Coincidence: When Real is Better than Real

by Chris Kenton on January 25, 2012

To me, coincidence is like magic. It makes you see the world in a way that is slightly unreal. Better than real. Like real could be a whole lot better than you think. A good coincidence makes you think, makes you look for the unseen thread that strings a strand of random events together like pearls. Like ghost stories, there’s a time for telling stories of coincidence, and they never seem to lose their magic with the telling.

Recently my wife and I have been talking about the need to encourage my son to write. My wife is a librarian, I’m a writer, so we kind of figure our son should be writing epic novels by the time he’s twelve. That’s a joke. But recently we’ve been looking over our son’s school work and thinking he could use a little more practice writing. Another momcoincidence from my son’s class mentioned a small writing group she’d discovered for kids and invited my son to join up. My wife was enthusiastic; I was ambivalent. He’s already got a full schedule, I thought it could wait until summer. Better yet, I could, you know, give him a few assignments myself. Sort of a father-son writing-apprentice bonding thing, which, maybe we’d get to sometime in the summer. The idea faded into the background of busy days.

Tonight, at the end of another busy day, I raced home to take my son to basketball practice. On the way back home from practice as we drove through town–something we’ve done exactly the same way nearly every day for years–this time for whatever reason we started talking about all the neon signs. We noticed all the colors, the lights that were broken, the lights that had been fixed, and eventually my son asked how different neon colors are made. I started to answer, and then remembered back to the very first article I ever wrote about 20 years ago–a newspaper piece on neon signs for the Santa Maria Times. Aha, I thought. A teaching moment on the magic of writing.

For the rest of the drive home, I focused on the setup. Instead of telling my son what I’d learned about neon signs from writing about them for the newspaper, I told him about my first experience getting a job as a writer. I’d just graduated from college with a degree in poetry, and had been unable to find a job in Santa Maria, where I’d moved to live with my girlfriend the librarian. The newspaper was the only gig in town that involved writing but they didn’t have any job openings. So I came up with a plan. I looked through the newspaper and settled on the lifestyle section, and then imagined the most colorful and cool topic I could dream up to report on for a story. Neon signs. I wrote the piece, walked it in to the editor of the Times, and walked on to my first gig as a newspaper writer.

I finished the story as we drove up to the house, and then led my son to the file cabinet in the back of the garage. It took awhile, but I finally found the folder of newspaper clippings, and pulled from it the only copy I still have of that first article on neon signs. While my son got ready for bed, I got lost in the folder of clippings, remembering each of the stories, each of the columns and magazine articles, and finally the obituary I wrote for my father–a lifelong writer and newsman. So much magic I’d forgotten. When I checked in on my son he was lying in bed, reading the story of neon, my wife looking on bemused by the old newspaper clipping. It was a beautiful moment for me to feel smug.

With the hour getting late we hurried my son to finish the story. He held out to the end, and then folded the newspaper for filing away. But as he handed it over he stopped, and then gasped. He pointed at the date. January 24, 1993. The article I’d given him to read, to maybe excite him a little about writing by connecting the dots to our random discussion about neon signs, the first article I’d ever written, was published 19 years before to the day. And then my wife added the punch line. She’d forgotten to tell me, but today was the first day my son had participated in the writing group.

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What it Means to Fall

by Chris Kenton on September 2, 2011

Fall Mountain Biking

A couple of weeks ago I took a spectacular fall while mountain biking. I was pushing the limits on one of my favorite trails, riding full speed through a forest of redwoods, when my front wheel lost traction and I hit the deck. I slid about 20 feet through roots and rocks before rolling over the side of the trail and down a steep hill. I wound up with deep gashes on both arms and one knee, a wide swath of trail rash from shoulder to ankle, and what would later turn out to be a couple of fractures to the bones that make up my left shoulder. It now ranks among the top 5 falls since I started mountain biking seriously more than a decade ago.

Falling is an unfortunate fact of life with any difficult pursuit. The scars you rack up are like merit badges marking your progress, hopefully, to some kind of mastery. I fell 87 times my first year of mountain biking (I kept score once I realized it was going to be chronic) while trying to learn how to navigate switchbacks, climb boulders and dodge trees on steep descents.  My second year I fell only 10 times, but the fewer times I fell, the more dramatic the falls became since it took more to throw me off the bike.

Just as you get better at riding with practice, so it goes with falling. The cloud of shock and confusion clears up after a few good spills and in time you begin to feel present as a fall unfolds–the collapse of gravity, the awareness of arcing through space, the sampling of sensory inputs from each point of impact. The more tuned your awareness, the more you can process the mechanics of falling so you don’t repeat the same mistakes again. Was it a failure of technique? Of equipment? Of attention? If you’re competitive, you learn to see falling as the outer edge of the envelope you have to constantly push to get better and start winning. If you’re not good with falling, you’re stalling.

What I never ponder after a fall is what it means. There’s no hidden mystery with falling. Every fall is just a challenge where the mechanical convergence of bike, body and terrain is something you can navigate successfully or you can’t. Falling is part of the process of identifying and resolving those challenges. You get up, you brush yourself off, and either you hit it again until you get it right, or you find a way around it–a decision rooted in whether or not you understand the mechanics of what went wrong and how to fix it.

Learning to fall has been an invaluable lesson for me in business, because in business it’s called failing, and there are so many tortured interpretations about the meaning of failure that it obscures the simple mechanics. You hear a lot of received wisdom from pundits about what it means to fail. Studies are conducted by major universities. Books are written. Conclusions are made that shape corporate policy. Some gurus say failure is a natural part of business that should be embraced as an opportunity to learn. Others say no, accepting failure breeds failure, and that only success breeds success. When you inevitably encounter some significant failure in business, all of these pronouncements become voices in your head, and you spend hours staring at the ceiling pondering what it all means.

If you find yourself in that position, just think about falling on a bike. No one who knows how to ride a bike did it without ever falling. The greater the rider, the harder the falls they’ve survived, and the more scars they have to prove it. The key is to forget about meaning and focus on mechanics. Don’t just get up and ride on ahead to the next fall. Take the time to understand the factors that led to the fall in the first place. Was it a failure of technique? Of equipment? Of attention? Then get up, brush yourself off, and either hit it again until you get it right, or find a way around it. Let the pundits debate what it means.

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Remembering Maya

by Chris Kenton on August 20, 2010

Maya Machnicova

Maya Machnicova

I attended the memorial last Saturday of a former employee, a young woman named Maya Machnicova. Memorials are always a reminder of basic truths we tend to ignore, or simply forget, and Maya’s passing in particular has made me think a lot about the subtle ways people impact my life.

The push and pull of primary relationships is obvious—parents, spouses, children, business partners—they’re like heavy planets that shift our trajectory whenever they come into orbit. But what about the coworkers we spend a few hours with each day? There are hundreds of people in my life that come and go over the years, and maybe they leave a lasting impression because of some big drama, or maybe they just fade away. Maya reminded me of the subtle impact some people have that isn’t obvious until you have perspective to think about it, and then you realize they shifted your outlook in some important way. Maya was like that.

Maya was remarkable in a lot of ways. Her family escaped communist Czechoslovakia in the early eighties when Maya was 10 and eventually fled to the US. When she walked into our studio to apply for a job as an Account Executive, maybe 15 years later, Maya was thoroughly American. She didn’t have a lot of experience, but she was smart, enthusiastic and confident, and we didn’t hesitate to hire her. Over the years she worked at Cymbic, Maya was an incredible asset. She was ambitious, self-directed and determined. She went after big accounts, she thought creatively and strategically about how to run them, and she consistently put in the hours and effort required to deliver to the highest standard.

I remember one project she wanted to reel in from a big software company called Manugistics. It was an assignment to produce some online product marketing materials that she thought would be a perfect use for Flash, which wasn’t in wide use at the time for much more than web site splash pages. The budgets were tight, and there were only a couple of days before the proposals were due. Maya came up with the idea of delivering the proposal in Flash, and scripted a “build-your-own-project” proposal, where you could drag and drop components of the project and the price and timeline would automatically adjust. She assembled a team and worked through the weekend to get it built and delivered. It was an all-or-nothing risk—not only in terms of delivering something so far out of the box to a large client, but just getting it built in such a short time. What impressed me when she pulled it off wasn’t just that she delivered, but that it was such a substantive way to address the opportunity—it wasn’t clever for the sake of show, but demonstrated directly to the client what was possible.

I don’t remember how many years I worked with Maya, two or three years I think, right at the end of the dotcom bubble and into a recession that devastated our industry. I was a very green agency principal trying to figure out how to survive and manage through a challenging market. There was a lot of stress and some drama as we went through layoffs and lost a lot of business. At some point, Maya moved on—I remember she took me out to lunch some months after she left to tell me what she had learned at Cymbic—and eventually we wound down our agency.

Thinking back on it now, I realize that Maya modeled many of the qualities I now look for in new employees. She was a true entrepreneur, combining incredible ambition with the creativity and determination to achieve whatever she set out to do. Often that comes with a big ego that can cause conflict on a team, but Maya was adept at keeping the focus on the project more than her own agenda. She was incredibly smart, articulate and optimistic, and she never failed to find a way to get up when she was knocked down. Many of these qualities are celebrated in management books, but Maya lived them naturally, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, she helped set the bar in my mind of what the best colleagues, co-workers and employees are like.

Something else I remember about Maya that never made sense at the time, but now seems symbolic. Maya liked to wear this big, masculine watch–like an aviator or diver’s watch–that always looked a little out of place to me. Maya was slight and pretty, and the watch just looked incongruous, swimming on her small wrist. I imagine there was some story behind the watch that I didn’t know. But it’s funny, when I think about all the qualities Maya embodied, her strength, ambition and determination stand out. Now the watch seems to fit after all.

Thank you, Maya, for everything I learned from you.

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Facebook’s Engineered Privacy Loopholes

by Chris Kenton on May 14, 2010

Facebook is getting a lot of attention over its privacy policies for a variety of reasons. Depending on who’s offering up the criticism, the complaints include:

  • They change the rules too often.
  • The rules are too convoluted and too hard to figure out.
  • The rules err on the side of sharing private information without permission, so Facebook can profit.

So far, Facebook seems to be Teflon. The fun and attraction of engaging on Facebook outweighs most people’s concern about privacy–assuming they understand the privacy risks. But I, for one, am starting to get creeped out. And my threshold is pretty high.

A few months back, during the last highly public change in Facebook privacy policy, I went into my account settings and navigated all the features to establish my settings. I was a little pissed that they assumed I would want to share all kinds of personal stuff they didn’t ask my permission to share, but I figured the change in policy was public, and I was able to re-establish control over my private information. I didn’t think much more about it.

This week, something happened that really made my antennae go up. I logged into my account, and a helpful little dialog box appeared, displaying two private email addresses that I use, and have never linked or associated with Facebook. Facebook wanted to know if they could link those accounts to my name. WTF? 1) Where did they come up with those addresses? 2) How did they associate them with me? Any answer you come up with is creepy. Either they were sniffing around my computer, or they were crawling the web looking for other possibly related instances of “me” that they want to unify so they can leverage and sell the data. How they knew these addresses were mine, and not one of the other Chris Kentons on Facebook is interesting, but gives depth to the creepiness–they’re digging around. This is getting far too deep into my private life for comfort–especially by a company so demonstrably cavalier about how it shares my information.

So I decided to review my privacy permissions, and I found some things that need a lot more scrutiny. Facebook is not just playing fast and loose with privacy details, they’re burying settings that will share information you’ve told them not share. Check it out for yourself.

Go under the Account tab in the upper right hand corner of your Facebook page and choose “Privacy Settings”. A list comes up of all the various categories of settings you can choose. Many have complained this is too hard to navigate; Facebook claims it offers greater granularity of control. Whatever. Start with your Personal Information and Posts settings, where you can decide what personal information to share with whom. Facebook helpfully assumes you want to share everything with everybody. So turn everything to “Friends”, so that you’re only sharing your private information with Friends. You’re safe and secure now, right? Not even close.

Go back to the main Privacy Settings page and go down to “Applications and Websites”. Another long list of options to navigate, one of which is “What Friends Can Share About You”. Click to edit settings, and check it out. All the things you just said you only wanted to share with Friends are now, by default, checked to allow Friends to share with other people about you. Huh? So, I’ve just told Facebook I want to keep my photos, my family relationships and religious information just to my friends, but now buried two sections deep under another, different privacy topic, Facebook is allowing my Friends to share that information around? Houston, we have a problem. I Googled this topic and, sure enough, people have found themselves in some awkward situations because of this loophole.

I’m sure Facebook can make a passionate case about trying to make the web more social, and that social doesn’t come without sharing. I’m sure they can argue all day long about how these granular controls allow all of us to have minute control over the information we share. But here’s the thing. I don’t want minute control. I want simple control. Stop sharing my shit with everyone on the web. Stop assuming I want to share everything, and assume I want to share nothing, except who I say I want to share things with. Stop hiding little loopholes under nested lists of settings that allow you to get around the permissions I just set. Stop changing the privacy policy every month to allow you to reset all my settings to your “Share Everything” default. Just. Stop.

Social is *not* about sharing everything with everyone. Social is about making choices about the company we keep. And it’s starting to look like it’s time to make a choice about Facebook.

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iForce

by Chris Kenton on April 29, 2010

iForce

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Is Social Media is Making Gender Roles Obsolete?

by Chris Kenton on November 24, 2009

Post image for Is Social Media is Making Gender Roles Obsolete?

The best thing about staring at web data all day is that I get to see trends as they emerge. Usually it’s just little shifts in the drift and flow of online dialog. But sometimes I get a front-row seat to a tectonic change that points toward some unexpected and emerging truth. A clear view of a reality that’s just beginning to unfold.

I had one of those experiences recently working on a project for Creative Labs. Creative is doing a lot of exploration in social marketing, and one of the areas of interest was digging into the phenomenon of Mommy Bloggers. If you’re not familiar with the trend, blogs written by moms reached a tipping point a couple of years ago and have grown to be such a market influence that the FCC cited them in a new regulatory review process.

As part of our research into online dialog and influence, we spent a lot of time looking at mommy blogs and daddy blogs, and variations on the content they create, the audiences they attract and the communities they develop. All very interesting stuff that would fill a good marketing brief. But the most interesting insight was a simple observation about the nature of mommy and daddy blogs. Moms are writing a lot about consumer gadgets, Web 2.0 and tech, while dads are writing a lot about changing diapers and teething. It’s a striking role reversal that’s fascinating to observe.

It’s not hard to speculate about what’s going on. Men have had hundreds of sources to learn about gadgets and tech for decades, but few to share about how to be a good dad, while the opposite is true for women. Women have unlimited opportunities to compare notes with their peers about parenting, but where can they connect with other moms about new technology? In the world of mainstream media, we accepted these cultural boundaries for which there was apparently little interest in crossing. But the mommy and daddy blogs demonstrate there is a huge pent-up audience for gadget moms and diaper dads that mainstream media never found a reason to serve. Traffic on these blogs is now a full blown phenomena.

Beyond any commercial fascination, there’s a profound social implication. The phenomenon puts a stark lie to the notion that mainstream media simply reflects social values and expectations, and suggests instead that mainstream media has played a central role in sustaining traditional values and expectations–if through no other means than projecting the world view of the tiny minority that has controlled media for the past 100 years, or whatever world view they could exploit for advertising dollars. Clearly they never conceived of the kind of content that would emerge when you unleash media and let ordinary moms and dads, or any other constituency, loose on the world to talk about whatever really interests them.

It’s equally clear that mainstream media is not only coming apart at the seams as a financial model, but its peculiar power over the stories we accept about our lives is quickly being rendered impotent. As media is democratized, ordinary people are gravitating to the stories that resonate with their lives–and those stories emerge in a more authentic and compelling way when they emerge from a shared interest among a group of like-minded people rather than being projected from a board room focused on a demographic chart.

In a very real sense, we’re returning to stories told around a fire after a lifetime of only listening to stories told from a stage. And if the content driving traffic on mommy and daddy blogs is any indication, it’s going to be a radical shift in the way we see ourselves.

Livestreaming Bioneers Social Media Panel

by Chris Kenton on October 17, 2009

I’ll be moderating a panel on Sustainable Social Media at the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael. We’ll be streaming the session live, tying in more than 20 remote conference locations. If you have questions during the panel, feel free to post them on Twitter, tagged as “#bioneers” and I’ll pick them up and weave them into the Q&A.

Is Cision Accountable for PR Spam?

by Chris Kenton on October 13, 2009

Is Cision accountable for spam?

As a blogger, I receive a fair amount of PR spam–5-10 emails every day pitching crap I would never write about. And 9 times out of 10 this spam is illegal. It’s unsolicited commercial email in blatant violation of numerous provisions of the CAN-SPAM act. Day after day, week after week, the crap just rolls in, and frankly it pisses me off. Most of the time I just delete it and forget it. Recently, however, I started receiving spam at an email address I created specifically to keep “clean”, meaning I’ve never registered it anywhere or opted in for any list, though I have it posted as an “at dot com” address on my personal blog About page. So I started responding to the spam by asking where my name was sourced so I can get off the list. No one has ever responded to my request. Until today. Today, one spammer apologized and told me my clean email address was sourced from Cision and a product they call the Media Map. Interesting.

After Tweeting about this discovery, I connected with a Vice President at Cision by email. I’m not going to publish her name or emails without permission, because I didn’t open the communication with the intent of entrapping her. But I will publish the gist of the email, because she’s a senior executive with Cision and a communications professional. I’m sure she can take care of herself, and I told her I would let her know when I posted this. My intent in writing this post is not to throw a bomb at Cision, but to open a public dialog about the practice of social media relations, and the behavior of Cision specifically. The executive assured me her intent was to be open and accountable and I take her at her word.

Cision bills itself as “the leading global provider of media relations software services and solutions for public relations professionals.” Their homepage is full of social media products and services, and they offer a steady stream of webinars and whitepapers helping PR professionals navigate the brave new world of social media. So. To cut to the chase. Why is Cision harvesting my email from the web without permission, and providing it to PR agencies as part of a paid service to allow them to spam me with social media pitches? Call me crazy, but that doesn’t exactly jive with any notion of responsible social media marketing I’m familiar with. In fact, it sounds like Mercenary Marketing 1.0 cynically repackaged with a shiny Web 2.0 wrapper.

When I asked these questions of Cision, the very polite response was, yes, they did “recruit” my email address from the web “prior to opt-in”, but they just hadn’t “gotten to the point” of asking me to opt in. They were, however, able to sell my address to PR agencies for the purpose of pitching me. At this point, by my reading of the CAN-SPAM act, this is illegal spam, although it’s a bit of a grey area. Cision is not emailing me, so they’re not sending spam. The PR agency is indeed spamming me–sending an unsolicited commercial email–but in all likelihood since they’re buying a professional service they’re under the impression it’s legit. One question I neglected to ask is whether Cision is representing the list I’m on as opt-in. I’ll let them answer for themselves.

The Cision exec was also very polite in saying she’d be happy to note the names of any repeat offenders, but I told her that was unacceptable. Part of my annoyance with Cision is that it took me this long to figure out where my name had been sourced–which, if I were less charitable, I’d suggest was by design. The spam laws are clear that commercial emails must contain contact information and a way for recipients to unsubscribe. In none of the PR spam that I’ve received has there ever been an unsubcribe link or any mention of Cision. The only contact is the PR flack who wants to book an interview. This is not a transparent or accountable business practice on Cision’s part–and frankly, the responsibility cannot be pawned off on the poor naive agencies. Cision bills itself as “Helping Communications Professionals Navigate the Evolving Media Landscape”, and they are proud of the numerous webinars and whitepapers through which they educate PR professionals about the practical requirements of social media. But not one of their clients is following the most basic guidelines of responsible email marketing, not to mention the law? What does that say about Cision’s effectiveness as a social media leader?

Fundamentally, I have no problem with Cision’s professed vision. There is a legitimate opportunity for someone to help agencies navigate the shifting media landscape. But in my experience, Cision’s practice doesn’t measure up. Whether they call it harvesting or recruitment, they collected my contact information and sold it to agencies, no matter how deeply it may have been embedded in a product or a service. They did not seek my permission, and they had no means of holding their clients accountable for the most basic legal and ethical marketing practices, whether or not they’re educating those clients through their webinars and whitepapers. However laudable their messaging may be on the subject of social media, they’ve treated me, the blogger, without respect. And in enabling PR agencies to continue the practice of unaccountable spamming, they have done no favors for their own market. I am far less likely today to pay attention to any email from a PR agency, which is a direct result of this experience.

I have no doubt Cision will respond ably to this post. But it’s a commitment to action I want to see. Specifically:

  1. End the practice of “recruiting” emails and including them on any list before permission is explicitly granted.
  2. Require every agency using one of your lists to include a footer, or a post script, that includes an unsubscribe link with a Cision contact. You can not claim to be accountable if the bloggers you “recruit” cannot close the loop with you about the communications we receive.
  3. Create a clear set of marketing guidelines for which you hold your clients responsible, including adhering to provisions of the CAN-SPAM act, and provide a transparent place for your “recruited” bloggers to register complaints.

If you’re truly the social media leader you position yourself to be, this shouldn’t be any issue at all.

Update: I’ve gotten a few emails, and a few comments below, directing me to other posts and comments online about similar experiences with Cision–and, frankly, similar platitudes from Cision about accountability and desire for “dialog”. There’s a pattern emerging, which you can clearly see here, here and here. Someone calls Cision out for enabling spam, Mea Culpas ensue with perfectly played “openness and accountability” and yet Cision doesn’t change its behavior. The post you see here, including Cision’s careful self-defense wrapped in a “willingness to listen” are played out again and again, month after month making idiots of us all. So Heidi. C’mon back. Let’s have a real discussion about the game Cision is playing.

Bioneers Panel on Social Media

by Chris Kenton on October 6, 2009

logoI‘m thrilled to have been invited to moderate a panel on Social Media at the upcoming Bioneers Conference, October 16-18th at the Marin Civic Center, just north of San Francisco. The conference is a 20-year old forum featuring many of the world’s leading social and scientific innovators on issues of the environment and social justice–artists and authors, physicists and physicians, all gathered to explore real-world solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity.

This year’s presenters include Michael Pollan, author of The Ominvore’s Dilemma, and Dr. Andrew Weil, the world’s leading proponent of integrative medicine, along with dozens of experts in everything from economics to activism. More than 3000 are expected to attend the conference, and sessions will be webcast live, joining 20 sites from Alaska to Maine.

The panel I’ll be moderating will focus on the impact of social media on corporate responsibility and accountability. Among a long list of social media veterans, panelists will include Blogher co-founder Elisa Camahort Page, Get Satisfaction founder Lane Becker, and PopRule CEO Rob Kramer. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to connect the dots between the media that’s reshaping our lives every day, and the real-world impact on society and business–and as I’ve said, I’m thrilled at the opportunity to participate.

If you’re interested in attending the Bioneers conference, I’ve been extended a discount to pass on to my network, and additional discounts are available to educators who’d like to attend. Higher education students and faculty can attend for only $35/day with lunch included (code: action), and first timers can get a special tent pass for $50 (code: tentspecial).

If you want a taste of what Bioneers is all about, check out this video about one of the many groups associated with Bioneers. Real-world solutions for real-world problems. Cool stuff.

Another Thread on the Bursting Media Bubble

by Chris Kenton on September 25, 2009

Another post in reply to Venkat, and his comment on this thread.

Let’s start breaking this down a little to see if we can find the core.

1. Marketing is all about facilitating an exchange of value. If I can convince you of the value of my offering, we’ll make an exchange.

2. The “convincing” part of marketing can take all manner of forms, from soft requests and artful commercials to hard requests and even expertly constructed situations (economic, social, physical ) where you have, or perceive yourself to have, little alternative but to engage in exchange. (e.g. I need a smoke; I need a memory card compatible with this device.)

3. Each party in an exchange of value, at least in most cultures, is motivated to seek an advantage. I want you to pay more, you want to pay less, and there are many opportunities on both sides to try and game the exchange.

4. Our economy system is hardwired from top to bottom to drive growth. We could have a separate argument over whether this is a fundamental human drive, but clearly the economic drive is wired into our system at the most fundamental levels.

Okay. So, why did I choose those points to make? If you go back to earlier days of history–let’s take medieval England for example–the means of production for any product you were likely to buy, were very close to the marketplace where they were bought and sold. Supply was generally limited. Anyone who was selling in the marketplace was overwhelmingly likely to be known by reputation to the community. You had far fewer alternatives for what you could buy, but you knew pretty well going into the exchange what the playing field was.

As technology enabled producers to create ~more~, it also enabled them to create the means to transport to new markets, or gain new raw materials–for example, the ships that allowed English traders to connect with Dutch markets. The further the market from the production source, the less likely consumers were to know the reputation of the manufacturer. So brands became increasingly important proxies for reputation. And as the remote markets became larger, the need grew to create technology to be a proxy for putting up your stall and shouting your wares. First it was printing that allowed you to push your ad into the hands of people you might never meet, then increasingly efficient mechanisms to reach more and more people.

What I’m interested in is how the relationship between businesses and buyers changed with this growth, how it was enabled by technology, and how it impacts the social fabric of day to day life.

My thesis is that the relationship between businesses and buyers is fundamental, and goes back to the earliest days of social life on earth, accelerating with the division of labor. I have something you need, and vice versa. It’s a fundamental social contract at the very core of human life. But the further technology took us in pursuit of growth, the more imbalanced the contract became, due only, I expect, to the inherent expense of technology–especially in its early phases. Since only businesses, governments, institutions could afford the cost of production, advertising, transportation, they had a massively asymmetrical advantage over consumers. Since, as stated above, there’s an inherent motive to maximize the exchange in your own favor, and an equally inherent motive to grow, businesses have used that advantage (better than governments and institutions) to progressively create the machinery to make the exchange of value ever more efficient–turning consumers effectively into a fungible commodity. To put it bluntly, consumers have become little more than disposable batteries for business. And if you spend enough time in the machinery of modern corporate marketing, you can appreciate how masterfully this machinery can work. In its best incarnations, there is real value and joy on the part of the consumer (Apple products, for example), but make no mistake that the machinery is tuned to maximize the efficiency of converting customers into cash. I’m not putting moral judgment on it, I’m simply saying that’s what we’ve created.

The next part of my thesis is that social media is little more than a signifier that something in this equation has fundamentally changed. Social media is not the cause, it’s the reflection of a cause far deeper than most people realize. And there’s an interesting irony at the heart of it. Because of business’s fundamental drive to grow, they’ve sought and developed new markets for some of the very technology that lent them so much power. They’ve increasingly made computers, communications, production and transportation technology cheaper, more powerful, easier to use for ordinary consumers–not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because there were huge profits to be made doing so. But as soon as consumers got the means of connecting and communicating on a massive scale, the inherent advantage businesses owned began to unravel.

It’s an important part of my thesis that what we’re experiencing is not ~new~, we’re simply seeing the balance of power between buyer and seller shift back to a more level state. Rather than be influenced by your marketing, I can compare notes with other consumers. Rather than have only one option for a product, I now have access to many sources from other places.

So part of my tentative conclusion is that businesses adopting social media as just another new means of influencing customers will not be productive, because the real shift is much deeper than just an adoption of technology. Human beings have been chaffing under the assymetrical power that businesses have used to turn them into disposable batteries, and social media is simply a reflection of how powerful that tide has become once the means to unleash it emerge. This isn’t idle speculation–we’re seeing some of the biggest industries of our lifetime buckle under a new reality where consumers have greater choice, greater access to knowledge, and a growing realization of the opportunities to flex their power. And I think one big part of the equation is also a new realization of the depth of meaning available in the interaction with a broader social group. Look at how many people are thinking more deeply about who they are, even if only for the purpose of creating a Facebook profile, or finding a voice on a blog. Again, I think this is a very real phenomenological shift, not just a surface trend of Web 2.0.

So against that backdrop, my point is that businesses need to have a deeper understanding of what’s really shifting in the marketplace. The “Magnificent Machinery” of turning customers into cash is being challenged. Businesses need to look carefully at the inherent mindset of “acquiring” “targets” with their sales “force”, and start understanding how their markets are becoming more like real communities, where businesses need to find a role that adds real value for consumers.

Let me say really clearly that this isn’t fuzzy humanistic and wishful thinking. I think there is a fundamental need for business to create products that people both need and want. I think there is a fundamental need for businesses to advocate on their own behalf, and to develop core competencies and ultimately new products based on a vision and not just a servile response to market requests. But they need to understand that the old asymmetry that allowed so much power over consumers is eroding, and eroding quickly.

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