The cathedral and the bazaar

Another accidental discovery today: an awesome (and forgotten) paper “The Cathedral and The Bazaar” by Eric Raymond. It was written 11 years ago and it’s about Linux (remember that?), but it could easily have been written today in relation to brands. The main thing in his analysis is comparison of 2 different development styles, the “cathedral” model of most of the commercial world vs. the “bazaar” model of the Linux world … and of the digital world today. Linux style of development — release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity … No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here — rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches. It’s not so much in doing quick-turnaround releases incorporating lots of user feedback, but in scaling it up to a level of intensity that matched the complexity of what he was developing (and this last part is super-important). While Raymond focused on the software-debugging task in his analysis, the same kind of argumentation can be applied to branding vs. people’s experience today. Raymond’s core argument is that “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. More users find more bugs”. Spoken in today’s language, the statement can go: “given enough people, all brand promises areshallow”. Umair Haque calls this the shrinking advantage of brands: when interaction is cheap, the very economic rationale for orthodox brands actually begins to implode: information about expected costs and benefits doesn’t have to be compressed into logos, slogans, ad-spots or column-inches – instead, consumers can debate and discuss expected costs and benefits in incredibly rich detail. Raymond’s “bazaar” may be interpreted today as a social media thing, but it is fact much more than that (i always claimed that the web is social and collaborative by default). His analysis in fact applies for agencies’ model of website development: “In the cathedral-builder view … it takes months of scrutiny by a dedicated few to develop confidence that you’ve winkled them all out. Thus the long release intervals, and the inevitable disappointment when long-awaited releases are not perfect.” (where did my money go? asks the client. for example, it wenthere and here). Then, it applies to digital brands (think Netflix or Google or Zappos) AND a horrifyingly low number of agencies: “in the bazaar view, you assume that bugs turn shallow pretty quickly when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers pounding on every single new release.” (test & iterate & iterate some more — that’s what they do). And then, it applies to brands. Let’s see. The cathedral above is Niketown in Manhattan. The image of a products’ shrine is here, cathedral’s interior is here and here, worship area is here, ornaments are here, and the altar is here. When people come in for service, they are ushered through the neatly established paths. Only certain behaviors are allowed (must not leave empty handed). The product is the center of the worship — not the person — b/c after all, this is a cathedral. Seems to work well. Until, hm, it doesn’t. Blame it on bazaar, or “edgeconomy” — an economy characterized by cheap, ubiquitous interaction. In bazaars, talk is cheap, interactions are many, and [brand] promises become shallow. Down goes the cathedral.

This post was originally published on I [Love] Marketing on November 18, 2008