Tag Archives: marketing

Photo credit: Gerald Grote on flickr.com

World without marketing: the hacker utopia of 31C3

31C3 was my first-ever Chaos Communication Congress. If you have never come across it, CCC (or “the Congress” – Wikipedia) is Europe’s largest and most venerable hacker conference, organized since 1984 by the Chaos Computer Club, which in turn is Europe’s oldest and largest hackers association (founded 1981). It is estimated that 12,000 people participated in it. Like everyone else, I absolutely loved it. So many things made me and my fellow travelers (I participated in the Edgeryders assembly) feel welcome, at home and in awe at the same time:

  1. The intellectual firepower. These guys will gladly crowd a lecture on elliptical curve cryptography at 10.00 pm on a Saturday night, then head off to a session on how to design antenna arrays based on Maxwell’s field equations right after.
  2. The playful, take-no-prisoners attitude. You have to love the way the CCC crowd plays with technology, science, philosophy and their own bodies: it’s no holds barred. DJs all night long; the guy 3D printing colorful dildos (by night he plugged the printer next to the dancefloor. I wonder if that was a pickup line?); the internal pneumatic-tube messaging system cheekily nicknamed SeidenStrasse (Silk Road), which is hardly necessary for a conference that boasts having more Internet users and bandwidth than North Korea, but is (apparently) fun to build it, just because you can. The amount of human labor and ingenuity that goes into building stuff that has absolutely no purpose other than being “cool” or “fun” is bewildering. Fun is very serious for this crowd – these are people that will cheerfully dig trenches to lay optic fiber so they get faster Internet at their summer camps.
  3. The wild wild diversity. People from every walk of life showed up to engage in every kind of activity, and there seemed to be a place for everyone (certainly there were toilets for many kinds of creatures). From meditation to bondage workshops from beginners, from gaming to math, from lockpicking to metalworking, from cryptography to cooking. We hanged out a lot with our new friends of Food Hacking Base, who sported some pretty impressive DIY kitchen appliances – and used them to prepare tasty “wormburgers”, based on dried insect larvae. Yum!
  4. The generosity. Most people are at CCC to give something to the community. All workshops I know of were free. You are charged to get in, but 100 EUR is not much for a four-day conference of such a stellar level – I doubt there is much profit in it. Food Hacking Base gave delicious food, free of charge, to anybody who showed up, at any time of the day or of the night.

In the small hours of the third day, when the party was in full swing (with most people dancing, but a few diehards coding away on their laptops, two meters from the dancefloor), it finally hit home: I had not seen a single advertisement in the whole conference (if you don’t count laptop stickers). 31C3 is the most marketing-free public space I have ever been in throughout my entire adult life – OK, except the small, radical events like Living On The Edge, but those are a hundred times smaller. It felt just great to be in a social space, enjoying the company of others, with no pressure whatsoever to buy stuff so that you can conform to some ideal archetype.

It cannot be easy for the CCC crowd to keep marketeers out of their space. Why do they do it? Do they not need money? With 12,000 people with disposable income, companies must be salivating to brand the Congress.

I suspect there might be a connection between the freedom and creativity of CCC and its disdain of marketing. With the desire machine turned off, the pressure to conform to the rich and beautiful people in the commercials goes away. We get extra space in our brain, which we can reallocate to the full range of crazy stuff we, as a society, are actually interested in. All in all, CCC feels much like the early Internet, where indeed commercial activities were forbidden until 1995.

Don’t get me wrong: I have many friends that work in marketing. I don’t mean to invoke a prejudice against the whole discipline. But, after the taste of a world without marketing in CCC, I wonder how, exactly, that discipline is contributing to the advancement of humanity, and if we would not be better without it.

Photo credit: Gerald Grote on flickr.com

A people, not a target group: why advertising thinking can damage the collaboration between people and government

The campaign for this year’s municipal elections in Milan left us with a precious legacy: the awareness that many citizens are willing and able to collaborate with their elected representatives in a constructive way. Thanks to the large number of people involved, their great creative energy, and their Internet tools to coordinate towards common goals, the connected citizenry’s potential to contribute to a much needed general renewal of the country is out of the question. The Italian civil society claimed a role for itself; there was no Obama to summon it. As it turns out, it has proven to be at least as advanced as any other in the world, and possibly more so.

This legacy, it turns out, has a dark side. Besides citizens, the protagonists of the Milanese campaign were Internet communication experts, who tend to have a marketing background. The marketing-derived approach makes sense for election campaigns, because voting has near-zero cost; low thresholds for access; and above all is often driven by non-rational, gut feeling motivations. All of these characteristics carry through to the purchase of consumption goods. So, political communication experts speak the language of marketing and advertising: they tell stories like Nixon losing the presidency to Kennedy because, in the key TV debate, he was sweating. Their job is not to help the citizenry to build a realistic idea of what is needed in the next term, but cajole them into voting for a certain candidate, even if they do it for superficial or wrong reasons. Granted, it is not particularly noble, but it works.

Collaboration between citizens and public authorities is very different from competition for votes, and the analogy with purchase of consumption goods does not carry through. Designing and enacting policies is a high-cost, prolonged activity; it requires rational argument, data, competence. In this context the marketing profession’s seduction techniques don’t work well; what’s more, they risk doing damage. In particular, they risk creating participation bubbles: initially luring into signing up people that later, faced with the exhausting wrangle of designing policy, get disheartened and defect en masse – leaving themselves with a bad experience and others with the chore of reorganizing the whole process. Enacting the wiki government is not about attracting large crowds, but about enabling each and every citizen to choose whether to engage, and just what with, while giving her honest information about the difficulties, the hard work, the high risk of failure associated with participation. Indicators, too, have different meaning than in marketing: in the advertising world attracting more people is always better, whereas in the wiki government there is such a thing as too much participation (it entails duplication of information, with many people making the same point, and reduction in the signal-to-noise ratio, with low-quality contributions swamping high-quality ones).

There is a fundamental difference in the way the decision to engage is modeled: in wiki-style collaboration participants self-select, in marketing the communication experts selects a target in a top-down way. In the former the participant is seen as a thinking adult, that needs to be enabled and informed so that she can make the right decision; in the latter the consumer (or voter) is seen as a stupid, selfish individual that reacts to gut stimulation, and that needs to be led to do what we know must be done. The outcome of collaboration, when it is well designed, is open and unpredictable; the outcome of marketing, when it is well designed, is meeting some target set a priori.

All in all, a shift towards marketing of the discourse on collaboration would be a mistake. An increase in the number of participants to a single process does not automatically mean an improvement; a mayor is not a brand; a willingness to help out is not a trend to be exploited on the short run (and if it is we have no use for it, because collaboration on policy yields results on the medium to long run); and above all citizens are not a target, because they don’t need to be convinced: they need to be enabled to do whatever it is they want to do. It is crystal clear that Italians are up for trying out a collaboration with any half-decent public authority; this collaboration needs space and patient nurturing to grow healthy and strong, sheltered from hype and unrealistic expectations. I hope that the leaders of Italian authorities – starting from the new mayor of Milan Giuliano Pisapia, the leader who best synbolizes the current phase – resist the temptation to frame collaboration as a campaign, citizens as voters, rational conversation as hidden persuasion. Yielding to it would mean shooting themselves in the foot, and wasting an opportunity that the country cannot afford to miss.

Cittadini, non target: perché la cultura del marketing può danneggiare la collaborazione tra persone e istituzioni

La campagna per le elezioni amministrative di Milano ci ha lasciato un’eredità preziosa: la consapevolezza che tantissimi cittadini vogliono e possono collaborare in modo costruttivo con i propri amministratori pubblici. Grandi numeri, grande energia creativa, strumenti Internet per coordinarsi su obiettivi comuni; il potenziale dei cittadini connessi per contribuire ad un rinnovamento generale del sistema paese è indiscutibile. La società civile italiana ha espresso in questa fase una grande autonomia, almeno pari a quella delle più avanzate esperienze internazionali e probabilmente superiore.

Questa eredità, però, ha anche un lato oscuro. Protagonisti della campagna milanese non sono stati solo i cittadini, ma anche gli esperti di comunicazione su Internet, persone e aziende con un retroterra culturale nel marketing. L’approccio derivato dal marketing si presta bene alle campagne elettorali, perché il voto ha un costo basso o nullo; soglie d’accesso inesistenti; e soprattutto motivazioni spesso emotive o irrazionali. Tutte queste caratteristiche si applicano anche all’acquisto di beni di consumo. E così, gli esperti di comunicazione politica parlano il linguaggio della pubblicità e del marketing: raccontano, per esempio, che Nixon perse le elezioni perché, durante il dibattito televisivo con Kennedy, sudava. Il loro lavoro non è aiutare i cittadini a costruirsi un’idea realistica delle politiche che saranno necessarie per i prossimi cinque anni, ma indurli a votare per un certo candidato, anche se votano per ragioni futili o sbagliate. Non sarà particolarmente nobile, ma, dicono, funziona.

La collaborazione tra cittadini e istituzioni è cosa diversa dalla competizione per il voto, e la similitudine con l’acquisto di beni di consumo non regge. Progettare e attuare politiche pubbliche è un’attività ad alto costo e prolungata nel tempo; richiede argomentazioni razionali, dati, competenze. In questo contesto le tecniche di seduzione del marketing non solo non funzionano bene, ma rischiano di fare danni. In particolare rischiano di produrre bolle nella collaborazione: convincere a partecipare persone che poi, di fronte alla fatica del lavoro di progettazione, si scoraggiano e abbandonano in massa il processo – e così facendo rendono l’intera esperienza negativa per sé e caotica per gli altri. Il problema del governo wiki non è attirare grandi folle di partecipanti, ma abilitare ciascun cittadino a scegliere se e dove impegnarsi, senza tacergli problemi, difficoltà e rischi di fallimento connessi con l’impegno. Anche gli indicatori si leggono in modo diverso che nel marketing: lì attirare più gente è sempre un segno di successo, mentre nel governo wiki può esistere la troppa partecipazione (comporta duplicazione dell’informazione, con molta gente che dice le stesse cose, e riduzione del rapporto segnale/rumore, con gli interventi di bassa qualità che sono molti di più degli interventi di alta qualità).

C’è una differenza profonda nei modelli di decisione sottesi alle due modalità: nel governo wiki i partecipanti si autoselezionano, nel marketing è l’esperto di comunicazione che sceglie il proprio target. Nella collaborazione di tipo wiki il partecipante è visto come un adulto pensante, da informare in modo accurato in modo che possa prendere le proprie decisioni, mentre nella pubblicità il consumatore (o l’elettore) è visto come una persona stupida ed egoista, che risponde a impulsi primordiali e che occorre indurre a fare ciò che noi sappiamo già che va fatto. L’esito della collaborazione ben progettata è aperto e imprevedibile, l’esito della pubblicità ben progettata è il raggiungimento di un obiettivo stabilito a priori.

Insomma, uno scivolamento verso il marketing del discorso sulla collaborazione tra cittadini e istituzioni sarebbe un errore. Un aumento del numero di partecipanti a un singolo processo non vuol dire automaticamente un miglioramento; un sindaco non è un brand; una disponibilità a collaborare non è un trend che va cavalcato nel breve termine (e se lo è diventa inutilizzabile, perché il governo wiki produce risultati in tempi medio-lunghi) e soprattutto, le persone non sono un target, perché non vanno convinte, ma messe in grado di fare ciò che già desiderano. È chiaro che gli italiani sono disposti a collaborare con le loro istituzioni; questa collaborazione ha bisogno di spazio e pazienza per potere crescere sana e forte, al riparo dall’hype e dalle troppe aspettative. Mi auguro che gli uomini e le donne delle istituzioni – a cominciare dal nuovo sindaco di Milano Giuliano Pisapia, simbolo di questa fase – resistano alla tentazione di vedere la collaborazione come una campagna, i cittadini come elettori, la conversazione razionale come persuasione occulta. Cedervi significherebbe farsi del male, e sprecare un’opportunità a cui il nostro paese non può permettersi di rinunciare.