zuboffYesterday I received a delightful note* from Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Support Economy, which describes what I listed as one of the most important political & economic ideas of 2003. Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, who wrote The Future of Freedom, wrote to me last fall about my review of his book on these pages. And I’ve communicated recently with one of the editors at Fast Company. I didn’t take the initiative in any of these communications.

The fact that leading writers and journalists know we bloggers exist, and take the time to thank us and clarify their thoughts (and ours) in correspondence with us, comes as something of a surprise to me. It is at once sobering and flattering that we even appear on their radar screens — there are, after all, millions of us, and, at least in this corner of the blogosphere, we’re not even A-listers.

I think in fact we play a much more important role in the media than we might think. That role is a result of the power of our networks, which are more dynamic, sensitive and agile than those of print journalists and book writers. We can sense quickly and effectively when there’s something happening — a shift in public consciousness or attitude, a new issue or idea gaining traction — because of our connectedness, because of the strength of weak ties and those ties’ ability to create at least small tipping points. If the mainstream media are the stomach of the media beast, its power plant, we are its antennae.

This role provides us with both opportunities and responsibilities we might not realize. The opportunity depends, of course, on what your blog is about, but there should be some general principles that apply to any of us in this periphery of the information society. Here are a few ideas on how bloggers could connect better with other media, and perhaps raise our profile and expand our role in the process:

  1. Tell the media you’re talking about them: If you cite a writer in your blog, and do anything more substantial than just link to something they’ve written, let them know. Even if it only brings results 10% of the time, invite them into the conversation. Many professional writers have no idea what blogging is about, and you can really open their eyes to the opportunities for connection and idea exchange.
  2. Find their personal e-mail addresses: Work to bring print and audio-visual media writers into our networks: Try to dig out their e-mail addresses, encourage them to post them at the bottom of their articles, the endpages of their books, the bottom of the screen, the end of the broadcast, the media company’s website. Letters to ‘the editor’ or to ‘the network’ or to ‘the program’ just don’t cut it any more. We want to get personal. Once you’ve got their e-mail address, use it, but do so sparingly and always send them something they can use.
  3. Make it easier for them to reach you: We bloggers need to do a better job of identifying our own e-mail addresses on our sites, so that mainstream media people can find them without looking for cryptic symbols in the corners of our pages.
  4. Offer to collaborate: Volunteer to play a role in a favourite writer’s follow-up or next article or next book. Feed them ideas, briefly, thoughtfully, as often as they occur, but but don’t take it personally if they don’t respond. Writers have lots of irons in the fire, and often live hand to mouth. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article on SUVs and learned helplessness was mentioned as a project in progress in an interview he gave five years ago. And remember they work for editors, and even if your contact likes your idea doesn’t mean it will necessarily see the light of day.
  5. Make yourself available: If you have the gift of speaking impromptu, the media are always looking for articulate subject matter experts who can give them quick sound bites on controversial issues. Just make sure you think before you speak!
  6. Don’t exaggerate or misrepresent: Identify and respect your sources, but don’t be afraid to volunteer your own opinion. And never, ever, make anything up, or lie about your sources or your own credentials. You’ll get caught, and you’ll be toast.
  7. Do the work that they can’t: Understand that their writers make their living from what they do, and are very unlikely to pay you, or even share much credit with you, and don’t want you writing the story for them. They do want you to do their research for them, however — most writers today don’t have time or budget to do investigative reporting, chase unsubstantiated leads, do background work, or double-check facts. They need people to do that for them, ideally for free.

Not very glamorous, admittedly. Or profitable. But it builds on our strengths — connection, knowledge skills, research skills, numbers, breadth, time. Yeah, I know — what we really do well is write. What we really want is a column in the big papers, or the monster magazines, with a book deal on the side. Patience. The mainstream writers are just discovering us. The editors will take a little longer.


* I wrote:
Idea #8: The next economy will support consumers holistically to solve their problems, not just sell them products – In her book The Support Economy, Shoshana Zuboff argues that what is needed is a new economic layer, a ‘re-intermediation’, between the producer and consumer, which consists of ‘federations’ of businesses and ‘advocates’ who work collaboratively to look after the busy consumer’s needs cradle-to-grave and deal with the multiple suppliers in the product/service delivery process. I confess I don’t share the author’s exuberance that such ‘support’ will be affordable by any except the rich elite.

Professor Zuboff replied:
Federated support networks are not intended as a reintermediation or as an additional “layer”. If that were the case, then your skepticism would be well founded. It would cost too much. You can’t preserve the status quo and just add another layer, we will all drown in cost and administration and end up further away from the support we desire. Sometimes even the book’s most avid fans think of advocates as some kind of super concierge. I suppose because that’s the closest model we know that can help us imagine “support”. But concierge services exist to buffer us from the adversarial DNA of the enterprise system. Our argument is that the conditions are ripe for the emergence of a new system with wholly different DNA. It won’t need buffers, or layers, because it is either fundamentally aligned with my needs, or it fails.

Federated support networks exploit the digital medium to eliminate the administrative hierarchy we just spent 100 years building and expanding. That’s what we call “infrastructure convergence”, and without it there is no way to think radically about new cost structures. We needed that hierarchy, or at least some of it, when these integrative technologies didn’t exist. We don’t need it now.(this is the history of the literature on transaction costs, and Chandler’s basic point.) The key issue now is the way in which a distributed model, now made possible by technology, can subsume the old models based on concentration. That is the step function that can eliminate massive cost and allow the whole enterprise system to be reconceived and reorganized around the needs of individuals and families, instead of around products or services. As Seymour Melman demonstrated half a century ago, managers are never going to stand in line to give up all the stuff that reports to them. These institutions probably can’t be rescued from the downward spiral in their entirety (some assets will survive, but reconfigured). We need new ways of starting, just like Ford did a century ago.

I also really appreciated the Fast Co. Wal-Mart piece, and especially the way it vividly illustrated this endgame.

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  1. Michael says:

    Great advice, as always, Dave. Thanks for sharing it.Michael

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Excellent pulling together of some of the good reasons to participate in online dialogue, and to keep on working at the emerging dynamics of what I call “wirearchy” as a inclusive organizing principle (honestly don’t want to use this Comments section as a soapbox, as I think you know, Dave – but Shoshana’s comments were inviting indeed).

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