Terrorists and Linux Coders

My son Julian is in the business of helping corporations start blogs. In a recent post he asks:

What will businesses use their blogs for? As strong proponents for authentic word of mouth marketing this quote from Jupiter caught our attention.

The new research finds that Weblogs are underused for generating word-of-mouth (WoM) marketing opportunities. Only 32 percent of marketing executives said they use corporate Weblogs to generate WoM around their companys products or services.

Interesting news but not the main story with business blogging as far as Im concerned. The biggest obstacles for businesses deploying and maintaining their blogs will remain authentic, interesting content – period.

I see my son’s view of corporate blogging as part of a larger phenomena – in particular the ability of the Internet to empower individuals to produce and publish authentic content. In Monday’s post I wrote about McLuhan’s idea of the ‘media environment’ in terms of the far reaching effects of the invention of movable type on Western thought processes and the subsequent development of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution has in turn thrown up a plethora of new media that have, if McLuhan’s ideas have any validity, buffeted and changed our thinking processes and human potential many times over in the last 150 years. We have had the telegraph, the telephone, radio, TV and now computers and the Internet in rapid succession.

Instead of working through this history here I want to jump ahead and take a look at the radical effect of the Internet on ourselves and how we do things. Chris Anderson’s article People Power in Wired magazine writes about the impact of the Internet on how people create and share information. Specifically, how some newer businesses rely for a good part of their success on the freely contributed labor of their customers. Chris’ emphasis is on the way customers generate content while my son’s is on employees blogging but both are part of the larger phenomena of the Internet providing the infrastructure and the tools that empower people to share in transformative new ways.

Now we have armies of amateurs, happy to work for free. Call it the Age of Peer Production. From Amazon.com to MySpace to craigslist, the most successful Web companies are building business models based on user-generated content. This is perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of the second-generation Web. The tools of production, from blogging to video-sharing, are fully democratized, and the engine for growth is the spare cycles, talent, and capacity of regular folks, who are, in aggregate, creating a distributed labor force of unprecedented scale.

And there is a fine grained almost automatic aspect to this interaction:

Theres also gold in the casual Web droppings we all leave online. Much of the value of Amazon and Netflix comes from their tens of millions of customer reviews. Your click trail on Amazon is used to create better recommendations for those who follow. Your query on Google and the pages that you find relevant give feedback that fine-tunes the search algorithms. The ads you click dont just boost revenue for Google, they also tell it how much to charge the next advertiser.

The relationship between customer and company is transformed. I certainly know that I have both bought particular books and been put off others by customer reviews at Amazon. It wouldn’t take long for customers to catch on and to build distrust if they edited out the bad ones! I am pretty sure this is an example of why my son is calling for authentic content in corporate blogging. Its the possibility of authenticity that makes Internet content so special. We all know it can be unreliable but we also recognize that we can get content from the Net that just isn’t readily accessible elsewhere. That extends from the views of Iraqi bloggers who live everyday where Western reports seldom go to the guy who just bought a particular camera and reports a weakness that terminates my interest in it. Likewise corporate blogging can’t just be ad copy. To be an effective part of a company’s marketing it must have that authentic feel and give genuine information about the product relevant to the customer’s needs. A sales pitch works when the salesperson connects the product to our felt needs and desires. The rest we experience as hype. It’s the same with Wikipedia articles. I generally take them at face value, but when ideology may intrude like in the entry for Fidel Castro, I immediately become skeptical. To Wikipedia’s credit they clearly label that particular article as in dispute. In this case I notice that the new structure provided by the Net that allows anyone to be a contributor to an encyclopedia is finding ways to self heal an obvious vulnerability.

Anderson continues:

But the real miracle is in the more intentional work millions of us do to populate the Web: 80 million MySpace pages, 40 million bloggers, nearly a million amateur encyclopedians. The result is a shared culture of fandom, commentary, and camaraderie. And then theres open source software, which has changed both the corporate server (Linux) and the consumer desktop (Firefox) and given new life to IBM, a company that now thrives by building software and services atop peer-produced code.

Previous industrial ages were built on the backs of individuals, too, but in those days labor was just that: labor. Workers were paid for their time, whether on a factory floor or in a cubicle. Todays peer-production machine runs in a mostly nonmonetary economy. The currency is reputation, expression, karma, wuffie, or simply whim.

This can all sound a little like, well, 60s-style utopianism. After all, Marx himself believed that the industrial proletariat would revolt against the bourgeoisie, creating a state where the workers own the means of industrial production. Its easy to see an echo of that in blogosphere triumphalism.

But its a mistake to equate peer production with anticapitalism. This isnt amateurs versus professionals; its each benefiting the other. Companies arent just exploiting free labor; theyre also creating the tools that give voice to millions. And that rowdy rabble isnt replacing the firm; its providing the energy that drives a new sort of company, one that understands that talent exists outside Hollywood, that credentials matter less than passion, and that each of us has knowledge thats valuable to someone, somewhere.

Yes, I agree its not exploitation. Customers are not coerced into providing these services nor are they victims of a con. I, like the vast majority of my 40 million fellow bloggers, don’t do it for the money or for some company’s benefit. Nor do the customer reviewers on Amazon or the people who share their knowledge on Wikipedia or the coders who produce Linux. Instead what I see is a larger structural change caused by networking and publishing platforms that allow anyone with a computer and a connection to share their ideas and views. We do it in the first place because we can, and in doing so, create a whole new world that changes ourselves and everyone it touches.

To bring it back to McLuhan again ‘the medium is the message’ because the nature of Internet is the primary driver of change here. Who uses it or the specifics of the content are the secondary effects that flow from the underlying structure of the medium. It works for terrorists just as well as it works for Linux coders.

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