The day of the amateur

Most of us, if we are over twenty, have been raised in a world where the word “amateur” was a slam. Amateurs were looked down on – OK – maybe tolerated, but not considered very good. If you wanted to be recognized for something, you either had to be very very good at it or you had to become a professional. If not, you at least had to bow down to the professionals and pay homage to their “mastery.”

The sad thing was (and still often is) the professionals may not have been that much better. They may not be any better at all. But they were perceived as being better – because they got paid for what they were doing – or because they carried an expensive-looking piece of equipment that had the word ‘professional’ on it somewhere.

People were supposed to stand in awe. And many did.

That is the world of hierarchies – an industrial and business world of castes, jump-through-hoops career paths and card-carrying, dues-paying memberships in some system that somehow was supposed to mean one had earned the right to excel.

Many did, and we have much to thank them for. But what we do not have to thank anyone for is inheriting a world where the barriers to entry in doing something one feels passionate about are high, where the gatekeepers and rituals are many, and where due credit often is not given to simple, natural talents that we all possess.

According to Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in their book: Wikinomics – How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, that world is going away. At least to some degree.

I have commented on this before in some previous readings. The readings are all pointing the same way. Cluetrain Manifesto, with its “Markets are conversations” theme – The Long Tail with its vision of the death of the mass market and end of the celebrity ‘hit’ pop culture – and even McLuhan’s “Global Village” ideas I read back in 1983 – all point the same way.

Our society – and societies around the world – are getting away from some of the ugly effects of the Industrial Revolution and the stratification and alienation it brought our world for the past 150 years. At least they are straining to do it, if not quite reaching there yet.

Let’s correct one perception up front. The word “amateur” means someone who does something out of the love of doing it. That, I am told, is the etymology of the word. It has nothing to do with quality of work. If anything, someone who does something because they love it and put their heart into it probably will do it better than someone doing it simply for the love of money.

Call me an idealist – I have been called that before. I have especially been called that over the past 12 years I have been involved in the Internet, and have been told by innumerable people that so many things “would not work” that are simply exploding with success today. Many of these things are collaborative things. Linux. Giving out free information on a web site. Starting a poetry circle on CompuServe. Hiring a web designer in Brazil and a programmer in Russia, neither of which I ever met face-to-face. Looking for help on forums (free) when I could not get the answers I needed on paid tech desk help ($100 an hour). E-commerce (“no one will ever pay with a credit card online..”) – yes I go that far back and I heard it many times.

I cannot tell you how many business owners I tried to convince to put their company’s knowledge online – for free – to share – to get customers to trust them and come to their web sites. Some got convinced – and they gained audiences. Others held it close to their vests and ended up with nice brochure Web sites with 3 visitors a day.

The authors are right. The world seeks collaboration. People want to share and they do not all want to be paid all the time. Most people really want to contribute more than they want pay.

I am talking about amateurs of course (the kind that ‘love’ what they do).

And guess what? Many of them are pretty darned good. Put together in a crowd , they can be awesome. I have not paid a $100-an-hour help desk in 10 years.

Speaking of amateurs, I remember something I saw on TV some years ago. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, was being interviewed about his life and career. He told a long tale of starting out in Hollywood, working all sorts of odd jobs, doing carpentry work, delivery, whatever he needed to do to stay there and try to get his hands on a camera every once in a while. He stuck it out. Then he made it big – made Star Wars – the rest is history.

The interviewer asked him a question at the end: “What bit of advice would you give our viewers?” I’ll never forget the answer:

“Do what you love, no matter what.”

“Keep doing it.”

“Eventually you will figure out a way to make money at it.”

Yea, he is a pretty good amateur.

That is what this blog is all about. The business of life. For the lucky ones of us, myself included, our business is our life and our life is our business. And we love it.

Become a collaborator and join us.

Search – find

Everyone these days talks about search. It used to be an Internet term and back in the day we just called it search engine stuff. Later on it got to be known as ‘Googling’ something or someone (not to be confused with ‘goggling‘ someone – though there are some commonalities).

Now they are talking about it a lot in all marketing schools, social and political institutions, and everywhere else. Almost every small business-person I have talked to for the last 2 years has mentioned ‘search.” Even newspapers are trying to get into the search marketing field.

 Personally, I think the word should be “find.” That is the real key. What is turning things over, in business as well as in culture and life, is the phenomenal power to find things you could never find before.

Find what? Just about everything. That is its mystic power over us every time we go online, and its seduction as well.  At times it seems like Pandora’s box might have been opened. At other times it feels a lot like a deep reading of Goethe’s Faust. Knowledge exploding all around us – a lot of it way over our heads or too much to stomach – but there anyway. Yet power – power to get those very unique things we could never find in a store, or to snoop on friends or relatives or neighbors we were always curious about, or  simply find instructions on how to program the VCR we lost the book for 5 years ago (with the exact make and model). As we all know by now, the list goes on and on and on…

Let me respond to the book The Search, How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture,  by John Battelle.  Perhaps the most powerful  statement in the book to me is this: “…in the near future, search will metastasize from its origins on the PC-centric web and be let loose on all manner of devices.” (p. 253). 

It is an understated bombshell that amplifies many of the other far-reaching, and potentially revolutionary, statements in his book. I’ll say more in a minute.

First let’s do a quick overview. Ostensibly the book is about Google – the icon of search engines at this time – and about the rise and growth of the company as well as the industry and the technology that powers search engines in general.

The book is also about the new and growing economies that are powered by search – especially the long-tail businesses and interests I wrote about conceptually in reviewing Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail .  Good examples are the millions of ‘long tail’ small businesses, tradespeople, craftsmen, enterprises and ideas that are found through routine searches on Google or some other search engine. Add to that the sellers, ‘stores,’ distributors and cyber-flea-marketers that are found on the sophisticated search engines on  of EBay, Amazon, or hundreds of other small-marketplace networks. Top it off with the vast networks of yet-to-be-found economies, families, communities, subcultures, public records, niche cyber-societies and who-knows-what-else which will be accessible very shortly as the search phenomenon takes on even more power and momentum.

But let’s go on beyond business-oriented sections of The Search (which I am fascinated with) and get past all the Google-hype and into the chapters about privacy issues. There  you start to get to a matter of much more seismic importance:   the effect of a search company’s stated goal of indexing all recorded human knowledge. Even if they only pull off half of it, or a tenth for that matter, the effect is incredible.

As I read these chapters  (and in the intervening days performed hundreds of searches on dozens of quests) it appeared more evident than ever that our whole sense of  identity and community in this life is going through a dramatic change. We are becoming transparent, whether we like it or not. Very, very transparent.

Battelle talks about this in his chapters about how our ‘digital private lives’ can collide with the public sector’s need for security (Such as with The Patriot Act) – databasing everything it can get hold of from services such as ISP’s and other communications services.  While I agree that there should be  limits to uncovering personal information that is protected in contractual agreements with communications companies, that is not the issue that got my attention. The real kicker is much more subtle than that.

It dawned on me that there is a ton of information about me (and about you) out there already, not protected by any contracts. Go to Google or any other search engine. Type in your name. If you have a not-too-common first-last-name combination like mine, and if you have been yapping on the Internet as long as I have – there will be all kinds of information – right there in front of everyone’s eyes.  If you find out my address, you can also go to Google earth and get a satellite view of my house. You can take that same address and go to zillow.com and see how much it is estimated to be worth. If I bought or sold it in the recent past, you can easily find out what was paid.

Not all of this is new. Much of that is a matter of public record. We have always had public records. (Daily newspapers, such as the one I work for, have been known as ‘newspapers of record‘ ). Much has always been out there. It just took an appraiser to trudge back and forth to the courthouse or a lawyer or private eye to dig through files and pull it all up. It was too cost-prohibitive for the average person to do.

We are now approaching an age where it is very easy for anyone to access it all – just by typing in your name and a few other details if needed – and single you out. Add to the public records the things you have written, blogged, posted, networked or whatever on web sites of any kind. Add also records on newspapers or magazines that went online. Throw in your business web sites (even businesses you used to work for that may have a page 5 years old still indexed in a search engine). Throw in things people might have said about you online or forums you might have participated in (assuming your real name appeared).  Feeling transparent yet?

Now go back to Battelle’s statement “…in the near future, search will metastasize from its origins on the PC-centric web and be let loose on all manner of devices.”   Think about it. At the present it still takes sitting down to a PC for someone to get at that info. As easy as that is, it is still a little bit difficult.

Now think about when it is all in people’s cars. As they drive down the street, guided by GPS, not only do addresses pop up on the screen or are read by a voice in the machine, but names of the homeowners (public record). If the driver is interested, they speak back to the onboard computer and are told more about that person, gleaned from the vast riches of the online indexes (search engines) that have been storing stuff on you or me for years.  By the time the house hunters get to the end of the street they might know more about us and other prospective future neighbors than our best friends do.

Another scenario – one that is already going on in earnest (I use it myself). You are going to a business appointment with someone – to pitch them a chance to participate in a program. You set aside a little time and start searching online. Within 15 -30 minutes you know, from a number of web sites, a lot about their education,  their job, their hobbies (if they have won local running events for instance), their networks, and perhaps much more. You may read speeches they made or articles they have written. You come across a cranky letter they wrote to an editor of a paper. You find their family in a genealogical summary. You then walk into that office feeling that you know them well enough to talk like an old acquaintance.

That might be scary – or it might be invigorating. It depends on how you look at it.

I believe this is all leading us to a form of  what a previous anthropology professor of mine called “an open-face society.”  According to him, these are societies, usually more primitive, where people are much more transparent. They live together in buildings without much privacy, seeing each other in many situations which we more ‘advanced’ cultures consider embarrassing and off-limits. The amazing thing is that they stop noticing the more private aspects of each other’s lives, at least consciously, even though they are right before their eyes. They are accustomed to being more transparent and their cultures and manners prevent them from indulging what we would consider invasive staring or impolite commenting.

Think about it. It is not that much different in a really small town. Think  Andy of Mayberry – a small town where people know quite a lot about you, where you came from and what you do each day. It is pretty hard to hide. (Such towns still exist in some parts of the country and yes, you are pretty well known).

One result in such societies is that there is a sort of innocence preserved.  People have to somewhat suspend their ‘games’ because most things are open to view by the community. People know most everything about everyone.

Perhaps being known to a much greater degree is not so bad, if you are an honest person. If you do not have to worry about ‘keeping your story straight’ is it so bad for people to be able to find out a lot about you at will?

Many of us are experiencing some that on the Internet. We get found. Our businesses get found. Our life histories get examined. There may not be a lot of people all that interested in us, but that small group who are – find us out. If we are entrepreneurs, business people, or people with a dream, others find out not only about our business, but about us. They see what makes us tick. They glimpse the soul behind the  dream.

It gets harder to separate our ‘business’ from our ‘life.’

We are found.

We turn to them with open faces.

It may not be all that bad.  It might be really good.

Whoa! The changes all around us! – The new ‘economy of abundance.’

This one needs a subtitle: Response to reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired.

My hiatus from my personal ‘My take on what is going on‘ will have to continue a little while. I have been floored by Chris Anderson’s work in The Long Tail, Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.

An understated title if I ever saw one. You come in expecting an effective book on how digital technology is enabling the rapid expansion of lots of small businesses – niche markets – entrepreneurial opportunities (right up my alley) – and within the first two pages see instead how it is our entire culture that is being upended by seismic shifts.

The book is not just about business – it is about the overturning of our entire pop idol, blockbuster’s-are-it, winning-is-everything-second-place-is-for-losers culture.

If I was cheering with the Cluetrain people, I was doing cartwheels in the stands with Anderson. The things he says that are ending in this ‘end of an era’ are things a lot of us hate and have hated for years.

Our culture being a massive popularity contest. Pre-manufactured ‘hits.’ Hollywood-created ‘celebrities.’ The … compliant… mass market.’ The ‘economics of scarcity’ (scarce in that it was hard to get any attention to the little guy). The media being ‘obsessed with what’s hot and what’s not.’

Look at these blazing quotes from the book:

No surprise that hits have become the lens through which we observe our own culture…We define our age by our celebrities and mass-market products…

Each year network TV loses more of its audience to hundreds of niche cable channels.

What we thought was the rising tide of common culture actually turned out to be less about the triumph of Hollywood talent and more to do with the sheepherding effect of broadcast distribution.

The hits now compete with an infinite number of niche markets, of any size. And consumers are increasingly favoring the one with the most choice.

The era of one-size-fits-all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes.

The shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards is something that upsets traditional media and entertainment to no end…. the audience is shifting to something else, a muddy and indistinct proliferation of … Well, we don’t have a good term for such non-hits.

The new niche market is not replacing the traditional market of hits, just sharing the stage with it for the first time.

The article (from which the book later came – my comment) originated as an analysis of the new economics of the entertainment and media industries… what people intuitively grasped was that new efficiencies in distribution, manufacturing, and marketing were changing the definition of what was commercially viable across the board…

…it’s clear that the story of the Long Tail is really about the economics of abundance – what happens when the bottlenecks that stand been supply and demand in our culture start to disappear…

And the above earth-shaking observations were just in the introduction!

Anderson goes on through the book to prove his point in amazing detail and with the analytical precision expected from a Harvard Business School prof or a cultural anthropologist with 5 advanced degrees. It is extremely thorough, detailed and tested.

It is no wonder the book gets gushing reviews from the CEO’s of Google, Netflix, RealNetworks, Yahoo, and a host of new culture authors as well.

I will be posting more than once on this book because I feel it is so revolutionary. It puts the finger so well on things going on that many of us have seen as revolutionary for some time – but could not quantify as well as Anderson does.

Let me just comment on a few areas first and the rest can come in successive posts on later days.

First of all, I am in the newspaper business. I grew up with newspapers and believe in them – as a huge force for popular good and for gaining a sense of direction in daily life. I am especially a fan of local daily newspapers, and work for one now.

Newspapers, however, as Anderson says, have to reinvent themselves quickly. The older ways of disseminating information, daily wisdom and the news of a local marketplace do not work nearly as well as they used to. Anderson tells why. It has to do with the 80/20 rule (80 percent of the people are most interested in only 20% of the content you could put out). So you go for the numbers. The ‘hits’.

Truth be told, if you get 30,000 people, they are not just interested in 100 things each day. Not even 100,000 things. The aggregate of their interests would be in the millions or even hundreds of millions. They want access to more than the 20%.

There is no way you can get that all into newsprint and all would read it. You couldn’t even carry it. And if you could, you couldn’t find anything in it.

But digitally, you can do all those things. That is exactly the philosophy of a Google or a Yahoo. Index it all. Search it all. Deliver a million millions of permutations of user information sets to a billion people.

And it is working. That is what is so earth-shaking. The result – people are so busy gulping up all this long-awaited information (according to Anderson) that many simply do not have the time to go back to the older, filtered information sets of the traditional media.

As an entrepreneur, I love that. It gives wings to the little guy, the entrepreneur who wants to reach a special market with a very special product. In previous days it would have been very hard, because it was expensive and difficult to broadcast a message for a very select market (part of the long tail statistically).

For example, if you had been working hard on a new breed of miniature apple trees, how would you find a place to sell them? Sure, you could go to distributors, but most of them have their own brands of trees.

You have to go direct to the public to compete. How many people out there in suburbia are interested in mini-orchards in their back yards? Very few. Is the idea viable? Absolutely – in fact the benefits of growing your own apples to health, happiness and quality of life can be tremendous. But who would ever hear of it with traditional media?

Because of the need for massive interest scale, most traditional media, especially television and magazines, could only effectively promote the big ‘hits’ in our culture. The message that would go out would not be: grow apples in your own back yard and here is how; but rather: get in the car and go to XYZ fast food restaurant and get their apple dessert in seconds – piping hot and soooo good!

So not only does the product get lost, but the idea behind it never gets shared. The notion – terrific as it is – of growing your own apples (and of teaching your kids how to prune, nurture and cultivate a fruit-bearing orchard) would not get much play. Our society, as a result, would end up with a mass-culture idea of: “If you want piping hot apple dessert – here is how to get it. Get in the car and …”

Sound like anything you might noticed about modern America?

Now here is where I have always loved the daily papers. A good local paper WOULD write a feature story – or several – about the guy who comes out with the new strain of miniature fruit trees. He or she would be a local hero to readers. He would receive local attention and all twenty local back-yard orchard people would buy from him. The article might even help convert another half dozen families to the idea. At least the VALUES of the idea would get coverage in that one locality.

Hurrah for the local paper. However, that still does not give the entrepreneur enough business, by a long shot, to survive and keep doing what he needs to do. And the saddest part: there are hundreds, thousands of great ideas in the smallest of local communities. Most of them never get beyond the pipe dream stage because those people who would otherwise go after them know they can’t market them to a mass market and give up before they ever try.

I believe that local newspaper companies have a tremendous opportunity to combine their ability to champion the local entrepreneur (in the long tail world) with an ability to help him or her get to market – even a wider one. But it is something that has to be done in a new way – something not seen much before in the newspaper world.

I’ll write more about that in the next post.

I have so much more to say and my thoughts are still converging.

As far as the ‘hit’ and manufactured celebrity culture goes, I for one will be glad to see it go.

Don’t let the door hit ya.

Reading response – The Cluetrain Manifesto

I will interrupt my stream of thought from the last post and talk a little bit about a reading. Next post I’ll finish up my thoughts about “what is going on now.”

 Actually this reading fits into the theme very nicely – and I’ll certainly reference my own historical view as I comment on it. It might have been better to have it after the other post, but I have to get this response in by Tuesday evening.

 If you haven’t read The Cluetrain Manifesto yet, you might not – well – have a clue. At least some of the authors seem to believe, deep within their souls, that if you are not super-connected, totally transparent and gushingly bare online, your business or institution is invalid.  The work does seem to have a particular nose-in-the-air high-mindedness about it that sort of reminds me of the writings of some of the French radicals on the eve of their revolution – brotherhood, equality and liberty at last! Somehow they did not see the guillotine too clearly in those early visions of paradise-on-earth.

 Having said that, and looking beyond the triumphalism that comes across in some particular sections (in a few places it smacks of something like Revenge of the Nerds), I still have to say it is a powerful and prophetic piece of writing. I don’t mean prophetic in the sense of foretelling the future – for 1999 was pretty late in the game (remember my 1983 research? – last post) – but prophetic in the sense of voice and upheaval-of-society import. (Do try to look past their “…People of Earth” direct audience address in the introduction).

I hope you heard that – I think it IS extremely valuable thinking and does point the way to some tremendous truths about ‘what is going on.’

Before I get into how I think all of this is related to ‘The Business of Life’ and my own view of things, let me take one more cheap shot.

 Being sort of a literary person, I puzzled over the title a while. My first thought was – (gulp) – “Gluetrain Manifesto” – you know, like the train that takes the worn out horses to the glue factory? Hmmm… a swipe at the institutionalism of the modern era?  Maybe. But more likely my own twisted mind, being as I am in the somewhat-outdated newspaper business.

Actually, the work includes a quote The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery purportedly from an employee of a company then declining in its fortunes.

But the idea : HERE ARE SOME CLUES  does come across loudly. In all fairness, let’s look at the clues themselves.

“Markets are conversations – markets consist of human beings… – conversations among human beings sound human – ..the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived…” (parts of the first 3 of the 95 theses – they must have been Lutheran prophets).

I could not agree more. In fact I would go one step more  – we have met the markets and they are us! (with apologies to Pogo who certainly made prior apologies to Commodore Perry).

That is my point with this whole blog. You cannot separate business and personal life. We are all in business. We are all markets ourselves and we are all marketers. We have to market ourselves and sell our ideas, our thoughts and our dreams to others in order to reach them ourselves.

Those who pretend this is not so, and denigrate businesspeople, the marketplace, and the idea of commerce in general, have not really looked honestly at human history, nature, or, I submit, even themselves.

Cluetrain does accept this as fact, and I give them a great deal of credit for that. As the document begins to speak about a return to more primitive marketplaces, where the voice of the individual starts to matter more than the voice of some monolithic institution of some kind (be it a business, a government, the media, whatever) I start cheering.

At this point I reach a convergence in what I have seen coming and what they see.  Incredible opportunity.

We differ in that they see it as people of the marketplace now demanding transparency and ‘humanness’ while I see it as opportunities for me and millions of others to reach individual dreams that our parents and grandparents did not have. The essential, human, voice of the individual not only matters again, it can actually support itself financially. Or it least there is a clear path as to how to do it.

The convergence means this to me: Dare now to dream! Dare to do it! The tools are here to reach your niche, your market (other ‘you’s), your world in a hundred languages. It IS freedom. In many ways the primitive marketplace is also the free marketplace. Free for the little guy, the beginning entrepreneur, the try-er. And millions are succeeding.

The danger of it all – one still has to be wise. Not all ‘human conversations’ are benign. Not all global villages are unwarlike (even McLuhan himself used the term ‘global village‘ in a somewhat fearful way – he did not totally trust the unformatted masses). It is not just big, mean corporations that will do you in. Those small, human conversations can do it even faster and better.

All that being said, I still celebrate the openness that Cluetrain trumpets so loudly.

More in my next post (and the rest of ‘my take’).