Doc Searls: Why The Internet Is Not a Medium


A full 15 years after the publication of the book “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” Doc Searls stopped by our New York office to reflect on how far we’ve come (or not), where media are headed, and what CMOs can do to start realizing the full potential of the Internet.

Chris Perry: “Cluetrain” was so timely and influential for people who were really trying to connect the dots between what the Web could bring to communications, and what we could do to mobilize around it. How did the four of you come together, and what sparked all that interest when the site went live and the book took off?

Doc Searls: One interesting thing is that, even back in ’99, none of us were young. None of us were whippersnappers. I think three of us were around 50 and one of us was about 10 years younger, which seems very young now to me. But at that time it seemed, you know, that we were veterans. We’d all seen the Net coming. Like going back into the ’70s and ’80s, we saw what became the Internet developing. We thought, “This changes everything. This clearly changes everything. This clearly makes people, individuals, far more empowered than they ever were before.”

What happened instead was, rather than recognizing how this empowered everybody, it was kind of like, “Let’s put malls here. Let’s build all the crap that we already had in the everyday world.”

The website was a rant. Basically, we did not put a lot of art into it at all. We just thought, “Let’s put out the stuff we think is true.” What happened was, almost immediately, it caught on. The Wall Street Journal picked up on it and did a cover story for the Marketplace section. Almost immediately we got a book offer. We picked up on the first one that came along. And then, that summer, the summer of 1999, we wrote the book.

Transforming Marketing

CP: So what came out of the book was not only individuals, but agencies like ours, and other companies, ended up being very curious about it. It’s like, “Jeez, how do you take that step to move from a certain way of operating to a whole new one?”

DS: [PR now] is better in many ways. There are lots of very smart and clueful PR companies and people, and the best firms are evolving into a whole new species adapted to the abundance of clues in the marketplace. But every day I still get lame press releases and pitches from people who have bought my email address and send me crap that’s clueless about my work as a journalist, and often about what they’re pitching as well. I’m sure when the end of the world comes, some PR firm will be ready with press releases pitching it as a “disruptive innovation” or whatever.

The problem is, and has been from the start, that marketing wasn’t built for conversation in the first place. It was built for statements. It was built for strategy. It was built for lots of things, but not talking directly to customers.

And one of the problems was that, politically inside organizations, marketing especially, in those days… There were no chief marketing officers. That was not even a term in those days. There were VPs of sales and marketing, and VP of sales and marketing was always a sales guy. It was not a marketing person.

I once brought this up with my wife many years earlier, who is very successful in business. I said, “Why is it that VPs of sales and marketing are sales people and not marketing people?” She said, “That’s easy. Sales is real, and marketing is bullshit.” I said, “Wait a minute,” because I had been in marketing. I said, “No, it’s not like that.”

Here’s the thing: Sales touches the customer; marketing can’t. So what marketing has to do is all the stuff that’s before touching the customer, and a lot of that is just strategy and that kind of softer thing, but not really touching the customer. So a lot of it does, frankly, turn into bullshit. A lot of it doesn’t, but there is a risk of that.

CP: So do you guys take credit for all these statements, at the end of ads: “Join the conversation”?

DS: I hate it. I actually hate it. I think, “You don’t get it. That’s not what it’s about.” What I meant by it in the first place was that markets are naturally physical places where people engage.

Every time I see “Join the conversation,” I follow that and see what actually happens. What usually happens is nothing, which means it’s just a BS problem again.

The Internet + media

CP: As we then fast forward maybe 10 years from “Cluetrain,” you have different schools of thought on what utility all this Internet-based capability can offer. There is one school of thought that says the Internet should be — at its core — a customer service medium. But then you have this huge trend around everyone looking at this medium as a content and media venue. Where do you balance between those two?

DS: I don’t think it’s a medium at all. The Internet is like gravity, and it pulls us all together. And we have hardly begun to figure out what to do with this yet.

It’s perfect for customer service. It’s perfect for sales. It’s perfect for forming social groups. It’s perfect for helping families communicate with each other. It’s perfect for sharing photographs. You can do anything on it. There is no limit to what can be done with it. And so what it’s done is sucked in all the other things called “media.”

CP: Speaking of media in all their different forms, and what’s happening with journalists and newsrooms, what’s your take on these? Where do you think this will end up?

DS: I think there’s a lot of creative destruction, but the destruction kind of happens first. The music industry is sort of the most obvious one in some ways, partly because it’s fought back the hardest.

But journalism, which is a profession of mine, I don’t make money at that any more. I couldn’t. Most journalists are out of business if they want to make money at it at this point. I can’t begin to name or count up the number of journalists that I know who are now doing other things. They’re not making money as journalists any more. That is over.

“Cluetrain” has been available from the start for nothing online, and people still buy the book. So there’s still this goodwill, a recognition of value. One of the things they say about this is that information wants to be free, but value wants to be paid for. We haven’t discovered new ways to value things yet.

CP: You have these personalities like the Walt Mossbergs of the world, and Kara Swishers of the world, who can afford to go out and they can become their own brand, and again, brand a new type of company. But Andrew Sullivan quit blogging.

DS: Right, and somebody was telling me he was making $800,000 a year. I had no idea it was that much. That’s on subscriptions. Wow!

To me, blogging is “CC: World.” It’s just emails to the world.

The way I blogged was, somebody would ask me a question, I will respond on my blog, if it makes that kind of sense. I’ll answer it out there and think of it as just “CC: World.” And I can go back and change it if I think of something better.

Blogging doesn’t have to be that big or heavy a deal, honestly. And I think a lot of people have gotten a lot out of it. I think it’s been deprecated a bit by Twitter and by Facebook and by these inventions that have made it easy to write it in other places. I think Tumblr is in there somewhere as well.

But I think all of civilization is scaffolding anyway. I could look outside the window here at all these buildings. Fast forward 20 years, half of these aren’t here, or they’re clad with something else, or something else has replaced them, or who knows.

CP: Yeah, that notion of “under construction” is really appropriate for a lot of the conversations we have inside of the company, and then with clients. I think for us, one of the more interesting areas that we’re diving into is that language is under construction. Moving from words to pictures, pictures to video, video to all kinds of different flavors of video, to the whole Emoji movement everyone is now talking about. That displacement of words to more quick, quick-sharing, image-based networking, again, is something that we see people engaging in more, clearly. The networks that allow this are seeing some pretty explosive growth, valuations. Where do you think that’s going?

DS: I think it’s all experimental. My advice to everybody is just keep trying new things. There’s a lot of stuff that is what I call “snow on the water.” Most tweets are like this at this point. They’ve got a half-life of seconds, sometimes. A lot of them get missed.

I’ve got 20-some-thousand followers on Twitter, and yet, if I use a short link for something, I’ll get dozens maybe clicking on that link — meaning that most of what people are seeing just scrolls by, just scrolls by.

To me, finding what’s durable, and permanent, and meaningful in the midst of all the noise is really hard right now, which is why you need to experiment more and more, and look at more and more ways of seeing what you can do that has some level of endurance, if not permanence, to it. Given the scaffolding theory, I don’t think anything is really permanent, but I think some things last longer.

There’s going to be live stuff, and there’s going to be stored stuff. There’s going to be stuff you pay for and stuff you don’t. There’s your 4×4, right there, and it’s all going to fall in one of those four quadrants: live, stored, paid, not. And working out where that goes.

What’s missing

CP: What is your take as Obama’s now having post-speech interviews with YouTube celebrities? The rise of the Instagram celebrity, this whole notion of visual influence, is something we’re talking about a lot inside of the shop here. What is your take on that in context of influence through blogging and, again, some of the more early-stage means of expression with the Web?

DS: We have a surfeit of content right now. We’ve got an infinitude of content, and a lot of it’s good. More of it’s good than ever was good before. But it shares some of that same problem, which is, “How do you find the good stuff?”

I think search right now is failing to some degree. [The major search engines] are still starting from the assumption that we are buying something all the time. And they’re going to want to throw ads at us all the time, and that’s their business model. That’s fine, but we’re not buying something all the time.

When we’re looking for something, we’re not necessarily looking for what they think we’re looking for. They’re guessing at us, and they’re guessing at us because they’ve got enormous amounts of data about us that is remarkably specious, and false, and partial, and incomplete, and leading to wrong conclusions.

Some of them are great. I mean, I don’t know how it kind of knew that I was looking for 909 Third Avenue. That was in this application, not in that one, but this one is telling me what I had on my calendar. How did the map app from a different company know that? I get creeped out trying to think about that. I don’t want them knowing that much, but on the other hand, that helped out. But I don’t have a sense of control about that.

That’s what’s missing here. These large companies doing guesswork at us subtracts from us the sense of control that we have, say, when we’re riding a bicycle or driving a car, or putting our clothes on in the morning, or talking on the phone. I’m in charge of all those things. I’m the driver. I’m in the driver’s seat.

We’re not in the driver’s seat when we’re in an app that’s guessing at us all the time at what we want. And a lot of the time we’re trying to defeat it. “No, I didn’t want to go there. No, I don’t want to know that. Help me find what I know I’m looking for. Let me be more in control of this.”

CP: OK, on a related topic, tell me a little bit more about what Project VRM [vendor relationship management] is all about.

DS: When I got a fellowship at the Berkman Center at Harvard in 2006, I was obliged to start a project. I wanted to make good on the promise of “Cluetrain,” basically, and I thought what we needed to do was to meet CRM with something that came from the customer’s side.

When I walk into a store, I don’t want them to go out of business because the store next door is better, or something like that. I want to help them out. But I also want scale. How do we get scale for customers? So those are some of the imperatives behind VRM, the idea being that we’re going to build, from the customers’ side, the tools and services required to match up with CRM and similar systems on the company side. Not as a “versus” thing, but as a complementary thing — a way to shake hands rather than to slap each other around.

CP: So an example would be what? If I’m a CMO, and I hear about this notion of VRM, and I’m trying to figure out new models — where do I start?

DS: Give the data you have on customers back to the customers and see what they do with it.

In 1981, if you said to an MIS director (which is what they were called back then, a Manager of Information Services), “What say you give computing power to everybody in your company? And to all the customers out there?” They would say you’re nuts. “No, we have people in lab coats on raised floors running big machines. They do the computing. Nobody else does the computing. This is a centralized thing.”

Well, it turns out, once PCs invaded companies, they could do much more. Individuals could do much more with computing than the companies could alone.

We’re going to see this with personal data: “Wait a minute. If companies start giving their data back to customers, maybe they could do more with it.” So that’s something that CMOs can do.

Generally, companies regard the data they’ve collected about customers as: “This is our asset, and we’re going to do big data with it.” Big companies are selling them big systems to crunch the big data so they can know the customer better than the customer knows themselves, which is completely wrong. On the face of it, that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the kind of wrongness — I’m trying to stifle an obscenity — that sort of prevails in enterprises today.

And I’m not saying that individuals can always do more with it than the companies can. But if both have it, more can get done in the long run. New systems can arise that allow you to reconcile both of them.

Disruption

CP: Very disruptive stuff. And a lot is being talked about in terms of disruption, innovation, reinvention, transformation. What’s your take on all this buzzword-y stuff?

DS: To me it’s all fun. Let’s have fun with whatever we think we’re doing right now. But again, I don’t think customers want standing businesses disrupted or destroyed. I don’t want what are now called “ride-sharing services” to destroy the taxi business. I want both. The ride-sharing services aren’t really ride-sharing, they’re just another hack on dispatch, frankly. But they’re disruptive. And I fly into Newark airport, and the taxi companies now have their apps. Is that disruptive, or is that adaptive?

Everybody has to adapt. Again, it’s all scaffolding. Come up with new scaffolding. Have fun with it.

Chris Perry is Chief Digital Officer of Weber Shandwick.

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