I am guilty of these sorts of things. Also known as “Anthems” — but if Sam Eliott narrates it (“Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner) then it rocks.
Too much NPR maybe, but when Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen talks she makes me think of American Splendor’s Toby Radoff
So where are we today with this web thing?
Something is definitely happening, but like Mister Jones you don’t know what it is. It’s about much more than that old web stuff. If you read Mary Meeker’s latest state of the Internet, things are getting seriously goofy. Most people in Indonesia think the Internet = Facebook. Period.
Most people look at stuff through their phones. I think 60% of usage is phone or tablet, so the “mobile first” zealots can pipe down. They won.
Most searches are spoken these days because the bulk of the world’s Internet users are in China and other emerging markets, where I assume literacy rates are a bit lower than New Hampshire’s and people need to say their searches (“Ok Google. Tattoo Removal. Laconia“) rather than do some convoluted finger swiping to make a Sanskrit character that to my eyes looks like it came out of the Klingon dictionary.
Stuff is all over the place now, flowing through the pipes and landing on electronic billboards, the dashboard of your Executive Overlord’s Tesla, Dick Tracy Wrist Watches, Glassholes’ monocles….and who knows what will happen five years from now. Augmented Reality First Person Shooter Porn anybody?
Point being: if you’re still thinking web these days, you’re toast. But old habits die hard and so do old words, terms, and slang.
I think the problem is we’re undergoing Digital Hysteria 2.0. The first wave was back in 1995 when we all laughed at Dan Rather for saying four “W’s” when he tried to say a web address on air like a guy who forgot his helmet one too many times. The one that is happening now has fear behind it. I love fear. Other than sex, nothing gets people fidgety and reaching for their wallets than good old Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.
This is what is probably what is happening behind the scenes: . CEOs have only so much time to absorb “thought leadership” and they aren’t going to read yours. They get a copy of the McKinsey Quarterly and they skim a couple articles that tell them what to do. Those articles talk about made-up things like “digitization” or “digitalization.” One means the phenomenon of growing fingers and toes. I think the other means ripping your old CD collection into MP3s. Anyway, the CEO gets all FUDdy when she hears she’s going to get transformed into the hereafter like ex-garbageman Wayne Huizenga and Blockbuster were by Netflix. So she reads this year’s flavor of Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction (and we all know how scary an Austrian with a Destruction theory can be) and convenes a task force to Digitize the Business.
The board of directors is crawling all over them and they get cotton mouth when they read about Yahoo letting 1.5 billion of our emails, passwords, mother’s maiden names, and shoe sizes slip into the hands of some “state actors” or the poor CEO of Target who got canned after a big security breach breached the company’s cash registers.
So damn right they care about this “digital thing” now. The “website” thing is important and they are scared because it seems expensive and complicated and this “digital disruption thing” feels out of control. “Digalization?” “Transformation? “Paradigm Shift?” “Freedom to Innovate?” Just do something. Anything.
These people aren’t big fans of Squarespace and Wix. They could give a rat’s ass if their CIO and CMO use chisels and stone tablets or a sky writing witch on a broomstick to get it done, they just want it done and done cheap.
So the CIO looks around the World O’Web and realizes things are really ugly. There are 20 content management licenses floating around the company. Websites with logins and passwords no one remembers. Ghost sites taken over by fringe groups using the “talk-back” forum on some abandoned marketing micro-site to plot decapitations or worse. No one knows who commissioned the damn things except they were probably made in 2001 by two aspie hipsters in Brooklyn with a long-gone web agency called “Sucking Chest Wound Digital.” The company’s General Counsel needs to refresh the terms and conditions on every web site the company has to make sure the regulators don’t start issuing fines for some breach of Germany’s new Bundesdatenschutzgesetz (“Don’t Look At Me Goddammit”) privacy regulations. And the CMO is freaked out that the Freedonia website has a home page hero better suited to an R-rated teen slasher flick than a company selling ERP-CRM-SAAS (which, if you say it out loud, sounds like a wicked case of borborygmus).
So the CIO comes in with a plan to quell the anarchy on a cloud-platform with amazing governance capabilities. The lawyer likes that. The CFO sees massive savings in software licenses. But the country managers hear “governance” and they think about the Sphincter Era when they needed to hide their little digital pirate ships. They hear not “governance” and “ROI” but that the No Fun Committee is being reconvened. Remember – this Internet thing was supposed to be about freedom and openness and the democratization of information which wanted to be free – and now it’s about fake news, foreign policy in under 140 characters, and the return of the Process Patrol with their Black Belts in Six Sigma and Conjoined Triangles of Success who get out of the shower to take a piss.
The corporate developers get word that the CIO is out on the golf course or diving into a steak before a night in the Champagne Room courtesy of the sales weasels at Hooli, so they start polishing up their resumes and get ready to revolt because they have snuck in their own illegal open source pirate ships so they can just ship code and get shit done fast without waiting for procurement to buy them a license to whatever is being peddled on the golf course. Lotus Notes anybody? Why fret over bad software when you can download it for free, hack something together in a sprint, and get back to the Settlers of Catan game now in progress?
This is how open source snuck in the back door behind the CIO’s back and now the developers are in total control because they know there isn’t an unlimited supply of Boss Level Coders in the world and they have leverage now by threatening to quit, go to Google, or start Tightpants.com, raise a lot of money, and start competing with the dummies that wouldn’t take delivery from the Cluetrain. All Hail the New Kingmakers. They are in charge now, it’s just the world of enterprise b2b tech marketing and sales hasn’t figured that out yet.
We hold these truths to be self-evident
Mitch Kapor, when asked why Lotus succeeded in the early 80s, said he made a bet that somewhere over the next hill would come the ability to display graphs on IBM PCs. So he designed Lotus 1-2-3 to not only do rows and columns and perform the formulas all spreadsheets perform, he anticipated pie charts and bar charts.
The challenge is about stance and agility. Don’t fight the last war. Look over the hill. I was a goalie and the best advice I heard, the advice that changed the game was: Stay on your toes and anticipate the shot, don’t be stand flat-footed (or flat-skated). The content management world is undergoing one of those “paradigm shifts” right now because a lot of the vendors are fighting the last war, not the next.
First truth. Open Source won. If you make your living charging for software you are dead and don’t know it.
Second truth: proprietary “marketing clouds” are marketing babble for handcuffs. The history of software shows that “suites” of technology are always inferior to best of breed components. But then again adding the word “cloud” to anything makes it better and seem like heaven, doesn’t it?
Third truth: this stuff is the bullseye now. Whatever you want to call this Digital Experience stuff, it isn’t a sideshow anymore. Web Content Management was born in the late 1990s when the CEO needed a corporate website. It was a sideshow. A brochure like they handed out at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store along with Ski Sunapee! tri-folds. Now this “stuff” is the heart of the matter, right at the center of the proverbial tech stack. Look, I don’t know about you but I rather use the damn website than get on the phone or stand in line to renew my license from some mouth-breather at the RMV. Digital is the thing now! Derp. It’s everything now! Duh. So when a company or a big organization looks for the tech they need to deliver it, they have to look at how they are going to connect it to the back office where all the good stuff is – the customer histories, the patient records – and then how to get it out there into the chaotic world of tablets, phones, the Internet of Thangs, and the rest of it.
Oh, and the fourth truth is if it gets hacked they’ll get fired. (nice knowing you Marissa)
Fifth truth: cloud hosting. There. I said it. Hosting. I used to be exhibit A in Wired’s definition of the “Slashdot Effect” in the 1990s after Forbes put Linus Torvalds on the cover and Slashdot sent a bolus of traffic towards Forbes.com and smoked our wimpy servers. Then AOL hosed us again in 1999 when they pimped our List of the Richest Plutocrats on their log-in screen. Moral of the story: when you need your site the most it will fail you.
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
I love this stuff. I really do. I’ve been in the middle of it since I ran the Bibliographic Press and hand set No Smoking signs in the basement of Sterling Memorial Library in 1978 and I am glad for a career that had at least one tenuous theme running through it: tools for publishing stuff. That what I do now for Acquia and I’m at Acquia because of all the truths I just listed. But the future is going to be wildly weird. Content marketers are going to use machine learning to automatically develop custom content and their own special fake news for every visitor based on a total invasion of their personal privacy. And no one will read it and the content marketers are going to be out of work. Someone is going to hack the power grid and put us into the stone age again. Chips will be embedded in our skulls. In the future we’re all going to be Glassholes. But whatever happens, the stupidity will be breathtaking and very funny.
….Because what the world needs more of is little defecating figurines to sneak into the creche between the Wise Men and the Donkey. I think this has potential for a real life Civil War re-enactment in the nativity scene in front of St. Joe’s the Redeemer. Bail money is under the couch cushions.
Anyone who walks into a company today that has been doing this Digital thing for the last twenty years and tries to sell a vision around the Freedom to Innovate and Embrace Digital Transformation is going to experience what tech journalists called the MEGO effect. My Eyes Glazed Over.
Talk to the toilers in the vineyard, the poor souls on the front lines, and just try to pitch them on douche-baggery like “content marketing” or “digital experiences.” You’re going to find they either tune out and start instant messaging to each other during the meeting that you “suck and should have brought Buzzword Bingo cards with you.” These wizened veterans of the web wars know a few things for sure and if you get them grumpy enough they are going to interrupt your pitch to tell you some brutal truths:
- Whatever they are building today is going to turn into a brown banana and need to be redone in 18 months.
- Whatever they are building will fail when they need it the most because web hosting was designed to fail under pressure.
- They have no money, no time, and everybody hates the website.
- Marketing consists of ass clowns.
- Whatever tools you sell them to build said hated website will screw them when it comes time to move to another tool because the CEO lost patience, hired a Chief Digital Officer who doesn’t tuck in their shirt and carries an iPad, has a Bluetooth headset and wants to create a Digital Center of Excellence using some dumb PaaS/SaaS solution the cool kids were talking about at LeWeb. But the CDO has a lot of Twitter followers, so they have influence and are a true Thought Leader.
- If you talk to them like children “Your customers have embraced the Internet and expect a thrilling digital experience” you will become a jerk and be placed in the spam folder.
- If you tell them to “Be responsive and agile and treat every visitor as an individual like Oreos did during the Superbowl when they tweeted during the blackout” you will become a jerk and made fun of and given a new nickname behind your back like “Douche Nozzle Dave the Sales Weasel.”
Look, this is the problem. Remember Chef in Apocalypse Now? The former New Orleans saucier who got off the boat and stepped into the jungle and almost was eaten by a tiger? Don’t get off the boat! Remember him talking about his experience as an Army cook?
“They lined us up in front of a hundred yards of prime rib. All of us. Looking at it. Magnificent meat! Beautifully marbled. Magnifique! Next thing they’re throwing all this meat into big cauldrons. All of it. Boiling it. I looked inside. It was turning grey.” – Chef
That’s what marketers do to perfectly good technology. They feel compelled to run down to the 7-11 and look for a can of Duncan Hines Chocolate Frosting and they smear that goo over their beautifully marbled meat in the hope that Google will find the goo because buzzwords like “Freedom to Innovate” and “Omnichannel Agile Platforms” attract attention because…..well because the competition is saying those things on their website and the Search Engine Marketing firm says those terms are what are hot right now and …..heck, why not?
The horror. The horror.
Finally: Here’s the Deal
Oh my Puritan antecedents are having a conniption after the last election. The state that used to banish chiropractors to New Hampshire, banned tattoo parlors, and closed down like Orthodox Jerusalem on the Sabbath with its “Blue Laws” has legalized the demon weed marijuana.
That’s right, in two days we Bay Staters can start farming our own little God’s Acre of cannibis sativa without a doctor’s note. I’ll miss those days of paranoid dread that my life would be ruined if I had a pot bust on my rap sheet. I’ll miss the red-eyed, dry-mouthed terror when Sully asked, “How long has that van been there?” I’ll miss getting really really really into a bag of Jax and turning the legs of my bell bottomed jeans orange with cheese dust.
Anyway, now that the Thug Life is legal, I think the deal is four or six plants for personal use. So, in anticipation that the state’s collective IQ is about to lawn dart down to Idiocracy levels, I offer this Xmas gift idea:
That’s right. With winter upon us, no one is going to be tending a little patch of stupid out doors, so before you rush out and get some Martian-level hydroponic weed garden with lights that are going to double your electricity bill. Consider the Spacebucket.
Right from the start of the web revolution in the 1990s came what I call the “Sphincter Effect.” Remember, those were the day when websites had Web Masters and if you were some excited person in an organization with a website, and you wanted to participate and get a “page” for your department or brilliant idea, then you had to go to the Web Master to get it done. “Sphincter?” Remember the old joke about all the different parts of the body having an argument about who was the most important? The eyes claimed that if they stayed shut the body wouldn’t see the truck and would get hit crossing the street? The mouth saying if it went on strike the body would starve? Well the winner was the sphincter – the single point of relief.
Webmasters were sphincters. The Tulsa office would ask for a web page promoting its awesome new project to save the Prairie Chicken and the Webmaster would tell them to take a number from the little dispenser at their web deli counter and wait their turn. Well, Tulsa took some inspiration from the old Confucian parable that the “Sky is High and the Emperor is Far Away” and turned to some freebie web tool like Geocities or Microsoft Front Page and before you knew it – as the Web became more and more of a thing – your typical business or institution had a boatload of rogue sites. I know. I watched it happen at Forbes. And soon I came to dread the single scariest question in the world: “Did you know about this?”
The very freedom of the web, the accessibility to anyone in an organization to go to Blogger or WordPress.com and launch their own little piece of digital turf which they can change and play with on their own, without appealing to the Sphincter, meant chaos was inevitable. IDG was out of control when I arrived in 2005. Dear old Pat McGovern, may he rest in peace, made decentralization part of IDG’s DNA when he realized that he was the sphincter and impeding decision making. So he let his country managers and publishers do their own things and they did. Except that came to bite the company on the ass when a big advertiser like IBM expected to make an advertising buy across all of IDG’s publications which ran the gamut from the Industry Standard to InfoWorld to ComputerWorld to PC World – all of which were published in Russian, Tagalog, Portuguese…….
Oh my god the insanity. Anyway, Carrigan fixed the mess, the company federated all of its subscriber databases into one big monster, and before long stopped printing rags like Infoworld and went all in with digital. But the solution was because the content management system and the digital asset management system and the web metrics systems were all centralized.
Lowell Bryan at McKinsey taught me two things in his disarming southern drawl. This is the man who led McKinsey’s Global Strategy Practice. This guy knew a thing or two about strategy and big organizations. The first thing he told me is irrelevant to this screed, but worth repeating:
It takes a brave man to call a baby ugly
And the thing applicable here:
“You have to loosen control without losing control.”
What does that mean for global web management? Simple – give the people on the front lines. The ones who have the content that needs to be updated, the ones who don’t want to wait for the Sphincter to take care of their request, total control over their glass. But do it on a single platform so they won’t go off brand, won’t waste money on stupid software, and won’t break the law by doing some dumb-fuck move. And trust me, people can be counted on to do the wrong thing.
Governing a global web organization doesn’t get any more insane than it did for me at Lenovo. I mean, think about managing “digital experiences” for a company funded in part by the pension fund of the Red Army in a country that blocks Google and Facebook. Even with the Chinese approach to organizational hierarchy and governance, that didn’t stop a country marketing manager in Poland from buying web advertising from some R-rated bikini model site. If you want to break out in a terrifying sweat, try reading an email one morning with the ominous subject line “Did You Know About This?!?!” that contains a screenshot of a Lenovo banner ad on a website campaigning against Tienanmen Square over that famous picture of the dude facing down a tank.
But I sympathize with the marketing manager in the Philippines. He has autonomy over how he spends his budget. He needs to have a homepage that celebrates some weird Filipino national holiday or launch a new campaign around Imelda Marcos Shoe Collection Appreciation Week. Whatever. He needs control locally. Not from the Sphincter and the Committee of No at headquarters. So, piss him off enough and he’s going to launch his own little web pirate ship. Good for him.
Next: You Talk Like a Fag and Your Shit’s All Retarded
What kid wouldn’t get a thrill out of playing Air Raid Warden and cranking out 115 decibels of fun at the playground? This is my Uncle Fester payback for that tin-drum you bought my kid, the bow-and-arrow set that ended up embedded in the windowsill of the neighbor’s master bedroom. You know who you are. I’m coming for your sanity.
Here, for your holiday shopping pleasure, is the Superior Airhorn company’s personal air-raid klaxon (with carrying bag).
“Manual Hand Crank Operated Air Raid Siren. Will produces a loud adjustable sound of 110 decibels. Made out of durable plastic (ABS) housing. Ideal for getting peoples attention, or rooting for your favorite team in sporting events, and many other uses. Comes with a carrying case.”
WARNING: This puppy is loud. I just blew my ear drums when I listened to a sample through my headphones at work.
The first “electronic content management system” I ever saw was back n 1980 when I had to transcribe a 600-page crappy novel I wrote in college. The school hired a typist who had a Wang word processor – basically a mini-computer with floppy disks the size of Frisbees. I sat at that thing after years of using an electric typewriter and a bottle of Wite-Out and my mind was blown forever when I realized “Cut-and-paste “on that thing was as awesome as a New Guinea cargo cultist seeing a Bic lighter for the first time.
Then I landed in the newsroom at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune and was told to figure out the new Hastech editorial system. I mastered that thing and was the unofficial newsroom guru who knew all the keyboard shortcuts and could split a screen into four different windows with a couple ninja moves of my fingers. Then PC Week and Atex came into my life. Then Forbes into more Atex, dialing in with a 1200 bps modem using a command line utility called “Send-Fetch”, Quark for page layout. And on and on until the dawn of the Internet in 1994 when Mitch Kapor showed me his private Internet connection in his Kendall Square office and let me see the wonders of TCP/IP, Gopher, Veronica, WAIS, Pine, Usenet and finally, the World Wide Web.
The Web was pretty obvious. I mean duh-level obvious. The underlying technology wasn’t proprietary (I think TCP/IP is the most important single technology of the 20th century), the network topology was designed to survive a nuke (but not a baby monitor or web cam), and anyone could get into it for low to no money. When Kapor showed me a website with a picture and a blue underlined word that led to another website with another picture and more underlined blue words I instantly saw the future of electronic publishing which had been tempting publishers for over a decade.
I decided to figure it out. I had been messing around with hypertext, using Microsoft’s engine for building its help-pop-ups to turn the rules that governed yacht racing into a hyperlinked, interactive product. But the Web was different so I shifted my reporting away from PCs and multimedia CD-ROMs and mainframes and focused on the commercialization of the Internet. I started reading and that led me into the world of mark up languages and document processing.
I became a serious SGML geek (Standard Generalized Markup Language). I was all over document mark up languages and found myself in deep discussions with Charles Goldfarb, the Father of SGML, the ISO standard for page description formats out of IBM that was the ancestor of HTML. Goldfarb wanted me to ghostwrite a book with him about SGML. I wanted to build a website.
SGML and Goldfarb introduced me to the the late Yuri Rubinsky, who founded a company in Toronto called Softquad that developed the first commercial HTML authoring tool – HoTMetaL. Yuri gave me beta access and I used HoTMetaL to develop the first prototype of Forbes.com in the winter of 1995 – the super crude and ugly version that ran on a ThinkPad and an Iomega Zipdrive which I demoed to the Forbes brothers before being told “Nice job kid, now here’s a ticket to Columbus, go run our CompuServe project.”
Oh the agony, but I wasn’t deterred. Messing around with HoTMetal led me to Charles Ferguson and Randy Forgaard at Vermeer Technologies and a sneak peek at FrontPage, the first wysiwig web building tool which I wrote about in Forbes and kept a close eye on as Microsoft acquired it in 1996 for $133 million. Ferguson went on to write a book about the Vermeer experience called High St@kes, No Prisoners and produce and direct Inside Job which won an Academy Award for best documentary.
While I was losing my soul at CompuServe and also managing Forbes’ Prodigy deal, I was still spending my free time on web stuff. I worked on a DIY content management system for Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing. My partner, Thorne Sparkman raised some money to pay some coders in Berkeley to give us the tools to manage a very popular niche community site. We wanted to extend page management capabilities out to the fishing guides who sponsored the site, so they could have their own web presence under our umbrella. It worked. Sort of.
When Forbes.com launched we coded the site by hand (basically using Notepad to write the page source code) – via the webmaster John Moschetto and the graphics department under Dustin Shephard and TK – eventually testing tools like Dreamweaver and other site builders. We looked at Vignette after that CMS was spun out of C-Net, but the requirement to have a TCL coder on staff who could manage and build page templates soured us. Forbes didn’t have the cash to buy a CMS, so in all my time there from 1995 to 2000 we were pretty manual, using some database publishing to automate production, but always wishing for something with workflow and version control and other nice things that were always in reach, but never in house.
We knew we wanted dynamic content. We wanted pages that could display real-time stock quotes, charts, pages that would let visitors to Forbes.com sort its list of the Richest People in the World by country or industry. We did it. Bill Gates even used our database of the richest people (which he led by the way ) in his demonstrations of Microsoft’s IIS webserver capabilities (we were early ASP fans).
Then Forbes.com co-founder Om Malik turned me onto WordPress in 2001 after I launched this blog on Pyra Labs’ Blogger, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.
After the bubble popped in 2000 I bailed on Forbes and was on the team at McKinsey that built one of the first global knowledge management systems under Mussie Shore – the former Lotus engineer now at Google. That was pretty effing slick and supported a digital asset management system, streamed audio and video, and pulled together the company’s army of consultants and their Powerpoints into a pretty nifty project called Business Knowledge Services. We were into digital asset management, and multimedia publishing and all that stuff. Search was key.
2005, I went back to media, this time at International Data Group – the late Pat McGovern’s tech publishing empire – where I was on the team that started to “federate” the company’s 300-some publications onto a common platform. I turned off a DIY content management system that was the equivalent of life-time employment for the only person who knew how to work it, and was part of CEO Bob Carrigan’s big move to federate the entire tower of babel under IDG’s CIO Nancy Newkirk on Interwoven Teamsite. The politics were brutal so I left.
I left for Lenovo before IDG’s Interwoven platform was implemented, but I called up Interwoven’s sales engineer – Tom Wentworth – and let him sell me another Teamsite license for the new Lenovo.com as it made the transition from IBM.com/PC to its new home as a serious ecommerce site that could match Dell’s configure-to-order system. The problem there was massive. Global web production for 60 countries over 28 languages and total anarchy and ill-will as the country marketing teams wanted control over their digital identities but headquarters wanted some efficiencies and brand discipline. We were struggling with the concept of a web “Center of Excellence” and a “site factory” before some marketer or “thought leader” decided to coin those words in their marketecture.
Next: The Revolution Against Our Sphincter Overlords