Friday, August 29, 2008

Where is the innovation coming from now?

Today I read on the BBC that soliders are learning battle-field tactics through a virtual simulator called Virtual Battle Space 2.

The story spiked my interest in a way that transcends virtual games and treads on the much broader subject on what used to be called the military-industrial complex. That is, the industry of government contracts, mostly defence contracts, farmed out to large corporations for the research and development of complex industrial machinery and technology.

The thought that I have is that back in the day (I guess that'd be pre-21st century) it was quite easy for governments to manage secretive technological innovations by contracting to a small number of large industrial corporations. However the real innovation nowadays is not really in how to build a bigger jet fighter or a stronger motorised tank, rather it's in the more abstract spaces of how to build a smaller camera or smarter information technology. In these areas you don't need the capital or manpower of a large industrial corporations, really you just need some computing power and plenty of brainpower.

Back in 1992 John Ralston Saul compiled his polemic, Voltaires Bastards, that gave a fascinating insight into the sales conventions held by arms dealers in exotic locations with many mysterious characters. The sales booths were selling stinger missiles, fighter jets and land mines. It was scary stuff and it all seemed to be dominated by the large industrials.

So, finally getting to the point - whereas in the past it was quite easy to say that the real innovation and technological leaps were made through large corporations, in today's world where does the real innovation come from? Is Virtual Battle Space 2 really much better than World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto IV? Are the secretive industrial complexes still hiding the technology or is it the small commercial start-ups that are the innovators of the 21st century? Is transition from disparate units of knowledge to a hyper-connected society braking down the barriers to innovation?

Maybe yes, or maybe no, or maybe I might just be living in a naive idealistic world where innovation comes from the masses for the masses. I hope I'm right.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fun with mash-ups

L O V e-ca N u M is for matches b E37 r22 t W4 O

I love mash-ups. All the social media and collaborative theory in the world can't explain web2.0 any better than a good mash-up.

Above is my blog title using Spell with Flickr by Erik Kastner.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Status, rank and how to make everyone happy

The mindset of web users is shifting (slowly for most) to the acceptance of the Internet now not only as a tool for viewing information, but also as a tool for creating and discussing information. Marketers are embracing this concept (slowly too I might add) and are now using the web for a variety of interactive promotions or, in some instances, community building.

But of course, as with all promotions, marketers can't get something for nothing. If you want to engage your customers you need to be able to provide a reward. In sales it's usually quite simple, give a discount or some other form of physical or monetary incentive. This works in a transactional sense, but does not exploit the true benefits of what the web is capable of.

Two examples that provide us with an example of what is possible are Amazon and eBay. While the format of these businesses are somewhat unique (their customers are both buyers AND sellers), one of the successful tools that they employ is not overly complicated, but is attractive because it hits us on a largely universal level - and that is status.

Starting even before you know what status means, it's there and people are using it to place you in the pecking order. If you ever did Scouts you'd know your status by your badges. Scouts Australia say it is to:

* Facilitate the young person's entry into the Scout Troop.
* Reinforce or teach basic Scouting skills.
* Provide early recognition, and
* Encourage further participation in the Scout Award Scheme

On a national societal level you'll encounter more status symbols than could be imagined. The Australian Government says that its honours "help define, encourage and reinforce national aspirations, ideals and standards by identifying role models. We give honours to recognise, celebrate and say thank you to those who make a difference, those who achieve their best and those who serve others."

Taking this long standing societal notion of status through rank and honour we can see that it is employed vigorously through many of the web's successful businesses. Coming back to our two pioneering online businesses we can see that rank and status is front and centre and one of the primary shopper tools when deciding with whom to shop with.

eBay uses a coloured star system to rank their sellers, with the highest award being a "power seller". The system is based on the transactional value of your business per month and the quality of feedback you receive from buyers. A power seller badge on your profile is meant to inspire confidence in the quality of service a buyer will receive. However there are murmurs throughout the eBay community about the value in the power seller badge.

A recent blog post on the Romow shopping blog described the anger of many small business eBay sellers to the news that eBay had struck up a deal with the large brand whereby can now sell its products on eBay, surely gaining instant power seller status. Locally in Australia, the large online auction house OO-Auctions is also an eBay power seller. By changing the level of the playing field in eBay you get the feeling that the small businesses that have earnt their status the hard way have a right to feel poorly when large businesses tread on what used to be their exclusive turf.

At the same time, another example clearly shows how the automated function of status giving can sometimes lead to unwarranted status. eBay seller Violetsaxrayphone, in an eBay community forum described how she was given power seller status after she offered her services as a mercenary in Iraq for $20,000 dollars. The value of her post must have been enough to trigger power seller status and this stayed until the next automated review of status.

eBay seems to be learning many lessons very quickly about the value of status in a community. If you employ a status system ensure that it is level across all users, naturally the bigger you become the easier it is to stay there, but as is becoming the norm on the web - don't forget the long tail.

Amazon more recently introduced the reseller system and has taken a slightly different, less complicated, path. It has a one to five star system of seller status that is based on feedback and fulfillment metrics and leaves out volume or monetary targets. This system seems to keep a more level playing field. Although the status may not seem as grand it is effective in what the status system is trying to achieve - buyer confidence.

Amazon has also taken the status system and implemented one for reviewers of its products. Instead of reviewing only the products, the actual reviewers themselves are "reviewed" through a system that recognises consistent and informed contributions. Much like the badge system of Scouts or the Army, reviewers are awarded badges based on their contributions. The uniqueness of these badges also distinguishes reviewers - I personally like the "The" badge for known industry personalities.

Status is not limited to buyers and sellers though. In Web 2.0-land many people on the web do not buy or sell anything, rather they interact with each other with information and knowledge as the defining features of status. But the question is how to provide status to this new breed of web user?

Technorati has gone some way to solving this question by introducing the "Authority" system for bloggers. In this system bloggers are awarded an authority number based on the number of current links on others' blogs. While the system is simple enough there can also be problems seen in this system, similar to the eBay dilemma. The premise of the Technorati system, while admittedly requiring blogs to have content worthy of linking to, favours those blogs that have multiple contributors. At what point does the blog/newspaper cross-over happen? The Huffington Post is ranked here but the NY Times is not. Technorati does not give a very clear explanation. I would suggest Technorati provides a widget for the Technorati "fans" ranking too as this may give fairer view of the quality of the post rather than the number of posts.

AdAge's Power 150 of bloggers also trys to rank bloggers. While it is a selective list it aggregates a number of ranking systems to try and even out the playing field. However this system by-and-large still revolves around the volume of links rather than quality.

And finally I come to professional status online. Short of taking a photograph of your university degree and widgetising it, a system for ranking the status of professionals online is something that must be discussed. LinkedIn has had a stab at the status badge with its Company Insider widget. It works like a reverse status symbol. By adding the widget to a company name you give a reader the opportunity to see who they are linked to via LinkedIn in that company. I am not sure of the benefits given to the poster of the original content though. LexisNexis' Martindale index of lawyers has had a go at utilising the function and an example can be seen here.

What the Martindale index does show, though, is a well thought out system for attributing status to lawyers through its Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings. Accompanying this is the visibility ranking on each lawyer page which is a simple ranking system based on the number of weekly profile views of the person/firm's profile page.

So, what's the big deal with status!? As we can see from these examples it is a pretty big deal. We live in a world of rankings and status that has been ingrained in us from birth. We search by and feel comfortable when another person has given status to another person. From the preceding case studies we can also take away a few key points to guide us on our way to true and fair rankings:

1. KISS - keep it simple stupid
2. Be fair - make sure that the small guys have a chance of a high ranking as well
3. Keep it relevant - make sure that your ranking system is relevant to your audience and the benefits of the ranking are easily identified
4. Set the rules - Clearly set out the ground rules for your ranking system
5. Make it rewarding - Make the system rewarding for good work, don't penalise people for not keeping up with others

I'm hoping that I've got all the status speak out of my head now, it's a contentious subject, you could spend days cruising through the hundreds of discussion threads on the topic.

Have I missed anything? Are there any other good examples of status or ranking systems out there?

01/09/2008 Update: I've noticed on Flickr you can pay to become a pro Flickr-ist(?) and you get a little "pro" icon at the end of your name. Paying for status? Not sure what benefit the pro icon is, except telling others you can do more stuff than them.

01/09/2008 Update: Wikipedia and the wiki community-at-large have the barnstar recognition system for wiki contributors. That would be a nice thing to put on your CV - and all it takes is some knowledge and hard work.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Social networks will eat themselves

Hands up anyone who knows how many social networks there are out there?

Laurel Papworth, Australian social media blogger at large, has a list of 40 250 mobile social networks. Yahoo says that their are 229 social networks. Mashable reckons there are over 350 social networks - their readers think there's even more.

Thinking about social groups from a real-life down in the school yard perspective, there will always be cross-overs between groups. But in a school yard perspective it's about status and friendships, valuable time and having fun.

Virtual social networks, I think, are a totally different beast. Sure for the participants the idea is to keep the good times rolling even when you go home from the school yard / local pub / work site or office. But behind these networks are more and more large corporate megoliths out there purely for the almighty buck.

A funny article popped up online today that got me thinking about these shareholder loving mega-corporates and how they're playing the social networking game. The article says that Fox News has joined Facebook, even though its parent, News Corporation owns MySpace. It's a great piece of subversive action on behalf of Fox News and I think a big slap in the face of its parent. I'd hate to have been the SVP for development, who had to explain this away - next stop dole queue me-thinks. But, it makes me think, what happens when all the mega-corporate social networks start hanging out with eachother?

If Fox News is hanging out with Facebook and MSNBC is hanging out with MySpace, then I guess Google will want to BFF someone too because they'd hate to be left out in the rain (and their gang Orkut needs some love too!). It's looking like the school yard is getting a little crowded. Friendster seems to have done a Cartman *screw you guys!* and gone to hang out with the Asian gang (it's huge in SE Asia).

It's all fun and games to be joking about how the big corporations are hanging out with each other, but the scary thing is that there are mega-bucks involved in not only the online social networks but also the old media dinosaurs that are trying to hitch their little cabooses to the next new media train leaving dodge.

I'll need the help of an economist here or some wizz-bang analyst, but if in the convoluted world of media corporations, somehow they all end up BFFing their competitors I think that the double-dutch game of elastics is going to get ugly and one if not more social networks or old media barons are going to get a big flick in the face.

What happens then? For the social networkers they might lose their profile, a few friends, maybe a photograph or two up on their page. But with all the moolah swirling around behind the scenes I'd hate to think we've unwittingly blown ourselves into another huge bubble that's about to burst over the whole school yard. That's a mess I'd prefer not to have on me.

Edit: I had a thought. If News Corp was to create a social network for its shareholders which one would they pick? MySpace?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Love in the commercial world

There's love and then there's love. Love in the first kind is an emotion that transcends all other feelings, rational thought or personal barriers and gives itself wholly and uncontrollably over to another. In large part this kind of love is between two people or a person and their religion.

Then there's love...

Giving ones self over wholly to another, you could say, is pretty much what the commercial world is all about. All the advertising in the world, the press releases, the media stunts and the awards ceremonies, they're all there so that you as an individual can see, recognize, remember and want something or someone.

Giving yourself over to an idea is the essence of what a brand or organisation wants in this world. It's pretty simple, everything else - sales, repeat patronage, loyalty - will follow. Once you succumb to the idea, the rest just follows.

Kevin Roberts, worldwide CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi and the man behind the 'Lovemark', in a recent speech, outlined a fairly comprehensive list of instructions on how to find love in the modern world. Summarised, it's about big ideas; mystery, intimacy and alluring the senses; and making dreams a reality. This is really big picture stuff, and the more cynical out there might even say it's a bit Willy Wonka-ish. But, really, who wouldn't want a chocolate factory?

With technology closing the gap every day between what we can imagine and what is possible, the possibility of finding commercial love is becoming more of a reality for more organisations.

In the online world the social connections that companies want to make with their customers; organisations with their members and political parties with their voters; are becoming more and more easy to make. Websites, blogs, video-sharing, social networks and communities, are all tools that help us build commercial love.

In the physical world the technologies that let us create or replicate dreams are also within our reach. Audio and visual technologies are allowing us to step into dream worlds. Where once we had to push a button now we just say a name. Where once we had light and dark we now have all the colours of the spectrum. Searching is becoming obsolete because I already know what you want. Customisation is not an option, it is expected. Transactions are instant.

So that's pretty much what this blog is about. I'm on the hunt for what makes someone give themself over to an idea. It's not love in the first sense because we have to admit that this love is transient, it is replaceable and it is not physical. It's commercial love, a second more commoditised version of love. I'm going to call it, love number two.