Archive for the ‘Industry Research’ Category


In order to survive in the modern era, companies must grasp a strong understanding of psychology, or at least of the type of pseudo-psychology that Edward Bernays, immortalized as the father of PR, made widely available to marketers and advertisers. Bernays was an Austrian American who wove the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and ultimately asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Historically companies have leveraged a number of psychological devices and theories to generate desire within their target demographics and audiences in order to sell more. Advertising seeks to simultaneously engender strong positive feelings about a product or company while simultaneously leaving the audience feeling emptier for not owning the advertised product. The ability to pull this off is intensely powerful, and yet not as powerful as the ability to affect this reaction within the target demographic, autonomously, spontaneously.

This is the accomplishment of the new realm of mobile technologies and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In effect, their breakthrough in psycho-marketing is the ability to make their product habit-forming, even addictive. On Merriam Webster addiction is defined as: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (or we could say product) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. Addiction is the new marketing goal precisely because its inherently dangerous, cyclical nature is exactly what embodies both the need and the fulfillment- all encapsulated in one.

Compulsion and habit are the key words here. Marketers and advertisers drool when they see those words, because they are truly the Holy Grail of advertising. If they can create a condition in their target audience where the deprivation of the product creates a state near-pain for the user/consumer, they are guaranteed a captive customer, possibly for life.

This is precisely what Nir Eyal describes in his TechCrunch article, “The Billion Dollar Mind Trick.”  Eyal outlines a couple of critical concepts; namely “internal triggers” and “desire engines,”

“When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an ‘internal trigger.’ Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.”

As Eyal points out, “We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions.” He enumerates the current approach to create internal triggers, labeling it the manufacturing of desires.”

  • “Addictive technology creates “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or any other external stimuli.  It becomes a user’s own intrinsic desire.”
  • Creating internal triggers comes from mastering the “desire engine” and its four components: trigger, action, variable reward, and commitment.”

The “desire engine” Eyal refers to is merely a phrase that describes the pre-determined “series of experiences designed to create habits…the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.” All of this is to say that, increasingly, and especially when it comes to mobile consumer technologies and apps, companies increasingly find that their economic and social value is a function of the strength of the habits they create within their user/customer base.

Interesting, yes, but perhaps not entirely new. Michel Foucault (yes, I know I talk about him a lot here, but his work is endlessly relevant to the types of communications discussions we constantly engage in nowadays) discussed this same concept in his investigation of the concept of “technologies of the self,” whereby his objective was:

 “to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific ‘truth games’ related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Yet the concept dates back to the Greeks, “constituted in Greek as epimelesthai sautou, ‘to take care of yourself’ ‘the concern with self,’ ‘to be concerned, to take care of yourself.’

Foucault posited that there were four main “technologies:”

“(I) technologies of production, (2) technologies of sign systems, (3) technologies of power, and (4) technologies of the self” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Clearly in this case what we’re focusing on is the technology of the self, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that the bulk of apps available to us all on our mobile devices these days are not, in some way, designed to fulfill some narcissistic desire to know ourselves better. Whether it’s for fitness (calorie counters, pedometers, diet analyses, jogging analyses) or for social edification (how many people who you know are around you, how many “friends” do you have [Facebook], what are you doing right now [Twitter], how often do you visit a place [FourSquare or Yelp]) many of these tools are intended to display a mirror image of ourselves and project it onto a social web and out to others. (Hell, iPhones now include a standard photo feature that allows you to use the phone as a literal mirror by using the front-end camera as you stare into it.) But they are also intended to help us transform ourselves and make ourselves happier by making us skinnier, healthier, more social, more aware, more productive, etc.

The importance of this is that we have been fooled into thinking we are using these apps to learn more about ourselves, but the social sharing functionality proves that this is performative- we wouldn’t be doing it repeatedly unless there was a performance aspect built-in, an audience waiting to view and comment on the information, providing continuous gratification. In other words, learning more about ourselves, then amplifying that knowledge out to an audience has become habit-forming. We have become addicted to the performance of ourselves.

 “These four types of technologies hardly ever function separately, although each one of them is associated with a certain type of domination. Each implies certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

In this case, though Foucault was often very careful in his diction and a master of semiotics, what if we replace the word “attitudes” with “habits?” After all, Foucault is referring to these technologies of self as dominating, as techniques which train and modify individuals, and a habit formed is demonstrably a tangible and acquired modification of human behavior. Later he continues to elaborate and speaks of “individual domination,”

”I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself, in the technology of self.”

I know quite a few people who would willingly and openly admit to the individual act of domination upon themselves that they perform on a compulsive basis by updating their Twitter feeds, updating the status on their Facebook accounts, uploading their latest photos to Instagram, and checking in on FourSquare. There is a reason that Googling “Is technology the new opiate of the masses?” garners page upon page of thoughtfully written and panicky editorials and blog posts. This is a newly acknowledged and little resisted truth of our times- we are willing slaves to the ongoing performance of our selves.

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I go through the occasional bout of nostalgia, I admit it. Sometimes I muse that it would have been much more fun to be alive during the Wild West, or during the American Revolutionary War. Mostly this is clearly symptomatic of the fact that I feel disconnected and I want to feel a part of a movement, something significant that is taking hold of history and making it sit up and pay attention.

While I lived in Paris I was privileged to see the works of infamous, modern-era, groundbreaking schools of art such as the Blau Reiter, the Futurists, Alexander Calder and the mobile sculptors, Impressionists, Fauvists, Surrealists, Cubists, Pointillists, you name it. As I browsed the carefully curated collections of work and imagined what it would be like to exist in a time of such intense creation, innovation and turn-the-world-on-its-head thinking, I remember thinking: does anyone really ever know when they’re living smack-dab in one of those eras?

Now that I’m back in the U.S. working, and no longer have the luxury of wandering the streets of Paris, being a flaneur and contemplating my navel, those questions have gone mostly by the wayside in favor of, oh, I dunno, buying toilet paper and writing corporate emails again. Sigh. However, they don’t have to because it may actually be true that we are in the middle of a cohesive burgeoning artistic, cultural and technological movement! It even has a name, folks, which is huge, because without a name it will be hard to reference it: The New Aesthetic.

What is it about? Well, significantly it’s pretty all-encompassing, which it has to be in this era of multimedia, consolidated and integrated channels, myriad communication modes and access. In a nutshell (though that is a depressingly analog expression to use in this context) it’s about taking the time to understand how technology is affecting and has already impacted the way we see the world, how we see everything. The movement focuses on the presumption that most of the world increasingly now experiences the world not directly through their eyeballs, but through the eyes of a technological device- whether it’s a camera, a smartphone, GPS, a tablet, an e-reader, a computer screen, etc.

This opportunity for reflection is significant first because the pace of technology and its adoption simply hasn’t historically allowed us to do this- we adopt a technology, learn it, deploy it and then we’re off and running with barely a glance backward. In the super-charged modern era of technology have we really reflected on its impact on how we see things? Yes, the visionary artists, influencers and politicians of our time have, in small numbers. But this movement finally has identified certain themes about how we have all been shaped by new technologies and it’s just so interesting.

Another great facet of the New Aesthetic is in how it is playing out. This is not a genre that is reserved for the intellectual or artistic elite. So far the movement has invited everyone to participate, thereby furthering the impact that the act of reflecting has. It begs questions of its members-How is the world different from how I saw it before? Can we actually evaluate if things were better or worse before this technology/gadget/access/knowledge? Show us what you see and how you see it. Can you find us other examples of where this is playing out?

From Bruce Sterling‘s Wired piece on the topic:

“The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture…it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”

The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.” (http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/anessayonthenewaesthetic/)

It should come as no surprise that this discussion largely began at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. Here is the description of the panel discussion:

“Slowly, but increasingly definitively, our technologies and our devices are learning to see, to hear, to place themselves in the world. Phones know their location by GPS. Financial algorithms read the news and feed that knowledge back into the market. Everything has a camera in it. We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing: the Gods-eye view of satellites, the Kinect’s inside-out sense of the living room, the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV.

As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing.” (http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP11102)

James Bridle is sort of the figurehead of the discourse around the New Aesthetic and he has done an excellent job of laying out what it means to him and helping to provide spaces for the conversation about it to unfold. In fact, he’s downright poetic in some of his descriptions:

And what of the render ghosts, those friends who live in our unbuilt spaces, the first harbingers of our collective future? How do we understand and befriend them, so that we may shape the future not as passive actors but as collaborators? (I don’t have much truck with the “don’t complain, build” / “make stuff or shut up” school, but I do believe in informed consent. Because a line has been crossed, technology/software/code is in and of the world and there’s no getting out of it. ” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

“My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

That’s good stuff, right? I think so.

But let’s take a step back from the philosophical implications of the movement and do some of our own shell collecting in the sand. Where do we see the New Aesthetic playing out?

Here’s a few that I found:

1) My latest favorite Tumblr: ScreenshotsofDespair. Apart from appealing to that deep and sinister Schadenfreude bone that I have, this Tumblr is a perfect example of the New Aesthetic. We take photos, of screens, which we see delivering ambiguous and subtly insulting messages that seem to mirror our own loneliness, unpopularity, failure,- despair. So good.

From "Screenshots of Despair"

2) Where am I?: Google Maps and StreetView. The fact that we now actively use archived and ongoing screenshots of satellite maps and digital photography to represent to us what the world looks like, rather than having to travel there physically. I know what my friend Anna’s house looks like in Berlin without ever having been there, but I only know what it looks like on a sunny day-  April 2nd, 2009.

3) Tweet-note: I’m coining this term (unless it has been coined before) to mean seeing a live event happen through the lens of what is being said about it by the Twitter-verse. See my piece onsentiment analysis for a more nuanced examination of the implications of this, but it’s pretty crazy that these days (especially at ANY high-tech conference) you can sit in a room of thousands of people, listeningto/watching the same keynote, and yet about 98% of the audience is simultaneously tracking what is being said about that event via Twitter on their smartphones, thereby allowing the rest of the audience to largely color their opinion in real time.

4) Art: This is obvious, but the emergence of re-pixellating and bringing digital back to analog, and a nostalgia for real film is all playing out in the art world. The pixellation movement really interests me because it’s such a blatant reversion to pointillism, but it represents more of a re-education for a younger generation on how the greater whole is amassed as the result of millions and millions of tiny components. It’s also a throwback to so many other modernist movements- Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Picasso’s Cubism comes to mind, especially here, when we talk about the New Aesthetic in terms of trying to represent the everywhere-at-once nature of things today. You can look at a book, just a simple book with your own eyes. But you can also look up reviews of the book on Amazon or Goodreads, you can research Google images of the book, how much people will pay for the book on eBay, you can read reviews of the book on the NYTimes, you can take a weathered antique-y snapshot of the book with Hipstamatic, text message your friend about the book with its photo attached, and many other options that I can’t even think of right now. All of that is a more than 360 degree representation of that book: what it is, what it looks like, what it represents, where it is, and how it is. Just like in Cubism, the object ends up being transformed, rendered nearly unrecognizable to its original form by having been taken apart and conveyed based on its components, then re-constructed on more planes than the naked eye can fully behold. The same is true of my next example…

5) Does This Photoshop Make Me Look Fat?: We are no longer satisfied with truthful representations of human bodies. In fact, we might not even really believe the truth any more if it were given to us. We have been carried away- in the beginning unaware, later blissfully aware- by the movement to re-architect human anatomy through Photoshop. I admit I have visited blogs and websites that show the blunders of graphic artists and I often STILL can’t see that anything is wrong with the images. It is that nefarious. We are more content to see human bodies through the lens of Photoshop than through reality.

6) Branded Space: this is an old feature, the fact that we see in everything a chance to advertise or place products, but one recent example was so blatant I can’t fail to mention it here. It was very recently announced that in his next movie, James Bond will be sipping not a martini, but aHeineken. That’s right, 007’s drink of choice has received the ouster in favor of product placement. Needless to say, the reaction has not been, er, positive. But it is yet another example of the New Aesthetic- not only do we see even everyday objects and products through new physical lenses, we continue to see them through figurative lenses that are colored according to which advertiser has the most money to spend that day. So the object is not permitted to exist alone for us any more. Its meaning is always stamped across its face.

In fact, Maybe the weirdest aspect of this movement is how eminently consumable it is. It’s practically Warhol-esque in its commercial viability. A perfect example being how Facebook just gobbled up Instagram, the popular hipster-making photog app for $1B. But there are thousands more examples on the official New Aesthetic Tumblr. Let the New Aesthetic binge begin.

One last expression for you: Analog Recidivism: Actually, I’m just hoping this will somehow emerge as a reaction to the New Aesthetic. I think one of the next evolutions of the movement will be to feature in art, culture, social customs, etc. what we just don’t see any more as a result of our attachment to viewing the world through the lens of our gadgets and technology. Instead of showing us how our views have changed and been modified, somehow we will be shown what we just didn’t see as a result of staring at a phone, a computer, a tablet, etc. The little things we no longer notice or take note of will be featured as once again novel by virtue of the fact that we, physically, are no longer trained to see or look for them. Did I just blow your mind?

To read more on the New Aesthetic:

http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/

http://www.riglondon.com/blog/2011/05/06/thenewaesthetic/

http://newaesthetic.tumblr.com/

http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/anessayonthenewaesthetic/


Hi All, sorry for the hiatus. But I’m back in black. New year, and lots to discuss. Let’s get to it!

Clearly I couldn’t let discussion about SOPA and PIPA and the ensuing takedowns architected by Anonymous go untouched in this discussion space, so let’s delve into this, shall we?

For those who aren’t aware (where in the hell have you been?), let’s first break these two down to their most elemental forms:

Here’s what (admittedly biased on this matter) Wikipedia has to say about what SOPA is, “The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a United States bill introduced by U.S. Representative Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Provisions include the requesting of court orders to bar advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites, and search engines from linking to the sites, and court orders requiring Internet service providers to block access to the sites. The law would expand existing criminal laws to include unauthorized streaming of copyright material, imposing a maximum penalty of five years in prison”

Basically, this was legislators catering to big media companies’ interests by proposing a law that would give the U.S. government the right to prosecute people who propagated intellectual property that they didn’t own online. In other words, the internet wouldn’t exist unless the government felt that it should.

“Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites.”

“Opponents say the proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation, and enables law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains due to infringing material posted on a single blog or webpage. They have raised concerns that SOPA would bypass the “safe harbor” protections from liability presently afforded to Internet sites by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”

So that’s SOPA in the House of Representatives. A second, replica piece of legislation was simultaneously being put up for consideration in the Senate called PIPA or the Protect IP Act. On this legislation, Wikipedia says:

“The PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA) is a proposed law with the stated goal of giving the US government and copyright holders additional tools to curb access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods”, especially those registered outside the U.S. The bill defines infringement as distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology. Infringement exists if “facts or circumstances suggest [the site] is used, primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities described. The bill was introduced on May 12, 2011, by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and 11 bipartisan co-sponsors.”

So that’s the house-cleaning. They’re the same piece of legislation, same clear and dangerous threat to internet freedoms and the Internet’s intrinsic ability to allow for the wide and free dissemination of information.  Now down to the brass tacks.

Let’s begin with the fact that just pragmatically, taking on the Internets is always stupid. Why? Because congress and the President are centralized forces of power- quite well identified and held to certain moral and legal standards of behavior and comportment. The internet is none of those things. It is a nebulous, unscrupulous, largely anonymous and completed decentralized force of power, and it will not be stopped. Which is why, they have certainly won this round of the fight and will ultimately win the war on issues of intellectual property online.

So Wikipedia was one of the largest of many web resources (others included Reddit, the social news site, and BoingBoing, a technology and culture blog) that decided to shut down for a 24 hour period in public protest against these two bills.  As the NYTimes Bits Blog reported: “Visitors around the globe who try to reach the English-version of Wikipedia will be greeted with information about the bills and details about how to reach their local representatives. Mr. (Founder Jimmy) Wales said 460 million people around the world visited the site each month, and he estimated that the blackout could reach as many as 100 million people. In addition, some international Wikipedia communities, including the one in Germany, have decided to post notices on their home pages leading to information about the protests, although they will remain functioning as usual.”

“The government could tell us that we could write an entry about the history of the Pirate Bay but not allow us to link to it,” he said, referring to the popular file-sharing site. “That’s a First Amendment issue.”

But then Anonymous had to go and get all involved, making it no longer a seemingly noble protest, but taking matters into their own hands. And this is where decentralization begins to get really interesting.

For Anonymous it wasn’t enough to shut down one’s own site, and make one’s own decision to go dark- Anonymous wanted to prove once and for all to big media companies such as CBS and Universal Music that it is but for the grace of Anonymous that their sites exist at all. In a bold and HIGHLY under-publicized and under-discussed move if you weren’t online (I think largely because of Anonymous’s reputation as an anarchist and borderline-terrorist non-organization) Anonymous temporarily removed CBS.com and Universal Music as well as its parent company Vivendi from online view. There has been much speculation about whether the sites were full-on deleted, redirected, etc. and I won’t debate that here, but I think the major point here is that a decentralized network of self-labeled “hacktivists” hold the power to completely destroy someone else’s online presence as retribution. So while the politicians, PACs and lobbyists seek to pass these bills the old-fashioned way through our system of government and legislation, the internet turns its nose on their efforts and operates completely independently.

The repercussions of these acts by Anonymous are massive. Is it to be said once and for all that the internet is ungovernable? Certainly any jurisdiction over internet content and domains is highly debatable and obscure- who has the right or the resources to police the net? Where is that online security task force- is it a branch of the UN peacekeeping forces? Which country’s government holds the right to censor content? If Google’s tangle with China and the Arab Spring have taught us anything, it’s that the rules for who gets to yea or nay internet content are still being written and continue to be written by unknown authors, sitting in dark corners leading their revolutions with armies of revolutionaries who couldn’t recognize them if they passed by on the sidewalk.

President Obama said no to the current versions of these bills, but SOPA and PIPA are by no means dead in the water. This will be an ongoing discussion, but I stand by my opinion that even if SOPA or PIPA were to pass in Congress, they would have a completely unmanageable time attempting to enforce either in the chaotic and decentralized network that is the Net. The point it would seem, my friends, is moot.


I have recently become obsessed with analytics. I just love the idea of using solid data to make informed choices toward action. It’s the ultimate voyeurism. After all, the internet is a window through which you can peer to monitor other people’s activity. It’s also seductive, instant gratification- I post a document and then check in just an hour later to see how many people have clicked on it, how long they spent reviewing it, where they went after they read it, where they came from before reading it. ..

The power that platforms like Google Analytics and Omniture offer excites me in ways I shouldn’t even publicize- the possibility that all of that information about online actions and behavior is at my fingertips to exploit in order to be more productive, more effective is intoxicating. This is probably why it’s a good thing that I don’t work in marketing or advertising.

But apparently the harvest, process of sorting, and the exploitation of human information no longer stops with marketers and advertisers- now the government wants in.

According to an article in yesterday’s  NY Times,  “social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones” to predict the future. This is being conducted all in the name of the U.S. Government, or in this case, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity unit of the Office of National Intelligence.

Why? Because  they believe “that these storehouses of ‘big data’will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.”

Remember our dear friend Michel Foucault who opined on systems of surveillance in modern society? He just rolled over so many times in his grave he’s now a taquito. But putting the panopticon aside for a moment, let us instead turn to “chaos theory” to underline why this whole venture isn’t necessarily a very good idea.

Chaos theory, as a discipline, studies:

“the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect.”

The “butterfly effect theory” is basically this:

Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.  This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

Yes, if this is ringing a bell, it’s because you’ve heard of the anecdote the theory is named for, whereby a hurricane’s formation occurred because a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before. Ridiculous, but it does vividly illustrate the point that the entire globe is a system, and there are infinite factors within that system interacting every day to produce outcomes- and needless to say, these factors are not all diligently recorded in Brooke Shields’ Twitter stream.

Ever since analytics, Facebook, and Twitter broke onto the human information scene, the embedded hubris of men has convinced us that if we’re just smart enough to design a program to parse all of this information, then finally all of our inane yet determined recordings of our daily details will finally mean something– that it will be useful!

Right? Wrong.

The mashed potatoes are just mashed potatoes. If you want to see anything in the figurative mashed potatoes, then see this: the Tower of Babel, people.

“Tower of Babel?” you say? Yes. The Tower of Babel. My favorite of all biblical references ( we all have one, right? Right?).

Need a quick brush-up? OK!

In the story of the Tower of Babel, from Genesis, ‘a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.’ God came down to see what they did and said: ‘They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.’ So God said, ‘Come, let us go down and confound their speech.’ And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel ‘because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.’(Genesis 11:5-8).

In other words, chaos theory’s conclusion that all of the world’s data is basically worthless, unreliable crap aside- this “big data eye in the sky” can and will never be.

First, because, without God’s intervention, we are perfectly great at getting in our own way, thankyouverymuch.

For example, the NY Times article cites IARPA’s claim that “It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.”

About that, the U.S. Government would do well to recall the response to every single privacy change that Facebook has ever made about user data.

Also, the public’s responses to the Patriot Act.

Also, the public response to News Corp’s recent phone hacking scandal.

I could go on. The point is, I don’t think folks will accept the government’s efforts to exploit the aggregation of their online and publicly collected information in order to predict when we might all come down with whooping cough.

Second problematic claim, “It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention.” Errrr…what about all of that human generated information? Isn’t that, um, human intervention?

I recently had the absolute pleasure of hearing Stephen J. Dubner- author of Freakonomics and creator or host of every other program, show, or book that came along with it- speak at a conference. He gave an excellent and very compelling lecture on the dangers of relying too much on “self-reported data.”

His point is that, for industries or disciplines where data in large part determines future strategy and action, a little outside consulting and collection is merited. Self-reported data is, by virtue of the fact that humans are involved, problematic when it comes to accuracy.

This means that every tweet, Facebook update and comment flame war on a review site should be read and collected with a massive grain of Kosher salt. It is hard to imagine how the government would calculate this unreliability into its system through error analysis and standard deviation. Suffice it to say, there is still much work to be done on human reported data, sentiment analysis and social statistics before we could get anywhere close to sorting this all out in any meaningful fashion.

Luckily, as the NY Times reports in the article, not everyone is convinced this is even worthwhile:

“”I’m hard pressed to say that we are witnessing a revolution,’ said Prabhakar Raghavan, the director of Yahoo Labs, who is an information retrieval specialist. He noted that much had been written about predicting flu epidemics by looking at Web searches for ‘flu,’ but noted that the predictions did not improve significantly on what could already be found in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

So, though I myself am drinking the cherry kool aid of acting and strategizing based on the measured results from analytical data, I feel the U.S. Government is seriously overstepping its bounds on this one- both in terms of infringing on other people’s data rights, as well as in terms of outpacing the world’s statistical abilities when applied to cultural data.

Hit me in the comments if you have thoughts of your own on the matter…


First and foremost, quite importantly for the purpose of this post: definitions of “Persona” vs. “Identity-“

Persona

  • : a character assumed by an author in a written work
  • : an individual’s social facade or front that especially in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects the role in life the individual is playing
  • : the personality that a person (as an actor or politician) projects in public
  • : a character in a fictional presentation (as a novel or play)

Identity

  • : the distinguishing character or personality of an individual : individuality
  • : the condition of being the same with something described or asserted

Crap, that actually wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped it would be…I feel more confused now than I did before.

Nevertheless, these definitions seem to point toward the fact that a “persona” is more often something performed, or developed consciously one’s self, or performatively developed by someone else, whereas an “identity” is embedded and synonymous with a person’s actual character. For the sake of this entry, that is how we will distinguish between the two.

Moving on to THE POINT.

A while ago I tried to pitch a story to this American Life which had been inspired by the experiences of my friend- we’ll call him Jim. See, Jim was looking for a new job and applying at a few different companies. One day, reminded by a friend of his that he should be actively managing his online persona through Google search results, Jim Googled himself to see what came up when he searched for his full name.

The search results floored him. Jim was met with a cascade of search results about a man with his same name. There were pages with warnings posted by people claiming that a gentleman with Jim’s same name was a con man, that he had tricked them out of money, that he was a pathological liar, and not to trust him. The warnings described a man with a similar build, height, weight and general hair and eye color.

Jim freaked out (I think, understandably), because he was very well aware that any prospective employer would be Googling him to do a cursory background check, and if they were met with this barrage of information he might be weeded out of even a beginner pool of job applicants. He was being framed by someone he had never met, and who, due only to sharing the same name and a similar physical build, was stealing his online identity. How can you combat that in this day and age?

To this day, Jim (luckily employed by now) has to include disclaimers in applications and emails and hope that employers and business partners will take his word that he is not “that Jim” when  embarking on new ventures. If Jim weren’t already married, presumably this would also severely impact his dating and love life.

The story I wanted (and still want) This American Life to cover is this: what happens in the modern world when all of the other folks who use your name misrepresent and sometimes even defame your character online? In a modern era where so much of our persona is developed and managed online, how do we separate what is fake from what is real, and what happens when even our fabricated online personas take on a life of their own?

What do I mean by fabricated online personas? Well, is the life you represent on Facebook an accurate snapshot of what is really going on with you? One of my favorite questions to ask is why no one ever posts photos of themselves crying alone on a Friday night- because that does happen to people. It’s widely known that our online selves, or personas, generally skew toward happiness, success, beauty, and popularity rather than honestly depicting struggles, bad hair days, and loneliness.

And having control over how we are presented online is very important to most internet users- so much so that companies like www.reputation.com now exist to help you “control how you look on the internet.”  Their claim, “People searching for you are judging you, too – defend yourself against digital discrimination with Reputation.com” may seem contrived and fear-mongery, but it still taps into some very real concerns for people.

After all, our identities are very important to us, and the gadgets and devices we are using provide a mirror of our own selves which we project onto these technologies. In fact, Michel Foucault (remember our dear friend?) called these tools “Technologies of the Self,” before the internet was a thing. According to my fascinating pal Wikipedia,  Technologies of the Self are “the methods and techniques (“tools”) through which human beings constitute themselves. Foucault argued that we as subjects are perpetually engaged in processes whereby we define and produce our own ethical self-understanding. According to Foucault, technologies of the self are the forms of knowledge and strategies that “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”[2]

In other words, these days, technology and social media help us to develop our online personas, which end up very deeply affecting our real identities. See what I did there?

For example, if you’re one of the millions of Indian surname Patels in the world, trying to get a unique but still relevant Gmail email address must be murder at this point. You would hardly feel like the email address represented you if you were Patel627281939464528193947273484@gmail.com

And what about the mayhem and madness that surrounded Facebook’s push to get its users to sign up for a unique direct URL to their profiles? Sure, maybe Tatianuh Xzanadu had no problems getting her direct URL with no competition, but for the rest of us, it was like an Oklahoma land run, or a crushing Black Friday sale, waiting for the clock to hit the magic time when we could hurriedly type in our first and last name and finally claim a personalized Facebook URL, a chance at allowing people to access the real me (as far as anyone’s Facebook profile actually does that).

This would all be complicated enough, except that these days not only are people with the same names being misjudged online for the behavior of others with the same name, but poor celebrities and famous authors are having their personas and online identities and even their styles co-opted. Again, for example, the gentleman who formerly tweeted as Christopher Walken under the handle “CWalken,” who delighted thousands on Twitter by impersonating the idiosyncratic and gloomy actor in his tweets about everyday observations and occurrences.

The Wrap interviewed “CWalken” and described the Twitter feed thusly,

“What’s great about the “CWalken” feed is that it sounds like Christopher Walken, yet it’s got the consistent tone and point of view that only a committed writer can achieve. “CWalken” reads as if the actor himself were emerging from a surreal haze a few times a day to note the stupidity, oddness, and weird beauty of the everyday world:”

And the mystery Tweeter, when interviewed, similarly made some really interesting points:

“The politics, tastes and observations are my own. That is — I am not trying to speak for Christopher Walken. I am simply borrowing his voice and reworking my words in his cadence. Some people crochet, I do this.”

It’s problematic because some celebrities feel that their identity and their reputation is at stake, that something they have lived a lifetime to build has been stolen from them. But in some cases, this really is high art. As The Wrap author points out, the CWalken tweets were focused and really well-written, probably much more so than Mr. Walken himself could have achieved.  Alas, the “CWalken” account was eventually shut down because Twitter maintains a policy of cracking down on impersonator accounts.

However, other online persona impersonators have had similar success, such as the perennial favorite: The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, or one of my recent obsessions, “RuthBourdain” where Alice Waters was anonymously tweeting as a combined persona of Ruth Reichl mashed with Anthony Bourdain. That little venture  even earned Waters a humor award.

I mean, that gets really complicated. At that point we have a celebrity chef who is world renowned and celebrated in her own right, assuming the persona of not just one, but two other luminaries in the food world as an outlet for her nasty and rye, humorous side.

One last example I just came across today introduces yet another new genre, blog as Yelp Review as famous author: check out Yelping with Cormac. This Tumblr blog assumes the writing style and occasional subject favorites of Pulitzer prize winning author and presumed hermit Cormac McCarthy in order to write Yelp-style reviews of well known commercial establishments in the Bay Area. A fascinating concept, but here we have clearly gone completely down the persona-stealing online rabbit hole.

Where will the rabbit hole take us next?


In an article on Mashable which I read today, the author’s argument is that how we search can tell us a lot about how we feel about the search object or subject. Basically, researchers are now conducting rhetorical analyses of the most commonly searched terms and how they are written in order to understand better how a country’s internet users skew on a number of diverse subjects: products, brands, services; and more recently now: race, ethnicity, socio-economics, politics, etc. The article is entitled, Search Stereotypes: What Web Content Reveals About Cultural Biases, and it most closely examines how Latinas are depicted in the context of search terminology.

This is very interesting to me, and it’s a large reason why I still believe a career in search marketing or search analytics would be incredibly edifying and interesting, especially at the sociological level. What new more socially and culturally oriented organizations are trying to do is to manually re-adjust those perceptions through the same media that the information is coming to them on.

As the author, Sandra Ordonez, writes “The online stereotype of the hyper-sexualized Latina is simply not true. Statistically, most Latinas are the exact opposite: smart moms with families. This is exactly why we launched Mamiverse — to fill the websphere with more content that is truly reflective of who we are,” Martinez said. It’s basically fighting fire with fire- analyzing search engine content for racial, sexual and cultural bias and then manipulating search results in the name of promoting a social cause, rather than for a product or company, and they’re calling it “Content Activism.”

Many months ago now I wrote about sentiment analysis and the Affective Norms for English Language index that allows for this type of rhetorical analysis. This approach has been applied to Twitter and the search engine optimization/marketing fields for use in better targeting and improving public brands in the public view.

Basically it all comes down to diction- word choice. Whether we each think about it every day or not, the choices we make in vocabulary to describe things can tell our audiences a lot about how we feel about the things we are describing. Additionally, whether we think about it or not, every time we type a word or search term into a Google box, we are sending a transmission to an audience that will never disappear. The ongoing record of data and information that Google represents is like a sandbox for academics, and a historical record for the rest of us. That, in itself, is a striking image.

The article lists a number of racialized and gendered search terms and their most commonly returned meta search terms- a table which I found very interesting:

Top Three Search Results and Suggested Group Information


The following descriptions are based solely on meta site descriptions found after each title. The actual sites returned were not visited. This is only a sample of searches conducted.

  • Latinas: All three results are pornographic. Descriptors include “hot,” “young” and “legs wide open.” Seems to hint that women on 8th street, a historic street in an internationally-known Latin neighborhood in Miami, are sexy and “doable.” (Search for Latin women results in various dating sites for men seeking Latin women).
  • Latin Men: Since “Latinos” is used to describe an entire group of people, we used the term “Latin men.” One link is for a site that helps you secure a stripper or exotic dancer. The other two links are porn sites. Descriptors are a bit too pornographic to list in this article.
  • Asian Men: Two links for the “Angry Asian Man” blog and an article exploring whether Asian men are good in bed. Only descriptors are found in one sentence that directly addresses stereotype: “We all know the stories about Asian men’s sexual prowess, or the lack thereof, and the age old jokes about the ‘size issue.’”
  • Asian Women: Two links for organizations that provide Asian women with domestic violence support (NYAWC and SAKHI) and a dating/marriage site for single men looking for both Asian women and Asian girls. Only descriptor includes the word “survivor.”
  • Black Men: A Wikipedia article describing the term “black men,” an article explaining why white women prefer black men, and a link to Black Men Magazine, which seems to focus on pop culture and sexy women. No descriptors, but phrases include “racial” (comes up twice), “mugger button” and “Ink Candy Party.”
  • Black Women: A link to a “black women’s interracial marriage site,” a link to “Black Voices News and Opinion” on The Huffington Post and a Wikipedia article describing the term “black people.” Descriptors include “slaves” and “enslavers,” with a sentence describing them as “surviving.”

I highly recommend checking out the article, which does a good job of acknowledging that the search results analysis is not an entirely accurate snapshot of the world’s views simply because it self-selects according to a higher echelon socio-economically. In other words, not everyone in the world has access to the Net, so the sample bias is definitely a source of some anguish in this budding field.

Still, the area of “Content Activism” connected with sentiment analysis is an interesting one- food for thought!

 


This morning I heard this story on NPR about the efforts to study and improve public perception of “reclaimed wastewater,” aka sterilized and filtered sewage water that has been cleaned for re-use by the public. It made me remember this story on NPR from last night about what we should call the current economic crisis. Both of these stories essentially address the oft-referenced “what’s in a name?” question, and it is a question that has spawned an enormous communications sub-industry known as “branding.”

From an intellectual standpoint, the discipline of branding is completely fascinating. It melds science and psychology with a worship of capitalism, and produces a proscriptive and insidious process for advertising and marketing to follow. The field of branding helps companies, organizations and these days, even human beings, to develop an aura of feeling around a name, product, or icon. As Wikipedia puts it, “The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a ‘name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.’” For me, that definition is way too harmless.

You see, the way we feel about brands in modern America has been directly driven by the children and cohorts of Sigmund Freud. From Coca-Cola to Proctor & Gamble, Barack Obama to Apple; a good brand is worth billions and billions of dollars- and is a very high stakes business.

So here is where perhaps I should admit, I’m not a huge fan of branding. Though I am fascinated by it and by how powerful it can be, I also conversely often find it either insidious, or very fluffy. For instance, I often hearken back to my first job out of college where I was the account manager at my consultancy for a large tech storage company which shall remain nameless. When that company re-branded itself the client required that I and my account team attend their extensive briefing on the new brand. We sat through countless hours of presentations about the new “drivers” for the brand- items such as, “if this brand were a marine mammal what would it be? A dolphin!” “If this brand were a luxury airline, which would it be?” etc. The whole thing was such an utter waste of money and of time that I left feeling sick to my stomach. I was terrified that this was what a career in communications would lead to. Thankfully it didn’t, for me.

However, if done well, there really is a science to branding and re-branding. Some companies spend millions of dollars on U.S. census-level studies and data mining to discern what people will buy and what they won’t. In other words, once you’ve seen it on a shelf at Target, millions of dollars have probably gone into ensuring what is likely now a foregone conclusion- that you’ll buy it.

What does all of this have to do with reclaimed wastewater and the economic downturn, Jessica, you ask?

Well, taking the first topic on wastewater, the issue at the heart of this excellent NPR report is the very prominent problem of water sources in California. One of the theories and proposed solutions for water shortages in California has been wastewater recycling whereby plants would be built in California “that would clean local wastewater — aka sewage water — and after that cleaning, make it available as drinking water. “ There’s no rational reason that this shouldn’t be a stellar solution to California’s chronic droughts- if the water is 100% safe to drink, this is a phenomenal solution. The only real roadblock to moving forward with the plan? The public perception that the plan is for them to drink other people’s, er, waste.

As one of the leading professors who helped to draft the proposal, Brent Haddad, who teaches environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz attested, “The public wasn’t really examining the science involved,” Haddad says. “They were just saying no.”

Why? Because there was a complete lack of branding involved in proposing this plan to the public. They should have seen the public rejection of this coming from a mile away, especially given the utter germophobia and hypochondria the general public suffers from these days (just think about the rise of those anti-bacterial hand sanitizer bottles ).

Too often the science of branding isn’t applied where it could be most useful- moving the public to adopt new courses or policies that are agreed to be rational and most beneficial to the greater good, but that suffer from being completely distasteful given the contemporary political, social or cultural context.

In the case of the California wastewater proposal, rather than turning to a branding firm, Haddad turned to a group of psychologists for help. Enter Carol Nemeroff who works at the University of Southern Maine and studies an area of psychology known as “psychological contagion.” Still with me? Because this is where it gets really, really good.

“Psychological contagion,” or informally, “contagion thinking,” “refers to the habit we all have of thinking — consciously or not — that once something has had contact with another thing, their parts are in some way joined.” In other words, “psychological contagion” is all about how the human brain works to create lasting neural connections between two objects because of their relationship to each other. From here we are only one hop, step and a small jump from the principle of “brand identity,” where objects adopt and carry attributes of feeling or sentiment with them due to successful marketing and advertising ploys. The one item contaminates the other in our brain, and they are inextricably interlinked sometimes forever.

Nemeroff’s conclusion on the wastewater topic? “You need to change the identity of the water so that it’s not the same water. “It’s an identity issue, not a contents issue,” she says, “so you have to break that perception. The water you’re drinking has to not be the same water, in your mind, as that raw sewage going in.” Nemeroff suggested that the wastewater project managers find a way to more closely relate the purified wastewater with shared concepts of nature in order to purify the water not only in physical form, but also in its branded form for the general public. This is re-branding at its best, people. The water will be the same water, but you need to convince the public with all of the available branding bells and whistles that the water is different than it was before.

So here’s where we get to the topic of re-branding the current economy. The other NPR story from Marketplace addressed how the economic downturn is being branded, and therefore also perked my ears. This one struck me because I have felt myself grasping for a title for this strange economy, without any luck. Clearly I’m not alone, as the accompanying article to the story reads, “The subprime crisis, the credit crunch, the recession — all are clearly part of one enormous economic mess that, at the moment, is nameless. There’s no question that we’re living through a historic downturn. But what will we call it?”

NPR interviewed Jonathan Wald, senior vice president of business news at CNBC, about how they were referring to the economic period, and he admitted,

“it’s really hard when you’re in the middle of something to know what it will be called. So all you can do is brand the hell out of it. In the media, he says, if it’s not branded, it doesn’t exist”

We have “economic downturn,” we have “deficit,” we have “depression,” but none of those has really stuck. The “depression” is fairly easy to weed out of the running, since bankers aren’t out on the corner selling apples, and thanks to the infamous photographic record by Dorothea Lange, the images of economic hardship we are observing now don’t fit with the national collective memory of a “depression.”

It seems the general consensus is that a name for a historical period or economic trend only begins to take form in retrospect, as historians, journalists, novelists and documentarians begin to need a commonly acknowledged term to indicate their subject matter. I guess we’re just not there yet.

I am not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but I know enough cursorily about investor confidence to know that a brilliant brandsman or woman could easily re-brand this current economic situation into something less threatening for us all and most likely do the economy some favors in the process.

If we could all be assured that this is NOT a “depression,” or “devastation,” but rather a “temporary lull,” or a “cyclical recession,” it would be akin to the very act of taking wastewater and forcing us all to drink recycled sewage- and to feel good about doing so. Not the most palatable idea, but in the public’s best interest in order to move on.