online advertising industry, says this in Facebook’s real question: What’s the native model?:

Facebook makes 82% of its money by selling targeted display advertising – boxes on the top and right side of the site (it’s recently added ads at logout, and in newsfeeds). Not a particularly unique model on its face, but certainly unique underneath: Because Facebook knows so much about each person on its service, it can target in ways Google and others can only dream about. Over the years, Facebook has added new advertising products based on the unique identity, interest, and relationship data it owns: Advertisers can incorporate the fact that a friend of a friend “likes” a product, for example. Or they can incorporate their own marketing content into their ads, a practice known as “conversational marketing” that I’ve been on about for seven or so years (for more on that, see my post Conversational Marketing Is Hot – Again. Thanks Facebook!).

But as many have pointed out, Facebook’s approach to advertising has a problem: People don’t (yet) come to Facebook with the intention of consuming quality content (as they do with media sites), or finding an answer to a question (as they do at Google search). Yet Facebook’s ad system combines both those models – it employs a display ad unit (the foundation of brand-driven media sites) as well as a sophisticated ad-buying platform that’d be familiar to anyone who’s ever used Google AdWords.

I’m not sure how many advertisers use Facebook, but it’s probably a fair guess to say the number approaches or crosses the hundreds of thousands. That’s about how many used Overture and Google a decade ago. The big question is simply this: Do those Facebook ads work as well or better than other approaches? If the answer is yes, the question of valuation is rather moot. If the answer is no…Facebook’s got some work to do.

But Facebook isn’t the real issue here. Working only the sell side of the marketplace is the issue. It’s now time to work the buy side.

The simple fact is that we need to start equipping buyers with their own tools for connecting with sellers, and for engaging in respectful and productive ways. That is, to improve the ability of demand to drive supply, and not to constantly goose up supply to drive demand, and failing 99.x% of the time.

This is an old imperative.

In , which Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I wrote in 1999, we laid into business — and marketing in particular — for failing to grok the fact that in networked markets, which the Internet gave us, individuals should lead, rather than just follow. So, since business failed to get Cluetrain’s message, I started in mid-2006 at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The idea was to foster development of tools that make customers both independent of vendors, and better able to engage with vendors. That is, for demand to drive supply, personally. (VRM stands for .)

Imagine being able to:

  • name your own terms of service
  • define for yourself what loyalty is, what stores you are loyal to, and how
  • be able to gather and examine your own data
  • advertise (or “intentcast”) your own needs in an anonymous and secure way
  • manage your own relationships with all the vendors and other organizations you deal with
  • … and to do all that either on your own or with the help of that work for you rather than for sellers (as most third parties do)

Today there are dozens of VRM developers working at all that stuff and more — to open floodgates of economic possibility when demand drives supply personally, rather than “socially” as part of some ad-funded Web giant’s wet dream. (And socially in the genuine sense, in which each of us knows who our friends, relatives and other associates really are, and in what contexts our actual social connections apply.) I report on those, and the huge implications of their work, in The Intention Economy.

Here’s the thing, and why now is the time to point this out: most of those developers have a hell of a time getting laid by VCs, which on the whole have their heads stuck in a of the Web, and can’t imagine a way to improve the marketplace that does not require breeding yet another cow, or creating yet another ranch for dependent customers. Maybe now that the bloom is off Facebook’s rose, and the Filter Bubble is ready to burst, they can start looking at possibilities over here on the demand side.

So this post is an appeal to investors. Start thinking outside the cow, and outside the ranch. If you truly believe in free markets, then start believing in free customers, and in the development projects that make them not only free, but able to drive sales at a 100% rate, and to form relationships that are worthy of the word.

Bonus links:

HT to John Salvador, for pointing to Life in the Vast Lane, where I kinda predicted some of the above in 2008.

Amazon is now shipping my new book, The Intention Economy. Yes, the Kindle version too. They even have the first chapter available for free. You can “look inside” as well.

Thanks to Amazon’s search, you can even find stuff that’s not in the index, such as the acknowledgements. Those include a lot of people, including everybody who has ever been active on the ProjectVRM list.

The book isn’t for me. It’s for customers. All customers, that is. Not just the ones buying the book. The first paragraph of the Introduction explains,

This book stands with the customer. This is out of necessity, not sympathy. Over the coming years customers will be emancipated from systems built to control them. They will become free and independent actors in the marketplace, equipped to tell vendors what they want, how they want it, where and when—even how much they’d like to pay—outside of any vendor’s system of customer control. Customers will be able to form and break relationships with vendors, on customers’ own terms, and not just on the take-it-or-leave-it terms that have been pro forma since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

That’s what the VRM development community has been working toward since I launched ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center in 2006. Now that community is getting kinda large. Here at the European Identity and Cloud Conference (#EIC12) in Munich, I have met or learned about a bunch of VRM developers I hadn’t known  before. Pretty soon I won’t be able to keep up, and that’s a good thing.

The book has four main parts:

  1. Customer Captivity
  2. The Networked Marketplace
  3. The Liberated Customer
  4. The Liberated Vendor

In a way it follows up on work begun with The Cluetrain Manifesto. The subtitle there was The End of Business as Usual. The subhead for The Intention Economy is When Customers Take Charge. Hey, when one thing ends, another must begin. This is it.

We’re not there yet. If The Intention Economy speeds things up, it will do its job.

 

 

 

So I’m at Micah Sifry’s Politics of the Internet class at the Kennedy School, and risk live-blogging it (taxing my multitasking abilities…)

Some questions in the midst of dialog between Micah (@Mlsif) and the class (#pol-int)…

  • Was there a $trillion “internet dividend” over the old phone system, and was it a cost to the old system?
  • Did the Internet have to happen?
  • Is the IETF‘s “rough consensus and running code” still a prevailing ethos, or methodology?
  • Is it an accident that the rough consensus above is so similar to the #Occupy methods?
  • When you add value, do you also subtract value? (And did I — or David Weinberger and I) actually say that in World of Ends?)
  • Does this new un-owned decentralized medium cause or host culture?
  • How is the Internet used differently in different societies? (Assertion: it’s not monolithic.)
  • What is possible in a world where we assume connectivity?
  • What are the major disruptive effects?
  • What is the essence of the starting point in the early connection of computers? (What is the case for the Net, and how would you make it to, say, a legislator? Or you’re in an elevator with your boss, and you want to make the case against legislating how the internet is structured?)

Topics brought up:

  • Net-heads vs. bell-heads (the Net as its transcendant protocols vs. the Net as a collection of owned and controlled networks)
  • Commercialization
  • Authentic voice
  • Before and after (what if Compuserve and AOL had won?)
  • How can we speak of a giant zero when companies and governments are being “smart” (either through government censorship or carrier limitations, including the urge to bill everything, to pick a couple of examples)

My Linux Journal collection on the topic (from a lookup of “giant zero”):

Well, I wrote down nothing from my own talk, or the Q & A following. But there are clues in the tweet stream (there’s some funky html in the following… no time to fix it, though):

dskok David Skok
 An excellent read re: the battle @dsearls was referring to. I recommend @scrawford‘s @nytimes op-Ed: nytimes.com/2011/12/04/opi… #pol-int
NoreenBowden Noreen Bowden

 @dsearls! #pol-int Death From Above – 1995 essay by John Barlow on future of internet. w2.eff.org/Misc/Publicati…
dskok David Skok

 .@dcsearls reading list: Death from above by John Perry Barlow: w2.eff.org/Misc/Publicati… #pol-int
NoreenBowdenNoreen Bowden
Stanford prof leaves to start online university. allthingsd.com/20120125/watch… #pol-int
dsearls Doc Searls
My live blog from @mlsif‘s #pol-int class: hvrd.me/xd3Iki #politics #internet
NaparstekAaron Naparstek

 Tweet “+1” if you think @MlSif should slide over 3 feet to his left or right so the classroom projector isn’t shining on his face. #pol-int
dskokDavid Skok

 Listening to @docsearls referring to the Internet Protocol Suite: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_… #pol-int
NaparstekAaron Naparstek

 “Anyone can join it and work to improve it.” @Mlsif: Is it a coincidence that #OWS and the Internet are structured so similarly? #pol-int
NaparstekAaron Naparstek

 Testing live classroom Twitter feed @Mlsif‘s new @Kennedy_School course, “The Politics of the Internet.” #pol-int
dsearlsDoc Searls

 Fun to be sitting in on @Mlsif‘s #pol-int class, described here: hvrd.me/w3hCbI
 MlsifMicah Sifry
I hadn’t realized up til now just how much the IETF and its working groups resemble Occupy Wall St and its working groups. #pol-int

Enjoyed it. The class will be blogging. Look forward to reading those too.

Reality 2.0 was my original blog: a pile of stuff I wrote before there were blogs. All of it is old now, but some of it still rings new. Since Reality 2.0 is deep in the Searls.com basement, I’ve decided to surface some old pieces that might be interesting, for whatever reason. The one below was first written on April 16 1998, about a year before Chris Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I put up The Cluetrain Manifesto, and updated one year later to recognize Cluetrain’s successful launch on the Web that month. It was still nearly a year before Cluetrain appeared in book form, and a decade before the 10th Anniversary Edition.

Never mind that Lycos, HotBot, Tripod and WhoWhere are blasts from the past. Note instead that these are zombies that were once hot stuff, and led by CEOs that talked very much like the CEOs walking around today. Note also how little progress we’ve actually made toward Cluetrain’s ideals.

Here goes:

Listen up

“All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value! So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!'”

— Howard Beale, in Network, by Paddy Chayevsky


Bob Davis is the CEO of Lycos, Inc., whose growing portfolio of companies (excuse me, portals) now includes Lycos, Hotbot, WhoWhere and Tripod. I’m sure Bob is a great guy. And I’m sure Lycos is a great company. A lot of people seem to like them both. And you have to admire both his ambition and his success. To witness both, read his interview with PC Week, where he predicts that the Lycos Network (the sum of all its portals) will overtake Yahoo as “#1 on the Web.”

Lycos will win, Davis says, because “We have a collection of quality properties that are segmented into best-of-breed categories, and our reach has been catapulting.”

I can speak for Hotbot, which is still my first-choice search engine; but by a shrinking margin. I often test search engines by looking for strings of text buried deep in long documents on my own site. Hotbot always won in the past. But since Lycos bought it, Hotbot has become more of a portal and less of a search tool. Its page is now a baffling mass of ads and links. And its searches find less.

In today’s test, Infoseek won. Last week, Excite won. Both found pages that Hotbot seems to have forgotten.

Why? Bob Davis gives us a good answer.

“We’re a media company,” he says. “We make our money by delivering an audience that people want to pay for.”

Note the two different species here: audience and people. And look at their qualities. One is “delivered.” The other pays. In other words, one is cargo and the other is money.

Well, I don’t care if Lycos’ stock goes to the moon and splits three times along the way. The only #1 on the Web is the same as the only #1 on the phone: the people who use it. And the time will come when people will look at portals not as sources of “satisfying experiences” (another of Davis’ lines) but as useless intermediaries between supply and demand.

 Words of Walt

You there, impotent, loose in the knees,

open your scarfed chops till I blow grit within you.

Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets.

I am not to be denied. I compel.

It is time to explain myself. Let us stand up.

I know I am solid and sound.

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow.

I know that I am august,

I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself

or be understood.

I see that the elementary laws never apologize..

Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

“Media company” guys like Davis are still in a seller’s market for wisdom that was BS even when only the TV guys spoke it — back when it literally required the movie “Network.” That market will dry up. Why? Because we’ve been mad as hell for about hundred years, and now we don’t have to take it anymore.

Three reasons.

  1. Humanity. This is what Walt Whitman reminded us about more than a hundred years ago. We are not impotent. Media companies may call us seats and eyeballs and targets, but that’s their problem. They don’t get who we are or what we can — and will — do. And the funny thing is, they don’t get that what makes us powerful is what they think makes them powerful: the Internet. It gives us choices. Millions of them. We don’t have to settle for “channels” any more. Or “portals” that offer views of the sky through their own little windows. Or “sticky” sites that are the moral equivalent of flypaper.
  2. Demand. There never was a demand for messages, and now it shows, big time. Because the Internet is a meteor that is smacking the world of business with more force than the rock that offed the dinosaurs, and it is pushing out a tsunami of demand like nothing supply has ever seen. Businesses that welcome the swell are in for some fun surfing. Businesses that don’t are going to drown in it.
  3. Obsolescence. Even the media guys are tired of their own B.S. and are finally in the market for clues.

Alvin Toffler had it right in The Third Wave. Industry (The Second Wave) “violently split apart two aspects of our lives that had always been one… production and consumption… In so doing, it drove a giant invisible wedge into our economy, our psyches … it ripped apart the underlying unity of society, creating a way of life filled with economic tension.” Today all of us play producer roles in our professions and consumer roles in our everyday lives. This chart shows the difference (and tension) between these radically different points of view — both of which all of us hold:

Producer view
Consumer view
Metaphor Business is shipping (“loading the channel,” “moving products,” “delivering messages”) Business is shopping (“browsing,” “looking,” “bargaining,” “buying”)
Orientation Business is about moving goods from one to many (producers to consumers) Business is about buying and selling, one to one
Markets Markets are shooting ranges: consumers are “targets” Markets are markets: places to shop, buy stuff and talk to people
Relationships Primary relationshiphs are with customers, which are more often distributors & retailers rather than consumers Primary relationships are with vendors, and with other customers

These are all just clues, which are easily deniable facts. Hence a line once spoken of Apple: “the clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.” But Apple was just an obvious offender. All of marketing itself remains clueless so long as it continues to treat customers as “eyeballs,” “targets,” “seats” and “consumers.”

For the past several months, I have been working with Rick Levine, David Weinberger and Chris Locke on a new railroad for clues: a ClueTrain.

Our goal is to burn down Marketing As Usual. Here is the logic behind the ambition:

Markets are conversations

Conversations are fire

Marketing is arson

The result is here — in what The Wall Street Journal calls “presumptuous, arrogant, and absolutely brilliant.”

Take a ride. If you like it, sign up. Feel free to set fires with it, add a few of your own, or flame the ones you don’t agree with. What matters is the conversation. We want everybody talking about this stuff. If they do, MAU is toast.

Here is my own short form of the Manifesto (inspired by Martin Luther, the long version has 95 Theses). Feel free to commit arson with (or to) any of these points as well.


Ten facts about highly effective markets:

  1. Markets are conversations. None of the other metaphors for markets — bulls, bears, battlefields, arenas, streets or invisible hands — does full justice to the social nature of markets. Real market conversations are social. They happen between human beings. Not between senders and receivers, shooters and targets, advertisers and demographics.
  2. The first markets were markets. They were real places that thrived at the crossroads of cultures. They didn’t need a market model, because they were the model market. More than religion, war or family, markets were real places where communities came together. They weren’t just where sellers did business with buyers. They were the place where everybody got together to hang out, talk, tell stories and learn interesting stuff about each other and the larger world.
  3. Markets are more about demand than supply. The term “market” comes from the latin mercere, which means “to buy.” Even a modern market is called a “shopping center” rather than a “selling center.” Bottom line: every market has more buyers than sellers. And the buyers have the money.
  4. Human voices trump robotic ones. Real voices are honest, open, natural, uncontrived. Every identity that speaks has a voice. We know each other by how we sound. That goes for companies and markets as well as people. When a voice is full of shit, we all know it — whether the voice tells us “your call is important to us” or that a Buick is better than a Mercedes.
  5. The real market leaders are people whose minds and hands are worn by the work they do. And it has been that way ever since our ancestors’ authority was expressed by surnames that labeled their occupations — names like Hunter, Weaver, Fisher and Smith. In modern parlance, the most knowledge and the best expertise is found at the “point of practice:” That’s where most of the work gets done.
  6. Markets are made by real people. Not by surreal abstractions that insult customers by calling them “targets,” “seats,” “audiences,” “demographics” and “eyeballs” — all synonyms for consumers, which Jerry Michalski of Sociate calls “brainless gullets who live only to gulp products and expel cash.”
  7. Business is not a conveyor belt that runs from production to consumption. Our goods are more than “content” that we “package” and “move” by “loading” them into a “channel” and “address” for “delivery.” The business that matters most is about shopping, not shipping. And the people who run it are the customers and the people who talk to them.
  8. Mass markets have the same intelligence as germ populations. Their virtues are appetite and reproduction. They grow by contagion. Which is why nobody wants to admit belonging to one.
  9. There is no demand for messages. To get what this means, imagine what would happen if mute buttons on remote controls delivered “we don’t want to hear this” messages directly back to advertisers.
  10. Most advertising is unaccountable. Or worse, it’s useless. An old advertising saying goes, “I know half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.” But even this is a lie. Nearly all advertising is wasted. Even the most accountable form of advertising — the junk mail we euphemistically call “direct marketing” — counts a 3% response rate as a success. No wonder most of us sort our mail over the trash can. Fairfax Cone, who co-founded Foote Cone & Belding many decades ago, said “Advertising is what you do when you can’t go see somebody. That’s all it is.” With the Net you cango see somebody. More importantly, they can see you. More importantly than that, you can both talk to each other. And make real markets again.

I got to know Judith Burton when she was still Judith Clarke and Senior VP Corporate Marketing for Novell, in 1987. Novell had just bought a company called CXI, which had been a client of Hodskins Simone & Searls, the Palo Alto advertising agency in which I was a partner. By that time HS&S had come to specialize in communications technology clients, and the chance to do something with Novell as well seemed more than opportune, since it was clear that Novell was smarter about comms than just about anybody at that time.

So David Hodskins came up with the idea of putting together a “connectivity consortium” made up of Novell and several other HS&S clients. In seeing connectivity as a hot topic on the horizon, David was way ahead of everybody’s time. But that made it perfect for the two most forward-thinking minds at Novell: Judith and Craig Burton, who would later become her husband.

I didn’t know Craig before I pitched Judith on the connectivity consortium idea — and she took the bait. She brought Craig to our first meeting, and the two of them together blew my mind. Judith saw no boundaries to what could be done with marketing, and Craig saw the Big Picture of connectivity better than anybody I had ever met, before or since.

In the short term, over subsequent conversations and meetings, I saw how it was that Novell changed the networking conversation so quickly and completely. It was during these learnings that I came up with the “markets are conversations” line that became the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto, more than a decade later. Because Novell was busy proving it, more than any other company in technology at that time.

Just a few years earlier, the network conversation was mostly about “pipes and protocols.” Data Communications and Communications Week were the leading trade pubs in the space, fat with stories and ads that pushed and compared the virtues of Ethernet vs. Token Ring and bus vs. ring vs. star topologies. Every vendor sold whole networks from the wires on up, including everything that ran on those wires, file servers, network interface cards in the backs of PCs, and applications. If you bought a Sytek or a Corvus network, you couldn’t use anybody else’s hardware, software or wiring. Every vendor had its own silo (or, in some cases, such as IBM’s, an assortment of silos). And it occurred to almost nobody that there should be a choice other than silos and lock-ins.

It was Craig Burton’s idea make Novell’s NetWare a “Network Operating System” (NOS) that could run on everybody’s hardware and wiring. NetWare thus became a new platform for network services that could run everywhere, starting with group file storage (the first local “cloud,” you might say), and printing.

But nobody talked about networking on Novell’s terms until Judith Clarke literally invented whole new venues for network conversations. These included a magazine (LAN Times), a trade show (NetWorld), a reseller channel and a class of networking professionals (Certified Netware Engineers, or CNEs). By the end of the Eighties the world talked about networking in terms of capabilities and services rather than of pipes and protocols.

One move that stands out for me was Novell’s decision to drop its grandfathered position at the center of the Comdex show floor (this was when Comdex was one of the biggest trade shows on Earth) and rent ballroom space next door on the ground floor of the Las Vegas Hilton. So rather than show stuff off on the floor with everybody else, Novell set up a storefront and business meeting space right where the traffic was thickest. And it worked.

As Craig put it to me a few days ago, “She changed the industry in the way she approached people and ideas, taking a podunk company in Provo and making it look like it owned the planet — which, in many ways, it did. And she unselfishly gave credit to everybody else all along the way.”

Novell began to slide after Judith and Craig left the company, in 1989. With the Burtons gone, Novell forgot where it came from. While Judith and Craig liked to zig where Microsoft zagged, and to embrace Microsoft’s — and everybody else’s — platforms and technologies, Novell CEO Ray Noorda preferred to attack Microsoft head-on, by acquiring already-lame competitors (remember WordPerfect?) and failing over and over to make a dent in Microsoft’s hull. It was sad to watch.

For reasons I forget, the connectivity consortium didn’t happen, but I got to be close friends of both Judith and Craig, and have remained so ever since. I also consulted the couple after they left Novell to co-found The Burton Group with Jamie Lewis, another brilliant Novell veteran.

A few years later Judith and Craig moved on to consulting on their own. (Under Jamie’s continued leadership The Burton Group was sold to Gartner a couple years ago.) Craig especially has been a steady source of original thinking on countless subjects. Judith sometimes participated in projects with Craig, but mostly focused on philanthropic and civic projects, and time with family. (Here is her Linkedin profile.)

On Tuesday of this week she collapsed at her home, and died later in the hospital. Her death is a shock to everybody. Even though she hit a few medical bumps this past year, she seemed to be doing better. And she was just 66. Being 64 myself, I consider that age way too young for life’s end.

My heart aches for Craig, and for Judith’s kids and grandkids, whom she adored. In my own memory, her amazing blue eyes, bright smile and sweet voice persist. She was a beautiful woman, as well as a smart, creative and loving one. The picture above gives just a hint toward all of that.

It does bother me a bit that her death has not made bigger news. If she had passed during her heyday at Novell, the news would have been huge. But then, the news ain’t what it used to be, and will continue to evolve away from the old top-down few-to-many systems. The Internet is everybody’s connectivity consortium now.

We didn’t end up needing Data Communications, Comms Week, LAN Times, NetWorld, Comdex or countless other once-sturdy institutions that were obsoleted by something Craig and Judith both saw coming long before it arrived: the ability of anybody to connect with anybody, outside of any one company’s system for trapping customers and users.

Judith’s work back in the decade helped make the future in which we now all live and thrive. We’ll miss her, but we won’t miss each other. To Judith, all of us were the people networks were for. And now we have that, regardless of how hard any company or government works to lock us back into silos or limit what we can do in them. Had she been less loving, I doubt she would have seen that, or worked so well at what she did for all of us.

[Later…] Here is an email from Jamie Lewis that fell through the cracks when it arrived (apologies for that):

I first met Judith in 1984, when I was working for a publication for PC retailers. I was writing about PC networking, so I inevitably met both her and Craig in my coverage of Novell. I started getting to know Judith in 1985, when the magazine I was working for folded, and Novell offered me a job in the corporate marketing department.

As many people know, there’s a very long list of things Judith did in making Novell the company it was in its hey day. She founded the LAN Times, a corporate newspaper devoted to networking. (Yes, it sounds obvious today. But in 1983, not so much. And there are more than a few technology writers still working today that earned their chops writing for the LAN Times.) She created the NetWorld tradeshow. (Again, obvious or even antiquated in today’s context, but then, it was the first of its kind.) She built a PR and marketing machine, complete with relentless press tours, events, and other efforts to get the NetWare word out.

The list goes on. But that list is just that—a list. While most, if not all, of the stuff on that list was important, innovative, and impactful, it really doesn’t do the woman justice to simply enumerate things on a list. She was more than the sum of the items on that list.

If you look the word “dynamic” up in the dictionary, you’ll find Judith’s picture there. When she walked into the room, the room changed. She commanded attention. She ran the show. She exuded authority and confidence. This could rub some people the wrong way, but it is what made her successful. That she accomplished what she did in a time and place that wasn’t exactly ideal for a career-oriented woman says a lot about her resolve.

And that gets to the most important thing I learned from her, something that I think was at the heart of why Novell did so well during her tenure. Simply put, it’s this: Have the balls to act like who or what you want to become. If you wait until you are that to start acting like that, you’ll never be that.

It’s clear how this approach worked so well for Novell. When I joined, Novell had about 250 employees. Its revenues were microscopic in comparison to the “big guys” – IBM, Digital Equipment and, later, Microsoft – that it was challenging while simultaneously doing battle with a host of similarly sized companies on the other.

But I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say, “Wow, I thought Novell was a lot bigger than that,” when they heard how many employees we had, or what annual revenues were at the time. Novell in every way looked and behaved like it belonged in the big leagues—like a much bigger company—due in large part to Judith’s skills in marketing and communications. It’s a mistake to underestimate how important this was to Novell’s success.

The fact that NetWare was a great product certainly helped. But we all know that the information technology market is littered with the corpses of companies that had great technology but didn’t know how to market it or sell it. Judith’s ability to position Novell played no small part in ensuring the success of what was a very good product. Because Novell acted like it belonged in the big leagues, it did belong. This raised the customers’ comfort level, making it easier for them to bet on a small company for such an important product. It also forced much larger companies, such as DEC and IBM, to treat Novell as a peer.

I can distinctly remember when I realized how important this was. We were in final competition with DEC for a very large deal with a very large company. A Fortune 200 company. If we got the business, it would be a major win, a win at the “corporate standard” level, the kind of win that would be a major milestone. During the final stages of the competition, DEC issued a 30-page white paper that we later subtitled “why NetWare causes cancer in rats”. The sales person on the account phoned me in an absolute panic. The paper was full of misinformation, she said, and she was afraid the customer was going to believe it. I told her that we first needed to thank DEC for establishing Novell as a legitimate competitor in the eyes of the customer. We would respond to the paper, I said, but would be careful not to spoil the big favor DEC had just done for us. We did respond, but in the high road fashion that Judith (and Craig) established as our modus operandi, the approach that drove my initial answer to the call. And we won the business.

That positioning also made Novell look superior in comparison to the companies that were much closer to it in size and revenue. 3Com was our nemesis, the one company that everyone in our company loved to hate. Yes, 3Com was hardware to Novell’s software, which is why NetWare prevailed. But NetWare also succeeded because Judith was so good at positioning Novell, establishing software as the issue in the market and forcing 3Com (and later Microsoft and IBM) to fight on Novell’s terms.

There were, of course, a very large number of people responsible for making Novell what it was. It’s also nice to be on the right side of the issue, and there’s no question that Novell and NetWare were in the right place at the right time. But the attitude, the positioning, and the messaging that was Novell’s essence during that amazing run in the 80s and early 90s, that was all Judith. Novell wouldn’t have been the same company without her efforts. That win over DEC, for example, wouldn’t have happened without the months and years of relentless and effective marketing that preceded it. And I don’t think the correlation between Judith’s personality and Novell’s was any coincidence. Novell had the audacity to act like it belonged because Judith did.

Years later, at Burton Group, whenever I heard people say they thought we were bigger than we actually were, I never failed to think of Judith. We carried that same attitude, a willingness to believe and act like we belonged. I learned a great deal from Judith, but it’s that lesson that had the biggest impact. She and Craig took a chance on a journalism major that had never written a line of code, and for that I will be forever grateful. She inspired and drove those around her to be better, to be what they aspired to be. I think I can speak for all of the people who knew and worked with her when I say she’ll be missed, and that we appreciate what she did for us, and for the industry she played such a large part in creating.

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