Social Media

And God created…a Remix by Dan Weingrod

I tried hard not to watch the Superbowl this year. The teams weren’t that interesting and the ads felt even less compelling, especially the uninspiring “previews”. Besides, I knew I’d be able to catch up on them afterwards in the numerous review pages. But the blackout conspired against me which meant that when the enforced episode of “Downton” ended, there was the fourth quarter waiting for me. And, as it turned out, what was by far the best ad of the entire game, Dodge Ram’s “So God Created A Farmer” ad.

The strength of the ad was in the way it broke through the clutter and sameness of the typical Superbowl ad. No safe frat jokes, schmaltzy humor or CGI overkill. Simply by using  a spoken word soundtrack and striking photography it teased the viewer into following a story and the soft sell, slow reveal of its sponsor.

 

 

By the next day, it was revealed that the ad, that was already generating a great deal of positive buzz, was pretty much lifted from this YouTube video created by Farms.com.

 

Farms.com had given Dodge full approval and support, as you will likely see in their video. But this certainly brought up all sorts of questions about the creativity and originality. For years marketers have begged, borrowed and outright stolen cultural artifacts and pop themes from their creators in the name of creativity and staying ahead of the curve. This case is really not all that different with the exception of the tone and level of production.The monologue in the Farms.com video includes a mild joke about the male farmer enduring “visiting ladies”, (and the audience laughter in the background). The photos are a mixed bag, they include women, but are in and out of focus, include women, but some appear to be from Canada. And many include farm equipment and vehicles, but none made by Dodge or their partners Case Tractors. The Dodge video airbrushes many of these faults by editing out the joke, using striking, high quality photography and subtly inserting their own vehicles in the images.

Brands have been steadily increasing their role in curating and creating social content. What’s interesting about this case is that the flow has gone in a different direction. Instead of brands creating content and allowing it to be socialized, in this case the brand has taken social content and branded it. I think this is an interesting flow and one that we’ll likely see more of considering the critical success of the ad. (Though I really doubt it will sell more trucks).

In this flow from social to branded content what does seem to get lost is the freshness, originality and vibrancy of the original, amateur, content. What Dodge did with their production and especially with their photography was to create a highly iconic and nostalgic view of the farmer. And while this is often what advertising is supposed to do, there is a danger here. Nostalgia reminds us of times that never were and at often can make us comfortable with our prejudices. This was brought out strongly when many pointed out that over 50% of farmers and farm workers in America are Hispanic. It’s clearly not part of the vision of the farmer that Dodge wanted to put up, and an issue that I don’t think comes to mind in the Farms.com video with all of its amateur naivete. But we're now in a new world of remixing, where anyone can create and define their own iconography and nostalgia. So when the Brave New Foundation, posted their own remix, below, they again reversed the content flow, and helped complete a more accurate picture.

 

Why I could, sort of, Like Graph Search by Dan Weingrod

I’ve become a very reluctant user of Facebook over the past couple of years. I log in once a week at best, ignore the weekly updates and never sign in to anything with Facebook. At this point I’m down to three, pretty lame, use cases for Facebook:

  • Spying on my, adult, children (pathetic)
  • Following political news and posting views to a broader network than on twitter (this kind of ended with the election)
  • Using it as a version of Patch.com to find out what’s going on locally because I don’t follow local friends on twitter, (like when we lost power in the freak Halloween storm over a year ago).

So when Graph Search launched I pretty much tried to ignore the Apple-like, shrouded in secrecy, intro event. But as I began to think and read more about Graph Search I realized that there’s potentially more to like, than there is to dislike.

For starters there’s the fact that Graph Search could be, as Danny Sullivan pointed out, a fundamentally different kind of search. It’s not the Google type search we may have been looking for or maybe expected and that’s kind of exciting. Sullivan calls it “multidimensional search” and John Battelle thinks of it as “Facebook is no longer flat”. The dimensional metaphors make a lot of sense. When you consider the possibilities of Graph Search you can see that it has the potential to add additional, and potentially very interesting, layers to the Facebook experience. And unlike recent Facebook copycat clones, (I’m looking at you Poke), there’s some serious thinking and innovation going on in terms of deployment of natural language search and linking volumes of structured and unstructured data on a massive scale.

But beyond the potential dimensionality of the Facebook experience there’s also the fact that Graph Search feels like a serious attempt to build a serious model for sematic search. We’ve been talking about sematic search for quite a while, and while there have some halting attempts, this feels like the first time someone is really trying to approach this in a committed fashion. So thinking about Graph Search as some sort of awesome Big Data project it actually begins to feel interesting. Perhaps by  drawing connections and inferences from all of these data points we can learn how people connect and maybe make all the Facebook experience a bit more interesting? Maybe Graph Search could be an alternative to what has become quickly a very tiresome stream.

Of course the real question is, could that even happen? As Steve Cheney pointed out: “much of the structured data that makes up Graph Search is…:totally irrelevant and dirty.” With all the years and dollars spent on buying “Likes”, a great deal of the semantic data in the Facebook ecosystem is pretty much polluted. It’s as if Google had launched organic search AFTER having deployed paid search, and then used paid search data as a basis for ranking.

All of this brings up the issue of the use cases for Graph Search. We’ve seen few great examples of “Stupid Graph Search” tricks like: Mothers of Jews who like Bacon on this Tumblr. And We’ll keep seeing tricks like these for a while to come reminding us of the pitfalls of semantic search within the Facebook environment. Between paid Likes and the “innovation” of frictionless sharing there is going to be a need to focus more effectively on privacy and the inadvertent settings that have become as part of the Facebook experience. And this can’t simply be the role of Facebook users, Facebook itself and the Graph Search team may have to play a bigger role in deciding how deep trolls and how relevant it makes the connections. The idea of creating “obscurity” on Facebook, as discussed in this recent article, may also be a role that that Graph Search will need to take on, on behalf of the users. (And maybe the impetus to do that would be to start thinking of them as customers instead of, how I just wrote, users). By deciding how much and what type of data to relate or interweave Facebook itself can help create a meaningful obscurity. This is a very tough problem, but it’s the responsibility Facebook has accepted by creating Graph Search and in a way, it would be pretty exciting to see them solve it.

All of which leads to the question of the use case for Graph Search. When I first heard about Google it was “there’s this search engine that gets it right and does it really, really fast”. Right now I haven’t heard a similar statement or problem/ solution set for Graph Search. Yes, there’s a LinkedIn killer use case and a Yelp killer use case, but I’m not so sure that these will really impact these established products with loyal followers. Instead it’s in the weird connections and attributes brought together by Stupid Tricks that there’s an opportunity to create value.

It may be that Facebook will have to take the lead in surfacing interesting Graph Search data and new use cases in order to gain better adoption. Obviously there’s a great use case for advertisers, but Graph Search it comes with an Achilles heel. Advertisers are already enjoying similar benefits of Graph Search through existing Facebook advertising programs. The problem for advertisers is that unless Facebook users can find their own organic and relevant use cases for Graph Search they will likely opt out of it. And as users opt-out it will set up a feedback loop of diminishing returns for advertisers.

Facebook’s beta approach to Graph Search gives some hope that this might happen. Especially if they can be patient, build up data and let the use cases occur before setting it loose on the advertising world. There’s some other large questions, such as how relevant Graph Search will be within Facebook’s walled garden. But as an experiment that could build our understanding of how people connect, while hopefully fostering “obscurity”, I could learn to like Graph Search.

Rumormongering by Dan Weingrod

I helped spread a rumor. One that was proved false, and one that says a lot about the influence of social media on news and journalism.

In my case I was flicking through the #sandy coverage and landed on CNN just as they reported that the New York Stock Exchange floor was under 3 feet of water.  At which point they tried to get a comment from their financial reporter, who was in 3 feet of water in Atlantic City, things got ridiculous and I flicked away, but not until I tweeted out my contribution.

Within a few hours, of course, the story was proved wrong. Turns out that it was part of a series of tweets coming from a twitter troll/user named @comfortablysmug. He was the source of the underwater stock exchange tweet, and an number of other scurrilous rumors, which was retweeted 600 times, eventually made it to the Weather Channel who retweeted it, which is where CNN picked it up and vaulted it into the mainstream.

My tweet was also retweeted a couple of times, which gave me some social satisfaction, but I didn’t find out that it was false until the next day.  So the question came up: Was I wrong? Should I have waited, issued a correction? Walked it back with my followers? In the end I ignored it; at least I had attributed it to CNN, let them take the heat. But it made me think more about how this situation is changing the way we are dealing with the effect social media has on newsgathering and the question of how we deal with rumor and fact.

#Sandy was a watershed for social rumormongering. The combination of a mass event that simultaneously focused millions of eyeballs and fingers and the growing symbiotic relationship between personal media and mass media proved irresistible for anyone wanting to put their own spin on events. Consider what happened on Instagram. #sandy brought on an unprecedented profusion of artful, believable, and frankly ridiculous Photoshop hoaxes. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal did some remarkable live coverage of this here, and later pointed out that we still don’t fully understand what its like to experience a fast moving event through the internet:

“With old media still largely moribund and no impending changes in the information ecosystem at the major social networks, the only current systematic answer is the laissez-faire one: over time, people will learn who to trust and who not to trust based on what they post. The people who "provide value" will win. “

I’m not sure about that last part, at least in the short term. As I was writing this I saw this tweet quoting Kevin Systrom that #sandy was Instagram’s biggest moment.

While Systrom based his assessment on the staggering number #sandy hashtagged images, I wonder if another indication of the scale of this “moment” was the the level of instatrolling of events that, up to now, we've been used to seeing on twitter. In a way, you wonder if it’s a sign of a platform’s maturity when hoaxers, in jest or seriousness, know that they have the power to spread their hoaxes.

The larger question is what does this mean for the future of news and information? For me, aside from the issue of attribution, addressed by Maria Popova’s sensible but somewhat clunky Curators Code, one possible solution may have to be a change in our mindset and definition of news as fleeting, changeable and fungible content.  When you have millions of correspondents and publishers viewing the same event and discussing it on multiple platforms the definition of information is bound to change and be affected by how you are curating it. It’s become a sort of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle approach to consuming information.

It’s also why some new news organizations are beginning to adapt to this streamlike approach to newsgathering and publication. Quartz, a new publication by The Atlantic Magazine, has jumped into the fray by not only creating a look and feel that is appropriate for mobile, but by also reorganizing its editorial structure around rapidly changeable topic areas that they call “obsessions”. You can also see this new approach at the ITV News site developed by madebymany. Using a mobile, stream friendly structure the site highlights the live stream of news stories, while simultaneously allowing readers to drill down as the story changes and evolves. In both of these examples, what is coming into focus is that news content needs to be delivered in a way that accept sa certain transitory nature around journalistic truth. That what you see now may be different in a few hours when additional points of view will be added.

But the best example I have seen of this came not from a journalistic institution, but from one of the new breed of citizen journalists that we are all, in a way, becoming.  Last July as the rumors of the awful movie theater shootings in Aurora began to circulate 18-year-old Morgan Jones curated a live feed of social media posts, police radio announcements and news coverage on Reddit. There was much to admire about Jones’ initiative, gumption and desire to get the story out on social media. But along with the task of simply getting the story out there he also displayed an innate understanding of the shifting shape, arc and ultimate changeability of social news through the simple use of strike-throughs.

“I don’t delete things and replace them with something else,” you told NPR’s “All Things Tech.” “I do a strike-through and put what [latest information] I have below it so it gives people an idea of how it’s changing, so it’s transparent.”

For me strike-throughs have always been about a kind of hipsterish fashion, style irony. In this context they have become a signal for a new way of consuming content, rumors and all.

Content is software by Dan Weingrod

Towards the end of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs, he quotes Bill Gates telling Jobs that, “I used to believe that the open, horizontal model would prevail, but you proved that the integrated vertical model could also be great”. The integrated model is, of course, the model of tight hardware and software integration that almost killed Apple, but ultimately has transformed it into not only the most influential, if not most popular, mobile hardware provider as well as suddenly becoming the top driver of business PC sales.

But there’s another player in the world of hardware software integration that has just as keen an understanding of how to make it work, and that’s Amazon.  Admittedly this hardware software integration is hard to see at first. Amazon’s hardware gets some pretty mehsome reviews, and on the software side as Walter Mossberg says: “like its predecessor, the new Fire buries Android, demoting it to mere plumbing”. (And yes, I know I’m ignoring the software achievement of AWS here, but I’ll get there in a moment).

To understand where Amazon is succeeding in integration you need to substitute the word “software” with the word “content”. Instead of classic hardware software integration Amazon’s real success has been with integrating content with a hardware and delivery ecosystem. Its something that they have positioned themselves to do much more effectively, and creatively, than any of the other walled garden ecosystems out there.

In a way, it’s a throwback to how the big consumer electronic companies like Sony moved to purchase movie studios in the 1980’s. For these consumer electronic players content WAS software. It’s what made their hardware work, gave it added value and provided an opportunity for vertical integration. That they never really succeeded at it is a testament to how hard it is to actually take the messy world of content and integrated it into specific hardware applications.

One would have thought that Apple would have been able to do a good job of this, especially considering Jobs’ successes at Pixar, but it seems that they also end up fumbling. While Apple initially made content integration work with the iTunes store, it’s hardly advanced the concept in any significant way since that time. ITunes remains a clunky piece of forced software and all attempts to “modernize” it, such as the late, unlamented Ping, just feel like someone trying to keep up with the latest trends. For me, the most egregious example of Apple’s lack of understanding of content was when Apple had to suddenly confront the issue of adult content with the launch of the iPad. Jobs’ rant about “freedom from porn” displayed a serious lack of understanding of how the messy parts of content, like freedom of speech, just don’t behave like software and will never conform to a strict code or elegant integration.

Amazon, on the other hand, has always had a better understanding of the role of content. Obviously, in part because it’s where they began and is ingrained in their DNA. And while they’ve had their own serious issues with adult content, overall they display a publisher’s understanding that when content becomes your software, it can’t be bound by rules that hardware might impose on it, especially when consumers are paying for it. So while it may get messy, this long experience why for Amazon, device and software integration may be a little less important than the content/software that they deliver.

What this has led to is some very creative approaches to looking at how content can better integrate with the new hardware/software ecosystems. For example, one of the most impressive announcements in the last week’s Kindle launch was the announcement of Kindle Serials, a whole new installment based publication platform, which extends the groundbreaking idea of Kindle Singles. In fact, Amazon has generally been in front in breaking new ground for long form writing and content. With this type of thinking, Amazon is really placing much of its creative and design strength around the area of content creation. By creating and integrating new content formats they are cementing the role and adoption of their so-so tablets and software.

Another part of this integration is what I’d call content logistics, and this is the part where AWS comes in. For Amazon, it’s always been clear that the device and its software are less important than the logistical backbone that gets the all-important content to the user. When I order an eBook on Amazon I can choose to send it to my Kindle, my iPad or read it on screen. The specific qualities of the device ecosystem we are using less important to Amazon than the infrastructure to get the content to the user. As Bezos said during the Kindle launch, “People don’t want gadgets any more; they want services, and the Kindle Fire is a service”. In other words, the service that integrates new forms of delivering content in new formats could be more valuable to users than the elegant integrated vertical model that they are receiving it on.

 

 

 

 

Is Facebook Making Us Neurotic? by Dan Weingrod

I really enjoyed reading Stephen Marche’s article “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”. Part of the reason was that, for me, it was a great an example of a wonderfully generous approach to the well trod topic of “Is the Internet making us _______”. Like similar articles it cites multiple medical studies, behavioral experts and neuroscientists, but unlike others Marche doesn’t come down firmly on one direction or the other. Instead he reaches a conclusion that is far more open and generous to all sides of this question. One of the most interesting parts of the article was a sort of chicken and egg discussion of loneliness and its causes. Does Facebook, or any other social platform for that matter, make people lonely? Or does it simply enhance the loneliness that people already bring to the platform? In this context was this intriguing quote:

“One of the most noteworthy findings,” they wrote, “was the tendency for neurotic and lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals.” And they found that neurotics are more likely to prefer to use the wall, while extroverts tend to use chat features in addition to the wall.”

This reminded me of a recent Pew Internet study entitled: “Why Facebook users get more than they give”. In the study, Pew found that “the average Facebook user gets more from their friends on Facebook than they give to their friends.”  For me this was a pretty impressive stat, and one that should serve as a barometer for the health and success of any social platform. But the study also pointed out that the reason for this healthy, positive return rests with:

“a segment of “power users,” who specialize in different Facebook activities and contribute much more than the typical user does.”

So if that’s the case, its a simple exercise in logic to say that IF neurotics spend more time on Facebook (especially contributing to the wall) THEN the power users that drive the positive value distribution, (and are responsible for Facebook’s growth), are neurotics

IN OTHER WORDS Facebook succeeds its populated by a lot of neurotics.

Really?

Paul Adams has this marvelous statement at the beginning of his recent fMC 2012 talk, (its at about 4:30 in), discussing how humans have historically adapted to new communication technologies:

“People applied the ways they worked with existing media to the new media”

In the same way I think we are now all too busily applying our own values of society and behavior to platforms and ways of connecting that we simply don’t fully understand.  Into we inject into that equation our own values of loneliness and what it means. What I found generous about Marche’s article is that he’s open to the option that the idea of loneliness has changed over time and that Facebook and other social media are less enablers and more participants. Lonely people in real life are likely to be lonely on Facebook, and extroverts in real life will remain extroverts on Facebook. And neurotics? Marche doesn’t address this in great detail with the exception of a discussion around our changing perceptions of narcissism, or as he calls it “the flip side of loneliness”.

A lot of this reminds me of debates I recall 10 or 15 years ago about getting more computers into classrooms. The reasoning for parents was, aside from more techno gloss, that computers would help their kids would learn more and more effectively. As time passed it seemed that the only thing computers did was help kids create PowerPoint presentations with lots of cheesy transitions. In other words, we learned that computers were a tool and that actual learning still had to be done the hard way. It’s only in the past few years, with initiatives such as Khan Academy or the exciting new programs being developed to teach coding to kids, that we are finally finding a the right place for computers in the education process.

This change took a time and an understanding grown out of experience and failure that new tools, platforms or technologies cannot instantly redefine who we are or create new norms. They are waiting for us to get there. As Marche puts it:

“Nostalgia for the good old days of disconnection would not just be pointless, it would be hypocritical and ungrateful.”