Cyber Peddling Along the WWW

Posted: July 8, 2013 by Ian Gee in Human Resources, OD, Organization, People

Gas bag bandits

I am warning you that as you read this post you will wonder where on earth I am going with it!  I ask you to be patient.  Just settle down with a cup of tea or coffee and read on.

Near our home in North Devon there are many trackways and pathways. These are the kind of lanes that if you are driving down them and meet another car you need to find a passing point.  This usually involves reversing for a mile or more and pulling into the gateway of a field to allow the car to pass. The etiquette to this, you ignore at your car’s peril.

I was curious and wanted to know more about the history of these trackways so near to our doorstep.  One of our neighbours told me the majority of them were medieval, or older.  He told me they were commonly known as ‘pedlars pathways’.  They are the trackways that pedlars traversed to hawk and vend their wares across the county.  These ancient sales folk would set off with their panniers and sacks of goods and fancies, traveling mainly on foot from one hamlet, village and farm to another.  Selling what they could, where they could, at a price they were happy with.

In recent times door-to-door peddling has become a pejorative activity.  With pedlars being treated with suspicion and caution.  They are often vilified in the media as the purveyors of cheap goods and broken promises.  However in ‘ye olden days’ (!) pedlars served many useful purposes.  They were human bumblebees, pollinating the community by bringing news and gossip from neighbouring settlements and introducing people to all kinds of notions and fancies they may never have seen before.  Some of these items would be practical inventions and the new technology of the day.  Things to help farmers and their families make their day-to-day lives easier.  Others would be more aesthetic and fanciful; like jewellery for personal adornment and items of beauty and decoration for the home.  Yet more would be of a religious and devotional nature.

However not all pedlars or the items they sold were what they seemed.  I found this interesting and amusing description of unethical peddling in “The Sharper Image: Yankee Peddlers, Southern Consumers, and the Market Revolution”

“In his 1832 novel ‘Memoir of a Nullifier’ Algernon Sydney Johnston puts a Peddler on trial for the following:

To selling in the course of one peddling expedition 497, 368 wooden nutmegs 2,81,532 Spanish cigars made of oak leaves and 647 wooden clocks. To the stealing of an old grindstone, smearing it over with butter and then selling it as a cheese. To making a counterfeit dollar of pewter, when you were six years old and cheating your own father with it… To taking a worn out pair of shoes, which you found in the road and selling them to a pious old lady, as being actually the shoes of Saint Paul…To taking an empty old watchcase, putting a live cricket in to it, and then selling it as a patent lever in full motion.”

What this says to me is that scepticism about peddling has been around for a long while and in our dealings with them we need to keep the motto ‘caveat emptor’ or ’buyer beware’ in mind.  I am pretty sure that in North Devon if all the bits of ‘the True Cross’ pedlars sold were put together, we would have a another huge forest in the neighbourhood.  Equally, if all the vials of ‘the Virgin Marys Tears’ were emptied, we would now have a lake at the bottom of the garden!

Despite the fact that some pedlars were unscrupulous, pedlars played an important role in connecting people, bringing new ideas to communities, introducing people to labour saving devices and things of beauty.  I also think they also had another, less conscious role; teaching people how to make judgements outside their norm and learning when and who to trust.

You are probably asking yourself what on earth has all this got to do with HR, social media or any of our usual Blog topics?  Well, I will tell you!  If you read my last blog post HR the Voice of A Woman you will know that my friend Tim Gorree very kindly launched a ‘Mission’ on Empire Avenue to help us get more entrepreneurs/startups to complete our survey.  It was an interesting experience and generated well over a hundred responses.  Dee Ortner and I are currently in the process of analysing these and the other responses we got by more traditional routes.  During the ‘mission’ I was much more active than usual on Empire Avenue and my share price rose from around 20 Eaves per share at the start of the mission to just under 40 Eaves per share by the end of it.  The majority of the people who bought shares in me sent a message with a link to their business.  These businesses ranged from people selling photographs of Californian landscapes through to get rich quick schemes and everything in between.  This set me thinking and led me to coin the term ‘cyber peddling’.   Tim was cyber peddling the survey for us and people were cyber pedalling their wares back to me.

I am now starting to think that in one way or another all of us who engage with social media are cyber peddling across the www and the www is the equivalent of the pedlars’ pathways of North Devon.  The most obvious forms of cyber peddling are of course sites like Ebay, Craigslist, Gumtree etc., as well as of course sites dedicated to the selling of good and services, whether these be from large commercial organisations or small businesses/startups.  Yet, the more I thought about this the more I believe we are all cyber peddling in one way or another.  From our use of LinkedIn where we advertise our achievements and share our masses of connections, to Facebook where we may be cyber peddling our businesses or even our rather wonderful lifestyles by sharing photographs, comments, likes etc.

I have even concluded that this blog is a form of cyber peddling.  I am cyber peddling ideas in the hope that you will join in and support their development.  I am also cyber peddling Edgelands, my consultancy business by building brand awareness and of course ultimately hoping to sell my skills as an OD consultant and find opportunities for doing interesting work with you, dear reader!

As in the past buyer beware needs to be in the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps even more importantly than in the ‘real’ world, in the cyber world we need to know how to tell the difference between a wooden nutmeg and a real one, to recognise and make choices about the grindstone within the cheese!  I am not saying that all cyber pedlars are shysters, just as not all real world ones were or are.  What we need to do is to develop new ways of understanding and reading the truth in cyber situations and learning how to decide where to best place our trust.

Is ethical cyber peddling relevant to HR and OD?  I would argue yes, given HR’s promotion of HRIT and HR’s increasing engagement with and reliance on social media both as a tool for communication and as a means of assessment and driving change.  Yet given the varied success of HR’s initiative’s in this space I have to ask myself how good is HR at it? How credible are we, as HR professionals in the cyber peddling world?   Are we selling ‘St Pauls shoes’ or are we seen as positive bumblebees, pollinating across the organisations?

This brings me to my bit of peddling with this blog!  If you agree with me that cyber peddling is a key part of the social media revolution, then what do you think are the requirements of an ethical cyber peddler and what does HR need to do to develop and practice this? What new skills are required or old skills that need to be reawakened?  What do you think? I really am looking forward to reading your comments.

  1. Interesting analogy, Ian, and no doubt a lot of truth in this. As a communications professional, I’d say successful latter-day pedlars relied a lot on the gift of the gab i.e. sales spiel, whether they were selling bona fide goods or the proverbial sow’s ear. Not much has changed since then, apart from the fact that web sites have fewer words.Or has it?

    To sort out the bad apples from the good I’m reminded of the excellent advice a construction consultant gave to home owners, who were trying to figure out if the building contractor standing on the doorstep with a quote for a construction job was any good or not. The expert’s most useful tip for helpless home owners was to ask the builder for the names and phone numbers of his last three customers, so the potential customer could check recent references. Probably not possible if you’re buying a consumer product from a web site, especially from a supplier overseas (though many sites now have testimonials) but could be good practice when considering consultancy services.

    Not all sites have client testimonials (understandably some clients don’t want to see their confidential projects in the public domain). And with a bit of creative licence it’s easy to make an impressive client or project list; but they don’t really tell too much. However, I’d have nothing but respect for a potential client that asked me for contacts in my last three client projects. A bit like references on a CV. Which brings us to HR. I think HR loves industry jargon and is very good at talking but sometimes guilty of not talking the language of its customers – maybe not so different from other professions. I heard from one senior HR professional only today how his team can’t convince their business leaders of the value of their HR programs because they talk a lot but can’t get the business case right. Today’s pedlars – whether on line or in your face – would need to provide proof up front with real cases.

    The proof of the pudding is not in the eating, but in seeing what happened to the last people that ate it. And if it turns out they all got food poisoning, well you can choose not to eat it and send in Algernon Sydney Johnston to do his thing. By the way, what sentence did the guy on the “peddling expedition” get?

    • Tim Gorree says:

      Such an interesting analogy to compare this with the pathways in your own environment, what a way to look at the matter! Happy to have helped you with your research and looking forward to the results!

      It think that there are several issues at hand here. One is that it’s harder and harder to get people’s attention and the second one is how to keep that attention and turn it into a positive outcome. It’s ‘spray and pray’ vs. contextual relevancy.

      For HR to make the latter work for them online, it has to have the skills to be able to juggle an ever greater amount of different platforms – you need to go there where your potential audience is and that too is what a peddler did in the old days – to adapt to the environment.

      Whether it is LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Blog, or even all of these and then some more (new ones coming up all the time), your credibility will depend on whether you are able to establish long term trust within and throughout the ‘region’.

      It is said that any community is only as valuable as to the extent that meaningful dialog takes place, and if this dialog reflects positive on your previous activities you build up ‘klout’ and a positive reputation.

      To stay with your analogy, I would assume that a deceitful peddler would not be welcomed back with open arms into the same community if he would have sold them products or services that did not do as promised. And on the other hand, if a peddler did deliver valuable goods previously, that he/she could count on better business the next time he/she comes around.

      There are actually several different webservices today that are trying to establish the level of trust of an individual

      When reading David’s response it reminded me of this site called Trustcloud of which I will peddle my profile right here for you to see an example:!/digistar

      Others are ProSkore, Kred, XeeMe and PeerIndex.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Hi David and thank you for your post. There is no mention in the academic paper of what kind of punishment the pedlar got! I think the book is well out of print so we will probably never know. Having spent time analysing the survey data from the entrepreneurs and start ups its all a bit depressing in terms of entrepreneurs and their thoughts about HR. I will be sharing more about this as Dee and I start writing. With regards as to how people should make the right choices about who to use to support their baby AKA new business, I am beginning to think that we need a form of trip advisor for consultants. One that is not bound to a particular consultancy or even type of consultancy practice but a more open and transparent one. It would probably need to be very personal and not ‘firm’ based. I can see both the good and bad aspects of this and wonder what you and others think. Thanks again Ian

  2. michaelqtodd says:

    I deal with all this by being open, random and supportive (in extremis). I am trying to work out how you messaged me without owning any of my shares

    • Ian Gee says:

      Hi Michael Re messaging you just pressed a button that said I could.

      I think being open, random and supportive are great things and much needed so people can make the right choices about who to trust and so forth. .To my mind and in my terms they are some of the key attributes of an ethical cyber pedlar. My guess is that good pedlars in times past were doing this and got invited back for tea and cake again and again when they were passing through. They sold stuff that people enjoyed and found they needed and wanted. They also made a good living. If you see my response to David you will see that I wonder though in these days of the internet and the search for true transparency and openness and despite videos, on line testimonies and likes is this enough? I would describe them as a form of self referenced transparency and given a lot of the posts below are they enough and what else might we need? Please just see this as me trying to explore something and not saying anything about you and the work you do. Best Ian

  3. Alan Warner says:

    In a way it was more simple in the unconnected days . If I was in the market for a butter covered grinding wheel I could buy it from the man who sold everything . Now I just enter into my browser, Grind Wheel , preferably with butter and I get a choice . Also, I am arguably more satisfied because I was able to compare prices so I got my wheel cheap .The quality of each wheel and the buttering process are difficult to see on the website but there is another site that has a forum where we can discuss the relative merits and demerits . I must stop before I convince myself I need one , I don`t even like cheese.

    The point for me is therefore about choice . In HR there are people that can do everything , some brilliantly, some ,well….less so .We tend not to find out until after the event . Not unusual really but in HR we are dealing with people . Making poor choices of consultant , facilitator , expert etc can have dreadful consequences and send a business backwards and create a bunch of cynical employees who sit waiting for the next new guru to spout forth.

    Cyber pedalling probably has a way to go.Maybe when purchasers click on to a website they can start a conversation with the supplier to see if they fit what they`re looking for . They might even ask for a quote . I have to ask why not ? I`m not sure I would like it but isn`t it a natural extension ? So for me , a legitimate medium but probably still under developed .

    I must now get on line for some more wooden nutmegs .

  4. I think that, if we are in business, we’re all ‘peddling’ in one form or another, it’s just a question of the approach you take in doing it. It’s not a phrase I particularly like but I can’t imagine too many business people not giving at least some thought to commercial aspects when engaging in social media.

    Effectively, you did a form of that when messaging me as opposed to creating a mission to drive traffic here. It seems to have worked! 🙂

    Social media is just a vehicle and it’s a question of how you drive. There will always be disrespectful people in the same way as there are bad drivers. People who shout loudest or buy fake awards in order to appear better than they really are. It’s just the world we live in…

  5. Elspeth says:

    A good read.

    Pedlars – to make a living they need(ed) to be able to read people. This would have been done by the surroundings and more importantly by the face that opened the door.
    The good ones would engage in relevant conversation and slowly build to the sales pitch in a manner to sell their goods. In the country they may even be invited in to have a cuppa with the lady who rarely has visitors. If good they may not get a sale but a recommendation to a neighbour and a welcome back next time like the annual visit of the French Onion sellers.
    So while it was cold calling it had a human face to aid decisions on both sides.

    Cyber Pedlars – the human face/touch is not available to the WWW sellers. The pitch of the voice and sale is to the masses rather than the one to one. The cold calling with surveys at work by HR, Internal Communication, Senior Managers(Do you trust us more now? Are we open and honest with you?) brings cynicism and no replies or pressure to respond.
    It may be a generation issue about the preferred methods of communicating and may change to ease the use of WWW for the new generation who seem to be more at ease playing games and then talking in a room of people.
    The cyber pedlars problem may be either too wide an audience where their goods are lost or no audience as the method of pitching to the preferred group is difficult to establish. If you do get into the group you may get group speak!

    How to break down the barriers may be to join the sites for new businesses or having money troubles or wanting to expand or entrepreneur sites It may even be an old fashioned way of pitching your goods at the Bank Managers responsible for business loans.

    I am sure in the way that pedlars could read their customers and vice versa will come to the WWW by a weeding process on line that allows HR/OD people to identify and be identified by the needy clients.

    Good Luck


  6. Kais says:

    Wonderful, Ian.

    The other day I was in the Centre of Manchester, in the so-called Northern Quarter, famous for amongs other reasons a place called Afflecks Palace which was cursed by a witch in the 80’s for reasons I cannot remember. In those days it was “Bohemian”. Asian Ragtraders, derelict warehouses, and joke shops on Tib Street. Yes there were the drunks and loons.

    These days it is full of young people living in flats and lots of fancy bars and restaurants, a la Barcelona. The drunks are still their, paying or begging, but there are new hawkers in town. I met one. 61, in a tatty suit, pissed and eloquent. What was he selling? Poetry. ” Give me a word and I will give you a poem”. We went through love and loss. The poems were heart rending. I gave him a tenner and was bold enough to suggest he bought a new shirt to replace the spit and tobbacco stained one he wore. I then offered to buy him a drink but he had more business in hand.

    Others who listened in to the conversation ( more drunk that the poet) were fascinated by the exhange and wondered whether I would give them a tenner. I said only if they could could be poetic. Instead they bought me a drink and told me how they became millionaires ( don’t dish out tenners to tramps).

    Manchester has changed enormously over the years, mostly for the better, but behind the veneer of shiny city centre affluence, there are the displaced, dispossed, and downtrodden. They are mostly shadows or ghosts, including the poets hawking their laconic verses ( ok maybe not penned by them). Only those of us who have grown up with them seem to notice. Perhaps we will be poets too.

    Not sure there is an OD message somewhere but I am enjoying the sunshine.


  7. Kais says:

    OK I cannot spell, but here is a flavour of Salford and Manchester everyman poetry – lavatory humour from 1970’s, not for those with delicate sensitivities.

    Some come here to sit and think,
    Others come here to _hit and stink,
    I come here to scratch may -alls,
    And scribble poetry on the walls.

    ( Ward and Goldstone, copper cable extruder factory lav), 1979

    Life is like a -ubic hair on a toilet seat,
    Sometimes you get -issed on, sometimes you get -issed off.

    Manchester Central Libary toilet wall circa 77.

    In those days the poetry was free.

    For me the worn out 61 year old man was a joy to listen to. Others thought I was mad in giving him a tenner and bought me a drink to tell me so and wanted to keep buying the drinks. Had I had the constitution or the time, the millionaires we ready to by me many bottles of expensive wine. I would have prefered them to buy the man a place to stay that night, but that is another story.

    There are paths that are less travelled in our segregated, sanitised lives, but in reality we are all pedlars, from the PM to street poets and Bankers.

    The OD and HR relevance? Throw away the pomanders and breathe, remember that fish rot from head down.

  8. Brad says:


    Your point is well taken and I did not get lost on your trackway. And like most thoughtful topics it would seem to have its inherent pros and cons. On balance I see the peddling pros by far out weighting the cons. I think back to my own youth where one could say TV played a similar role as the ‘trackways’ you describe; entertainment being not so covertly hidden between bookends for soap, cereals and many other ‘new and improved’ consumables being peddled. The big difference today, as I see it, is that social media is fully synchronous while TV was asynchronous. Moreover the consumer has the option to ‘become’ the media (if they so choose) rather than just be the audience. As a result the ‘commons’ of peddling is no longer limited to your immediate physical environment but rather the Commons is truly writ large. Indeed this Commons is both more messy and highly self-indulgent yet there are significantly more opportunities for previously inert chunks of coal to find some heat and eventually be honed into diamonds.

    Think style versus substance. I believe there is an idealism in thoughtful people that wishes substance ought to prevail – in the long run. What social media seems to demonstrate is that both style and substance move in tandem, are *LinkedIn* at the hip, and appealing to one’s actual or potential Stakeholders requires appealing to both style and substance; and, to the chagrin of many seeking either/or, this signal to noise dyadic is highly amplified via social media.

    Specific to HR, what I like about the peddling that goes on in the bigger Commons, the net-pro if you will, is that it exposes many emperors sans clothes that would not otherwise be seen. Conversely, much as when I grew up watching multicultural TV programs which helped me learn to avoid or dismiss myopic stereotypes (a luxury my parents’ generation did not have), peddling ideas in the e-Commons of today has, I believe, a similar net social benefit, as messy and as self-indulgent as it may be. As such, lest we not forget – caveat venditor.


  9. […] Here is a link to the blog, […]

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