Vestiges of Life: Blogging and Tweeting

18 12 2010

Last week, four different people from my post-IBM world told me in person that they read my blog regularly. While tempted to reply, “do you mean that abandoned thing that’s collecting virtual dust somewhere in WordPress land?”, or “oh, you are that one weekly hit I get in the stats”, I actually feel that I’m the one missing a lot by not blogging, even if nobody else ever reads a line of it.

When I started this blog, I named it “The Bamboo Raft”, with the high hopes that the posts here would be “floating around freely through places and thoughts”. Then, as always, reality sets in, and I found myself blogging very rarely over the last 2 years. Looking back, there’s a clear pattern where the blogger in me wakes up every 6 months or so with a renewed intent of doing it more often, as you can see in “Blog, Interrupted” and “The Bamboo Raft is a submarine”. This post is probably just the latest installment of that series. In my attempt to rationalize my poor blogging and twitter efforts, I’m resorting to a common theme here at this Raft: calling Darwin to my rescue.

Darwin and gradual change
Parody of the Shepard Fairey Obama poster
by Mike Rosulek (Feb 2009)

One of the main arguments used against Darwinian evolution is that the fossil record shows no evidence of the gradual transformation that is supposed to take place according to that theory. The counter-argument, of course, is that circumstances that allow fossilization to occur are extremely rare. Thus, trying to understand the history of life on Earth based solely on the fossil record is like trying to understand the original version of “The Brothers Karamazov” when you know only a half-dozen words in Russian.

As you can see in the diagram above, the fossil record does not register every single event that took place on Earth. That’s for computer logs:


Computer logs: definitely not like the fossil record

Over the last 5 years or so, several folks referred to blogging, then Facebook, then Twitter as tools that allow people to write their autobiographies in real-time. Some people are actually very good at that. Some have even been logging actions and thoughts ages ago, using the ol’ and good pen-and-paper. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau kept very detailed journals that resemble to some extent Facebook status updates or tweets, and used those to feed their more formal work. I love this excerpt from “Autobiography in Real-Time: The Journals of Emerson and Thoreau”.

Emerson used his journal, as Thoreau used his, primarily as a means of facilitating more finished work. It was where he both developed ideas and stored information; it was a place where entire phrases and sentences—sometimes even entire paragraphs—were preserved until the appropriate time for their removal and transfer into essays and lectures. But that’s not to say that there aren’t moments here that are not entirely fresh. Actually, all of it’s fresh. It’s the essays that are borrowed from recyclable material, and there are, of course, plenty of readers who would prefer to receive their Emerson in this form. To call these journals unselfconscious or uninhibited would be to demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of their circumstances; but to call them spontaneous and unimpeded would not be. At their best—at their most mature and august—they are Emerson’s stated alternative to the meek young man in the library—they are “Man Thinking.” The same goes for the journals of Thoreau, too, of course. These are two men of unsurpassed perception and eloquence who made it their life’s mission to look and see, and then to record and share what it was they saw.

As I’m light-years from having “unsurpassed perception and eloquence”, my blogging and tweeting objectives had to be much more modest. Instead of running a play-by-play narrative of what I do and think, I’m settling for just capturing vestiges of life: random glimpses of what’s here, there, and everywhere. Like this Toronto scene that caught my attention Thursday morning on my way to work:

Glenn Gould statue holding a Calla Lily in front of the CBC building

Thus, I see my irregular social networking activities as the fossil record of a regular person’s real life. It’s incomplete, uneven and full of gaps, driven more by serendipity and entropy, and less than by direction and discipline. A bamboo raft may, after all, be an appropriate name for what this blog has become.





The bamboo raft is a submarine

7 06 2010

It’s been two months since my last post – here at The Bamboo Raft anyway: I have written three posts as a guest blogger at Biznology and another one internal at RBC in the meantime. Life’s been busy. It’s ironic to think that the times I don’t blog are exactly when I have most to blog about. One of my favourite cartoons from a long time ago had this couple in the top of a mountain, looking at a fantastic sunset. The husband (boyfriend maybe?), while trying to take a picture of it, was saying to his significant other: “I can’t wait to be back home, get the pictures and see how beautiful this sunset was”. I suspect that even to this day, the vast majority of the key personal milestones, achievements and failures go mostly unblogged and untweeted. Perhaps we were too occupied to bother writing about it, or things were too personal to share. In my case, I confess, it was mainly a case of just being lazy.

It’s not that that the Bamboo Raft was totally inactive. It was just submerged. The little time I spent writing in the last few weeks actually went all to this ancient form of communication called email :-P . Some of my Brazilian friends and I have this tradition before every World Cup of writing our guts out about this passion that’s football (soccer). I love doing it, but our conversations are likely too hard core for anybody else to put up with in our picky attention to details and endless debates on anything remotely related to the beautiful game. Things like:

  • How a mathematician calculates the odds for a team to win the World Cup?
  • Are lefties bad in penalty shoot-outs?
  • Does the coach really matter in a 7-game tournament?
  • What are the oddest names / nicknames in the history of World Cups?
  • Are Zinadine Zidane and Mr. Spock identical twins?
Mr. Spock and Zinadine Zidane

Mr. Spock and Zinadine Zidane

As you can see, sometimes NOT using social media may be a good thing.





Blog, Interrupted

6 12 2009

A few weeks ago, in a phone conversation with Marcelo Martins, he jokingly commented on the poor abandoned state of this blog: “the ‘Bamboo raft’ has drifted away, and is now in the middle of nowhere” :-) . Indeed.


Photo by Flickr user elieme, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic

But this silence was not due to the lack of inspiration: it was a mix of being busy, adjusting to a new work routine, and plain laziness, of course.  A year after blogging was proclaimed passé by Paul Botin, I still feel the urge to blog several times a day, even knowing that there’s a good chance that nobody is listening (or reading it). I blog, therefore I am sounds right to my ears, even in a Twitter world.

Following the lead of Bénédicte Delachanal, who’s been good in her one blog post every day quest this December, I decided to steer this raft back to the civilization (or to a handful of readers, more precisely). And seeing a new post by Jennifer Okimoto in my reader today after months of absence was just the extra push I needed :-) .

As the delusional Buzz Lightyear would say: To infinity, and beyond! (crossing fingers here hoping that all this euphoria will take me at least till the next blog post).





A Benjamin Button tale (kinda)

21 06 2009

My first three weeks at RBC were interesting and, err, intense, firehose-drinking type of intense. Due to the nature of my projects I think I won’t be able to blog much about them here, but I’m still planning to blog regularly about other random things, so stay tuned, regular readers of “The bamboo raft” (yes, I’m talking to both of you, Bernie and Bénédicte).

My plan to restart blogging this weekend practically went belly up when my Bell Sympatico service started misbehaving on Friday, with my connection dropping every few minutes or so. Blogging offline was never my forté, as I sadly admit that not having immediate access to stuff like Twitter, Wikipedia and Dictionary.com breaks my rhythm.

So let me (re)start with a post loosely themed on Father’s Day. Three weeks ago, my son found this very old photo of me, taken when I was a 4-year-old:

He looked at the picture a bit surprised, then pointed to it and said out loud: “Ootash” (that’s how he calls himself).

I tried to explain, “No, that’s daddy’s picture when he was almost your age”. He vehemently disagreed, “No, Ootash”. There was no way on Earth that I could convince him that it was not him there.

Then I showed him this picture taken during my first week at IBM, back in 1996:

- “This is also daddy, many years ago.”
- “Não.” (that’s “No”, in Portuguese)
“Yes.”
– (laughing) “Nãããão.”
“Then, who’s this guy?”
“I don’t know.”

After some more digging, I found these two pictures that clearly show why my friend Alexandre Neves says that a paternity test will never be required for “Ootash” and me. The one on the left also shows that my taste in clothes has always been top-notch.

Skip three weeks now. Yesterday, I was talking to my mother in Skype and, despite the frequent disconnects, I managed to tell her the story above. When I showed her my IBM picture, she commented: “You were so thin and elegant! And where is all that hair?”

Suddenly, finding that “Dont Go Bald”, “Bald Products” and “Bald People” are all following me in Twitter didn’t feel so bad anymore. Can that Ed Ulbrich guy help me here? :-)

An almost belated Happy Father’s Day to all dads out there!





Ctrl + X and Scissors: Share, even if you think everybody knows it already

19 03 2009

Working with Bernie Michalik for a few years now, we changed our behaviour when sharing knowledge – and also other trivial things that don’t deserve to be called “knowledge”, more like gossip or useless tidbits of information. At the beginning, we would not share some tips about interesting Web 2.0 sites or piece of news because we just assumed that the other party would have heard about it already, as we both are avid consumers of new geeky stuff.

Over time, we noticed that more often than not our assumption was wrong. Even though we share quite a bit of a network and sources of information, we still find that a good deal of what one of us know is not as universally known as we expected. Coming to think of it, the most popular YouTube video of all time as of this writing is Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”, with 117 million views – it just passed the long time favourite “Evolution of Dance”. Even if you consider that each view was by a different person – very unlikely by the way – that music video would have failed to reach the remaining 883,000,000 people with Internet access. I know, people could have seen it in Vimeo or Metacafe, but you catch my drift. No matter how many people know about anything, there are always more people who don’t know about it.

That’s one of the beauties of blogging or tweeting – or re-tweeting, for that matter. You share without actually knowing if people care of not, a “To Whom It May Concern” note to the world. Sometimes it’s a hit, sometimes it’s a miss. Sometimes it’s a miss that becomes a hit a few months from now, as that shared knowledge becomes digitalized and searchable.

One silly example. In the early nineties, somebody told me a handy logic behind having Ctrl + X and Ctrl + V as shortcuts for “cut” and “paste”, respectively. The letter “X” resembles an open scissor – thus “cut”, and the letter “V” is like that handwritten markup most of us use to signal an insertion point in the middle of a text – thus “paste”. Even 15 years later, there are still a fair number of people who never heard about the mnemonic aspect of those shortcuts.

The bottom line? Don’t be afraid to share what you learn. You’ll quickly find you are almost always the “second last to learn”.





ROI 2.0, Part 3: We don’t need a Social Media ROI model

19 02 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, in his hilarious TED talk on spaghetti sauce, tells the story of Howard Moskowitz’s epiphany while looking for the perfect concentration of aspartame to use in the Diet Pepsi formulation:

Howard does the experiment, and he gets the data back, and he plots it on a curve, and all of a sudden he realizes it’s not a nice bell curve. In fact, the data doesn’t make any sense. It’s a mess. It’s all over the place. (…) Why could we not make sense of this experiment with Diet Pepsi? And one day, he was sitting in a diner in White Plains (…). And suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, the answer came to him. And that is, that when they analyzed the Diet Pepsi data, they were asking the wrong question. They were looking for the perfect Pepsi, and they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis.”

Tangent note: Most TED talks are a treat, but this one is particularly funny and thought-provoking. If you haven’t seen it yet, consider paying it a visit. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you may like the TED app too!

Over the last few years, many in the Social Media space have been on a quest to find the perfect ROI model for blogs, micro-blogs, wikis, social networking, social bookmarking and other animals in the ever growing Web 2.0 zoo. You’ll see opinions ranging from “we don’t need ROI for Social Media” to “Web 2.0 has to rely on a lagging ROI” to “ROI 2.0 comes from time savings”. In a way, they are all right and all wrong at the same time. Paraphrasing Doctor Moskowitz, there is no perfect Social Media ROI model, there are only perfect Social Media ROI models.

Since 2006, I’ve been talking to several senior executives in multiple industries and across geographies about the business value of Web 2.0, and have noticed a wide range of approaches when deciding whether or not (and how much) to invest in social computing. For companies in the forefront of the social media battleground, such as newspapers, book publishers and TV channels, investing heavily in new web technologies has often been a question of survival, and decision makers had significant leeway in trying new ways of delivering their products and services, with the full blessing of their stakeholders. On the other side of the spectrum, in sectors such as financial services, social media is not yet unanimously regarded as the way to go. I’ve heard from a number of banking and insurance clients that, if Social Media advocates don’t articulate clearly the returns they are expecting to achieve, they won’t get the funds to realize their vision.

Most players in Government were also very skeptical until the Obama effect took the world by storm, creating a sense of urgency that was not as prevalent before. Since then, government agencies around the globe seem to be a bit more forgiving with high level business cases for social computing initiatives inside and outside the firewall. However, to balance things out, in most of the other industries, investments in innovation are being subject to even more scrutiny than normal due to the tough current economic environment. So, having a few ROI models in your pocket does not hurt.

The following ROI models are emerging, and we can expect a few more to appear in the near future.

1. Lagging ROI

Last year, I spoke to the CIO of a global retail chain and he had an interesting approach towards strategic investments in emerging technologies. Instead of trying to develop a standard business case based on pie-in-the-sky ROI calculations, he managed to convince the board of directors to give him more flexibility to invest in a few projects his team deemed to be essential for the long-term survival of the company. For those, he would provide after-the-fact ROI metrics, so that decision makers could assess whether to keep investing or pull the plug. He also managed expectations by saying upfront that some of those projects would fail, but doing nothing was not an option. By setting aside an innovation bucket and establishing a portfolio of parallel innovation initiatives, you can hedge your bets and improve your overall success rate.

2. Efficiency gains or cost avoidance

Many of the early Social Media ROI models are based on how much time you save by relying on social media, converting that to monetary terms based on the cost of labour. While this is certainly a valid approach, it needs to be supplemented by other sources of business value. Unless you are capable of mapping the saved minutes with other measurable outcomes derived from having more time available, the most obvious way to realize the value of being more efficient is to reduce head count, as in theory the group can do the same work as before with less people. If that’s the core of your business case justification, it may fire back in the long term, as some people may feel that the more they use social computing, the more likely it is that their department will be downsized.

3. Proxy Metrics

Some of the ROI examples in the Groundswell book and blog rely on proxy marketing metrics, i.e., what would be the corresponding cost of a conventional marketing campaign to achieve the same level of reach or awareness. For example, when calculating the ROI of an executive blog, the authors measure value by calculating the cost of advertising, PR, SEO and word-of-mouth equivalents.

4. Product/Service/Process Innovation

The value of customer or employee insights that end up generating brand new products, services and processes or improvements to existing one needs to be taken into account. Measuring the number of new features is relatively straightforward. Over time, you may want to figure out the equivalent R&D cost to get the same results.

5. Improved Conversions

Back to the Groundswell book, one of the ROI examples there shows how ratings and reviews can improve conversion rates (i.e., from all people visiting your site, how many more buy products because they trust the input from other consumers, compared to typical conversion rates).

6. Digitalization of knowledge

By having employees blogging, contributing to wikis, commenting or rating content, creating videos and podcasts, companies are essentially enabling the digitalization of knowledge. Things that used to exist only in people’s heads are now being converted to text, audio and images that are searchable and discoverable. It’s the realization of the asset that Clay Shirky calls the cognitive surplus. That was an elusive resource that didn’t have much monetary value before the surge in user-generated content. Naturally, a fair portion of that digitalized knowledge has very little business value, so you need to find metrics to determine how much of that truckload of content is actually useful. You can infer that by using cross-links, comments, ratings or even number of visits.

7. Social capital and empowerment of the workforce

There is certainly business value in having a workforce composed of well connected, well informed and motivated employees. What metrics can be used to assess the degree of connectivity/knowledge/motivation of your human resources? Several social computing tools give you indirect metrics that provide a glimpse of the metrics you can exploit. Atlas for IBM Lotus Connections, for example, gives you the ability to see how your social network evolves quarterly, and can help determining how many people are associated with some hot skill (full disclosure: I work for IBM).

As you can see in several of the emerging models listed above, there are often three types of inputs to develop ROI calculations:

  • Quantitative metrics that can be obtained directly from the system data and log files
  • Qualitative metrics that are determined using surveys, questionnaires and polls
  • Dollar multipliers that attribute arbitrary monetary value to hard to assess items such as a blog comment or an extra contact in your social network

For the monetary value, I would suggest to adopt a sensitivity analysis approach, working with conservative, average and aggressive scenarios, and adjusting them over time. Just don’t go overboard. As I stated in a previous post, there’s an ROI for calculating ROI. ROI models should be easy to understand, as decision makers will often frown upon obscure calculations that require a PhD degree in financial modeling.

In summary: we don’t need one Social Media ROI model, we need many of them. None of the ones emerging now is perfect, none will ever be. You may need to have a few in your toolkit and develop a sense of which one to use in each case.

Previous ROI entries:

ROI 2.0, Part 1: Bean counters vs Innovators – The need for a real exchange of ideas
ROI 2.0, Part 2: Storytelling and Business Cases





Web 2.0, Unplugged

10 02 2009

As previously seen in Biznology:

Reports of the demise of newspapers, radio, TV, and other traditional media have been greatly exaggerated over and over again through several decades now. But when the so-called “new media” head offline to show up in traditional media clothes, is that a step backward or is it just the natural evolution of communications?

On January 29, I was speaking at a local event in Toronto, and had the opportunity to attend a session by Evan Solomon, the co-anchor of CBC News: Sunday. It was a good talk about how the next technology revolution will play out. He pointed out that when a new technology comes, the incumbent never dies: it simply goes after deeper efficiencies. TV never killed radio broadcasting, just forced the old media to discover spaces where the new entrant would not be as efficient. Talk radio, for example, is perfect when you’re driving. Watching TV? Not so much.

Coincidentally, on my way back home I was listening to random podcasts in my overgrown playlist, and serendipity showed its face. Spark episode 64 came up, and the great Nora Young (CBC again, sorry :-D ) was interviewing Ben Terrett, one of the guys behind this:


Photo by Flickr user a.affleck, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic

It’s exactly what it looks like. They took 23 blog posts from the Internet and printed them in newspaper format. You can read more about their effort here. Here’s some excerpts from Ben’s words:

We wanted to see what things written specifically for screen felt like when they were printed out. (…) If you print it out, you can take it on the bus, you can take it into the loo, you can actually read it out. So, we thought some things needed a paper-based audience rather than a screen-based audience…The newspaper is not dying but maybe the business model is. The format is still a great way to read stuff. And it is really accessible…We wanted to see what happens if we just print some stuff from the Internet out. And then would that lead to something else?

The podcast goes ahead and mentions two other similar examples: The Printed Blog (“The Best of the Web on your Newsstand”) and Printcasting, a service that “will make it possible for anyone to create a local printable newspaper, magazine or newsletter that carries local advertising–all for free–by pulling together online content from existing sources, such as blogs, and combining it with local advertising that matches the content.”

You may also have read recently that Wikipedia may soon start offering printed books with its popular articles. The contents of the German edition seem to already be available for the PediaPress service, but as my German is as good as my Korean–i.e., non-existent–I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to do it. It’s interesting to hear from Angela Beesley Starling, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board, that one of the intended objectives for having a print edition is to remove the perception that a wiki-based encyclopaedia is not reliable. That’s exactly the same point that Ben made to Nora: somehow, good ol’ paper feels much more serious, important, authoritative.

In some cases, like with “The Tech Guy” talk show by online celebrity Leo Laporte, it’s even hard to tell if that is a podcast made into a radio show or the other way around. Finally, YouTube has long been rumoured to be flirting with network TV. YouTube is somehow already available on the living rooms via Apple TV or game consoles. I tested it on my Wii this week. The experience is underwhelming, but I definitely see the potential behind it.

In my last Biznology post, I mentioned that the online social media conversation was expanding and becoming increasingly fragmented. Looking at the bigger picture, it may just make sense that social media also expand to the offline side of the spectrum, so that it can extend its reach. Many people are still much more comfortable with paper, TV or radio than with the cyberspace. And there are places where quite frankly people should not take a computer anyway :-)

Coming back to Evan Solomon’s message, social media is also in a continuous search for deeper efficiencies. This may sometimes just mean reaching out to conventional media, which can expose the existing content to audiences and places that would not otherwise be touched, and also access to new marketing opportunities.








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