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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.

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Do We Trust The Government With The Internet?

By - February 18, 2011

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As you all know each day I summarize links I find worth reading, toss in a few lines of offhand commentary, and send it out as “Signal.” So far a few thousand folks have subscribed to it, and while it’s not exactly Pulitzer material, it’s fun to do and it is a nice way of forcing myself to not just read the news, but think about it as well.

Last night, quite late it turns out (I had a dinner), I once again sat down to do Signal. The first piece I came across (from the WSJ) sparked something of a rant in me. I’m going to re-post it here, for this audience, to see if it sparks any kind of response.

The backstory is simple: The Journal article, which covered a Congressional hearing on the FCC’s approach to regulating the Internet, opened with this: “In a contentious hearing, House Republicans attacked new regulations for broadband Internet lines and criticized the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for adopting them.”

I read on – I’ve been interested in this issue for years, as many readers know. This particular hearing centered on the concept of net neutrality, which I support, though your mileage on the definition of that term may vary. (More on that here).

In any case, the third paragraph of the article opens with a quote from Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was this quote that sparked my Signal mini-rant. Here is is, in full, with a bit more formatting added:

”Why would you put the government in charge of the Internet?” asks the Republican leader.

Well that certainly begs a pretty big-picture question, don’t it?! Perhaps because we trust in both the Internet and our government? Because that government is supposedly under the “rule of the people” in a “democratic system”? I mean, why the hell have a government if we don’t actually believe in what it embodies?

Do we not believe that the Internet is a resource fundamental to freedom, innovation, and our shared humanity (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran…)? I think we can all agree to that. So in what system should we entrust the Internet? I’d argue it should be within our best expression of shared and collective will – so far, that’s what we call democracy, no? Sure, it’s messy, but I guess the question then becomes, can we trust our government, messy as it is? Or is it the enemy?

Is unfettered capitalism a better approach? I’d certainly prefer the Internet be governed by a system in which we can vote the bastards out should they mess it up. If they regulate to the point where innovation and freedom suffer, then vote them out. If they leave it unregulated to the point where choice is stifled and we pay more each year for less, vote them out. If instead we opt for a total free-market approach, OK cool, I hope it works out. But if companies have the ability to lock in access, content, services, and innovation, well, history teaches us that a few of them will certainly work hard to do just that.

And if they win? Well, by that time, it might be hard to vote ‘em out. A good debate to have, no doubt.

What do you guys think?

Signal Roundup: 2.18.11

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signal logo.jpgI missed rounding up last week’s Signal, forgive me. This week is a pretty good one though, ending as it did with something of a philosophical rant around “what is government in the age of the Internet.” Enjoy.

Friday Signal: What Do We Do With The Internet?

Thursday Signal: What, You Don’t Like Me?

Weds. Signal: Apple Takes Its Bite

Tuesday Signal: The Kings of Liminal

Monday Signal: It’s Not a Bubble, But There’s Sure A Lot Of Blowing…

Google, Social, and Facebook: One Ring Does Not Rule Them All

By - February 17, 2011

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When I read Google announcements like this one, An update to Google Social Search, I find myself wondering why Google doesn’t just come out and say something like this: “We know social search is important, and we’re working on it. However, we don’t think the solution lies in working only with Facebook, because, to be honest, we think social media is bigger than one company, one platform, or one “social graph.” We’ve got a bigger vision for what social means in the world, and here it is.”

Wouldn’t that be great?

Because honestly, I think the company does have a bigger vision, and I think it’s rooted in the idea of instrumentation and multiples of signals (as in, scores if not thousands of signals understood to be social in nature). In other words, there is not one “ring to rule them all” – there is no one monoculture of what “social” means. For now, it appears that way. Just like it appears that there’s one tablet OS. But the world won’t shake out that way – we’re far too complicated as humans to relegate our identity to a single platform. It will be distributed, nuanced, federated. And it should be instrumented and controlled by the individual. At least, I sure hope it will be.  

Google might as well declare this up front and call it a strategy. In that context, it might even make sense to do further Facebook integration in the near term, as one of many signals, of course. Google already uses some limited Facebook data (scroll down), but clearly has decided to not lean in here (or can’t come to terms with Facebook around usage policies). Clearly the two companies are wary of working together. But it’s my hope that over time, whether or not they do should be a moot issue.

Why? Because I view my Facebook data as, well, mine. Now, that may not really be the case, but if it’s mine, I should be able to tell Google to use it in search, or not. That’s an instrumentation signal I should be able to choose. Just like I can chose to use my Facebook identity to log into this blog, or any number of other sites and services. It should be my choice, not Facebook’s, and not Google’s either.

Switch the control point to the customer, and this issue sort of goes away. I have a longer post in me about “social clothing” – came up on a phone call with Doc Searls yesterday – and hopefully when I get to that, this might make a bit more sense….

Hey Apple, We've Got a Better Way

By - February 16, 2011

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A simple way for publishers to manage access to digital content (Google Blog)

Google announces “Google One Pass” – “a payment system that enables publishers to set the terms for access to their digital content.”

Google doesn’t have the iPad/Phone monoculture, but it’s got reach, it’s got Android, and it’s got a better deal for media companies.

More on this shortly.

This Is News? JC Penney and Link Farms

By - February 13, 2011

nytgoog.pngAs I read this NYT story on JC Penney’s black hat link farms, I felt like I was in a way back machine – I mean, five solid pages of copy about … old school low-rent link-spam sites? Really?

I dunno, if this is news, the news is getting stale. The never-ending battle between Google and link-buying outfits is as old as search itself. The story told in the Times’ piece sheds absolutely no new light on the tale, despite leading with lines like “the digital age’s most mundane act, the Google search, often represents layer upon layer of intrigue.”

I read the piece eagerly, expecting that it would turn up a smoking gun – proof that either someone at JC Penney knowingly paid black-hat search optimizers, or proof that someone at Google knowingly looked the other way as JC Penney, a major Google advertiser, employed these tactics. Either would have been big news.

But nope, nothing like that. Just yet another story about tactics that have been around forever, and rounds of denials that anyone knowingly did anything wrong. I do find it rather odd, given how unsophisticated the tactics were, that Google didn’t catch such an obvious and widespread link farming operation, but the Times’ didn’t push into that angle, essentially giving Google a pass (citing the “Web is really big” defense).

Sure, the web is really big, but that’s pretty much the reason Google is so valuable – it figured out a way to make the web come to heel. I am surprised that Google didn’t catch this story before the Times did. There was nothing particularly sophisticated in the approach JC Penney took to get highly ranked, and it’s certainly embarrassing for Google that, in essence, all JCP had to do was hire someone to populate a few thousand spam blogs to get the job done.

I’m going to guess that more than a few folks are feeling the wrath of Larry Page today. I’d sure love to read the memo he must have sent around….

Is Google Going After Conde Nast?! Nah.

By - February 11, 2011

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Yesterday Google unveiled “Google Weddings,” a site that ostensibly competes with what insiders in the media business understand to be a particularly lucrative niche: Bridal publications.

Magazines and websites such as Brides.com are cash cows for the likes of Conde Nast, Hearst, and others, and usually top the lists of publications with the most ad pages on an annual basis.

So when Google teams up with a major wedding planner, organizes apps and content around weddings, and even throws in a publication-style sweepstakes, I’d imagine more than a few panties got in a twist over at Conde.

I’d tell them not to worry. While it’d be fun to declare that this is the start of Google becoming a full fledged niche publisher (next up, Automotive, then Home, then Beauty!), I think the truth is, this is a marketing campaign for Google Apps – a smart way to show off the power of Google’s tools. By this time next year, I’ll wager the site will be cobwebbed, if it’s up at all.

will.i.am at Signal LA

By - February 10, 2011

I’ve interviewed will.i.am before, but this conversation at Signal LA earlier in the week was my favorite of the day. will.i.am is a remarkable thinker and as you can see from our conversation, he’s much, much more than “just a musician.”

Signal LA: The Curtain Raiser – Tim and Arianna Open A Sold Out Show

By - February 07, 2011

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Tuesday marks the launch of FM’s Signal conference series, where we focus on one topic, one day, in one city. For our first event, in Los Angeles, we’ve always had a great lineup, but recent events have certainly made it even more timely.

The event has been sold out since last week, but given the weekend’s news, I’ve convinced our events director to allow people to register at the door. It will probably be standing room only, but it’ll be a great show. The focus, appropriately, is on the role of content in marketing.

We’ll begin the day with Arianna Huffingon, who just last night announced the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL. Joining Arianna will be AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who is making a surprise visit so as to outline his $315 million vision for combining the two entities. I’ve interviewed both onstage, but not together. Should be a good discussion.

We’ll then pivot into a Case Study from the newly public Demand Media, and then a conversation with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. From there we’ll dive deeper into the content strategies of both AOL and MSN, hear Case Studies from Gatorade and Moxie Interactive, learn about some of the most promising

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startups in LA, hear from YouTube on branded entertainment, and American Express on OPEN Forum.

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And that’s just before lunch. When we return, we’ll hear from the CMO of Adobe, who I’ll be interviewing. After that is a Case from the irrepressible Jason Calacanis, a Case from Toyota, an overview of Intuit’s massive gamble last month (they bought out thre

e hours of prime time programming), Cases from Appsavvy,Yahoo, and Slideshare, and then a conversation with Peter Guber, a Hollywood legend who’s just coming out with another major book.

After Peter, we’ll hear a Case from Facebook, and then we’ll close with a conversation with will.i.am, who will be fresh off his Superbowl performance with the Black Eyed Peas. That’ll give us something to talk about.

Even though the event is essentially sold out (I’m told we can sell only a couple dozen tickets at the door), we are working on livestreaming it so that everyone can join the dialog. Check the FM events page for more on that later in the day.

(cross posted from FM blog)