Return of the Bazaar

by Doc Searls

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand...nor look through the eyes of the dead,nor feed on the spectres in books.You shall not look through my eyes either,nor take things from me.You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself. —Walt Whitman

I sense an era ending.

Of course that's an easy call when the economy is falling like a bad tent, but there's something more subtle and serious than the Law of Cycles at work here. I think what's happening is a widespread reacquaintance with reality—the reciprocal of disillusionment. It shows up in what we're not buying: needlessly faster computers, humorless comedies on TV, specious investment schemes, vacuous campaign promises and promotional malarkey in all its forms.

This seems to go beyond skepticism, mass ennui and declines in disposable cash, though all those factors play. It comes from sane judgment—the kind that rises from conversations with people we trust, rather than from herd mentalities or propaganda machines that try to command and control what we think, eat, buy and love. More significantly, it comes from our own sense of self-worth.

Around two years ago, I was involved in just such a conversation. There was a growing sense among the four participants that together we knew something that each of us alone couldn't quite sum up. Finally, after a couple months of back-and-forth, one of us (Christopher Locke, aka RageBoy) put what we all knew into a few simple words: “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers, and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.”

Soon as we heard it, we knew we had to say it again, louder and in more detail, because we were speaking for the billions of other people who also sensed the same thing but hadn't started talking about it yet. The result was The Cluetrain Manifesto.

More than a few people (occasionally including myself) have thought that Cluetrain was mostly about the shift of market power from supply to demand. While that's true, I think Cluetrain was also about returning to the true meaning of the word market, which finds its best synonym in bazaar--a place where people come to do business and make culture.

Markets were around for thousands of years before we started using the word to label product categories, geographies, demographic groups and demand itself. All those uses awaited the rise of industry, which began about two hundred years ago. Throughout the Industrial Age, talk about markets has been mostly a supply-side activity. When we hear consumer electronics, office supplies, Mexico and BMW drivers all referred to as “markets”, we hear the supply side talking to itself. To the demand side, the market is still mostly a place to shop—a bazaar.

Nothing has done more to raise bazaar consciousness than the Open Source movement, starting with Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar. While Eric didn't have much to say about markets per se in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, he did much to popularize the bazaar as a conceptual metaphor. Google counts 355,000 web pages that contain the word bazaar, and I would bet at least half of them wouldn't be there if Eric hadn't spread the meme. And what better conceptual metaphor for market than its most literal synonym?

So now the Open Source movement finds itself with two jobs. One is explaining itself, and the other is explaining what markets are really about. We already know the first isn't easy. Neither is the second.

For generations we've been looking at both business and markets from the industrial producer's position—one so corrupted by the abstraction of demand that it can barely comprehend the face-to-face, keyboard-to-keyboard nature of life in the bazaars that markets naturally long to be. What we call “consumerism” is really producerism, a tired ideology that believes it can forever categorize and organize markets for its own convenience.

For a case in point, try to buy a computer from a mass producer. If you're going to the biggest sources—Dell or Gateway—be prepared to declare your category. No, not “server”, “desktop” or “laptop”. We're talking about your category here. What are you? they ask. Are you a consumer, a business or something public like a local, state or federal government? Those are the cattle chutes through which these producers want customers to click their way toward a purchase.

That's rather annoying if you think of yourself more as connoisseur than category. But who are you? More accurately, what are you? To mass-producers, you're a consumer. Your job is to consume. Or, in the perfect words of Jerry Michalski, you are a “gullet”. That is, a creature “who lives only to gulp products and crap cash”.

Millions of dollars move through Dell's cash plumbing every day and not much less through Gateway's. Near as I can tell, there isn't much negative burpage on the gullet side of the two companies' transaction mills. Both enjoy wide regard as exemplary producers. Their products tend to show up at or near the tops of ranked reviews. So does their customer support. This begs a fair question: what's the problem here?

Maybe, for Dell and Gateway, there isn't one. But I'm not so sure. I think Dell and Gateway are just stuck with default mass-marketing metaphors they'd rather do without if they knew how customer-hostile those metaphors really are.

I was looking for data on the matter a few weeks ago when I visited my new local Gateway Country Store. Wearing my invisible objective journalist hat, I tried to be as positive and open-minded as possible. It wasn't easy. The first thing I noticed after passing through the door was a display on a kiosk that was brain-locked into an error message that nobody had bothered to correct, even though sales people seemed to outnumber the customers. While I'm sure the electronic corpse on the kiosk had been dead for hours, mere seconds passed before I was engaged by a sales guy. A surreal conversation followed.

“What do you have right now?”

“Well, we run a home office with a bunch of Linux and Mac boxes,” I said. “We've got DSL running to the house, and the boxes are all hubbed through Ethernet and a router to the Net. I'm thinking of getting an all-purpose Windows box, running the same software my accountant uses, testing out some multimedia stuff...”

“Then you want Windows 98.”

“Really? 98? Not Millennium Edition or 2000?”

“You can't run games or multimedia on Windows 2000.”

“Really? Why not?”

“You can't use sound on a network.”


“Windows 2000 is a network OS. It doesn't do sound, except with drivers we don't support. And if you're running a network you don't want any of your employees downloading and playing MP3s at work.”

“I do that all the time.”

“If you're running games or multimedia you're doing consumer stuff. You want the consumer OS. If you want to set up a business network, you need to talk to somebody on our business staff.”

Eventually I left without buying anything. Meanwhile I observed that the place didn't seem very busy, even though this was the height of the Christmas season. I also noticed that Gateway was trying its best to do consumer marketing here. In other words, herding consumers into corrals where they could be further sorted into one sales chute or another. Nothing new, of course, except that it felt real old.

Yeah, we're in an economic malaise right now. But I've also been to Fry's and Best Buy, and those guys didn't seem to be hurting for customers. They also don't seem to be going out of their way to make customers declare their categories. Maybe that's because they're real stores, not just channel strategies, which means they're about markets, not just marketing. In real markets—bazaars—customers have choices. The more, the better. That's what we like most about Fry's and Best Buy, especially since prices for the same products are in the same low range.

Choice matters on the supply side as well, and it doesn't just take the form of the plethora. Those of us who operate with the most autonomy and honesty on the supply side do so by choice. We seek out the best work of our peers, take an interest in it, borrow from it, talk about it, join in on some work or go off and do our own thing. In traditional market terms, what we practice is our craft. There is maximum choice on our side as well as the customer's. That's how a bazaar—a real market—works.

Can big industrial producers have crafts? I think they can, as long as they maximize the choices on both the supply and the demand sides of their markets. That means they have to be open. They have to expose the source of what makes them worthwhile as a company in the world: namely, their own employees.

“In the past, people were cheap and technology was expensive,” Don Marti says. “Now it's the other way around.” In that case, producers need to expose exactly what makes the company most valuable in the marketplace, and then trust the market to do what markets do best.

Maybe then they'll start listening to what we've been saying out here in the software bazaar. And we can listen to them, too.

In fact, it's already happening.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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