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Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow

By - April 28, 2011

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(NB: Much has been written and said on this topic, and this post is in no way complete. We’ll be exploring this issue and many others related to data at the Web 2 Summit this Fall).

Perhaps the largest problem blocking our industry today is the retardation of consumer-driven data sharing. We’re all familiar with the three-year standoff between Google and Facebook over crawling and social graph data. Given the rise of valuable mobile data streams (and subsequent and rather blinkered hand wringing about samesaid) this issue is getting far worse.

Every major (and even every minor) player realizes that “data is the next Intel inside,” and has, for the most part, taken a hoarder’s approach to the stuff. Apple, for example, ain’t letting data out of the iUniverse to third parties except in very limited circumstances. Same for Facebook and even Google, which has made hay claiming its open philosophy over the years.

And this trend is not limited to the large players. I currently have 302 photos locked up in a service called Twitpic. I’d very much like to export them into my iPhoto library, so I can mange them as part of the rest of my photo library. But the only way to do that is to “right click” on each and every one of those photos, copying them to my desktop. That’s several hours of work that most folks simply won’t do. When an enterprising coder wrote an automated script that exported photos from Twitpic to another service called Posterous, Twitpic blocked the program. That was about the time I stopped using Twitpic.

This trend, I predict, will become the petard upon which our industry will hoist itself over the next couple of years. Very well intentioned projects like DataPortability.org and others are working on this issue, but it’s largely hidden from public view and debate, because that debate has been framed as “Us versus Them”, where the “Them” are presumably evil and profit-driven companies who want to leverage our data for their own gain. (See the entire WSJ series as exhibit A in this debate).

So far, the approach companies seem to be taking boils down to this: The data we have is too valuable to let our customers understand it, manage it, and ultimately, do whatever they want with it. We’ll say soothing things, and we’ll let our users take some actions with their data – Facebook will let you authenticate using Facebook Connect on third party sites, for example – but we won’t let you take the data you’ve created on our services, put it in your own pocket (so to speak), and hand it over to other services and platforms such that those platforms can add value to your daily life.

In other words, if information is truly currency in today’s economy, so far the coins in your pocket are all from different countries, and there’s no global exchange mechanism. They’re only worth something in the nation in which they’ve been minted.

For example, you can’t pass your Facebook identity to a third party site so as to enable that site to serve you a better advertising experience. While Facebook insists that your Facebook data is, in fact, *yours*, it turns out it’s not yours if you want to use it to help a third party make money. In other words, it’s not really yours if it has true value to a third party. Which, in essence, means it’s only yours if it’s not valuable to anyone but you. But value is most often a social concept – something has value because a third person values it.

If the true value of the economy we are building is to be unlocked, that value has to flow unchecked from one party to another. Were this to be true, differentiation of services would migrate to a higher level of the stack, so to speak. Services would be considered valuable for what they did with data given to them by consumers, rather than by their ability to lock consumer’s data into their proprietary platform. New models would emerge to reward those services for adding that value, and those models would be both more robust, and far larger than the “one ring to rule them all” model currently at play.

As things stand today, our industry’s practices are gaining the attention of dead-serious regulators, spurred to potentially early lock down of how data is used based on an incomplete understanding of how value will flow through future economic models yet to be invented. (More on this in another post).

A generation from now our industry’s approach to data collection and control will seem outdated and laughable. The most valuable digital services and companies will be rewarded for what they do with openly shareable data, not by how much data they hoard and control.

Now, I live in the real world, and I understand why companies are doing what they are doing at the moment. Facebook doesn’t want third party services creating advertising networks that leverage Facebook’s social graph – that’s clearly on Facebook’s roadmap to create in the coming year or so (Twitter has taken essentially the same approach). But if you are a publisher (and caveat, I am), I want the right to interpret a data token handed to me by my reader in any way I chose. If my interpretation is poor, that reader will leave. If it adds value, the reader stays, perhaps for a bit longer, and value is created for all. If that token comes from Facebook, Facebook also gets value.

Imagine, for example, if back in the early search days, Google decided to hoard search refer data – the information that tells a site what the search term was which led a visitor to click on a particular URL. Think of how that would have retarded the web’s growth over the past decade.

Scores of new services are emerging that hope to enable a consumer-driven ecosystem of data. Let’s not lock down data early. Let’s trust that what we’re best at doing is adding value, not hoarding it.   

More on this in my 2007 post The Data Bill of Rights, not to be confused with the “Commercial Data Privacy Bill of Rights,” introduced last week. While well intentioned, this bill does not consider data ownership and portability.

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Plato On Facebook

By - April 21, 2011

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One of my first “big books” out of college was James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science and it still resonates with me, though it’s been so long I think I’m due for a re-read. In any case, the next book up in my ongoing self-education is Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. It’s long. It’s dense. It’s good, so far. In fact, there’s already a passage, a quote from Plato, that has struck me as germane to the ongoing threads I attempt to weave here on this site (even if all I’m really making is a lame friendship bracelet – pun intended, as you will see).

Early in the book, Gleick narrates the birth of the written word, which if you think about it (and he certainly has), is quite an extraordinary event. Turns out Plato, who was literate (and therefore quotable today), was not a fan of the written word. His mentor Socrates, Gleick reminds us, was illiterate. Well, OK, that’s not fair. Socrates wasn’t illiterate, he was, in Gleick’s words, a “nonwriter.” In any case, the passage that struck me is Plato speaking about the written word, quoted in “The Information”:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them .You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.

Nicholas Carr would be proud of Plato. But both would be wrong.

Definitions of wisdom shift as cultures shift. Now, of course, to be wise is to be literate. Then, to be wise was to commit knowledge to memory. Now, it’s to the ability to lookup (to search, to find, to divine patterns). I’ve called this search literacy in the past, but I think we’re moving toward something larger.

Consider the same passage, liberally edited to be a critique of the new medium of Facebook and social networking, rather than the new medium of the written word.

For this invention will produce disconnection in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice true relationships between people. Their trust in Facebook, produced by external connections which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own ability to maintain relationships.You have invented an elixir not of relationships, but of reminding one of relationship; and you offer your pupils the appearance of connection, not true connection.

When writing was new, it was strange, and it was hard to imagine a society based on the written word. At the dawn of digital connectivity, the same holds true. Are digital relationships real? Is the grammar of Facebook robust enough to hold all the nuance of true connection?

Probably not yet. But I for one am happy Plato learned to write. And I can also imagine a time – well after these words sink deeply into the sediments of history – when Plato and Facebook are united in a new technology of memory, relationship, and communication that eclipses anything we might debate today.

A Funny Coincidence, or a Glimpse of the Future?

By - April 15, 2011

I took a ride today, and it was gorgeous as usual. That’s not my story, but it’s certainly a part of it.

As I rode I used the AllSports GPS app on my iphone to track my progress (guys, if you’re reading, your upload is busted).

I knew I’d be able to see the whole ride on Google Maps later, which is cool. It also tracks stuff like distance, vertical, speed, etc. Tons of fun.

So that’s one signal tracking me all along the way, kicking off tons of data as I went. Some of it I was capturing. Some of it, I’d warrant, was being captured by the app. And, if that app has a deal with Google or others for advertising, some of that data, I’d wager, is going to Google as well. I know this. Not sure most folks do, but they will. More on that in another post.

As I rode, I checked into a couple of trails I was on: Indian Fire, and Eldridge. In fact, I put Eldridge on the map of Foursquare, odd, but I knew it wasn’t on there as I tried to check in before but didn’t follow through on Foursquare’s request that I add the spot.

This time I did. Another app has some of my data now. I’m happy to give it to them, in fact.

After about 45 minutes of good up, I found myself at this vista and sent it to Tumblr:

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A happy place to be sure. I think I captioned it Beeeeeuuuuttiieee or something. This is the view looking Northeast, two-thirds up the Eldridge trail on Mt. Tamalpais. Oh, and a third app now has my data.

Of course, the iPhone also has all that data, and more. And AT&T has its fair share to boot.

We peaked (checked in natch), ripped on down, took more pics, including a video, and I got home to my new video/music/think out loud room. And I put the map and the pictures and the video up on the big screen, and played a bit of Muppets doing Dance Yourself Clean because, well, it was Friday after all.

My buddy left, and I went in to get something. I came back to check mail, and brought up my browser. Now, my home page is this site, and what do I see at the top of the site, in the ads which at this point had reverted to Google AdSense?

Well, I saw this image:

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Well I’ll be, I say to myself. That looks a lot like where I just was! And this was a Google Maps ad. Holy CRAP! Did Google get some of that data and, in near real time, show me an ad with MY PICTURE IN IT?

Funny thing was, I wasn’t creeped out. In fact, I was thrilled….I love that place, and there it was at the top of my site!

Now there’s much to say about this, but OF COURSE I CLICKED ON THAT BAD BOY.

Here’s what I got:

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The thrill was palpable – was I looking at a Northeast view from two-thirds up Eldridge? Wow! Now that’s conversational media!

Well, no. I was looking at a beautiful vista in Ireland, in fact. Clearly the ad folks at Google thought it was a good shot to use. Packaged goods media.

It was all a coincidence.

But it sure as hell got me thinking.

Why *isn’t* there a way to take all that data, and more, and make experiences that work for all of us? I wrote about this in the “Rise of Metaservices.” I want me some, now. And not just so Google can serve me the perfect ad. The world is so much bigger than that (but if that pays for that world, I’m cool with it, as long as I have a dashboard which gives me control).

More to come.

Go Forth And Invest

By - April 11, 2011

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This headline caught my eye this morning: US VCs Raised $7.7 Billion In Q1, Highest Influx In A Decade. Of course, if you‘ve been following the news in our industry, you know there’s a raging debate on over whether we are in “another bubble.” This news will of course be interpreted as evidence that, in fact, we are back to bubbly levels…after all, one decade ago was when we had our last big hurrah, right? When VCs gave mostly incompetent founders way too much money, and the whole thing came crashing down around us.

Well, yes….and ten years ago, there was no way our industry, social culture, or technological infrastructure was ready for the big ideas VCs wanted to fund.

This time, I believe, is different.

There, I said it. Now go invest those billions, VCs, and go spend them, entrepreneurs. It’s about time we believed again.

Though, I must admit, the constant specter of the dot com bubble is a healthy thing – it keeps most of us focused on creating value, rather than simply scheming on how to make a quick buck.

Everbody Forgets About the Power of Intentional Declaration

By - March 23, 2011

I love that Facebook is testing real time conversational advertising. In short, the idea is that the right ad shows up on someone’s Facebook page when they declare some intention. As the Ad Age coverage puts it:

Users who update their status with “Mmm, I could go for some pizza tonight,” could get an ad or a coupon from Domino’s, Papa John’s or Pizza Hut….With real-time delivery, the mere mention of having a baby, running a marathon, buying a power drill or wearing high-heeled shoes is transformed into an opportunity to serve immediate ads, expanding the target audience exponentially beyond usual targeting methods such as stated preferences through “likes” or user profiles.

Sounds great, but hollow – kind of like a 4/4 beat missing a bass drum. And what’s the bass? It’s the consumer, of course.

Allow me to explain. If I’m a consumer in Facebook’s real time advertising world, and I notice that the ads change based on my status update, I may decide to intentionally declare my desire for a pizza, or a pregnancy test, or some cool shoes, because I know the ads/offers/coupons/deals are going to come my way. In other words, it’s advertising’s version of the street finding its own use for technology. Advertising isn’t one way, Facebook. It’s conversational, and the biggest mistake one might make is to assume your consumers won’t game that system for their own uses. In fact, I’d suggest you design your product around that assumption.

If you do that well, you just might have a hit on your hands.

Why Color Matters: Augmented Reality And Nuanced Social Graphs May Finally Come of Age

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I read with interest about Color, a new social photo app that was much in the news today. The main angle of coverage was the size of the pre-revenue company’s funding – $41 million from Sequoia and Bain. Hell, the company isn’t just pre-revenue, it’s pre-product….at least for now. Tomorrow the actual product launches.

If it works as advertised, it may well be the first truly execution of augmented reality that truly scales.

I for one hope it works.

The service’s founder, Bill Nguyen, is the real deal. He has a particular ability to see around corners, and is a veteran of more than half a dozen startups. So why am I fired up about Color’s service? Because I think it bridges an important gap in how we use the web today. And please know that my definition of “the web” is in no way limited to “PC based HTML”. When I say web, I mean the digital platform through which we leverage our lives.

OK, now that we’ve clarified that, what does Color actually *do*? Well, let me explain it as best I can, based on a great piece here by Bruce Upbin (OK and this piece and this one too).

In short, Colors combines the public social graph and instant sharing of Twitter with the “capture the moment” feel of an Instagram or Path. But the real twist is in the service’s approach to location. To my mind, Colors has the opportunity to be the first breakout application fueled by the concept of “augmented reality.”

Now, let me back up and remind readers of my oft-repeated 2010 maxim: Location is the most important signal to erupt from the Internet since search.

OK, that said, what Colors does is offer up a visual public timeline of any given location, in real time. Every single image captured at any given location is instantly “placed” at that location, forever, and is served up as an artifact of that location to anyone using the Colors application.

Put your brain to that idea for a second, and you realize this is one of those ideas that is both A/ Ridiculously huge and B/ Ridiculously obvious in retrospect. And pretty much every idea that passes those two tests only has to pass a third to Be Really Big. That third test? Execution.

Wait Battelle, you may be saying. What are you on about? I’m not getting it?!

In short, if Color is used by a statistically significant percentage of folks, nearly every location that matters on earth will soon be draped in an ever-growing tapestry of visual cloth, one that no doubt will also garner commentary, narrative structure, social graph meaning, and plasticity of interpretation. Imagine if Color – and the fundaments which allow its existence – had existed for the past 100 years. Imagine what Color might have revealed during the Kennedy assassination, or the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, or hell, the Rodney King beating?

But that’s just the stuff that’s important to us all. What Color really augurs is the ability to understand our shared sense of place over time – and that alone is mind-bendingly powerful. Back in 2008 I was struck with a similar concept, which at FM we turned into Crowdfire – a fleeting, early antecedent to the Color concept focused on music and festivals.

To me the key here is plasticity. By that I mean the ability to bend the concept of “social graph” beyond the inflexible “one ring to rule them all” model of Facebook to a more nuanced set of people you might care about in the context of place or moment. I love these kinds of steps forward, because it’s just so damn clear we need them.

Trust me on this. If Colors fails, it will be due to execution, and someone else will get it right. Because the world wants and needs this, and the time is now. (By the way, I’m not encouraged by the website, which focuses on group sharing and such. I think the service is way bigger than that. But I guess you have to start somewhere…)

Oh, and note to Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare: If you don’t get this feature into your service, pronto, you will more likely than not be rueing the day Color launched.

Pandora's Facebook Box

By - March 16, 2011

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(image) I flew to Detroit today, and thankfully Delta had wifi. Since I’ll be speaking at a GM conference later in the week, and the fine folks from Pandora will be there, among others, I went and checked in on the site, which I’ll admit I haven’t visited in some time (I still consume music the old fashioned way – I buy CDs and rip them to iTunes). Now, the theme of GM’s internal conference is all about “the app economy” and fortunately, lately I’ve found myself thinking a lot about this samesaid phenomenon. Given that, allow me to digress. As usual, I have no idea where this is going, but at least I know where it’s going to start: With my first visit to Pandora in some time.

Here’s what happened. Pandora has done a “deep integration” with Facebook since my last visit (yeah it’s been a while), meaning that when I showed up (and was logged into Facebook already), Pandora went ahead and filled out my profile using Facebook data. To the site’s credit (and I hope based on some terms of service from Facebook), the service notified me of this, and asked me if using my Facebook profile was OK.

Now, you may recall the kitty-with-a-ball-of-yarn that is my Facebook account. In short, it’s a tangled mess, and I’m at a loss around what to do about it. Short version: I said yes to the first 5000 folks who asked to be my “friend” and found myself with a pretty useless “social graph.” I’ve tried a few times to remedy the situation, but Facebook ain’t making it easy. The service wants you to be who you already are, not who you might want to become, that much is obvious. And who I already am on Facebook is a not-so-hot mess.

So…now I’m faced with importing this samesaid mess into Pandora, a place I was hoping to craft in the image of my own musical tastes. Do I click “OK”, or do I do the sensible thing, ditch the Facebook integration, and start from scratch? I mean, I have no idea how Pandora was *actually* going to use the data it got from Facebook, did I? Obviously the sensible thing was to be cautious, and click No F’in Way.

Of course I clicked Go Ahead, Use the Mess. Because, in the end, all I wanted to do was get to the music, consequences be dammed. Sure, I had no idea how or what Pandora was really going to do with my Facebook data, but honestly, I kind of didn’t care. I figured if it sucked, I’d find a way out. Right? (Actually, yes, you can undo the connection in settings.)

But connecting to Facebook got me thinking. First off, I wondered if Pandora even knew what do to with my “social graph” – given it has no rhyme or reason, and with 5000 or so connections, should Pandora really want to Go Deep, it’d probably melt a few CPUs down at the Music Genome project. And second, it made me wonder whether, had I chosen instead to do the work at Pandora, building my own profile from scratch…well had I done that, I’ll tell you this: I’d sure as hell like to import THAT profile into Facebook, and make THAT profile who I am up in ZuckerLand. Because it sure would reflect my identity a heckuva lot better than Facebook does at the current moment.

Hmmm. Now there’s an idea. What if I could take all that declaration of who I am that I do out on the “rest of the web”, and somehow drive that back INTO Facebook, in such a way as to shift Facebook’s understanding of who I am in a way that I controlled? And what if I could do that over and over, creating all sorts of different identities, ones I could mix and match on a whim, or a mood, or a social instance? Wouldn’t that be cool? I mean, if I could start all over, from scratch, I think I’d like to start at a place like Pandora, build a profile of who I am, and then import that profile (sort of like a piece of digital clothing) into a place like Facebook. Starting at Facebook, in a way, seems backassward. I’m not who I say I am, or who I say my friends are, one time on one platform built just for declaring my identity.

I’m what I do, in context, and that context shifts based on any number of axes – who I’m sharing with, social frame (professional? personal? familial? commercial? intimate? public? etc.), hell, it even shifts with my mood. And it sure as heck shifts over time. (I think this is what Eric was referring to when he joked that we should all have the right to get a new identity after college).

Increasingly, I’m frustrated with a world that wants me to be one thing – one profile, one easily structured dataset, one ring to rule them all. This just ain’t the way the real world works. It’s what I was getting at when I penned “Identity and the Independent Web” last year, and it’s a piece of yarn I’ll continue to pull at, mess be dammed. I want to be able to push data back into Facebook, such that Facebook changes who it thinks I am, and I want to be in control of that process.

In other words, I’d love to be able to tell Facebook, I’m feeling Pandorish right about now…show me what you got for me now?

And I predict that day will come. If not with Facebook, then with a platform that understands me better, one I’ll be more than happy to inhabit.

Am I crazy, or just too early? Tell me what you think.

KSJO 92.3 – Good Product, Bad Marketing. A Case Study

By - March 06, 2011

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This is a story of a radio station – you know, those old school, pre-Internet media outlets that folks my age grew up listening to. I’ve always been rather fond of radio, in a nostalgic way, and I’ve had an off again, on again relationship with it over the years. For the past few years, it’s been mostly off – I only listen to AM sports radio (my beloved Giants) and NPR on FM. Whenever I get a new car, I get six months free of Sirius, and I check into Howard Stern, but then the trial period ends, and I just don’t feel like the subscription price is worth it, particularly given it’s not transferrable to any of my other cars.

Now, back in the day, radio really meant something. Remember the FM radio boom? If you’re over 40 or so, you probably do – the peak was the 1970s, where, according to Wikipedia “FM radio experienced a golden age of integrity programming, with disc jockeys playing what they wanted, including album cuts not designated as “singles” and lengthy progressive rock tracks.”

In case you’re wondering, it was this period of time that inspired the name of my company Federated Media, or FM – the explosion of independent voice in radio during the 1970s was quite similar to the explosion of independent voices on the web today….but I’m taking a detour. Back to my story…

So a week or so ago I find myself stuck in my car for longer than my average commute, and both sports radio and NPR were, for various reasons, insufferable (which they both can be quite often). I listen to my own music a lot as I work or work out, so I wasn’t hankering to plug in my own tunes (and it’s impossible to do so while driving if you want to make a call, thanks Audi!).

I was looking for something new – in short, I was in discovery mode.

So what did I do? Well, I reverted back to my 1970s roots, and I started flipping around the FM dial. Nearly everything I landed on was terrible – the same old top-40 pop or lowest-common-denominator format crap that’s infected this increasingly irrelevant industry for more than ten years (I’m looking at you, Alice 97.3!).

Then I landed on 92.3 – KSJO – and out came, of all bands, the Local Natives.

Now the Local Natives aren’t utterly arcane, but they aren’t exactly mainstream either (at least, they weren’t a year ago. I’ve heard their music in commercials recently, but that’s pretty standard these days). In short, it was quite surprising to find them on the radio at all, and the song being played was not one of their better-known ones – it was, in old FM parlance, a “B side.”

The next song was of a similar mindset, something by The National I think, or maybe it was Band of Horses or Morning Benders. After that was a deep Broken Bells track. Every one of these bands I have gone to see live, at a festival like Bonnaroo or Austin City Limits, or at a music hall like The Independent in San Francisco. This was music I really connected with, one song after another.

Experiencing what felt like *my* music being played on the radio was a total shock – it had been nearly 30 years since a radio station was a community I wanted to be part of – a badge I’d wear, so to speak. And anyone who reads this site knows that my definition of a truly successful “publication” is one that has a voice and point of view which draws a community together.

Here I had found a real publication of a radio station. What a novelty!

Over the past few days I’ve been actually listening to KSJO because the music is good – I know nearly all of it, and that which I don’t know is interesting – I wanted to know more. Oddly, the format of the station is “DJ-less” – there’s no one telling me the names of the bands – in fact, I’ve never even heard the station break for an advertisement (a red flag, to my mind – clearly this couldn’t last).

The only break between songs is an ongoing, pre-recorded “campaign” called “Save Alternative,” voiced in a rather irritating manner by a young woman trying to be a bit too cool for school. Given that the “save alternative” stuff was pretty minimal, it didn’t drive me off the station, I was digging the music and I was intrigued by this new entrant on the dial. At some point the woman’s voice mentioned “savealternative.com” so of course, I decided to check it out online. Clearly, whoever had just bought the station was working up some kind of promotion around this, and I figured they must be starting it commercial free.

Here’s where the story goes south.

On the site, there’s nothing but a page imploring visitors to join “SALT”, the “Save ALTernative Cult”. “Justice is coming” the site promises. Ick. Maybe I’m not in the demo, but honestly, all this “us vs. the man” stuff is pretty cliche. Justice for whom? Folks tired of shitty radio? OK, but really, do I need to join a cult for this?

But even though the voice was off putting, I signed up to be on their email list, because the music was just that good. In other words, the product was great, even though the marketing, so far, was way off key.

The marketing only got worse, at least in practice. In fact, it’s rather a case study of what NOT to do if you have a product so good, people actually do work to tell you more about themselves.

Here I was, a fan of the product who converted from an on air listener to taking action on the web – I actually filled out an online form. As any marketer knows, that makes me one of the most valuable potential customers that station could ever have – in particular as I was an early adopter. It turns out, the station was sold on Feb 28, 2011 to a new owner, and this format was barely a week old by the time I filled out the form. And while I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, I think I’d qualify as an influencer – I’ve got a few hundred thousand followers of my RSS and Twitter feeds. I wanted to tell people about the new station, but…well, while the product was great, the marketing was now in the way. I wasn’t sure I wanted to send folks to savealternative.com. It was a bit too…cheesy. I couldn’t endorse it. (I didn’t even want to “Like” it on Facebook.)

So I gave them my email address and other info, including some of the bands I liked, and that was that. The homepage promised I’d find out about local bands and other promotions, and that sounded good. There’s literally nothing else on the site, not even a playlist (which was the main reason I went to the site in the first place).

I was still curious about the station, and wanted to know the playlist, and I figured the “regular station” must have a site as well. A bit of Googling landed me at a very odd place – it had some of the playlist info I was looking for, but it also had a slide show with pictures of the Kim Kardashian in a tiny swimsuit and a bunch of other random, corporate rock crap – not exactly consistent with the product which drew me in the first place.

In short, I was utterly confused. Today, as I wrote this post, I tried to find that site again, and for now anyway, the site is offline (there’s another one related to the sale here, again, with nothing on it). I probably saw a site in transition as the ownership was being transferred. But first impressions are critical to growing a viral and evangelistic audience, and so far, the new owners were blowing it.

I’m not trying to pile on here, but it does get worse. It’s been a week since I gave “savealternative.com” my email address, and so far, it’s been crickets. I didn’t even get a confirmation email thanking me for joining up. I want to connect, I want to become part of the community implied by this fresh new voice on the radio, but…whoever’s running marketing there is fumbling around in the dark.

I for one hope they find the light switch. And for any of you planning digital marketing campaigns, keep this case study in mind. If you’ve got a great product, make sure your marketing and comms pay it off online. Your early evangelizers are the spark that amplify your brand. Don’t snuff it out before it has a chance to catch fire.

NB: I’ve been thinking a lot about local and location-based marketing in advance of FM’s Austin Signal event this week. If any brand is location-based, it’s a local radio station…hence the long post…

The Internet Interest Bubble

By - March 03, 2011

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A couple of days ago I was speaking with Reuters reporter Connie Loizos, who’s been covering the Internet space since the days of the Industry Standard (she worked at the Red Herring). She was working on a story questioning whether there was a new bubble brewing in our space, a question that many have asked in the past few months, in particular as it relates to private financings of startups. You can find that story here, on PEHub.

As readers of this site know, I don’t believe we’re in a real bubble, at least not the kind that popped in late 2000 (or the housing bubble, which seems still to be popping). But that’s not the interesting part of our conversation. Connie asked if I thought the press was in part culpable for our collective obsession with sky-high private company valuations, “hot new startups,” and the like.

Of course the answer is yes – there’s an “interest bubble” of sorts – but the answer is nuanced. And nuance is something I’ve found in short supply throughout the Internet ecosystem – at least in what we’ve come to call “the press.”

So let’s break it down. First off, what is “the press”? If you define it as “responsible journalists working diligently at their craft” then I’d submit we no longer have an information ecosystem dominated by “the press.” Indeed, we have a ton of great reporters doing their jobs – probably far more now than we had even at the height of the first boom. But the overall conversation is no longer dominated by their work. Instead, we have migrated to a more free-wheeling discourse driven by any number of interested parties. As it relates to the Internet industry, that means VCs and entrepreneurs promoting or angling for investments or promotion (or souring a deal they didn’t get a part of), bankers trying to influence any number of outcomes, and sources within all manners of companies pushing their own agenda on Twitter, Quora, or in private conversations with bloggers and other media outlets.

The tweets, conference utterances, and blog posts of these sources are instantly turned into “news stories” by the post-cambrian publishing explosion of sites covering the narrative that was once the province of first-generation Internet magazines like the Industry Standard (that’s the prototype of the first Standard above). And of course, I celebrate this explosion – Federated Media has been central to the business model of most of these second-generation sites, either as former partners (Ars Technica, TechCrunch, Digg, Reddit and soon Mashable) or current (Business Insider, Read Write Web, The Next Web, VentureBeat, GigaOm and scores of others just in the tech space alone).

But while I love the role these publications play in our information processing, it seems we’re failing to evolve past the first few stages in that process. Sources hint or brag or dish, then those tidbits are quickly worked into stories. But where’s the bigger picture? Where’s the hold-on-a-minute-let’s-think-this-through-and make-a-few-phone-calls-and-see-how-it-develops approach? Where’s the conceptual scoop? The second-day (or even second week) analysis?

To be fair, every single publication covering this space does wonderful analysis, from time to time, but their bread and butter is chasing what Connie called “the echo chamber.” Lately, that chamber has gotten very, very large – millions upon millions of people visit these tech news sites, because the narrative they chronicle is more important than it’s ever been. Our industry impacts a huge swatch of society and culture, and increasingly is understood to be the core driver of pretty much all of business today.

I’m extremely proud that this story has gotten to the point of so much interest and so much coverage. But are we paying attention to the right things? I’m not sure we always are. I sense a big opportunity to create a new kind of publication, one that has at the center of its brand a thoughtful and deeply informed point of view. I’m not sure how such a site might become profitable in this current era of page-view driven publishing, but I’m relatively certain that could be figured out. I for one want to read this publication, and I wish it existed.

The Rise of Digital Plumage

By - February 27, 2011

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Before we go out, my wife will often ask “how are people dressing tonight?” I’m never quite sure how to answer – at least for her. In essence, she’s asking me to read the room we’ll be in, and then translate the social nuance of that room to her choice of clothing.

While I certainly pay attention to what I wear, I’ve come to the point in my life where choosing clothes for a social night out isn’t that big a deal anymore. Women, or perhaps my wife in particular, seem far more attuned to the symbolism of social dress than I (perhaps that’s why it takes them so long to get ready!). It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well tailored jacket – I do – it’s just…well I know what I like, and I like things simple. If you’ve seen me speak at a conference, you pretty much know what I look like at dinner on a Saturday night. Instrumenting the nuances of my social dress pretty much comes down to “white shirt or black?” and “those jeans or these?” (Though I will admit to a weakness for shoes.)

Of course there are a lot of nuances in the choices of which jeans, shoes, shirts or jackets we wear, even if they seem similar on their face. And those nuances count, a lot, in how we feel about ourselves in the context of a social situation, and they doubly matter in how others view us. Clothes may or may not make the man, but we all wear clothes (for the most part!), and we all wear them differently.

We humans have been obsessed with clothing for literally thousands of years, and we’re the only animals on the planet that purposefully drape ourselves in social symbols of our own creation. (Clearly, many animals have “clothing” of their own – plumage comes to mind – but we’re the only ones who change our plumage pretty much every day, if not more often.) And in the past few hundred or so years, brands have emerged (from Abercrombie to Zegna) which have very real meaning to us. We drape ourselves in these brands, and they project all manner of meaning into the world.

Where am I going with all this? Well, stick with me. I was on the phone with Doc Searls last week, preparing for an onstage conversation we’re having at the IAB conference later this week. We’ll be discussing issues of how consumers’ data is used by marketers, and why, so far, no ecosystem has evolved that puts the customer in the driver’s seat when it comes to leveraging our own data (Doc is working on this under the rubric of “VRM“). The theme of the IAB meeting is “The People vs. Data” – framing the debate as “us vs. them” – where “us” is folks on the web, and “them” is the ecosystem of marketing infrastructure using “our” data to serve increasingly sophisticated messages to us.

But who owns that data? Don’t we, at least in conjunction with the services we use? And why haven’t we taken control of it?

Well, possibly because we don’t see data as social clothing. But I think, in time, we will. Every day, we wake up and spend at least a few minutes instrumenting our clothing choices for the day. Why don’t we do the same with our data and identities online?

I’m tempted to blame Facebook for this – because as I’ve pointed out here many times, Facebook is currently a pretty homogenous place, with relatively poor instrumentation of who we are, socially. Our Facebook identities are the same no matter to whom we present them. How strange is it that we as humans have created an elaborate, branded costume culture to declare who we are in the physical world, but online, we’re all pretty much wearing khakis and blue shirts?

I suggested that one reason was that we, as consumers and customers, simply didn’t want to spend the time required to instrument our data so that it was presented in such a way as to be valuable to us. It’s just too much work. But over time, I think we will change our views of this, and begin to clothe ourselves in various highly instrumented digital garments. And there’s a very large business opportunity out there for brands to emerge as creators, distributors, and yes, sellers, of this new digital clothing.

Update: The Journal has a piece today around startups in the privacy and personal data “asset class” which smacks of a kind of digital clothing.