Last month I went to Barcelona with my sisters and a few close girlfriends. The trip was pretty special as I’m about to get married – so this was what you might call a “hen” do. We didn’t want to run around wearing matching pink tracksuits and bunny ears (and I left my “L-plate” and plastic white tiara at home), but we did want to have an amazing time without spending a stupid amount of money.
When it came to sorting a place to stay, Airbnb was the obvious choice. I’ve used the peer-to-peer rental site quite a few times in the past, and they’ve always delivered great places at reasonable cost. So I started carefully sifting through the 400+ apartments (that would accommodate our nine-person party) currently listed on the website. As you can imagine, the whole process took some time so I was thrilled when I finally settled for a place which ticked all the right boxes: central, comfortable single beds for all (no doubles or sofabeds), decent dining area, at least two bathrooms, beautiful decor in traditional Catalan Modernist style.
I paid in full (Airbnb requires full payment in advance to reserve any property), emailed the apartment details to my friends, and started looking forward to a wonderful long weekend in Spain. Imagine how I felt when, the day before we were about to leave, I got an email from the apartment owner offering apologies and saying the apartment had been rendered inhabitable by the previous tenants (aka: trashed).
I read Doug Rushkoff’s Cyberia back in 1992 and loved it. Rushkoff is great at weaving a load of cultural trends together and coming up with a seductive bigger picture. In the early 1990s it was cyber-culture, house music and “smart” drugs; today he’s moved on to business, post-capitalism and social media.
These are my notes from his talk at the Social Business Summit in Austin (Texas) last month. Rushkoff begins with a gentle ramble about Feudalism and the Middle Ages and then moves on to a humourous deconstruction of everything that’s wrong with a classic, textbook business today. A compelling argument (even if you don’t agree with everything he says)!
In the late Middle Ages, people had lived under feudalism for 100s of years; people began trading using their own currencies; trade boomed; towns got so rich, people started building cathedrals just to have somewhere to store their wealth.
This was a problem for the aristocracy; they wanted to continue making money from being rich and doing nothing. So they outlawed local currencies. They said you have to use centralized currency – you have to borrow our money in order to do business and pay it back with interest: this was Centralised Banking: the “coin of the realm”.
The second thing the aristocracy came up with was centralized monopolies: they approached businesses and said I’ll give you a license to be the only business in this market if you pay me 10-20 per cent. If you are a monopoly, your only purpose is to extract the most value from what you do. This was really bad for specialization and skill because if a factory owner wants to make more money, and s/he has a monopoly, then s/he is only interested in hiring [expendable] labour at the lowest possible cost.
So, the industrial age was not necessarily about doing things better, it was about doing things more efficiently in a very particular type of economy.
Mass media/ advertising/ marketing was all about promoting brand images (eg, the quaker from Quaker Oats) that become more powerful than the images/ stories of the craftspeople next door. It was a commodified relationship. This is not evil. It’s just the way things went.
Once you de-socialise in one area of your life, you start de-socialising in others (because you’re embarrassed to go to the local PTA with the lady who runs the local pharmacy because you’ve stopped buying your drugs from her and now buy them from Walmart). All this is dehumanizing. And competencies decrease because the branding is the only differentiator (“Oh, we buy these [Keebler] cookies because they’re made by elves”).
Go to Harvard Business School and they’re still teaching the Jack Welch style of business which is basic Renaissance Corporatism: take everything you actually do and understand that if you’re actually doing something you’re not making as much money as you would if you sold that off and got up a level closer to the bank. Anyone who’s actually working? That’s inefficient. Welch looked at GE and said “Let’s sell off anyone who’s actually doing something. So we can get away from this manufacturing of stuff and materials and competencies. Let’s become capital. Let’s become the bank, because the whole game was built for the bank”.
The net broke this. The net killed brands by leading to a non-fiction media space. It allowed people to deconstruct brands from the images. Keebler is no longer elves. It’s a place where people make cookies. The net broke the oligarchy-led, bank-driven, economic growth model. You don’t need massive infusions of centralized cash to run a business. That’s what happened with the crash. The banks needed somewhere to put their money. They tried dotcoms and they didn’t need all that money – so they put it into real estate – and look what happened!
Facebook is a brilliant exercise in “How far can I reduce people’s sense of who they are to a consumer profile?” We went from wacky web pages to Myspace (which is kind of modular web pages) to radio buttons (Facebook), which is “I’m straight and married”. But real “social” is not about marketing. It’s about re-connecting the people who actually care about the industry you think you’re in. Reconnecting consumers to fans to employees to management to shareholders to partners.
Your competitors are no longer your competitors in a social media space. They are fellow stakeholders in the industry that you all care about: the thing that you do. Imagine you’re in the lemonade industy: you don’t care if he came up with a better lemonade idea – that’s great! You can use it too. Here’s my idea: let’s talk! The distinctions don’t matter when the thing you do is the thing that you do.
Most people still don’t do the thing they do. They outsource the thing to someone else and do the banking and marketing of it. They don’t do the thing. If you don’t do the thing that you do, do not get involved in social media. It will kill you. You want to be transparent? Then there has to be something inside. You can’t be social, you can’t become transparent if you’re just going to show that you’re a bunch of paper pushers using some Chinese outsourced something.
Moving into social means becoming dedicated to the expertise, the culture and the intelligence of whatever your sector is. You don’t have a chartered monopoly any more so your competitive advantage is going to be actually tied into your ability. And the good news is we’re finally in an environment when your ability can be communicated directly. That is the new story for a social media area. It’s not about the elves. For Kentucky Fried Chicken it’s the chicken crust, it’s not Colonel Saunders. It’s your nerds, your R and D, your bizarre, passionate geeks. And the management is there to protect those people. And your most ardent fans are the people trying to get to work in your company.
Instead of being an advertiser led/ brand challenge, it’s a different kind of communications challenge: it’s applied memetics: what do people hear when you talk about the thing you do. It’s truthful. It’s not fantasy. But your truth has got to be good. Use social to message the truth.
Most companies are still afraid of it (social media) because there’s this sense that they don’t actually do anything. If you want to introduce social media within a company, first you’ve got to convince management that what they’re doing is actually good. Or (and this is harder), if they don’t already do anything then you actually have to get them to do something good.
We are no longer in the universe of messaging and marketing, we are in the universe of doing.