On Llamas, Dresses, Net Neutrality: A Clue(Train)!

For much of my career in publishing, I’ve typically worn two hats and it’s caused some cognitive dissonance and friction as the business hat frequently clashes with the writer hat. The tension of trying to profitably “monetize content” for corporations while walking a philosophical line that borders on socialism is constant and can make for some uncomfortable compromises, and occasionally, firm stances that could jeopardize my continued employment. Thankfully, I’ve been fortunate enough to have avoided any worst case scenarios at either extreme, so far.

*knocks wood*

Yesterday, the bizarre combination of llama drama, that goddamned dress, and net neutrality — all of which went down while I was buried in a full day of meetings and couldn’t even “watch” the Spurs’ disappointing Europa League defeat via Twitter — connected some dots I’ve been wrestling with for a while.

As many people know, especially my staff, I’m a Cluetrain Manifesto disciple, having found in it the most perfect validation of my beliefs about how the Internet works, and more specifically, how humans fundamentally engage with it. Despite a variety of roles and titles over the years, I basically consider myself a marketer, and my career trajectory has been in almost perfect alignment with, and largely thanks to, the evolution of the world wide web, from my earliest days on CompuServe through my reluctant embrace of Twitter and beyond. (The larger digital trajectory started even earlier, when desktop publishing software empowered me to self-publish a weekly-ish print newsletter for my fantasy football league in high school, back in 1986.)

Last night, catching up on my way home from work, my Twitter timeline was flooded with odd references to llamas, including a few bizarre memes that had bled into my soccer feed. Scrolling backwards through hundreds of tweets from the past several hours, trying to figure out what happened and why llamas were trending on on a day where Net Neutrality was huge news that had actually filtered through the noise to reach me directly, IRL, while in a meeting, I couldn’t find an actual link to explain the llamas, and was surprised to see Net Neutrality had gone mostly unremarked after a brief flurry of tweets when the decision was announced.

I asked and a got a couple of answers about the llamas, including a link to a news story about it, and in the 15-20 minutes it took to catch up on it * and mentally pour out a little for Neil Postman * “the goddamn dress” exploded.

My first reaction was completely dismissive, including when I finally got home and the dress became a topic of IRL discussion as my wife, son, and I debated what color the dress actually was, and at some point I saw Lou’s tweet and it all came together so perfectly that I was more than a little annoyed at ALL of my hats for missing the point.

The silly things that go viral these days, that lightning in a bottle moment that marketers like me would kill for with our own content (and worse, are often expected to make happen somehow on a regular basis), happen for a really simple reason, and it was one of Cluetrain’s fundamental ideas back in 1998, perfectly summed in Talk is Cheap:

“Nascent Web publishing efforts have their genesis in a burning need to say something, but their ultimate success comes from people wanting to listen, needing to hear each other’s voices, and answering in kind.”

That desire for community, to connect with others who share your interests, is what drives the best and worst of what, as a whole, makes the Internet so important — from the early days of Usenet to Tumblr today and whatever comes next — and for some (including politicians and business execs), what makes it so dangerous, and why it’s so important to protect from corporate control.

With so many things to divide us, it’s no surprise that it’s the silliest of things that bring us together.

I’m sure there are plenty of business lessons to be learned from all of this, and I’m sure there will be plenty of think pieces and hot takes addressing them, but I’m far more interested in grappling with the human element.

PS: For the record, I saw the dress in both colors, on different devices. Yay, science!

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