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December 12, 2013

How to introduce a change in its user agreement

Reddit shows us how to introduce changes in a site’s user agreement. The agreement itself is admirably minimally jargony, but the discussion with the community is a model of honesty and respect.

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October 6, 2013

Holes, not drills

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

This gets quoted a lot by marketers. Usually it gets attributed to Theodore Levitt, an economist at Harvard Business School, but he quite explicitly [pdf] attributed it to Leo McGinneva, about whom I can find out nothing other than that he was a “businessman.”

This quote has the salutary effect of focusing marketers away from what they’re selling and on what customers are buying. So, I find it useful. But also irksome.

I’m irked first of all for the small reason that people don’t actually buy quarter-inch drills to drill quarter-inch holes. The buy a quarter-inch drill bit to drill a quarter-inch hole. A quarter-inch drill is a drill that accepts drill bits with a maximum of a quarter-inch shank. And, yes I know I’m being annoying.

The more important reason this formulation bothers me becomes clear if you use something other than a tool as your example. “People don’t want to buy a towel hook. They want a _____.” How do you fill in that blank without it being simply redundant: “They want a hook to hang a towel on.” It’s not just that it loses its rhetorical punch. Rather, it becomes clear that you have to go further into the customer’s value system to make sense of it. Why do they want a towel hook? Because they like dry towels? Because they want to impress their new in-laws? Because they repainted and the old towel hook is now the wrong color? Because they want a place to hang a dress so that the shower will naturally steam it? Because their shower rod is coming loose? Because their pet ferret is getting old — poor Ratface! He can barely see! — and is soiling towels left on the floor?

So, people don’t buy holes. They buy something that helps achieve a goal that is particular to them and is part of the larger set of interests and values that make them who they are. The hole example helps but doesn’t go far enough.

We all know this. So why does the “drill/holes” example keep coming up, and keep feeling like an insight? To me, this is evidence of just how much we take for granted the misalignment of the interests of businesses and customers — the great business tragedy of the Age of Massness.

But that’s a different story.

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September 27, 2013

[2b2k] Popular Science incompetently manages its comments, gives up

Popular Science has announced that it’s shutting down comments on its articles. The post by Suzanne LeBarre says this is because ” trolls and spambots” have overwhelmed the useful comments. But what I hear instead is: “We don’t know how to run a comment board, so shut up.”

Suzanne cites research that suggests that negative comments on an article reduce the credibility of the article, even if those negative comments are entirely unfounded. Thus, the trolls don’t just ruin the conversation, they hurt the cause of science.

Ok, let’s accept that. Scientific American cited the same research but came to a different decision. Rather than shut down its comments, it decided to moderate them using some sensible rules designed to encourage useful conversation. Their idea of a “useful conversation” is likely quite similar to Popular Science’s: not only no spam, but the discourse must be within the norms of science. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly Jesus told you that there is no climate change going on, your message is going to be removed if it doesn’t argue for your views within the evidentiary rules of science.

You may not like this restriction at Scientific American. Tough. You have lots of others places you can talk about Jesus’ beliefs about climate change. I posted at length about the Scientific American decision at the time, and especially about why this makes clear problems with the “echo chamber” meme, but I fundamentally agree with it.

If comments aren’t working on your site, then it’s your fault. Fix your site.

[Tip o’ the hat to Joshua Beckerman for pointing out the PopSci post.]

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September 4, 2013

Guess who lost the right to complain about Yelp reviews?

Yeah, I’m talking to you Scrub-a-dub.

ScrubADub offering 50% off if you like them on Facebook

Way to corrupt the system.

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April 20, 2013

Subverting ads

I’m a sucker for ads that comment on the dishonesty of ads. For example, I laughed at this one from Newcastle Brown Ale:

I also really liked this one as well:

I do have a duck-rabbit disagreement with Piper Hoffman’s reading of it at BlogHer. I took the ad as a direct comment on the sexism of beer ads: if you’re not an attractive woman, beer companies won’t include you. But Piper raises an interesting point. [SPOILER ALERT] She’s right that if the pronoun had been “she,” the point would have been less ambiguous. But it also would have been a bit crueler, since the ad would have had Newcastle calling their brewmistress unattractive, and it also could have been taken as Newcastle agreeing that only attractive women should ever be shown on in an ad.

While I enjoy a meta-ad like this (at least as I take it), I also feel a bit meta-fooled: What does that have to do with whether their beer is any good? I’m not looking to be friends with a beer.

I get more enjoyment from viewers subverting ads. For example, I saw an ad for KFC about some new boneless chicken product.

I wasn’t paying attention, in part because it was a commercial, and in part because I haven’t eaten anything from KFC since I became a vegetarian 1979 but I have not forgotten the sensation of eating chicken that’s been so close to liquefied that it’s held together only by a layer of deep-fried cholesterol. But I saw the hashtag #iAteTheBones and checked it out on Twitter.

Bunches of the tweets praise the commercial as amusing. (It was directed by David O.Russell, who also directed the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.) But prominent in the list is this:

Well, not as far as I can tell. But the tweet made me look.

And a heavily-favorited tweet is quite savage:

Someone in the KFC Marketing Department has already written an email to senior management explaining why this is a good thing for KFC. But, um, it’s not.

Neither is this:

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January 28, 2013

Unstartling presentation

Oy. I fell for an ad today because it promised to tell me four startling things that happen to you before you get a heart attack. The video, which has no pause or fast forward button, is a grating infomercial, with a heavy emphasis on the “mercial.” So, here’s the startling information Dr. Chauncey Crandall so selflessly is imparting to us:

The four things are:

Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.

Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness To prevent heart attacks, cut back on fat intake but most importantly, cut back on sugar.

Yeah, these are the symptoms you will find listed anywhere that discusses heart attacks. For example, try a little place I like to call “Google”: top hit for “heart attack”.

It takes Dr. Crandall forever to get even the slightest piece of information — first promoting himself and pitching his newsletter etc. — that I gave up. So I quoted the above from trogdor1 on a discussion board. Thanks, Trogdor1, for taking the hit for the team.

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December 2, 2012

For your convenience…

sign explaining that your shopping cart will lock its wheels if you try to take it too far

No it’s not.

From our local Shaw’s grocery store.

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August 2, 2012

Three vendors and/or products to love: Computer parts, music, electric toothbrush

I wanted to replace the smashed screen of a white MacBook, and found what seemed like a very good price from Wegener. The new screen arrived very quickly, and was exactly as described. But when I started to strip down the MacBook, I discovered I had ordered the wrong screen. It’s surprisingly easy to do.

So, I sent an email to Wegener and quickly got a reply, followed by a phone call. The support person said they are happy to send me the right screen, for which I have to pay a little more because it’s a more expensive part. They’re sending it even before I return the old one. So far, the experience has been terrific: Quick responses, friendly people, good return policy.

Then they told me that in the carton for the replacement part I’ll find a postage paid mailing label. I reminded them that the problem was entirely my fault, and thus there’s no reason for them to pay for shipping. Yikes, that’s some good customer service! (I went ahead and returned the first screen on my own dime.)

It’s amazing how powerful an experience it is to be treated like a human being by a business.


HumbleBundle is a fantastic way to sell indie games and music. You name your own price, you can divvy it up among the creators and among charities, and today I got a message that they’ve added more songs for free for anyone who purchased the most recent bundle.

Yo, Humbles, I already bought the product. You don’t have to entice me any more. On the other hand: You’ve made me love you even more, and you’ve helped some musicians spread their music just a little wider.


I thought it had been 6 months since my last dental check up. Since I now routinely multiply any past intervals by two, I figured, correctly, that it’s really been a year. Usually, the hygienist has to put on waders and go at me with a pickaxe and a trowel. This was the first time in my life that a dental hygienist has marveled at my teeth. Gums are strong. No tartar, except for a little around a couple of teeth. Some healing of a couple of “pockets.”

There’s been one major variable that I know of: I switched from a Braun electric toothbrush to a Philips SoniCare.Why? Because the Internet told me to. I believe that the correlation is not accidental (see what I did there?), but of course it is just one data point.

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July 21, 2012

Doc Searls: WSJ centerfold!

Actually, it’s more like Doc Searls: Wall Street Journal Cover Boy!

It’s a testament to Doc and also a hopeful sign of the times that the WSJ today features on its weekend cover a story by Doc about the theme of his new book, The Intention Economy. The title of the piece is “The Customer as a God,” a headline Doc didn’t write and isn’t entirely comfortable with. But the piece is strong. And getting it on the cover of WSJ is like getting a story about VRM on the cover of CRM Magazine. Which Doc also did.

A sample:

big business continues to believe that a free market is one in which customers get to choose their captors. Choosing among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for your new smartphone is like choosing where you’d like to live under house arrest. It’s why marketers still talk about customers as “targets” they can “acquire,” “control,” “manage” and “lock in,” as if they were cattle. And it’s why big business thinks that the best way to get personal with customers on the Internet is with “big data,” gathered by placing tracking files in people’s browsers and smartphone apps without their knowledge—so they can be stalked wherever they go, with their “experiences” on commercial websites “personalized” for them.

It is not yet clear to the perpetrators of this practice that it is actually insane…

Congrats, Doc.

 


The headline brings to mind the most embarrassing headline I ever found one of my articles placed under. The article was about the need for human leeway in decisions about what constitutes copyright infringement. The title Wired supplied without my knowledge (that’s how magazines work) was: “Copy protection is a crime against humanity.” I can see the pun they intended, but taken at face values, it implies I think copy protection is on a par with genocide. I of course don’t even think copy protection is a crime.

And, yes, I am aware that the title for this post is also guilty of wild overstatement. I’m assuming — no offense, Doc — that even casual readers will understand that it’s hyperbole for humorous effect. Haha.

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July 8, 2012

Louis C.K. and the Decent Net, or How Louis won the Internet

(This is the lead article in the new issue of my free and highly intermittent newsletter, JOHO. Also in it, a Higgs-Bogus Contest on particles that would explain mysteries of the Internet.)

 

Louis C.K. now famously sold his latest comedy album over the Internet direct to his audience for $5, with no DRM to get in the way of our ability to play it on any device we want, and even to share it. After making over a million dollars in a few days (and after giving most of his profits to his staff and to charity) Louis went to great pains to schedule his upcoming comedy tour in venues not beholden to their TicketMasters, so that he could sell tickets straight to his audience for a flat $45, free of scalpers. So far he’s made over $6 million in ticket sales.

But Louis C.K. also thereby — in the vocabulary of Reddit — won the Internet.

There are lots of reasons to be heartened by Louis’ actions and by his success: He is validating new business models that could spread. He is demonstrating his trust in his audience. He is protecting his audience while making the relationship more direct. He is not being greedy. But it seems to me that Louis is demonstrating one more point that is especially important. Louis C.K. won the Internet by reminding us that the Internet offers us a chance for a moral do-over.

 


Way back in the early days of all of this Internet madness, many of us thought that the Internet was a new beginning, an opportunity to get things right. That’s why we looked at all The Hullabaloo about the Net as missing The Point. The Hullabaloo saw the Net as a way to drive out some of the inefficiencies of the physical world of business. The Point was that the Net would let us build new ways of treating one another that would be fairer, more fully supportive of human flourishing, and thus more representative of the best of what it means to be human together.

We optimists were not entirely wrong, but not as right as we had hoped. Even as late as the turn of the century, the early blogging community thought it was forging not only a new community, but a new type of community, one with social ties made visible as blue underlined text. That original community has maintained itself rather well, and the amount of generosity and collaboration the Net has occasioned continues to confound the predictions of the pessimists. But clearly the online world did not become one big blogosphere of love.

It’s difficult, and ultimately rather silly, to try to quantify the unfathomable depth of depravity, skullduggery and plain old greed exhibited on the Net, and compare it to a cumulative calculus of the Net’s loveliness. For example, most email is spam that treats its recipients as means, not ends, but the bulk of it is sent by a tiny percentage of email users. Should we compare the number of bits or of bastards? How do we weigh phishing against the time people put in answering the questions of strangers? How do we measure the casual hatred exhibited in long streams of YouTube comments against the purposeful altruism and caring exhibited at the best of Reddit? How do we total up the casual generosity of every link that leads a reader away from the linker’s site to some other spot? Fortunately, we do not have to resolve these questions. We can instead acknowledge that the Net provides yet another place in which we play out our moral natures.

But its accessibility, its immediacy, its malleability, and its weird physics provide a place where we can invent new ways of doing old things like buying music and concert tickets — new ways in which we can state what we think counts, new ways in which we can assert our better or worse moral natures.

 


I am of course not suggesting that Louis C.K. is a moral messiah or that he “won the Internet” is anything except playful overstatement. I’m instead suggesting a way of interpreting the very positive response to his relatively modest actions on the Net: we responded so positively because we saw in those actions the Net as a moral opportunity.

We responded this way, I’d suggest, in part because Louis C.K. is not of the Internet. His Web site made that very clear when Louis charmingly claimed, “Look, I don’t really get the whole ‘torrent’ thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way.” He goes on to urge us to live up to the trust he’s placed in us. He’s thus not behaving by some Internet moral code. Rather, he’s applying Old World morality to the Net. It is not a morality of principles, but of common decency.

And herewith begins a totally unnecessary digression…

This is coherent with Louis’ comedy. His series fits within the line that began with Seinfeld and continued into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not just because all three make us squirm.

Seinfeld was a comedy of norms: people following arbitrary rules as if they were divine commandments. Sometimes the joke was the observation of rules that we all follow blindly: No double dipping! Sometimes the joke was the arbitrariness of rules the show made up: No soup for you! (Yes, I realize the Soup Nazi was based on a real soup guy, but the success of the script didn’t depend on us knowing that.) Seinfeld characters’s are too self-centered to live by anything more than norms. And, in a finale that most people liked less than I did, they are at last confronted with their lack of moral substance.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a comedy of principles, albeit with a whole lot of norms thrown in. Larry and his world are made unlivable by people (including Larry) who try to live by moral rules. Hum a bit of Wagner while passing by a Jew, and you’re likely to touch off some righteous indignation as if you were siding with the Nazis. Larry won’t give kids without a costume any Halloween candy, and then can’t resist telling a cop with a shaven head that the cop isn’t actually bald according to Larry’s principled definition. In a parody of rule-based life, Larry takes advantage of the rule governing handicapped toilet stalls. (See also.) In Curb the duties of friendship are carefully laid out, and are to be followed even when they make no sense. Larry’s life is pretty much ruined by the adherence to principles.

Louis is less about norms and principles than about doing the right thing in a world unguided by norms and principles, and in which human weakness is assumed. When a male southern cop who has saved his life asks to be thanked by being kissed on the lips, Louis reasons outloud that he can’t think of any reason not to. So he does. Norms are there to be broken when they get in the way of a human need, such as to feel appreciated. Nor do principles much matter, except the principle “Thou shalt not be a dick.” So, Louis watches bemused as an airline passenger becomes righteously indignant because his reservation wasn’t honored. The passenger had principle on his side, but is cast as the transgressor because he’s acting like a d-bag. In his Live at Beacon show, Louis contrasts the norm against using the word “fag” with nondiscriminatory behavior and attitude. (I’d like to hear what Lisa Nakamura has to say about this.)

And because Louis is a comedian, the humor is in the human failure to live up to even this simple ideal of not being a total a-hole. In his $5 comedy album, Louis relates how he thought about giving up his first class airplane seat to a soldier in uniform. Not only doesn’t Louis give up his seat, he then congratulates himself for being the sort of person who would think of such a thing. Giving up your seat is neither a norm nor a principle. It is what people who rise above dickhood do.

So, here’s why I think this is relevant.

The Internet is a calamity of norms. Too many cultures, too many localities, too many communities, each with its own norms. And there’s no global agreement on principles that will sort things out for us. In fact, people who disagree based on principles often feel entitled to demonize their opponents because they differ on principles. The only hope for living together morally on the Net is to try not to be dicks to one another. I’m not saying it’s obvious how to apply that rule. And I’m certainly not saying that we’ll succeed at it. But now that we’ve been thrown together without any prior agreement on norms or principles, what else can we do except try to treat each other with trust and a touch of sympathy?

That’s what Louis C.K.’s gestures embody. Many of us have responded warmly to them because they are moral in the most basic way: Let’s try to treat one another well, or at least not be total dicks, ok? Louis C.K.’s gestures were possible because the Net lets us try out new relationships and practices. Those gestures therefore remind us of our larger hope for the Net and for ourselves — not that the Net will drive out all rotten behavior, but that we can replace some corrupt practices with better ones. We can choose to dwell together more decently.

Nothing more than that. But also nothing less.

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