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March 14, 2018

Big honor to Cluetrain

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations today gave the Cluetrain Manifesto its Presidents Medal. The announcement is here.

This is a huge honor and a big deal. CIPR is the largest professional association for PR folks in Europe.

Former recipients include — get ready for this —

  • Sir Tim Berners Lee

  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu

  • Princess Anne

  • Prince Philip

Yup, those are now my peeps.

Background: The Cluetrain site went up in 1999 — yes, almost 20 yrs ago — and we turned it into a book in 2000. (The “we” is Doc Searls, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, and me.) It was an attempt to explain to media and businesses why people like us were so enthusiastic about this new Web thing: it is a place where we get to talk about what mattered to us and to do so in our own voice. That is, it’s a social space, which, surprisingly, was news to much of the media and many businesses. The best-known line from it is Doc’s: “Markets are conversations.”

For the occasion, they asked me to video a talk which is here and is 45 mins long. On the other hand, they wrote up an extensive summary, which should save you north of 42 mins. ( Why me? Pretty random: I was the Cluetrain point person for this.)

Cluetrain got important things wrong, but it also got important things right. CIPR has honored Cluetrain, I believe, as a way of honoring what is right and good about the Web. Still.

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April 6, 2016

In defense of personalization

Mills Baker defends personalization on the right grounds. In a brilliant and brilliantly written post, he maintains that the personalization provided by sites does at scale what we do in the real world to enable conversations: through multiple and often subtle signals, we let an interlocutor know where our interests and beliefs are similar enough that we are able to safely express our differences.

Digression: This is at the heart of our cultural fear of echo chambers, in my opinion. Conversation consists of iteration on small differences based on an iceberg of agreement. Every conversation inadvertently reinforces the beliefs that enable it to go forward. Likewise, understanding is contextual, assimilating the novel to the familiar, thus reinforcing that context by making it richer and more coherent. But our tradition has taught us that Reason requires us to be open to all ideas, ready to undo the entire structure of our beliefs. Reason, if applied purely, would thus make conversation, understanding, and knowledge impossible. In fearing echo chambers, we are running from the fact that understanding and conversation share the basic elements of echo chambers. I’ll return to this point in a later post sometime…

I love everything about Mills’ post except his under-valuing of concerns about the power personalization has over us on-line. Yes, personalization is a requirement in a scaled environment. Yes, the right comparison is between our new info flows and our old info trickles. But…

…Miles does not fully confront the main complaint: our interests and the interests of the commercial entities that are doing the personalizing do not fully coincide. Facebook has an economic motivation to get us to click more and to exit Facebook sessions eager to return for more. Facebook thus has an economic interest in showing us personalized clickbait, and to filter our feeds toward happiness rather than hey-my-cat-died-yesterday posts.

In one sense, this is entirely Mills’ point. He wants designers to understand the positive role personalization has always played, so they can reinstate that role in software that works for us. He thinks that getting this right is the responsibility of the software for “Most users do not want the ‘control’ of RSS and Twitter lists and blocking, muting, and unfollowing their fellows.” Thus the software needs to learn from the clues left inadvertently by users. (I’d argue that there’s also room for better designed control systems. I bet Mills agrees, because how could anyone argue against better designed anything?)

But in my view he too casually dismisses the responsibility and culpability of some of the most important sites when he writes:

The idea that personalization is about corporate or political control is an emotionally satisfying but inaccurate one.

If we take “personalization” in the insightful and useful way he has defined it, then sure. But when people rail against personalization they are thinking about the algorithmic function performed by commercial entities. And those entities have a massive incentive—exercised by companies like Facebook—to personalize the flow of information toward users as consumers rather than as persons.

I think.



Thanks to Dave Birk for pointing me to Mills’ post.


February 1, 2016

Tung oil from a good vendor

We made the odd choice of replacing our miracle composite kitchen floor — zero upkeep — with a knotty pine floor. Pine is beautiful, and we think it helps make our kitchen look more inviting, but it’s very soft wood.

So we’re conditioning it with tung oil. Tung oil penetrates the wood and polymerizes, hardening it while enriching the color and giving it a satiny sheen. The floor will still be softer than our miracle composite, but you have to resign yourself to thinking of the dents and scratches as signs of its being lived in. Or on. Also, because tung oil penetrates the wood and isn’t a layer on top, you can sand out some dings, and you can always wipe on a little more oil. We may live to regret it, but we like it so far.

floor before and after

Unfortunately, tung oil is a pain in the tuchus when compared to, say, polyurethane. You brush poly on, you let it dry, you lightly scratch it up with brillo or sandpaper, and you do it again. Boom done. Tung oil takes several coats, it smells, it takes longer to dry before the next coat, and it takes much longer to fully polymerize.

After a lot of research — Thank you, Internet — we decided on going with Real Milk Paint tung products. The rational reasons are:

1. They seem to have high quality products. Since there are various types of tung oil pretenders on the market, that counts.

2. For the initial applications, the Internet recommends cutting the tung oil with a solvent. Real Milk has a pre-mixed prep called Half and Half that cuts the tung with citrus oil. True to the claims, we found that it dries quickly and doesn’t smell bad — sort of citrusy, unsurprisingly. (Nevertheless, we trained a fan over the floor while it dried to blow the odor away from us humans.)

But the real reason we went with Real Milk is that they seem like Real People who know their tung oil. I came to this conclusion by reading their discussion boards and watching their videos. They seem to be craftspeople who love finishes that bring out the beauty of the wood they have just worked. They are straightforward and non-defensive. They are on the side of their customers.

I confirmed this minutes ago by calling customer support with a question and talking with a couple of folks there. Our third coat wasn’t drying. They told me what to do about it (dry it) and reassured me that this is in fact a sign that the wood has been saturated. Now we just have to walk carefully on it for a month until it’s fully set.

Could I be wrong about the people and the company? Absolutely. I’m wrong about most things. Maybe they’ll turn out to be the robotic face of a Big Tung, a mega-corporation peddling relabeled motor oil drained from Chernobyl. But I will have at least been fooled for the right reasons.

And that counts for a lot.


December 13, 2015

From boosting the Net to remembering it

My role on the Net is going through a large swing: from explaining why the Internet is different, important, and (overall) good, to reminding us—especially college-age kids—how different and difficult so many things were before the Net existed.

For example, I gave an informal talk at Tufts last week and a few weeks ago at Emerson College. In both of them, and in the discussions afterwards, I did the Old Man thing of talking about how things were in the pre-Net days. For instance, it used to be that you’d read a newspaper article, have questions and want to know more, and there was no place you could go. You got whatever was in that rectangle of information and that’s all. Shocking! Outrageous!

The two roles are not unrelated: explaining what’s different about the Net and why we should overall be grateful and optimistic about the opportunities it has opened up. But what’s surprising to me is summed up by the comment by one of the Emerson students after the event was officially over: He thanked me for saying positive things about the Net since “All we ever hear is how dangerous it is.”

So, there’s still work to do. Hope over fear. Hope over fear.

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October 6, 2015

Doc Searls’ "The Adblock War" series

Adblocking is, as Doc Searls claims, “the biggest boycott in human history.” Since August 12, Doc’s been posting what I can only call an in-depth, analytical, evidence-based rant. It is not to be missed.

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  6. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  7. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  8. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  9. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)

Doc says (in an email) he is “building the case for what ProjectVRMCustomer Commons and Mozilla (notably its Content Services group) are quietly doing to disable surveillance capitalism.”

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October 2, 2015

Reason #2,645 to love the Web

Back in the early 1980s—yes, children, it’s time for an anecdote from the Dark Ages—WordPerfect was my writing tool. I was a power user and was quite attached to it. But there were some things I thought they could do better. So, I wrote a four page letter that was (as I recall) very appreciative of the program overall — not a set of gripes, but a fan’s notes. I sent it to the WordPerfect corporation.

I never heard anything back. Not even the form letter I expected.

That was back then.

On my Mac I frequently use Sync2Folders “its techie rawness is one of the reasons I like it”to, well, sync two folders. It does exactly what I want, and it’s free, although donations are suggested. (I’ve donated the suggested €6 more than once.)

In terms of the look and feel, Sync2Folders isn’t slick, and in its functionality it tends towards the techie. But it’s simple enough that I can do the basic things that I want to do. In fact, its techie rawness is one of the reasons I like it: It does a job that’s not trendy, and it does it without gussying itself up.

Also, and perhaps more important, it looks like something that a developer created and put out in the world for free. Which is exactly what it is.

A couple of days ago I got an automated email from the developer, Thomas Robisson when I donated for the third time. I’d like to pretend that I’m just that generous, but the truth is that I’m just that forgetful. So, I appreciated that the developer noted the duplication, told me how to avoid the app’s request for fiscal aid, and reminded me that a single license can be used on multiple computers.

I responded by email to thank Thomas, and also to point out a feature that I’d like and that I’d thought was in an earlier version. I was confident that this was going to turn out to be a DUM— a dumb user mistake — and at least I was right about that.“ The Net occasions the generosity of people like Thomas” Over the course of a couple of emails in which Thomas asked for some basic debugging info, it turned out that, yes, I had simply missed the button that did what I was asking for. D’oh.

I know that the Internet is the defiler of youth and the death of civilization. But it also occasions the generosity and creativity of people like Thomas.

Further, before the Net, there was only the slightest chance that a user and a product creator could engage. And if they did it was likely to be in the stilted, inhuman voice of the Marketing department.

So, thank you, Thomas. And thank you, Internet.


July 20, 2015

How far wrong has the Net gone? A podcast with Mitch Joel

My friend Mitch Joel and I talk for about an hour (sorry) about whether our hopes for the Net have proven to be forlorn. You can listen here.

The spur for this conversation was my recent article in The Atlantic, “The Net that Was (and Still Could Be).”

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July 3, 2015

Joining Reddit

Reddit is in flames. I can only see one way out of it that preserves the site’s unique value.

I say this as an old man who loves Reddit despite being way outside its main demographic. Of course there are outrageously objectionable subreddits—topical discussion boards—but you don’t have to visit those. Reddit at its best is wonderful. Inspiring, even. It is a self-regulated set of communities that is capable of great collective insight, humor, and kindness. (At its worst, it is one of the nightmares of the Internet.)

Because Reddit is so large, with 169M unique visitors each month, it is impossible to generalize accurately about what went on yesterday and is continuing today. Nevertheless, the precipitating cause was the termination of the employment of Victoria Taylor for reasons Reddit and she have not disclosed. Victoria was not only the wildly popular enabler of Reddit’s wildly popular AMA‘s (“Ask Me Anything”), she was the only Reddit employee visible to most redditors (Reddit users).

Victoria’s sudden dismissal was taken by many as a sign of the increasing misalignment of Reddit’s business goals and the culture of its communities. Reddit, it is feared, is going commercial. The volunteer moderators (“mods”) of some of the large subreddits have also complained that their requests for support over the past months have gone unanswered.

In protest, many of the large subreddits and a long list of smaller ones have gone private and are thus dark to most of the world. This will have some financial effect on Reddit, but it is better understood as a political protest, applying the technique used successfully in 2012 when Reddit, Wikipedia, and other major sites went dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that would have limited Internet freedom. It is an assertion-by-deprivation of the cultural value of these subreddits.

It is, I believe, a mistake to view this uproar primarily in terms of economics or business. This is an attempt by a community to stay a community despite perceived attempts by the business underneath it to commercialize it. Up until now, Reddit the Company has understood the importance of accepting and promoting its community’s values. Advertising is unobtrusive, some of which lets users comment on the ad itself. Reddit makes money also from its users buying “Reddit gold” to bestow upon comments they find particularly valuable. Reddit gold has no monetary value, so users are consciously paying Reddit money for the privilege of paying another user a visible compliment. And Reddit has sternly defended the free speech of its users even when that speech is, well, horrible—although the management did controversially shut down some shaming and hating sites a few weeks ago.

Reddit is in bad shape today. The meme-making forces of sarcasm it’s famous for have been turned inwards.The most loyal users are feeling betrayed. Some of the communities that have driven Reddit forward as a cultural force are feeling abused. It’s hard to come back from that.

A big part of the problem is that Victoria, the face of Reddit to its own community, was accepted as “One of us! One of us!” as redditors sometime self-mockingly invoke the movie Freaks. Indeed, she embodied many of the virtues of Reddit at its best: curious, accepting, welcoming, helpful, funny. Many redditors saw themselves reflected in her.

Victoria was thereby an important part of Reddit’s support of what I call “The Gettysburg Principles“: She helped Reddit seem to be by, for, and of us. Now the face of Reddit is Ellen Pao, the interim CEO who is largely derided and detested at Reddit because she seems to be “One of them! One of them!”— a Silicon Valley player.

If we view this first and foremost as a problem in maintaining a community rather than strictly as a revenue issue, then I can only see one way forward: Pao should get off her executive horse, engage with the community in public, and show that she’s a redditor too. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder, also should step forward with his best redditor face on. Alexis when free of corporate pressures is a redditor through and through.

There is still an opportunity for Reddit to show that it understands the source of all its value: communities trusted to run themselves, and a strong sense of shared cultures.


January 8, 2015

New Clues

The project with Doc that I mentioned is a new set of clues, following on The Cluetrain Manifesto from 16 years ago.

The clues are designed as an open source publishing project: The text is in the public domain, and we’re making the clues available at Github in various computer-friendly formats, including JSON, OPML and XML.

We launched this morning and a happy hell has broken loose. So I’m just going to posts some links for now. In fact, I’m copying and pasting from an email by Doc:

Gotta run…


December 13, 2014

[2b2k] The Harvard Business School Digital Initiative’s webby new blog

The Harvard Business School Digital Initiative [twitter:digHBS] — led by none other than Berkman‘s Dr. Colin Maclay — has launched its blog. The Digital Initiative is about helping HBS explore the many ways the Net is affecting (or not affecting) business. From my point of view, it’s also an opportunity to represent, and advocate for, Net values within HBS.[1] (Disclosure: I am officially affiliated with the Initiative as an unremunerated advisor. Colin is a dear friend.[2])

The new blog is off to a good start:

I also have a post there titled “Generative Business and the Power of What We Ignore.” Here’s how it starts:

“I ignore them. That’s my conscious decision.”

So replied CV Harquail to a question from HBS professor Karim Lakhani about the effect of bad actors in the model of “generative business” she was explaining in a recent talk sponsored by the Digital Initiative.

Karim’s question addressed an issue that more than one of us around the table were curious about. Given CV’s talk, the question was perhaps inevitable.

CV’s response was not inevitable. It was, in fact, surprising. And it seems to me to have been not only entirely appropriate, but also brave… [more]


[1] I understand that the Net doesn’t really have values. It’s shorthand.
[2] I’m very happy to say that more than half of the advisors are women.


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