originally published in...
On The Internet


by Christopher Locke
roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news. Chuck Berry

Ecstasy, enthusiasm, joy, delight, exuberance, exultation, transport. Rock and roll, it has been said, is here to stay.

While I have no doubt this is indeed the case, I sometimes wonder why. In a world as volatile in every other respect, the popular music that fits this commodius characterization has had enormous staying power. While styles have surely morphed, one into the next, some essential carrier wave has remained fundamentally unchanged for 40 years or so. Dig a little deeper and you discover that rock and roll -- or something very like it -- has been burning down the house for many thousand years.

Today, rock and roll is an industry in its own right with all the trappings: producers who are legends in their own minds, monster studios, flamboyant tours that net megabucks. But it wasn't always so. This music was once considered unmarketable, even dangerous. It was practiced in garages and back alleys as far from the mainstream as it's possible to get. Not unlike the early Internet, if you think about it.

there's something happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? Bob Dylan

In both cases, something obviously happened between then and now. Here's my best guess: joy jumped the tracks. Enthusiasm is irrepressible. So is life. Left to themselves, both emerge unbidden from the materials at hand. We are living proof of the proposition. And perhaps more than any other form, ecstatic social music taps the fundamental human drive to celebrate the outrageous fact of our existence. The reason rock and roll will never die is that, when you get down to this level of things, nobody's taking any wooden nickels. You just don't get a Kurt Cobain out of a boardroom planning session. His suicide is a tragedy. Nirvana was true genius at work and everybody knew it who wasn't dead already from the neck up -- or from the waist down.

Rock and roll is dangerous and always will be if it's worthy of the name. It traffics in epistemological expansion of the kind that certain political regimes go to great lengths to repress. It explores the depths of fundamental human concerns: sex, politics, religion -- if that last one surprises you, you haven't really been listening. People get crazy behind this stuff. They scream and shout, they dive off stages into the arms of their compatriots, they thrash around as if mad. They hardly ever say, "Come, let us reason together." They say "Turn up the volume!" Talk about your killer app.

Do I really need to draw the parallels? You either get it or you don't. I often characterize the corporate inability to comprehend the Internet by invoking the old Lovin Spoonful line: "It's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll." The net took off like a rocket because it's ours as no medium ever has been. Vox populi. What you see taking place out there is an exuberant artifact of this discovery. And like rock and roll, it ain't going back in the box. Ever.

Rubber Soul

To be sure, not all corporations are opaque to what's happening here. Take a look at Planet Reebok (http://planetreebok.com) for a pretty decent example of a company working with the realities of the medium. I was surprised at first to see Amnesty International prominently supported on Reebok's homepage. But the most telling comment came from a visitor who said he really liked the site, but by the way, just wondering, did Reebok have any plans to talk about its products? A weird question until you realize that there is practically no merchandising going on here. Another poster laments:
"I'm surprised that there's no info/pictures of your shoes or apparel here. I ventured into this site to see the cool new stuff you had, but it was nowhere to be found."
More surprising still is this:
"How can Reebok continue to play Mr. good-guy multi-national. Really, it's one of the most cynical things I've seen.

I assume all Reebok employees are familiar with the July, 1994 Boston Globe Article which exposed you folks. If your [sic] going to use slave labor in Asia, how dare you trumpet your happy world themes."

What is this doing here? Were the corporate censors out to lunch that they allowed this to go up on their server where it will potentially be seen by millions of Reebok customers worldwide? No, I don't think anyone at Reebok is out to lunch on this score. I think they're building powerful mindshare with a vastly larger market. I don't know about the labor practices the poster refers to. If enough people expressed concern about this, I strongly suspect Reebok would change its behavior rather than try to bury the facts or argue to change its market's mind. That's the message here: we're running wide open. This is, hands down, the smartest mainstream business I've seen yet on the net. While Nike says "Just Do It!," Reebok just did it.

talk normal Laurie Andersen

Corporations looking for advantage on the Internet could learn a lot from Reebok's example. More specifically, they might make a list of their most sacred-cow rules and regulations, then consciously break every one. Anything less will likely come across out of key here. Webservers that aren't informed by a spirit of free-wheeling play are going to be about as exciting as your average annual report. Companies hoping to connect with Internet audiences would be well advised to follow Laurie Andersen's excellent advice.

We Can Work It Out

Something more than coolness is at stake. The following exchange with Steve Dorner, (http://www.qualcomm.com/quest/ETSpring94/ETStevespeaks.html) creator of the Eudora e-mail software package, begins to suggest one aspect of the larger picture.
Interviewer: What effect has your ongoing relationship with so many different Internet users had on Eudora's development?

Dorner: Many of the features that have been added to Eudora since version 1.0 have come from user suggestions. Every time we plan a new version of Eudora, the first thing I do is personally review all the suggestions we've received. We've gotten some really great ideas that way.

Think about what this sort of thing would be worth to Ford, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Toys R Us, Bank of America and the like. Involving customers in product design assures big wins in market share down the line. This is what I have been saying in other (admittedly a bit academic) terms elsewhere: "Companies that use the Internet to concurrently engineer products and services in realtime collaboration with their markets will make enormous gains relative to global competitors."

a man comes on the radio, and he's telling me more and more about some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination. ...I can't get no satisfaction. Rolling Stones

Despite the current hysteria over home shopping, there is far more value to be had from the net than immediate sales. In a recent conversation, Daniel Dern (_The Internet Guide for New Users_, McGraw-Hill) used a great analogy. If we valued the highway system only in terms of the saleable goods passing over it, he said, we'd be missing a lot. Quite so: people going to work, taking vacations, rushing other people to hospitals, having parades, drag racing on Saturday night. Commerce is far more than selling. It's about creating a living environment in which the full spectrum of human activity can emerge and evolve. Then and only then do you get a healthy economic ecology.

Chain of Fools

Perhaps more to the point, shop-til-you-drop is not many people's idea of a good time in this medium. I found at least informal corroboration of this working hypothesis in a page-one article in _The Wall Street Journal_ (February 8, 1995). The piece was about MTV losing market share through aggressive merchandising. "Our audience has the best sense of detecting falseness on the planet," says MTV president Judy McGrath. And that audience is telling MTV to take a flying leap via the online services. Check out some of the comments the Journal reprinted from an AOL forum:
"Can't wait for alternatives to MTV... Take your 'Dead at 21' and "Catwalk' [two new MTV series] and lose marketshare.... We're not as dumb as you think, oh corporate giant."
"MTV used to speak to a generation... now they throw ads masquerading as programming at us 24 hours a day... MTV died a long time ago."

I differ with McGrath on who has "the best sense of detecting falseness." The Internet audience has much more powerfully attuned bullshit detectors than do MTV viewers. In fact, I suspect there's pretty good overlap between the two. However, because networks enable people to share relevant knowledge with those having like interests, the lowest common denominator of informed awareness tends to be much higher online than in broadcast and mass publishing media. In any case, it seems a safe bet that few audiences in any medium have much interest in being packaged for delivery to merchandisers.

Companies that believe marketing equals advertising -- and many seem prone to this fundamental fallacy -- are sure to be thoroughly bummed by these conclusions. However, persisting in this madness on the World Wide Web will have several results: a) audiences will get bombarded by merchandising pitches, b) said audiences will respond negatively, c) sales will therefore not meet with corporate expectations, and d) such websites will have their plugs summarily pulled.

There Must Be Some Way Outta Here

Anyone suggesting that large near-term revenues will result from point-and-click sales transactions via the Internet is either sadly misinformed or outright lying. And companies buying this line are likely to take a very expensive bath without benefit of shower curtain. This is not to imply that the net is an inappropriate or ineffective venue for commerce. Quite the contrary; it will play a major role in that respect. Just not overnight. Let me suggest four prerequisites for genuine electronic commerce to emerge:

  1. Content
  2. Communication
  3. Community
  4. Corporate participation

Webs obviously need to present compelling and useful information, not just catalogs of stuff for purchase. Beyond that, they need to provide facilities to support communication. Today's webservers are often like libraries in which a neutron bomb has been detonated; there isn't even someone to say "SHHHH!" What they are lacking is active and interactive discourse, not just between buyers and sellers, but also -- and critically -- among individual members of the audience. People want to talk to people with similar interests. And by the simple process of doing so, the "lowest common denominator of informed awareness" gets significantly raised, as mentioned earlier. This collaborative sharing of personal knowledge and perspective may be the single greatest differentiator between online and traditional modes of communication.

...share a little of that human touch... Bruce Springsteen

If the content is good and communication is happening, then some form of community may begin to develop, whether the theme be law, education, medicine or Beavis and Butthead reruns. Vendors of products and services relevant to these themes can then participate in the evolution of such virtual communities. To be effective, this participation cannot be in the form of advertising. Instead, companies must bring more and better content to these sites that will serve to attract positive attention.

If this seems too abstract, take another look at Planet Reebok. Like many companies, Reebok may never sell its products over the net, any more than it sells them over the telephone today. Well-oiled distribution channels are not something companies are usually inclined to mess with -- especially in cases like this, where physical presence is necessary for things like measuring someone's foot or test-driving a car. If only for this reason, shoes, cars and many other items will not be sold directly over the net anytime soon.

Money For Nothin'

Will sales increase as a result of non-selling models like Reebok's? Absolutely, though they'll be out-of-band with respect to the medium. While people may come into the shoe store or the car showroom as a result of perusing a company's website, sales will seldom, in these cases, be transacted directly over the net. This has major implications for companies offering Web presence to corporate clients, and planing to charge a percentage of sales for the service.

But does Reebok care where the point of sales is located? Why should they, as long as more people flood into their stores to get their feet measured for the latest way-cool sneaks? Instead of immediate sales, companies might better focus on how their participation with the vast array of micromarkets the Internet represents can help assure such future gains. The real opportunity for companies at this juncture lies in building powerful market positioning, goodwill and mindshare. These may seem soft and fuzzy concepts to traditional marketeers, to whom I would say: hey, look again, this isn't a traditional market! The ultimate win is increased market share relative to competitors who just didn't "get it."

Notice for instance that Nike is invisible on the net (as far as I can determine) while Reebok is racking up huge gains. Personally, I don't give a damn about sports, but I'd buy another pair of Reeboks on the strength of the company's support for Amnesty International. Notice the similarity to Ben & Jerry's, which talks less about ice cream than about Brazilian rain forests and world peace. Is this just cynical opportunism? Maybe. But remember all those finely tuned bullshit detectors on the net. Companies will not be able to fake it here for long. If their participation in the larger world we all share is less than genuine, they might as well have stayed home.

aaaaooooowwwwwww!!! James Brown

My initial intent in this article was to stray as far from right-brain thinking as I could. Nice try. While I suspect Mr. Jones still fails to see the logic, I believe there is one. But that's not what keeps us coming back, any more than sociological analyses of rock and roll keep us popping our fingers and playing air guitar at embarrassing moments (well, some of us). Ultimately, it's not the logic, it's the vibe. The message, if there is one here, is: "she moves in mysterious ways." And U2 can play.


© 1995, 1998 Christopher Locke and Entropy Gradient Reversals
All Rights Reserved (with the exception of quoted song lyrics).