Friday, October 28, 2005

Reading :: The Cluetrain Manifesto

Originally posted: Fri, 28 Oct 2005 09:37:10

The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual

by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger

In the Acknowledgements of this book, the authors thank "Dan Gillmour, who despite strong reservations about The Manifesto's style, deemed it significant enough to cover it in the San Jose Mercury-News" (p.185). I know what Gillmour means. This book's style varies across the four authors, but Christopher Locke sets the tone in his chapters, which tend to discuss how important it is to get away from business-speak and write in our own authentic voices. Here's a sample:

But maybe ? and it's a big maybe ? companies can get our of their own way. Maybe they can become much looser associations of free individuals. Maybe they can cut "their" people enough slack to actually act and sound like people instead of 1950s science-fiction robots. Gort need more sales! Gort need make quota! You not buy now, Gort nuke your planet!

Easy there, Gort. Calm down boy. Here, chew on this kryptonite.

Everybody's laughing. No one gives a rat's ass. So here's another question. Perhaps you even thought of it yourself. How come this book ended up in the business section of your local bookstore instead of under Humor, Horror, or True Crime? Hey, don't look at us. (p.182)

And it goes on in this vein. Despite Locke's appalling ignorance of 1950s science fiction conventions, the thing that really jumped out at me was how mannered the style is. The authors are fairly obsessed with authenticity, insisting that the marketplace is a conversation and that conversations are between (authentic) people rather than inauthentic corporate drones. But despite this expressivist orientation, the style is so excessively performative that it sounds as inauthentic as what it replaced. But also quite familiar. Compare it to the text on the back of the Gloomaway Grapefruit Body Souffle jar my wife bought some years ago:

Scoop. Stroke. Smooth. When a bad day leaves you thinking enough is enough, you'll know why they say I love juicy. Lively Grapefruit spontaneously creates a sense of optimism and contentment. Your whole being is nurtured in silky-softness. Laugh and let go. The sad stops here.

The text is a little more sedate, but the half-baked jump-cut mass culture references, slightly reoriented phrases, and forced informality is still here. Locke's authentic voice sounds a lot like ad copy written to Gen-Xers.

Unfortunately, the book is a lot more repetitive than ad copy. It seems as if every page contains one of the following: the phrase "markets are conversations"; a reference to authenticity; or the claim that employees and customers are laughing at executives, who are really just frightened little boys. In fact, Locke seems obsessed with the third point. The quote above gives the faintest glimmer of the frequency with which this theme is raised, in lengthy and explicit terms. That leads me to think that he's really describing his own fears and assuming everyone else shares them. When you're obsessed with everyone else's opinion of you, of course you'll try to show that you're clued in via your concepts and your style. And when you think that everyone is similarly obsessed, of course that will become your main theme, the thing that you believe will motivate them to change. It's an extrovert's view of the world. As an introvert, I found it tedious.

But like Dan Gillmour, I found worth in the book as well. Clear away the repetition, posturing, and etc. and you'll find a fairly prescient view of how new media had begun to change business. The book mostly focuses on marketing and services, but it also has broader applications.

For instance, in his first chapter, Locke manages a relatively coherent discussion of how global competition led to micro markets, resulting in problems for command-and-control management (p.13). Locke points to Total Quality Management as one noble but failed experiment in trying a more "conversational" model, even pointing to it as a precursor of the open Internet conversation (p.14). "Top-down command-and-control management has become dysfunctional and counterproductive," he declares (p.21). He expects more and more market share to be taken by microsize competitors which can spring up overnight and reconfigure themselves quickly because of Internet business dynamics. "The Net will cause radical discontinuities, catastrophic breaks in the already crumbling facade of business-as-usual," he says (p.25), providing an early vision of what Zuboff and Maxmin would later call "federations."

In a later chapter, Doc Searls and David Weinberger argue that advertising is no match for the "word of web," the communication among customers that allows them to quickly share experiences and expertise. One example is Amazon's ratings system. Elsewhere, I've made a similar argument about software documentation.

Weinberger argues later that organizations are becoming "hyperlinked," which is to say, each person in an organization can have connections to those within and outside that organization (p.155). Someone deep inside a product development team can discuss products directly with customers, for instance, bypassing managerial barriers. He looks forward to an "economy of voice" (p.158) in which organizations are valued because of the conversations in which their members engage. Unfortunately this can take an ugly turn:

In a hyperlinked organization, voice plays the old role of the org chart, telling you whom you should work with. That Mary is the Under-VP of Expectation Deflations for the western semi-region tells you nothing. That Mary is wicked smart, totally frank, and a trip to work with tells you everything. (p.148)

Everything? What this tells me is that Weinberger's ideal organization is a meritocracy in which the measure of merit is extroversion, not expertise or reliability or the other things we typically associate with workplace merit ? and that, in my experience, people in hyperlinked organizations tend to seek out.

The Cluetrain Manifesto can be a painful experience to read, though probably not for the reasons that the authors expect. But it also has some insights that could be useful ? not least insights into the mentality of those who have enthusiastically hyped the Net Economy.


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Monday, October 24, 2005

Reading :: Digitizing the News

Originally posted: Mon, 24 Oct 2005 10:28:55

Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers

by Pablo J. Boczkowski

Digitizing the News is an interesting account of how newspapers have attempted to move online. Boczkowski's first three chapters give us necessary background, while the next three describe case studies conducted at three newspapers conducting online experiments in the late 1990s. Towards the end of the last case study we find out that one of his informants and mentors was Jeff Jarvis ? which may give you an idea of Boczkowski's take on these online experiments.

Boczkowski first gives us a history of newspapers' online experiments, starting with Videotex in the early 1980s and moving up to the late 1990s. Papers originally saw online media as a way to repurpose content. But then papers began to recombine content by customizing general products (ex: delivering particular kinds of stories to particular readers); providing vertical information streams on one subject (ex: city guides); providing a network of content across locales (ex:; and providing archives of past stories. Finally, they moved to recreating, providing content developed primarily or exclusively for the site; this involves making the byproducts of newswriting available, but it also means opening ways for users to generate content. This involves unbundling a unitary media artifact (p.64).

The last part ? the ability of users to generate content ? is the kicker, of course. As Boczkowski says, newspapers are used to generating a unidirectional information flow. But with user-authored content, suddenly there can be a multiplicity of information flows, often poorly integrated (p.96). As Boczkowski explores in the last case study, these user-authored flows hae traditionally been placed under heavy editorial control, but an explosion in user-authored flows has made that control untenable (p.152). Boczkowski talks about "gate-opening" (as opposed to gatekeeping). "Workers thus open up the online paper to contributors, turning it into a space for knowledge creation and circulation. ... The shift from traditional gatekeeping to newsroom routines centered on the facilitation and circulation of knowledge produced by a vast and heterogeneous network of users-turned-producers" (p.158). In dailies,

the editorial function has been constituted as mediation work, the product defined as a unidirectional flow of generalized content, and readers inscribed as content consumers rather than producers. To manage such a production system, dailies, like many firms since the nineteenth century, have become organizational hierarchies with centralized authority and relations of dependence among the various levels. (p.164)

Yes, and this organization has outlasted the print media whose characteristics helped to shape it. Boczkowski urges a different approach, which he calls "distrubuted construction":

the thrust of distributed construction is that, given certain conditions, content production in new media does not happen inside a firm's newsroom but results from the interactions with users. ... distributed construction illuminates new engagements between media organizations and consumers who contribute to the production process while making a living some other way. (p.166)

Boczkowski gets the term "distributed construction" from "distributed cognition." Unfortunately, this is characteristic of his analysis: in later chapters he draws from distributed cognition as well as from actor-network theory and articulation work, but doesn't seem to delve deeply or gain many insights from them. That surprises me, since Trevor Pinch served as his dissertation advisor.

Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, especially for people who are interested in new media.

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