The Cognitive Age: Why Social Media Matters

Our economy is down, gas prices are up, jobs are being lost and outsourced, we’re at ‘war’ with possible escalation (e.g., attacking Iran), and there is tremendous uncertainty in nearly every industry being disrupted in some way by the connecting of the globe and the increasing influence of the Internet.

Let me submit for your consideration that the impact of social media — technologies, software and approaches connecting any of us willing to participate with them online — is pointing the way toward new systems and behaviors that will enable us all to move higher up the value chain as we learn how, together, we can create and deliver what the world needs in new and innovative ways.

One of the best op-ed pieces I’ve read in some time, The Cognitive Age, was published in the New York Times on Friday by David Brooks.

In this piece he’s putting globalization in context in this election cycle, which is chiefly on competition with other countries and the policies of government that ostensibly is accelerating job loss in the US. Brooks puts forth this premise which bears emphasis:

“The chief force reshaping manufacturing is technological change (hastened by competition with other companies in Canada, Germany or down the street). Thanks to innovation, manufacturing productivity has doubled over two decades. Employers now require fewer but more highly skilled workers. Technological change affects China just as it does the America. William Overholt of the RAND Corporation has noted that between 1994 and 2004 the Chinese shed 25 million manufacturing jobs, 10 times more than the U.S.

Then he outlines his central argument which, I should add, I completely agree with:

“The central process driving this is not globalization. It’s the skills revolution. We’re moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information. This is happening in localized and globalized sectors, and it would be happening even if you tore up every free trade deal ever inked.”

What does this have to do with social media and why does that category of technology matter?

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Behind The Eyeballs: 75% of All Ads and Content Ineffective?

So many designers, user interface creators and arm-chair critics think they know what makes really compelling content, how ads should be displayed or even how a web site or application should be delivered. But do they? Do any of us really know what it takes to present and communicate content and ads that are truly compelling, cut above the noise, and garner attention from an increasingly scattered audience who have in front of them an overwhelming and accelerating number of choices?

One company is staking a claim to an understanding of the cognitive landscape behind our eyeballs with their quantitative and measurable solutions: NeuroFocus (via AdLab). Dr. A.K. Pradeep, CEO of NeuroFocus, said this in a follow-up interview with Media Post: “We’ve found that about 75% of all content–not just advertisements–is not neurologically optimal.”

“For example, consumers interpret info on different parts of a screen with different sections of their brain. […] So an advertiser or TV show producer has reduced the engagement potential and effectiveness of their content from the onset if the bulk of the textual and numerical info is placed on the left side–with the imagery or brand logos on the right.”

The company obtains their results through biometric measurements. That means volunteers strap on a skull cap with electrodes on it and engage with the content and advertisements of which they’re presented. The thing that troubles me a bit, is that like the uncertainty principle in quantum physics, my experiences have shown that when observers know they’re being measured their behavior and cognitive processing changes. It does seem, however, that NeuroFocus’ research at least provides a baseline from which content and ads can be more precisely delivered. Then further refinement can occur (with we unaware and passive brains behind eyeballs) with other analytical tools or simple measures of clickstream data.

The Nielsen Company (the grandaddy of TV measurement) has made a strategic investment in NeuroFocus so they’re obviously on to something.

The promise (to advertisers) of the shift to internet-based ad delivery is measurement and to us (the online user) it’s ad relevancy, contextualized or personalized ads. Rarely does significant  and ongoing ad placement occur without measurement nor do venture capitalists sit still for long as ad-dependent-for-revenue companies attempt to drive user engagement and expansion of our involvement with their offering…and thus garner advertisers.

Solid measurement is healthy. Best practices more so as they’re indicators of actions we can take with understandable and quantifiable returns. It’s still pretty early in the evolution of the internet, but knowing what to do, how to deliver it and how to measure it is key to economic success on the ‘net and continued innovation.

To read more, take a peek at this well done New York Times article here and the CEO has a couple of mp3’s and a white paper here.

Freeconomics: What about MY cost for YOUR free?

Am somewhat amazed by the backlash against Chris Anderson’s new Wired piece, “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business“. Charges that he wrote a “communist manifesto” were probably the harshest ones, but many people I’ve been talking with, both in person and virtually, share somewhat of that same opinion: “something is wrong if you have to give away your value” and “we can’t all make money by grabbing mass numbers of eyeballs in order to deliver advertising to them.”

They’re missing his point and he missed one I think he shouldn’t have.

Anderson’s “it’s the falling costs, stupid” premise can be summed up in this paragraph taken, ironically, from his article in the Economist magazine:

The dominant business model on the internet today is making money by giving things away. Much of that is merely the traditional media model of using free content to build audiences and selling access to them to advertisers. But an increasing amount of it falls into the free-sample model: because it is so cheap to offer digital services online, it doesnt matter if 99% of your customers are using the free version of your services so long as 1% are paying for the premium version. After all, 1% of a big number can also be a big number.

 Free is a major shift and a huge trend, especially with any sort of online service. If you thoroughly read Anderson’s article in Wired you may or may not buy into the argument he makes, and may even accept his premise that free is driven primarily by the fall in producer costs as the costs associated with delivering them continue to drop online.

But wait just a minute.

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Are you suffering from attention overload?

In my work it’s imperative I stay abreast of new technologies, approaches and how social media startups are figuring out how to increase our capability to connect to one another in more interesting and meaningful ways.

But how many places can we focus our attention?

I blog. Follow and skim 138 blogs and dozens of news feeds in Google Reader. Deal with dozens of emails per day. Scan Techmeme and Blogrunner. Post and follow people on Twitter and now Pownce. Barely use Facebook but feel compelled since so many people I know are using it. Just joined Seesmic (in private alpha) which is a social network for participatory video (see what your friends post, you can post, and a ‘conversation’ can carry forward). Scroll through Digg‘s feed and often click on an article.

Oh….and I have work to do for my clients and business!

Since one my strengths is “input” (collecting information is something I love to do), I thought my scattered focus and partial attention was atypical until I talked to dozens of other people. Nearly everyone I talk to is feeling the effects of traditional media clamoring for our attention, more coverage and news with less analysis than ever before, and thousands of new media methods (some which I mentioned above) that are connecting us in ways that making it very challenging to think, mull it over and breathe.

Many business leaders feel that this continuous partial attention is a Millenials or kids phenomena, but my own anecdotal research shows that this is increasingly cutting across all age groups, demographics and cultures (Linda Stone has the seminal thoughts on the topic).

Anyone with a computer and internet connection is now a mini-media mogul since it’s trivial to publish, create radio and TV (even live streams ala uStream, Qik, Stickam), deliver screencasts and learning content, and stake a claim in the micro-blogging arena (e.g., Twitter, Pownce) and snag followers tuning into your thought stream.

With all of these sources coming at us (or those we choose feeling compelled or pressured to stay abreast of their content) while we pay continuous partial attention to each, what happens to these attention traffic jams in our brains? How can we discern what is worthy of our attention since not all of it is?

Google “doing evil” by invisibly observing?

Google is known for it’s internal guiding phrase “Do No Evil”. What I’ve never seen is a strict definition of what “doing evil” really means to the folks at Google. Have you? Should you care? What data is Google looking at when you’re online?

An article in SLATE yesterday entitled, “Google’s Evil Eye” about summed up what I’ve talked about previously (a key post is here and another handful are here, here and here) and all of this should at least make you stop and think about all the Google services you’re using and how much you’re simply handing over to them:

Google’s fingerprints aren’t just on your e-mail. Last week, the Senate held hearings regarding Google’s proposed acquisition of Doubleclick. Google dominates the micro-end of Internet advertising with its text ads. Doubleclick is the leading provider of banner ads, like the one at the top of this page. A combined Googleclick would be a force in Internet advertising—Google makes 99 percent of its profits from ads—and have an awesome ability to track your online behavior. Google will be able to inform advertisers what sites your browser has visited, what ads have been clicked on, what search terms have been used. The company can also get a good idea of your physical location from your computer’s IP address. And that’s just the tip of the data iceberg. If Sony wants to target teenage PlayStation 3 owners in Southern California with a special promotion on flatscreen TVs, who do you think they are going to call?

When I was at Vignette during the dotcom heyday, I recall the Doubleclick controversy in 1999 that showed, for the first time, the unprecedented capability of tracking and measuring. From Wikipedia:

“In 1999, at a cost of US $1.7 billion, DoubleClick merged with the data-collection agency, Abacus Direct, which works with offline catalog companies. This raised fears that the combined company would link anonymous Web-surfing profiles with personally identifiable information (name, address, telephone number, e-mail, address, etc.) collected by Abacus. This merger made waves and was heavily criticized by privacy organizations. Controversy grew when it was discovered that sensitive financial information users entered on a popular Web site that offered financial software was being sent to DoubleClick, which delivered the ads.”

That was over seven years ago which is an eternity in internet time.

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What if a 1% increase in broadband penetration equaled 300,000 jobs?

Often I take Robert X. Cringely‘s columns with a grain-of-salt, but this one entitled, “Game Over: The U.S. is unlikely to ever regain its broadband leadership” really hit me since I make my living on Internet-centric management consulting and view broadband as the key enabler of business going forward. Cringely’s article is an important one to read if you care about US competitiveness in the future.

Back in the mid-1990’s I had an ISDN line with a whopping 128kbps access for $69 per month. Incredibly fast at the time, I even considered their bonded option for 256kbps (well over $100 per month) but I wanted to stay married. Today I have 8mbps per second downstream and 768kbps upstream for essentially the same price.

I have friends in San Francisco with 10mbps symmetrical (both upload and download) for under $100 a month. Others using Verizon’s fiber (FIOS) and getting 15mbps down, 2mbps up for $50 per month.

But Cringely talks about the 100mbps speeds in Japan, others have complained about them being ahead of us too and the OECD’s April, 2007 report (which showed the US at 25th in global broadband penetration and speed) is open to debate. So is it important for us to have competitiveness in broadband speeds and why aren’t we — the inventor and creator of the Internet — in the world’s leading position for broadband speed and penetration?

When you think about the relative sizes of countries vs. US states, you begin to get a feel for the enormity of the problem. Japan is roughly the size of Montana, for example, and (as of 2001), 79% of the population lived in urban areas with ~20% in Tokyo alone. That makes it considerably easier to provide a high speed broadband infrastructure for the overwhelming majority of Japanese. It’s a lot tougher to do so across the vast geography that is the United States.

The stakes are too high, however, to NOT solve this accelerating need for true broadband. ArsTechnica has a good article on House Democrats and discussions about ‘true’ broadband. I’m not even going to get into the lobbying and politics of broadband, telephony and wireless, but suffice to say there are alot of complexities on why we’re NOT the world’s leader. What most discussions don’t focus on, however, is that broadband is viewed as a driver of gross domestic product (GDP) output and we need to be accelerating the Internet — both in speed and penetration — now.

What if a 1% increase in broadband penetration equaled 300,000 jobs? Read on for a very interesting set of data…

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Being dependent on applications in “the cloud”

Vonage’s dashboard page has been down all morning. This is the place where all features of the service can be tweaked like voicemail, forwarding phones and so on. Fortunately this hasn’t been a deal killer for us today, but it reminds me of my increasing dependence on service levels for applications that live in the cloud (i.e., hosted applications served via the Internet).

More of my life is entangled with Google (Gmail; Reader; Notebook; Analytics) and when there is a hiccup with email specifically, much of my communication grinds to a halt.

This Vonage “upgrading” is bothersome since there isn’t any convenient way to perform tasks with Vonage offline (I could do it via the phone itself, but the help system is online!). Google Gears is interesting as is other offline use for other Web applications, but if you haven’t sync’ed recently and the hosted application goes offline, it’s a moot point.

Communication breakthroughs…

With free time this weekend to explore online, I was able to perform a cursory examination of the landscape of breakthrough communications providers in telephony, web conferencing and streaming video (the last one I’ll discuss in this post). Certainly not a comprehensive analysis by any means, but it gave me a good sense of where we are and what needs to yet happen.

As you can see from this screenshot from one of my non-public ‘test’ blogs, I was goofin’ around and testing streaming video offerings from Stickam and uStream. The former has been around awhile longer so I like their technology better and it works great, but they’re targeting a young, social network crowd and positioning streaming as a way to connect with one another. Cool but not yet useful for business purposes (yeah…I care about the social stuff but we need commerce too!).

uStream is certainly driving toward a more serious technology user — and people that are interested in delivering value of some sort with shows and connecting with an audience — so it suits my needs, those of my clients, and just about everyone else I know that is in business, education or an organization of some sort….but can it or any of these shows deliver?

Listening (and once watching a uStream streaming video) Leo Laporte of TechTV and now TwIT fame, he’d talked with the founders of uStream (on Net@Nite with Amber Macarthur) about one of his shows which he had streamed live. He had just over 4,000 viewers and the server blew up. The uStream team is remedying that problem but this brings up my #1 issue: to be serious contenders, these communications technologies must scale.

I’ve brought up scale over-n-over again on this blog and I know that streaming video is really hard and the bandwidth needed is expensive. What if a hot ‘show’ is streamed on Stickam or uStream and has even 1% of the disappearing network TV show audience (37.5 million viewers in the US in March for broadcast networks), there is NO way that any of these lower end solutions would be up to the task of streaming to an audience of 375,000 people…let alone millions.

When individuals, companies or organizations start down a path of choosing superior communication technologies, they are placing a bet. I view many solutions — Skype, Stickam, uStream, and many Web 2.0 solutions — are bleeding edge and not a safe bet. That said, I’m experiencing many solutions myself and know exactly what I (and many of my clients) want but believe that we’re not quite there yet…

…but man, are we close.

Scaling Web 2.0: The Dirty Little Secret Exposed?

Was very pleased to see Tim O’Reilly bringing forth the issue of Web 2.0 scaling and Ray Ozzie’s perspective. This is such a vitally important issue and it needs analysis, facts and discussion and big time thought leading exposure.

I first wrote about the “dirty little secret” of Web 2.0 back in December of 2005. That secret is that infrastructure, bandwidth and minimizing latency is a huge issue for startups and is one little discussed.  It’s one I know first hand from a conferencing startup I worked with last year — and informing developers is an imperative since this dirty little secret will impact rich, internet applications; mashups; widgets; and other composite applications delivered going forward.

This problem becomes more acute as we all pull data from geographically disbursed hosted online services. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited…and waited…and waited….for some data to appear in a widget, an ad served from DoubleClick, or a startpage pulling simple RSS text data from dozens of different sources. Imagine when several, dozens or numerous interdependent sources (ones that pull data from other services to deliver a composite web service that is, in turn, consumed by yet another new application!). It’s a recipe for disaster unless managed at a world-class level.

Now that more of us are playing with video, Flash and, especially, streaming video (e.g., uStream and like what I did at a low level yesterday with Skype video), the challenges in betting a business, a workshop series, a product category or composite applications means that we all better get more informed about this issue and damn fast.

I’ve said before that one key to the dotcom crash was HUGE amounts of content and functionality being shoved into the top of the funnel while those of us consuming it were drinking from the tiny end of the funnel through 56kbps straws.

I fear that unless this dirty little secret is handled and done so by disseminating understanding amongst ALL creators, developers, business strategists and users of Web/Enterprise 2.0 products and services, users expectations are going to be dashed and it will create material barriers to adoption and use. Maybe not another crash, but the barriers and obstacles that will come are preventable with enhanced understanding and knowledge dissemination.

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Internet Innovation and Optimizing the Status Quo

Minnesota is a great place to live and raise kids. Yes, the winters are brutal but the benefits outweigh the troubles. So much so that most of my 600+ high school graduating class members still live hereafter several decades.

There are A LOT of smart people in the Land of 10,000 Lakes — both home grown and those transplanted here. Successful businesses abound like Target, Best Buy, Medtronic, General Mills, 3M, UnitedHealth Group and many, many more. World class businesses and leadership in their respective industries. But as the world of business gets increasingly mapped on to the Internet, it’s highly unlikely that these organizations will lead us to the promised land of Internet innovation. They’ll just wait and see who is successful and leverage capital to buy-in strategically. Sadly this is often a too-little-too-late move.

Frequently I complain about my conversations with leaders in Minnesota and how I first need to educate them on Web 2.0 and Internet-as-a-platform before we can have a productive conversation about the paradigm shifts and disruption occurring. The next challenge is how to work on driving forward strategically and embracing the changes. “Why aren’t you already innovating on the rapidly accelerating Internet platform?“, I’ll ask. The answers range from “Not sure what to do” to “it’s not a big deal for my business yet“. The former we can work on…the latter closes the door.

Closing the door isn’t an option in a time of accelerating change. Every client I have and every industry I analyze is being disrupted in some fashion by the Internet. Fortunately there are thought leaders guiding us.

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