Earlier this year I sat down with a videographer at the Bazaarvoice Summit in Austin. He asked me about the future of marketing, in particular as it related to data and consumer behavior. Given what I announced earlier this morning, I thought you might find this short video worth a view. Thanks to Ian Greenleigh for doing all the work!
Today on the Federated site, I’ve posted a preview of something we’re working on for a Fall release. I’m cross posting a portion of it here, as I know many of you are interested in media and data-driven marketing.
It’s no secret that Federated Media has deep roots in content marketing: We re-imagined CM for the modern web eight years ago, and since then have executed thousands of content-driven programs with hundreds of awesome publishers, services, and brands. “All Brands Are Publishers” has been one of our core mantras since our founding. And each year we run the CM Summit, where the topic of native, content, and conversation-driven marketing across all digital platforms is dissected.
Back when I was first studying the intersection of brand marketing and technology – about the same time as The Search and the founding of FM – I started talking and writing about “The Conversation Economy.” Its core theme is this: “In the future, all companies must learn how to have 1-1 conversations with their customers at scale, leveraging digital technologies.”
Back then, actually executing on such an idea seemed a pipe dream. Recall, this was before Twitter, before Facebook, and before the Lumascapes. But one reason I love this industry is that we can dream big, and a few short years later, those dreams can become reality.
With the proliferation of “native” platforms like Twitter, Google, Facebook, Tumblr, and blogs, the idea of “branded publishing” has truly caught on. Every major agency (and publisher) has a brand storytelling shop, some have gone so far as to declare publishing to be central to their future. This is a very good thing – the massive infrastructure of media and marketing is slowly reshaping itself to become more nimble and responsive to how the world actually communicates.
But storytelling alone isn’t enough to get the job done. As an industry we need a platform that allows us to distribute those stories to just the right people, at just the right time, in just the right context. Up until recently, the only platform that allowed that kind of precision was search – hardly a great story telling medium for marketers, and driven by direct response dollars, in the main.
In the past few years, programmatic adtech has erupted onto the scene, but again, this technology platform has been used primarily for direct response. Programmatic’s rise has in large part been driven by “retargeting” – the practice of identifying a customer who visits your site, then finding him or her across the web and serving ads related to what they saw during their visit. Retargeting is now a core conversion tool for sophisticated direct marketers. It’s why that pair of shoes you looked at on Zappos keeps following you around the web.
Two years ago, we developed a thesis at FM: Programmatic adtech was going to drive brand marketing, and the bridge between the two would be content marketing. That’s why we bought Lijit Networks, one of the largest independent adtech companies in the United States. We believed then, and even more so now, that programmatic + content marketing = brand building.
While direct response is important, building brand awareness, preference, and loyalty remains a fundamental need. Brands need a scaled way to tell their stories to the right people in the right context. In the past 18 months, “scaled walled gardens” like Facebook land Twitter began to offer native advertising suites that offered just that promise (Tumblr offers a similar promise, one Yahoo! believes it can deliver upon).
But what about the “rest of the Internet”? While it’s fun to try out new “native” sites like Buzzfeed, the web wants a scaled play in “content marketing” that also checks the boxes of efficiency and highly evolved targeting.
Well, we’d like to introduce you to FM’s newest product suite, which (for now) we’re calling “Content Reachtargeting.” Internally, we like to refer to this effort as the “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup” of marketing – you have your chocolate of high-quality content mixed with the peanut butter of programmatic retargeting. A perfect combination.
(To read more about it, head over the FM site….)
This short Slideshare deck, an extremely clever satire of the now infamous NSA slide deck, should be Slideshare’s marketing calling card. It’s a promotional gift to the service, timely, clever, and leveraging the product perfectly. If this ever happens to you, use it in your marketing!
Thanks to our sponsor Google, we got the full first day of last week’s CM Summit, featuring Fred Wilson fresh from the Tumblr deal, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, and about 20 speakers in between for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
I’m very proud to announce “Behind the Banner“, a visualization I’ve been producing with Jer Thorp and his team from The Office for Creative Research, underwritten by Adobe as part of the upcoming CM Summit next week. You can read more about it in this release, but the real story of this project starts with my own quest to understand the world of programmatic trading of advertising inventory – a world that at times feels rather like a hot mess, and at other times, like the future of not only all media, but all data-driven experiences we’ll have as a society, period.
I’m a fan of Terry Kawaja and his Lumascapes – Terry was an advisory to us as we iterated this project. But I’ve always been a bit mystified by those diagrams – you have to be pretty well steeped in the world of adtech to grok how all those companies work together. My goal with Behind the Banner was to demystify the 200 or so milliseconds driving each ad impression – to break down the steps, identify the players, make it a living thing. I think this first crack goes a long way toward doing that – like every producer, I’m not entirely satisfied with it, but damn, it’s the best thing I’ve seen out there so far.
I am deeply grateful to all the folks who helped us make this happen, in particular Jared Cook at Adobe, and a legion of leaders in the industry who reviewed early versions, including Walter Knapp, Bill Demas, Ned Brody, Brian O’Kelley, Ann Lewnes, and dozens more who helped me research and imagine what this might end up looking like.
So take a look and tell me what you think. It’s far too complex to embed here, so we have it running over on the CM Summit site. If nothing else, it should get folks talking, and I hope you’ll help us make it better by leaving a comment here, or sending me mail with your thoughts.
Oh, and while you are at the site, check out the conference lineup. We are almost sold out of tickets, and it’s going to be one heckuva conversation, so please join us!
(image) I know that when I do write here, I tend to go on, and on – and those of you who read me seem to be OK with that. But sometimes the best posts are short and clear.
That was my thought when I read Journalists Need Advertising 101 by Brian Morrissey, writing in Digiday last week. In fewer than 500 words, Morrissey issues a wake up call to those in journalism who believe in the old school notion of a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising:
What’s crazy is journalists seems almost proudly ignorant of the business of advertising. …it’s time journalists take a real interest in how advertising works. I’d go even further. It’s time they get involved in making it. Hope is not a strategy, as they say, and it’s better to deal with the world you live in rather than the world you wish you lived in.
Morrissey goes on to state that the banner ad – the staple of content-based business models for the past 20 years – is “going to zero,” and that the future of the business is in native, integrated content marketing. Journalists, he reasons, need to understand this and get with the program – which means helping to create the content for advertising.
Now, if you’re read me closely, you probably can imagine me nodding my head enthusiastically (though I think display is here to stay, in a renewed model). After all, I’m the one who wrote On Thneeds and the “Death of Display” and The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good last year. I’ve been on about “native” for more than six years. The company I started in 2005 has been executing native programs since 2005. FMP has a “CM” practice that works with nearly half of the Fortune 100 doing content marketing and native advertising placements. Scores of our top publishers regularly make content for brands. And now that I think about it, it was a decade ago that I taught courses on the business of journalism to graduate students at Berkeley – because I believed that ignorance of business models spells doom for the fourth estate.
So I generally agree with Morrissey’s points – but with one possible caveat. I fully believe that great creators of content should be, well, creating great content on behalf of brands. The best filmmakers are also the best creators of 30-second spots, after all. But I wonder whether journalists – if defined as reporters who cover beats on a full time basis – should be making branded content if it conflicts with what they cover. A reporter’s contract with their audience is this: I will give you straight information about my beat, and I will not be unduly influenced by those I cover. It’s very hard make that promise if you are also being paid to make content for the brands you cover. Of course the truth is that anyone being covered by a reporter will try to influence them in any number of ways. But money complicates everything. The conflicts are deep – and it puts your audience’s trust at risk.
So should a reporter who covers, say, the auto industry full time, be creating marketing content for auto industry brands? I think we can debate this question. We used to live in a world of hard and fast, hierarchical rules. Now, we live in a world of communities who can and do attempt to understand each other. This is a good thing – a reporter can make his or her own decisions, explain them to an audience, and if the community accepts the result, all is well.
Whether or not you think it’s OK for reporters to create branded content about the industry they cover, I absolutely believe that reporters (and their editors, if they have them) certainly should be reviewing content created for that industry, and providing input on whether the content will resonate with the audiences and markets those reporters know best. And any media company that employs reporters should certainly have a content marketing function (if you don’t, why, give me a ring). Without input from publishers, branded content can fall flat, and fail to truly connect with an audience.
Branded content has to match its audience, and it must add value to the conversation. And most importantly, sponsor relationships must be clearly communicated. So how to do it? Branded content needs an understanding of the market, the talent to create content in that market and the ability to place its content in front of the market. If you want to be in a fast moving conversation, it’s damn hard to do all that without editors and reporters. As Morrissey points out, the flat-footed Scientology mess shows what happens when the Chinese wall between advertisers and publishers is overly imposed.
But let’s address the elephant in the room: should brands be asking reporters to make content for brands they directly cover? It’s debatable, but I’d argue it’s probably not a good idea.
Of course, this may be a question of degree. Is it OK for a reporter to write branded content if it’s not about the brand, but merely underwritten by the brand? That happens a lot already, to the point where it seems almost uncontroversial (although many “traditional” journalists decry the practice). What if the reporter writes content for a brand they don’t cover directly, but is in the industry they cover? Can auto industry reporters, for example, create content for other areas not on their specific beat, like say, for an auto insurance brand? Is it only OK if they write whatever they wish to, editorially, but not alright if they are told what topics to cover? I could go on for quite a while…
I’ve given a ton of thought to these issues, but it strikes me our industry hasn’t really codified a clear set of principles on the matter. And for content marketing to really thrive, we certainly should.
Perhaps a start to this conversation is the distinction between a reporter who covers a beat full time with a promise to an audience of unbiased point of view, and a strong voice in the industry who lives or dies based on their individual point of view, but isn’t a full time reporter working for someone else. This has been a long standing point of contention since the rise of bloggers – what is a journalist, anyway? Is a blogger who regularly expresses a strong point of view on a particular industry a journalist?
Lord knows tons of folks have weighed in on this topic, but here’s my shorthand: I think everyone and anyone can be a journalist, especially bloggers. But not all journalists are reporters. There’s an important distinction here, and it’s one worth maintaining. I write a journal – this site. It has my opinion, my point of view, my voice and analysis, and every so often, a piece of reporting. But I am not a full time reporter. I believe readers are smart: They understand when someone (like me) is a voice in a particular industry. They also understand that someone with a passion who writes a site on food, or style, or entertainment, isn’t a beat reporter covering those issues full time, but rather a smart voice saying whatever they care to say, whenever they care to say it. If that person decides to take on sponsored work, that’s fine. If the content they create is disclosed, of high quality, adds value to their community, and puts food on the table, everyone wins.
This is naunced stuff, and worth airing out. As content marketing becomes a standard in our industry, we need to open up this dialog and be willing to learn from each other. I look forward to the ongoing conversation.
Last year I predicted that Twitter would become a media company. However, I focused mainly on the new “Discover” functionality, and I probably should have gone a lot further. In this piece, I intend to.
So I’ll start with this: 2013 will be the year Twitter starts to create, curate, and co-create media experiences on top of its platform. I hinted at this in my brief coverage of Twitter’s Oscar Index (see Twitter’s Makin’ Media), but allow me to put a bit more flesh on the bones.
So what might one make from the fact that your platform captures hundreds of millions of individuals declaring what’s going on at any give time? Well, let’s break down some of the signals in all that supposed noise. As I’ve written over and over and over in the past several years, Twitter presents a massive search problem/opportunity. For example, Twitter’s gotten better and better at what’s called “entity extraction” – identifying a person, place, or thing, then associating behaviors and attributes around that thing. This (among other reasons) is why its Discover feature keeps getting better and better. Another important signal is location – Twitter is increasingly focused on getting us to geolocate our tweets. A third signal is the actual person tweeting – his or her influence and interest graph. Yet another signal is time – when was the entity tweeted about?
Real time entity extraction crossed with signals like those described above is the Holy Grail – and I’m guessing Twitter is almost, if not already there.
Once you get good at all these things (and more), a number of really interesting possibilities open up. Identifying “big things” that are going on at any given time is something that Twitter already does – though not particularly well (the best window in is the “Trends” box on the left of the page). Regardless, Twitter has become a go-to service for quick updates about news events (Sandy, Newtown, etc), entertainment events (SuperBowl, Oscars, Grammys, etc), and well….pretty much any kind of event.
But so far, it’s not exactly easy to get the big picture of what’s really going on for any given event on Twitter. In fact, it’s rather difficult. You can search for a hashtag, or keywords you think are associated with an event, but no matter what, it’s extremely difficult to makes sense of it all. For a big event like Sandy Hook or the Oscars, there are literally millions of tweets to sift through. And those tweets have millions of pictures, links, and videos. How can you know what’s important?
This is exactly the problem that media experiences are designed to solve. By combining intelligent algorithms (these tweets are retweeted more than others, this video is linked to more than all the others, etc) and some smart editors, Twitter can (and most likely will) surface instant windows into events as they unfold around the globe. I imagine logging into Twitter at some point in the future and seeing a dashboard not of Trends, but of “Happenings” – Events edited to my interest graph, location, and the like. When I click on on of those events, I enter a meticulously edited media experience – a pulsing, ever changing feast of information tailored around that event.
So, put in one sentance: Twitter’s going to do events soon.
What other media experiences might Twitter create? Well, extending the logic, it only makes sense that Twitter will curate media services, just as LinkedIn and now Facebook are starting to do (I argue that Graph Search is a media play here).
As Google has proven, words have a lot of power on the web. They have even more power when put in context at scale. Consider what happened when a data artist asked a simple question: Where are people when then tweet that they “just landed”?
Now, imagine Twitter stands up a service that allows you to see patterns around phrases like “looking for someone to…,” or “just got a job,” or “python developer,” etc. Yep, lurking inside all that Twitter data is a pretty powerful job service. And I’m only using jobs as a straw man (and because it’s a driving force of LinkedIn’s success, of course). When you have humanity whispering into your ear at scale, you can tune in any number of valuable signals. Getting a job is one important signal. But so is getting married, buying a house or a car, graduating, and, and and….well you get the picture. Standing up “media services” around these life milestones is what media companies do. They used to be called magazines. What might Twitter call them? In 2013, we’ll most likely find out.
So far I’ve proposed two new media features of Twitter: Events and Media Services. I’ll round out this post with a prediction around a third: Video. Video is a vastly under-leveraged asset on Twitter, but people are sharing millions of links to video clips every day on the service. I imagine that Twitter will soon offer some kind of video curation feature – giving its base the ability to find the most popular videos based on pivot points of time, interest, and people. Surfacing and creating more video on the Twitter service has got to be a major priority at the company. And let’s not forget that Twitter bought Vine, after all…
After all, everybody loves video. In particular, advertisers love video. After all, Twitter is already working with Neilsen to become the official barometer of television conversations.
Which brings me to the “stick the landing” portion of this particular round up. Twitter is going to make much more media this year, because Twitter is going to make much more money this year. Each of the features I described above – Events, Media Services, and Video – bring with them inherent business models. I don’t expect they’ll look like traditional display models, of course, but I would not be surprised if they strayed a bit from Twitter’s current Promoted Suite products. With new media products come new advertising products. And new revenue.
Time will tell if I got this one right. Meanwhile, what do you think?
By now the news is sweeping across the blogosophere and into the mainstream press: Facebook is doing Search!
Well, not so fast. Facebook is not doing search, at least not search Google-style. However, the world’s largest social network has radically re-engineered its native search experience, and the result is not only much, much better, it’s also changed my mind about the company’s long term future.
Yesterday, Tom Stocky, Facebook Product Management Director, and Lars Rasmussen, Engineering Director, gave me a sneak peek of today’s much anticipated announcement (it’s gonna be a phone! A new Newsfeed! A big acquisition!). So as to not bury the lead, Facebook has built what it’s calling “Graph Search,” a solidly conceived structured-search service which leverages the company’s massive trove of personal data in any number of new ways (some obvious, some nuanced, and some glaring omissions). But before I get to the details, I want to write about why this matters so much.
Prior to seeing the new search, I was not certain Facebook would ever live up to the hype it has accrued over its short life. It’s a good service, but it’s flat – over time, it struck me, people would tire of tending to it. They set up their social graph, toss a few sheep, poke some pals (or not), “like” this or that (often off-domain), waste hours on Farmville, and then…engagement drops slowly over time. I’m also not a fan of Facebook’s domain-specific approach to the world, as many of you know. Facebook’s new search doesn’t address Facebook’s walled garden mentality (yet), but it nails the first issue. Once this search product is rolled out to all of its members, Facebook will no longer be flat.
This is a big deal on many fronts. First and foremost, Facebook has an engagement problem, particularly in markets (like the US) where its use has become ubiquitous and many of its original users are two, three or more years into the “Facebook habit.” While the company doesn’t talk about this issue, I am confident it’s real (in private conversations with people at Facebook, it’s called the “set it up and forget it” problem). If people do not constantly feed Facebook with engagement, its value attenuates over time. As the service slows in overall growth, engagement with its current base becomes critical. New connections are the lifeblood of a service like Facebook. Without a steady stream of meaningful Likes, Friend Requests, declared Interests, and such, the platform would wither.
Put another way, Facebook needed a service that layered a fresh blanket of value over its core topography. Graph Search is it.
One sign of how important this new search is? According to the folks I spoke to yesterday, Facebook’s mercurial founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls Search the “third pillar” of the company’s service, elevating it to the level of Newsfeed and Timeline, the two most important new features since Facebook’s launch (Open Graph is probably up there as well, but it’s true value remains locked up until there is mortar connecting it all, which Search could well be).
A team of engineers and product folk have been working on Graph Search for more than a year, and Zuckerberg has been engaged with them the entire time. The team has been in “lockdown” – a exclusive state of focus on one product so as to ship it as quickly as possible – for the past 34 days. Lockdown is a time honored and rather prestigious occurence inside Facebook, dating back to Zuckerberg’s original Facemash dorm room programming outburst. During the Search team lockdown, Stocky told me, he and Rasmussen got plenty of 2 AM emails and unexpected late night visits from the CEO.
In other words, this is A Really Big Deal for the company.
Why? Well, a quick tour of the product will explain.
What Is It?
Graph Search subsumes Facebook’s previous search offering, which was extremely weak and focused mainly on the use case of navigation (finding people and pages). The new service takes full advantage of the face that Facebook is, at its core, a massive structured database of tagged entities. The initial beta “indexes” four main types of these entities: People, Photos, Places, and Interests. Over time, I am told, Facebook will expand its index to include all Facebook posts and even the Open Graph – which means the “rest of the web.”
But for now, users can search across four main categories, using a slick set of intuitive verbs (“lives,” “like,” “work,” etc.), nouns (“San Francisco,” “Indian,” “restaurants,” “friends” etc.), prepositions (“before,” “with,” “in”) and pronouns (“who,” that,” etc.). This makes for a richly structured set of results: “Friends of friends who live in San Francisco and like Indian restaurants,” for example. Or “Friends who have been to Ireland,” or “Photos of friends before 1990.” Once you get the hang of it, the possible pivot points are endless, and the results are quite intriguing.
Stocky and Rasmussen, both ex-Googlers, walked me through a few intriguing use cases, one of which harkens back to one of Facebook’s original use cases – dating – and another which looks forward and presents a threat to LinkedIn’s current strength: Recruiting.
Let’s say you’re single, and you’re interested only in dating engineers who are also friends of your friends. With Graph Search, it’s ridiculously easy to find “friends of friends” who are also engineers. (And single, of course). You can look at their pictures, profiles, interests, and then ask for an introduction from whichever of your pals happens to be connected to one who looks like a good prospect (you could also just “poke” the guy if you wanted to…). Want only C++ programmers, or Indian C++ programmers, or Indian C++ programmers under 35 years of age? Done.
Or, let’s say you work at, I dunno, Google. And you want to recruit product management talent from, say, Facebook. Again, the best way to get to that talent is probably a friend. So why not do a search for “friends of friends who work at Facebook and are product managers”? Why not, indeed.
One can imagine such functionality will create a lot of new engagement on the service. And not just from people “friending” prospective beaus or hires. Recall that when Google burst onto the scene, it prompted a dramatic response from owners of web pages, who immediately began rewiring their sites to be optimized for search. Similarly, Facebook’s Graph Search will incent Facebook users to “dress” themselves in better meta-data, so as to be properly represented in all those new structured results. People will start to update their profiles with more dates, photo tags, relationship statuses, and, and, and…you get the picture. No one wants to be left out of a consideration set, after all.
Facebook Gets More Weather
Last year I wrote a post titled “Facebook Is Now Making Its Own Weather.” The focus was on Facebook’s Newsfeed, and how an economy of value was now in place to game Facebook’s “edgerank” algorithm, which determines what stories show up in a person’s feed. With Graph Search, I expect a similar ecosystem will emerge. All of a sudden, two things will be true that previously were not: Facebook users will be using search, a lot, creating liquidity in Facebook “SERPS.” And secondly, there will be significant perceived value in being included in those search results, both for individuals (I want to be considered for that job at Google!) and for companies/brands (I want to message to anyone looking for a job!).
While Graph Search is in very early beta, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that it won’t be long before Facebook integrates a product that lets marketers purchase ads in these new search results. It already has a similar product, which is by default included in suggested searches (the “auto completed” queries suggested to a user as they enter terms). At the moment, however, paid listings are not included in search results. They will be. Which means, of course, the rise of a native SEO/SEM ecosystem inside Facebook. Add in Open Graph search across the web, and presto…Google’s got some serious potential competition. (Well, not exactly presto. Incorporating Open Graph is going to take some serious chops and time. But still…).
Even without incorporation of Open Graph or Posts, Graph Search is going to change the game for brands and people on the Facebook service. As I watched Stocky and Rasmussen put their product through its paces, I couldn’t help but wonder how much new traffic the product will drive around the Facebook Platform. Will Facebook be watching “conversions” – clickthroughs from search results to profiles and pages? Of course they will! Will Facebook report those referrals to individuals and brands, much as Google Analytics does for webpage today? Not yet…but wait for it. It’ll come….
What’s Missing: Sharing Results
I’ve already noted that Graph Search does not index content (posts) or the Open Graph, though I’m told that’s coming. But the big miss, from my point of view, is the inability to share search results.
Share search results? Who’d want to do that? Well, in web search, very few of us. That’s because with rare exception, open web search is not an inherently social action – it’s private and it’s ephemeral. But inside the walls of Facebook, it’s definitionally so. In fact, I’d argue that every single “result page” in Graph Search is a “media object” in its own right. If you search for “pictures of friends before 1990,” for example, you get the equivalent of a Pinterest board of your friends’ childhood shots. Wouldn’t you like to post that on your timeline so your pals can see it? Better yet, wouldn’t you like to export it to Pinterest or Tumblr? Of course you would (but, alas, I don’t expect Facebook will allow it, under cover of “protecting user privacy.” More on that in a second.)
Or take another example. Say you have a pal in Southern California who is despondent after being dumped by her boyfriend. You do a quick Graph Search for “single friends of friends under 30 who work in Los Angeles.” The results look pretty promising. Don’t you want to shoot them over to your pal with the subject line “Don’t despair, there are plenty of fish in the sea!” Of course you do.
I mean, just a query like “Photos I Like” is a huge feature win for Facebook. And who wouldn’t want to post a montage of “Photos I Like” to their timeline? (Or, ahem, their personal blog?!)
For now, you can’t share the results of your searches with anyone else, and that’s a bug that should be a feature. When I brought up the issue, I was told that the privacy implications of sharing searches were extremely complicated. Because of past missteps and current scrutiny, Facebook is going to tread cautiously here (privacy was a central theme in Graph Search’s launch). I certainly understand why, but while those issues are sorted, I expect there are going to be a lot of screen shots of Graph search results being shared around the web.
Bigger privacy issues will likely arise around what might be called the Randi Zuckerberg principle – as in “Oh shit, I didn’t realize I’d show up in that circumstance!” Graph Search is going to expose all manner of privacy controls as super important, and send millions back to Facebook’s sometimes-confusing dashboards, so as to appropriately re-tool settings such that nothing untwoard shows up in this important new functionality.
And to me, this is a Very Good Thing. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled The Rise of Digital Plumage in which I predicted that we’d all become habituated to “dressing” ourselves in structured data, so as to best present ourselves to the world at any given time. Graph Search is another important tool in our ever-growing digital wardrobe, one that motivates us to understand and manage the implications of our ever-expanding digital footprint.
Facebook just posted an announcement about its new search here. The initial beta will roll out slowly, folks will have to ask to join a waitlist to get the service. I’ll be updating this post as the news is discussed and digested….
As my 2011 review of his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation proves, I am a Steven Johnson fan. So it was with relish that I settled in to read his latest release: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.
Steven had already told me the premise of his book – the first he’s written since moving to my neck of the woods in Marin, California (I hope we can keep him from going back to Brooklyn, but we’ll see…).
In short it’s this: the evidence has become overwhelming that a new form of political expression is developing, an expression deeply informed by the gravitational pull of the Internet (for more on that, see Steven’s piece in the Times: The Internet? We Built That).
Johnson sought for years to give this concept a name, and last year settled on “peer progressive.” He describes how he came to the term:
Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems— the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. Ron Paul’s rallying cry was too simple; progress is not just a question of choosing between individuals and the state. Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange…
…We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.
Johnson’s use of the term “Legrand Star” is a reference to one of two consistent tropes throughout the book: A “Legrand Star” is a centralized, hierarchical approach to problem solving or decision making (named after the French rail system, which ran out to the country in direct lines from Paris). A “Baran Web” is a decentralized, peer network approach (named after Paul Baran, an early Internet pioneer).
As Johnson notes in the book, Future Perfect is something of a career-long work – his examples all stem from things he’s noticed over the course of more than a decade of writing books. It’s as if he had a big folder of anecdotes gathered over the past 15 years, each labeled “This must mean something,” all patiently waiting to be turned into this book.
Like many of us (I will admit an easy attraction), Johnson has for years felt disconnected from the political process. The polarization of political discourse seemed detached from what many of us were feeling on the ground – example after example of good things getting done by networks of diverse people working toward common goals. In Future Perfect Johnson organizes proofs of such work, some well known (Wikipedia), others surprising (he reinterprets the “Miracle on the Hudson” river landing as the work of an extended peer network. You’ll never think of frozen chickens in the same way again).
In this book Johnson acts as something of a peer progressive Johnny Appleseed, each new narrative another seed which plants the concept more firmly in a reader’s mind. Employee-owned companies perform better than Wall St. driven firms – peer networks for the win. Prize-driven, open-source advancement of science births commercial space aviation, and may solve even larger issues like our society’s approach to pharma research – again, peer nets FTW. Our cities are clogged with traffic, peer networks can re-route our transportation grid. Our news is Legrandian, but peer networks can not just save journalism, but improve it to the point of far higher value to each citizen, down to the hyperlocal level. Patents are a blight on true innovation, peer networks are helping us clear our intellectual property acne – peer networks FTW!
Toward the end of the work, Johnson writes a passage that sounds absolutely radical, if taken out of context:
The modern regime of big corporations and big governments has existed for the past few centuries in an artificial state that neglected alternative channels through which information could flow and decisions could be made. Because we were locked into a Legrand Star mind-set, we didn’t build our businesses and our states around peer networks that could connect us to a much more diverse and decentralized group of collaborators. Instead, we created a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast hierarchies, and the straight lines of state legibility. It didn’t seem artificial to us, because we couldn’t imagine an alternative. But now we can.
But after reading Steven’s book, and living through many of the same stories as has he, I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree.
Other works I’ve reviewed:
Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman (review)
Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (review)
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (review)
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (review)
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (review)