That Business Conversation

Case One: Lists

I moved to San Francisco in 1991, because I wanted to work in the brand-new field of virtual reality, and San Francisco was the epicenter of all commercial development in VR. The VR community came together for meetings of the Virtual Reality Special Interest Group at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the world-famous science museum. These meetings included public demonstrations of the latest VR technology, interviews with thought-leaders in the field, and plenty of opportunity for networking. At one of the first of those meetings I met a man who impressed me by his sheer ordinariness. He was an accountant, and although he was enthusiastic about the possibilities of VR, he wasn’t working in the field – he was simply interested in it. Still, Craig Newmark was pleasant enough, and we’d always engage in a few lines of conversation at every meeting, although I can’t remember any of these conversations very distinctly.

Newmark met a lot of people – he was an excellent networker – and fairly quickly built up a nice list of email addresses for his contacts, whom he kept in contact with through a mailing list. This list, known as “Craig’s List”, because a de facto bulletin board for the core web and VR communities in San Francisco. People would share information about events in town, or observations, or – more frequently – they’d offer up something for sale, like a used car or a futon or an old telly.

As more people in San Francisco were sucked into the growing set of businesses which were making money from the Web, they too started reading Craig’s List, and started contributing to it. By the middle of 1995, there was too much content to be handled neatly in a mailing list, so Newmark – who, like nearly everyone else in the San Francisco Web community, had some basic web authoring skills – created a very simple web site which allowed people to post their own listings to the Web site. Newmark offered this service freely – his way of saying “thank you” to the community, and, equally important, his way of reinforcing all of the social relationships he’d built up in the last few years.

Newmark’s timing was excellent; Craigslist came online just as many, many people in San Francisco were going onto the Web, and Craigslist quickly became the community bulletin board for the city. Within a few months you could find a flat for rent, a car to drive, or a date – all in separate categories, neatly organized in the rather-ugly Web layout that characterized nearly all first-generation websites. If you had a car to sell, a flat to sublet, or you wanted a date – you went to Craigslist first. Word of mouth spread the site around, but what kept it going was the high quality of the transactions people had through the site. If you sold your bicycle through Craigslist, you’d be more likely to look there first if you wanted to buy a moped. Each successful transaction guaranteed more transactions, and more success, and so on, in a “virtuous cycle” which quickly spread beyond San Francisco to New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other well-connected American cities.

From the very beginning, everything on Craigslist was freely available – it nothing to list an item or to view listings. The only thing Newmark ever charged for was job listings – one of the most active areas on Craigslist, particularly in the heyday of the Web bubble. Jobs listings alone paid for all of the rest of the operational costs of Craigslist – and left Newmark with a healthy profit, which he reinvested into the business, adding capacity and expanding to other cities across America. Within a few years, Newmark had a staff of nine people, all working out of a house in San Francisco’s Sunset District – which, despite its name, is nearly always foggy.

While I knew about Craigslist – it was hard not to – I didn’t use it myself until 2000, when I left my professorial housing at the University of Southern California. I was looking for a little house in the Hollywood Hills – a beautiful forested area in the middle of the city. I went onto Craigslist and soon found a handful of listings for house rentals in the Hollywood Hills, made some calls and – within about 4 hours – had found the house of my dreams, a cute little Swiss cottage that looked as though it fell out of the pages of “Heidi”. I moved in at the beginning of June 2000, and stayed there until I moved to Sydney in 2003. It was perhaps the nicest place I’d ever lived, and I found it – quickly and efficiently – on Craigslist. My landlord swore by Craigslist; he had a number of properties, scattered throughout the Hollywood Hills, and always used Craigslist to rent his properties.

In late 2003, when I first came to Australia on a consulting contract – and before I moved here permanently – I used Craigslist again, to find people interested in sub-letting my flat while I worked in Sydney. Within a few days, I had the couple who’d created Dora the Explorer – a very popular children’s television show – living in my house, while they pursued a film deal with a major studio. When I came back to Los Angeles to settle my affairs, I sold my refrigerator on Craigslist, and hired a fellow to move the landlord’s refrigerator back into my flat – on Craigslist.

In most of the United States, Craigslist is the first stop for people interested in some sort of commercial transaction. It is now the 65th busiest website in the world, the 10th busiest in the United States – putting it up there with Yahoo!, Google, YouTube, MSN and eBay – and has about nine billion page views a month. None of the pages have advertising, nor are there any charges, except for job listings (and real estate listings in New York to keep unscrupulous realtors from flooding Craigslist with duplicate postings). Although it is still privately owned, and profits are kept secret, it’s estimated that Craigslist earns as much as USD $150 million from its job listings – while, with a staff of just 24 people, it costs perhaps a few million a year to keep the whole thing up and running. Quite a success story.

But everything has a downside. Craigslist has had an extraordinary effect on the entire publishing industry in North America. Newspapers, which funded their expensive editorial operations from the “rivers of gold” – car advertisements, job listings and classified ads – have found themselves completely “hollowed out” by Craigslist. Although the migration away from print to Craigslist began slowly, it has accelerated in the last few years, to the point where most people, in most circumstances will prefer to place a free listing in Craigslist than a paid listing in a newspaper. The listing will reach more people, and will cost them nothing to do so. That is an unbeatable economic proposition – unless you’re a newspaper.

It’s estimated that upwards of one billion dollars a year in advertising revenue is being lost to the newspapers because of Craigslist. This money isn’t flowing into Craig Newmark’s pocket – or rather, only a small amount of it is. Instead, because the marginal cost of posting an ad to Craigslist is effectively zero, Newmark is simply using the disruptive quality of pervasive network access to completely undercut the newspapers, while, at the same time, providing a better experience for his customers. This is an unbeatable economic proposition, one which is making Newmark a very rich man, even while it drives the Los Angeles Times ever closer to bankruptcy.

This is not Newmark’s fault, even if it is his doing. Newmark had the virtue of being in the right place (San Francisco) at the right time (1995) with the right idea (a community bulletin board). Everything that happened after that was driven entirely by the community of Craigslist’s users. This is not to say that Newmark isn’t incredible responsive to the needs of the Craigslist community – he is, and that responsiveness has served him well as Craigslist has grown and grown. But if Newmark hadn’t thought up this great idea, someone else would have. Nothing about Craigslist is even remotely difficult to create. A fairly ordinary web designer would be able to duplicate Craigslist’s features and functionality in less than a week’s worth of work. (But why bother? It already exists.) Newmark was servicing a need that no one even knew existed until after it had been created. Today, it seems perfectly obvious.

In a pervasively networked world, communities are fully empowered to create the resources they need to manage their lives. This act of creation happens completely outside of the existing systems of commerce (and copyright) that have formed the bulwarks of industrial age commerce. If an entire business sector gets crushed out of existence as a result, it’s barely even noticed by the community. This incredible empowerment – which I term “hyperempowerment” – is going to be one of the dominant features of public life in the 21st century. We have, as individuals and as communities, been gifted with incredible new powers – really, almost mutant ‘super powers’. We use them to achieve our own ends, without recognizing that we’ve just laid a city to waste.

Craigslist has not taken off in Australia. There are Craigslist sites for the “five capital cities” of Australia, but they’re only very infrequently visited. And, because they are only infrequently visited, they haven’t been able to build up enough content or user loyalty to create the virtuous cycle which has made Craigslist such a success in the United States. Why is this? It could be that the Trading Post has already got such a hold on the mindset of Australians that it’s the first place they think to place a listing. The Trading Post’s fees are low (fifty cents for a single non-car item), and it’s widely recognized, reaches a large community, etc. So that may be one reason.

Still, organizations like Fairfax and NEWS are scared to death of Craigslist. Back in 2004, Fairfax Digital launched Cracker.com.au, which provides free listings for everything except cars and jobs, which point back into the various paid advertising Fairfax websites. Australian newspaper publishers have already consigned classified advertising to the dustbin of history; they’re just waiting for the axe to fall. When it does, the Trading Post – among the most valuable of Testra/Sensis properties – will be almost entirely worthless. Telstra’s stockholders will scream, but the Australian public at large won’t care – they’ll be better served by a freely available resource which they’ve created and which they use to improve their business relations within Australia.

Case Two: Listings

In order to preserve business confidentiality, I won’t mention the name of my first Australian client, but they’re a well-known firm, publishers of traveler’s guides. The travel business, when I came to it in early 2006, was nearly unchanged from its form of the last fifty years: you send a writer to a far-away place, where they experience the delights and horrors of life, returning home to put it all into a manuscript which is edited, fact-checked, copy-edited, typeset, published and distributed. Book publishing is a famously human-intensive process – it takes an average of eighteen months for a book from a mainstream publisher to reach the marketplace, because each of these steps take time, effort and a lot of dollars. Nevertheless, a travel guide might need to be updated only twice a decade, and with global distribution it has always been fairly easy to recover the investment.

When I first met with my client, they wanted to know what might figure into the future of publishing. It turns out they knew the answer better than I did: they quickly pointed me to a new website, TripAdvisor.com. Although it is a for-profit website – earning money from bookings made through it – the various reviews and travel information provided on TripAdvisor.com are “user generated content,” that is, provided by folks who use TripAdvisor.com. Thus, a listing for a particular hotel will contain many reviews from people who have actually stayed at the hotel, each of whom have their own peccadilloes, needs, and interests. Reading through a handful of the reviews for any given hotel will give you a fairly rounded idea of what the establishment is really like.

This model of content creation and distribution is the exact opposite of the time-honored model practiced by travel publishers. Instead of an authoritative reviewer, the reviewing task is “crowdsourced” – literally given over to the community of users – to handle. The theory is that with enough reviews, some cogent body of opinion would emerge. While this seems fanciful on the face of it, it’s been proven time and again that this is an entirely successful model of knowledge production. Wikipedia, for example, has built an entire and entirely authoritative encyclopedia from user contributions – a body of knowledge far larger and at least as accurate as its nearest competitor, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

It’s still common for businesses to distrust user generated content. Movie studios nicknamed it “loser generated content”, even as their audiences turn from the latest bloated blockbuster toward YouTube. Britannica pooh-poohed Wikipedia , until an article in Nature, that bastion of scientific reporting, indicated that, on average, a Wikipedia article was nearly as accurate as a given article in Britannica. (This report came out in December 2005. Today, it’s likely an article in Wikipedia would be more accurate than an article in Britannica.) In short, businesses reject the “wisdom of crowds” at their peril.

We’ve only just discovered that a well-networked body politics has access to deep reservoirs of very specific knowledge; in some peculiar way, we are all boffins. We might be science boffins, or knitting boffins, or gearheads or simply know everything that’s ever been said about Stoner Rock. It doesn’t matter. We all have passions, and now that we have a way of sharing these passions with the world-at-large, this “collective intelligence” far outclasses the particulars of any professional organization seeking to serve up little slices of knowledge. This is a general challenge confronting all businesses and institutions in the 21st century. It’s quite commonplace today for a patient to walk into a doctor’s surgery knowing more about the specifics of an illness than the doctor does; this “Wikimedicine” is disparaged by medical professionals – but the truth is that an energized and well-networked community generally does serve its members better than any particular professional elite.

So what to do about about travel publishing in the era of TripAdvisor.com, and WikiTravel (another source of user-generated tourist information), and so on. How can a business possibly hope to compete with the community it hopes to profitably serve? When the question is put like this, it seems insoluable. But that simply indicates that the premise is flawed. This is not an us-versus-them situation, and here’s the key: the community, any community, respects expertise that doesn’t attempt to put on the airs of absolute authority. That travel publisher has built up an enormous reservoir of goodwill and brand recognition, and, simply by changing its attitude, could find a profitable way to work with the community. Publishers are no longer treated like Moses, striding down from Mount Sinai, commandments in hand. Publishing is a conversation, a deep engagement with the community of interest, where all parties are working as hard as they can to improve the knowledge and effectiveness of the community as a whole.

That simple transition from shoveling books out the door, into a community of knowledge building, has far reaching consequences. The business must refashion its own editorial processes and sensibilities around the community. Some of the job of winnowing the wheat from the chaff must be handed to the community, because there’s far too much for the editors to handle on their own. Yet the editors must be able to identify the best work of the community, and give that work pride of place, in order to improve the perceived value their role within the community.

Does this mean that the travel guide book is dead? A book is not dynamic or flexible, unlike a website. But neither does a book need batteries or an internet connection. Books have evolved through half a millennium of use to something that we find incredibly useful – even when resources are available online, we often prefer to use books. They are comfortable and very portable.

The book itself may be changing. It may not be something that is mass produced in lots of tens of thousands; rather, it may be individually printed for a community member, drawn from their own needs and interests. It represents their particular position and involvement, and is thus utterly personal. The technology for single-run publishing is now widespread; it isn’t terribly to print a single copy of a book. When that book can reflect the best editorial efforts of a brand known for high-quality travel publications plus the very best of the reviews and tips offered by an ever-growing community of travelers, it becomes something greater than the sum of its parts, a document in progress, an on-going evolution toward greater utility. It is an encapsulation of a conversation at a particular moment in time, necessarily incomplete, but, for that reason, intensely valuable.

Conversation is the mode not just for business communications, but for all business in the 21st century. Businesses which can not seize on the benefits of communication with the communities they serve will simply be swept aside (like newspapers) by communities in conversation. It is better to be in front of that wave, leading the way, than to drown in the riptide. But this is not an easy transition to make. It involves the fundamental rethinking of business practices and economic models. It’s a choice that will confront every business, everywhere, sometime in the next few years.

Case Three: Delisted

My final case study involves a recent client of mine, a very large university in New South Wales. I was invited in by the Director of Communications, to consult on a top-down redesign of the university’s web presence. After considerable effort an expenditure, the university had learned that their website was more-or-less unusable, particularly when compared against its competitors. It took users too many clicks to find the information they wanted, and that information wasn’t collated well, forcing visitors to traverse the site over and over to find the information they might want on a particular program of study. The new design would streamline the site, consolidate resources, and help prospective students quickly locate the information they would need to make their educational decisions.

That was all well and good, but a cursory investigation of web usage at the university indicated a larger and more fundamental problem: students had simply stopped using the online resources provided by the university, beyond the bare minimum needed to register for classes. The university had failed to keep up with innovations in the Web, falling dramatically out-of-step with its student population, who are all deeply engaged in emailing, social networking, blogging, photo sharing, link sharing, video sharing, and crowdsourcing. Even more significantly, the faculty of the university had set up many unauthorized web sites – using university computing resources – to provide web services that the university had not been able to offer. Both students and faculty had “left the farm” in search of the richer pastures found outside the carefully maintained walls of university computing. This collapse in utility has led to a “vicious cycle,” for the less the student or faculty member uses university resources, the less relevant they become, moving in a downward spiral which eventually sees all of the important knowledge creation processes of the university happening outside its bounds.

As the relevant information about the university (except what the university says about itself) escapes the confines of university resources, another serious consequence emerges: search engines no longer put the university at the top of search queries, simply because the most relevant information about the university is no longer hosted by the university. The organization has lost control of the conversation because it neglected to stay engaged in that conversation, tracking where and how its students and faculty were using the tools at hand to engage themselves in the processes of learning and knowledge formation. A Google search on a particular programme at the university could turn up a student’s assessment of the program as the first most relevant result, not the university’s authorized page.

This is a bigger problem than the navigability of a website, because it directly challenges the university’s authority to speak for itself. In the United States, the website RateMyProfessors.com has become the bane of all educational institutions, because students log onto the site and provide (reasonably) accurate information about the pedagogical capabilities of their instructors. An instructor who is a great researcher but a lousy teacher is quickly identified on this site, and students steer clear, having learned from their peers the pitfalls of a bad decision. On the other hand, students flock to lectures by the best lecturers, and these professors become hot items, either promoted to stay in place, or lured away by strong counter-offers. The collective intelligence of the community is running the show now, and that voice will only become stronger as better tools are developed to put it to work.

What could I offer as a solution for my client? All I could do was proscribe some bitter medicine. Yes, I told them, go forward with the website redesign – it is both necessary and useful. But I advised them to use that redesign as a starting point for a complete rethink of the services offered by the university. Students should be able to blog, share media, collaborate and create knowledge within the confines of the university, and it should be easier to do that – anywhere – than the alternative. Only when the grass is greener in the paddock will they be able to bring the students and faculty back onto the farm.

Furthermore, I advised the university to create the space for conversation within the university. Yes, some of it will be defamatory, or vile, or just unpleasant to hear. But the alternative – that this conversation happens elsewhere, outside of your ability to monitor and respond to it – would eventually prove catastrophic. Educational institutions everywhere – and all other institutions – are facing similar choices: do they ignore their constituencies or engage with them? Once engaged, how does that change the structure and power flows within their institutions? Can these institutions reorganize themselves, so that they become more permeable, pliable and responsive to the communities which they serve?

One again, these are not easy questions to answer. They touch on the fundamental nature of institutions of all varieties. A commercial organization has to confront these same questions, though the specifics will vary from organization to organization. The larger an organization grows, the louder the cry for conversation grows, and the more pressing its need. The largest institutions in Australia are most vulnerable to this sudden change in attitudes, because here it is most likely that sudden self-organizations within the body politic will rise to challenge them.

Conclusion: Over?

As you can see, the same themes appear and reappear in each of these three case studies. In each case some industry sector or institution confronts a pervasively networked public which can out-think, out-maneuver and massively out-compete an institution which formed in an era before the rise of the network. The balance of power has shifted decisively into the hands of the networked public.

The natural reaction of institutions of all stripes is to resist these changes; institutions are inherently conservative, seeking to cling to what has worked in the past, even if the past is no longer any guide to the future. Let me be very clear on this point: resistance is futile, and worse, the longer you resist, the stronger the force you will confront. If you attempt to dam up the tide of change, you will only ensure that the ensuing deluge will be that much greater. The pressure is rising; we are already pervasively networked in Australia, with nearly every able adult owning a mobile phone, with massive and growing broadband penetration, and with an increasing awareness that communities can self-organize to serve their own needs.

Something’s got to give. And it’s not going to be the public. They can’t be whipped or cowed or forced back into antique behaviors which no longer make sense to them. Instead, it is up to you, as business leaders, to embrace the public, engaging them in a continuous conversation that will utterly transform the way you do business.

No business is ever guaranteed success, but unless you embrace conversation as the essential business practice of the 21st century, you will find someone else, more flexible and more open, stealing your business away. It might be a competitor, or it might be your customers themselves, fed up with the old ways of doing business, and developing new ways to meet their own needs. Either way, everything is about to change.