6174 time for content: there’s a train crash a-coming

the omens
are not good
Why 6174? Read this article. I love the symmetry and chaos of numbers, and have been entranced by Kaprekar’s constant ever since I heard about it, too many decades ago. You could say that for four-digit numbers, when you apply Kaprekar’s operation, all roads lead to 6174. Which is the way I feel about “content” right now; we appear to be on a major collision course, and the omens are not good.

Why do I say this?

Humour me.

I’ve finally finished watching Larry Lessig speak at 23C3, the preferred abbreviation for the 23rd Chaos Communications Congress. Here’s a link to the video. Exhilarating. If you haven’t already done so, I’d encourage you to watch the clip; but make time for it, he speaks for about 45 minutes, and then there’s nearly half an hour worth of questions, including a very interesting discussion with someone I’ve assumed is John Perry Barlow.

Outside InnovationSeparately, I’ve finally finished reading Patricia Seybold’s latest book, Outside Innovation. I’d considered buying it, but something held me back. Then Gordon Cook reminded me, and so I looked again. Gordon knows what makes me tick, so I listen. And when I looked again, and saw that John Seely Brown recommended it, I had to read it. I’d read a telephone directory cover to cover if it came recommended by JSB. Seriously. The power of recommendations held by people you trust….

Seybold’s book is excellent, a good and honest structured look at what companies are doing to co-create value with their customers. Real companies, real customers, real takeaways. Maybe it was the effect of having watched Larry’s talk prior to reading the book, but the word “content” kept bouncing off the page and hitting me. I don’t particularly like that word.

And then it made me think.

So there’s a bunch of people who are building fortresses around “content”, using DRM and IPR and whatever other flag of convenience they want to fly under. For the sake of argument, let’s say they are all clustered around the slogan:

Content is King

Now I abhor most of the attempts by people to implement bad DRM and legislate for bad IPR, but I am always happy to pay for value received from someone who creates something. The basis and method of payment cannot be what it has been, but fundamentally I agree with “creativity is king” so I accept, grudgingly, that “content” has some power. I still don’t like the word though.

There’s another bunch of people who are walking around with a different mantra. Maybe some of them have even read Cluetrain. One way or the other, they’re into post-Nader consumerism, and they walk around saying:

The Customer is King

Now I’ve read Cluetrain, just once or twice :-) — and even without reading it, I would have no hesitation in agreeing that “the customer is king”.


We have group A marching to Content is King.

We have group B marching to Customer is King.

So far so good.

Content is King.

Customer is King.

Content is King.

Customer is King.

Look carefully, and you will notice something weird about groups A and B.

Many people belong to both groups.

God’s in His Heaven, and All’s Well with the World.

Along comes group C, and they march to the sound of a different drummer. Syncopation? Their mantra is:

Consumer-Generated Creativity is King

Or, to use the words I detest, Consumer-Generated Content is King.

train wreckCustomer Content is King

Whoops again. That’s not the tune that Content is King is played to. That’s not the tune that DRM is played to. That’s what ASCAP didn’t figure out; that’s how BMI walked in, so eloquently described by Larry.

There’s a train crash a-coming.


Only the customer can make content king. We must all remember that.

17 thoughts on “6174 time for content: there’s a train crash a-coming”

  1. Is Communication is King a different way of saying Markets are Conversations?

    And yes, I too liked Andrew Odlyzko’s paper.

  2. Hmm – sorry I will not answer that question. But I’ll make a link to one of your other ideas – if conversation about content has more value than the content itself then perhaps earning money from the conversations i.e. *because of content* is better than earning from content?

  3. Fair enough. The way I look at it:

    The real value is in the relationship.
    One way of expressing the relationship is via conversation, so it has value as well.
    Sometimes conversation leads to transaction, which can also have value.

    But the real value is in the relationship.
    I accept your because-of-rather-than-with approach to content.

  4. Why the need to call on old feudal systems to describe what is happening in the world today? The power is shifting to customers (or maybe it has always rested with the customers: Kings that failed to satisfy their customers sometimes met a brutal end).

    Creativity belongs to customers, or maybe to all of us, or maybe we are all customers. You cannot force creativity to happen but you can encourage it (freedom is a good place to start). Content happens as a result of creativity. Creative communication about content creates markets. When that happens, new customers engage. Markets create value.

    Efficient markets have no kings and no losers. Only gainers.

    Market failure is when something is out of balance. DRM, bad IPR, bad regulation (by kings?) can shift the balance of a market. Market failure stymies creativity.

  5. JP, as a text analysis wonk, I would say that we should ask just what semantics you have in mind for “king!” Lars interprets the noun in the sense of the totalitarian tyrant, who is inclined to ignore any authority other than his own. On the other hand, Hegel was probably responsible for seeding neoconservative ideology: He saw monarchy as the ultimate perfection of governance; but he saw the monarch as a Platonic philosopher-king who knew how to draw upon the resources of good advice. I, for one, do not see “the customer” as any sort of philosopher-king; and, while I see some of the virtue in “empowering” the customer, my guess is that most customers would try to leverage any power they get in tyranny. This semantic diversity should provide enough motivation to drop the term entirely! At the end of the day, these slogans are their to persuade us how to set our priorities; but they blithely overlook the contextual premise that the priorities we set depend on the actions we wish to take. With that in mind, I would recast Zbigniew Lukasiak’s version of the slogan as: NO ACTION WITHOUT PRIOR COMMUNICATION!

    By the way, please note that I am experimenting with changing my Website. I am going to give Blogspot a try, because I think it is more suited to my style of COMMUNICATION (eating my own dogfood, so to speak). Since you list me as one of the “OTHER PEOPLE I READ,” you may want to update the hyperlink you have on my name.

  6. Thanks Stephen, will wait for the link change. Your previous link was not that easy to use via RSS…. but maybe that was me….

  7. Yes, let’s get rid of Kings. Off with their heads!

    But I have more of a problem with “customers” and “consumers” — words I try never to use without the scare quotes. In a conversation, are we buying each other’s words, opinions, statements? Are we consuming them? How are bloggers “customers”? How are YouTubers “consumers”? To me, this sort of language is pernicious, as it not-so-subtly undermines the apparently still difficult task of grasping just how radically and fundamentally things have changed with the advent of social networks.

    JP, if I am going to come here to your blog and “consume” you, could you at least provide a nice Chianti and some fava beans?


  8. JP, I am not sure what you mean by “wait,” probably because I have so much distrust of anything purporting to be automatic. In case you have to change the entry on your OTHER PEOPLE I READ list MANUALLY (!), the URL is now


    I am aware of how problematic the Yahoo! URL was, and that is one of the reasons I made the change!

    Chris, I definitely agree that “this sort of language” (or, at least, the way we use it) is pernicious. However, I am not sure we can lay the problem entirely in the lap of social network technology. Unless I am mistaken, Socrates (as Plato characterized him) took Gorgias to task for “pernicious” use of terms whose usual semantics could be chalked up to common sense; so that gives you some idea of the legacy we have of mucking with language in the interest of power!

    So let’s try to see what we can say without having to embrace every word in scare quotes. Whether we like it or not, every discussion on this topic is ultimately all about COMPENSATION. We used to have some pretty simple models of compensation, whether it involved picking a bale of cotton or teaching a graduate seminar in quantum physics. However, as the cliche keeps telling us, “The Internet changes everything;” and in the case the change involves a new expectation that you can (or should) get compensated for what you do, WHATEVER that happens to be. By just about any standard of economics or commerce, this is enough to get Spock to raise his left eyebrow off of his cranium; but the purveyors of the “new economy” (verbal quotation, rather than scare quotes) preached that we should relegate those standards to the ash-heap of history. Instead, it was the purveyors who ended up in the ash-heap; but now they seem to be digging themselves out of it! Unfortunately, the old concept of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” may still be in the ash-heap. There does not seem to be much inclination to dig it out and dust it off, perhaps because we have squandered so much of our budget on the “confidence games” (quoting Mark Taylor) of the Internet age that we can no longer afford to live by it!

  9. :-) I agree, the words we use are important. Customer. Consumer. Client. User. (!) Without even going into Buyer. And we have to walk carefully through Producer and Manufacturer and Seller and now Generator as well.

    I’m sure the right terms will emerge as we converse. BTW happy to provide the fava beans, but what will we do with the Chianti? We’ll have to invite someone else….

  10. How about looking at this not in terms of primacy but in temrs of what has been supplanted or rendered redundant/meaningless.

    For example:

    Hierarchy is Dead
    Mediocrity is Dead.
    Deception is Dead.

  11. It’s just cooking wine.

    John, wrt the Ungrateful Dead: we sent out the memo in 1999, but in many cases, it seems not to have reached the brain quite yet. And I wouldn’t agree at all that Mediocrity and Deception have passed their use-by dates. They seem to be going stronger than ever in some quarters.

  12. I have to respond to John Dodds’ suggestion by generalizing Mark Twain’s remark to the effect that the report of just about ANY death is bound to be premature! Certainly, all of the examples he provides are alive and well. (Most of them have beachfront property in Malibu, and some are working for Rupert Murdoch!) I doubt that I can go much further than echoing the immortal words of Chevy Chase: “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is STILL dead!”

  13. First, JP, thank you for your review of Outside Innovation… for you to say that is “excellent” means a LOT to me!

    Re: the “customer/consumer” discussion–I agree the term is unpleasant to many because we tend to think that money has to change hands (customer) or that something that is consumed disappears.

    I have a different relationship to these terms–customer/user/client/consumer, etc. The way I see it, we are all customers–We’re people who have things we care about–outcomes we want to achieve, jobs we want to get done, experiences we want to have, things we care about. We may be influencers, decision-makers, purchasers, end-consumers, promoters, maintainers, etc. These are some of the many roles we all play as we dance–conversationally and transactionally– with the companies, organizations, products and brands we use to reach our goals and to have the experiences we value.

    Customers and content? As a writer, publisher and consultant, I find customer-generated content both thrilling and challenging.

    Thrilling because so many smart people will introduce, refine, and build upon each others’ ideas and insights.

    Challenging because it’s hard to compete. How can I have the arrogance to charge money for a book or an article? Why would someone pay to read/consume it? What if they want to make derivative works? More power to them! That’s why I’m a big fan of Lessig’s. I love the way he is able to define the different ways we all think about our and others’ IP.. From, “this is great! I want to tell others’ about it!” To, “this is great!, I want to share it with others!” To, “this is great, I want to use it to do my own thing with it and share that with others…”

    What I think Lessig gets the most, and that the blogosphere usually models, is the very human need to refer to things, talk about them, steal from them, borrow from them and make them our own.

    We are all customers and consumers. We are all creators and inventors. We are all conversationalists and story tellers. There are no arbitrary boundaries. That’s the point!

Let me know what you think

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