I’ve thought lots about the topic of teaching code since I taught myself a few years ago. My thesis, which still stands, is that the best way to teach people who want to make things to write code is not to teach them about the details, but instead to help them make things. Some of the points in this article about how nobody wants to learn to program pretty much nails it:
But for the casually interested or schoolchildren with several activities competing for their attention, programming concepts like variables and loops and data types aren’t interesting in themselves. They don’t want to learn how to program just for the sake of programming. They don’t want to learn about algorithm complexity or implicit casting. They want to make Super Mario or Twitter or Angry Birds.
I’m also particularly fond of this bit on how new coders are plagiarists:
It’s okay if they don’t completely understand how a program works after they’ve played with it a little. Very few ideas are completely original. The more material you give your students to plagiarize, the wider the range of derivative works they’ll make from them.
Was just reading through some old Instapaper stuff and ran across this post celebrating what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. It includes an excerpt of an interview McLuhan did with Playboy and this excellent explanation of McLuhan’s approach:
I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends. Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn’t stop them, so why waste my time lamenting? As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, “I accept the Universe”: “She’d better.” I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress.
I’ve written about this in the past, but I think one of the things that amazes me most about McLuhan was his ability to separate himself so well. The things he said that people struggle with most (like content doesn’t matter as much as the medium) they struggle with because it makes them uncomfortable as content creators (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Even reading what he said above makes me feel a bit uncomfortable as it feels like one shouldn’t just accept things … But who am I to say?
I swear I read something other than Hacker News, but today I was reading the HN comments in response to this blog post by Chris Dixon about how once you start taking money the clock starts ticking. This comment in particular, in response to the idea that it would be good to know what companies ran out of money so that others could try the same idea, struck me:
Doubt it would work out that way most of the time. You wouldn’t have the same experience/knowledge/insight.
The same people could probably re-do a company smarter though. Foursquare is Dodgeball 2.0. Twitter is sort of Blogger evolved.
While I’ve always thought of Twitter in some very specific ways (started by some of the same people, it solves the big problem of blogging by taking away the big empty box), something specific jumped into my mind at that moment that I hadn’t considered before. I long believed that the core difference between Twitter and Tumblr was the decision to go with path names (twitter.com/heyitsnoah) versus subdomains (heyitsnoah.tumblr.com). While this doesn’t seem like such a drastic difference, it creates a very different kind of network and feeling. The latter (subdomains) are much harder to monetize on a per-page level because as much as it might seem illogical, advertising doesn’t work all that well on the long tail (Tumblr’s answer to this, of course, is that people keep refreshing the dashboard).
Twitter has solved this problem by keeping everyone within the main experience. Your page on Twitter is less your page than it is Twitter’s page and that makes it easier for them to sell long term. I was actually talking about this on Wednesday with a friend of mine who said he felt even more creeped out by Pinterest because it felt like it took the idea of the platform owning the page even further. He felt like everything he posted there wasn’t really his and as he found more popularity on the platform he’d eventually have to move it to make it more his own. Not sure I agree with the distinction between the two, but it’s interesting to think about how seemingly small choices on how to set up URLs can have a big impact on the way the site feels.
Gizmodo has a glowing review of Pinwheel, Caterina Fake’s new company (Fake was co-founder of Flickr and Hunch). From the sounds of it (and the big photo at the top of the Gizmodo post) it’s a way to annotate the world around you. This is an interesting idea to me for a bunch of reasons. First, way back in the day I was fascinated by Yellow Arrow which was a version of this idea before people had smartphones with internet and GPS. You stuck an arrow sticker up and it had a unique SMS code that you could use to get whatever data was associated with it. Looking back in the archives, I guess I first spotted Yellow Arrow in 2004 in Wired and wrote more about them and Flickr and annotation a year later in 2005 (oh blogs, aren’t they grand).
Anyway, back to Pinwheel. About a year ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about how I thought someone needed to start a location-based media company. As more and more services became about understanding your location and giving you valuable information based on this it seemed logical that someone would start to focus on the creation of media with coordinates attached to it. I was thinking of this not as something that was competitive with Foursquare and the like, but rather as the natural extension: Location is a platform, Foursquare is an API for it and this is one of the businesses that will be built upon it.
Having never played with Pinwheel it’s hard to say where it fits in that location stack (does it compete with Foursquare or complement it), but it’s interesting to see stuff starting to pop up like this and I hope it’s awesome and interesting and pulls in data from outside just what people add directly to it.
One of the things I’ve been saying lately about what we’re doing at Percolate is that from a design perspective our competition isn’t other enterprise software tools, it’s Twitter, Tumblr, and the like. Because so many community managers (the most common user from the brand side) are heavy users of social media personally, they have come to expect consumer interfaces across all their tools. Or, as Sarah Lacy put it, “millennial entitlement”:
Millenials are coming into the workforce and the generation has an amazing capacity to demand the world revolve around their desires, whether that’s reasonable or not. Millenials will just start demanding better software from the companies they work for, and if they don’t get it, they’ll start installing their own skunkworks implementations.
Sure, I guess I feel entitled to well-designed software even in a business environment …
Felix Salmon has a good rundown on how Elizabeth Spiers has succeeded at the New York Observer. I thought his summation of online content was especially interesting (and somewhat sad):
And so, in the proud tradition of good blogs everywhere, readers are left with a highly variable product. The great is rare; the dull quite common. But — and this is the genius of the online format — that doesn’t matter, not any more, and certainly not half as much as it used to. When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.
When I was at Naked we used to have a joke for an advertisement that was little more than a strategy line: We’d say “your strategy is showing.” If you work in the marketing world you know what I’m talking about, it’s those ads where someone wrote a line about what the brand was trying to accomplish with its marketing and rather than coming up with a creative way to represent that they just made the line the ad. (I can’t think of a really good one off the top of my head, so if you’ve got one chime in.)
Anyway, I was looking at Twitter when they first launched their redesign and all I could think was “your strategy’s showing.” Obviously it’s not an ad, but when you see the labels on the tabs at the top its so obvious that they let their strategy slip into their nomenclature decisions.
For those who haven’t noticed the new tabs are “home,” “connect” and “discover.” Home is good, it works, I get it. But connect and discover are very funny choices for a company that is otherwise almost always very impressive in its UI decisions (it’s sort of amazing how far they’ve come since they were an organization that outsourced design completely).
Anyway, back to “connect” and “discover,” what do they mean? “Connect” is interesting and I really like the new activity feed view, but I certainly wouldn’t think of what lies beneath as being represented best by the word “connect.” “Discover” takes things even further. That’s one of those words that gets thrown around (we used it at Percolate for awhile) even though I’m fairly convinced no normal person on the planet has ever though of what they do when they find cool stuff on the internet as “discovery.”
The beauty, of course, is that if you’ve got a platform with however many hundreds of millions of people used Twitter than you can actually define these things. Often, that’s the best solution since no other word perfectly encapsulates what it is your trying to represent. We ultimately went with “brew” to describe the main Percolate dashboard for brands because it’s something unique and because of the relationship with clients, something we can be sure to define as part of the on boarding process.
But still, it’s funny when you catch someone with their strategy showing.
Well, this quote from a research engineer at Facebook is a relief:
The tools use our own technologies (talk about dog food) so they work, look, and integrate beautifully. Best part, if someone doesn’t like something, well, they can just fix it. (To wit, our email and calendar software is off-the-shelf and is the most unpleasant tool to deal with. Get this – we have a few people “specialized” in sending large meeting invites out, because there are bugs that require peculiar expertise to work around. Not to mention that such invites come with “Do not accept from an iPhone lest you corrupt the invite for everyone!”)
Nice to know big tech companies can’t fix calendaring either. Also, while we’re here, I liked this comment about Facebook’s use of PHP:
Facebook’s outlook of PHP is largely passionless; yes, engineers understand it is far from perfect, and people occasionally rant or show some WTF code sample. At the same time, at Facebook we love doing cool things, and PHP is simply a means to an end. With our extensive framework and libraries, it’s also often the simplest means to an end.
I promise I’ll get back to blogging more non-Percolate things, but here’s one more item. Over at the Percolate blog I wrote up a quick description of how our product development process has changed since we moved to running everything off an API:
Running a product team has been a really interesting shift in career for me. Some of the stuff I learned working at agencies has been a huge benefit (working in teams, managing creative people) and some other stuff has been totally new (continually improving something instead of launching and jumping to the next thing). It’s fun to work on improving the process and flow and when you land in a real rhythm it’s pretty amazing (not that different than being in the excitement and madness of a great pitch).
I need to write up a longer thing about my overall experience, but this was a start. I’ve got a goal to write more process posts over at the Percolate blog because people seem to like them, so hopefully there’s more coming soon.
We’re hiring for a bunch of different positions at Percolate and one of the big ones is sales. My co-founder, James, wrote a good post outlining how we approach sales and hiring salespeople. This part in particular hit close to home:
I’ve thought a lot about my profession as my career in digital advertising sales has evolved. It is an interesting profession that I’ve enjoyed but there are things about being a salesperson that I’ve always been intrigued by. For starters, a lot of salespeople, even very good sales people, don’t like to think of themselves as being in a sales profession. They will call themselves ‘business development’ or ‘account manager’ or ‘chief strategy officer’, while often their goals all ladder back to a direct sales relationship with the company that employs them. They might pass it off as, ‘well everyone sells’, and while that is hopefully the case, why shy away from what your profession is? Own it and be proud to say you’re in sales.
Towards the end of my time in agencies I began to fully grasp this. Most/all of your job as a senior strategy person is actually sales: You’re helping to get client buy-off on creative ideas. As we’ve been starting to hire salespeople I’ve been talking to some of the folks I know from the agency world and trying to get them to come over under this capacity. Surprisingly, most are much more open than I would have expected. To James’ point, the holdup is almost entirely in the title, they are worried about the implications of being a “salesperson” not in the actual selling (which most of the folks in advertising I know live for).
Anyway, no specific point here other than to say you should read the post and, if you like it, come work for Percolate.
Hardly shocking, but it turns out people are much better at predicting the behavior of others than themselves:
Psychologists have identified an important reason why our insight into our own psyches is so poor. Emily Balcetis and David Dunning found that when predicting our own behaviour, we fail to take the influence of the situation into account. By contrast, when predicting the behaviour of others, we correctly factor in the influence of the circumstances. This means that we’re instinctually good social psychologists but at the same time we’re poor self-psychologists.
It’s interesting to think about what puts us in social-psychologist mode and whether we can switch that on for ourselves. Obviously it’s not natural, but it’s got to be possible, right?
[Via Barking Up The Wrong Tree]
This is a fascinating concept:
ReDigi opened last year with a novel, if controversial, business concept: let consumers resell their old digital music files. Relying on the “first sale doctrine” — the legal concept that someone who buys a copyrighted item like a book or CD has the right to sell it or give it away — ReDigi operates a marketplace in which fans can upload unwanted songs and buy others at a discount.
Obviously they’re now being sued (on the grounds that they are not actually selling the original, but rather making a copy), but the broader question on whether you can have a used digital good is very interesting. Does the ability to instantly copy something kill the idea of used? What about something that’s 3D printed?
Last week James asked me for my top 5 articles of last year (he posted his) and so I spent an hour or so going through as much as I could find from last year (Instapaper archive is helpful) to come up with my list (which includes a few extra that didn’t make the top 5 cut, but were great). Here it is (I’m not necessarily sure the order is right, but it’s close):
- A Murder Foretold (New Yorker) – Here’s what I wrote about this when I first read it: “Clocking in at just under 15,000 words, the New Yorker article on the murder of a Guatemalan named Rodrigo Rosenberg is long even by their standards. It’s so worth it though. I don’t even want to say anything about it so that you can go and enjoy it yourself. Let’s just say if I could get my hands on the movie rights I definitely would.”
- The Shame of College Sports (The Atlantic) – I’ve read a few things that said this is the best piece of sportswriting in history. I haven’t read enough to say whether I agree or not, but this epic look at the NCAA was amazing. To cover something we’re all so aware of, but know so little about was a brilliant move and added a ton of nuance to the conversation around whether college athletes should be paid.
- The Information (New Yorker) – A good way to judge writing (for me at least) is how much it sticks in my head. Adam Gopnik’s discussion around the current state of internet discourse was probably the idea I talked about most. His breakdown of never-betters, better-nevers and ever-wassers gave a framework for understanding how people view the web (and technology generally).
- When Irish Eyes are Crying (Vanity Fair) – I almost didn’t include this because I’m sure it’s on everyone’s list. Michael Lewis breaking down what went wrong in Ireland. You read it already.
- The Shot That Nearly Killed Me (Guardian) – I debated back-and-forth (with myself) about whether this should make the list or not. It’s not a classic piece of journalism in that it’s not written by a single person about a single topic. However, the idea of getting the best conflict photojournalists in the world and asking them to talk about the most dangerous shot they ever took was breathtaking.
Okay, so those are my five. The last two I’m not totally comfortable with, but a list is a list …
Here are a few others that could/should be on there:
- Getting Bin Laden (New Yorker) – Somebody was going to get this story and it went to the New Yorker. There was some controversy around the amount of truth in it, but no matter what reading a blow-by-blow account of the capturing of the most wanted fugitive in the world is a pretty compelling read.
- A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage (The Awl) – This is the only non-mainstream publication on my list and I so wanted to put it in the top five. I’m not sure there was another article this year that I enjoyed reading more. This crazy look/theory about why McDonald’s runs the McRib promotion in the way it does was totally insane.
- The Assassin in the Vineyard (Vanity Fair) – Again, part of how I judge what I read is how much I repeat it. I must have told a dozen people about this story this year. Some crazy dude holds a vineyard hostage and poisons some of the most expensive wine vines in the world. (I won’t give away the ending.)
Awesome, hope you enjoy.
For awhile I was reading this restaurant trade magazine religiously and I loved it. There’s something about the food business that fascinates me. I think it has to do with the connection to the American palatte, there is something very basic and real there.
Anyway, the Wall Street Journal had a good piece on how Olive Garden (and other casual dining restaurants) design menus. The gist:
Americans are more adventurous eaters than ever thanks to the popularity of the Food Network, among other TV cooking programming, and the visibility of celebrity chefs. “People will say their favorite fruit is a blood orange,” not just an orange, says Shannon Johnson, executive director of culinary innovation and development for Applebee’s, which is owned by DineEquity Inc.
But for chains that aim to entice almost every demographic group through their doors, there are limits. In several years of tests, Olive Garden diners often deemed pesto too oily, bitter or green. Capers, with their salty, pickled flavor, are too unexpected for many customers, says a spokeswoman.
Gizmodo has a super interesting wrapup on a Nature paper about why Asian and Western food taste so different:
According to the study, Western cuisines have a tendency to pair ingredients that share many of the same flavor compounds. East Asian cuisines, however, do precisely the contrary, avoiding ingredients that share the same flavor compounds. The more flavors two ingredients share, the less likely they would be paired together in Asian kitchens.
I’ve been having this conversation a lot and thought it was worth posting. When thinking about Twitter I keep thinking of all the people poking fun of the service a few years ago by saying that it’s a place for people to share what they had for breakfast.
Now that Twitter has matured and redesigned it’s becoming more and more apparent that the jokes were correct. Twitter is all about what you’re consuming, except it’s not food, it’s content. Twitter is full of people sharing the YouTube video they had for breakfast and the New York Times article they consumed for lunch. The new design seems to be largely focused on this type of behavior.
Funny how jokes sometimes turn out to be insightful.
The last year has been totally insane. Right around this time in 2010 I left my job at Barbarian Group and gave myself two weeks before getting started on building a company for the first time. To say building a company is different than building a product is an understatement for which I can’t find the appropriate analogy. It’s been crazy and amazing and scary.
Over the last twelve months we’ve started to build a brand I believe stands for something in the industry, created a product some of the best brands in the world pay for and built an amazing team that all came over to my apartment the other night for the first Percolate holiday dinner.
Last week we got through a big milestone and pushed our 2.0 release. Iterating is the thing everyone talks about when they discuss product development and that’s what we did: Looked at the data and built a better product for our core use case (brands publishing content across social channels and their .coms).
Yesterday we announced that along with that release we also raised a round of funding to support the Percolate mission of helping brands create content at social scale. On Tumblr someone asked why we raised money if we were profitable (this is our first round of investment) and the answer is simple: We feel like we’ve found a big opportunity for brands and we’re going to run at it hard. That means hiring good people to both help us build the product (designers, product people, developers) and also to help us bring the product to brands (sales, project management). (Obviously if you do any of those things and are interested in working with us hit me up.)
Just in case you’re on the lookout for a new show to watch I highly recommend Showtime’s Homeland. Both Daily Beast and New Yorkerhave written good little writeups, the latter describing it like this:
But what I love most about “Homeland” is the way it acts as an apology for “24.” The show was created by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, former writers for that series. (Gordon created the plot arcs for Seasons 3 and 4, and he was the showrunner from 2006 to 2009.) Their previous hit was popular for good reason: it was a well-made fun machine, a sleek right-wing dreamscape with just enough moral ambiguity to elevate it above a Road Runner cartoon. Unfortunately, “24” was also a carrier for some terrible ideas, among them the notion that torture is the best and only way to get information; that Muslim faith and terrorist aims overlap by definition; and, most of all, that invulnerability is the mark of heroism. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was tortured again and again, but he always bounced up, jack-in-the-box style, to waterboard on. Characters surrounding Bauer did occasionally argue with the show’s premises. But most of them were A.C.L.U. types who wouldn’t know a ticking time bomb if it kicked them in the face.
Just in case you thought running and airline was a good business, the FT puts that to rest:
Warren Buffett’s quip about how shooting down the Wright brothers would have been a great service to capitalism is backed up by ugly numbers. In the entire recorded history of the US airline industry, cumulative earnings have been negative $33bn.
Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post about digital versus electronic and Monday’s on Twine comes this announcement from BERG on a new product called Little Printer. As the announcement puts it, “Little Printer lives in your front room and scours the Web on your behalf, assembling the content you care about into designed deliveries a couple of times a day.” What’s more interesting, though, are some of the reasons they chose paper instead of a screen:
We love physical stuff. Connecting products to the Web lets them become smarter and friendlier – they can sit on a shelf and do a job well, for the whole family or office – without all the attendant complexities of computers, like updates or having to tell them what to do. Little Printer is more like a family member or a colleague than a tool.
Plus paper is like a screen that never turns off. You can stick to the fridge or tuck it in your wallet. You can scribble on it or tear it and give it to a friend.
Now this is obviously not a new trend or anything, but what’s neat to me is that it feels like social media is now moving to the physical world. I suspect over the next few years we’ll see more and more devices that let us take the graphs we’ve built and interact with them in some physical way. In the meantime, I’m excited about getting my hands on a printer and while you can’t buy one yet, I did sign up for the mailing list.
Russell Davies is a very smart dude. I love the conclusion to his short essay on post digital:
And then, this morning, when struggling to think of a good ending to this, I heard a brilliant talk by George Dyson – describing the early history of computing unearthed from correspondence between Turing and Von Neumann. And I thought I heard him cite this quote from Turing. I wasn’t quite fast enough with my pen to be 100% sure and I can’t find it on Google, but I think this is what he said. And, if it is, it’s exactly what I mean and we can leave it at that. What I think he said is this: “being digital should be more interesting than just being electronic”. I’m sure that meant something slightly different in the middle of the last century but the words are useful and simple now, they’ll do for me as a tiny rallying cry; being digital should be more interesting than just being electronic.
[Editor’s Note: I posted this over at the Percolate blog and thought it was worth posting here as well. Hope you enjoy.]
Andy Weissman wrote an interesting post about what he calls the “golden age of internet marketing.” Essentially his vision, which I mostly agree with, is that a few large platforms are going to create native monetization models that better align the interests of brands, consumers and platforms than display advertising ever did. Google and Facebook are the two clear winners in this world so far, as both have found ways to serve brand needs while creating a better experience for users (at least with paid likes in the case of Facebook).
There are a few additional thoughts I have on this whole conversation, though. First, what are the ramifications of a web that is controlled by a few successful platforms? Andy gives the example of Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram and Soundcloud amongst a few others. All of these platforms have managed to generate a ton of user engagement and some are already at the user scale needed to support native brand interactions. However, this number will always be very small (in terms of total platforms, not total consumers). I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but I’m also not sure it’s a good thing. I believe deeply that the relationship people have with sites is different than the one they have with platforms, and there will always be value there. The problem is, essentially, to be successful with an advertising buy on a website these days you need to do something native for their platform (the site), which will never have the scale that a Facebook, Google or Twitter does.
Second, I think a lot of Andy’s article places the onus to get this figured out on the brand, but I’d argue an even bigger responsibility lies on the shoulders of the platform to understand how brands actually work. A few weeks ago I wrote about some comments from Jack Dorsey at Twitter about their model. Dorsey talked about capturing intent, which has been a big buzzword around marketing Google’s search advertising was coined as an intent miner. As I wrote then:
Twitter’s value is not about intent, in the classic funnel definition, it’s much more about awareness and interest: About exposing you to new products and services you didn’t know you were interested in. If Twitter can actually deliver this it has a truly differentiated ad product, but I worry they’re following the Google model too much and thinking too low in the funnel.
This may seem like a semantic difference, but I don’t think it is. I think generally Silicon Valley has not done a good enough job understanding what brands are all about and what they’re trying to accomplish with their spend. I actually think there are a lot of startups that think brands are stupid, which seems crazy to me considering most of them are ad funded. What I’m trying to say is that building a native marketing unit requires respecting your customer (the brand) as well as your users (the consumer). At the end of the day what truly separates Google’s search ads from other marketing units is that it’s respectful: It believes the user is smart and the brand knows what it wants.
Last, but not least, I think these platforms are going to need to be careful not to overextend themselves. When Facebook reads an article like the one from Emily Steel at the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago about some of the top brands spending a bunch of money buying likes and then shifting the spend to content to keep those likers engaged, they’ve got to pause for a minute to think about how they can capture more of that value. A native marketing unit can’t capture the entire chain of value and it shouldn’t. Google doesn’t keep you in Google when you click an ad and (hopefully) it never will. But when platforms like Facebook look at the numbers will they be able to not get greedy and try to capture a bigger slice of the pie? Or will they try to become more and more of a walled garden: Controlling as many pieces as possible and causing that beautiful alignment of interests between the platform, user and brand to get out of alignment.
I always thought the most compelling part of driving a Prius was the little screen that showed you when you were using gas versus electric. Sounds like Chevy has taken that idea a step further with their Volt interface:
Its designed to give you real-time feedback on your driving style. When the car is happy i.e. being driven efficiently, the ball is green and in the center of the gauge. Stomp on the accelerator, and it rises to the top, changing color to yellow. Brake too hard so youre bypassing the kinetic energy recovery and it dives to the bottom, again changing color to yellow. The more time you spend in yellow, the fewer miles youll go before you have to start burning hydrocarbons.
For all the stupid talk about gamification, this seems like the real thing: A feedback loop that naturally helps you get better at something.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the economy and American job market lately. Part of it is the natural byproduct of being a news consumer and the other is a result of starting a company during a recession. Anyway, I agree with the Economist on how we got here:
But today’s jobs pain is about more than the aftermath of the financial crisis. Globalisation and technological innovation are bringing about long-term changes in the world economy that are altering the structure of the labour market. As a result, unemployment is likely to remain high in the rich economies even as it falls in the poorer ones. Edmund Phelps, a Nobel prize-winning economist, thinks that in America the “natural rate” of unemployment (below which higher demand would push up inflation) in the medium term is now around 7.5%, significantly higher than only a few years ago.
But I’ve been thinking about a bit of a different angle on globalization. Sure part of it is about outsourcing (the article discusses oDesk, which is task-based outsourcing instead of job-based). I think that’s certainly part of the picture, but the more interesting globalization story to me is about the increasing ability of American companies to be successful without a strong American economy.
Again, my regular caveat is that I’m not an economist and my knowledge of how it all works comes from reading a bunch of articles on the internet. With that said, I’ve gotten to spend some time around some very large multinational corporations over the years and it’s impossible to miss the opportunity they see in developing markets. In the past I assume companies were more successful selling goods to consumers when the American economy was strong. Now that they’re selling worldwide, they can afford a weaker American market with global consumers picking up the slack.
For the first time, it seems to me, the American economy isn’t completely aligned with the needs of America’s companies. When a big company creates global jobs they are also creating consumers for the own goods, something that wasn’t true on the same scale 50 years ago. If you’re an American corporation with a global workforce who are you responsible to: The country you reside or the people you employ?
Again, not sure what this means, or if it’s even a valid economic argument, but it strikes me as a change that isn’t really being discussed.
It’s always interesting to see how smart people get their job done, which is why I like The Setup and Atlantic Wire’s Media Diet feature. The former asks interesting people – mostly engineers – about the hardware/software they use on a daily basis, while the latter digs into the media habits of some of the most successful journalists around (last week was Andrew Ross Sorkin). Beyond getting interesting tips for software and new Twitter feeds to follow, what’s so great about these things is that it recognizes the roll of outside tools and influences in the lives of successful people. It’s a good thing to remember.
This FT Magazine article about McKinsey seems to be floating around the web (haven’t read it yet … added to Instapaper). But speaking of McKinsey, I’m reminded of another FT piece about the firm that makes a really interesting point about the business of consulting:
Indeed, one of the main reasons companies hire consultants is to make sure they do not fall behind what their competitors are doing – in return for parting with their own secrets, they gain access to their rivals’ suitably disguised “best practices”. The consultant is a broker who attempts to amass so much knowledge that each company has to hire him, no matter how uncomfortable that feels.
This is true of the advertising business as well. When an agency is asked whether they have relevent industry experience, in some ways they’re being asked to take what they know about a competitor and apply it to the brand.
Earlier this year I remember reading this short article from MIT on some research that showed word length had more to do with information being communicated than frequency of occurrence. Ran across it again and thought it was worth sharing:
Why are some words short and others long? For decades, a prominent theory has held that words used frequently are short in order to make language efficient: It would not be economical if “the” were as long as “phenomenology,” in this view. But now a team of MIT cognitive scientists has developed an alternative notion, on the basis of new research: A word’s length reflects the amount of information it contains.
The article goes on to explain, “For English words, 9 percent of the variation in length is due to amount of information, and 1 percent stems from frequency.” Not entirely sure what to do with this yet, but seems worth knowing.
I’ve been taking some time over the Thanksgiving break to catch up on my Instapaper queue, so I’ll probably be posting links to some older articles over the next few days. The first comes from a SocialFlow blog post about how the Osama Bin Laden death news spread across Twitter. While the particulars are interesting, I especially liked the points they made about how impossible it would have been to predict the players actually responsible for spreading the message. The post explain, “Before May 1st, not even the smartest of machine learning algorithms could have predicted Keith Urbahn’s online relevancy score, or his potential to spark an incredibly viral information flow.”
They then conclude with a deeper message for how we think about social influence that I completely agree with:
As we build out digital social spaces, we must not get derailed by metrics of status affordances that have taken center stage. Just because we have easily accessible data at our fingertips doesn’t mean that we have the capacity to model and place a value tag on human behavior. Followers, friends or likes represent an aspect of our digital status, but are only a partial representation of our general propensity to be influential. Keith Urbahn wasn’t the first to speculate Bin Laden’s death, but he was the one who gained the most trust from the network. And with that, the perfect situation unfolded, where timing, the right social-professional networked audience, along with a critically relevant piece of information led to an explosion of public affirmation of his trustworthiness.
Most Americans have heard the story of Benjamin Franklin fighting for the turkey as the country’s national bird. However, I assume few know the reasoning (I certainly didn’t). In this week’s New Yorker Adam Gopnik explains:
Franklin is arguing hard about whether there ought to be hereditary legacies in American life, and he makes the keen point that there are two kinds of honor in the world: the Old World’s “descending honor,” in which people pass on their goods and their status to their children, and the New World’s “ascending honor,” in which children strive to impress their parents by moving up in society on their own. For Franklin, ascending honor—what we would now call meritocratic advancement—is the American goal, and descending honor the American danger. The eagle is to him an avian example of descending honor in action: looking classy but swooping down to feed on the helpless. The turkey is the bird of ascending honor: silly and vain, pluming itself too much on the small stuff but sharing the feed with the other birds in the yard and ready to give hell to anyone who tries to make trouble.
Happy Thanksgiving. (With a special Thanksgiving shout out to my mom, who makes a killer turkey and is the biggest Benjamin Franklin fan I know.)
At dinner this evening Leila and I got into a conversation about Italian words losing the last vowel (mozzarell instead of mozzarella). If you’re not from the New York area this will sound crazy, but it’s pretty common here (I remember hearing it growing up in Connecticut as well).
When I got home I tried to track down an article I remember reading years ago about this phenomena and while I can’t remember whether this was it, a New York Times article from 2004 offers up some ideas on how this happened:
In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common. Restaurantgoers and food shoppers in the United States ended up imitating southern and northern dialects, where speakers often do not speak their endings, Professor Albertini said.
Liliana Dussi, a retired New York district director for the Berlitz language schools, said many first- and second-generation Italians whose ancestors immigrated to the United States before World War I were informally taught Italian expressions and the names of food, some of which has ended up part of everyday language in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
If you want more, this Chowhound thread is pretty excellent.
Felix Salmon expands on some of the stuff I wrote the other day about brands as publishers. Specifically, he points to an interesting example I didn’t know about in the Gates Foundation. The non-profit gave the Guardian a $2.5 million grant to suppor the Guardian’s global development microsite for three years. Felix explains:
The Gates Foundation actually launched the site in 2010, spending an undisclosed sum to do so; the new grant keeps the site going for another three years. As part of the deal, every page in the site — be it blog post or news story — gets prominently branded with the Gates Foundation logo, right at the top of the column where all the editorial content goes. (In fact, the logo is significantly larger than the Guardian’s own logo at the top of the page, although the site looks and feels like the rest of the Guardian site, and lives at guardian.co.uk.)
At the end of the post Felix asks a few questions, including what does the Gates foundation get out of an arrangement like this? I’ve got a guess, which is they get more awareness around the issues. That sounds like a bit of a throwaway answer, but the Gates Foundation is an interesting position as a brand: They are a market leader. When you’re a market leader your goal becomes less about building your own position and more about building the category.
Take BabyCenter as an example. Johnson & Johnson dominates the baby category. Last time I heard their marketshare was up above 50 percent. Their objective with marketing is less about displacing the competition and more about building the market: They want parents to take more “care” of their babies by buying more products. If they take just their regular percentage of the new market it’s a big deal.
I’ve written about it in the past, but Google is one of my favorite examples of a market leader marketer. Their dominance in search makes in inefficient to try to steal share from competitors (how will they even find the small percentage of people who use Bing?). Instead, they spend money growing the category with products like Android and Chrome. Here’s what I wrote about the strategy in 2009:
What that means is everything Google does is about getting more people to use the internet more. Use Android as an example: It is absolutely in Google’s best interest to release a mobile OS that makes it easy to browse the web because that means more people using the internet more which means more searches on Google (because of that market dominance) which means more clicks on the paid ads. Voila, you’re rich.
I suspect Gates thinks about the approach in a very similar way. The more people are thinking about these issues, the more effective they can be in enacting the change they are pushing for. I’m actually surprised they bothered with the branding on the pages, though it likely makes the Guardian much more comfortable.
The broader question, which Felix seems to be getting at, is what can we learn from programs like this and is there a model here for media companies? I suspect the answer is yes, though the first thing we need to figure out is how to apply the model to non-market leaders. When you’re promoting a lifestyle, idea or category you lead, it’s easy to see how getting people to think about it more makes sense. If you’re a brand who isn’t in that situation (most), how do you build value in a similar way?
People like to use new technology as a metaphor and API seems to be bubbling up as a good choice. Here’s Alexis Madrigal on Occupy Wall Street as an API:
What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers dont have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers.
I find the examples he uses after this paragraph a bit tenuous, but I really like the API metaphor in this example and generally. It’s a simple way to understand how distributed systems functions. (Franchising, for example, was essentially an API before people were talking much about APIs.)
What happens, though, when you take it further like Amazon did? Essentially the company decided that everything must be an API: No functionality produced could exist without being a simple service that any other group in the company could reach. It was probably best explained in an accidental Google+ post by a Google engineer a few weeks ago who used to work at Amazon. Here he explains Jeff Bezos’s service mandate:
1) All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
2) Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
3) There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
4) It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.
5) All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
6) Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.
7) Thank you; have a nice day!
What happened next was pretty amazing. After building all these services Amazon started exposing them all publicly. In designing their company around APIs they actually discovered a second business (Amazon Web Services) that they are dominating. In essence the act of simplifying the company down to a set of service calls helped them see where their greatest strengths lay. It’s an interesting approach and one I can only assume we’ll see more companies follow.
I love this quote about the difference between Zappos and Amazon culture from the Wired interview between Steven Levy and Jeff Bezos:
Levy: Two years ago, you bought Zappos. Was that an attempt to absorb their so-called culture of happiness and customer service?
Bezos: No, no, no. We like their unique culture, but we don’t want that culture at Amazon. We like our culture, too. Our version of a perfect customer experience is one in which our customer doesn’t want to talk to us. Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect. I’ve been saying for many, many years, people should talk to their friends, not their merchants. And so we use all of our customer service information to find the root cause of any customer contact. What went wrong? Why did that person have to call? Why aren’t they spending that time talking to their family instead of talking to us? How do we fix it? Zappos takes a completely different approach. You call them and ask them for a pizza, and they’ll get out the Yellow Pages for you.
[Via James Gross]
Back in 2009 Obama famously choose to employ some behavioral economics strategies in distributing the stimulus to citizens. The administration choose to dole out payments in small pieces over an extended period instead of delivering it in one lump sum. The logic went something like this: “By giving people the sense that their incomes had grown, doling out the money paycheck by paycheck was supposed to make recipients more likely to spend it, thereby lifting the economy.”
Except it didn’t exactly work that way and it now looks like lump sum payments work better than the slow drip. A serious blow to behavioral economics? Not exactly …
Traditional economic theory predicts that the design of a tax credit like Making Work Pay should have no effect on its efficacy: A tax cut is a tax cut, whether it comes in a check, reduced paycheck withholdings, or, for that matter, a briefcase full of cash. How money is delivered should have no effect on whether people spend or save.
So the failure of the program actually proves that people are not perfectly rational about the way they spend, otherwise it would have made no difference. A real failure would have been if the Obama approach had the exact same outcome as lump sum.
I never read Steven Levy’s In the Plex, but I was just mentioning this quote about Google’s speed to someone and thought it was worth sharing here:
[Google] was too good. If Excite were to host a search engine that instantly gave people information they sought, [Excite’s CEO] explained, the users would leave the site instantly. Since his ad revenue came from people staying on the site—“stickiness” was the most desired metric in websites at the time—using Google’s technology would be counterproductive. “He told us he wanted Excite’s search engine to be 80 percent as good as the other search engines,” … and we were like, “Wow, these guys don’t know what they’re talking about.”
I was going to wait and talk more about Percolate a little later in the week when I had a chance, but then Felix Salmon went ahead and wrote a pretty epic post about what he saw as the future of online advertising and now I’m left with no choice but to write a response (because I found myself nodding so much, not because I disagree).
The world Felix lays out is the same one I’ve been seeing and thinking about for the last seven years. It’s a world where online advertising, mainly banner ads, has fundamentally failed brands in a crazy number of ways. The dirty secret about the business is that brands, agencies and media companies all run banners knowing that they mostly don’t work. Everyone is in on it. It’s not that they don’t care about their effectiveness, it’s just that there’s not really another easy way out there. All parties know the web is important and banners are the easiest way to check the box.
That’s never been my bag. I joined The Barbarian Group a few years ago because I fundamentally believed that for brands, earning attention was more valuable than buying it. I don’t believe there’s no place for online advertising (I’m using the word in the narrowest sense to mean the buying of placements on media sites), I just don’t believe it’s the center of a successful digital marketing strategy. Period.
I think most people point to the shift from one-to-many to one-to-one as the primary difference between the offline and online world for advertisers, but I think there’s something else at play. This morning an article I’ve been working on for a month or so came out on Adage, where I explain how I see the shift:
The idea of “buying media” always struck me as a bit odd. If anything, what brands have been doing is renting: Paying the media owner to borrow the audience’s attention for a short period of time. In the pre-internet days, rental was pretty much the only game in town and that was just fine.
But then the web came along and started to play with the economics. All of a sudden you could pay once and message continuously. (Think: Brands buying fans on Facebook.) The thing is, because of the peculiarities and rates of audience rental in traditional media, brands (and agencies) are built for campaigns instead of sustained communication.
Sustained communication is a real shift in thinking for brands (and agencies). Lots of people talk about this shift as a move from campaigns to products, but I think calling it sustained better explain the shift and value opportunity. That value opportunity is about building on top of previous success (and audience) instead of starting over every time. Microsites were probably the best example of this: Buy a bunch of advertising, drive people to a new .com, stop advertising, stop getting traffic, tear the site down, repeat.
Like Felix, I believe content needs to be at the center of a brand’s sustained communications strategy. Agencies seem to agree, bringing in content strategists en masse to work with clients on become publishers. The issue I’ve seen is that most of these strategies just aren’t sustainable. In my Adage article I put it in terms of stock and flow:
Traditionally, brands have been quite good at creating stock content in the form of ads and some of the more forward-thinking ones have found really interesting ways to translate that capability to beautiful web video and interactive experiences. While that’s great for short bursts, creating a sustained messaging strategy requires a combination of both stock and flow: longer-form, higher-quality content coupled with the quick-hit links to other interesting and relevant content on the web.
How does this look? On the extreme end it’s BabyCenter, RedBull.com or AMEX OPEN Forum, those brands are so far out ahead of everyone else from a publishing standpoint it’s just amazing. And look at the value they’ve created for themselves: Their sites are big enough that other brands want to advertise on them to reach the audience they’ve amassed. Not necessarily the most important thing for the brand, but a pretty good statement about what they’ve accomplished.
Now obviously those aren’t the most accessible examples and the two most common concerns marketers have when they hear them are 1) I don’t have the permission to speak to my audience in that way and 2) I can’t afford to build a content organization in the way that those brands have.
The idea of Percolate (you knew I’d come around to it) is to make it answer those questions and make it possible for every brand to create a sustained platform. On the permission question, it’s really just a problem with definition. Every brand with customers has permission to speak to them, they just need to find their voice. Look at the work of Weiden + Kennedy and BBH on deodorant brands if you don’t believe me and American Express is a credit card brand, that’s hardly the most exciting category on the planet. On the second point (staff & costs), it’s about a good balance of stock and flow and having the right tools in place (like Percolate) to make it all happen. The way we see it breaking down is in these three components:
- Calibration: To begin consuming, you’ve got to decide what to consume. If you’re a person, that’s easy, you’ve got your tastes and interests mapped out. If you’re a brand, it’s a little more difficult. We’ve worked out a method that we use to back out of brand/campaign strategy, and into a set of sources for Percolate to sift through.
- Algorithm: Separating the signal from the noise is even harder if you’re a brand (or an editor at a brand) than if you’re an individual. The algorithm does a lot of heavy lifting to try to get to the most interesting content.
- Publishing: The real point of all that lifting isn’t so it can display it in Percolate, it’s so the brand can find interesting content to comment on and push back out.
When you put the content produced in Percolate and combine it with the beautiful content that is an agency’s bread and butter you get a compelling publishing platform that can actually be sustained over time. Once you get that down, it’s only a short step to start thinking about what you do with the content, which is where Felix and I converge again:
It’s easy to create an ad unit which is primarily links to third-party sites; I’m sure with a bit of effort and creativity you could put one together which is even better than the Counterparties unit on Reuters.com. Start placing that ad over the web, and people will, for the first time, actually have a reason to want to look at your ad; when they see it, they’re even likely to click on it! Sure, that click won’t take them to your site — but it’s still a great measure of engagement. And they will love you for sending them to great content.
We’re not quite at that part yet, but hopefully this helps lay out the vision and explain what the hell we’ve had seven people holed up in an office on Bond Street working on for the past year.
Science fiction writer John Scalzi’s thoughtful take on the abuse, and subsequent cover up, at Penn State [via Boing Boing]:
Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. Le Guin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.
At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia — or at very least the illusion of their utopia — was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.
If you’re up for more takes on the whole situation, two of the more interesting things I read come from The Nation, who try to help paint the picture of how Penn State found itself so reliant on football that it could look past what’s probably the worst crime anyone can think of, and ESPN, or more accurately Poynter Institute blogging on ESPN.com, who takes the cable channel to task for it’s misguided coverage. Here’s an excerpt:
By Tuesday, we expected ESPN to find its footing, but that didn’t happen. When Penn State canceled a scheduled news conference that morning, that left “SportsCenter” with a reporter outside the stadium with nothing to report. Then in the 11 a.m. hour “SportsCenter” brought in Matt Millen, who played for Paterno and now works as an ESPN analyst, for an interview with anchor Chris McKendry.
Neither seemed prepared. McKendry’s questions were indirect and non-specific. And Millen himself was understandably still working through the implications of charges. He started by defending Paterno’s job and cautioning folks to withhold judgment of the legendary coach. Pressed by McKendry, Millen meandered, eventually choking up and acknowledging that if the charges are true, this is a massive moral failure.
Back in August I wondered about the long-term effect of the move to a software world:
Software companies optimize themselves to operate with as few humans as possible and many of them seek to replace functions that humans once performed. The net loss seems irreplaceable to me, even if everyone in the world knew how to write code. I’m no economist and I hope I’m wrong for lots of reasons, but I’ve been unable to find an answer in my head or in my conversations with others that satisfies me.
Since that time we haven’t seen much of an improvement as far as the economy or jobs numbers go and it looks like some other folks are asking the same questions I am (or, more likely, I’m asking the same questions they are). TechCrunch has a nice roundup of the conversation (via Henrik), including a link to an Economist blog post that argues the rate of jobs being destroyed by software is simply faster than the rate of jobs being created:
Another implication is that technology is no longer creating new jobs at a rate that replaces old ones made obsolete elsewhere in the economy. All told, Mr Ford has identified over 50m jobs in America—nearly 40% of all employment—which, to a greater or lesser extent, could be performed by a piece of software running on a computer. Within a decade, many of them are likely to vanish. “The bar which technology needs to hurdle in order to displace many of us in the workplace,” the author notes, “is much lower than we really imagine.”
Again, I’m not an economist and certainly hate to think I might be on the side of the luddite fallacy, but what if this time is different?
Shiv Singh, head of digital at Pepsi, makes some points I agree with (and a few I don’t) in his thoughts about the future relationship between TV and the web. One I’m with him on is this: “When TV ads become teasers for digital experiences, the ROI on the investment will improve significantly as the digital experience will stretch out the brand experiences beyond the 30 second clip.. The ROI won’t be measured by the impact that the TV ad has when it’s aired but also by its residual influence on engagement in other mediums in the weeks that follow the airing.” I think this is going to spell a big change for the agency landscape and spell the first real opportunity for digital shops to bite off a larger piece of the advertising pie.
Also reminds me of something one of my favorite internet thinkers, Duncan Watts, wrote a few years ago about how brands could use “viral”:
Imagine, for example, that an advertising firm makes a standard ad buy on the Web, or directs TV viewers to a Web site, or uses an e-mail list to contact potential consumers directly. Regardless of the method used, the campaign will yield some large number, N, of conversions—people who are sufficiently interested to click on the Web ad or embedded link. Traditionally, that’s all it would be expected to achieve, but imagine now that these N viewers can also share the ad easily with anyone else. In other words, what would previously have been the entire audience for the message also becomes the big seed for a viral campaign in which the newly added people can forward the message to their friends, who may forward it to their friends in turn, and so on.
Thought Watts is a lot more academic, the point is the same and the science is simple: If you have a big enough seed, your odds of seeing something catch fire is higher.
I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen:
In a Tuesday ruling, a federal judge in San Francisco refused to dismiss news site PhoneDog’s complaint which argued that a Twitter password and the identity of followers was a trade secret. PhoneDog claims that its former journalist, Noah Kravitz, failed to surrender the password to a Twitter account that was originally tied to the handle @phonedog_noah. Instead, says PhoneDog, he simply changed the name of the account to @noahkravitz and kept sending messages to the thousands of followers he had acquired while employed at the site.
I suspect we will see more and more of these disputes moving forward as we all deal with the rather blurry lines between our working and non-working selves. I’ve spoken to some folks at media companies who are becoming increasingly picky about how employees use social media and the connections there to their professional persona. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few years.
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