Archive for March, 2008

the end of the world vs polyester cling

Stephen Hawking uses the web to ask the world “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?“. Pink Denial is interested in reducing static electricity of her polyester shirts.

The long tail of the human condition, brought to us by Yahoo! Answers.

I like how the answer to the question of whether the human race will survive another century is set to “resolved”. Thanks Stephen, I’m reassured.

By the way, 25,387 responses to the Hawking post…is that a web conversation topic record?

the holy grail of travel planning

Similar to car sales, the travel sector previously benefited the seller over the buyer simply by limiting access to information. You maybe go around the block and speak to salesmen at three lots, or three travel agents, and then you pick the best of the bunch. Or maybe you get suckered in by the first smooth talker who put on the hard sell with the magic words “limited time offer”.

It’s no coincidence that the web hit those two categories hard and fast. Opening up the flow of information put the seller in control, and in the case of the travel agent, allowed them to increasingly bypass the middle-man entirely.

Travel planning is again giving us a peek at the future of the web. This time, it’s all about aggregation. Old news, you might say - “I’ve used Kayak or Skyscanner for years!”. True, but what struck me in planning my recent trip to Berlin was the depth of which the planning process has been taken over and enhanced by the aggregators.

Here’s the process I went through:

  1. Find the cheapest flights across all carriers via Kayak and Skyscanner.
  2. Check social local info providers Superfuture and Dopplr for any tips.
  3. Search on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree community, and then via Yahoo! Answers, to find current info about the best neighbourhoods to stay in for what I’m interested in.
  4. Emails to friends who’d been to Berlin before asking for their tips.
  5. Check availability of hotels on TripAdvisor, read reviews and compare ratings.
  6. Add my shortlist of hotels to a “My Trip” on TripAdvisor, allowing me to compare ratings, prices, and star ratings at a glance.
  7. Manually add shortlist to an Excel sheet, sorting by price and star rating, looking for any especially sweet deals.
  8. Plot shortlist hotels on a Google Map, comparing locations and making sure there were no outliers.
  9. Pick the best of the bunch.

OK, so I realize this is crazy to a lot of people. For me it’s second nature; it’s just the way I’m wired. I like to go helicopter, and look at the whole landscape. Intuition plays a role, but I trust data to back it up, and I’m able to sort and synthesize a lot of it in a short period of time.

But there are a lot of people for whom this process is simply too much work, the reward isn’t worth the effort put in. So they are more likely just to go to Expedia and pick the first one that looks good.

I think the point for me is actually most people would be interested in a service that would do all this, if only it was integrated and seamless, just as the existing generation of hotel and flight aggregation services like Expedia made looking at 250 hotel options both practical and desirable.

What I really want is not only to be able to do all of the above in one web service, but to be able to have it done for me. Just as Last.fm was able to recommend me bands for SXSW based on my listening habits, and just as Amazon can say “if you like this book, you might like this one”, I want my travel attention data used smartly.

Based on the hotels, the galleries, bars, and events that I’ve rated highly in the past, and based on the same information from my friends, I should be able to type in “Berlin” and get a recommendation back of the area in the city I should stay in, the best three places with availability in my price range, the bars, stores, and galleries I’ll want to check out, and the events I’d be interested in.

It’s all about aggregating personal and social attention data, and using it to both save me time and add extra value to me in pointing me towards things I wouldn’t otherwise have known or discovered.

TripAdvisor is heading in that direction, and I think Dopplr is coming at it from a different angle. Will be interesting to see how their plans converge and diverge as they approach this holy grail of travel planning.

gaming the system 101

Over at Parsons they’ve introduced a class where your grade is based on how famous you become on the internet. Young aspiring artists are being rewarded for their ingeniousness in gaming the system. Sounds like both great fun and lawsuit fodder in waiting.

It is also however valid training for the real world these days, where it seems like attention by any cost is a viable strategy for some brands, personal or otherwise.

OK, so outright fraud or even the darker hues of shadiness may not be on the cards for most brands. At least, not unless you want to end up on a list like, say, the 10 Worst Social Campaigns of 2008.

But Tom Asacker’s overview of the economics of attention helps illustrate why many brands will be experimenting with creative tactics for garnering attention amongst social systems large and small in the near future, whether it’s stealth word of mouth in taxicabs or a robot-assisted YouTube campaign all the way to #1. The big question is going to be where the the consumer ends up drawing the ethical line, because you know the more adventurous brands and agencies will keep testing the limits until they find out. Not blatantly lying is a good start. Any other key tips?

I’ll admit to being slightly bummed at the idea that instead of a shiny new world of value-added brand utilities and useful marketing arising from the ashes of interruption based marketing, we could end up falling prey to amped up SEO black-hat tactics instead. But where the money moves, the hustlers inevitably follow. And I suppose the more obviously blatant ways of gaming the system could look like an appealing fall back tactic for marketers unwilling or unable to come up with a really good idea for authentically engaging with consumers, or unwilling to make a long-term commitment to see a real brand-building program through. Sort of like the 2008 version of “buy me a billion banner impressions for this annoying animated MPU so I can put that in my powerpoint and impress my boss who likes big numbers, and won’t question the actual value received to the brand as a result”. Cough.

Generally though, in a world of increasing transparency, I still think brands and people will be rewarded for doing good and often disproportionally punished for doing wrong. So it’s generally just better to try and create cool things and let people who would be interested know they’re out there, rather than trying to blatantly scam the system.

Back to the students at Parsons. Should they decide not to use their lessons in social systems engineering to manage their own brand or that of another, this semester is still not lost yet. Whether making millions from flipping penny stocks, navigating the corporate jungle gym, or getting a good seat on an EasyJet flight, as Rex pointed out recently, life is increasingly being structured as a set of mini-games comprising one big macro ludic adventure. They may be getting tutelage, but everyone’s a player now, like it or not.

awareness test

Great video. Been a while since I’ve seen a nice little branded viral like this.

Three reasons I think this works not only as a great concept and execution, but as something that is getting some viral spread:

  1. It challenges you. For the same reason those Facebook movie trivia apps and reaction-testing games never fail to spread, this taps into our natural desire to see how we stack up.
  2. It’s truly surprising and unexpected. Reminds me of the ad where during filming they discovered a ghost following the car that you need to look really closely to see (headphones required, and possibly a pacemaker).
  3. The site experience is single-minded towards it’s goal of getting as many people as possible to watch the video. It shows the video, and provides shortcuts for the most common ways to share the video with your friends. And that’s it.

Nice. That’d be my favourite video since this one.

UPDATE: Gutted to learn from Faris that this is an almost identical rip-off of a video from 1999. As Faris also notes, this is however an unintentionally brilliant case study for how transparency brought about by the social web is fundamentally changing the game for all of us.

Seriously, I heard about this video from a colleague and not 10 minutes later I discovered through a separate channel that this is actually not original at all. And now I’m contributing to the spread of that information. The latency in bringing that transparency to bear is approaching zero, and we’re talking about a single piece of content that’s just been produced! Imagine the implications for businesses, corporations and individuals alike with decades worth of history to live up or down.

Getting away with things is getting a lot harder, but on the flip side, if you do well by people you’re more likely to be recognized and rewarded for it as well. Still, as usual, bad news travels furthest and fastest.

last.fm, sxsw, & extending the utility of my attention data

So say you’re lucky enough to be attending the multimedia extravaganza that is SXSW in Austin right now. How do you begin to decide which of the 1,600 artists playing you should check out?

Well, if you use the Last.fm radio or scrobbling service (and you should), all you have to do is enter your username into the Band Aid app at the Last.fm SXSW group. Voila! You have a personalized set of recommendations for bands to see, based on your music listening habits.

The beautiful thing is that Last.fm is simply using my existing attention data from what I do naturally, listen to music, and providing me with extra utility with no additional effort on my part. It’s all seamless and automatic.

This is a simple but effective example of where the web is heading next. The next generation of web apps and services will use my attention data to deliver me with highly personalized content and services that improve my life: saving me time, bringing my attention to things I might be interested in, and putting me in touch with like-minded people. This probably won’t come about without some hiccups, and as always, the Onion are right on the edge of the satirical curve.

Back to extending utility of an existing service, Last.fm also recently launched build.last.fm, a gallery that pulls together a few of the best 3rd party apps created off the back of Last.fm’s open API. Definitely worth checking out.