Competition, Web 2.0, and Cluetrain

I hate Web 2.0.

I mean I hate the term. People throw it around all the time, and it even comes up in conversation at parties:

“So, what’s your cute friend Sarah doing?”

“Oh she’s doing publicity for this fabulous Web 2.0 company in the dress-swapping community.”

“That’s so cool — can you give me her phone number?”


It turns out Web 2.0 is like “freedom of speech” — something that a lot of people think they understand, but do not. I think I understand it better than most, but when you have such honest disagreement about what the term means, it’s difficult to come to consensus.

Now, even as I hate the term, I like most of the websites designated as “Web 2.0” despite there being no consensus on what that actually means. Digg is a cool little site; I use pretty often to find new music; Wikipedia is indispensable; and many blogs are very educational and some are top-notch entertainment. The reason is that Web 2.0 (in my not so humble opinion) is really a set of principles, like Agile is in software development, that guide business practices. Those business practices in turn drive features and rules for websites for those particular businesses. And I like those business practices, principles, and what they imply for our world.

I happen to believe that the roots of “Web 2.0” lay in the Cluetrain Manifesto, first published in 1999 — at the height of the first dotcom bubble. If you’re in marketing, and you don’t know what cluetrain is, you seriously owe it to yourself and to your employer and to your customers to go read at least the 95 theses and the first chapter.

In the first chapter, while discussing how the Web as we knew it (in 1999) came to be, the authors of Cluetrain Manifesto explained it as succintly as anyone ever has:

Well, OK, a few things did happen in between. One of those things was that the Internet attracted millions. Many millions. The interesting question to ask is why. In the early 1990s, there was nothing like the Internet we take for granted today. Back then, the Net was primitive, daunting, uninviting. So what did we come for? And the answer is: each other.

The Internet became a place where people could talk to other people without constraint. Without filters or censorship or official sanction — and perhaps most significantly, without advertising. Another, noncommercial culture began forming across this out-of-the-way collection of computer networks. Long before graphical user interfaces made the scene, the scene was populated by plain old boring ASCII: green phosphor text scrolling up screens at the glacial pace afforded by early modems. So where was the attraction in that?

The attraction was in speech, however mediated. In people talking, however slowly. And mostly, the attraction lay in the kinds of things they were saying. Never in history had so many had the chance to know what so many others were thinking on such a wide range of subjects. Slowly at first, a new kind of conversation was beginning to emerge, but it would achieve global reach with astonishing speed.

So if you read the 95 theses, then you know that cluetrain believes markets are conversations. From the above you read that the basis of the Internet, from back in the green phosphor UNIX days of yore, is the ability for people to talk to each other.

Look at most of the top so-called Web 2.0 companies today. What they do, essentially, is provide a space for conversation — then they more or less get out of the way. Facebook is actually empty, if you think about it — Facebook itself produces nothing but the infrastructure. They’re like the hotelier who builds a hotel and waits for conventions and tradeshows to come make it interesting. It’s the members who produce all of the things that make Facebook interesting. Same thing with Wikipedia, Digg, Techmeme, Flickr,, and even supposedly “Old Web” companies like Ebay and Amazon (in its reviews).

So, with the above agreed on (for the sake of discussion if nothing else), where does the Blog fit into this?

I think it’s fairly obvious that the Blog is just a voice in the conversation. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Thing is, what we do isn’t “web 2.0” — it isn’t even particularly innovative in any way. Since Gutenberg’s time, people have been “blogging” — except they were using dead trees and ink to do it. Newspapers and magazines have been putting forth a voice in the conversation for hundreds of years. They still do, no matter the rise of the digiterati.

Some bloggers, when they get big enough and attract enough of an audience, make a lot of money from advertising. Some folks have called such blogs “web magazines” clarifying that in fact what we do is really no different than some poor schmuck at Pinch’s operation in Times Square does day in and day out.

Well, that is… what we do is no different from a technique standpoint (stringing words together). It is, however, dramatically different if we adopt the cluetrain mindset.

This is just an enormously long winded way of talking about competition in the real estate blogosphere. The Real Estate Tomato recently published a post called “7 Reasons Why Your Local Real Estate Blogging Peers Are Not Your Competition“. It’s interesting and worth checking out in full.

I just noticed one section that really got me thinking about competition in the blogosphere, and by extension, in the Web 2.0 world. The Tomato wrote:

2. Build Win-Win Relationships

Show an interest in your neighbors real estate blog, and they and their audience will show an interest in yours.

This is such a foreign concept for many agents that have been fighting for client loyalty for so many years. But the truth of the matter is that it is precisely this reciprocating effort that will be the difference between a good blogger and a great blogger.

Initiating conversations in emails and in the comments of your peers’ blogs will both establish the recognition of your name and your blog as well as help you earn their trust and their visit.

Bringing local Realtors and their audience to your site to contribute to the discussions on your platform is the reward. But, you’ll need to make the first (or many) effort(s) by playing nice on theirs.

This is certainly another instance of:
Keep your friends close, and your enemies competition even closer.

Now… keep in mind that I’m operating in very much of a cluetrain mindset when I do blogging at all. I’ve got enough positioning and marketing and such to do in my day job that I will not do it on my personal space. I don’t use Notorious R.O.B. to market something, or promote my services, or whatever. So there’s probably a pretty big disconnect between me and those agents who are blogging to generate leads or promote themselves to the local market. Lots and lots of caveats today.

Having said that, doesn’t the above advice strike you as being a little bit… like unto a sleazebag?

I mean, imagine if you went to a party and struck up a conversation with some attractive young woman/man. You’re having a great time talking about Rob Reiner movies or whatever. Then you find out that the only reason why s/he was talking to you was to get a job in your company or sell you something.


Maybe that’s why I tend to dislike trade shows and industry networking events. They feel like those huge tanks they have in aquariums where sharks circle endlessly, while the chum dart hither and thither to avoid catching their notice.

Why would it be any different simply because you’re doing it online instead of in person?

I comment on other people’s blog; I often use my own blog to comment on stuff I read elsewhere. I don’t do it to earn their trust and their visit. I appreciate it when people do notice, when people do visit, but that isn’t why I wrote the damn post. I have a blogroll, like everyone else, and I add sites I like to it. But I have never asked for a reciprocal link back. Because it isn’t about that. If someone finds my blog worthy of linking to, then he’ll link to it. If he doesn’t, then he won’t. Either way, if I think his blog is saying interesting things, then I’ll link to it. Because what he says is interesting, period.  If it’s not interesting, then I won’t link to it no matter how many emails he sends me, or comments he puts on my site.

Markets are conversations.  The Internet is the last remaining frontier of authentic communication (and confrontation as well) where people aren’t censored, aren’t told what you can and can’t say by some PC thought police.  If you’re anonymous, no one cares what you look like, or where you went to school, or how much money you’ve got: you are judged purely on the substance and style of what you contribute to the conversation.

What Tomato is suggesting is tantamount to turning conversations into markets.  I know that may be what salespeople do, and real estate agents do amongst their friends and family, but honestly, guys, that’s a little bit of a turnoff.

So I have a different suggestion than Tomato’s:

Build actual relationships, not Win-Win relationships.

Stop giving a shit about “who’s winning” and “who’s losing” (in the real world, that is, not in the rhetorics of cyberspace) and give a crap about how the conversation is going.  Just write, just blog, just comment, just email, without expecting a thing in return, and trust that as the conversation spreads, as your contribution is noted, people will notice.  And somewhere down the line, that may result in a fee or two for you.  But please do not go into it like some networking fiend working a party at Inman or something, wanting to schmooze this guy or kiss ass to that blogger or whatever.

Reciprocation is not the hallmark of a great blogger (vs. a good blogger).  Writing is.  If you can write with wit, style, and knowledge about any particular topic, then guess what?  You’re a great blogger on that topic.

Reciprocation is just the hallmark of a nice guy, and while that can be helpful, how many blogs have you seen that is basically just a link farm with totally asinine press-releases-as-articles?  Likely, such a “blog” was astroturfed by some big company’s interactive marketing agency just to raise organic SEO profiles or some crap.

So… let me conclude this… rant?  advice?  thoughts? with this:

Get on the cluetrain.  Recognize that Web 2.0 means authentic conversations.  Then ask, what is the meaning of “competition” in that world of real, genuine, authentic engagement?


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