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 CD Home < Web Techniques < 2000 < August  

For Whom the Drum Beats

By Michael Swaine

The town my mother lives in has a population of 4000, yet it's the biggest town in a six-county area. You wouldn't think that she'd find much to do, but somehow her social life always sounds more interesting than mine.

"I was at the powwow the other night..." her latest report began. Mom's been to a number of powwows put on by local Native Americans. She enjoys them, but usually leaves soon after the drumming begins. It's not that she doesn't like drums, it's just that the sound from three large drums, each surrounded by a half-dozen men hammering away, fills a smallish room pretty effectively. Mom decided that the wisest counsel was to step outside and give the sound some room.

I've never been to a powwow, but I've hung around the perimeter of a few drum circles, usually put on by people who are not Native Americans but wish they were. These faux powwows seem to be all about synchronization. In yuppiespeak it would be, "Let's make sure we're all on the same page," but drum circle drummers and dancers would probably put it differently.

The effect, even out there on the perimeter, is pretty hypnotic. You soon find yourself moving with the rhythm and feeling like you're a part of something bigger than yourself. I don't mean more important, I mean bigger: thousands of pounds of human flesh, swaying in synch. There's power in synchronized motion, which you sense especially clearly if you're in a drum circle that rashly decides to convene on a post-and-pier deck rather than on terra firma. Or driveway firma.

The drum circle is one kind of drum-beating exercise, designed, I gather, to produce group solidarity. There's another kind: the drumming of the marching band, designed to rile up total strangers to the point where they're ready to jump on the bandwagon, literally or metaphorically. I think of this outer-directed kind of drumming as paukenschlag.

Paukenschlag. It's a German word. It means beating the drum. At least I think it does. Let's agree that it means beating the drum.

Most press releases are paukenschlag, attempts to beat the drum so that others outside the camp can hear it. But take modern dot-com companies founded on a back-of-the-napkin prospectus and $20 million of venture capital. These companies have no hold on employees besides yo-yoing stock option valuations and a business plan that doesn't mention profits. You'll need to beat the drum internally at some point to rally the tribe. You need a powwow.

Although you'd think that corporate "powwows" would be private matters, companies seem to feel they can impress their tribe most by talking to the world. So they send out press releases whose intended readers are really the company's own employees.

This makes it important for shrewd observers of the tech industry (among whom I count all Web Techniques readers) to know how to distinguish a powwow press release from a paukenschlag press release, and similarly how to distinguish the news stories derived from these two kinds of drum beating.

Here's a test of your powwow/paukenschlag savvy:

Question: "The total value of IA will be 6.4 billion US dollars by 2005, and by that time Taiwan should hold 34.9 percent of the world market...." [Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs] Is this powwow or paukenschlag?

Answer: Five-year projections of market size and market share for currently nonexistent markets, reported to three digits of precision, are more often powwow than paukenschlag.

Question: "Is there freedom in restriction? In this case, yes. By supporting the Free Standards Group, Linux distributors are free to [do anything they want as long as they follow our rules]." [Ransom Love, president and CEO, Caldera Systems] Powwow or paukenschlag?

Answer: Powwow. Whether any Linux standards body prevents fragmentation of the community, or causes it, depends entirely on the intracommunity powwow factor.

Question: "We're going to sell a gazillion of these [$199 computers]." [Gina Smith, CEO, The New Internet Computer Company.] Powwow or paukenschlag?

Answer: Paukenschlag. Computers this cheap are, unfortunately, often made in countries where labor is cheap and workers desperately need their jobs. Therefore, a powwow would be unnecessary.

Why should you care whether a press release is directed at the company's own staff or to the world at large? Because you're looking for truth in all the wrong places. Even the paukenschlag isn't always accurate: A recent PRWeek survey noted that approximately 60 percent of PR flacks get lied to by the companies they represent and another 25 percent add their own lies on top of that to make the products look good. Separating good PR from bad requires a keen ear. In your Quixotic attempt to get some truth out of the PR mess, it helps to know who's beating the drum and why.

Mike is the coauthor of Fire in the Valley, the definitive history of the personal computer (

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