Where there is no imagination there is no horror.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses and oppresses.
Robin Wood British film critic

Entropy Gradient Reversals

Scream III

Well, Sports Fans & Valued Readers, it turns out I'm giving a talk in Denver on Friday (11/6/98) at the Rocky Mountain Internet Expo. Here's how it's billed on their site:
Scream III:
Horror Stories From the World Wide Web

Technology and implementation issues often crowd out all others when companies construct their web strategies. However, these are typically not the greatest challenges facing such projects. While technology is clearly important, expectations and assumptions about the medium itself -- and the qualitatively different type of market attitudes it has spawned -- are far more likely to determine failure or success. Understanding these differences doesn't involve rocket science or academic handwaving, yet these surprisingly simple lessons are too often learned the hard way.

The speaker will share his personal experience of some costly failures -- with emphasis on how not to replicate them -- and provide successful counter-examples that are winning over whole new markets.

Yeah, yeah, OK, so I wrote that myself. But I haven't yet figured out what I'm actually going to say. I hate this.

I'm feeling more than usually cantankerous today because a dozen people just unsubscribed from EGR, ostensibly in reaction to that last thing I sent around suggesting we should all wear ape suits for John Glenn's return from space. Jeez, people have no sense of humor at all anymore! However, maybe it's just that they expect greater substance. You know, some of that penetrating punditry and laser-like analytical insight I'm supposedly so famous for. God, I hate this.

But having demonstrated the bad judgment to sign up for this speaking gig, I guess I have to say something to this crowd. And it probably can't be the usual "korporate websites like suck, man!" I guess I'm going to have to see if I can say something a bit more cogent this time. Needless to say, I hate this. But here goes.

I have personally witnessed the squandering of hundreds of millions of dollars on misguided and misbegotten commercial web initiatives. While my intention here is not to name names and point fingers, this firsthand experience does inform the views delivered below. They are not just the armchair whinings of a disgruntled zinester -- though, of course, they're all that as well.

Let's examine the Seven Deadly Web Sins that seem to beset companies -- especially, but not exclusively, large ones. These are nearly always the root causes of why corporate web efforts bomb. Some very large and seemingly successful sites have these problems today. While they have not yet failed, I predict they will eventually go down like the Titanic unless they take a long hard look at how these attitudes and practices affect what they set out hoping to achieve.

  1. Greed
    Greed is not about wanting to make money. All of us want to do that, and companies have to. In contrast, greed is about being unable to think of anything else. When money is the sole motivator, it shows. Internet markets are smart markets. From many a virtual mile away, they can smell sites that telegraph the message: "Hey! We're here to make a buck off you rubes!"

    Aside from vastly increased profits, there are other reasons a company might want to have a website:

    • to cement relationships with current markets through better customer service
    • to become more attractive to new prospects
    • to better position itself vis-à-vis competitors
    • to attract new investment

    ...and so on. Obviously, the prospect of making money isn't an afterthought in any of this. However, if the assumption going in is that a website has to break even in three months and turn into the Midas Touch in six, its not going to last very long. Yet this sort of assumption is a common one today.

    A side effect of the more-revenues-as-fast-as-possible approach is that the resulting site will not reflect any real enthusiasm or true passion for its subject matter. Worse, it may very well communicate false passion.

    Oh Wow! We're Just So Excited About Our Kew-el New Offering...

    Gag! Retch! To net-savvy audiences, this is the equivalent of being served a steaming hot SkunkBurger at McDonald's. Not-so-by-the-way, many suitish types assume that "net-savvy" equates to old die-hard Unix heads who still prefer command-line FTP and Lynx browsers. Wrong. As I'm using the term here, a net-savvy user is anyone who's had an AOL account for more than three months and has an IQ above 45.

    The message here is: even if you are a pack of greedy bastards, try to at least file your teeth down a little. Look as if you're committed and have come to stay, not like you'll be gone the second you realize the web might actually cost you something. Talk about horrors!

    Even better is to really believe what you're doing. Bring something of value instead of another T-shirt, sweepstakes or brain-damaged software download that does nothing more than suck system resources to display your million-dollar corporate logo.

    But what do online audiences perceive as having genuine value? After you've finished wringing your hands over this one in innumerable meetings and wading through innumerable abstract analyst reports, pull up a browser and surf around a spell. You'll get the vibe if you just hang out a while and stop thinking about all those easy profits about to fall into your lap.

  2. Arrogance
    So you spent a huge wad on web banners. So what? Let's hope you saved a buck-twenty-five for a cup of coffee, because maybe that's all it's really worth. You've got your site up and hummin' loaded with the latest shockem-sockem javajazz -- but no one gives a damn. What's up with that?

    Your brand should be bringing those golden eyeballs winging in, you say? Are you familiar with the expression "LOL"? Look, wise up. Most of the people online are like 12 years old. They never heard of your frickin brand. OK, so some are actually over 20, but still, who cares about you and your slick brochureware site? And why should they?

    Arrogance takes many forms online, the foremost of which is assuming you already know it all. Large companies are especially susceptible to thinking that because they're big, because they've got revenues in 99 figures, they're bound to win at anything they try. Guess again.

    Here's a question for ya. Would you open a car dealership without ever having driven an automobile? If you did, you'd probably want to load up on cheap car insurance. Weird concept you may think. You might find it ever weirder though -- I sure did -- to discover how many so-called "Internet Executives" have never spent any time on the web. And sorry Charlie, but protesting "My secretary takes care of that" is just not an acceptable response. Which brings us to...

  3. Cluelessness
    Cluelessness is the objective correlative of "not getting it," a somewhat mystical concept that we'll take a pass on this time around. However, we're not talking mysticism here. Call it "unfamiliarity with the medium" if you prefer. Call it whatever you like, we're talking about high-level management types who think Yahoo is browser, who can't tell a modem from a fire hydrant, who literally don't know where the ON switch is. These are real examples, by the way, taken from real life -- or as close to real life as it gets in some of our more surrealistic corporate "web-centric" wannabes. And yet, many of these same people are responsible for defining and administering high-budget "e-commerce" plays. You can meet them in droves at Internet World.

    Is the problem here that these corporations somehow missed out on enlisting the requisite talent? No way. They've got cadre upon cadre of technical adepts, most of whom don't come cheap these days. But do they listen to them or -- heaven forfend! -- ask their advice? Of course not. That would be showing weakness. Or at the very least, admitting ignorance.

    A well-known analyst outfit is currently putting together a report on why companies with bigtime web plans are operating in that regard at something like 10% efficiency. (I know about this because I contributed to the study.) Again, the problem isn't lack of people or incompetent or lazy people. In fact, the talent is ready to rock and roll. The real culprit is a little number called...

  4. Bureaucracy
    U.S. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover was once quoted in The New York Times as saying: "If you're going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy; God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won't."

    An in-depth analysis of what's wrong with bureaucracy would get us hopelessly sidetracked here. In a nutshell, though, this authoritarian hierarchical management style was developed in the heyday of mass production when products were few, product cycles were long, and all the requisite know-how could still be presumed to reside at the top of the management food chain. Getting products out was simply a matter of telling people precisely what to do.

    This is no longer true. Today's products and services depend on the coordination of enormous and widely distributed knowledge. The problem is really power. The guys at the top may be dumb as a brick, but they'll be damned if anyone "under them" is gonna tell them what to do!

    The typical bureaucracy is not unlike a Communist collective; no one really owns anything. Some faceless functionary way up the chain of command is ultimately responsible for the final product or service, so why bother trying to do the best job? It'll only be revised by some VP six layers removed. In contrast to Total Quality, this institutionally reinforced mindset underpins the "Yeah, Well, Whatever" school of web design.

    Thus, while many organizations do have the expertise they need to create great web sites, its application is often blocked by senior management. This is of course the responsibility of the Department of Business Prevention. And don't kid yourself, every company has one. Much of the talent locked up in this process is technical, but not all of it. There are also those people who create what this industry delights in calling "content" -- as if it were something you got from a can and poured into a pie shell.

  5. Bombast
    If bureaucracies have no soul to speak of, neither do they have a genuine voice. If web content often reads as if it were written by committee, that's because it probably was. The customary result is bombast: humorless hype, hysterical specsmanship and boring valued-subtracted anti-information. If visitors to such a site already know they want something specific, they'll simply ignore this blather and hunt around for what they came looking for. If, on the other hand, they came to investigate whether they might be interested, they'll probably go away with the notion that everyone in the company is forced to wear a clown suit.

    In an article I wrote for The Industry Standard called Fear and Loathing on the Web, David Weinberger says: "The dogs have it right. Customers want to take a good long whiff. But companies so lobotomized that they can't speak in a recognizably human voice build sites that smell like death."

    Human beings simply don't talk to each other the way most marketeers still try to talk to human beings. Given the enormous flows of person-to-person information exchange now taking place via email, newsgroups, web conferencing systems and chat rooms, everyone seems to understand this except the big corporations building bloated high-dollar web sites. In fact, falling down laughing at the comical results of these egregious failures to communicate has become a highly popular Internet pastime.

  6. Senility
    Here we don't mean the senility that sometimes comes with advanced years, with its attendant loss of memory, inflexible attitudes and general pissed-off grumpiness. However, the effects are the same. Thus, it is perfectly possible to have a senile manager in his or her 20s (research has shown that MBA programs are often the proximate cause).

    A prime example of corporate senility is the continued collective wish for the web to be transformed -- perhaps by the Tooth Fairy -- into television. "If only it were like TV!" bemoans the Chairman to his Loyal Troops. "Goldurn it! This dubya-dubya-dubya thing is just another advertising medium is all it is! Why, in my day, we woulda licked this whippersnapper into shape in nothin flat! Hell, we woulda just bought the sucker!!!"

    Yeah, well, why don't you just go and have a nice nap, Pops...

    I'm not suggesting that change is always (or maybe ever) a good thing in itself. However, an inability to accept the fact that something critical is no longer as it once was is the very definition of dysfunctionality. The web is not TV. A mouse is not a channel changer. And no amount of song-and-dance to the contrary means a damn thing. Companies that are strategically dependent on this delusion are sleeping late and in for an extremely rude awakening.

  7. Inattention
    After the first six Deadly Sins in this lineup, inattention may not seem like such a big deal. It starts with little things. The graphic isn't loading on your homepage, the form is broken, the page has 404'd, the CGI script has gone South, the ColdFusion tags are messed up, the phone number is wrong, client names are misspelled, the mailto button doesn't mail to anyone, and the mega-herzified super-extra-configurated Lotus Notes server took a powder for reasons unknown -- which are nevertheless being reported to ten million users in gloriously arcane detail.

    Trust me, it's a big deal. If God is in the details, as the saying goes, then sites like this have the Devil to pay. But metaphysics aside, the real problem is not all the pesky little screwups this causes, but the inattention itself. It's a symptom of something deeper and far more dangerous: that no one really owns the operation, no one really cares. Some companies seem to believe their markets aren't paying attention either. But they're wrong. Every typo, every 404, every sloppily formatted piece of email is another nail in the corporate coffin.

    Because if they don't care, why the hell should we? While laughing at organizational lamers is amusing for a while, let's face it, there are a lot better ways to have fun online.

Taken together, these attitudes, assumptions, proclivities and the plain old dunderheaded blunders they almost always lead to make a lot of sense. In a perverse sort of way, that is. None exists in isolation from the others. Instead, all are part of a single constellation of problems that has been coming together -- some would say congealing -- long before the Internet appeared on the scene.

In the face of global competition, industrial corporations had to radically revise their business practices and traditional notions about uncoordinated stove-piped departments and divisions -- had to painfully revise long-held notions of command-and-control management. This was in the early '70s in non-sexy low-tech atomic-not-digital industries like manufacturing. Thanks to advances in computing and the Internet, the speed and dynamism of change have since accelerated by orders of magnitude. Why is it, then, that computing and Internet companies feel they are exempt from the same sort of painful soul searching and organizational redesign?

As the blurb for this talk suggested, such a reassessment needn't entail lengthy and expensive rocket science or the high-powered hucksterism typically associated with "business process reengineering." It's a lot simpler than all that.

Chances are good that the market for your product or service is not primarily constituted of bigwig industry executives who spend half their time preening at conferences, patting each other on the back for their "insight" and "vision," and the other half bossing people around.

No, the market looks a lot more like people who get bossed around -- by dimwit Dilbertesque executives with hyperinflated egos and way too few clues.

Hey now, Mr. Web-Centric Business Guy, this is curious, is it not? The market looks a lot like your own workforce! Which you boss around constantly, ignoring how they run for the barf bags whenever you trot out your latest board-approved site demo.

Here's an idea. Listen to the people who work for you. Often as not, they are your target demographic. Stop telling them what to do. Instead, begin to ask: How would you do this? What would you put here? How would you phrase that? Get out of their way. Run interference for them through your labyrinthine organizational steeplechase. Help, assist, promote, be useful. Take an interest, be curious, pay attention. Maybe even learn something.

You might just be amazed at the the results.

Meanwhile, lookout for me. I've got your number. I'm one of those Internet Weirdos who make up your hoped-for market. And hey...

I Know What You Did Last Summer!

Entropy Gradient Reversals
All Noise - All the Time


Nothing to disclaim at this time.


This is the greatest electronic newsletter ever created. If you think so too, it's free. If you don't think so, the annual subscription rate is $1000. Either way, to subscribe send email to egr-list-request@rageboy.com saying simply "subscribe" on a single line in the BODY of the message. Or, just go to:


No Animals Will Be Harmed in the Making of This Subscription.

Entropy Gradient Reversals
CopyLeft Christopher Locke


"reality leaves a lot to the imagination..."
John Lennon

Back to EGR HomePage

FastCounter by LinkExchange