Dealing with it

In Competing Messages: Commerce and Sociality Dave Rogers says,

Commerce, at least as practiced in the west, is a competitive enterprise. There are winners and losers, some succeed while others fail. Every player seeks an advantage at all times. It’s a dynamic system, so strategies change and evolve over time, and the system presses against all boundaries in its efforts to find advantages to exploit. What presses back?

Well, government presses back, much to the dismay of libertarians. Government, presumably, has the public good as its central focus. We can debate whether or not that’s true some other time, but it’s true enough for the moment. As a result, we regulate businesses to establish boundaries against some efforts to seek a competitive advantage. These are most clearly observed in regulations governing public health and product safety.

Government is not a competitive enterprise. Politics is, but government is not. At least, not at the same scale that commerce is. Governments compete over longer spans of time, unless a war breaks out. But the Cold War is an example of competing governments. It didn’t take Microsoft a generation to defeat all other competitors in the OS wars. I hope the idea is clear. Technology changes this, but that’s a topic for another post.

But since politics controls government, and since politics is competitive, political figures are vulnerable to corruptive influences from commercial interests seeking economic advantages. Again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

So again, what pushes back against commerce?

Very little, it turns out.

This is the point I tried to convey to Doc Searls in our telephone conversation, with no success. By trying to make commercial “messages” more “human,” by trying to make “commerce” more “social,” Doc and those who subscribe to his view cede the advantage to commercial interests at the expense of social ones. In my opinion, we need to start defending social and cultural boundaries against commercial efforts to gain a competitive advantage.

I don’t agree with Dave that commerce is purely competitive, and somehow zero-sum, requiring winners and losers. We’ve gone around on that, and I’m sure I won’t change his mind about it. But my point of view on “messages” is that they are by nature mostly bogus. I have not, for many years (since leaving the advertising and PR business long ago) advocated making “messages” more “social” or anything else.

What I’m trying to do with VRM is come at commerce from the customer side. To make substantive what Chris Locke meant when he wrote we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it. There is, implicit in that statement, and as a theoretical basis for The Cluetrain Manifesto, the assumption that the demand side has at least as much power as the supply side — power that the Net does not unleash, but does provide a means for expressing.

In fact, the power Dave talks about us ceding to commercial interests was lost long ago. VRM is about getting it back. But not by petitioning the powerful. Rather by engaging the powerful on fresh terms that are ours and not just theirs.


  1. Mike Warot

    Well. thanks to blogs and cheap web hosting we can all put out a press release and get ignored like all of the other advertising we all hate. The power isn’t in the ability to publish, it’s in the relationships that tie us together, earning and sharing respect with each other, until some of us become know as the “authority” on a subject.

    The ability to send out an RFP (request for proposal) seems to be the guts of VRM. This works well for high ticket items requiring contracts, lawyers, etc.. but it isn’t likely to work for retail items. The key here is once again to build relationships between ourselves, and get some connectivity going, and build up a way for very small companies to essentially do an RFP in terms of a microformat.

    You have to specify what you want, URLs work great for that… then you have to be able to publish the RFP… which a retail vendor won’t let you do… you have to provide your own host to publish the RFP on… then hope people will read it.

    The provisioning of the connectivity to complete the loop is the tricky bit. Blogs got better once the scale went up because of Google and other search engines. We need the equivalent structure to be able to complete the loop of discovery for VRM.

    I’m typing fast, and it makes sense to me now… but I hope it does for someone else as well.

    Virginia’s having fun playing with the CD player, so I have a brief moment of grace while she’s distracted. 8)


  2. Russell Nelson

    VRM works for anything whose discovery can be automated, even extremely inexpensive things. Let’s say that I want twenty 10K 5% 1/4watt resistors. I post that fact in the appropriate format. I’ve already told various electronics vendors that I want to buy stuff, so they know to watch my RSS feed. They fetch my RFP, get my identity for my shipping address, compute the shipping cost, and return a fixed-price bid. My software looks at the bids, and picks the one I think is most appropriate, or alerts me if something interesting looks like it’s happening.

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