Our recent reading of Jeff Jarvis’(@JeffJarvis) 2009 critically acclaimed – and sometimes ridiculed – What Would Google Do (#WWGD) stimulated much thought with regard to the tectonic shifts taking place in business during the past fifteen years or so. There are many reviews out there of this book, laudatory as well as mocking. Go ahead and Google them. So why the need for yet another? We decided to present a review targeted toward technical communicators (TCs), a professional group impacted heavily by the Internet economy, and also well positioned—possibly better than any other profession—to exploit these shifts.
A Media Experiment
One of Jarvis’ stories that stood out powerfully for me was his retelling of a media experiment by Brian Lehrer in 2007. On Lehrer’s WNYC radio program, he prompted listeners to go to their local grocery stores and report on the price of milk and several other items. Hundreds responded, providing the station with data no single reporter could have gathered alone. WNYC plotted the data on Google Maps, demonstrating which neighborhoods were being gouged, and even being subjected to illegally high prices.
Why should this be surprising and what’s special about it? Haven’t consumers banded together for ages already, supporting the businesses, products, and services they like, while spurning those they don’t? Yes, but not with such rapidity, ease, and perhaps boldness. Could this experiment have succeeded without Google Maps? Maybe. But the point is that the Internet and a (free) Google product make the collaboration effort much easier and much faster. Furthermore, if it could happen in a few shops in several New York City neighborhoods, could this experience be scaled to a whole state, country, or industry?
Riding the Cluetrain
Jarvis is clearly a proponent of the Cluetrain Manifesto, as he refers to it with some frequency. Furthermore, his main message is very much in alignment with Cluetrain’s principles, as well as its tone. Written in 1999, Cluetrain lists 95 statements (“theses”?) on how the Internet has changed, and is continuing to change, the way the world does business. Namely, it describes how the consumer is empowered through a vast network of people sharing their stories about products and services. Marketing departments and many of the techniques they’ve employed, Jarvis says, are becoming irrelevant and are outmoded. Companies had better tune into the conversations taking place “out there” among consumers and other interested parties that could lead to potential business.
Though written in a somewhat smug tone, Cluetrain contains truths that we ought to internalize. Specifically, what are the key lessons of Cluetrain, as exemplified by Google’s success story? What can we learn here? The take-home message is that product vendors, service providers, and professional people in general—anyone wishing to remain relevant in the public sphere—must place listening to customers and responding respectfully to their input at the foundation of their organizational culture.
You’re Tweeting? So? Are You Listening?
Taking it a step further, Jarvis’ urges avoiding the delusion that having a Web site or being on Facebook or Twitter makes you customer-oriented if your basic behavioral pattern hasn’t changed. Talking down to your public is not only passé, but destructive to your business. Listening goes beyond claiming to have a customer service culture or exuding warmth in your PR campaign. What it does mean is that the products you sell and the services you provide reflect the needs, expectations, and input of your public.
On rare occasion, a product, service, or platform will come along presenting a quantitative shift in the way we do things. It could be argued, justifiably so, that revolutionary changes—mass produced automobiles, telephones, Internet, Web 2.0 applications—were so innovative that they couldn’t possibly have been invented only in response to consumer surveys. On the contrary, these innovations were truly ground-shifting, imaginative, and bold. They’re also quite rare. As consumers, we’ll know one when we see one. In the meantime, just listen.
So What’s the Message for Technical Communicators?
Why do we as TCs need to pay attention to Jarvis’ message? Why can we not afford to ignore the communication frameworks—and the documentation models—emerging as a result of the Internet economy?
The top-down approach to documentation is rapidly becoming outmoded; many would say it’s already gone. Instead, we need to be thinking in collaborative, grassroots, “distributed,” ways. According to Jarvis’ Google Rules for media companies, “thinking distributed” means regarding your readership—i.e. your customers—not as mere consumers of your output, but as content sources themselves. This is already happening across countless support forums—Nokia, Microsoft, Adobe, travel tip sites, are just a few that come to mind. If it hasn’t reached you by now, bet that it will soon. Open up and listen.
What does this mean for us? What do we need to do? Get involved in what’s happening on the ground level. Participate in these conversations. Read what’s being written. Be open. Be responsive (not reactive). Lead discussions. Harvest the knowledge that grows from these interactions. Tag it. Curate it. Repackage and productize it. This is your documentation. This is your product, and your portfolio.
Why do people blog? Perhaps the better question is why do professionals blog? Why is it important for us to place ourselves out there before the public? Because, if done well, it conveys that message that we care and that we’re eager to engage our audience and customers face to face.
We believe this message applies to all types of social media, including—but not limited to—blogs. As such, a well-thought social media image addresses the following questions:
What is our contribution to the “gift economy”?
What is our value proposition?
How do we differentiate—i.e. brand—ourselves?
Oh, and if you have to explain your value, it’s probably not as great as you think.
Old Media, New Media
According to Jarvis, Yahoo is the last “old media” company. That is, Yahoo is a portal, a Grand Central Station of online resources. Thus, Yahoo is a manifestation of what Jarvis calls the content economy, which is outmoded. Google, on the other hand, is—claims Jarvis—the first post-media company. Meaning, Google is a platform (not a portal), a network, and is decentralized and distributed. Google trusts and respects people, or at least (says Jarvis) manages to project that attitude. Google exploits the wisdom of the crowd. And what’s more, Google opens up endless choices and possibilities via search, SEO, and AdSense. Whereas Yahoo is a remaining manifestation of the content economy, Google leads the link economy.
The link economy demands that we—companies, groups, and individuals—produce unique content with clear value. Beyond that, we need to remain open so that Google can find us. That is, we’re to let Google exploit—through advertising and promotion—the links and audience that we acquire. Furthermore, we have to use those links to create new efficiencies (“do what you do best and link to the rest”), and find opportunities to create value atop our link layer. This means curate the best content, enable your links to be found, and help content creators monetize—or otherwise promote—links, and in turn, attract traffic.
Are You Drinking Google Juice?
Google juice is what we want. It gives us better ranks, more ads. It will, according to Jarvis, net us more money. To get Google Juice, you’ve got to be Googlified. Googlification of a trade or profession requires its practitioners be open and transparent. Are you Googlified? If you want to remain relevant, Jarvis says you’d better be. However, we would ask the question whether this maxim necessarily applies to all types of business.
No More Depth Thinking? Could Have Fooled Us!
Naturally, as TCs, we value our ability to communicate in an articulate way. If this means writing in long form, we appreciate having a format permitting that. Consequently, those still uninitiated into social media might resent being “forced” to fold a message into the limited space afforded by many Web applications (like micro-blogs) which might seem extreme.
Jarvis says that although it may appear that writing in short blog bursts, as opposed to lengthier articles, leads to rushed, haphazard, shallow communication, in fact, the opposite could be argued. Namely, an idea could be thought out and articulated over the span of multiple posts [even Tweets?], and take shape over the course of time. What’s more, these ideas percolate with input, challenge, and argument from many blog readers and consumers. Furthermore, ideas that don’t work, i.e. those not meriting response from the readership, get dropped. Thus, Jarvis argues that blogs provide a new and efficient means of both collaboration and peer review, which he claims “is the key product and skill of the Google age.”
The Internet might not make us more creative. But it does provide a platform enabling what we create to be “seen, heard, and used,” i.e. shared. In particular, the Internet enables every creator to “find a public, the [one] s/he merits.” What’s more, it levels the playing field of creativity. As Jarvis puts it, in the Google age, to “stand out, one must rise on worth—as defined by the public, rather than the priests, [where] the reward is attention.”
What will coalesce in place of the institutions losing influence as a result of the Internet and Google? Or, as we’d put it, those failing to adapt and respond strategically to these forces. According to Jarvis, this applies not only to media organizations, businesses and individuals, but to governments and even religions (though there’s still some speculation as to how that would work).
Will we have anarchy or a new form of organization? The Internet, says Jarvis, is disaggregating the elements that have historically defined us humans. These definitions—liberal, conservative, libertarian—are breaking apart to form new expressions that are more nuanced. As a result, new loyalties are forming from the grassroots, replacing traditional allegiances.
Advertising execs, public relations folk, and social media pundits like invoking Generation X (ambitious and family centered) and Generation Y (independent, expecting instant gratification) as supposedly well-understood demographic groups. In WWGD, Jarvis introduces us to Generation G, that is, the Google generation. Gen G has not only grown up in the computer age, but came of age by the time Google was already synonymous with Internet search. Beyond being characterized as independent, Gen G is possessed of a strong individualism, which could end up manifesting as empowerment [good], or as entitlement [bad].
Watch Gen G. Listen to Gen G. Understand how Gen G thinks, works, shops, [and we would add, reads]. Only thus can we have any hope of surviving, let alone thriving, over the coming decades.
Where Do We Take it Now?
Some critical reviews of WWGD urge that we disregard Jarvis’ prescription for Google-age success based on the assertion that Jarvis rambles on in an arrogant tone, doing little more than smugly dropping names and making scary generalizations. While we could agree that Jarvis presents himself as erudite and professorial, this hardly presents justification for rejecting what he prescribes, especially if his basic position is valid (and we believe it is).
What’s the upshot for TCs? We’re told that we need to not only innovate, but make innovation part of the culture where we work. What does that mean practically speaking? For one thing, we need to unlearn many of the practices that have taken us thus far in life and in our careers.
We need to Googlifiy ourselves. Googlification of our profession requires us to be open and transparent. While most of us are “out there” on a social network somewhere, many of us either aren’t ready to exploit the full potential of those networks, or worse, refuse (usually on “privacy” grounds) to participate. Concerning privacy, Vint Cerf, acclaimed as one of the fathers of the Internet, has written “There isn’t any privacy. Get over it.” Jarvis adds clarity to this statement by asserting that privacy is no longer the issue, control is. We do in fact have the right to control our personal information, whether it’s made public, and to whom. So decide upon a security policy that meets your needs, and get yourself out there.
There’s also the issue of intimacy. Participating in a social or business network does not mean laying it all bare for the world to see. Actually, showing us parts of your life to which we’d rather not be exposed would not win you the attention you should be seeking. But we do need to acclimate ourselves to what Leisa Reichelt calls “ambient intimacy.” This refers to the sense of closeness you have with folks as a result of social media; folks with whom you’d otherwise not have nearly as close a relationship, maybe even not know at all.
We should learn, Jarvis says, to think like kids, because once you’re thinking [too much] like an adult, you’re probably not innovating.
Special thank you to Jonny Gold for his input and thoughts.