Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
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Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

How Not to Manage the Edge: Washington Post Case Study

Let me try and illustrate for a sec (more) why Media 2.0 isn't a simple subset of Web 2.0.

WaPo ombudsman says something egregiously not true. Commenters have a field day pointing it out on a totally unrelated blog.

Post's response? To delete the comments. That doesn't stop commenters, who keep commenting, and point out the deletion. Post restores the comments.

Ombudsman responds in a different blog, commenters point out the intellectual bankruptcy of her response.

Post's response? To "shut off" comments, and claim a technical error has led to the deletion all the comments on all the posts of all the blogs that were critical of the ombudsman. Note that retrieving these comments is technically trivial; the net has a long memory - they're mirrored here.

There are deep lessons here. Forget about whether you agree with the politics of the situation.

1) The value's in the conversation.

2) If you can't have a conversation, you can't create much value in the attention economy.

2.5) Pretending a conversation never happened isn't just kind of infantile, it's actively destroying value.

2.75) Now, I'm not saying that lunatics should be given free reign to comment. But neither should editors and execs think they have, anymore, totally free reign to dictate how the resources of the firm are used. In many cases, they're much better off thinking of those resources as common resources - in this case, editors are much better off thinking the paper belongs to both readers and writers.

3) The lines between public and private are necessarily blurred in a conversation. It's not rigidly controlled business meetings that takes place in communities, markets, and networks, at the edge. It's raw, sometimes a bit brutal, often full of crap conversations - but from an economic point of view, they're hyperefficient.

3.5) Not to learn how to leverage this is going to be fatal - you can't fight an economic discontinuity. What you can do is find new strategies which dominate it.

4) Let me put this in context. Imagine a DJ who plays a really, really crap track. Everyone stops dancing. What does the DJ do?

The point is that the old information asymmetry that dominated media is gone. The connection between the internal and external is live, real-time, and direct. You can't run away from it, or "manage" it. The DJ can't say (insert beancounter voice here) "folks, let's have a meeting, and figure out how to manage your dancing".

You have to join the conversation - not kill it. You have to not be (how can I put this nicely) so beancounterly. You have to be willing to overturn the orthodox assumption that firms talk, and consumers...well, simply consume.

This is not wishy-washy management advice. This is razor sharp strategy. The basic economics of consumer industries are being inverted; new market leaders are learning how to create value at the edge, by innovating how they manage the universe of value external to the firm.

Postscript: the's exec editor later held an online chat to discuss, which is admirable. But I don't for a second buy the claim that comments were yanked because they were nasty - I read them, they weren't.

In fact, it's the opposite; the commenters did more fact-checking and research collaboratively than the Post's ombudsman did - that's the power of coordination economies.

Let me simplify some of these thoughts to crystallize some further key points:

1) Newspapers need commenters (read: connected consumers) more than commenters need newspapers. The simple economics of attention scarcity dictate this. The same equation holds true across consumer industries (esp media).

2) That is, you have to leverage and co-opt your readers, audience, etc, before your competitors do. Competing for their attention is a zero-sum game.

3) The big problem with the Post's move is that it's a barrier to learning: it stops it from learning how to leverage connected consumption - which is exactly the force that's hypercommoditizing media. Learning to leverage the edge is a kind of judo. But if you're not in the ring, by definition, you can't learn how to play.

4) Imagine a Post that did the opposite: highlighted in big letters on it's front page the raging discussion, actively driving attention to it.

Would the result probably have been a flame war? Sure. Flame wars mean your market, community, network, is working.

Would the Post have learned a lot more about how to leverage the edge? Absolutely.

-- umair // 10:05 PM // 7 comments


Only one flaw in your argument: traditional media are not about the conversation they are not about value, they are about control--and we got a nice glimpse at just how much.
// Anonymous niblettes // 2:38 AM

Yeah, that's exactly the point.

And it's not just media- it's most 1.0 business...
// Blogger umair // 3:42 AM

Yo Umair,

I have been thinking about the optimal speed of change a social system should experience. Obviously, a system that is highly receptive to edge impulses will change/ mutate/ evolve quickly. And a system being unreceptive to edge information will not change much at all, becoming sklerotic. What's the optimal rate of change to achieve social and economic health? A system changing too quickly will create mono-cultures as well, like a fungus or a dominant virus spreading, wiping out everything in it's path.
(of course the impact of 2.0 on 1.0 organizations is very refreshing - but I'm sort of looking at the long term). What do you think?

Cheers, Chris
// Anonymous Anonymous // 9:20 AM

Umair concisely illustrates the elegant and straightforward argument that traditional media is gasping for readers as a drowning man is gasping for air � all the while fighting with those who would engage and save them.

Jurassic entities like the NY Times and Wash.Post have repeatedly demonstrated they cannot be trusted when they join the communal conversation. They plagiarize, misquote, misspell, get the facts wrong, and when they don't, they politicize everything else.

Like Howell Raines, Debby Howell signed these two newspapers' death certificates.
// Blogger zridling // 3:16 AM

It can be hard for people with reputations to deal with people without reputations, anonymous crowds. The dynamics are wacky.

If an opinion isn't backed up with a name, a reputation, the bet of something to lose for long-term error, then it's not automatically and always worth listening to. "You own your words."
// Anonymous Anonymous // 5:17 PM

You know, I tried to say that in a note to Jim Brady, the editor-- that you need readers more than readers need you.

But probably that comes under the definition of "personal attack", the same way "you were wrong" does.

At least I didn't use any dirty words!
// Blogger pippen // 7:20 PM

Umair -- Thanks for the thoughtful commentary and the links to the other sources. Clearly there are faults on both sides, but it would seem that the Post missed some basic Blog 101 when they dealt with this issue. The question is how we teach the old dogs new tricks. I'm "old school" enough to realize the value of smart journalism in the national dialog. How does the blogosphere help mainstream media move into the new world order -- as opposed to just combatting it?
// Anonymous Leslie // 8:33 PM
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