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Google’s Year End Zeitgeist: Once Again, Insights Lacking

By - December 17, 2013
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Great photo, but not one we searched for….

It’s become something of a ritual – every year Google publishes its year-end summary of what the world wants, and every year I complain about how shallow it is, given what Google *really* knows about what the world is up to.

At least this year Google did a good job of turning its data into a pretty media experience. There are endless scrolling visual charts, there’s a emotional, highly produced video, and there’s a ton of lists to explore once you drill down. But there’s also a Google+ integration that frankly, was utterly confusing. Called #my2013 Gallery (sorry, there’s no link for it), it showed photos from a bunch of people I didn’t know, then invited me to add my own. Not sure what that was about. The “Search Trends Globe” shows top search terms by location, but you can’t click through to see results. Odd.

So kudos to Google for giving us a lot of eye candy – there are top ten lists for all manner of categories, from dog breeds to NFL teams to memes – all by geography. But the search capacity is, well – confusing. Once you search inside what you think is the year end Zeitgeist, you end up getting Google Trends data, and you’re kind of lost, not sure if you’re in the year-end special anymore. Bummer.

And while there are far more lists than I’ve seen before, there’s still no … insight. Even the “What is…” function, which was an interesting, if limited feature from last year’s Zeitgeist, is gone this year, most likely a victim of political correctness. (For why, see my post about last year’s Zeitgeist).

I sure wish Google would surprise us with Zeitgeist, but once again, no dice.

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Facebook Must Win The Grownup Vote

By - December 16, 2013

facebookdownthumbIt’s all over the media these days: Facebook is no longer cool, Facebook has lost its edge with teenagers, Facebook is now establishment.

Well duh. Teenagers aren’t loyal to much of anything, especially Internet stuff. Tonight I had four of them at my table, ranging in age from 15 to 17. All of them agreed that Facebook was over. It was a unanimous, instant, and unemotional verdict. They agreed they had to have a Facebook page. But none of them much cared about it anymore. Facebook was now work – and they’re kids after all. Who wants to work?

And when I asked if their little brothers and sisters were into Facebook? Nope, not one.

I turned to the 10 year-old at the table, my youngest daughter. I realized she had never once mentioned a desire to get a Facebook page, and seemed bored by the discussion overall. Of course, she’s already on Snapchat.

Interesting. When my now 15-year old was 10, she begged us night and day to get a Facebook page. Now, she uses it “because she has to.”

What about Facebook-purchased Instagram? Still good, but the Facebook connection is seen as a negative. Snapchat? Great, but warning signs abound (they’re not sure about whether they trust the service). Vine? Super cool. Twitter? Well….they know Twitter is coming in their lives – something that they’d dabbled in, but will grow into, once they’d learned how to be a proper public person.

You know, a grownup.

Facebook, which started as a site for college kids (OK, OK, Harvard kids), must know it has to get in front of this particular parade. Because as far as I can tell, Facebook’s future is with grownups now. And grownups are more world wise, more demanding, and more thoughtful than college kids. But the Facebook app still feels very….high school.

Maybe that’s why Facebook is talking about becoming your personal newspaper (really? A news site?!).

I wrote many moons ago about how Facebook, to win on the Internet, would need to let go of its data lock in, and compete as a service irrespective of its natural social graph monopoly. It looks like the competition is on – a generation is growing up with Facebook being an optional service – an absolutely unimaginable state of affairs just three or so years ago.

 

Do you think Facebook can make the transition? 

TWITTER ADS ARE GETTING, UM, MORE NOTICEABLE

By - November 14, 2013

Note: Somehow this post was deleted from my CMS. I am reposting it now.

Two of my favorite companies in the world are Twitter and American Express. I have literally dozens of good pals at both. So this is said with love (and a bit more pointedly at Twitter than Amex, which is just one of many advertisers I’ve encountered in the situation described below. And Amex is one of the most innovative marketers on the planet, so again, much respect).

But here goes: I’m seeing too much image-heavy promoted tweets in my feed when I first come to the service. Here’s a picture:

prmotedtwtr

Seeing a big display ad (because let’s be clear, that’s what this is) is fine the first few times I come to the site. But after a while, it gets in the way – especially if it’s  inconsistent with my expectations of the service. The tweet above was first posted on November 4th – more than a week ago. Twitter is all about what’s happening now – it’s not about an ongoing promotion with reach and frequency goals. This is probably the fifth time I’ve seen this ad, and that’s not good for anyone – not the publisher, not the platform, and not the user. Now, if the creative had changed, that’s something to talk about. And if it was relevant to what was happening now…even better. But the same message, five times in ten days? That’s an old model that doesn’t translate so well to Twitter, I’d warrant.

Just making an observation – I know the algorithms – and the content creators – are hard at work fixing this problem. What do you think?

Ubiquitous Video: Why We Need a Robots.txt For the Real World

By - November 13, 2013

illustration_robotLast night I had an interesting conversation at a small industry dinner. Talk turned to Google Glass, in the context of Snapchat and other social photo sharing apps.

Everyone at the table agreed:  it was inevitable – whether it be Glass, GoPro, a button in your clothing or some other form factor – personalized, “always on” streaming of images will be ubiquitous. Within a generation (or sooner), everyone with access to mass-market personal electronics (i.e., pretty much everyone with a cell phone now) will have the ability to capture everything they see, then share or store it as they please.

That’s when a fellow at the end of the table broke in. “My first response to Glass is to ask: How do I stop it?”

The dinner was private, so I can’t divulge names, but this fellow was a senior executive in the banking business. He doesn’t want consumers streaming video from inside his banks, nor does he want his employees “Glassing” confidential documents or the keys to the safe deposit boxes.

All heads at the table nodded, as if this scenario was right around the corner  - and the implications went far beyond privacy at a bank. Talk turned to many other situations where people agreed they’d not want to be “always on.” It could be simple –  a bad hair day – or complicated: a social pariah who just wanted to be left alone. All in all, people were generally sympathetic to the notion of “the right to be left alone” – what in this case might be called “the right to not be in a public stream.”

But how to enforce such a right? The idea of banning devices like Glass infringes the wearer’s rights, and besides, it just won’t scale – tiny cameras will soon be everywhere, and they’ll be basically imperceptible. Sure, some places (like banks, perhaps), will have scanning devices and might be able to afford the imposition of such bans. But in public places? Most likely impossible and quite possibly illegal (in the US, for instance, there is an established right to take photographs in public spaces).

This is when my thoughts turned to one of the most powerful devices we have to manage each other: the Social Contract. I believe we have entered an era in which we must renegotiate our contract with society – that invisible but deeply powerful sets of norms that guide “civil behavior.” Glass (among other artifacts) is at the nexus of this negotiation – the debate laid bare by a geeky pair of glasses.

Back at the table, someone commented that it’d be great if there was a way to let people know you didn’t want to be “captured” right now. Some kind of social cloaking signal*, perhaps. Now, we as humans are damn good at social signaling. We’ve built many a civilization on elaborate sets of social mores.  So how might our society signal a desire to not be “streamed”? Might we develop the equivalent of a “robots.txt” for the real world?

For those of you not familiar with robots.txt, it’s essentially a convention adopted early in the Web’s life, back when search became a powerful distributor of attention, and the search index the equivalent of a public commons (Zittrain wrote a powerful post about it here). Some sites did not want to be indexed by search engines, for reasons ranging from a lack of resources (a search engine’s spiders put a small tax on a site’s resources) to privacy.  No law was enacted to create this convention, but every major search engine obeys its strictures nevertheless. If a site’s robots.txt tells an indexing spider to not look inside, the robot moves along.

It’s an elegant solution, and it works, as long as everyone involved keeps their part of the social contract. Powerful recriminations occur if an actor abuses the system – miscreants are ostracized, banned from social contact with “good” actors.

So might we all, in some not-so-distant future, have our own “robots.txt” – a signal that we can instrument at will, one which is constantly on, a beacon which others can pick up and understand? Such an idea seem to me not at all far fetched. We already all carry the computing power and bandwidth on our person to effect such a signal. All we need is a reason for it to come online. Glass, or something like it, may well become that reason.

The instrumentation of our new social contract is closer at hand than we might think.

*We already have  deeply a meaningful “social cloaking device” – its called our wardrobe. But I’ll get into that topic in another post.

 

More than 200,000 Minutes of Engagement, and Counting

By - November 08, 2013

BehindBannerScreenShot

Some of you may recall “Behind the Banner,” a visualization of the programmatic adtech ecosystem that I created with The Office for Creative Research and Adobe back in May. It was my attempt at explaining the complexities of a world I’ve spent several years engaged in, but often find confounding. I like to use Behind the Banner in talks I give, and folks always respond positively to it, in particular when I narrate the story as it plays.

I realized yesterday that I didn’t know how many people had actually viewed the thing, and naturally as a creator I was curious. So  I pinged my colleague at Adobe, who of course are analytics pros, among many other things. What came back was pretty cool: The visualization has been viewed nearly 50,000 times, with an average time spent of well over 4 minutes per view. That’s more than 200,000 minutes of engagement, or more than one-third of a year! It’s certainly got nothing on the Lumascape, but it’s neat nonetheless.

The version above is really a “beta” – we all wanted to do so much more, but we had to ship it in time for the CM Summit this past May. I’m eager to make it better – create an embeddable version, lay down a narrative track, add more companies and richer detail, fix things folks feel need fixing. If anyone out there is game to help, let me know. It’d be a fun project to work on!

(PS – we found out last week that Behind the Banner has been shortlisted for the Kantar Information Is Beautiful awards. Hurrah!)

A Metal Gun, Made from Digital Bits

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3D-Printed-Metal-Gun-Components-Disassembled-Low-Res-300x225One of the artifacts we’re considering for our book is the 3D printer – not only the MakerBot version, but all types of “bits to atoms” kinds of conversions. The advances in the field are staggering – it is now possible to print human tissue, for example. Every so often, however, there’s a milestone that brings things into dramatic focus. That’s how I felt when I saw this story: First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity.

The company behind the gun, Solid Concepts, has a federal license to make guns, so what they’ve done is not illegal. Rather, they argue in a blog post, they want to prove the efficacy of the approach they’ve taken. A firing test seems to prove them have.

What I find fascinating about 3D printers is the how they tie together a physical object with a digital description. More as we get into this chapter, but for now, just worth noting the milestone.

It’s…A Marketing Barge?!

By - November 01, 2013

google_barge_map_103113(image CBS KPIX) The #googlebarge meme has taken a very strange turn.

A rather welcome diversion from our industry’s endless NSA revelations, the enigmatic barge floating off Treasure Island had been widely assumed to be a floating data center of some kind. But today a local CBS station is reporting that the massive box is custom built for….marketing. No one suggested *that* when I asked for wild speculation yesterday. Answers ranged from “a place to store Google’s cash” to “a hide out for Microsoft’s next CEO,” but “a seaworthy rival to Apple’s retail stores”? Nope, no one was that drunk on Halloween.

From the CBS story:

The project, which has been in the planning stages for more than a year, was created at Google[x], the secret facility that Google reportedly runs near its corporate headquarters in Mountain View. It is personally directed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and is Google’s attempt to upstage rival Apple and its chain of popular retail stores, sources said.

A source who has been onboard the vessel, which is moored off San Francisco’s Treasure Island under tight security, told KPIX 5 the first three floors are designed to serve as “dazzling showrooms” that can be outfitted with chrome features and floor lighting. There is an upper “party deck” meant to feature bars, lanais and other comforts so Google can fete its upscale customers.

The barge can reportedly be taken apart quickly and shipped to anywhere in the world.  Like, say, Davos. The thing’s apparently one huge, mobile marketing stunt.

Kind of makes sense, no?

Poll: What’s On the Google Barge?

By - October 31, 2013

USATodayPicGoogleBarge(image USA Today) I’m fascinated by this “Google Barge” story. It reminds me of the Google container stories of years past, which first sparked all manner of speculation, but turned out to be pretty mundane – a portable, water cooled data center, as I recall.

But their appearance in the San Francisco Bay, as well as off the coast of Maine, is laden with the echoes of science fiction blockbusters. As in alien spaceships mysteriously appearing over major capitals around the world.

It may be that this latest apparition will turn out to be hopelessly uninteresting. That’s certainly what most folks are speculating. But what the heck, it’s Halloween, so why not speculate wildly for a moment: What might be the purpose of these barges? What’s inside them? And why are they here, now?

Put your thoughts in the comments. I’ll publish the best answers in a followup post.

Update:

Here’s some funny tweets in response:

What Do Drones Mean for Humanity?

By - October 23, 2013

predator-firing-missile4(Image) One of the “artifacts” that Sara and I are paying close attention to as we work on the book is “the drone.” Drones ply the liminal space between the physical and the digital – pilots fly them, but aren’t in them. They are versatile and fascinating objects – the things they can do range from the mundane (aerial photography) to the spectacular – killing people, for example. And when drones kill – well, what does it mean, to destroy life, but to not be physically present while doing it?

Until today, drone warfare for me has been a largely intellectual concept: I followed the political and social issues closely, but I avoided emotional engagement – most likely because I knew I hadn’t quite worked out my point of view on the ethical issues. But after reading Matthew Power’s Confessions of a Drone Warrior, I can no longer say I’m not emotionally involved.

The article profiles Brandon Bryant, a retired Airman  trained to pilot Predator drones above Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant’s story frames all that we’re struggling with as a nation, as citizens, and as human beings when it comes to this new technology. As Powers writes:

…the very idea of drones unsettles. They’re too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties—the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we’ve slipped into a dystopia of disconnection. Maybe it’s too soon to know what drones mean, what unconsidered moral and ethical burdens they carry. Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

Bryant understood that his job probably saved lives, on balance, but over time his ambivalence grew.

Often he’d think about what life must be like in those towns and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now.

By the time he left the service, Bryant had aided in killing, or directly killed, more than 1600 human beings. That’s a heavy burden. He fell apart, and was diagnosed with PTSD. I found this passage particularly difficult to internalize:

Forty-two percent of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.” A later study found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews. These effects appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)

Existential conflict. I think there’s a very important concept to explore in those two words, one that is highlighted by the proposed remedy: To give technology – a non human actor – the agency of a human being, so that we can transfer the conflict we feel about killing to a machine.

It makes me wonder how much of that we do in everyday life already, on a far less dramatic scale. In any case, it’s clear that killer drones are not going away. The real question is how we as a society will internalize what they mean for our humanity. Bravo to GQ for publishing such a thought provoking piece of journalism. And to Bryant for being willing to speak out.

A World Lit, Literally, By Data

By - October 21, 2013

data bulbsAs you work on a book, even one as slow to develop as if/then, certain catch phrases develop. People ask you what the book is about, or the shape of its core argument, and some of the descriptions start to stand out and  hit home. One of those is “a world lit by data,” an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. It’s a metaphor that’s not entirely worked out, but it seems to get the job done – it paints a picture of a time when everything of value around us – everything we “see” – has a component of data to it. In a world lit by data, street corners are painted with contextual information, automobiles can navigate autonomously, thermostats respond to patterns of activity, and retail outlets change as rapidly (and individually) as search results from Google.

The tortured bit of the metaphor is in asking you, the reader, to believe that we will live in spaces full of data, just as we live in spaces filled with light (be it natural or man made). Everyone understands the idea of light as metaphor. But data? Well, to my mind, they are quite connected. Without light, we can’t (easily) take in information about our physical surroundings. In darkness there is far less data. Equating “light” with “data” isn’t too much of a stretch.

Now, the interplay of light and “information” is dangerous but well-trodden ground. After all, in the Old Testament, the first thing God did after creating the physical (Heavens and Earth) was to turn on the lights. And after further contemplation, Christians decided that before Light, there was The Word, which was God’s will made flesh (John 1). Since then, of course, “the word” has come to mean, well, encoded information, or data. Loosely put (and I know I’m on thin ice here) – first we establish the physicality of that which we don’t fully understand, then we bathe it in light, hoping to understand it the best we can.

Given this metaphor, it was fun to see this headline in Quartz: A plan to turn every lightbulb into an ultra-fast alternative to Wi-Fi. The recent “li-fi” spec sends data utilizing the same frequency as light – literally, it uses a light bulb as a carrier of information. Seems my “world lit by data” metaphor is getting quite real, indeed.