Change remains the same

By | September 25, 2011

As I’ve mentioned in passing, I’ve recently left my job as a digital strategist to start my PhD in the department of Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU, a move that folks on both sides of the Academy/Industry divide received with a certain amount of inevitability.

And in accordance to this shift in trajectory, I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog, its content, and its audience. I hope that even as I shift my focus to less immediately-actionable concerns, what I post here will be accessible and interesting (assuming, of course, that it ever was). A lot of my thinking right now revolves around globalization, location data, and cultural citizenship broadly. I’m becoming more and more interested in the tech sector as a cultural industry, and relatedly, venture capital and the political economy of innovation.

As a function of the sometimes awkward transition that I’m in the process of, I’ve also been thinking a lot of similarities and differences between the media/communications industries and the academy, particularly in relation to digital talent and scholarship, respectively.

A recent blog post by Natalia Cecire in her Works Cited blog struck me in how similar the issues/challenges/opportunities she describes surrounding the digital humanities in the academic “job market” (and the professional as a whole) were to those in the advertising/marketing/media industries. The shoe-horning of digital onto hiring requests. The valorization of digital as dean (or client) candy, which in turn works to alienate it from more established areas that digital should be working alongside. The lack of structural support for making digital innovation feel truly valued and consequential. The need to realize “the real promise of digital” beyond the novelty and flash and its challenge to the established working order of various industries.

I’m not yet familiar enough with the academic profession to really speak to how this might play out there, but on the industry side, it seems like many of the suggestions made by academics might apply: access to collaborators, time set aside for skill development, exposure to and time to develop ideas outside of their immediate responsibilities, senior support as well as the opportunity to mentor up. Granted, all easier said than done, but certainly worth keeping in mind. And perhaps, overall what might help is the very idea of adding “Humanities” to the Digital equation. That perhaps instead of recruiting for digital expertise along, there is a need to look for those hybrids who can think of digital in terms of culture and discourse, people and texts, rather than strategy and tools.

The Place of Space: what makes Google+ location features unique

By | August 15, 2011

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I tagged a public Google+ post with my location. I did it as a personal documentation measure, so that I could go back and remember where I took the photo of the pneumatic tube system from the 1950s that I thought my media history-inclined friend would get a kick out of. But something unexpected happened: a complete stranger, having found my post using the “public/nearby” feature, commented on my post, sharing his memories and experience how the tubes were used. A week later, after I posted about a surreal bike accident, people in the neighborhood where it happened commented alongside my friends to wish me well. Looking online, I saw numerous descriptions of similar uses and it got me thinking about what makes the experience Google’s Public/Nearby feature so different from those of Twitter and Foursquare (I don’t really actively use Facebook at all, so I can’t comment on Places).

You Are Here (1968) by John Lennon

You Are Here (1968) by John Lennon

Part of the difference, of course, is the publicness of the content in Public/Nearby. My “shouts” on Foursquare are viewable only to my friends (unless shared through Twitter or Facebook). My location-tagged content on Twitter, while potentially public, is accessible if you’re looking at my feed, making the information very much personal in that sense.

Twitter and Google+ share the fact that you append location to content, rather than appending content to location, as with Foursquare. In that sense, Google+ and Twitter are primarily organized around people rather than places*. For Twitter, however, location is an added layer of data on a piece of content, but it is isn’t an organizing factor. So, if you look at your friend’s location-enable tweet, you can see where they were when they shared that information. However, you can’t see all tweets from your follow-list that have been shared in a given location. The location of tweets gives more information, but it doesn’t change how that information is encountered.

For both Foursquare and Google+, on the other hand, location can be a primary organizing structure for accessing, sharing, and classifying information. However, in Foursquare, the definition of “location” is based on defined venues, however flexible the spatial parameters around those venues might be (consider the many “moving target” check-ins to extreme weather conditions). If you’re sitting in a cafe, you might look at the public information associated with the cafe, or the cafe counter, or that neighborhood, or the nearby park, or a cab driving by, but you cannot see it all the information within the area around your position.

What makes Google+’s location features unique is the fluidity of the role of location data. It can, like twitter, be another layer of information about a post, but it can also, like Foursquare, serve as the organizing structure for accessing and producing information. But unlike Foursquare, if you hit the “public/nearby” feature in Google+, you get all the information shared publicly in a given area around your position. In sharing information, it’s structure of appending location data to content encourages more user-focused content, in the manner of Twitter. However, in allowing location to also be an organizing factor Public/Nearby uses place as a means to access information like Foursquare. To put it overly simplistically, it feels as if Twitter uses people or organize information about people, Foursquare uses place to organize information about place, and Google+’s Public/Nearby feature uses place to organize information about people.

Another potentially interesting, but far more difficult to untangle distinction, emerges if we think (very broadly) about space versus place. I don’t want to get into the complexities and nuances of the space/place relationship, but for the purposes of this post think of spaces as generally a geographical area and place as a specific space imbued with value and meaning that is, as Marc Augé defines it, “relational, historical and concerned with identity.” In that sense, whereas Foursquare emphasizes not only places, but particular places (given their policy of regulating “duplicate” venues), Google+ is more spatially-inflected, grouping information in relation to a given geographical parameter regardless of the boundaries and definitions of the places within it. But the space of Google+ nearby/public is not an undifferentiated space, but a position-specific one full of information and discourse. In that sense, we might think of it as a placed space — defined by the physical area but articulated as “relational, historical and concerned with identity.” Again, this doesn’t go anywhere near the complexity of space/place relations, nor does it take into account the technological functions of how Google+’s GPS system determines spatial parameters. Just some beginning observations on how different technologies shape our encounters of/in spaces and places.

I’m also curious if there’s other location-based services that address/define spaces and places in different ways, so would love to hear about your ideas and experiences.

*At least, in how I use Foursquare. As with Twitter or any other platform, different groups and individuals may use the tools in different ways, resulting in different experiences.

Twitter, Gladwell, and Why Social Media’s Revolutionary Potential Isn’t (Really) About Egypt

By | February 14, 2011

Image from CNN.com

Last week, amongst all the frustration, euphoria, and confused wonder surrounding the events in Egypt, Malcolm Gladwell and others got mired in another discussion regarding the relative efficacy of social media in creating political change.

I don’t want to rehash the back and forth (some thoughtful opinions here, here, and here), except to say that I empathize with Gladwell’s frustration, I really do, but I think that his push-back isn’t particularly illuminating or necessary. It’s true that some of the over-emphasis on the role of social media runs the risk of overshadowing more considered analysis of the historical context and implications of what happened in Egypt. And I have to admit that seeing some of the twitter and foursquare jokes made me bristle with annoyance briefly (not because they were making light of the situation, but because they made light of the privilege we had, as media and communications professionals in the US, in being able to be cute about it all). Maybe its a function of my youthful optimism, but I think Gladwell does a disservice in validating these strawmen as something worth arguing against.

For me, claims that social media brought forth the revolution in Egypt exist so deep within a territory of techno-narcissism that isn’t really even worth refuting. And it’s not unexpected — these technologies are still relatively new. We’re still trying to sort out what they can do. If we look at early film and TV criticism, so much focused on the “how” over the “why” in the same way that Gladwell laments, and it didn’t prevent the “why” (and the “what”) from dominating the discourse as the novelty wore off.

But more importantly, I think his arguments about social media not being relevant to revolutions makes the same awkward assumption as the claims that facebook changed Egypt: that what’s compelling about what happened online has everything (or anything) to do with Egypt per se. Maybe because I think of them as dramatically important in totally different arenas, I don’t see the emphasis on one or the other in competition with one another for column pixels. Because something significant did happen on and to social media, but to think it was what twitter and Facebook did (or didn’t do) for Egypt is to have things backwards. Twitter didn’t happen to Egypt; Egypt happened to twitter and is may be transforming how we think about the role of social media in our lives and communities.

Annie Paul makes the provocative suggestion that the crucial difference between these networked-enabled revolutions and their predecessors is that they’re essentially “leaderless revolutions.” The idea of a leaderless revolution is interesting precisely because it means that participants were able to conceive of and enunciate themselves as a public without need for a central voice.

In my work on transnational television audiences (pdf), I’ve suggested that what is radical about fan communities online is not only their collectivity, but their visibility, their conspicuous publicness that has implications for how we think about cultural citizenship. There is something of that here too, that what is compelling about what happened online is not only how information was circulated, but visibility of that circulation.

At the risk of over-stating, could we consider the pivotal role of social media use (and not the technologies themselves) as something that may have not brought about a revolution, but accelerated the formation of a manner of public sphere surrounding it? That it catalyzed and amplified one of the critical steps towards any politicized public, which is the recognition and articulation of itself as such?

The impact I think isn’t about the events are they were happening, but how we document for posterity. That in tagging tweets with a hashtag like #jan25, we were not only ensuring that they were included in information that was circulating in the moment. We were also making a declaration about its relevance and inclusion into the historical document of that moment. In lock-step with the recognition of a public as such is the increasing collective self-awareness of the historical. What is potentially transformative is the ability to collectively participate in the process of historicization, to influence the terms and organizing criteria for inclusion into the historical discourse through meta-data. And that ability is dynamic, accretive, and fluid in ways and at a scale that simply wasn’t possible before. Not to mention that the first major tag that blew up was a date — a clear recognition of the historical moment.

What are the implications of this sort of networked politics? Or what my close friend and fellow cms-alum Lan Xuan Le called a “flashmob politics” (a phrase that nicely encapsulates both excitement for the potential power of collective energy and the fear of that it may ultimately be impotent in creating lasting change). How does the use of these technologies change the ways we negotiate — articulate, mark, possess, surveille, construct — space, information, mobility, history?

Drive-by Posting: Social Suicide plays with Social Networking

By | January 10, 2011

As part of my 2011 resolutions, I’m making an effort to blog again, even if what I post will necessarily be significantly more abbreviated and less in-depth by virtue of time constraints.

Last March, I wrote Social Suicide’s digital savvy — the boutique menswear retailers decided to demonstrate their appreciation of the value of their fans social networks by letting the level of digital buzz dictate a dynamic sale rate for their winter clearance.

They’re continuing to play and experiment in the digital space, linking social capital to purchasing in interesting ways by turning their products into facebook profiles:

Finally, every jacket shipped is already a member of Facebook. It’s anonymous profile is in turn a member of a closed Facebook Group along with every other Holidaze jacket. Use it or loose it, it’s a way of networking which we’ve invented but have no idea where it will go…!

While it’s still unclear what they intend to do with these profiles, or how much control the jacket-buyers will have over them, it is a pretty novel way showing how your product serves as a form of social capital, providing both symbolic and literal access to an exclusive affinity group of  culturally (and aesthetically) like-minded individuals.

Plus, I love how there’s a foil-lined pocket meant to cut-off phone signal, so that you can go off-grid with a gesture. Yet another way the company shows a whimsical, yet thoughtful approach to how our material lives interact with our digital ones.

Ack. Eep. I have a new job.

By | May 11, 2010

So, I’ve been a little lax on blogging the past few weeks. Part of it is that I’ve been working incredibly long hours during the week, and spent the last three weekends in a row shuttling back and forth between NYC and Cambridge, MA for a series of very interesting events (more on that in a bit). But another big part of it is that I’ve been making something of a life transition: as of this week morning, I’m working as a Digital Brand Strategist in Weber Shandwick’s NYC headquarters.

It’s quite a change coming from the academic world and a series of mercenary consultancy gigs into the world’s leading PR agency, though a really thrilling one. I’ll have to wait until I’ve been there a bit longer before I can reflect on the adaptation process. All I can say right now is that, having always worked in shared spaces, you are hyper-aware of how decisions that are natural in office environments (like whether or not to close my office door) transforms your space and work mentality.

Altogether a very exciting development, and should lead to a much needed new layer to my thinking.

I hope to get back to blogging regularly again once I get settled, though I suspect that it will take some time to really hit my stride with how frequently I will be writing more lengthy, involved pieces. But in the immediate future, please look forward to a recap of the three great events I attended at MIT the last three weeks. First was the Comparative Media Studies 10-year anniversay, where I sat on a panel about media globalization with Aswin Punathambekar, Ana Domb, Orit Kuritsky, and Jing Wang. Then the weekend before last, I moderating a panel on “Running the Tubes” at ROFLcon, which featured a fascinating group of speakers that run the “behind-the-curtain” social and commercial infrastructure of your LULZ, including Jef Sewell (Despair.com, Amplifier), Aaron Peckham (Urban Dictionary), Larry Oji (OverClocked Remix), and Pete Hottelet (Omni Consumer Products). Finally, last weekend, I attended the always fantastic Convergence Culture Consortium retreat, where super smart folks presenting on everything from Swedish indie labels to transmedia lions (the lion is metaphor . . . I think) to how piracy can save media business models.

So once I get my bearings, keep an eye out for that, along with the long-promised thoughts on geolocation and public space.

Convergence, Confluence, Concurrence: the iPad’s implications for transmedia

By | April 12, 2010

A couple of dramatic developments in the world of media and technology from the past couple of weeks. First, the release of the iPad, which has everyone speculating about the future of media, publishing, advertising, and the mobile web. And second, the introduction of Transmedia Producer as an official Producer’s Guild of America credit, which has both its proponents and detractors (though most are positive, with reservations).

Much of the buzz around both these things tends to focus, quite rightly, on their potential, and what they mean for how we’ll come to use, consume, and produce media in the future. But more than just pointing us towards the future of media, both these developments are symptomatic of a shift that’s already very much underway.

Moreover, each serves as evidence of the importance and cultural relevance of the other. What greater potential is there for the iPad, after all, than as a transmedia device — as something that allows us to coordinate, integrate, and marshall together different narrative pieces scattered across different formats and platforms? But the inarguable potential for synergy between the iPad and transmedia storytelling triggered a lot of scattered thoughts on the implications for what transmedia will be as it becomes less of an exception and more and more the baseline for our media experiences.

Coming together in Time: Transmedia and Simultaneous Experience

Matt Dawson’s provocatively suggestion that the iPad could be a really robust remote control that would let you manage, annotate, and expand upon your TV viewing in real time. This first bring up the interesting idea of transmedia components that are meant to be experienced simultaneously. Transmedia is premised on the distribution of narrative threads through and across multiple platforms, but the implicit assumption is that the experiences would take place at different times, that the different pieces, while deeply integrated and reciprocal, are nevertheless meant to be experienced individually. What the ipad signals is perhaps a shift from the popular perception of transmedia as expansion (leading to the central-property/peripheral extension dichotomy that transmedia producers and thinkers often push against) towards one of layering. I’ve previously discussed transmedia stories as intertexts — not just a story told across text but somehow created in the gaps between, the elasticity of multiplicity. This shift speaks to that same concept, as a metaphor of layers moves us to think not only of a world created through multiple stories, but also of stories told through multiple lenses that build upon one another, adding depth and nuance to the view.

Coming together in Space: What is “trans” about “transmedia”?

The iPad also brings up another interesting possibility. With the creation of various video, magazine, web, and mobile apps that will be native to the iPad, the notion of “across platforms” becomes increasingly ambiguous. Are we still moving across platforms if we watch a movie and read its fanfiction on the same device? What does transmedia move across, if not platforms? These questions make apparent not only how often we conflate platform with delivery technology, but how we’ve taken for granted that formats were defined by how delivery technology shaped the viewing/reading experience.

With devices like the iPad, which are designed to delivery multiple media formats (of course, we always had these capabilities on our laptops, but there seems to be something different between “capable of” and “made for”) it’s more apparent transmedia’s potential isn’t a question of technology or platform, but of creating stories across aesthetic forms and narrative practices, across different creative industry structures that limit and enable their their products differently. That’s why a comic book and a novelization are different despite being both bound, printed matter — the differences in formal storytelling capabilities, the history of the art forms, as well as the differences between novel publishing and comic book industries and audience expectations all  determine which stories can be told and how.

More interestingly, I think these changes will have dramatic affects on how we organize different types of storytelling into categories. For so long, forms have been defined by their recording technologies — film, records, television, books. The limits and affordances of those have determined different aesthetic and narrative structures. For the time being, they continue to hold the shape of the mold they were created in, even as those molds are starting to change and dissolve. But that’s changing. Even now, we’re seeing the emergence of genres that are defined in part by how audiences encounter them — transmedia, interactive media, mobile, spreadable — by how they move through culture rather than what devices they’re viewed through.

I’m not rewriting the black-box fallacy (i.e., that we will one day consume all media through a single, universal device). Rather, I’m suggesting that devices like the iPad make more apparent than ever that our media consumption isn’t being consolidated, but rather layered. We won’t be consuming all our media through one device — we’ll be consuming multiple streams of media through multiple platform simultaneously, as part of the same experience, with increasing reciprocity and responsiveness across our many mediated encounters.

Public ≠ Property of Facebook: Another round in the Facebook privacy rigmarole

By | March 30, 2010

Facebook has one again issued changes to their privacy policy that is pissing people off. At this point, I’ve pretty much come to accept that facebook has no respect for their users, or their valuable networks, data, and attention they provide. There are a whole series of proposed changes, which are outlined wonderfully by TechCrunch and the ACLU, some of which sound positive and useful. However, it’s the really exploitative and heinous ones that have been getting the most traction.

At the center of this round of facebook privacy controversies is the new “enhanced pages” which allows third-party websites, approved by facebook, to access your public information and your connections — what you like, how you identify yourself, and who your friends are. In fact, Facebook will happily share with external websites of their choosing anything shared under your “everyone” option, which of course, is the default setting.

“Public” doesn’t mean “Property of Facebook”

This is the distinction that gets made again and again and again. “Public” is about sharing, about contributing and giving access to a larger community. Nowhere in the many definitions of “public” does it characterize something that can be taken from the public and redistributed to a select group for private profit.  Facebooks actions aren’t about making information public, they’re about making information theirs.

This is why in these cases, privacy can be a misleading battle-cry. The controversy isn’t just about access to our information and data. It’s also about our ownership of it. Much of the response-rhetoric whenever these privacy issues arise tends to be some variation of “well, if you didn’t want it shared, you shouldn’t have made it public.” In some ways, this is true, and it’s a deeper media literacy issue.

But in another way, this is total bullshit. It’s an excuse that conflates making something public to handing something over as property of Facebook to use and profit from as they like. There’s plenty of things I share with friends, and plenty I’m happy to share with strangers, but at the end of the day these are still my things — my networks, my data, my work and labor, my time — and I should have more control over who gets access to use of what. When I share my information, it still belongs to me in part, and I still have some say over it. What facebook is proposing isn’t sharing — it’s straight-up taking. It’s facebook claiming sole ownership over user data and pimping it out to the highest bidders.

In my white paper on Locating Value in Spreadable Media, I cite instances like this as indicative of a tension between economically-driven exchanges and socially-motivated ones. Facebook is thinking in terms of economic exchanges, which as discrete. It provides a service, users hand over data, and now they have the service and facebook owns the data to do with as it likes. However, facebook’s users believe themselves to be involved in a social exchange, which is ongoing. Social exchanges are like sending Christmas cards — you wouldn’t send 10 cards to someone and consider yourself covered for the next 10 years. The exchange is just a symbol for an ongoing relationship. In this case, that means users continue to contribute value so long as facebook continues to respect the relationship. The social exchange model makes more sense here, especially because the value being provided isn’t discrete. Facebook does have a lot of data now, but the real value in the data (and the attention provided by users) is that it’s ongoing, changing, and developing. So facebook needs to keep the relationship alive.

But how is it different from “spreadable” media

In the report on spreadable media that I co-authored with Prof. Henry Jenkins, Ana Domb, and Dr. Josha Green, we lauded the ability of individuals and communities to wrest control over content and meaning from producers. At the surface, Facebook’s appropriation of user data for their own goals echoes that of, for instance, fans remixing and sharing content to express their social relationships and tastes. But there’s one huge difference: facebook is in a position of structurally determined power in relation to their users. In layman’s terms, it’s simply this: Facebook’s acts are top-down, spreadable media is bottom-up.

As a bottom-up process, spreadable media operates through plenitude — any act of spreading doesn’t undo or prevent other acts of spreading. Spreadable media allows for differing opinions, motivation, and types of value. On the other hand, facebook sharing your data is an act of economic and institutional control — they determine who has access, and how, for everyone. This doesn’t leave room different forms of use and disregarding the diversity of user-motivations and social networks that make the facebook community as rich and popular as it is. In spreadable media, you can always add more content, more layers of meaning, more routes of circulation to reflect your goals. In Facebook’s approximation, you can believe their ideology about what the internet means and is good for, or you can just not participate. This kind of put-up or get out attitude is the antithesis of spreadable media, which is about creating more options, more meanings, more ways for people to shape and share their identities. Facebook is offering only one way — the one that makes them the most money.

Disrespecting Social Worth

Facebooks controversial changes are always opt-out instead of opt-in not because Facebook doesn’t know better. They know full well that it’s more respectful and responsible to make drastic changing involving sharing personal data opt-in. They make it opt-out because facebook hopes you don’t know any better. That is, they’re hoping to exploit anyone who may not have the knowledge or time to keep up on what their changes really mean.

It’s pretty clear from Facebook’s actions that they expect people to fall in line because they’ve become so ubiquitous. And it’s true — a lot of people will overlook the offenses because it’s just such a hassle NOT to use facebook these days. Some of my notifications started getting filtered into my spam folder without my knowledge a couple of weeks ago and I was amazed how many events and correspondences I missed, how many of my friend I unintentionally ignored. But there’ll be a limit. It may not be this, but it’ll be something and sooner or later, facebook need to start recognizing the value that their users are providing. They need to stop thinking of themselves as simply providing a no-cost service, and start considering the fact that they’re in an ongoing social transaction with their users, with implicit social contracts that have to be respected.

What’s more, with every move to unabashedly profit from their users without any consideration or respect, Facebook tips it’s hand — the more they scramble to make money off their users, the more they reveal to their users how valuable they are. And before long, many of us are not going to put up with facebook profiting off that value without valuing and respecting us in return. So, the bottom line: shape up facebook, and stop being douchebags. The party’s almost over.

research link dump: (mobile) branding, (geo)tagging, and (virtual) graffiti

By | March 18, 2010

So this weekly round-up is a bit different from my usual semi-regular link dump of stuff I’ve been reading. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been lax on blogging the past couple of weeks because I’ve been busy firing my little synapses at issues surrounding the how branding + geotagging/location check-in (e.g. foursquare, gowalla) affect how we encounter urban and public space (and each other within it. It’s quickly turning into a full blown captical-P Project. I’ll start posting some prelimenary thoughts/questions next week, but for now, some of posts, articles, and books that I’ve been drawing on in the initial concept mapping phase.

So, in a way, this is part link-dump, part project-emergence-documentation.

I started thinking about these issues with the recent surge in discussions of brand collaborations with popular geolocation social games, especial with all the chatter in SXSW reports about the rise of location-specific (I know people are using the term geolocation, but I’ve yet to really embrace that tautology) games and social networking tools.

Location check-in networks therefore have two obvious precedents: display advertising and graffiti culture.

  • One of the (geographic) sites of interest is Sao Paulo, a city famous for its unique graffiti culture and for banning outdoor advertising. Hector Fernando Burga’s briefly outlines [pdf] a number of papers given at the Decentering Urban Theory conference at UC Berkeley focusing on new productions of urban space, including one by Prof. Teresa Caldeira on the “auto-construction” of Sao Paulo, where citizens engage in slow, collaborative, ad-hoc rebuilding of the city. These and other sites like it reveal “another dimension of place-making” that geotagging and location check-ins also seem to fit into.
  • Also on the urban theory front, I’m looking into a classic in the field, Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City.
  • And going in the other direction, I’m trying to think of how to situate the geolocation social activities between public and private, and starting with The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, which explores how we encounter the most intimate and domestic spaces.

Weekly round-up [3/05/10]: the science of art, old media interactivity,

By | March 5, 2010

I should probably acknowledge that my weekly round-ups aren’t so much weekly as they are “periodically,” but it’s a little too late to change now.

  • Moving on: CMS colleague Nick Seaver has a great piece on interactivity of player pianos. He makes great points about mediation and reproduction and other issues that are central to new media concerns, illuminated in a new way. We can only learn so much about new media by looking at it in isolation — it’s by connecting it to the once new technologies that the larger social patterns emerge.
  • Oh, and speaking of thought to be obsolete, there may be life for Google Wave yet.
  • Clay Shirky entreats us to stop talking about information overload. The problem, he points out, is not too much information or too little attention. Too much information is an old media problem, existing since after the Dark Ages. The issue is that we haven’t mastered the systematic filtering and sorting of this information.
  • This Open Net Initiative piece on keyword filtering by Microsoft Bing in ‘Arabian Countries’ reminds us too that solutions for “information overload” in one context can quickly resemble censorship in another.
  • And sort of related: insights from a mobile Q&A rising star. Frost & Sullivan has a piece on youth market insights from an analysis of ChaCha. Full disclosure, stuck without a smart phone, if not for ChaCha I may still be lost somewhere in West Texas.
  • And what’s with all this bzzzzzzz — AT&T has a new service Buzz.com that some think will actually supplant Google’s offering due to its facebook integration.

And on a last note:

  • “You came in with dreams and now you stand with spreadsheets”: Rishad Tobaccowala cuts right to the point at his 4A Transformations talk on incentivizing talent. The three types of wealth — experience, education, and economic — resonated because his emphasis was on wealth as a diversity of these things, not a sheer quantity. I had been spoiled for the first two at MIT — and range of experiences you could have, things you could create was matched only by the immense generosity of the minds around you. In the current economic climate, I’ve yet to see media and advertising industries match that kind of intellectual ambition or reciprocity, though my hope is that speeches like this mean there’s a thaw — not just economically — around the corner.

Social Suicide’s digital savvy: bridging monetary value and social worth

By | March 1, 2010

Over the weekend, a rigorously fashion-forward friend of mine sent me a slightly perplexing message: “go bug social suicide on twitter so I can buy a couple of suits.” Not being an avid follower of men’s fashion, I wasn’t familiar with the London-based retailer of immaculately hand-tailored menswear with provocative detailing. But when I went to their site, I saw something more in my arena:

Social Suicide's socially savvy marketing

What drew me to this wasn’t just their whimsical naming schemes (though they certainly don’t hurt), but their latest social media promotion for their winter sale. As a follow-up to their Winter 09 “Dictators of Fashion” line (with suits like Kalashnikov’s Rifle and Mussolini’s Turncoat), Social Suicide launched the “Dictator’s Discount”. The premise is fairly simple — the general public will dictate the percentage of the sale markdowns in both the online and brick&mortar store by how much buzz they generate. The more twitter mentions, facebook updates, blog links, and unique site visitors Social Suicide gets, the higher the sale discount. The rate is dynamic, so the discount can go up or down (hence my friend asking me to help drive the discount steeper), with unique sale codes that will give users the current discount rate being released periodically on the retailer’s twitter.

Social Suicide’s campaign demonstrates exactly the kind of recognition of the monetary value of social capital that is needed to navigate an increasingly socially networked consumer-base. While there’s no shortage of brands and marketers expounding on the glories of “dialogue” and “conversation” in digital marketing, but Social Suicide is putting it’s money where it’s buzz is.

Cultural Capital as Digital Currency

Like I’ve gone on ad nauseum here and elsewhere, just because of lot of stuff online comes without a pricetag doesn’t mean it’s free. We may think of consumer-generated buzz as free because it doesn’t cost anything, but like I explain in my recently released white paper, things like data, attention, promotion and other benefits of web chatter around a brand come with social contracts between the brand and its consumers and fans.

Social Suicide proves their recognition of the value of social worth by translating it directly into dollar value — not for themselves, but for their fans. It’s easy for brands to say they are listening, but rarely do we see a company acknowledging the value of what they hear in such concrete terms. Like Trent Reznor putting up the NIN album at no cost in return for fans’ ongoing loyalty, they don’t just declare their appreciation, but prove it by giving back in the exchange.

Social Suicide’s move shows that they understand that cultural capital isn’t just a thing that exists out in the ether, nor their birthright by virtue of being a cool brand with good products and content. By creating a sort of cultural equity participation campaign (the more cultural capital raised, the greater the kick-back on investment), they demonstrate an understanding that cultural capital is coming out of the time and social commitment of individuals. These commitments are a gift that needs to be returned in some form.

Participation Means Sharing (the wealth)

Social Suicide’s campaign reveals common blind spot in thinking about how to merge the value of online communities and the economically-driven exchanges that dictate how businesses run. Too often, when a brand seeks to “participate,” they really only mean “profit from.” Consumers generate social worth and cultural capital for the brand, and the brand seeks to give back take more economic capital on top. That approach though doesn’t match how a gift exchange works. Gift exchanges create a legacy of value such that the original giver feels entitled to some of wealth they’ve contributed.

What this campaign shows us is that if we want the two to come together, sometimes it has to go both ways. Participation means contributing and sharing, not just listening. And sometimes, that means you’re looking at brand social worth that translates into monetary value for the consumer.

Rethinking Retail

I spent a lot of time thinking about how media and advertising industries need to adjust to the shifting dynamics of the new media landscape, but too often forget the retail side of commerce. As Kit over at the Real Time Project points out, the Social Suicide campaign is a great answer to one of the biggest concerns of contemporary retailers — linking their digital presence to their brick&mortar stores in a meaningful, robust way. A number of fashion retailers have gone out of their way to create digital content that mirrors and elaborate upon the brand experience. But more and more, efforts like this one show us that there are tools to link online presence much more tangibly (and functionally) to their physical store. Just like we saw with media outlets, retailer are no longer seeing their websites as simply a digital copy of physical offering. Perhaps even more provocatively, the Real Time Project article suggests that we might, in some industries, see B&M locations become non-purchase showrooms.

Overall, it seems that these considerations signal a shift towards deeper and more direct integration of physical and digital commerce, and between social and economic value.

UPDATE: I’m hearing from Social Suicide’s online/international shoppers (like my aforementioned friend) that the shop hasn’t been very responsive to email/twitter inquiries and has been rather lax at releasing their sales codes online regularly as promised. In short, the promotion has been more useful to in-store shoppers than the online shoppers who’re driving the discount. This is rather unfortunate since they’ve built a promotion that very usefully links their digital presence to their physical one. Gotta remember: Digital isn’t just a way to promote your shop. The road between digital and brick&mortar goes BOTH ways.

UPDATE (THE SEQUEL): Soon after I tweeted regarding Social Suicide’s lag in responding to their online consumers, they replied to me explaining that it was a stock and changing between winter/summer inventory issue. A few minutes later, they tweeted an apology/plee to their online customers to bear with them during the transitional period. Later that same day, they also finally replied to my friend (who had told me about their digital neglect) after nearly a month of radio silence, offering him the suit he wanted on massive discount. So all in all, a great, innovative marketing/communications tactic, a minor maintenance hiccup, but a nice, responsive management of the problem once they were notified of it.