Tag Archive | "tradeoffs"

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Stop Social Microsharing With Strangers


As online sites like Twitter have garnered more users and gained in general popularity, people have (of course) tried to take advantage of this.  On an open system like Twitter, it’s easy.  So it is not surprising to see news reports about how cybercriminals are gaming Twitter to spam misleading links to sites about porn, drugs, and other enterprises.

But if you clicked on one of these links and feel somehow betrayed, it’s your fault. One hundred percent your fault. Do you know why? Because you are placing false trust in someone you don’t know. I guarantee that none of these links originated with someone you know well. You were following a Twitter account run by someone you don’t know and/or don’t trust, and they jerked you around.

Are you suprised?  This behavior is like trusting random people you meet on the streets of New York to hold your wallet and expecting to get it back 15 minutes later, except worse, because they can hide behind the Internet and you don’t even know where they’re located.

For now, anyway, Twitter doesn’t really verify accounts.  Sure, a few celebrities are “verified” (and some aren’t), but for the most part no one’s checking who owns what account.  This is very different from Facebook and LinkedIn, where people generally have to go through a bit of work to set up an account and generally have to associate with email domains, companies, and formal networks to effectively verify who they are.  Microblogging isn’t like that. It’s more like a chat room on steroids. It’s the wild west of Internet authenticity.

Don’t count on Twitter to help you. It’s in their best interest to gain as many accounts as possible to make it look like their user base is skyrocketing, even if a quarter of the accounts are crap, a quarter are fakes/parodies/duplicates/placeholders/squatters, and another quarter have users who never return (what Nielsen has called “Twitter Quitters”). But don’t hate on Twitter, Inc. for this – building up lists of users who don’t do anything and buying server space for them is just their business model. Find some self-responsibility and don’t interact with the 75% of accounts that are utter shit.

So if you feel plagued by Twitter spam, you need to get some self control. Stop talking with everyone just because they’re there. Stop following 6,829 accounts you’re unfamiliar with. Stop following everyone who follows you in the name of reciprocation and politeness. Stop enabling spam on Twitter. It’s your fault it’s there.

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Verified Microblogging Insurance for Microcelebs


The microblogging site Twitter recently announced that in response to some controversy related to fake celebrity accounts, it would soon offer a verification process for, “a small set of public officials, public agencies, famous artists, athletes, and other celebs who run the risk of impersonation.”  According to TechCrunch, such accounts would have a verification seal readily visible.

What is a public official?  What is a ‘famous’ artist?  What is a celeb that runs the risk of impersonation?  I can only raise these issues today, not answer them.  But I think that these questions will become increasingly important during the next year.  It might seem silly to debate whether or not a police chief in a medium sized city is a public official, or whether a painter having his first gallery opening is famous, but when publications like Gawker mine Twitter for interesting stories, and a fake microblogging account publishing something false or harmful in someone’s name is permanent, archivable, searchable, discoverable, sharable, and mashupable, fake accounts can mean real damage for relatively normal microcelebrities without lawyers and public relations teams on retainer.

One area in which this is sure to come into play is politics.  I forsee this as an incredibly interesting area of technology intersecting society in somewhat unpredictable ways.  Many people know that then-candidate Barack Obama used new media tools in order to mobilize people and raise an unprecedented amount of money.  But emerging social technologies have changed the poli/tech landscape in the last six months, and will change it more in the next six.  One thing we haven’t yet fully seen is how the strategy of using negative ads in a regulated mainstream media market  translates into a strategy of negative messaging in a relatively unregulated social media market. This is a topic I plan to write about more in the months to come.

On the other hand, social media sites like Twitter are sure to be close to completely useless in many political races.  While ‘trade’ publication The Hill tracks the tweets of over 100 members of Congress (not unlike Gawker tracks the Twitterati) and political social media consultants like David All offer advice on how to use it to jump start campaigns, there are many situations in which it’s so close to a waste of time as to be worthless.  I recently spoke with the mayor of a small city of about 9,000 people, who told me that she wouldn’t find these tools useful for communicating with her constituents; to paraphrase her, “Why would I use Twitter when I can visit nearly everyone’s house?”  She may be right, or wrong – I don’t know.  While outside the scope of this article, some of the factors determining whether social media tools will be useful in a given campaign are the odd demographics and usage of Twitter itself, the density of people in the campaign area, the socioeconomic status of voters, and so forth.  Nevertheless, someone like the aforementioned mayor may still want a verified account – as a form of impersonation insurance.

A while back, I wrote about the use of social media by Adriel Hampton, current candidate for a vacant CA seat in the House of Representatives.  He has a few thousand followers on Twitter, a decently-read blog, and is getting some very modest but important print media coverage – is he a “celebrity running the risk of impersonation” in the eyes of Twitter?  For his sake, and Twitter’s, I hope so.  Otherwise, the information warfare between incumbents and challengers (the have’s and have-not’s of verified celebrity) could have damaging consequences far beyond what sponsored conversations may bring.

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Negative Conversations With Your Attackers


I saw an interesting quotation this morning from a Social Media Club event in DC that focused on crisis communications: “Every negative attack is the start of a conversation.“  I’m not sure I agree.

“Conversation” is perhaps the hottest buzzword of Web 2.0 – your customers are having conversations, companies should participate in conversations, new media marketing is a conversation, if you’re not part of the conversation it’s happening without you, and so forth. Entire books have been written on the topic. Even I’m guilty of promoting this idea in the government space.

And conversations are fine. But is every negative attack truly the beginning of a conversation? Does every frown have the potential to be turned upside down? (And how does that scale?)

Having a conversation about some one’s negative reaction to your brand, company, government office, situation etc. is a nice strategy, but the concept of negative attacks leading to positive conversations is based on the assumption that people will always engage in rational discussions with you.

They don’t. Naivety, ideology, and stupidity are all common in society’s discourses. People make emotionally-fueled arguments all the time (this Fox News “discussion” about views on abortion and the President receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame isn’t a bad example). People often cling to strongly-held beliefs, even in the face of contradictory information, or data that oppose their views. Many conversations are irrational, or at best only partly rational. I would go so far as to say that partly rational discussions are the norm.

Economics is perhaps the field of study most heavily influenced by the finding that people behave irrationally. Traditional assumptions about economic behavior included participants in financial markets having perfect information and making rational choices related to adding value (i.e., obtaining money). But more recent research has shown that this is often not the case, and that this irrationality can spawn larger effects through complex systems.

Perhaps also with the field of communications. As hip as the concept of “communications as conversations” is, sometimes it’s best to not touch your detractors with a ten-foot pole. When peoples’ comments are irrational, when their views ignore available facts, when they’re too busy or too dumb or too angry to care what you have to say, a negative attack isn’t the start of a conversation. It’s the end of a relationship.

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Reviving the Reality Television Genre


Last night, the lovely Joan Rivers was awarded the title of “The Apprentice” on Donald Trump’s show, now in it’s…hmm, well, I don’t know what season they’re in anymore. I stopped watching years ago. Frankly, the only people I remember are Bill someone-or-other (because he won the first season and smokes cigars), Omarosa no-last-name-needed (because I met her again recently and she is fierce), and Rebecca Jarvis (who I crush on when I watch her report on CNBC).

Reality television programming is dying a very, very slow death. Who can’t see this coming? Older brands like The Apprentice, Survivor, and American Idol simply have lost their buzz, and many others are completely gone from our minds (remember Paradise Hotel?) Even a relatively good, relatively new show like The Hills is based on an older show, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, practically a distant memory now. (Trust me, I used to live in Orange County, and I loved it, but once you get past talking about blondes, the beach, and beer there’s little more material to build on.)  Sure, some of these shows still make money, but which direction are the trendlines pointing? The reality television bubble is ready to pop.

But is reality entertainment played out, as well? Not hardly. Most everyone loves people watching. Freelancers sitting in Starbucks looking at each other pretending to work on laptops practically passes for a reasonable business model. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers mine Twitter for gossip and news and jobs and the newest battle-of-the-geeks-they-don’t-know. Facebook is making it easier and easier to stalk your best friends, your worst enemies, and people you’d like to know in cities you don’t live in. Television channels like E! remain popular, Ryan Seacrest has four jobs, and magazines like People still fly off the shelves as they report on every triviality of celebrity life. No extra pound is too small, no frenemy too obscure, no vacation too remote to report on.

Let’s face it. We love reality, and the masters of the genre know it. Ashton Kutcher has a million Twitter followers, yes, but others are quickly catching on to the new interface between emerging personal media technologies and personalized public relations. None other than Paris Hilton has recently been Twittering her way through a weeklong beach paradise vacation with her boyfriend. Reporting that the paparazzi hadn’t found her yet, she herself was photographing and publishing their experience for thousands of her fans. How long before she is using a Flip cam or live streaming on Qik? (How long until her publicist has to take a pay cut?)

Less popular but still interesting people are doing the same things. Blogger and Air America Radio personality Ana Marie Cox spent her weekend reporting live from the events surrounding the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – just using her phone. Her photos and witty comments are sent to nearly 500,000 followers – more than the average cable television news program has tuning in. Even a relatively less famous blogger like me has an amusing, snarky impersonator, who in a bizzaro fashion is really just publicizing my brand of writing to an audience of non-traditional fans.

One can only conclude from this that reality entertainment is raging, but not in the usual places. It’s hard to imagine a reality television show in its current form based around me, or Ana Marie Cox – yet we’re popular, at least in microniches. Television doesn’t yet exploit that fact.

It’s time for an infusion of new media technology into the medium formerly known as television. Here’s the current strategy: TV networks record attractive people facing hard challenges under interesting circumstances 24 hours a day for months and then air less than one hour of that a week. Whose bright idea was this for 2009?

It’s hard to believe that nothing interesting happens during the other 167.4 hours. The viewers don’t care about TV producers, directors, and editors. They don’t care about production costs and marketing deals and advertising tie-ins and intellectual property. They watch shows because they want to know what people are doing, and traditional networks are withholding that information. Viewers now want to decide what’s interesting and useful in those “extra” hours. They want that power, as unreasonable as it may seem.

Reality television shows are carefully crafted into storylines and so arguably they are not showing “true reality,” which the raw footage would then reveal. But does anyone care? Would this spoil some grand surprise? Maybe from time to time, but surely at this point most people have pulled the wool back from their eyes. Viewers know it’s altered reality – but they are willing to suspend logic in the interest of being entertained and distracted from their own reality.

Moreover, the all-important Gen Y viewership wants to reinterpret everything, mash it up with other video clips, add soundtracks of hip hop music, share their creations with friends, mine it for ideas and innuendo, and use it in amateur films. Viewers want to “democratize” the footage. Fair or not – that’s what increasingly tech-savvy audiences want – they want to participate in reality.  Although this cult of the amateur produces a lot of garbage, it’s also true that there are diamonds in the rough – and struggling entertainment companies always on the lookout for the next thing should be keen to polish those rare gems.

What’s my advice? Free the footage, I say to television networks and production companies and movie studios. Break down the barriers to participation and collaboration. Create repositories where hours of raw footage can live and be reused ad infinitum under a Creative Commons license. Even better, provide a platform like YouTube where these amateur film directors can upload the creations they’ve made with your footage. Better still, have them create user profiles and recruit the cream of the crop for an internship program within the company. Create the next generation of employees and let them have fun during an informal application process that gets their creative juices flowing. Because my wager is that they’ve got your next great idea.

This article originally appeared in my column at True/Slant.

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Trend Preadaptation and Bandwagon Warfare


Life is a series of bandwagons, especially if you’re a successful person. Environments that you operate within change constantly, and if you don’t evolve with them you’ll probably go extinct. Working as an academic scientist for about a decade, I saw such environmental shifts all the time. Most professors, especially if they wanted spending money, worked on topics that they could obtain federal grant money to support.  Sure, other topics were important and interesting, but the realities of running an expensive laboratory cannot be forgotten. 

Trends in funding different topic areas come and go. Have you heard about research in “translational medicine” lately? That’s a hot topic. What about “functional MRI”? Sure, that’s hot too. Okay, how about “anatomy and physiology”? Yeah, thought so. It’s not that there aren’t any important questions left in anatomy and physiology, it’s just that it’s not perceived as cutting-edge anymore.

Some researchers follow these trends and evolve with them, and some don’t, with consequences to either choice. People who are great at exploiting trends in science funding often band together into collaborative packs, sharing data with each other, recommending others for panels at conferences, peer-reviewing each others’ work, and generally being collegial. It’s tribal behavior. It can certainly be hard to become part of a new tribe being the right person in the right place at the right time; but when you are it allows you to do more research than you could previously.

Meanwhile, have-nots without great research funding are noble loners without a powerful tribe. They’re doing equally good work perhaps, but feel overshadowed by more trendy researchers. And so often a good dose of spite separates these two sets of tribes. But why? The first group is mainly doing good science that Congress, the National Science Foundation, and so on feel is important now, and the latter group is sticking to their traditional topic and has maintained an academic freedom to pursue it. There really is no productive reason for warfare between these bandwagons. Yet it exists.

In my experience, people who exploit a changing environment successfully are often preadapted to it in some way. In science, people may have already been reading widely on the topic, interested in it for some other reason besides funding. Perhaps one lab fortuitously collected speculative preliminary results when a grad student rotated through the lab for three months, and those results proved critical to a later grant application. Rarely do I think a professor of physical chemistry wakes up in the morning, sits in front of his computer with a cup of coffee, sees new funding for breast cancer research, and starts carpetbagging on their turf. It just doesn’t work that way – you’ve “gotta have the chops” to go up against the competition.

Of course, none of this is limited to the practice of academic science. I would postulate it is unlimited because humans have banded together in tribes based around ideas for as long as recorded history. Lately, I’ve been writing a fair amount about the now-trendy topic of Government 2.0, or how emerging Web technologies are changing how government operates. And as this writing has garnered attention it’s also been implied that I’m carpetbagging the field rather than being a practitioner of its topic matter. In an interesting bit of co-evolution, even as an increasing number of people are finding my writing and public speaking useful, a bandwagon has formed to critique the bandwagon of people who have published “pop” writing about Gov 2.0 - and there has been a tiny bit of tribal bandwagon warfare.  

I don’t remember Gov 2.0 being a trendy topic in April 2008 when I started working on it. To the contrary, in my travels to Web 2.0 events of all kinds that started over a year ago, no one from government was there, and very few attendees at events outside the DC area knew anyone from the government, never mind someone who wanted to hear about their start-up company. My partial bridging of that gap led to writing some interesting articlesand allowed me to network with other thought leaders both inside and outside government who have certainly taught me a lot. Like the scientist with fortuitous preliminary data, I was preadapted to the new-found Gov 2.0 craze facilitated by an exciting presidential election season last fall.

This week, the hot topic around my office is pandemic flu. Why? Because it turns out that my research center distributed wildly successful pandemic flu preparedness posters in 2005 and a planning guide to operating a large organization during a pandemic in 2006.  A few months ago, I designed and printed a new poster that summarized the best of what we knew and made it more graphically palatable. Now, in the middle of a seemingly global swine flu outbreak, a lot of people suddenly want it. Am I again carpetbagging for personal gain, strategically moving from exploiting Gov 2.0 to exploiting pandemic flu? This hypothesis would be amusing if it weren’t so ridiculous.

The problem with bandwagon warfare is that it doesn’t help anyone. It annoys the trendy without affecting them, it satisfies the criticizers while effectively wasting their time, and it doesn’t do anything for the greater good; in the case of this article, that greater good involves citizens who want scientists conducting medical research, a military that puts an end to insurgencies, and a government that communicates better with them on health issues. Not unlike old arguments about the logic behind nuclear warfare, tribal bandwagon warfare is a useless stalemate that shouldn’t escalate. But when it is so easy to write something harmful online, what is the deterrent?

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The Boy Who Cheered Wolf


Everyone has bad days, right?

Well, not everyone. There’s always that person who says every day should be the BEST EVER. They think that you’re a WINNER. They want you to SUCCEED. And all of their friends are AWESOME.

When you shower too much unconditional praise, it ceases to be meaningful. Not every party was the best ever, not every day is terrific, and not everyone you meet is interchangably awesome.

Use praise sparingly. Then, when you give someone a shoutout, they feel more special and your audience is more likely to pay attention to them. When you announce a great event, people are more likely to believe you, and register for it. And when you say that you’re having the BEST day of your life, everyone will help you to celebrate it.

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Why Hide the Twenty Dollar Bill?


Recently, I was in a fast food restaurant, paying for a meal that cost less than $10. Although I usually use a credit card for these kinds of transactions, in this case I handed the employee a twenty dollar bill. Out of habit, and policy no doubt, she put my $20 under the plastic cash tray inside the register, and then gave me my change.

Why?

Once upon a time, probably long before most people reading this became active shoppers, people put $20 and larger bills in ’secret’ locations for security – if someone tried to rob you, they might just take the contents of the top cash drawer and make a run for it, not noticing that the $20, $50, and $100 bills were stashed elsewhere.

But isn’t this habit a little quaint? We have security guards, video cameras, and other security features. And, more importantly, the perps know about the old ‘hide the high denominations’ trick. Co-evolution between thieves and victims in the last couple of decades has rendered this behavior useless – yet it’s rampant.

Sticking to legacy processes like hiding $20 bills under the register isn’t just seen in the fast food industry. We see it in large companies and other organizations like the government as well. Managers often cling to legacy processes for stability, and to avoid rocking the proverbial boat. What if one fast food franchise started bucking the rules? That might look bad for the owner – he might look like a ‘maverick’ or someone who’s ‘not a team player’ – and most people don’t want those monikers attached to them.

Legacy processes are often silly but relatively harmless.  Perhaps the time and energy invested in hiding a $20 bill is negligible. But is everything as harmless?

Some legacy behaviors actually become harmful when they get in the way of doing a good job at whatever it is that you do. Perhaps your harmful legacy process is doing the same analysis with slight variations on multiple government computer systems, because you report to three different masters within a huge bureaucracy. It’s harder to find your information, it wastes your personal time, it costs government money, and most crucial, it’s inefficient.

Secretary Gates is currently proposing the end of, or alteration to, some legacy military systems and processes within the Department of Defense – and he has quite a battle ahead of him. There are always entrenched interests battling for the status quo.

Whatever the situation, a true leader has to take a stand against legacy processes that don’t work. They have to put their individual gratification and advancement (possibly) at risk for the betterment of the organizational group. And it does happen. Sometimes they crash and burn, but when their ideas work these people are celebrated as visionaries. Few and far between, such mavericks are truly the agents of change.

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Checkers or Chess? Effects of Cascades


The studious observer of news headlines can only conclude that many decision makers rarely think about the cascading effects of the actions they propose. Whether the topic matter is economics, foreign policy, or the environmental ecosystem, cascading effects two or three steps removed from a decision can make situations much worse.

We see this in the news every day. A presidential campaign promise to ban lobbyists from political appointments and to enforce higher vetting standards leaves an administration with many senior positions unfilled. This included the Secretary of the Treasury, who squeaked by a modest ethical controversy in the middle of a gigantic economic downturn. Having gained his office, he now has nary a single senior deputy to advise him as he tries to manage a financial problem of ungodly proportions.

Meanwhile, people are outraged about AIG bonuses being paid out while the company is being bailed out. But what about the single mother who’s an AIG executive assistant counting on her $50,000 annual bonus to make house payments? When she appears on the Today Show, crying, whose public relations problem is that? And while releasing the names of AIG persons who received bonuses might be within the letter of the law of transparent government, what if someone at AIG does get physically injured, as threats suggest – will Congressmen cry?

In the midst of all this, people are asking for the Secretary of the Treasury to resign from office. That may be a short term solution to a perceived problem, but who will take his place? Would it be better to have no one working on the country’s economic issues, at this moment?

People – decision makers, the media, and the average person – need to think 40 days ahead rather than four. They need to think 40 years ahead rather than four as well. There are always trade offs. Life is chess, not checkers.

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