Homo homini rodentius est

The Brand Called Who?

In the blogging world, weekends are for housecleaning and inside baseball. This past weekend, a conversation sprang up around Robert Scoble’s views on the (un-)likelihood that the micro-blogging application FriendFeed would reach critical mass with “mainstream” users. (A moment for definitional clarity here — in a country where [one out of every five] people has never sent or received an email, Robert does not really mean mainstream — he means adoption by bloggers and the kind of SMS-loving professionals and kids who live to share every moment of their lives online.) One of the reasons for resistance, he suggested, was that bloggers wouldn’t like seeing conversations generated by their work migrated to a foreign platform. This led Duncan Riley to [confess] a change of heart on just this subject, declaring that Blogging 2.0 is “all about the user” — and users want to take the conversation in any direction, via any platform, they choose. His use of the word “user” was interesting, if oblique. What he might have said was “customer” — but that would take this particular conversation into an area that is radioactive in the Web 2.0 world: who benefits most from [commoditized] content?

Brand Called You
But who owns “You”?

Way back in 1997, during the heyday of New Economy 1.0 (you remember, the beta version that lost its funding..?), the bible of the time, Fast Company magazine, generated a lot of buzz with a cover story called, [“The Brand Called You.”] It was a pitch-perfect manifesto that boldly declared the importance to every Tom, Dick and Harriet of self-branding in a world where 1) traditional means of professional advancement were fracturing and 2) technology provided everyone the ability to burnish their personal “brand” and stand out from the undifferentiated masses. Underneath the glossy hoopla, of course, was a not very pretty implication: branding is most important when you are trying to differentiate a commodity product from others just like it. This is something I know about — at exactly the time that article appeared in Fast Company I was a foot-soldier for one of the big three phone companies in the telecom wars of the late 90’s. The commodity we had to brand was long-distance minutes and how did we do it? Largely through owning Share of Voice (SOV). Share of voice refers to the proportion of available media space that your branding is exposed to the target audience. The brand with the greatest SOV will (usually) carry the day. That implies that, in an established market, the incumbents have a huge advantage over new brands that hope to challenge them.

To bring it back to the debate over bloggers vs. the “social aggregator” sites like FriendFeed — the knock on traditional blogging (“Blogging 1.0”) was that the very small cadre of “A-list” bloggers owned all the SOV and basically sucked the air out of the market. One didn’t stand a chance of collecting an audience unless one of the elite [deigned] to bestow a link upon the less-fortunate. Social sites like FriendFeed promise to flatten that hierarchy — which is all to the good — but what is really being debated is the value of individual brands in an online economy where brands can be “absorbed” by other brands. It is not surprising to me at all that FriendFeed was started by two veterans of Google — the brand that consumes all brands and that has generated enormous profit by repackaging and indexing the output of others. That is not to say that there is no value left over for those who become commoditized in such a scheme — many companies thrive within the Google ecosystem — but we need to be clear about exactly what is of value to bloggers. It’s not money — very few will ever see a dime from their dedicated investment. It’s attention. And the currency of attention is commentary. A conversation about their work going on somewhere they are not provides no direct value. What they need to see, however, is that there are peripheral benefits in increased SOV that help to build their online brand. Whether that is a fair trade is the 64 million dollar Web 2.0 question, isn’t it?

Managing Robert Scoble

Managing high volume writers with Google Reader
Filtering info volume with Google Reader

I was going to title this post “Managing Information Overload with Google Reader”, because it deals with how to filter the flood of output that comes from the currently popular micro-blogging platforms [Twitter] and [FriendFeed] — but it really has to do with filtering the output from just those participants in those apps who generate extraordinary amounts of information and the poster child of that phenomenon is… Robert Scoble.

Scoble provides value in proportion to the amount of information he generates — acting as a human filter on the deluge of New New Things that bombard the internet daily. That’s his job and I use him (and a few others) as the first pass at filtering the wheat from the chaff. But there are serious design problems with the platforms we’re using which is symptomatic of the Web 2.0 design space — they are released to the world before they are ready and often suffer from near-fatal design flaws. In the case of Twitter and FriendFeed they present posts in a stream or “timeline” where all posts are presented sequentially and all are of equal weight. The result is that a prolific writer, like Scoble or Dave Winer, can swamp the system and push out others I want to follow who write less frequently. This was most obvious today when I logged into Twitter to find that Scoble’s overnight reporting on the Chinese earthquake literally pushed everyone else I was following off the page. The platforms need a way to assign weights to subscriptions so that posts from people I don’t want to miss (say personal friends) have priority over others.

Until that is possible, one way I have found to hack a weighting algorithm is through Google Reader. I’ve set up two sets of FriendFeed accounts — on one I subscribe to those people who I want to read who post at “normal” rates. On the other, I subscribe only to Scoble. I then subscribe to the RSS feeds for each account with Google Reader which allows me a central place to track both streams of info. There is minimal overlap in feeds and it allows me to track the posts and related conversations of those people I’m following with a low probability that I’ll miss anything they’ve published either on FriendFeed, Twitter or their blogs. It’s a kludge but it works.

Thinking of Mom

One of These Things is Not Like the Others My mom (3rd from the right) as a teenager. Maude was pretty as a picture, with the voice of an angel and the mouth of a sailor. A very bawdy sailor.

My co-workers frequently comment on the burdens of raising children and the consultations they regularly have with their kids’ teachers which, in these over-cautious times, often take on the gravity of papal audiences. As the resident childless drone in the office I have nothing to reference during these conversations except my own history of parent-teacher interactions. Such as the time my older sister was in fourth grade and came home crying because she had received a rap on the head from her teacher, who wore a heavy costume jewelry ring for just that purpose. The next morning my mother walked her to school, then continued into the building and into my sister’s classroom. “Listen, tramp,” she said to the hapless teacher, “if you ever touch my child again I will come up here and pull your blond hair out by its black roots!” In a class of 30 students picture 29 small mouths agape and a teacher in tears. I’m sure my sister wanted to crawl off the planet at that moment, but years later we would regale each other with re-tellings of a story that so perfectly summed up the exasperating extent of our mother’s loyalty.

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Advertising goes back to the future

Product Placements
The Medium is the Message Rosario Dawson in a viral YouTube video for Gemini Division, Bravo’s Top Chef prominently featuring Glad products, and Microsoft Photosynth starring in a recent episode of CSI.

Once upon a time, back in television’s Stone Age, a juvey medium that wasn’t quite sure how to make money from new technology decided to continue an approach that had been in use since Lever Brothers underwrote silent films that featured its Sunlight Soap — put products the sponsors were trying to sell right into the shows being sponsored and even have the actors in the programs occasionally step out of character for a pitch directly to the audience. We’ve all seen corny examples of this and it was broadly satirized in the media-bashing Truman Show a few years back.

As the effectiveness of 30 and 60 second commercial breaks became clear, product placement faded and in fact was avoided — so that television shows could be re-run and re-syndicated without worrying about conflicts with unknown future sponsors.

Then along came remote channel changers and Tivo…

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Clay Shirky: Death to Television!

The Death of TV

Clay Shirky, professor of Interactive Telecommunications at NYU, lit up the room at the recent Web 2.0 Expo conference with his keynote presentation titled, “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”. In it, he proclaims the half-century long era of passive television watching in its death throes — soon to be replaced by an era where the audience seizes control of the media they consume. What do you think… is he on to something?

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