April 2010

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VRM meets CRM

CRM Magazine has devoted much of its May 2010 issue, including its cover and lead stories, to VRM and the growing power of individual customers, within which VRM is one vector.

Naturally, is also covered, since it pointed in this same direction, long ago.

This is an impressive move on the part of the CRM Magazine folks, and I hope the industry it covers follows its lead.

I put up a longer post about this over at the ProjectVRM blog. Read the rest there. And if any of ya’ll have a hard copy of the magazine, please save it, since I haven’t seen one yet and would like to collect a few in any case.

Meanwhile, a high five to Tara Hunt, who introduced the CRM Magazine folks to VRM, and got the ball rolling with then.

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Here is a well-done write-up of what I said in an interview by Lee Rainie yesterday here at FutureWeb in Raleigh. Having a fun time.

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Last July I explained Why WQXR is better off as a public radio station. One hundred and twelve comments followed, the last posted in January of this year. Far as I know, that’s a record for this blog.

Background: when WQXR, which had been New York City’s landmark classical music station since the Roosevelt Hoover administration, was sold by the New York Times to WNYC, it went through two huge changes. First, it went up the dial from 96.3 to 105.9, while dropping to about 1/10th the wattage of its old signal. Second, it changed from a commercial station to a noncommercial one. Those opposed to the moves predicted failure on both accounts.

Instead, WQXR is a success. It’s ratings briefly tanked during the transition last October, then bounced back to their old levels:

Since then WQXR has run neck-and-neck with its parent’s main station, WNYC-FM (which has a signal identical to the old WQXR, coming from the same master antenna on the Empire State Building):

(Source for both: Radio-Info.com. Click on the images for details.)

Those three columns are for January, February and March of this year. The February number, 834,400, was reportedly tops in all of public radio. That’s what Elizabeth Jensen wrote in yesterday’s Classical Music’s Comeback, on Public Radio, in the New York Times. She says WQXR is a financial as well as a ratings success, and typical of successful transitions by other classical stations from commercial to noncommercial business models, in some cases with lesser signals as well.

So, all ends well that starts well.

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Spamnation

Here’s what I see at the top of my WordPress dashboard:

At a Glance

1,374 Posts 10,720 Comments
3 Pages 8,013 Approved
38 Categories 69 Pending
1,476 Tags 2,637 Spam

Akismet has protected your site from 266,660 spam comments already, and there are 2,637 comments in your spam queue right now.

Well, a lot of those spam comments have worked their way past Akismet lately, and I’ve had to kill them off manually. Most of them are obvious, but many are not, and seeing whether or not those are real takes time. So, between the tide of spam and the time it takes to sort through the whole mess, a number of legitimate comments haven’t been approved right away. To right that wrong, I just went back through 75 pages of comments and approved about twenty amidst perhaps hundreds of spams. Most of those approved were for old postings. My apologies about that.

The way the system here works, if you’ve already made an approved comment, your future comments are automatically approved. It’s only first-timers that get stuck in the moderation queue with all the spam. I’ll try to be better about looking for comments beyond the first page in the queue listing, when the first page (and the second, third and so on) is mostly spam.

If you make a comment that doesn’t appear, write to me. My email address is my first name at my last name, dot com.

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We’ve seen this movie: the one where a big company takes over a whole market ecosystem. There was IBM with mainframes, Microsoft with operating systems, Apple with pocket music players (and now apps for phones and tablets).

But there’s another movie too. That’s the one where the big company fails. IBM did that with PCs. (They started the ball rolling, but no longer even make the things.) Apple did it with PDAs, when the Newton flopped. And Microsoft, even in its glory days, failed at a lot of things.

One big one was directories. All but lost in the sands of time is Netscape’s lone victory over a Microsoft move to make everybody in the world use Active Directory. That story was told by Craig Burton in an Interview I did for the late Websmith (later merged into Linux Journal) fourteen years ago this month.

Another was identity, and single sign-on. Microsoft tried that with Hailstorm, and flopped.

And now comes Facebook with social graphs, which Barrett Sheridan calls a Play to Take Over the Entire Internet, and Mark Zuckerberg (two links back) says is the “next version of Facebook Platform,” which he says “puts people at the center of the web.”

Right. Sez Mark,

We think that the future of the web will be filled with personalized experiences. We’ve worked with three pre-selected partners—Microsoft Docs, Yelp and Pandora—to give you a glimpse of this future, which you can access without having to login again or click to connect. For example, now if you’re logged into Facebook and go to Pandora for the first time, it can immediately start playing songs from bands you’ve liked across the web. And as you’re playing music, it can show you friends who also like the same songs as you, and then you can click to see other music they like.

We look forward to a future where all experiences are this easy and personalized, and we’re happy today to take the next important step to get there.

Of course, then we no longer have the Web. We have the Union of Soviet Social Graph Vendors.

This will fail, of course. Commercial containers for the Web (social or otherwise) are limited. They have rules. They are the Great Indoors, which can neither control nor compete with the Great Outdoors which is the Web itself.

But discovering this plain fact will take some time. Or, more to the point, waste it. The hard way.

As usual, Dave Winer nails the diagnostics, with Will this loop ever end? Sez Dave,

Facebook is hot now, but history has shown that being a hotbed doesn’t scale. That eventually these companies have to tap into the general talent pool and they end up achieving the same level of mediocrity as the previous dominant one. It happened to IBM, the minicomputer companies, IBM again, Microsoft, now it’s Google’s turn, and soon it will be Facebook’s.

Let’s go back to Microsoft and Hailstorm. It’s important to remember the hysteria surrounding that move. Many thought that this was The End. Here is what I wrote at the time on my blog. I just copied and pasted the html below (from Google’s cache, while the archive was offline…  somehow the bold-faced search terms give it a little extra punch, so I’m leaving them in)…

Trojan Storm

The storm has arrived, and the peerage is weighing in with its reactions.

When I first read about Hailstorm, it scared the shit out of me. (As it also did to Joel Spolsky, who gives us a fine tech-level explanation of exactly why.)

But at a deeper level — the social level where the Net connects us — I have complete faith in forces more powerful than any monopoly’s wet dream. And that’s the Net.

The Net is ours. Not Microsoft’s. Hailstorm is heavy weather, but the Net is geology. Our geology. It’s us, not just me (pun intended).

Computing isn’t personal any more. It’s social. Microsoft understands that, but it’s not where they come from. Where they come from is the desktop. Always have, always will. It’s not for nothing they’re called Microsoft.

With Hailstorm, Microsoft is doing a beautiful job of being itself. As always, they’re draping users in bountiful benefits, whether those users want them or not). That’s just what Microsoft does. They can’t help it. They come from the desktop, just like Apple comes from art and Nordstrom comes from shoes.

And they sound very convincing, because they’re busy advocating the user. You can’t go wrong there, can you?

O yeah. You always go wrong when you characterize competent human beings as weak and helpless — and then tell them your stuff is their only hope. That’s exactly what Microsoft does in the very first line of Building the User-centric Experience:

    Users are definitely not in control of the technology that surrounds them.  Asked to adapt to the differences between the way they interact with local programs and sites on the web, asked to cope with doing things completely differently on their cell phone, their PC, and any other device they have, users are generally frustrated and confused.

Like moths in a lampshade. How sad. And whose fault is that?

    If you want to enter a friend’s new phone number into your PC, you use a keyboard and a piece of software like Microsoft Outlook to do it using a particular sequence of keystrokes and mouse clicks.  But to enter that same information into your Palm Pilot, you need to learn a completely new interface – right down to relearning how to draw the letters of the alphabet!

Oh! It’s Palm’s fault! That OS is so hard to use. Not easy like Outlook, which is so encrusted with options that few users ever figure the damn thing out. (To say the least of it.) The insults continue:

    This environment, in which users are forced to adapt to technology instead of technology adapting to users, creates significant restrictions on how effective any application or Web site can be, and ultimately hinders the acceptance and adoption of not only the technologies themselves, but also the real-world products and services that might be best offered to a user in the context of the things they do online.

The environment we’re talking about here is called a market. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s full of choices that don’t agree with each other. But it’s the natural habitat for business. It’s also networked to the gills. That network is where users live. Not just Windows. Not just .Net, whatever it becomes.

The Trojan Storm here isn’t Windows or even .Net. It’s Internet Explorer.

The Net is ours, indeed. But most of us interact with it through a Microsoft browser. That browser is about to get a lot fatter. That’s the only way to interpret this:

    HailStorm services are oriented around people, instead of around a specific device, application, service, or network.  They put the user in control of their own data and information, protecting personal information and making user consent the basis for who can access it, what they can do with it, and for how long they have that permission.

It’s time for us to stop acting like an audience and start acting like a market. For that we need to do three things:

  1. Work with the hackers to make Mozilla the best possible alternative to Internet Explorer — and fast.
  2. Start paying more attention and respect to other developers who are working together to make the Net something that works better for all of us (and that includes interested developers inside Microsoft — it’s a big company).
  3. Expose Hailstorm for what it is: yet another attempt by Microsoft to collapse the Net into its own service framework. And to say this won’t work because the Net’s context is bigger than any vendor, no matter how privileged they are with “critical mass.”

It’s important to remember that this is not just about Microsoft’s napoleonic corporate personality, which is equally real and beside the point, making it the biggest red herring in business history.

It’s about building out the Net’s infrastructure. .Net doesn’t do it. Hailstorm doesn’t do it. Java doesn’t do it. No “solution” controlled by one vendor will do it.

You can’t privatize what only works because it’s public. Microsoft hasn’t learned that lesson yet. Let’s help them.

And we did. Mozilla succeeded, and so have other browsers. Identity still isn’t a solved problem and may never be — at least not in the simple way one gets when the Eye of Sauron rules the world. But the very fact that good people are working on identity and related problems out in the open is endlessly encouraging.

Speaking of which, the 10th Internet Identity Workshop is happening in Mountain View next month. Micrtosoft is a sponsor, as are many other companies and organizations, some of which (Information Card Foundation, Open ID Foundation) grew directly or indirectly out of IIW conversations. In fact, Microsoft’s good identity work (started by Kim Cameron and colleagues there) would not have happened without Hailstorm’s failure.

If Facebook and Twitter are smart (and listen to their elders), they’ll skip the loop. Burn the movie. Get Net- and Web-compliant. Because that’s where nature will takes us in the long run anyway. Let’s not keep making that run longer than it needs to be.

When  reported on the next-generation iPhone that had come into its hands, I was as curious as the next geek about what they’d found. But I didn’t think the ends justified the means.

The story begins,

You are looking at Apple’s next iPhone. It was found lost in a bar in Redwood City, camouflaged to look like an iPhone 3GS. We got it. We disassembled it. It’s the real thing, and here are all the details.

“We got it,” they said. How?

There was much speculation about that, but obviously — if the phone was a real prototype — it must have been lost by an Apple employee. That’s why I tweeted, “Some employee is in very deep shit for letting this happen: http://bit.ly/bVN5Ma” But others wondered. Was it planted by Apple? That’s what, for example, Howard Stern guessed on his show yesterday morning. He thought it was a brilliant marketing move by Apple.

But Gizmodo set their record straight, through a much-updated piece titled How Apple lost the next iPhone. After telling the story, at length, of how Gray Powell, an Apple employee, had left it at a restaurant (“The Gourmet Haus Staudt. A nice place to enjoy good German lagers”), Gizmodo unpacks the means by which the phone came into their possession:

There it was, a shiny thing, completely different from everything that came before.

He reached for a phone and called a lot of Apple numbers and tried to find someone who was at least willing to transfer his call to the right person, but no luck. No one took him seriously and all he got for his troubles was a ticket number.

He thought that eventually the ticket would move up high enough and that he would receive a call back, but his phone never rang. What should he be expected to do then? Walk into an Apple store and give the shiny, new device to a 20-year-old who might just end up selling it on eBay?
The Aftermath
Weeks later, Gizmodo got it for $5,000 in cash. At the time, we didn’t know if it was the real thing or not. It didn’t even get past the Apple logo screen. Once we saw it inside and out, however, there was no doubt about it. It was the real thing, so we started to work on documenting it before returning it to Apple. We had the phone, but we didn’t know the owner. Later, we learnt about this story, but we didn’t know for sure it was Powell’s phone until today, when we contacted him via his phone.

The apparent purpose of the story is to save Gary Powell’s ass, as well as to cover some of Gizmodo’s as well. It concludes,

He sounded tired and broken. But at least he’s alive, and apparently may still be working at Apple—as he should be. After all, it’s just a stupid iPhone and mistakes can happen to everyone—Gray Powell, Phil Schiller, you, me, and Steve Jobs.

The only real mistake would be to fire Gray in the name of Apple’s legendary impenetrable security, breached by the power of German beer and one single human error.

Additional reporting by John Herrman; extra thanks to Kyle VanHemert, Matt Buchanan, and Arianna Reiche

Update 2: I have added the bit on the $5,000 (in italics) and how we acquired the iPhone, as Gawker has disclosed to every media outlet that asked.

Yesterday the New York Times ran iPhonegate: Lost, Stolen Or A Conspiracy?, by Nick Bilton. The gist:

One big question is how much Gizmodo paid for the phone, and whether keeping it was legal. Nick Denton, chief executive of Gawker Media, which owns Gizmodo, told The Times the site paid $5,000 for the phone. But still bloggers wondered if it had really paid $10,000.

On Monday, Charles Arthur, Technology blogger for The Guardian, said paying for the phone could mean that Gizmodo was knowingly receiving stolen goods; on Tuesday, citing the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, Mr. Arthur expanded on his theory.

This helped the debate move on to more serious matters: whether the phone was “lost,” or “stolen.” John Gruber, blogger for Daring Fireball, pointed outthat in the eyes of  California law, there isn’t a difference. The law states:

One who finds lost property under circumstances which give him knowledge of or means of inquiry as to the true owner, and who appropriates such property to his own use, or to the use of another person not entitled thereto, without first making reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him, is guilty of theft.

The next big question — whether Gizmodo would turn over the phone to Apple — was answered after a long day of speculation on Monday over itsauthenticity.  Gizmodo has reported that it received a letter from Apple’s legal counsel…

Gizmodo complied and returned the phone. Yesterday I tweeted, “Re: bit.ly/d0P4Vo If you found a next-gen iPhone, would you return it — or use it to pull the owner’s pants down?” Thus far, two responses:

Of course, what Gizmodo did was an example of investigative journalism at work. Mainstream journals and broadcasters sometimes pay for stories, leads, video and audio recordings, photographs. That’s not unusual. But, as Charles Arthur writes, “As a reporter – and make no doubt, Gizmodo is reporting here, actually doing journalism red in tooth and claw – you inevitably end up walking close to the edge of what’s legal every now and then. Whether it’s being in receipt of confidential information, publishing something that’s potentially defamatory, or standing closer to the front line of a protest than the police would like, you occasionally have to put yourself in some legally-risky positions.”

Many thousands of years ago on the time scale of both the Internet and journalistic practices, specifically in 1971, I wrote a story for a New Jersey newspaper about rural poverty, illustrated by a photo I took of somebody’s snow-covered yard filled with discarded appliances and half-disassembled old cars sitting on cinder blocks. I thought at the time that the photo was sufficiently generic to protect the anonymity of the home’s occupier. I was wrong. The owner called me up and let me have it. I was still a kid myself — just 22 years old — and it was a lesson that stuck with me.

A couple decades later that lesson was enlarged by “Notes Toward a Journalism of Consciousness,” by D. Patrick Miller, in The Sun, a magazine for which I had once been a regular contributor. (No links to the story, but its table of contents is here.) In it Miller recalled his work as an investigative reporter in the Bay Area, and how sometimes he had to cross a moral line. In his case it was gaining the confidence of sources he would later, in some ways, betray — for the Greater Good of the story’s own moral purposes.

Gizmodo poses the moral goodness of its own story against the backdrop of Apple’s fanatical secrecy:

And hidden in every corner, the Apple secret police, a team of people with a single mission: To make sure nobody speaks. And if there’s a leak, hunt down the traitor, and escort him out of the building. Using lockdowns and other fear tactics, these men in black are the last line of defense against any sneaky eyes. The Gran Jefe Steve trusts them to avoid Apple’s worst nightmare: The leak of a strategic product that could cost them millions of dollars in free marketing promotion. One that would make them losecontrol of the product news cycle.

But the fact is that there’s no perfect security. Not when humans are involved. Humans that can lose things. You know, like the next generation iPhone.

Thus the second wrong makes a write, but not a right.

Two years ago, in this post here, I wrote,

Still, I think distinctions matter. There is a difference in kind between writing to produce understanding and writing to produce money, even when they overlap. There are matters of purpose to consider, and how one drives (or even corrupts) the other.

Two additional points.

One is about chilling out. Blogging doesn’t need to be a race. Really.

The other is about scoops. They’re overrated. Winning in too many cases is a badge of self-satisfaction one pins on oneself. I submit that’s true even if Memeorandum or Digg pins it on you first. In the larger scheme of things, even if the larger scheme is making money, it doesn’t matter as much as it might seem at the time.

What really matters is … Well, you decide.

Gizmodo was acting in character here. That character is traditional journalism itself, which is no stranger to moral compromises.

I’m not saying that one must not sometimes make those compromises. We all often do, regardless of our professions. What makes journalism a special case is its own moral calling.

How high a calling is it to expose the innards of an iPhone prototype?

To help decide, I recommend the movie Absence of Malice.

Was malice absent in Gizmodo’s case? And, even if it was, is the story worth what it cost to everybody else involved — including whatever dollar amount Gizmodo paid to its source?

I submit that it wasn’t. But then, I’m not in Gizmodo’s business. I also don’t think that business is journalism of the sort we continue to idealize, even though journalism never has been as ideal as we veterans of the trade like to think it is.

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Dissing Vulcan

Phoebe Kilgour, a Dickinson College junior, said the trip taught her about how a country prepares for a natural phenomenon. “I learned that something that seemed insignificant at the time, like a volcano erupting, can have a huge impact on local travel,” she said, “especially when you’re stuck on an island.”

That’s the last paragraph of a PennLive.com article titled Dickinson College students leave Iceland after being delayed by volcanic eruption.

Hat tip to @dankennedy_nu.

Lots of trackbacks (or pingbacks) are spam, and I don’t approve them for the comments section. But some pass the first sniff test, and some are interesting enough to warrant a reply. That’s what happened with the post “To be (a brand) or not to be (a brand)”, at a blog called Daily Breaking News Update. I’m not linking to either, because I think I fell here for a splog (a neologism I like, coined by Mark Cuban, for a spam blog).

What got me interested in the piece, naturally, was this paragraph…

It may be that some of the fallout from the Tiger Woods scandal has made the idea of personal branding seem trickier – people are people, after all, not objects and not cattle. As Doc Searls has argued in two recent blog posts, brands are “boring” at best and “bull” at worst.

The post ended, provocatively enough, this way:

Undoubtedly, building trust is fundamental to business success. Maintaining reputation is crucial, whether or not you want your name to be synonymous with a product, a service or a company.

What are your thoughts on personal branding? Has it become impossible? Or has it become ubiquitous?

So I took the bait and posted an answer in the comments section. Here it is:

I think the Tiger Woods experience demonstrates the risks of hiring a celebrity to personify a company’s brand. Besides Nike with Michael Jordan, I can’t think of a single case where this kind of personification has worked in the long run. Maybe some other readers can; but I’m not sure it makes much difference. Nike will stand or fall on the quality of its products, not on the qualities of its celebrity representatives.

As for personal branding, I still think it’s an oxymoron. Branding is a corporate practice, not a personal one. Build a reputation by doing good work. Put that work where others can judge its value. Contribute to the success of others, and credit others generously for their contributions to your success. Never promote for its own sake. I think it’s a mistake to categorize these practices as forms of “branding,” because they are expressions of humanity and integrity.

Branding works for companies and products in part because those things are not people. Buildings and offices and ballparks and shoes may have human qualities, but are not themselves human. Likewise humans may be industrious or durable or attractive in the manner of good companies, but that doesn’t make them corporate.

You and I are not brands. Our parents did not raise us to be brands. Nor would we want our children to be brands, any more than we want them to be logos.

“Personal branding” is a nice gloss on playing for celebrity. And celebrity is a Faustian bargain. Ask any veteran celebrity and they’ll tell you that. They live in fishbowls and yet, for all their familiarity, are not well understood as three-dimensional human beings. The healthy ones deal with it gracefully. The unhealthy ones use their celebrity as a façade (as with Tiger Woods), as a pass to a virtual Las Vegas where everybody keeps indiscretions secret (as with Tiger Woods), or as an ideal they can never really match (and hence seek surgical alignment, as with too many to count).

Many of us assume without question that celebrity also equates with income. It doesn’t. There is a degree of correlation, but in the long run we get hired for the useful goods we bring to the market’s table. Not because we have a “personal brand.”

Building trust and maintaining a reputation matter. Calling both “branding” is a categorical error.

Then I took a closer look at the blog and realized that it had no apparent author, and the about page was WordPress boilerplate. So I looked up the headline on Google, and got a fog of identical results.

The original appears to be this one, at ReadWrite Start. The byline is Audrey Watters, and that’s the post that most (or perhaps all — I didn’t go down the whole list) of the many citing tweets point to.

But there are all these other re-posts as well (listed in order of Google’s first page of search results):

All were from ReadWriteWeb feeds, obviously. I suppose these might be good for ReadWriteWeb (which deserves the respect it gets), but they also have the effect of deliberately false radar images. They are also part of the Google AdSense ecosystem, within which publications of all sizes try to game the system by re-posting attractive postings that will bait traffic and inbound linkage, goosing up the site’s PageRank to the point where ad placements appear, click-throughs happen, and money comes in.

An interesting thing about all these re-postings is that Audrey Watters‘ byline does not appear in them. So we have the interesting irony of a post about personal branding re-appearing all over the place with the writer’s name stripped out.

Obviously some dysfunctional things are happening here. And I doubt any more talk about “branding” will help, beyond accounting for some of the motives involved.

Bonus link.

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I’ll be giving a talk by the title above, at 4pm in the conference room of the Berkman Center, 23 Everett Street in Cambridge. The occasion is the regular bi-weekly meeting of our Infrastructure Group — an informal collection of folks interested in the topic. The group was gathered by Christian Sandvig, an authority on the topic. (Christian gave a great talk last week in the Berkman luncheon series. Check it out.)

Infrastructure has long been a focus of my work as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology & Society at UCSB, although at this stage I’m still more of an observer of the topic than an authority on it. You’ll find lots of photos tagged with “infrastructure” in my Flickr stream (now more than 34,000 shots long), plus more at the Berkman Infrastructure Group’s own Flickr site. I’ll be leveraging some of those, and putting what I’ve gathered into the helpful contextprovided by Stewart Brand‘s great book, How Buildings Learn — What happens after they’re built (which was later made into a BBC series you can watch on Google Video).

Look forward to seeing some of ya’ll there.

At 11:30pm on April 22, 1978 Saturday Night Live opened with Paul Schaffer, made up to look like music promoter Don Kirshner (whose show ran in most markets right after SNL). What followed was a lesson in branding that we’re still learning. Here’s  how it looks in the show’s transcript (sorry, the original isn’t on YouTube):

Don Kirshner…..Paul Shaffer
Jake Blues…..John Belushi
Elwood Blues…..Dan Aykroyd

[ open on Don Kirschner ]

Don Kirschner: I’m Don Kirschner, and welcome to “Rock Concert”. In 1969, Marshall Checkers, of the legendary Checkers Records, called me on a new blues act that had been playing in a small, funky club on Chicago’s South Side. Today, with the help of Jerry Erdegan, and the staff of Pacific Records, their manager, Morey Daniels, and with the support of fellow artists Curtis Selgado and the Cray Band, they are no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product. So now, let’s join “Joliet” Jake and his silent brother Elwood — The Blues Brothers.

[ pan down and dissolve to Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, performing on the stage below ]

That was the first the world saw of the Blues Brothers: two actors who parlayed ironic comedy into a successful movie, in which the layers of irony piled higher and higher. All those layers speak volumes about “branding” — the reality, not the buzzword. What they say (or can’t un-say) is that the Blues Brothers are a commercial product.

Coming off my flight to London the other day I was caught in the crunch to leave the plane, in that spot near the door where the two aisles squeeze into one for the jetway. There I found myself in the passing company of two passengers talking about “personal brands” and how “social media” is good for them. I wanted to say “brands are boring” to them, but decided to blog about it instead. Hence the post by that title at the last link.

Since then I’ve been pointed to various writers and posts that put nice paint jobs on the cattle-burning practice that “branding” was originally — and still, in spite of all marketing spin to the contrary, remains. This here cartoon for example, which got me boiling again.

So I decided to have another go at it, partly because I don’t want the topic to die (until “branding” is exposed for the shallow thing it too often is), and partly because I just read Brand Rehab, the Schupeter column in the April 10, 2010 issue of The Economist. Like too much of everything else, it’s about Tiger Woods. But, being the Economist, it’s about the money, which always focuses matters. For example,

Tiger Woods’s penchant for cocktail waitresses and porn actresses ended up costing an astonishing amount of money: two economists at the University of California, Davis, have calculated that his biggest corporate sponsors, such as Nike and Gatorade, saw as much as $12 billion wiped off the value of their shares in the wake of the scandal.

That’s twelve billion. With a B.

One company that took a huge hit, of course, was Accenture. Dig Guanabee’s Worst Tiger Woods Accenture Ads for a reminder of what all of us heavy travelers saw printed on back-lit plexiglass displays in airport concourses over the years leading up to revelations about Tiger’s personal life, after which they all disappeared. (Except, of course, on the Web.) One sample:

Accenture failed here by assuming that Tiger wasn’t human. Which is close enough to true, if you’re just looking at Tiger as a golfer. The man is not only the closest any golfer has ever come to walking robotics, but his whole golf persona has always been remarkably mechanical as well.

Turn a person into a brand, and what do you get? Something incomplete at best, and fake at worst. Borrow that human brand to represent your company, and you take some risks. Your branded celebrity might actually be a fine human being. Or they might be a philandering scumbag. Either way, the brand is a paint job. It’s not real except in the commercial dimension, and only in a narrow way even there.

The only advertiser that has stuck with Tiger since the bimbo bombs started going off is another landmark brand: Nike. The latest Nike/Tiger ad features the golfer’s sad face, staring at the camera, while the voice of his dead father speaks. “I want to find out what your thinking was,” Earl Woods says.”I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything.” Well, one thing the rest of us learned was that Tiger was with one of his mistresses on the night he got word that his father had died.

Nike, the brand, famously supports its sponsored athletes because the company is about athletes and athletics. Which is all fine. What matters is what the athletes do on the field, on the court, on the golf course. Sure. But what matters more is what these companies actually do.

Here in Reality, companies buy Accenture’s services. Individuals buy Nike’s shoes. None of what customers buy from either company gets an ounce of substantive worth from Tiger Woods, or from anything those companies do with their “branding” strategies, no matter how much those strategies serve to help sales and stock prices.

We live in an age when we can kick tires hard. Accenture’s and Nike’s tires are not Tiger Woods. And Tiger Woods, even if he’s long been a lying sack of shit, isn’t a tire either. He’s a human being, and that’s what makes him interesting. Not what his golf game says about companies that pay him.

In his comment below my Brands are boring post, Chris Carfi pointed to this post on BlogHer in which Yvonne, a blogger there, unloaded on people who insist she act like a blogging brand, rather than the human being she’s been all along:

Blogging as I know it has changed.

Woman with Mouth Stitched Shut

And I just can’t keep up. Because this blog isn’t a business. My blog is personal.

I just want to keep writing about my life. About my kids. About my struggles with health and weight and body image. I just want to write.

I feel like a complete misfit in blogging, which is so weird because I’ve been doing this since 2002 and what the hell?

Blogging is a business! Build your brand! YOUR BRAAANNNNNDDDD!

There’s no denying that I’ve been given some pretty amazing opportunities through blogging. (Interviewing the cast of New Adventures of Old Christine. Meeting Tony Hawk.) And that still amazes me. But that’s not WHY I do it. That will never be why I do it.

And suddenly, it feel like — if that’s not why I’m doing it, why even bother?

I used to be able to sit down and write a post about the most trivial things — like my trip to the doctor’s office yesterday, for example — hit publish, enjoy the comments and move on to the next post. Now I doubt every post. “This isn’t good enough.” “No one will care about that.” “People are writing about HEALTH CARE REFORM AND YOU’RE WRITING ABOUT PEEING WHILE YOU SNEEZE YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.”

I also used to be able to write about important things, like depression or body image and feel safe. Feel like it mattered. Like by writing my story I was helping people and that people were helping me by reading, by sharing their stories. I know that is still true, but sometimes? I feel like the stories aren’t being heard because we’re all too busy about traffic and page views and twitter followers and OUR BRRRANNND.

And that’s fine! It’s wonderful that women are finding success because of their blogs — I mean it, it makes me so proud. But also? A little sad. Sad that those of us who are just here for the writing, for the stories, for the good content are feeling so out of place and irrelevant.

I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore other than to say I’m struggling with blogging right now and I hope that by writing this out I will be able to make some sort of peace with it all and stop over thinking this shit and JUST START WRITING AGAIN BECAUSE I MOTHER FUCKING LOVE TO WRITE.

Amen, sister.

David Siegel, author of the excellent new book Pull, shares with me an abiding frustration with all major camera makers — especially the Big Two: Canon and Nikon: they’re silos. They require lenses that work only on their cameras and nobody else’s. In Vendor Lock-in FAIL David runs down the particulars. An excerpt:

If you have a Canon body, you’re probably going to buy Canon lenses. Why? Not because they are the best, but because they are the only lenses Canon bodies can autofocus. Canon keeps this interface between body and lens proprietary, to keep Canon owners buying more Canon lenses and prevent them from using third-party lenses. A company called Zeiss makes better lenses than Canon does, but Canon won’t license the autofocus codes toZeiss at any price, because Canon executives know that many of their customers would switch and buy Zeiss lenses and they would sell fewer Canon lenses. The same goes for Nikon. And it’s true – we would.

I didn’t know that Canon froze out Zeiss. Canon doesn’t freeze out Sigma and Tamron, both of which make compatible lenses for both Canon and Nikon (many of them, in fact).  Zeiss makes three lenses for Sony cameras but none for Canon and Nikon. I had assumed that Zeiss had some kind of exclusive deal with Sony.

In any case, photographers have long taken camera maker lock-in for granted. And there is history here. Backwards compatibility has always been a hallmark of Nikon with the F-mount, which dates back to 1959. Would Nikon photographers want the company to abandon its mount for lens compatibility with Canon and others? I kinda think not, but I don’t know. I’ve been a Canon guy, like David, since 2005. I shoot a lot, but I don’t have a single lens that a serious photographer would consider good. For example, I own not one L-series lens. (Those are Canon’s best.) All my lenses I bought cheap and/or used (or, in one case, was given to me).  I was a Nikon guy back in the 70s and 80s, but my gear (actually, my company’s gear, but I treated it like my own) all got stolen. Later I was a Pentax guy, but all that stuff got stolen too. Then I was a Minolta guy, and which I stayed until Minolta went out of business (basically getting absorbed into Sony, a company that could hardly be more proprietary and committed to incompatibility). I decided to dabble in digital in 2005, with a Nikon point-and-shoot (the CoolPix 5700, which had great color and an awful UI). I went with Canon for my first (and still only) SLR, an EOS 30D. (I also use a full-frame EOS 5D, but I won’t consider it mine until I’m done paying for it. Meanwhile none of my old lenses work right on it –they all have vignetting — another source of annoying incompatibility.)

Anyway, I do sympathize with David here:

While Nikon and Canon will both say they need to keep their proprietary interfaces to make sure the autofocus is world-class, they are both living in an old-world mentality. The future is open. Some day, you’ll be able to put a Canon lens right on a Nikon body and it will work fine. And you’ll be able to put a Zeiss lens on and it will work even better. But that day is far off. It will only come when the two companies finally realize the mistake they are making with their arms race now and start to talk openly about a better long-term solution.

Stephen Lewis (who is a serious photographer) and I have talked often about the same problem, [later... he says I got this (and much else) wrong, in this comment)] and also look toward the future with some degree of hope. As for faith, I dunno. As companies that are set in their ways go, it’s hard to beat the camera makers.

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And “social media” is a crock. Or perhaps an oxymoron.

Brands are boring because they’re not human. They’re companies. And, despite the recent Supreme Court decision to the contrary, companies are not human. They are abstractions that make business possible. Businesses are necessary to thriving economies and working civilizations. They are comprised of human beings and therefore have human qualities. But they are not themselves human.

The term “brand” was borrowed by from the cattle industry, and came into popular use during the golden age of network radio, in the 1930s and ’40s, when large suppliers to grocery and department stores (especially detergent and tobacco companies) won space in “shelf wars” by putting one  product in eight different packages and singing about the difference. Singing was a form of branding. You burned a song into consumers’ heads, so they had no choice but to recall it. “If you’ve got nothing to say, sing it,” the saying went.

Okay, hit it (in 3/4 time, and a Munich beer house spirit, flasks raised, singing loudly)…

Schaefer
Is the
One beer to have
When you’re having more than one.
Schaefer
Pleasure
Doesn’t fade
Even when your thirst is done.
The most rewarding flavor
In this man’s world
Is for people who are having fun.
Schaefer
Is the
One beer to have
When you’re having more than one.

I can’t help knowing that song because Schaefer burned it into the brains of baseball fans listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games. I know this one…

My beer is Rheingold the dry beer.
Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer.
It’s not bitter, not sweet.
It’s the extra dry treat.
Won’t you buy extra dry Rheingold beer?

.. because Rheingold advertised during Giants games.

Piels and Ballantine had less memorable jingles, though I do remember “Bert and Harry Piels,” who were actually Bob & Ray, the most dry and ironic radio comedians who ever walked the earth.

In those days it made sense to brand, because there were so few media, and — actually — so few companies. If you wanted to make beer you needed a big industrial brewery.  The Industrial Age was one in which Industry was All.

This is no longer the case.

As for social media, all media now need to be social. Mediation is between humans, some of which are inside companies. Hence, “social media” as oxymoron. Sort of, anyway.

Meanwhile, lots of social media types are talking about brands and branding as if these were new and hip things. They’re not. They’re heavy and old. We need to move on, folks. Think of something human instead.

When a friend came back from SXSW recently, we talked about how, at the show, it was “social every fucking thing there is.” The term SEFTTI was thus coined.

We need to move past that too.

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March Madness for me this year was a double treat. First, my team, the Duke Blue Devils, won the championship. (Though my heart went out to Butler, which came within inches of winning at the buzzer on a half-court shot.) Second, I got to follow the Devils, and North Carolina Basketball in general, on . I did this over on my iPhone. I listened in my pocket as I cooked in the kitchen, rode on my bike, and walked to the bus and the train. I dug and in the mornings, the PackMan in the afternoon, and hyper-local features such as the Duke Basketball show from the Washington Duke Inn, on Duke’s campus).

I loved hearing old familiars like , and Duke play-by-play announcer , who started as a sales guy at WDNC in 1975, not long after I left that same job. In those days WDNC was a struggling Top 40 station, still owned by the Durham Herald-Sun newspapers, still with studios in the paper’s building, and still carrying CBS news (its lone connection to a glorious past). Since then WDNC has bounced through a number of formats, and currently thrives in the overlap of , and empires. Its FM counterpart is WCMC/99.9, which didn’t exist when I left town in 1985. Currently known as “620 The Buzz” (the FM is “The Fan”), it was until recently The Bull. (In fact, if you go to http://wdnc.com, it re-directs to http://www.620thebull.com/, which is a blank page. Somebody needs to get a second re-direct going there.)

A confession. Not long after Bob Harris took over play-by-play for Duke games, he often had Mike Krzyzewski, then Duke’s rookie basketball coach, as a guest. I wasn’t a fan of Coach K. His predecessor, Bill Foster, was gregarious, emotional and easy for fans to love, Krzyzewski seemed cold and a bit nasty. He rarely smiled and had coaching style that appeared to consisted entirely of barking at officials. I once said of him, “There’s nothing about that guy that a blow-dry and a sense of humor wouldn’t cure.” While it wasn’t quite a nickname for Coach K, it stuck, and I heard it repeated often. Today, of course, Krzyzewski is an institution, and much loved by everybody who knows him, especially his players.

Anyway, the most interesting irony to me, as I listen to WDNC here in Cambridge, Mass, is that it has long been the custom in radio to obsess about signals and coverage — since you can’t listen to what you can’t get. Among souls who still do this I know few who are more devoted, even still, than I am. (The very best is Scott Fybush, by the way. I love his site visits.)

As a kid growing up in New Jersey I would ride my bike down to visit the transmitters of New York’s AM stations, whose towers bristled from swamps on the flanks of the Hackensack river: WABC, WINS, WMGM/WHN, WOV/WADO, WMCA, WNEW, WHOM…

I’d talk with the guys who manned the transmitters (they were always guys, and they were often old), logging readings and walking out to the towers to make sure all was well. I became a ham radio operator around that time, and continued to fancy myself something of an engineer, though technically I wasn’t. Still, I jumped at the opportunity to take shifts maintaining WDNC’s transmitter as a side job when I worked there. The whole plant was about the same age as me (at the time, 27), and spread across about ten acres at the end of a dirt road on the northwest side of town. It was 5000 watts by day and 1000 watts by night, with directional patterns produced by its three towers. The shot above is from Bing’s excellent “bird’s eye” view of the site. (Why doesn’t Microsoft make more of this? Google has nothing like it, and it totally rocks.) And it’s much nicer now than it was then. At that time the fields had turned to high brush, and I needed to ride a lawnmower out to the towers on a bumpy path, so I wouldn’t get ticks. (One could pick up — I’m not kidding, hundreds of ticks by walking out there.)

What fascinated me most about the facility was the engineering files, which included details on the transmission patterns and coverage maps showing how waves interacted with conductive ground to produce signal intensities that didn’t look as much like the signal pattern as one might expect. AM coverage depends on ground conductivity. In North Carolina (and the East in general) the ground conductivity is poor; but at the bottom end of the AM dial the waves are longer and travel farther along the ground in any case. WDNC was at 620, so its signal was many times the size of a signal at the top end of the dial with the same wattage.

Now I can go online and see WDNC’s daytime pattern here and its nighttime pattern here — both at . I can see the coverage they produce at . Here’s a mash-up of patterns (left) and coverage (right):

Which is all well and cool. Playing with this stuff is catnip for me. But it’s also meaningless, once radio moves off AM and FM and onto the Net, where in the long run it makes much more sense.

What we’re dealing with, in the images I show here, is exceedingly antique stuff. The basics of AM broadcast engineering were set in the 1920s and 1930s. FM dates from the 1940s and 1950s. Recent improvements to both (through IBOC — In Band On Channel) are largely proprietary, and uptake on the receiving end borders on pathetic. None of the technologies employed are interactive, much less Net-native. They soak billions of watts off the world’s power grids. AM stations occupy large areas of real estate. FM and TV stations use frequencies that require high elevations, provided by tall towers, buildings or mountains, offering hazards to aviation and bird migration. Not to mention that lots of the biggest towers tend to fall down. In 1989 a pair of 2000-foot TV/FM towers near Raleigh (serving the same areas outlined above) collapsed in the same ice storm.

Three problems stand in the way of building out radio on the Net.

First is the mobile phone system that carries it. When I listen to WDNC on my iPhone, I don’t care how much data I use. AT&T has no data limit for the iPhone or the iPad. Other carriers need to have similar deals. To my knowledge they don’t — at least not in the U.S. (Sprint used to, and after my problems with Sprint last year I doubt I’ll use its system much for media again son.) Still, even AT&T regards subordinates mobile data to mobile telephony. This gets more retro every day. In the long run, we’ll have a mobile data system that includes mobile telephony but is not defined by it (and its infuriating billing systems). These also need to be better integrated with wi-fi from all sources (and not just the carriers’ own). These days most wi-fi access points are “secure,” making them useless as part of a larger system. But that can change.

Second is revising the rules restricting music streamed and podcast over the Net. Copyright law, especially as established by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, screwed the hell out of music broadcasting and podcasting. Today we have some of the former and little of the latter (except for “podsafe” music, which includes approximately nothing that’s been popular over the last 80 years). Fixing this won’t be easy, but it needs to be done.

Third is revising the means by which stations make money, and rules about where advertising can be carried. For the former we need a much better system for listeners to pay broadcasters on a voluntary basis, for both commercial and noncommercial stations. (This is why at ProjectVRM we are working on EmanciPay, for example.) For advertising, there are currently restrictions on much national advertising, which is why the majority of ads I hear on WDNC (and other commercial stations that do streaming) are public service announcements from the Ad Council. Listening to these, over and over and over and over, accelerates the listeners own aging process.

Networks and stations also need to realize that more and more online listeners aren’t tuning in to Web pages. They’re tuning directly to streams using applications on mobile devices. The folks on WDNC do a good job of using Twitter, Facebook and other familiar “social media,” but they don’t seem to have a clue that it’s a heck of a lot easier to listen to mobile radio on something that’s actually like a radio — namely a smartphone — than on a computer. Search for “radio” in Apple’s app store and you’ll get hundreds of results. The Public Radio Player, there on the left, has had over 2.5 million downloads so far. Hopefully the iPad will help. Check out Pandora’s latest.

Anyway, a big thanks to the folks at WDNC/TheBuzz for a great season of Duke, Carolina and ACC basketball coverage — especially for a listener stuck here in New England, where pro sports dominate. (Not that I don’t love those too. I just need my college basketball fix.) Props to @TZarzour and @WRALsportsFan too.

I was just interviewed for a BBC television feature that will run around the same time the iPad is launched. I’ll be a talking head, basically. For what it’s worth, here’s what I provided as background for where I’d be coming from in the interview:

  1. The iPad will arrive in the market with an advantage no other completely new computing device for the mass market has ever enjoyed: the ability to run a 100,000-app portfolio that’s already developed, in this case for the iPhone. Unless the iPad is an outright lemon, this alone should assure its success.
  2. The iPad will launch a category within which it will be far from the only player. Apple’s feudal market-control methods (all developers and customers are trapped within its walled garden) will encourage competitors that lack the same limitations. We should expect other hardware companies to launch pads running on open source operating systems, especially Android and Symbian. (Disclosure: I consult Symbian.) These can support much larger markets than Apple’s closed and private platforms alone will allow.
  3. The first versions of unique hardware designs tend to be imperfect and get old fast. Such was the case with the first iPods and iPhones, and will surely be the case with the first iPads as well. The ones being introduced next week will seem antique one year from now.
  4. Warning to competitors: copying Apple is always a bad idea. The company is an example only of itself. There is only one Steve Jobs, and nobody else can do what he does. Fortunately, he only does what he can control. The rest of the market will be out of his control, and it will be a lot bigger than what fits inside Apple’s beautiful garden.

I covered some of that, and added a few things, which I’ll enlarge with a quick brain dump:

  1. The iPad brings to market a whole new form factor that has a number of major use advantages over smartphones, laptops and netbooks, the largest of which is this: it fits in a purse or any small bag — where it doesn’t act just like any of those other devices. (Aside from running all those iPhone apps.) It’s easy and welcoming to use — and its uses are not subordinated, by form, to computing or telephony. It’s an accessory to your own intentions. This is an advantage that gets lost amidst all the talk about how it’s little more than a new display system for “content.”
  2. My own fantasy for tablets is interactivity with the everyday world. Take retailing for example. Let’s say you syndicate your shopping list, but only to trusted retailers, perhaps through a fourth party (one that works to carry out your intentions, rather than sellers’ — though it can help you engage with them). You go into Target and it gives you a map of the store, where the goods you want are, and what’s in stock, what’s not, and how to get what’s mising, if they’re in a position to help you with that. You can turn their promotions on or off, and you can choose, using your own personal terms of service, what data to share with them, what data not to, and conditions of that data’s use. Then you can go to Costco, the tire store, and the university library and do the same. I know it’s hard to imagine a world in which customers don’t have to belong to loyalty programs and submit to coercive and opaque terms of data use, but it will happen, and it has a much better chance of happening faster if customers are independent and have their own tools for engagement. Which are being built. Check out what Phil Windley says here about one approach.
  3. Apple works vertically. Android, Symbian, Linux and other open OSes, with the open hardware they support, work horizonally. There is a limit to how high Apple can build its walled garden, nice as it will surely be. There is no limit to how wide everybody else can make the rest of the marketplace. For help imagining this, see Dave Winer’s iPad as a Coral Reef.
  4. Content is not king, wrote Andrew Oldyzko in 2001. And he’s right. Naturally big publishers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Condé Nast, the Book People) think so. Their fantasy is the iPad as a hand-held newsstand (where, as with real-world newsstands, you have to pay for the goods). Same goes for the TV and movie people, who see the iPad as a replacement for their old distribution systems (also for pay). No doubt these are Very Big Deals. But how the rest of us use iPads (and other tablets) is a much bigger deal. Have you thought about how you’ll blog, or whatever comes next, on an iPad? Or on any tablet? Does it only have to be in a browser? What about using a tablet as a production device, and not just an instrument of consumption? I don’t think Apple has put much thought into this, but others will, outside Apple’s walled garden. You should too. That’s because we’re at a juncture here. A fork in the road. Do we want the Internet to be broadcasting 2.0 — run by a few content companies and their allied distributors? Or do we want it to be the wide open marketplace it was meant to be in the first place, and is good for everybody? (This is where you should pause and read what Cory Doctorow and Dave Winer say about it.)
  5. We’re going to see a huge strain on the mobile data system as iPads and other tablets flood the world. Here too it will matter whether the mobile phone companies want to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, or just conduits for their broadcasting and content production partners. (Or worse, old fashioned phone companies, treating and billing data in the same awful ways they bill voice.) There’s more money in the former than the latter, but the latter are their easy pickings. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

I also deal with all this in a longer post that will go up elsewhere. I’ll point to it here when it comes up. Meanwhile, dig this post by Dave Winer and this one by Jeff Jarvis.

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I just learned by Eric Martindale’s comment to my Borg’s Woods post in February that the March 13 storm knocked down many of the trees in the old growth urban forest that was our neighborhood playground when I was a kid. For more here’s a post in the NJUrbanForest blog, and here are some pictures as well.

Storms are as much a part of nature as old growth forests, even when the former reduces the latter. Sad to read, however, that mosquito abatement has involved the draining of the woods’ pond, where generations of kids learned to skate in a beautiful setting.

For perspective perhaps it is helpful to note that the boggy parts of Borg’s Woods are among the few vernal remnants of glacial Lake Hackensack, which pooled over most of the Hackensack River watershed when the last ice age began to end around 15,000 years ago. The lake lasted several millennia, then drained around 11,500 years ago, when the terminal moraine near Perth Amboy broke. Back then the sea was still far outside the current borders of New York and New Jersey. Only when the rest of the ice cap melted did the oceans reach their current level — which, as we know, is still rising.