What’s next? Social Media and the Information Life Cycle

10 10 2011
The Crystal Ball

Image via Wikipedia

As previously seen in Biznology:

Back in the days when “Web 2.0″ was a hot buzzword, many people asked what “Web 3.0″ would look like. Even though that question sounds now as outdated as an X-Files re-run episode, the quest for “what’s next?” is always in our minds. I’m no better prognosticator than anybody else, but my best answer would be: look at where the inefficiencies are. In no way is that a good indicator of what 2012 or 2013 will look like. Some inefficiencies may take decades to be properly addressed. But if you are trying to guess where we’ll see the next revolutionary step in social media–as opposed to the much-easier-to-predict incremental improvements–you have to focus where the biggest opportunities are, the undiscovered country somewhere out there. Analyzing the current landscape and the evolution of information markets by borrowing from a product life cycle framework may assist in developing some educated guesses about what the future may bring.

This is the third post in this current series discussing the differences between making and moving information and knowledge versus physical goods.

Since the first businessperson started bartering goods in some cave thousands of years ago, products went through a more or less standard life cycle: they were conceived, designed, produced, filtered for quality, distributed, sold, consumed, serviced, and finally disposed of. Over the course of history, that life cycle underwent several enhancements, most of them minor and mundane. A few of them, like the introduction of currency, steam power and the production line, had a huge impact in the overall efficiency of moving products around. Naturally, even though in retrospect those inventions seem like no-brainer milestones in the history of business and commerce, in reality their impact was scattered over a number of years. It’s likely that many who lived through those transitions did not realize how big those changes in fact were. One important indication of their revolutionary aspect is how each one of them enabled an incredible amplification in volume or reach of one or more stages of the product life cycle. Currency obviously made selling and trading more practical, steam power increased the ability to reduce the dependency on animals and people for mechanical work and the production line affected both the ability to manufacture better and to improve quality controls.

Non-physical items, such as ideas, information and knowledge, also go through a life-cycle of their own, but some of the steps are still not as sophisticated as the ones described above. Roughly speaking, that cycle consists of: creating, verbalizing (coding), capturing, distributing, filtering, consuming (decoding), and disposing of.

Creating and Coding
Thoughts and emotions come through everybody’s heads all the time, raw, unruly, uncensored. Then some are internally processed by the conscious mind and made sense of. A subset of those are mentally verbalized, and even a smaller portion of them is finally vocalized and communicated to others. The effect of technology in this early cycle has been modest. It still happens mostly the way it used to thousands of years ago.

Capturing
Capturing knowledge in the early days of humanity basically meant drawing on cave walls. Drawing became more elaborate with the advent of writing–which could be described as the codified doodling of one’s thoughts in an enduring medium–ensuring that a person’s knowledge could survive much beyond the physical constraints in time and space. More recently, photographs, movies, and audio recording permitted the capture of an increasing variety of information, but in practice they were still enabling us to more efficiently capture a concept, a memorable moment, or to tell a story.

Distributing
The introduction of movable type removed much of the limitations around the distribution of that content. Radio, cinema, TV, and the Internet of the 1990s did more of the same for a broader set of records of human knowledge. It was an expansion in scope, not in nature, but each new media added to the mix represented yet another powerful distribution amplifier.

Filtering and Consuming
All that capturing and distributing of information still relied a lot either on physical media or on the renting of expensive properties and expertise. Whole industries were created to exploit those high transaction costs. The inefficiencies of the system were one of the most powerful filtering mechanisms in that information life cycle. The big mass media players essentially dictated what was “media worth” for you to consume. In fact, that’s what most of us were known for: consumers of goods and information.

Disposing
Most information that is digitized today is not formally disposed of, it’s just abandoned or forgotten. Archived emails and SharePoint sites are an example of that, but how often do you search your company’s intranet and find information that is completely outdated and irrelevant now?

The social media role, so far
Much of what we call social media today, be it Internet forums, blogs, podcasts, photo, video and file sharing, social networks, or microblogging, along with the advances in mobile communications, contributed significantly to bring those transaction costs closer to zero. Billions of people can now not only capture and distribute information at low cost, but can also consume more of it and consume it faster. Not only that: the ability to add links to status updates, retweet, and share enabled regular people to filter and distribute content too. Everybody became a content curator and distributor of sorts, often without even realizing it.

So what’s next?
Most likely, we’ll continue to see an increasing sophistication of the inner steps of the information life cycle. We’re already witnessing better ways to capture (the IBM Smarter Planet initiative is a good example of that), filter (Google Plus’ circles), distribute (Tumblr, StumbleUpon) and consume (Flipboard, Zite) it. However, the obvious under-served stages in the information life cycle are the two extremities: creating, coding, and capturing on one side, and disposal of on the other.

On the creating, coding and capturing end, the major current inefficiency is loss of information. From the millions of ideas and thoughts that come to people’s minds, the vast majority vanishes without a trace. Twitter and status updates showed a very raw way of capturing some of that, but they are still cumbersome to use — and often impractical:

In case of fire, exit the building before tweeting about it

Via funnysigns.net

Apps like Evernote and Remember The Milk are evolving to make it much easier to record our impromptu thoughts, but the actual potential is enormous (suggested reading: The Future of Evernote). Even a real brain dump may be more feasible than most of us initially thought. As we learned a few days ago, UC Berkeley scientists have developed a system to capture visual activity in human brains and reconstruct it as digital video clips. The results are mesmerizing:

Reconstructing brain images into video

But it does not stop there. Ideas generate ideas. Capturing makes indexing and sharing possible. Imagine how much more knowledge could be created if we had better ways to share and aggregate atomic pieces of information. We might not like Facebook’s timeline and Open Graph real-time apps in their first incarnations, but they are just giving us a peek of what the future — and the past — may look like.

Decoding the existing content out there would be a good start. My first language being Portuguese, I often find amazing content in Brazilian websites or brilliant posts shared by my Portuguese-speaking colleagues that are still not easily consumable by most people in the world, making me wonder how much I’m missing for not knowing German, Chinese, Hindi, or Japanese. One can always argue that there are plenty of tools out there for translating Internet content. True, but the actual user-friendly experience would just be browsing websites or watching videos in Punjabi or Arabic without even noticing that they were originally produced in another language.

Finally, one of the unsolved problems of the information age is proper disposal of information. Since storage is so cheap, we keep most of what is created, and this is increasingly becoming an annoyance. I often wish that my Google search could default to limiting search to the last year or the last month only, as the standard results normally show ancient content that are no longer relevant to me. Also, most of us just accept that whatever we say online stays online forever, but that is just a limitation of our current technology. If we could for a second convert all that digital information to a physical representation, we would see a landfill of unwanted items and plenty of clutter. Of course, “disposal” in the digital world does not need to be complete elimination–could just be better ways to place things in the back burner or the backroom archive. For example, we could use sensorial clues of aging information. You always can tell if a physical book was freshly published or a print from 20 years ago, based on its appearance and smell. Old internet content could be shown with increasingly yellow and brown background tones, so that you could visually tell the freshness of content.

Some of the above sounds crazy and superfluous, but the idea of Twitter probably sounded insane less than 10 years ago. Are we there yet? Not even close. But that is what makes this journey really interesting: what is coming is much more intriguing than what we saw so far. Like I said before, we’re still witnessing the infancy of social technologies.

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Moving things vs. moving ideas

10 10 2011

AVENTURA, FL - AUGUST 18:  Ed Cole (R), with t...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

As previously seen in Biznology:

All of our existing controls around content, intellectual property, and information exchange were developed when moving information around was an ancillary function to what mattered at the time: moving goods efficiently to generate wealth. The most powerful nations and organizations throughout the centuries were the ones that mastered the levers that controlled the flow of things. That pattern may soon be facing its own Napster moment. Information is becoming a good in itself, and our controls have not yet adapted to this new reality. In fact, much of what we call governance consists of ensuring that information moves very slowly–if at all. The entities–countries, companies, individuals–that first realize that a shift has already taken place, and re-think their raison d’être accordingly, might be the ones who will dominate the market in this brave new world.

In my last Biznology post, I used a comparison between information and physical goods to support an argument that social technologies still have a long way to go to be considered mature. When information itself becomes the good, and social interactions become the transportation medium, some new and interesting economic patterns may emerge.

Scarcity is a natural attribute of the physical world: a house, a car, or a TV set cannot be owned by multiple people at the same time, nor can one person provide hairdressing or medical services to several customers simultaneously. Our whole economic model is built on top of it: theories around economies of scale, price elasticity, bargaining, patents and copyright all have a strong dependency on “things” or “services” being limited. We even created artificial scarcity to digital items such as software and audio files in the form of license keys and DRM, so that they could fit our “real world” economy.

That model worked OK when being digital was the exception. However, more and more “things” are becoming digital: photos, movies, newspapers, books, magazines, maps, money, annotations, card decks, board games, drawings, paintings, kaleidoscopes–you name it. Furthermore, services are increasingly less dependent on geographical or temporal proximity: online programming, consulting, doctor appointments, tutoring, and teaching are sometimes better than their face-to-face counterparts. While most online services are still provided on a one-off basis, the digitization of those human interactions is just the first step to make them reusable. TED talks and iTunes University lectures are early examples of that.

Of course, I’m not advocating a world without patents or copyrights. But I do think that it’s important to understand what that world would look like, and assess if the existing controls are playing in our favor or against us. Even if we do not dare to change something that served us so well in the past, others may not have the same incentives to keep the status quo.

Another factor to consider is the leapfrog pattern experienced by the mobile telephony industry: countries that were behind in the deployment of phone landlines ended up surpassing those in the developed world in the adoption of cellular phones. Similarly, countries that never developed a sophisticated intellectual property framework may be able to start fresh and put a system in place where broad dissemination and re-use trumps authorship and individual success.

Finally, the emergence of social technologies over the last 10 years showed the power of a resource that has been underutilized for centuries: people and their interactions with each other. The essence of what we used to call Web 2.0 was the transformational aspect of leveraging social interactions throughout the information value chain: creation, capture, distribution, filtering and consumption. The crowd now is often the source, the medium, and the destination of information in its multiple forms.

The conclusion is that the sheer number of people that can be mobilized by an entity–a nation, an organization or an individual–may become a source of a wealth in the near future. Of course, peoplenomics is mostly a diamond in the rough for now. A quick comparison between the top 20 countries by GDP per capita (based on Purchasing Power Parity) and the top 20 countries in the world by population shows that the size of a country’s population is still a poor indicator of its wealth–only the United States, Japan and Germany are part of both lists. Whether or not unleashing the economic value of large populations and efficient information flows will ever materialize is anybody’s guess, but keeping an eye for it and being able to adapt quickly may be key survival skills in a rapidly changing landscape.

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A Skewed Web: Are you an outlier?

14 09 2010

70/365 - It. Was. Amazing.

Image by BLW Photography via Flickr

As previously seen at Biznology:

Relying solely on social news or social bookmarking services such as Digg, Reddit, Fark, Slashdot, and Delicious might leave you with a very peculiar version of the world. A glance at the Twitter hot topics or Google Trends suggests that our collective Web brain is that of a tween. It’s a skewed Web out there, and sometimes you might just feel like you don’t belong. But is that real, or just a distorted view of the social media world?

If you believe that Google’s Zeitgeist is a good proxy for “the spirit of times” as its name claims, last year we apparently cared more about Jon and Kate and Twilight’s New Moon than about the presidential inauguration, and there was also a quite unusual interest in paranormal activity:

Google Zeitgeist (US) – 2009 News – Fastest Rising
Google Zeitgeist (US) – 2009 News – Overview

Also, a quick glimpse at the current Twitter trending topics, or the top 50 topics of all time (which, in social media terms, means since September 2008) may also leave you wondering about how wise the crowds really are:

Twitter Trending Stats (Source: TweetStats.com, Aug 7, 2010, 12:07 AM)
Twitter Trending Stats – “All time”: Sep 24, 2008 to Aug 7, 2010 (Source: TweetStats.com)

Collectively, our social media activity seems to be closer to People Magazine and Sports Illustrated than to The New York Times or National Geographic. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is what it is—and I’m as guilty of taking the occasional look at TMZ as the next person.

Is this definitive proof that users of social media are more interested in celebrities, athletes and gadgets than in politics, science and, you know, “serious stuff”? Well, not necessarily. Both Google Zeitgeist and Twitter Trending Topics show “deltas” of interest, subjects that for one reason or another are suddenly becoming popular. A quick look at Google Trends show that, for all its popularity in 2009, “New Moon” doesn’t hold a candle to other popular terms:

Google Trends snapshot (taken on Aug 7, 2010)

Furthermore, people obviously search for things they don’t know where to find. Sites you visit often are likely already bookmarked or just get resolved by your browser when you start typing related keywords in the navigation box.

So, before you lose all faith in humanity, or at least in the online portion of it, take a deep breath and think again. There is a social Web out there that is much more diverse than what is revealed byTwitter or Google trending topics. If you are an outlier, rest assured that you are in good company ;-)

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FIFA World Cup: Social Media Roundup

11 07 2010

As previously seen in Biznology:

The 2010 World Cup is not over yet (the final will start in a couple of hours), but the results for social media are already in–the World Cup has more than lived up to its billing as the biggest social media (and even Internet) event of all time, sur[passing the 2008 election of Barack Obama as U.S. President. While you wait for the big game on Sunday, you may want to check my Social Media highlights for the major sports event in the world.

Internet Buzz

So now that the 2010 FIFA World Cup, according to CNN (via Akamai), has been declared the most popular Internet event ever, let’s look at a snapshot of Akamai’s Net Usage Index as of this writing:

Akamai Net Usage Index

Akamai Net Usage Index

The Most-Tweeted World Cup Event

The CNN article mentioned above states that, despite the popularity of the World Cup, Twitter’s single biggest moment was still “the Los Angeles Lakers’ victory against the Boston Celtics at the NBA Championship”, which “generated a record 3,085 tweets per second as the game ended”. Naturally, a few days after, a World Cup game dethroned Kobe Bryant and friends. If you guessed that it was one of the US games against Slovenia or Ghana, you were probably close, but not quite right. That honor goes, surprisingly enough, to Japan’s win over Denmark, with 3,283 tweets per second.

Cala a Boca Galvao

For several days, a Brazilian Internet meme/prank dominated the trending topics in Twitter, requesting the lead sports commentator in Brazil to shut up. Read more about it at the New York Times and watch the video prank at YouTube.

VEJA - Cala Boca Galvao

Lead weekly news magazine in Brazil (Veja)
brings the #calabocagalvao meme to center stage
(via @dystyler)

Old Media vs. New Media

Rede Globo, the largest TV network in Brazil (and arguably the third largest in the world, behind just CBS and NBC) clashed with Brazilian coach Dunga, when he curtailed their privileges in the national team coverage. A Twitter campaign (#diasemglobo, “a day without Globo TV”) was asking Brazilians to boycott the TV station during a game and switch to the competition. Who won? It depends on who you ask. Some claim that the campaign was a success and responsible for a drop in audience, while others say that it made no difference whatsoever.

#diasemglobo

Players Using Twitter

My Twitter list of World Cup Players is updated with 56 players now. You may want to give it a try and see what the players are talking about using StreamGraph. Here’s a snapshot I took last night (just use @aaronjuliuskim/worldcup2010players as the keyword):

Twitter StreamGraphs - worldcup2010players

Visualization and Social Media

There are plenty of creative visualizations created around Social Media content especially for the World Cup, like this one based on Facebook activity, courtesy of the New York Times. You’ll find a good list at Mashable.com, but the Guardian’s World Cup 2010 Twitter replay is my favorite. It shows in a stunning way the fans’ reactions via the microblog service as the action developed for each game. You can feel all the pain in my Brazilian heart when you play the Brazil vs. Netherlands game. Here’s a snapshot of the key moment of the game: Felipe Melo (who’s in Twitter, by the way) losing his cool and getting a red card.

The Guardian - BRA vs. NED Game Visualization

Check out also the US games against Slovenia and Algeria to re-live the emotions of those two thrillers.

Finally, if you are into live visualization and have an iPad, I highly suggest you to follow the final match via LivePitch. It’s still a bit raw, but it can give you a glimpse of how we may be following the next World Cup. Hopefully Brazil can do better the next time :-)

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The joke, the circus and the soap-opera

14 12 2009

A few people who saw my Enterprise 2.0 Anti-patterns presentation at SlideShare asked what I meant by “the joke, the circus and the soap-opera”. That came from a post I wrote for Biznology a long time ago, on Sep 15, 2008. It’s old news now, but for the sake of completeness I’m republishing it here. I updated some of the broken links and also moved the “I work for” disclaimer from IBM to RBC :-)

What role do timing and duration play in your Web 2.0 strategy? Marketing experts have long emphasized the importance of media selection and scheduling decisions, but seeing how traditional companies have been exploiting the Internet over the last few years shows that there are still lessons to be learned in that arena.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn’t always pay off when it comes to your online marketing strategy. All the hype around Web 2.0 and User Generated Content a couple of years ago initially led to some embarrassing attempts of letting regular folks to create ads. The Chevy Tahoe Apprentice challenge in 2006 is probably the most prominent example of how to not do it: even after GM wiped out ChevyApprentice.com, a search in YouTube for “Chevy Tahoe Apprentice” brings plenty of ads that should have never been created in the first place, a sobering reminder that having an exit strategy established up front is a must in your Internet experiments. Eventually marketing teams got it right, and the success of the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl competition in early 2007 led to several others companies to jump onto the UGC bandwagon, with varying, but mostly diminishing, levels of returns.

Another case in point was the creation of online places for your customer base to hang around and discuss subjects that take a front seat in their lives. HSBC’s Your Point of View was launched in October 2005 and generated a lot of buzz for quite some time. However, three years later, it has lost its freshness and novelty, giving the casual observer the impression of a failed experiment, when it could have been considered one of the most successful stories of a traditional company building a site based on the architecture of participation. Vancity’s “community powered” Change Everything, launched in September 2006, suffered from a similar problem, but had a longer shelf life, and people still contribute with comments to this day. One of the major differences between the two services that may explain the varying longevity of two similar offerings is that the Vancity experiment established itself as a social networking site, while the HSBC one stayed away from forming an online community and keeping user profiles. Change Everything is currently announcing a complete revamp of the service, so I’m curious to see what’s coming next.

What’s clear in the examples above is that timing and duration play a crucial role in the success of your online initiatives. This might sound obvious, but it’s often ignored in many of the initiatives we see online. Being too early might prevent you from understanding the dynamics of a new approach, but being too late can just position your company as a me-too player. The sweet spot, of course, is hard to determine, but recognizing these patterns can help you to sniff the right moment. Or you might be better prepared to fail gracefully from the get-go, not as an after-thought.

Influenced by a conversation I had with my colleague Bernie Michalik, I started thinking about three metaphors that highlight the importance of duration in your online strategy. Some initiatives work very well when applied exactly once, as it was the case with the Doritos Super Bowl commercial. Like telling a joke, the second time around people get bored and disengaged.

Other initiatives work better when mimicking a circus pattern: you come, raise your tent, run your dog-and-pony show, and then leave after a week or a month. One or two years from now, you can do it again, but staying there on a continuous basis would never work. This is how RBC approached its Next Great Innovator site. In the first edition, back in 2006, they defined up-front that it would be a time-boxed experiment, so that when they were done a few months after, retiring the site was perceived as the conclusion of a successful experiment. Every year since they keep coming back with new features, but still positioning it as a time-limited event (full disclosure: I work for RBC).

The IBM jams are another good example of how the circus pattern can be efficiently used to your advantage. Besides helping clients to deliver jams, we eat our own dog food and use them as one of the tools in our innovation strategy. If you are wondering what the jam looks like, the next round begins on Sunday, October 5th at 6 pm EDT, and participation is open to IBM clients.

Over the last few years, many marketers have started using microsites to drive marketing campaigns, as opposed to relying on the main corporate site. One of the advantages here is that microsites can be changed—and retired, if necessary—more easily than the company’s main Web site.

Finally, some of your initiatives might actually work well as a place that’s always open for business, pretty much like a never ending daytime soap opera. This typically works well for services that drive a steady number of clients, or whose audience is recycled on a yearly basis, like college students or pre-teens. Procter & Gamble’s Connect + Develop site is a good example of that, as the site serves an audience that has a continuous relationship with them. I often see initiatives that would operate better following the joke or circus patterns defaulting to the soap opera mode. Despite their initial huge success, they become victims of not selecting the appropriate duration for their endeavor.

When devising your next online initiative make sure you think about which of those patterns best fits your offering. Timing and duration might end up being the key determinants in how that incredible new site you conceived will be perceived a few years down the road.





Fame, Interactive Ads and Online Reputation

23 12 2008

As previously seen at Biznology:

As marketers try to find ways to join the conversation enabled by social media, they face the challenge of scale. The virtual third space is becoming increasingly fragmented, to the point that engaging into every single thread of discussion pertinent to your business is no longer practical. In that scenario, can you meet the expectations of a target audience increasingly craving for individual attention? Can you effectively manage your online reputation?

Brian Solis and Jesse Thomas summarized the extent of the online conversations in the social web nicely in their conversation prism graphic:

The Conversation Prism, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

Going through the petals of the chart above, it’s evident that the online chatter is much bigger than just Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. And it’s not getting any smaller.

In his best-seller book “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky pointed out that the web did not completely flatten publishing and broadcasting, as fame gets in the way of the elusive many-to-many communication nirvana:

“The Web makes interactivity technologically possible, but what technology giveth, social factors taketh away. In the case of the famous, any potential interactivity is squashed, because fame isn’t an attitude, and it isn’t technological artifact. Fame is simply an imbalance between inboud and outbound attention, more arrows pointing in than out.”

That imbalance can lead to unmet expectations on both sides: companies being frustrated by trying to join an ever growing number of online social spaces and customers demanding individual attention they can’t possibly get.

To mitigate this issue, some organizations have been relying on interactive or personalized online video ads that provide a middle ground between the one-size-fits-all model of traditional media and the many-sizes-fit-many model described by Chris Anderson in his book “The Long Tail”. Here are four examples:

1. Burger King and the Subservient Chicken

Launched back in 2004, this widely popular website (20 million hits within a week of launching, 14 million unique visitors in the first year) is still online after all these years. Its simplicity was captivating: a man in a chicken costume would perform actions based on what users asked him to do. It was based on pre-recorded footage, and more than three hundred commands were available. Sadly, it no longer reacts when you tell him to get a Big Mac.

2. Ms Dewey

This website was launched two years ago as an experimental interface for Microsoft’s Live Search. If you search for “Tiger Woods”, Ms. Dewey may surprise you by making a comment about professional athletes before showing the results. Behind the scenes, the apparent interactivity is achieved via an algorithm choosing one of 600 video clips that may fit the keywords you entered.

3. Antarctica Beer and the Tatoo Ad

As a friendly warning, know that this ad may be a bit too racy for some audiences. I like it for both the humour and the perfect execution. In the future, expect to see even more sophisticated techniques, mixing custom audio or even images with pre-defined content. You can find a rough translation from Brazilian Portuguese to English for the full video here.

4. MoveOn.org viral video

This blog post was actually drafted before the US elections, but I preferred to not publish it back then, as the intent was to discuss interactive ads, not to favour one candidate or the other. MoveOn.org effectively used this personalized video showing the November 4th election being decided by a single voter, whose name is digitally inserted in newspapers titles and video captions.

Interactive videos of course can only go so far. As the amount of user-generated content skyrockets, better tools will become available to marketers for following conversations, detecting trends and managing your company’s reputation. Two months ago, while in Singapore, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation about COBRA (Corporate Brand and Reputation Analysis), an initiative by IBM Research and IBM Global Business Services, that may be a sign of things to come. If you are interested in knowing more about it, visit this page (in the interest of full disclosure, note that IBM is my employer).

Living in exponential times entails developing exponential listening and conversational abilities, for both companies and individuals alike. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but you certainly can enjoy all the fun along the way.








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