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Marketing: Markets As Conversation

Markets are conversations? Is this accurate? I wonder if what we are really doing is marketing the idea of a conversation. Am I having a conversation with you right now? Of course not, I'm posting some writing in a weblog. If this post is picked up, or I link into another weblog, via comments, trackback and links is a conversation emerging? No, thoughts presented as text on a screen are being connected via code...

As a provocation, the statement "markets are conversations" is quite useful in the sense that it points toward a desired state, or something we assume to be better in some way. It helps to jolt us out of the habit of mass, or one to many, communication. It orients our thinking more toward a creative frame of mind in which we seek new possibilities and escape from old habits.

As a metaphor we might ask, "Markets are conversations when..." and also, "Markets are not conversations when..." We can also characterize the kinds of conversations we aspire to, for example, open conversations, quality conversations, authentic conversations, and so on. With each adjective we make an attempt to qualify the character of the conversation. This in turn can help us to understand how new qualities can be pursued in our exchanges with one another that may be of mutual benefit.

Sooner or later the provocation and metaphor will evolve to, "Markets are conversations?"

One of the most basic challenges with this phrase is that it moves the idea of conversation from an oral sensibility to a visual sensibility. Oral conversation involves talking - literally moving our mouths and vibrating our vocal cords. But it is more than that. In a oral conversation we are in the presence of the person we are speaking to. We can see their facial expression, their attire, their body language. We can hear the inflections in their voice and sense the subtle variations in emotion. Even if we are observing a conversation that is just out of ear shot we can pick up numerous clues as to the nature of that conversation.

In a weblog, a "conversation" is visual - of the eyes. When we "talk" on our weblogs we are type words on to a screen. When we observe a "conversation" we are reading words on a screen. The subtle and essential variations of communication found in day to day conversations are far more complex than weblog conversations. A weblog is really a kind of textual avatar, something quite a bit less than our non-textual selves.

The statement "markets are conversations" as something literal is misleading, but as a way to provoke our thinking it is quite interesting. If we do take it too literally, then it also represents one of the most common problems we have in the relationships we create to our technologies - the tendency to assign human qualities and characteristics to technological things. The value in the statement is to provoke us into finding ways of making our technology more human centered and exploring how conversations can do that is useful. The danger is that we assume conversations are actually happening. Markets are not conversations, but there may be ways to add a more conversational aspect to them through the textual avatars we create for ourselves.

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.
- The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Fast Company article speaks to the promise of weblogs. I enjoy weblogging and have found that interesting things do happen. But are we to assume that weblogs, RSS, social networks and the like have spawned a new age of many-to-many communication? Is many-to-many communication a pancea for an over-emphasis on mass communication? Is the conversation everywhere we look on the Internet? Is this conversation an overall improvement, or are there aspects that are better and others that are perhaps less desireable? If genuine expertise is allowed to emerge, would it be safe to assume that other qualities will emerge as well?

The scale of something called a global conversation prevents accessibility. If everyone on this planet posted one weblog message per day what would we have? Safe to say, this is not a conversation. The next line of thought to pursue is to divide this global conversation into manageable parts - tribes, groups, communities reminiscent of the ways in which our globe is divided into continents, countries, provinces, states, cities, towns and villages. We construct borders not only to provide a physical space for a shared identity, but also to provide a manageable place for our interactions. Yet by breaking something down into parts and then attempting to add them back up to achieve the whole, we are left with something less.

Another characteristic of this conversation is that something loosely called "knowledge" is being shared globally at incredible speed. If knowledge can be limited to the appearance of thoughts communciated via text (and other media elements) on a screen then we might be fine with this statement, but is knowledge really that limited? Forgetting that, are there occassions when knowledge being shared at "blinding speeds" is not beneficial?

The idea of "markets are conversations" is useful as a provocation to stir up our creative vitality. It also speaks to the underlying need for all of us to try and communicate more effectively, not necessarily more often, with each other. But like any provocation, it is best thought of as a quick "Whack in the Side of the Head" rather than a thesis to be developed. To assume that a conversation is something that is inherently beneficial is an idea that history has already proven incorrect.

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