Popular Science has announced that it’s shutting down comments on its articles. The post by Suzanne LeBarre says this is because ” trolls and spambots” have overwhelmed the useful comments. But what I hear instead is: “We don’t know how to run a comment board, so shut up.”
Suzanne cites research that suggests that negative comments on an article reduce the credibility of the article, even if those negative comments are entirely unfounded. Thus, the trolls don’t just ruin the conversation, they hurt the cause of science.
Ok, let’s accept that. Scientific American cited the same research but came to a different decision. Rather than shut down its comments, it decided to moderate them using some sensible rules designed to encourage useful conversation. Their idea of a “useful conversation” is likely quite similar to Popular Science’s: not only no spam, but the discourse must be within the norms of science. So, it doesn’t matter how loudly Jesus told you that there is no climate change going on, your message is going to be removed if it doesn’t argue for your views within the evidentiary rules of science.
You may not like this restriction at Scientific American. Tough. You have lots of others places you can talk about Jesus’ beliefs about climate change. I posted at length about the Scientific American decision at the time, and especially about why this makes clear problems with the “echo chamber” meme, but I fundamentally agree with it.
If comments aren’t working on your site, then it’s your fault. Fix your site.
[Tip o' the hat to Joshua Beckerman for pointing out the PopSci post.]
I’m a sucker for ads that comment on the dishonesty of ads. For example, I laughed at this one from Newcastle Brown Ale:
I also really liked this one as well:
I do have a duck-rabbit disagreement with Piper Hoffman’s reading of it at BlogHer. I took the ad as a direct comment on the sexism of beer ads: if you’re not an attractive woman, beer companies won’t include you. But Piper raises an interesting point. [SPOILER ALERT] She’s right that if the pronoun had been “she,” the point would have been less ambiguous. But it also would have been a bit crueler, since the ad would have had Newcastle calling their brewmistress unattractive, and it also could have been taken as Newcastle agreeing that only attractive women should ever be shown on in an ad.
While I enjoy a meta-ad like this (at least as I take it), I also feel a bit meta-fooled: What does that have to do with whether their beer is any good? I’m not looking to be friends with a beer.
I get more enjoyment from viewers subverting ads. For example, I saw an ad for KFC about some new boneless chicken product.
I wasn’t paying attention, in part because it was a commercial, and in part because I haven’t eaten anything from KFC since I became a vegetarian 1979 but I have not forgotten the sensation of eating chicken that’s been so close to liquefied that it’s held together only by a layer of deep-fried cholesterol. But I saw the hashtag #iAteTheBones and checked it out on Twitter.
Bunches of the tweets praise the commercial as amusing. (It was directed by David O.Russell, who also directed the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.) But prominent in the list is this:
THE MAJORITY OF INSTAGRAM POSTS BEARING KFC’S #IATETHEBONES HASHTAG FEATURE DIRT TUNNELS LITTERED WITH SHREDDED CLOTHING.
Futurist Stowe Boyd believes that we’ve entered a stage of “social business” in which “brands will try to look and feel as much like people as possible, online.”
Terry cites two examples of this, both during the Superbowl power outage: Oreos tweeted a photo with the caption “You can still dunk in the dark,” and Audi tweeted something about bringing LEDs to the stadium (which may be an Audi reference that I don’t get). Brands, says Terry, need to play “by the rules of human interactivity instead of the hierarchical ‘driving’ of behavior.” This means not only tweeting humorously in real time, but being more menschlich: “New York ad agency Young & Rubicam has been studying consumer behavior for decades and shocked the world last year by noting a 391% spike in ‘kindness and empathy’ as a favored brand attribute among consumers.”
Terry gives five practical rules for these new persona-brands. These rules are ethical and sensible. But they also raise interesting issues. In particular, rule #3 says:
No selling whatsoever.
No calls to action not based in participation.
No gimmicks. None.
Nothing artificial or fake.
And #5 says “Be personal.”
But brands acting like people is artificial and fake, and how can you be personal when you’re not a person? So, on the one hand, I want to dismiss this idea. But on the other hand I want to hand it to Terry. The ability of a company to sally forth into social media is, I believe, giving rise to what Terry and Boyd are pointing to: a new type of entity that acts like a duck, quacks like a duck, is not a duck, and that fools no one into think it’s a duck.
Companies used to do something like this when they would personify their product and their brand: green giants, cookie elves, prepubescent dough balls. Some of these became figures of popular culture. But that’s not what Terry is pointing to. The Oreo tweet didn’t come from a cartoon character acting like a cookie. It came from Oreo, which is obviously not itself a particular cookie, and is also not the same as Nabisco or Kraft Foods Inc. You read the tweet understanding that it came from some marketing folks who are talking for the cookie and for the company. The closest entity I can think of is: the Oreo tweet came from the brand. Pure brand. No mediation through a character. Pure brand.
I’m guessing that part of the charm comes from our recognition that there are people behind the brand’s tweets. And we seem to like that. Those people seem to be like us. They have a sense of humor. They don’t have to run all their tweets through focus groups. Nor do they have to dress up in some stupid mascot costume or hire an actor to speak like a squeaky-voiced chipmunkâ?¢ or something.
Businesses have always had this problem. They are not people and thus seem phony and manipulative when they try to speak like people. But businesses do need to speak via social media, or, as we used to say in the Cluetrain days, join the conversation. Some have done so by empowering people from their marketing staff â?? usually young folks â?? to speak for them on Twitter and the Eff Book, often using their own names along with their corporate identification. That makes sense and it sometimes works. I expect it’ll continue. But I suspect we’ll see a growth in the construction of social brands that are like what the brand would be if it were a person, and that is understood as having real individuals behind it.
One could perfectly well bemoan this development. After all, it is phony down to its core. Brands aren’t people, and the people pretending to be a brand are terribly constrained in what they can say and do by the requirement that they advance the brand. These people-brands are not folks you’d become friends if only because they won’t shut up about Oreos and Audis. But, I’m assuming that by this time we’re smart enough to understand that a talking brand has a ventriloquist behind it.
Further, these social brands may erode the wall between the authentic and the inauthentic. Yay.That’s a wall that needs to come down anyway because the concept of authenticity makes even less sense now than it ever did. Our Web selves are constructed selves. If tweeting Oreos can help us recognize that, then they’ve done us a service, in addition to being quite delicious.
Oy. I fell for an ad today because it promised to tell me four startling things that happen to you before you get a heart attack. The video, which has no pause or fast forward button, is a grating infomercial, with a heavy emphasis on the “mercial.” So, here’s the startling information Dr. Chauncey Crandall so selflessly is imparting to us:
The four things are:
Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.
Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness To prevent heart attacks, cut back on fat intake but most importantly, cut back on sugar.
Yeah, these are the symptoms you will find listed anywhere that discusses heart attacks. For example, try a little place I like to call “Google”: top hit for “heart attack”.
It takes Dr. Crandall forever to get even the slightest piece of information — first promoting himself and pitching his newsletter etc. — that I gave up. So I quoted the above from trogdor1 on a discussion board. Thanks, Trogdor1, for taking the hit for the team.
I wanted to replace the smashed screen of a white MacBook, and found what seemed like a very good price from Wegener. The new screen arrived very quickly, and was exactly as described. But when I started to strip down the MacBook, I discovered I had ordered the wrong screen. It’s surprisingly easy to do.
So, I sent an email to Wegener and quickly got a reply, followed by a phone call. The support person said they are happy to send me the right screen, for which I have to pay a little more because it’s a more expensive part. They’re sending it even before I return the old one. So far, the experience has been terrific: Quick responses, friendly people, good return policy.
Then they told me that in the carton for the replacement part I’ll find a postage paid mailing label. I reminded them that the problem was entirely my fault, and thus there’s no reason for them to pay for shipping. Yikes, that’s some good customer service! (I went ahead and returned the first screen on my own dime.)
It’s amazing how powerful an experience it is to be treated like a human being by a business.
HumbleBundle is a fantastic way to sell indie games and music. You name your own price, you can divvy it up among the creators and among charities, and today I got a message that they’ve added more songs for free for anyone who purchased the most recent bundle.
Yo, Humbles, I already bought the product. You don’t have to entice me any more. On the other hand: You’ve made me love you even more, and you’ve helped some musicians spread their music just a little wider.
I thought it had been 6 months since my last dental check up. Since I now routinely multiply any past intervals by two, I figured, correctly, that it’s really been a year. Usually, the hygienist has to put on waders and go at me with a pickaxe and a trowel. This was the first time in my life that a dental hygienist has marveled at my teeth. Gums are strong. No tartar, except for a little around a couple of teeth. Some healing of a couple of “pockets.”
There’s been one major variable that I know of: I switched from a Braun electric toothbrush to a Philips SoniCare.Why? Because the Internet told me to. I believe that the correlation is not accidental (see what I did there?), but of course it is just one data point.
Actually, it’s more like Doc Searls: Wall Street Journal Cover Boy!
It’s a testament to Doc and also a hopeful sign of the times that the WSJ today features on its weekend cover a story by Doc about the theme of his new book, The Intention Economy. The title of the piece is “The Customer as a God,” a headline Doc didn’t write and isn’t entirely comfortable with. But the piece is strong. And getting it on the cover of WSJ is like getting a story about VRM on the cover of CRM Magazine. Which Doc also did.
big business continues to believe that a free market is one in which customers get to choose their captors. Choosing among AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon for your new smartphone is like choosing where you’d like to live under house arrest. It’s why marketers still talk about customers as “targets” they can “acquire,” “control,” “manage” and “lock in,” as if they were cattle. And it’s why big business thinks that the best way to get personal with customers on the Internet is with “big data,” gathered by placing tracking files in people’s browsers and smartphone apps without their knowledge—so they can be stalked wherever they go, with their “experiences” on commercial websites “personalized” for them.
It is not yet clear to the perpetrators of this practice that it is actually insane…
The headline brings to mind the most embarrassing headline I ever found one of my articles placed under. The article was about the need for human leeway in decisions about what constitutes copyright infringement. The title Wired supplied without my knowledge (that’s how magazines work) was: “Copy protection is a crime against humanity.” I can see the pun they intended, but taken at face values, it implies I think copy protection is on a par with genocide. I of course don’t even think copy protection is a crime.
And, yes, I am aware that the title for this post is also guilty of wild overstatement. I’m assuming — no offense, Doc — that even casual readers will understand that it’s hyperbole for humorous effect. Haha.
He points to a problem in how we’ve thought about design, trained designers, and have practiced design. The great thing about designing simple products is that you can know almost everything about them: who made them, who they’re for, how they were produced, etc. But as products get more complicated, it gets harder even for a team of designers to really understand what’s going on. They get so complicated that there are lots of places design can fail.
When we go out to urban planning , that becomes even more obvious, he says. He shows Union Sq. when it was designed and how wildly NYC has grown around it. Or, at the Courtyard Marriott chain, every element of the user’s experience has been thought through. He shows a script that specifies every interaction. But you can’t anticipate everything. E.g., JetBlue is one of the best designed customer experiences and even they got it wrong a couple of winters ago.
What’s going on? It’s all about complexity. Henri Poincaré in the 19th century tried to solve the three body problem that had been set by the French govt as an open source competition. HP couldn’t solve it. It sounds like a simple problem, but it’s very hard. [BTW, there's a fascinating history of three French aristocrats hand-computing the movement of Halley's Comet, which depended on calculating the gravitational influences of multiple bodies. Can't find the ref at the moment]
Our basic ideas about design have been based on Newton, says Tim. Design assumes the ability to predict the future based on the present. We need to think more like Darwin: design as an evolutionary process. Design is more about emergence, never finished.
He presents a few principles of Darwinian design that he’s been exploring.
1. Design behaviors, not objects — the behaviors that come from our interactions with objects. If you’ve traveled on the high speed trains in Europe, there are signs urging men to be more accurate when peeing. But at Schiphol Airport, they print a fly at the right spot in the urinal; men became 80% more accurate. That’s designing behavior; the actual object doesn’t matter.
2. Design for information flow. Nicholas Christakis has looked at how networks affect behavior. Tesco uses its loyalty card — which cost them 20% of their margins — to increase sales.
3. Faster iteration = faster evolution. Viruses evolve faster than we do because they iterate faster than we do. E.g., State Farm tried out a new idea how to build relationships with the new generation. They built one storefront for this, and learned from it. “Launch to learn.”
4. Use selective emergence. This intrigues him, alathough he doesn’t know how useful it will be in design. Rather than random mutations, you choose what might be interesting and design things that get us there through many iterations. I.e., genetic algorithms. E.g., the Strandbeest walks along beaches with a hip joint unlike any in nature because the artist used genetic algorithms.
5. Take an experimental approach. I.e., testing hypotheses. Cf. Eric Ries, the Lean Startup (build, measure, learn). E.g., Ideo.org has been working on sanitation in Ghana. Where you can’t dig septic pits, Ideo has been experimenting with low cost receptacle toilets (with bio-digesters). But people didn’t want to pay for the service. So, they gave some to families and went away for three days. All the families changed their minds and said they are willing to pay for the service (which is provided by a local franchise).
6. Focus on simple rules. This comes from emergence theory. E.g., complex bird flocking patterns are based on simple rules. [Canonical example: Termite mounds.] E.g., Bi-Rite stores in SF uses simple rules: If an employee is within 10′ of a customer, you look the customer in the eye. If within 4′, you talk with them. This creates a wonderful service experience.
7. Design is never done. E.g., World of Warcraft is constantly being designed by its players.
8. The power of purpose. This creates the self-governance these complex environments succeed. Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are examples. Companies are experimenting with new ways of thinking about their business and products. E.g., Patagonia tells you not to buy its products because it also wants to preserve the environment.
The prototypical design artefact is a blue print. Once you created the blue print, the design was done. It was the instruction set for someone to make it. That’s how we think about design: finish and done. What replaces it: Code. It might be DNA (and Tim has people researching this), but more often it’s programming code. It’s an instruction set that can continue to evolve.
JF: You embody your principles. The rules are differen from a prior version. [ACK! Crash. Missed about 2 minutes]
TB: We’ve just finished designing the prototype experience for the new health care exchanges. It will affect how people choose which health care insurance to choose. Today it’s done with paper. Under the new health care laws, lots of people will get to make these choices. We worked with the CA Healthcare Foundation to prototype the user experience. What are the key pieces are parts? How can we keep the choices reasonably simple? Then each state will use this a platform to develop their own.
JF: And the govt had the wit to come to you to do this?
TB: The CA Health Care Foundation…
JF: What are the barriers? Does it cost more to do it your way?
TB: It’s often less costly. Most often they don’t have a good understanding of what their customers go through. When a health care org comes to us, relatively frequently we find out that a senior exec had to go through the health care experience. It’s true of all organizations. We don’t ask the right questions. The urgency to change is not there, and the resistance to change is always huge.
JF: Has the TSA come to you?
TB: Yes, but … well, we learned a lot. In the previous admin, we worked with them to find areas of change. Although going through the scanners has to improve, a lot of it has to do with the behavior of the people. They looked at a training program that was intended to take away some of the rule-based system they used. The more rules you apply, the less sensitive the system is. You need to give the people in that system much more independence to make judgments.
JF: Who do you hire?
TB: We look for a wide range of people. Many disciplines. We look for deep skills, and for empathy. It’s hard to solve problems for others without that. Also, most of what we do is too complex for individuals, so we work in teams, and thus people need an enthusiasm for empathy.
JF: Any unusual interview techniques?
TB: We put people into a situation in which they’re practicing design. E.g., intern program. Also, competitions. And we use Open Ideo as a way of seeing how people work.
JF: Beyond the toilet, what else are you doing for “design for poverty.”
TB: I got excited when I saw the opportunities for design in some social design work. At Open Ideo we’re working on clean water, early ed programs, etc. Ideo.org is a non-profit org. We want it to be sustainable and scalable so we look for external funding for it.
JF: How do you approach environmental sustainability?
TB: We try to build that into every project. Every project affects the environment. We try to bring sustainable thinking around systems, materials, energy flows, etc.
JF: What projects are you proudest of?
TB: The work we do in health care, including with Kaiser Permanente. Also, consumer-facing, post-crash financial services. PNC digital wallet. “Keep the change.” Etc. This is not an area where design has had much to do.
TB: For physical objects, it peaked maybe 20-30 years ago (with Apple as an exception). But we’re in ascendance for behavior-based designed. We get 25,000 apps a year for 100 openings. We’re a 600-person company. Etsy, Kickstarter, sw designed better than ever before…great things are happening. Soon if not already the number of digital designers will be greater than all other designers combined.
Q & A
Q: Your principles are so close to Buckminister Fuller’s [says the guy from the Fuller institute]. But the boundary between social and evolutionary systems is illusory.
TB: Yes, Fuller figured this out a long time ago. We’re perhaps resurrecting ideas, as every generation does. Design has operated as a priesthood for too long. When I started, I was only interested in how beautiful something is. That’s so much simpler. Opening design up to many more will convince us all that we’re all part of this big design ecosystem and have a responsibility to be thoughtful about the contributions we’re making to the world around us. I hope professional designers learn to enable that, more than controlling it. The B School at Stanford is introducing non-designers to design, which is great.
Q: What can we do to simplify the rules?
TB: The unstated bit of my thesis is that you still have to stop and design something. We develop an idea, perhaps more through iteration. That process doesn’t change. For rebuilding a complex system, maybe big data will help us to see patterns that allow us to understand what we’re designing’s complex effects…but I don’t think we’re there yet. We should be thinking about the hooks we’re building in. I’m big into APIs that allow other people to build with what you’ve built.
Q: Is it training or DNA that determines a good employee for you?
TB: Both. We hire people straight out of grad school because they’re moldable. We hire older people, but it’s harder for them to adapt. I don’t have much control as CEO. The future of all businesses is to have cultures that are a s self-governing as possible. That’s much more resilient and agile than cultures built on inflexible rule sets.
Q: I chair a land conservancy. We create parks in urban areas. Does Ideo have much experience in designing to create behaviors that will get people to use parks? What’s your view of the state of park design?
TB: We don’t have a lot of expertise in designing anything because we like designing everything. The High Line and the West Side park in NYC are remarkable examples. Projects like that show that parks can be remarkable assets to the city. We’re working with High Line on the third phase of that project. NYC’s life expectancy has gone up 3 yrs. Two explanations: People are closer to health facilities, and people walk more.
Q: What are the logistics of running a decentralized org? Mentoring? Sharing a vision?
TB: Purpose creates a sense of direction, so we talk about why the heck we’re doing what we’re doing. We think we should measure everything we do based on the impact it has on the word. We’ve done an occasionally decent job of mentoring; that can be a problem with a decentralized org. It’s a tension. Most of our employees probably want more mentoring, but we also want autonomy. We are not big believers in warehousing knowledge. Designers hate reusing other people’s ideas. It’s much better to have knowledge systems that inspire people to think in new ways. So we’re a storytelling culture. It’s a bit of an obsession of ours. If you do a piece of work, your job is to have some stories to tell about it. That’s more effective than big reports that live in a database somewhere.
(JF calls for all remaining questions)
Q: My group works with at-risk youth. Education is increasingly standards based, but your work is collaborative.
Q: How do you look at chaos? People in open markets are open and affectionate. In corporate controlled spaces, people shut down.
Q: Does form drive function or vice versa?
Q: Apple is a closed system. Google wants more control. Open vs. controlled systems?
TB: 1. University ed is not always the best way to teach entrepreneurship. Apprenticeships are interesting. 2. Great markets are vibrant, but not chaotic. I take clients to the Ferry building to point out all the interrelated pieces that make that such a great experience. It’s not top down, but you can see the patterns and use them as inspiration. 3. Form follow function? Hard to kick that notion because I believe in beautiful engineering, but most things we’re designing today have hundreds of functions, so you can’t get a single form for it. 4. I love closed systems but I think they’re inevitably part of an open system. IOS is part of an open system of everything else that I do with it. We need both. [At last! Something I disagree with! Sort of! :)]
[Fantastic. I've been a huge fan of Ideo's work, and Ideo's organizational ethos, and Tim Brown, for a long time. So I felt particularly narcissistic as I heard this talk through Cluetrain and Too Big to Know lenses. Substitute "knowledge" for "design" and you get a lot of the ideas in 2b2k. To hear them coming from Tim Brown, who is a personal idol of mine, was a self-centered thrill.]
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
She says that the Off the Bus effort now strikes her as surprisingly structured and profesionalized. For a year and a half, they recruited citizen journalists. Of the 12,000 of the people who participated, only 14% wanted to write articles on their own. The formalized approach Off the Bus took has been adopted by sites that invite readers to contribute their photos, their thoughts, etc.
The biggest shift, she says, is how much the campaigns rely upon data. E.g., how did Romney think he could win Iowa with just a few offices? The people who worked for him had identified die-hard supporters, who were asked to call other supporters, who were also then asked to call. In 2004, we the people were making media constantly. Now the engines driving the campaign are largely under the hood. So, if you’re reporting on campaigns today, you’re doing email analysis to understand the candidates’ strategies
Matt: It’s amazing how much media people now have woven into their days. A study shows that people are now spending 700 mins a day on media. Media is now a layer on top of people’s everyday experience. We looked at how a persistent story — a storm damaging a town — has been told throughout history. The single thing that stood out: We’ve gone from medium as an appointment you keep to media as a constant texture that both succors and buffets you.
Amanda: That’s why in 2008 we used a formalized approach — asking reporters to sign up and giving them assignments — and now people know if they go to a campaign event, they’ll be asked to post photos and twist.
Amanda: How has the shift between media and people changed?
Matt: We used to broadcast. We used to send out msgs. Now people use their mobile devices to talk with one another. We sit in this space, right alongside them. For us at NPR, that position is sweet. Radio is intimate. People can now carry us with them. That intimacy has created a drastically new dynamic for us.
Amanda: At Pro Publica, we worked on “explainers,” explaining questions people have. Readers told us they were particularly useful. I’m interested in how we can hold those in power accountable. We did the “stimulus spotcheck” to see how the economic stimulus money was being used. We asked our readers if we could tell what was going on. I asked readers to help us identify sites. Readers checked 550 sites around the country — 4.5% of construction sites aroiund the country — and we found that that gusher of work was further down the pipeline.
After making multiple phone calls, readers would sometimes say, “Journalism is hard,” which helps them understand the value of journalism.
The big challenge for media institutions is to keep their eye on the ball. The ubiquity of media can give you the false confidence that you’re seeing all there is. You’re checking Twitter, but many stories are much more difficult to find, and there are many people who don’t have a voice.
Amanda: Matt, what do you see coming?
Matt: I try to work through with the journalists the idea that we’re moving from stories toward streams. Humans have told one another stories forever, and will do so. But stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, are being augmented by the constant stream of info. Andy Carvin is constantly tracking events in the Middle East over Twitter. It’s a very different experience — no beginning, middle, end. Twitter gives you a sense of the texture of the lives of the people you follow. “We’re encountering the end of endings,” said Paul Ford. At NPR we’re trying to pull back to tell a longer story, a quest.
Amanda: There is this real need to see the context. Other trends: We’re going to be making sense of the world through the visual. We’re moving from the written word toward the image. At The Guardian, we think about how to bring people along in an ongoing process. How do you tether together items in the stream?
[Great session. My fave so far. But I'm a pretty big fan of both of these people.]