Openly critical – an interview with Jeff Jarvis

Journalist and author Jeff Jarvis gained international attention in 2005 when he posted furious criticisms of Dell’s customer service on his blog, forcing it to change its culture.  He has since won a wide following as an advocate of openness in business, and is still stirring things up.

During the summer he tweeted his frustrations about political deadlock in Washington and invited other users to join in. His #fuwashington hashtag got 110,000 retweets, as people used it to voice their own complaints. Now he  sees the Occupy Wall Street movement doing the same, with social networks being used as a channel for individuals to voice their distrust with banks and institutions. “What confounds politicians and the media about this sort of movement is that it has no leader,” he says. “A Twitter hashtag has no hierarchy or structure. It’s an empty vessel whose potential is to resonate with people.”

This is the way the world is heading, Jarvis contends. The 800 million people who interact every day on Facebook shows the sheer power of the impulse to connect, and he fervently believes that this sort of openness can be used by businesses to good effect.  He rattles off examples, from companies like Google issuing unfinished products as beta versions that customers can improve – “a remarkable statement of humanity and humility”, he believes – to asking customers to come up with design suggestions for a new product, or even paying up front in order to finance it.

He has personal experience about the benefits of openness, having written about his prostate cancer on his blog. “Some might call me insane for doing so, but it really helped, with people coming and giving me support – people who would never have known if I hadn’t gone public about it.”

Give people the opportunity to contribute and most likely they will come up with creative ideas, Jarvis believes. He likes to cite the example of Starbucks, whose customers made suggestions that would save them having to stand in line, for instance by pre-ordering on a smart phone or enabling the card to automate the order.  “They were given the respect and the tools to solve the problems they sensed, and they took advantage of that,” he says. “They feel they made a difference, and I can’t see how that is bad.”

Jarvis is by no means dismissive of legitimate concerns about privacy in business, particularly those like banks and consultancies for whom data security is a major issue. But he still thinks that worrying too much about privacy is getting things back to front. “I attended a Future of Privacy forum in Washington recently, where they started talking about how to define it,” he relates. “I argued they should instead think first about why people were sharing and what they were trying to get out of it, and then decide how to achieve that securely and  safely. That’s what we have to design around.”

If companies are worried about a public backlash if their secrets become public then perhaps they should change their behaviour, he suggests. “Imagine that what you do becomes public overnight. If you’re ashamed of it, then don’t do it.”

How can a company maintain brand control at the same time as enabling more of its employees to represent it on social channels? It can’t, Jarvis states bluntly, but nor should it want to. “The truth is, you don’t have control because your customers own your brand. The brand is the relationship you have with the public, and people don’t want a relationship with an official slogan or a mechanised corporate voice.”

There’s not much architectural change needed to achieve openness, however cultural change is another matter, and that is harder, Jarvis agrees. There’s a sense in which marketing and PR departments put themselves out of a job when they throw open what they do to everyone in the company. Nevertheless, that’s what they should be doing, he thinks, creating an enthusiasm for maintaining good relationships with customers through the entire organisation.

All this might sound rather abstract, but Jarvis knows from his own experience advising companies that it can be done. “You need to sit down and start to rethink how you can have a relationship with your customers,” he says. “Where are those points of contact, what do people want and need, where can they collaborate? That’s where it all starts to become more specific.”

Jeff Jarvis is the author of What Would Google Do? and Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. He blogs at

From Social Business, Q4, 2011


Social Business magazine – Q4 2011 – Quarterly magazine of the Social Media Leadership Forum


Interview with Peter Bradwell, Demos

Demos, the ‘think tank for everyday democracy’, recently produced a report that charts the rise of the ‘Video Republic’, its term for a new space for debate and expression dominated by young people.  Peter Bradwell, one of the report’s co-authors, talks to Its Open.

What is your definition of the Video Republic?

We talk about the Video Republic as a new public realm created through the explosion in audio-visual expression. Video and film is a powerful medium – from the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assasination to the fall of Saddam, it has captured the defining moments of the recent history.

Now, facilitated by wider access to technology and internet access, more people can make video and share their ideas and experiences with people across the world. The Video Republic is a way of thinking about this new space – as a realm of debate, citizenship, and space for influencing other people. It’s a new way to be part of the public realm.

What challenges does the Video Republic present to Government and business?

First, there’s the ability to operate in the Video Republic. Just because
video cameras are cheaper, and just because more people have access to the internet, doesn’t mean inequalities have disappeared. We need to think about who has access to the space, who is listened to, and who regulates the rules and norms of behaviour there.

Secondly, there’s the challenge for business and government of communication. It can be a less controllable and predictable space than traditional media, and it’s more amenable to conversational, two-way communication.

Thirdly, there’s the issue of intellectual property. The currency of the Video Republic is, of course, video. Ownership of that video and the rights of those making and using it are not clear cut. It’s important that we keep our eyes on what will facilitate a healthy realm of cultural exchange and participative debate – rather than simply complaining that online video might be violating intellectual property rules.

How can business leaders and Governments tap into the Video Republic in constructive ways?

Government needs to support this space as a public realm – a place that needs to remain open and guided by the kind of rules we want other public realms to follow. That means thinking of the skills people have to operate in this space. It means thinking about how people are equipped to manage their ‘digital’ selves and their profile online. And it means regulation that foregrounds the protection of freedom of expression and healthy cultural exchange.

Do you see online video as mainly incoherent and entertainment-led?

Not at  all. It might seem incoherent, but trying to look for shape and meaning in online video as a whole is like trying to watch all television and radio channels at the same time. It becomes noise, and it seems

Firstly, we need to understand who is making what and how – the really significant change is in how video is made, and by whom. Secondly, there are countless examples – many of which we talk about in our report – from the Video Republic of content focused on politics, social change, or corruption, through to commentaries on people’s everyday thoughts and experiences. It’s not blanket coverage of parliamentary politics, but it’s not just sneezing animals either.

Isn’t video a form of broadcasting? So how could it be used in a
participative way in order to evolve new policies and consult with people  over issues?

It’s more communication than broadcast. Video can be used to help
politicians communicate with people more openly – there are plenty of
examples of this. But, important as these are, the possibilities of the Video Republic cut much deeper than the workings of formal democracy.

Broadcasting plays, and has played, a huge role in helping people learn about the world, and in framing how we understand it. It has huge power in this respect. The potential of the Video Republic comes in part through the possibility that more people will be able to access this power. It’s more a crucible of deliberation than a decision making mechanism.

Do you see it having a wider impact?

There’s nothing inevitable about the development of the Video Republic, or the effect this and similar things will have on our society. However, this is a key moment to think about how we want. This involves thinking of our rights as citizens, commentators and members of the public realm – and it involves making sure we begin our thinking with what this space can do for the principles of free speech and of a healthy democracy.

The Video Republic is part of a potential ‘expressive democracy’. This should and can look and work the way we want it to. But it needs our understanding and support for that to happen.

You can download the report from the Demos website