So now we’ve got Social Media. It is the bell what ringeth out glory on high. As is the want for cohesion in every industrial tribe, marketers (and IT folks of course) have their lexical totems. Social Media—how about I just call it, like, Social, k?—is the totem of the moment.
Great. Social rocks. It does. But it’s not there yet. Because we’re not there yet.
McLuhan suggested that ‘we become what we behold’ and ‘we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.’ When tools change incrementally, they are merely extensions of a given set of models and metaphors. Computers are incremental innovations that fit perfectly in the 350 or so year old models and metaphors that shape our collective worldview. However, when tools change radically, they create new models and metaphors. The printing press, it can be argued, presaged the enlightenment.
Our tools appear to be changing radically at present. The tools are no longer linear machines that are easily described using enlightenment models. Social tools cultivate organic structures that are non-linear and non-deterministic. They look like neural nets. It is said that the 20th century belonged to physics and the 21st will belong to biology. The models and metaphors suggested by the networked tools we’re increasingly beginning to use look like biology. They suggest new possibilities for all kinds of structures.
In “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies“, Douglas Hofstadter describes a sophisticated computer program that solves word puzzles in a manner that much more accurately represents the way a human would solve them. The structure of the program is not the traditional top-down hierarchical approach. Instead, it is modeled on a biological cell.
The structural model of the corporation can be informed by these metaphors. Management structures will be transformed. The interface between business and consumer will be transformed. The consumer experience will be transformed. The political structure of the relationship between the market, the communications culture and the consumer will be transformed.
Social Media is one of another in the set of tools starting with the computer network that have commenced this process. But they’re just the tools. We have to transform ourselves. We are as geese in bottles and it’s time to free ourselves. As Thomas Kuhn said of scientific revolution, it often requires 20 years for the generational change to transpire that allows a new model to assert itself. This is because those who have spent their lives in service of the old paradigm are loath to allow it to depart. Our current economic milieu—”The Great Disruption” as Scott Anthony puts it—may be hastening this process.
(This is second in a series of posts entitled, “Geese From Bottles”. The introductory post provides some context , though probably not enough.)
We love tools. Business loves them, government loves them, people love them. They are the progeny of our uniqueness as humans. Tools—technology—have always been a fulcrum in cultural evolution, but the enlightenment paradigm is almost completely conscribed by the concept of the tool.
Tools are the encapsulation of knowledge into a repeatable application. They are so simply useful that their seduction is the sense that they reflect the truth. Indeed, there are those who argue that everything—everything—is reducible to a simple mechanical system.
We humans may be simple mechanical systems ourselves, but one thing is clear, whatever we are, we don’t operate in a manner that is consistent with the nature of those systems/tools which we have created in the last 300 years. We’ve always been the damned thing. We aren’t the rational actor of economic theory. We require mountains of resources be spent in order to make complex machines usable for us. We engage in all kinds of irrational behavior like eating fatty foods, smoking, drinking, watching Oprah, etc. We are unpredictable as individuals and often as groups. In short, we appear to be anything other than simple mechanical systems.
The last hundred years, and especially the last fifty, have seen us taking notice of the disparity between our behavior and the behavior and requirements of our tools. Indeed the word tool itself has taken on a colloquial meaning as, “One who lacks the mental capacity to know he is being used.” Tools lack volition. The enlightenment fails to animate that which it illuminates. We revile the notion that we are machines.
Our tools have begun to chafe. They’ve been doing so for some time now.
And this is the bottle in which we geese find ourselves.
Discussion threads are legion. They are one of the more prominent exemplars of the new communications paradigm. Their existence in places where they heretofore have not existed is generally a welcome thing. I want to know what people think of that editorial on GISS weather data. The editorial alone is not enough.
There are lots of ways in which the discussion thread as a model could be improved. But I’d like to take issue with one very simple way in which I believe they’re misused; or rather poorly implemented. I’m talking about chronological inversion. I don’t want to read the most recent contributions to the discussion first. Who would?
Take this ESPN discussion thread about Barack Obama’s suggestion that the BCS add a playoff as an example. I can only assume that the strategic goal driving the decision to invert the discussion is the sense that always having fresh content at the top of the thread means more traffic. Which may be true; both my conjecture and the conjecture of my conjecture. But even so, I submit that the inversion severely undermines the quality of the discussion. In fact, I think it encourages grandstanding and truculence and discourages actual, y’know, discussion.
It is notable (to my mind anyway) that generally, blogs don’t do this. For the most part, it is the entrenched, old media that does this. Which makes sense. The entrenched media are like the adherents of phlogiston theory at a time when Lavoisier was demonstrating its failure. The entrenched media are like H.M Warner pronouncing in 1927 that, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” The entrenched media seem to think it will be 1992 forever.
There is a koan involving the master, Nan-ch’üan P’u-yüan (南泉普願) whom, in varying accounts, relates some arcane wisdom to some neophyte through the metaphor of a goose in a bottle. My favorite version is from the 1959 textbook “Zen Buddhism: An Introduction to Zen, with Stories, Parables, and Koan Riddles told by the Zen Masters“. Here Nan-ch’üan is in his Japanese guise as “Nansen”:
THE OFFICIAL Riko once asked Nansen to explain to him the old problem of the goose in the bottle. “If a man puts a gosling into the bottle” he said, “and feeds the gosling through the bottle-neck until it grows and grows and becomes a goose, and then there just is no more room inside the bottle, how can the man get it out without killing the goose, or breaking the bottle?”
“Riko!” shouted Nansen, and gave a great clap with his hands.
“Yes, master,” said the official with a start.
“See!” said Nansen, “the goose is out!”
Right, so a goose. In a bottle. Now a conventional (read: good) writer would, at this point, explain this koan, or, y’know, get on to the thesis. Moving on then, Ronald S. Burt, though not an eighth-century Chan master, seemed to me to be making roughly the same point as Nansen with his “Competence-Capability Gap”. From the introduction Dr. Burt’s book, “Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital”:
“The trouble started just before noon when the regiment rounded the edge of town and started up the two linked hills known locally as Marye’s Heights, because of the Marye family farm at the top. Confederates were dug in behind a stone wall with cannon and musket trained on the approach. It was December 13th, 1862 in Fredricksburg, Virginia. Fourteen times Union soldiers attacked the Confederate line. Fourteen times they failed. When they quit, around dinner, George was one of twelve thousand Union casualties.”
And he goes on:
“Union troops were massed and marched against the Confederate line because that was the strategic thinking of the day. Generals were trained to mass their men to achieve the firepower needed to break a fortification. The thinking was correct with respect to smoothbore muskets, but that was yesterday’s technology. The French “Minie” ball, adopted in the decade before the Civil War, made practical the deadly potential of rifled gun barrels. Guns previously accurate to 150 yards were now accurate to 450 yards. Troops could blow apart one another’s formations from a distance. Massive casualties were the cost of using smoothbore strategy in a fight with rifled weapons. The tragedy would recur on other Civil War battlefields, and on a larger scale fifty years later when massed troops in Europe were thrown against machine-gun fortifications.”
“We today fight in our own Fredericksburg, with its own staggering potential for casualties. Technology has expanded our ability to communicate across geographic and social distance. Our ability to coordinate across markets has expanded accordingly. “Global” is the word of the day. The limited scale of yesterday’s organizations is today inefficient. We removed layers of bureaucracy and laid in fast, flexible communication systems.
Ask the leader of any large organization about the most difficult barriers he or she has to manage to harvest the coordination potential of our communications capabilities. They’ll inevitably talk about people issues, cultural issues. People continue to work the way the learned in legacy organizations, in yesterday’s organization silos. We are capable of coordinating across scattered markets of human endeavor. We are not yet competent in how to take advantage of the capability.”
I really enjoyed Dr. Burt’s book. So I hope he won’t mind if I say that not only do I think he’s correct in the above assertions, but he hasn’t gone far enough. Everything that is touched by computer networks is subject to this gap. Every model for human interaction that can be improved through the language of networks is subject to this gap. Every communication system, process, plan or concept is subject to the gap.
For years now, organizations in every area of communications have, in their efforts to determine how to remain relevant (or in some cases simply how to continue to exist), have placed increasing focus on the tools. Ad agencies, pr firms, newspapers and others have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to cultivate “interactive” capabilities. Which, when you think about the name, suggests (to my mind anyway) a focus on mechanics. So it is with social networks. So it is with each new communications technology. These organizations invest in all the new tools and yet, with few exceptions, the communication industry has yet to give birth to the new paradigm. They know it’s coming, so they keep watching each new tool.
Necessarily, these pragmatic business people apply the strategies that work. These strategies have worked for a long, long time; longer than the lifetimes of any of the decision-makers in question. They no longer work. Customer service is threatening to create a consumer insurgency if blogs are any measure. Advertising is notable these days mostly for not being so notable anymore. PR is, well, a nightmare. IT is losing business to interactive agencies who are losing business to IT firms. Right and left brains collide. Creative directors cum guerilla marketing theorists lob youtube grenades at bookish consumer research. Celebrity is collectively over-saturating or self-immolating or something. Political leaders are so universally recognized for their vapid and venal atavism, that the electorate are quite literally seeking a messiah.
The strategies aren’t working anymore. Which means there are no tools that can get the goose out of the bottle.
And what’s worse, the goose is us.
This blog about corruption at the Memphis, Tennessee Police Department is a sign. It is a sign of the arrival of the new communications paradigm.
If the custodians of communications for organizations of all kinds don’t recognize the importance of this and respond appropriately, we could have a French Revolution kind of scenario. I’d prefer an American Revolution kind of outcome.
It occurred to me the other day that “doing the right thing” has really basically two meanings: doing what is dictated by convention, and doing what is dictated by your conviction.
I think that everyone gets these two meanings mixed up and mixed together a lot. In spite of this, it generally seems that most people tend to favor convention, and a much smaller group of people tend to favor conviction. Like Tevye, I think they’re both right. Or at least, both are necessary.
Sadly, I think people in both camps tend to demonize much more than they accept or appreciate the other camp. Those who care for convention say of those with conviction that they are (to borrow a meme from fark.com – see this thread for examples) “trying to be special”. Those with conviction call those who care for convention “sheeple” (for examples, see the Wikipedia entry for “Goth Subculture”).
I can understand why the conflict is present and I even suspect there are ways in which it should be seen as healthy. What’s more, I think “doing the right thing” is more than a question of “what”; it’s at least also a question of “when”. So there’s more to the story to be investigated, but it seems incredibly useful to remember that what may appear to be “doing the wrong thing” may very well be someone’s very genuine attempt to “do the right thing”.
Well, that’s what I heard. I guess I just can’t shake the impression that this guy likes to piss on beauty. Oh sure, he talks about multi-disciplinary teams and whatnot, but I think he derives perverse satisfaction from the effect his rhetorical position has on its detractors.
He seems rather smug. But hey, I’ve been called a turgid prick and while I suppose I might be, I don’t believe I am. So perhaps the whole thing is more complicated. Perhaps Jakob is a wonderful fellow.
My guess is that it has to do with the whole “Two Cultures” thing. Any web designer who has worked with a UX or usability expert knows what I’m talking about. The same holds true in reverse. I imagine the same pattern plays in all kinds of contexts; screenwriters and audience testers, architects and engineers, CEOs and CFOs. There is a tension that always exists between what is proven and what is possible.
There’s still compelling evidence to suggest Jakob is a punk. I mean, check out his site. The home page is pretty offputting as user experience goes what with all those links. He’s got this page called, “Why This Site Has Almost No Graphics”. In it, he says that,
I am not a visual designer, so my graphics would look crummy anyway. Since this website is created by myself (and not by a multidisciplinary team as I always recommend for large sites) I didn’t want to spend money to hire an artist.
Lame. If you really want to sell your message, it seems incumbent upon you to do your best to make it viscerally appealing. I’m sure there are designers who would redesign the site in return for publicity.
Then again, I’m drunkblogging so I realize perhaps I’m just being an asshole. Sorry Jake. I’m just fuggin’ with ya. I love nerds.
It’s been some time since the last update on my little Terra Chips interaction. I can’t say that there’s anything really new to report. I couldn’t seem to justify to myself the time and effort to record a phone call to their customer service team given the other important things to which I’ve had to attend. (Links to the previous posts, in case they’re needed: I, II, III, IV, V, VI – Fail.) And in case you’re still wondering, the Terra Chips folks have still not responded to me, nor do I expect they will.
That said, I wanted to post to say thank you to the folks who offered comments and posts on their blogs. As I said repeatedly, this isn’t some kind of watershed experiment. I had no pretensions about breaking through some profound barrier. I simply wanted to point out how pervasively diseased marketing has become. Terra Chips is a great brand. They make a great product. They are simply one of many—in fact, one of the overwhelming majority—of consumer-facing businesses that fail utterly at creating a genuine relationship with their customers. The reason for this state of affairs is simply that mass marketing as we’ve known it since Oyster Bay—indeed since Gutenberg—has reached the end of its utility. I’ve been wanting to post about exactly this, and I have in the past. I’ve got more to say about it, but that will have to wait for another post which I intend to give a snappy title something along the lines of, “Marketing Can Kiss My Ass.”
I also wanted to take a moment to respond to this comment by my friend and former colleague, Lori. She’s a shrewd one and the substance of her comment struck me as, “Quit being a blowhard and lay off this company. You don’t know what’s going on internally and you’re smearing them on your site. Furthermore, you have no right to expect them to communicate with you in any specific manner or really do anything you want them to do. It isn’t your company after all.” That is my interpretation, read her comment and draw your own conclusions. If it were a thoughtless comment or utterly lacking in insight, I might have ignored it. Rather, I think her comment cuts to the core of what is changing in the marketing industry in general. She has, in my opinion, succinctly delineated the position of the proponents of marketing as we know it.
Hell, the more I think about it, the more I think y’all should read her comment. In case someone may not have the gumption to click the link, here it is:
“Back away from the chip! One experience does not a brand make, either negative or positive. And who says the timeline you chose meshes with the one in their manual? Maybe they have launched an internal research program that is in fact testing how many pounds per inch of pressure it takes to open a bag. And their error is in not sharing this with you. So they have a few communications issues, that doesn’t erase the fact that they make a good product.
I don’t know when we moved into the “I expect to be listened to by all” era, but we’re in it. You have no idea what’s going on at that company or with the person responsible for handling these types of concerns, yet you assume that it’s a laissez-faire attitude toward consumers. I say not enough info is available to make a judgment. So it’s not best practice….are they a little company? Start-up? Two guys in a kitchen peeling potatoes & running a deep fryer?
I say pat yourself on the back for taking the time to share an idea that could improve something, and grab your scissors next time. Don’t slaughter them for not jumping on your suggestion. Little perspective people.”
First, I totally agree with the fact that they are doing a poor job building relationships doesn’t mean that their product doesn’t rock. It does. I still buy them. I just use scissors to open the bags now. But I have a somewhat philosophical perspective on the whole thing. I have a fairly passionately-held opinion about the dramatic changes taking place in the marketing universe. Most consumers don’t share my passion or philosophical outlook. Most consumers, when met with a company that simply refuses to respond to their concerns, will simply choose a competitor’s product next time. If anything, I was trying to help them because I was willing to forgive them where others will not. I also hoped that a little pressure from a fan might be better than a lot of pressure from someone who is genuinely pissed off.
Where I started to realize how much Lori found my experiment offputting was with the “I expect to be listened to by all” thing. I also talked to Lori on the phone for several hours about it. She isn’t the kind to concede a point easily. She’s told me before that she’s got a lot of brothers so she’s comfortable holding her own. What became clear the more we spoke was that she felt I was being rather impetuous. She felt that I was pretending to access I didn’t deserve. She seemed to think that I was trying to suggest that the inmates should be allowed to run the asylum (if I can be excused for comparing customers to inmates at an asylum—well I’m sure the oh-so-perspicacious Neil Boorman would find such a sentiment simply exquisite). Suffice to say, I don’t think I’m owed anything by Terra Chips or anyone else.
My assertion is simply that as the tools that empower mass communications continue to evolve, there is a greater pressure for those responsible for the mass communications act more like regular people and less like clergy or arrogant pricks or cooler-than-thou. One of the first ways this evolution has become relevant is with respect to customer service. Inasmuch as the internet empowers consumers to make their voice heard, don’t be surprised if they take you to task for treating their concerns lightly.
Twenty years ago, an organization could blithely assume that any steps they took to communicate with their constituents/customers were just fine. They were the ones footing the bill for all this mass communication and they weren’t going to waste that money dealing with individual cases—the technology available to do so was just not good enough and therefore too expensive. As the technology has evolved, so have people’s expectations. This isn’t consumers becoming uppity or something. This isn’t the “I expect to be listened to by all” era. It is simply consumers recognizing that there is no excuse for a bad experience when there are other options that provide a good experience.
I’d like to say more about this, and as I mentioned, I’ve got this “Marketing Can Go to Hell” post brewing that will hopefully elucidate further. I couldn’t get on writing that post until I had brought this Terra Chips thing to a close and tried to offer a thoughtful response to Lori. Reading back over this, I’m not sure I pulled it off. I’d say I’m amazed that I can write 1,100+ words without really being particularly thoughtful, but then I remember that I’ve been working in marketing for over 10 years.