It’s hard to dislike Nike ads. Yes, Nike is expensive, they use sweatshops, their products don’t last, etc. But when I’m watching one of their big budget advertisements, I have to admit these issues are very far from my mind. From a little insight – kids aspiring to be their idols – we get to see the best of football and the things that make it a beautiful game, played to a heartrate-raising soundtrack building to a climactic finish. For some delightful entertainment over the next four minutes, watch “Winner Stays”.

There is this neat article all the way from 2007, neatly dividing the slew of social network/media content sites out there into six types of social spaces. This is at a time when social networks are still new, and we didn’t have a framework through which we can classify them, between all the different types of user behaviors and media objects; not that these distinctions are actually any useful in identifying user motivations in using one site over another, or the types of relationships that the site engenders among its users.

Matt Locke developed a more user-centred model of classification, based on the assumptions users have about what they can *do* in certain kinds of space, who they’ll be doing it with, and what kinds of behaviours are expected.

I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, so here they are — six different types of social spaces, based on behaviours and expectations, not platforms, genres or formats. Caveat — this a crude analysis, and the examples are not exclusive — there are lots of overlaps between these spaces; and they exist both online and offline:

Secret Spaces

Behaviour: Private, intimate communication, normally with only one or two others, often using private references, slang or code

Expectations: Absolute privacy and control over the communication between users, and no unauthorised communication from third parties (eg spam)

Examples: SMS, IM


Group Spaces

Behaviours: Reinforcing the identity of a self-defined group, and your position within the group, eg ‘stroking‘ behaviour to let the group share a sense of belonging, or mild competitiveness to signal hierarchies within the group (eg who has the most friends, posts, tags, etc)

Expectations: A shared reference point for the group — eg a band, football club, school, workplace, region, etc. Rules about approving membership of the group, and icons for the group to signal their membership (badges, profiles, etc)

Examples: Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, etc


Publishing Spaces

Behaviours: Creating your own content or showcasing your talents to an audience outside of your usual social group

Expectations: The ability to control the context and presentation of your creative content. Ways to receive feedback, comments and advice from other users.

Examples: Flickr, Youtube, Revver, etc


Performing Spaces

Behaviours: Playing a defined role within a game structure. Experimenting through simulation, rehearsal and teamwork to achieve a goal. Iterative exploration or repetition of activities in order to perfect their performance

Expectations: A clear set of rules that is understood by all players. Clear rewards for success or failure. The ability to test the boundaries of the game structure, or to perform extravagantly to show off your talents

Examples: MMORPGs, Sports, Drama


Participation Spaces

Behaviours: Co-ordination of lots of small individual acts to achieve a common goal. Shared belief in the goal, and advocacy to encourage participation by others.

Expectations: Rules or structures that help co-ordinate activity towards the goal. The ability to create micro-communities within larger participation groups — eg a group of friends going on a political march together, or a workplace group created to train for a marathon

Examples: Meetup, Threadless,, MySociety


Watching Spaces

Behaviours: Passive viewing of a linear event as part of a large group. Organising a group to attend an event, and sharing experiences afterwards

Expectations: Spectacle, entertainment, a feeling of thrill or joy. A shared sense of occasion, or of being taking out of your everyday existence for the duration of the event. Mementos or relics of the event (eg programmes, tickets, recordings, photos, etc)

Examples: Television, Cinema, Sports, Theatre, etc

Danah Boyd (or danah boyd?) also recently did an interview, summarized at The Verge, that touched on the same points about different sites for different types of interactions, a behavior that I don’t think is restricted to that group called the millennials. Just as I had previously made the analogy that one does not sleep in the kitchen, so it is that people require different spaces and contexts for their different types of activities and interactions with different groups of people. To assume that Facebook itself can support the multitude of relationships out there is mistaken. Google+ tries to solve that with Circles, but that demands too much of the user the way different contexts of different apps don’t. (rightly pointed out by Dan Hon in his newsletter – subscribe!)

Which makes Facebook’s recent shopping spree – Instagram, Whatsapp, and now Oculus VR – so exciting. I’m really excited for the latest acquisition and think it is a brilliant buy, and Mark (because, you know, he seems like the type of CEO you’d address by first name) has laid out why it would be so. Gaming, sure, but think healthcare, education, armchair tourism, court side game seats as well.



Cue the en masse freaking out, but those who think that Mark is just trying to replicate Facebook and its unwieldy modern address book network experience to the other platforms it has acquired are sorely mistaken. Facebook the company is now bigger than Facebook the social network. The brand has expanded from being merely one social space to being a builder of social spaces, a digital architecture firm, if you will, for all forms of public/private/publicly-private/privately-public spaces for social interaction. Social, in Mark’s head, encompasses far more than what the lay audience have in mind. And people has always invented and looked for more ways to connect with one another. Software and digital interaction wants to approximate real life, and we’re far from achieving that in entirety. (Whisper, Secret, and now, Rumr? Break down gossip across the different spheres of life – romantic relationships, work, and you have a new social network app waiting. Note the latest craze – anti-social apps.) This gives Facebook an awful lot of room for future growth (though it may want to develop some of these future spaces rather than buy them).

The problem with being a social company is that it has always been tied up to advertising for revenues, and I long to see something with a different business model. (It’s advertising monies, or you coast on scale and hype and wait for someone to snap you up.) That’s why this venture into hardware is so exciting. It can turn out to be the most social platform there is, playing host to a multitude of interactions and eliminating the problem of context. With Oculus, there is also room to get revenue in a way that is actually useful to the (initially, mostly enterprise) user experience. By the time VR gets into the mainstream, advertisements may get in the way, but the medium (I think) demands a radically different take on advertising in the way Google Glass doesn’t (and that should deserve some excitement on its own). (Also, I want to see how Glass will stack up against Oculus Rift five years from now.)

The only thing I don’t really like about this is that these young companies are not allowed some time to develop and grow their own wings and culture before being scooped up. Sure, acquisitions will remain independent, but they weigh on the mind, and it’ll be good for things to develop in a way that does not necessarily conform to a Facebook view of the world. But otherwise, this direction to go beyond software code is…fresh, at the very least. We’ll have time tell us how it pans out.

Facebook as a social network may be old news, but Facebook as a company is looking like a very exciting place to be right now.

Remember the brilliant piece on a generic brand video published recently by McSweeneys? The folks over at stock footage company, Dissolve, bless their souls, decided to bring that to life. The following video is a perfect representation of everything that makes brand videos so horrible (I’ll admit in the course of my work that I’m often guilty of inflating brands into something more noble and life-changing than they ever can be, but I never wanted to use those stock images of people staring out of windows onto city landscapes in my advertisements as much as my clients do.)

Let’s do some futuring, and together, we’ll make a difference.


snowflake individuality


There are two articles that intrigued me today. The first is by Ben Thompson on the death of average. Nate Silver launched his new site a few days ago, and his is just the latest in a growing number of personality driven sites and blogs, including Erza Klein and Vox, Andrew Sullivan and his eponymous blog, Bill Simmons of Grantland, and countless other famous bloggers who have made a name for themselves by either collecting compelling content and/or writing them.

This shift in the news industry is not accidental. If anything, it is emblematic of the changes working through the economy today, the most important of which may be the falling cost of access to high quality items, particularly those that can be delivered through a screen. This natural friction of time and space that once existed in the market allowed many middle-of-the-road propositions to exist. The Wisconsin State Journal can make a decent profit reporting on the state and the Midwest region, and so can the Straits Times in Singapore. The Internet, however, has effectively collapsed those natural barriers. If I want to read about the effects of technology on culture, I can freely and easily turn to better such pieces on Medium, or The Verge, or The Guardian, or The New Yorker.

No longer are our options limited by time and place. Why would we offer our time to the merely average when we can have the very best/very good at little to no additional cost? The implication of this pattern of consumption is that it is dominated by the tall skinny part of the power curve occupied by the best of the best in a zero sum game of attention (arguably it is not yet a zero sum game – the more time we save sweeping and mopping and washing dishes and working, the more time we have for something that aren’t those things, so it isn’t a zero sum game until we are no longer “working” or sleeping, but let’s say that’s a long time away).

The challenge of Internet economics is to recognize that the message is quite different from its medium. The news is different from the newspaper. The music is quite different from the CD. The business is quite different from its once-physical form. And when the equivalent of the cable bundle falls away, what happens, then, to those who occupied the middle of the bell curve?

More broadly – and this is the central challenge to society presented by the Internet – what then of the millions of others in all the other industries touched by the Internet who are perfectly average and thus, in an age where the best is only a click away, are simply not needed?

This is the angst that fills those in the news business, and society broadly. The reality of the Internet is that there is no more bell curve; power laws dominate, and the challenge of our time is figuring out what to do with a population distribution that is fundamentally misaligned with Internet economics.

We argue the flip side. We point at the long tail – rewards may go disproportionately to super performers to the left of the power curve, but there is room for everyone else to find their place on the long tail. And so we move on from Smith’s mercantilism, to Schumpeter’s innovative corporatism, to an age of Coasean growth:

“Without realizing it, the hundreds of entrepreneurs, startup studios and accelerators, 4-hour-work-weekers and lifestyle designers around the world, experimenting with novel business structures and attention mining technologies i.e. social media, are collectively triggering the age of Coasian growth.”

“Coasean growth is fundamentally not measured in aggregate terms at all. It is measured in individual terms. An individual’s income and productivity may both actually decline, with net growth in a Coasean sense… the fundamental scarce resource that Coasian growth discovers and colonizes is neither space, nor time. It is perspective.”

I couldn’t find anything further on this 2011 article by Venkatesh Rao, but I can guess at what Coasean growth may entail. The transaction costs of time and space falls away in the digital economy as platforms proliferate to offer more and more timely and relevant propositions to consumers, such that we move increasingly towards a frictionless society, to the point of literally having anything you want, at anytime and anywhere. Uber is just a first step and almost low-tech way of advancing towards a time when you have some kind of a vehicle or transportation pod waiting for you right as you step out to go somewhere. Right as you step out, as in, within the 250 milliseconds that constitute “now”. 3D printing and drone delivery are similarly first steps and still light years short of giving you a T-rex shaped mug for your coffee right now.

What can one possibly offer in a new economy where time and space becomes irrelevant, short of being part of the company that takes you anywhere, or the company that gives you anything? It isn’t too different from what we have right now. We compete on perspective: we like A’s take on a bacon egg sandwich better than B’s; we like C’s take on a white t-shirt better than D’s. Everything is objectively good, and perhaps equivalent in production cost, and probably zero in marginal cost. But everything else is a function of subjective preferences in the long tail.

To say we’re witnessing the death of average is perhaps misleading. To be able to become a subjective best in any field seems to leave room for many to thrive. Still, it demands all to foist and tout their uniqueness to the world, and I am already tuning out.

That could have been my dad, except he doesn’t sport the same intense mustache. But the clip is a nice encapsulation on how we’ve relied on metaphors to make sense of unfamiliar things, and how difficult it was and can be, still, to achieve a level of abstraction that allow us to function in a new world.

It also reminded me of the fact that it is not engineers or coders that make the new world, but the writers and poets and artists in them and working with them. Technology comes into the world wrapped in metaphors, and when you get bad writers who come up or persist with bad metaphors, you end up with bad technology.

It’s not always technical walls that stop change in its tracks. Sometimes, innovation is limited by language itself.

When was the last time, for instance, that you used the word “desktop” to refer to the actual surface of a desk? Our desktops are imaginary now — but in the days of the earliest graphical user interfaces, comparing a computer to a piece of office furniture was odd enough that tech companies had to spell it out for us. “First of all,” read one of the earliest Macintosh print ads, “we made the screen layout resemble a desktop, displaying pictures of objects you’ll have no trouble recognizing. File folders. Clipboards. Even a trash can.”

Go to Athens to read some literature, or Broadway to look up theater shows.

Go to Athens to brush up on some literature, or Broadway to look up theater shows.

The awareness that metaphors can inhibit innovation as much as they advance it leads any number of technological misfires to make an odd, new kind of sense. Early cars weren’t simply called “horseless carriages,” they were literally designed to resemble carriages with the horse removed; the Model T, in turn, was one of the first cars to successfully eliminate the carriage metaphor. If driverless cars are ever feasible, we might expect the pattern to repeat itself: early entries modeling themselves on familiar sedans and minivans long after their function is gone, and successful competitors breaking through the metaphor entirely, into shapes we haven’t yet imagined.

When Apple decided “flat design” was the way to go for iOS 7, it wasn’t because Google and other companies were necessarily deemed cooler and better in their aesthetics; it’s because the need for  old metaphors died, though we should not forget it was those metaphors of desktops and leather-stitched calendars that got us to our state of comfort with the current technology of touch screens etc in the first place.

Science and math may increasingly be the curriculum’s glory subjects — when’s the last time you heard a politician demanding that schools churn out more classics majors? — but innovation has always demanded just as much verbal creativity, a feeling for the possibilities and limits of words themselves. Innovators need an eye for what George Orwell called “dying metaphors”: not those newly vivid ones (like “desktop” in 1984), nor the dead ones that have stopped reminding us of images at all (like the “hands” of a clock), but the images that have outlived their usefulness.

It’s one of many reasons that upset me when I read reports about the need to score well in standardized math and science tests, or an insistence to choose a career in something that can be reliably, if arbitrarily, measured (finance and page views come to mind). When we lose the capacity to articulate a vision for a new world, we lose more than the words – we lose the ability to create one.

Quoted passages via The Millions

I tend to give marketers and companies pulling stunts for marketing purposes a hard time. But I truly enjoyed watching First Kiss – that 3 minute video of strangers kissing for the first time, done for a clothing company called WREN. When you go to the Youtube page, you see it says film presented by WREN. It says that in the beginning, and it says “styling by WREN” in the credits. If everyone wasn’t screaming about how they’ve been cheated by a clothing company, I’d think it’s the name of an independent film studio. But it doesn’t matter.

The film made me feel as awkward, embarrassing, and tender and moving, and then awkward and sweet and earnest again, as it must have been for the strangers kissing. It was like I went through a first kiss all over again. It doesn’t matter that the people kissing were very good-looking singers/models/actors. What, good-looking people can’t have be nervous or have feelings or first kisses? What, companies can’t get people to make videos?

Viewers charged that they were deceived when they found out it was a clip sponsored by a clothing company (if you can call it sponsored – the budget for the video was about $1,300, with the money used for studio space, a video editor’s babysitting bill, lunch and “chocolate and some mints”; the strangers were friends of the filmmaker and the owner of WREN, and kissed for free) How? How were people deceived? By being made to feel good by a company? I’m pretty sure that’s what every brand tries to do these days. Were people deceived because they thought this clip was made for non-profit purposes/a celebration of humanity but is in fact a corporate play (as though the two cannot coexist – just watch any Super Bowl ad)? I don’t think we can equate ignorance of the brand with deception on the brand’s part. Were people deceived because they got suckered into buying clothes? Well, there wasn’t even some fancy high-tech pause-and-click-to-purchase button on the video. There wasn’t even a website.

I’m not even sure we can call this an ad. I certainly wasn’t really paying attention to the clothes or thinking, oh my, these are some well-dressed strangers. But, for all the attention it’s generated, it is one very successful piece of marketing. It was interesting. It was well-made. It was moving. It was entertaining. It didn’t interrupt me. It was shared and reported, and I, along with millions others, now know that WREN exists. So yes, I guess by that standard, you can call it an ad. A good ad.

* Update: Vice paid 20 strangers who aren’t models to kiss, without any music accompaniment this time, so you can hear the saliva and all. Am I crazy to still find the video endearing?

In May 2013 shareholders voted to break up the Timken Company—a $5 billion Ohio manufacturer of tapered bearings, power transmissions, gears, and specialty steel—into two separate businesses. Their goal was to raise stock prices. The company, which makes complex and difficult products that cannot be easily outsourced, employs 20,000 people in the United States, China, and Romania. Ward “Tim” Timken, Jr., the Timken chairman whose family founded the business more than a hundred years ago, and James Griffith, Timken’s CEO, opposed the move.

The shareholders who supported the breakup hardly looked like the “barbarians at the gate” who forced the 1988 leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. This time the attack came from the California State Teachers Retirement System pension fund, the second-largest public pension fund in the United States, together with Relational Investors LLC, an asset management firm. And Tim Timken was not, like the RJR Nabisco CEO, eagerly pursuing the breakup to raise his own take. But beneath these differences are the same financial pressures that have shaped corporate structure for thirty years.

Urging Timken shareholders to vote for the split, Relational Investors argued that they should want “pure-play” companies, focused on a single industrial activity. Investors would then be free to balance their portfolios by selecting businesses in industrial sectors with varying degrees of risk and sensitivity to different phases of economic cycles. A firm such as Timken—about one-third a steel company (a materials play) and about two-thirds a bearings and power transmission business (an industrial components play)—would lock investors into a mix that, Relational Investors claimed, leads to a discount on share price.

Timken management argued that making both materials and products enabled them to bring to market higher-quality goods that met customers’ needs: for example, their ultra-large bearings for windmill towers, which measure two meters in diameter, weigh four tons, and have to stand up to extreme wind and temperature conditions. Controlling the entire value chain, they said, allowed them to fine-tune the attributes of the steel in order to make superior products. Nonetheless, the financial calculation about how to maximize quarterly returns won out.

The financialization of society is not a story that simply plays out in the bigwig corporate world, between negotiations on mergers and acquisitions and divestments. Every new venture, it seems – Airbnb, Uber, Taskrabbit, and all its equivalents – all are a breaking down of resources into ever smaller consumable units optimized for the best value. In this, Wall Street and Silicon Valley speak the same language, despite the superficial differences in attire and hangout venues, so that anyone that looks for an alternative is effectively a luddite and/or a liberal.

The trouble is that we have these seven billion people in the world in between that cannot be as easily optimized. When I think of Amazon and its possible future of being the largest retailer in the world without having a single salesperson or someone in the warehouse, I think, will people boycott Amazon for its status as a non-employer (as consumers do right now for companies that do animal testing, etc), or will they have no choice but to continue being a customer because it is Amazon that will be offering the lowest prices – an important fact, especially to those out of a job.

Article via Boston Review