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Archive for April, 2011

If new media theory is so interesting, why are the articles about it so boring? Articles about its practitioners aren’t boring, they’re all like hey, guess which just made $50 million? Or, ooh, its a standoff between Gladwell and Shirky, or between Jarvis and everyone.

But when it comes to the the actual theory it’s suddenly time to break out the footnotes and google charts. These are topics that are new and, let’s face it, they make us a little uneasy. Talking about the effects is easy, but when it comes to technicalities it’s safer to cloth them in what sounds suspiciously like marketing speak rather than admit we’re kind of making our vocabulary up on the fly.

But no more! I am about to attempt to talk about a potentially boring piece of Media theory that I’m not totally concrete on. And it’s going to be interesting. Let’s give it a try!

We all know that the holy trinity that is online content curation: Crowd-sourcing, algorithmic curation, and human editing, have an uneasy truce. At each point of the triangle we have a good example of how a purist version can do wonders: Wikipedia, Google News, and Huffington Post respectively. And each has detractors who spend all day talking about how subscribing to the other two points on the triangle will bring about the end of civilization, the parade of “Editors are out of touch/Machines can’t really know what we want/Groups only care about sensationalism.” Also, boobs. See? You’re interested already.

As in all cases where there’s dogma involved, there’s a temptation to say that the best option is actually a compromise between the three. Of course, that makes no sense at all – no one would say that the best choice between green, purple, and orange would be a little of each, but that’s just what we’re implying here. Yes, plenty of services have BOOBS succeeded in combining two forms (See StumbleUpon or the ICanHaz empire), but the key is in the judicious choice of which two it should be LOTS OF BOOBS.

And even single-source success stories have worst case scenarios where perhaps they should have tried a little more mix n’ match – see Facebook’s auto-deletion of Chinese dissidents accounts because the used pseudonyms, or youTube’s removal of Egyptian protestors footage for being too graphic. Orange and green are great together if you’re aiming for a portrait of a brunette in a mud-bath, not so much for a blond in a snowstorm. Both of which incidentally would contain boobs.

Here is my grid for choosing citation methods, depending on what the needs of the system, and more importantly, the worst case scenario that they want to avoid.

I have a lot of I have very little Accuracy Needed? I should curate using
Money Time Nope Algorithmic – if you don’t care about accuracy and just want some sort of results, pouring the cash into software is probably the way to go
Money Time or computing power Yep Editorial – if it has to be accurate, with unlimited funds you might as well just hire the graduating class of your local Liberal Arts school. Problem solved.
Computing Power and Time Money No Crowd-sourcing – A free or cheap crowdsourcing system can go far as long as you have the tech power to wrestle it itno the submisison and scale it up.
Computing Power Time No Algorithmic – A fast turnaround time rules out the crowdsourcing option unless you already have a pre-existing fanbase to launch it on. Boobs.
Time Nope Algorithmic or Crowdsourcing. If you don’t care about accuracy, pretty much anything you throw at it will be fine. So you might as well take the easy way out.
Time Money Yep Editorial – With unlimited time, even if you’re only hiring a single person to curate they’ll get through it eventually
Time Computing Power Yep Crowdsourcing with a bit of editorial on the side. See above, except you might wanna hire a couple more editors to make up for that Mac SE you’re running it off of.

Properly sourced content curation. Its sexy stuff.

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I recently took a stab at talking about how the power of online fandom – any fandom, not just the Facebook kind – can change the foundation of the customer/seller relationship to everyone’s advantage. But there’s one point that I think keeps getting ignored by industry, and also by Social Networking platforms themselves (who should know better!). Why oh why is Facebook still being spoken about as if it’s an advertising platform?

The other day I had a conversation with a very nice guy from a large social network who was was profiling the social network activities of one of my companies for a success stories report. He wanted to know how we decide to run a campeign, if we use an ad agency to coordinate it with our other properties, our objectives, targeting, and analytics, and what kind of custom quizzes, games, videos, and other bells and whistles we integrate to catch peoples attention.

The answer is that we don’t use any custom quizzes, games or ad agencies, and the only analytic I care about is the Engagement score. We have one custom page: a list of our products. To continue judging Social network success by these old-school marketing phrases is to throw away the number one advantage of a social space: Authenticity.

The secret to our success on this Social network is that we reply to every post. We answer every question. We ask our users what colors to use for our new design, and we go back to the drawing board if they don’t like it. We tell them what we had for lunch. We sympathise that they had a bad day. We wish them happy birthday, and we do it morning, noon, nights, and weekends because that’s when they’re on. And in return they give us something that’s so much more valuable than their wallets, they give us thier goodwill.

What it comes down to is this. If you treat Social Network users as customers, they’ll treat you like a corporation. Treat them as people and they’ll treat you like someone worth paying attention to. To narrow it down: Facebook is not just a bigger megaphone. Its sad to see so many companies turning thier pages in to themeparks when they should be turning them into summercamp. Come on people, try a little authenticity. It will go a long way towards not looking quite so desperate.

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“Find the narrative in the numbers.” It’s this year’s mantra of data visualization, and some variation thereof is the watchword for all modern journalism: Find the story. Let the facts speak for themselves to tell what happened.

It’s a beguiling idea, the concept that a narration is hidden like a sculpture in every misshapen lump of data if only it could be liberated from the clay of unrelated information. And it’s true that in a world of infinite resources where every bit of existing data could be considered holistically, this would definitely be the case. After all, everything influences something. But perhaps it’s time to read a little closer into this much-abused buzzphrase: when we say “Find the narrative”, don’t we really mean, “Attribute some causality?”

Data vis is cool fun exciting stuff, and yes everyone and their aunt has a right, nay, a duty to give it a try. But in the last couple of months we’ve watched this well-meaning catchphrase morph from a description of data-cleaning processes to an injunction to project all kinds of causality on any given collection of numbers. Just three years shy of its 50th anniversary, the prime directive of  How to Lie with Statistics (“Don’t!”) is getting brushed aside in our excitement to plot the hell out of any data set we can get our hands on.

It’s a difficult thing to explain to a client: sometimes things just happen. An upward trend in sales numbers may not be related to advertising campaigns, and a downward trend may not be the fault of the economy.  This is basic basic stuff, people, and it’s just as true now that we can instantly make a groovy looking visualization in Fusion Charts as it was when we needed some graph paper and a sliderule. Being two steps removed from reality means that every visualization has an element of editorialization, but it doesn’t follow that we can suddenly make wild claims about the real-world events they very very abstractly represent.

How would we feel if we treated past representational art forms this way? We all know that the square-looking blob that is a Picasso nude says more about Picasso’s mental tools than what his model actually looked like. Certainly no company would decide to re-tailor their fall clothing line based on his “findings” about the female body. The graph is not the phenomenon.

But there’s something so finite about numbers that when faced with a visualization all of this logic suddenly goes out the window. Correlation is easy to show and impossible to prove. Truly impossible. Short of that infinite holistic data set I mentioned we’re going to have to accept that causality is networked: All a data set can show is is how a data set changed over time. Impart causality – I’m sorry, “narrative” – into it at your own peril.

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