Archive for ‘Business’

You Can’t Beat the System

By , 1 September, 2008, No Comment

My dad collects coffee mugs. Everywhere we go on a vacation, while the rest of us hunt eagerly for T-shirts and keychains, he shops the international Crate and Barrels for dishes. From London, we have a mug with the Underground map and the tagline “You Can’t Beat the System.” I like to drink from it while I read the financial section of the New York Times…

Thought about the “system” today when I read this story about a McCain aide who thought to juice up Sarah Palin’s Wiki entry before she was unveiled as a Veep choice on Friday. The article takes up the question of whether tampering with Wikipedia is immoral or just smart politics.

That reminds me of the controversy that errupted last year, when viral marketer Dan Greenberg unveiled some of the tactics he uses, or recommends others use, to sell brands online in a tell-all post on TechCrunch. Some of the conversation was about the ethics of individual tactics (paying bloggers to write favorable posts, for example), but much of the dialogue was about the ethics of using the Web to sell things at all.

There’s a lot of hippie culture among techheads, so much so that some of them talk as if making money from online activities is itself sacriligious. As someone who sees free culture as akin to free markets (not free lunch), I’m inclined to respond, “You can’t beat the system.” And you can’t blame Ackerman or the McCain campaign for working it.

Comcast in Portland: A Cautionary Tale

By , 18 August, 2008, No Comment

My friend Steve just moved to Portland, OR. Being a 22-year old man with clear priorities, he immediately set about acquiring food, a TV and a couch. In that order. Food is easy to come by in Portland, apparently: there are free ice-cream cone giveaways on the streets, and $1 hot dogs at minor league baseball games. Setting up cable, however, proved a challenge.

In a city that hosts chipmaker Intel, it’s only fitting that Steve would turn to the web to set up his new Comcast account. But instead of filling out an online form to request a visit from the cable guy (which is fairly standard across the country), Steve found himself handing over credit card information via an instant message.

The process was a lot faster than calling one of those corporate 800 numbers and dealing with an automated menu (“press 1 to pay us, press 2 to pay us more”), but Steve wasn’t pleased. This is “f***ing retarded,” he said. “Horrendous.”

First off, there’s the uncertainty of putting your credit card info into an IM that you have no confirmation page for. Halfway through the transaction, the IM client crashed when Steve tried to open a new tab on his browser.

Secondly, there’s the increased chance of fraud: the credit card Steve used actually belonged to his girlfriend Dana.

Thirdly, an IM conversation is an ideal place to make typos and grammatical gaffes. The Comcast rep asked to “ruin a credit card,” and after setting up a time for an installation told Steve, “Please make sure that there should be someone 18 years old and above, who is English speaking must be present for the duration of the appointment. Please be inform that the technician will call you 15 minutes before the installation.”

I don’t buy the whole Google-makes-you-stupid theory about internet users, and I don’t think the Comcast rep speaks this way in real life. Rather, I believe the same individuals can be less articulate over fast-paced communication technologies like IM or SMS than they are in print or even over e-mail, where there’s time to spell-check and proofread. And while error-prone IM is fine for personal conversations, Steve says that’s not okay when $100 a month is at stake. I agree.

And Steve is a tech-savvy guy. Like most 20-somethings, he uses the web to listen to music or surf YouTube!; plus, he has a subscription to a service that allows him to watch live coverage of professional sports that don’t make prime time on ESPN. That he still expects a certain formality and decorum from commercial relationships is a telling sign: just because the internet allows us to abandon all the old playbooks, doesn’t mean the Google generation wants that. That’s an important lesson for any companies trying to navigate the digital age.

McDonald’s might just get it

By , 20 July, 2008, No Comment


So a few weeks ago, McDonald’s joined the legions of companies who’ve used user-generated content to create advertising campaigns. Sometimes, it’s a disaster because users submit videos making fun of your product and the company gets bad press for censoring those clips out. Sometimes, it’s a flop, because all the ads toe the company line but, for lack of a more technical term, suck: they aren’t funny, they’re badly produced etc. What’s a brand to do?

Along with a colleague, I wrote an article offering some advice on this subject last summer, but none of the user-generation attempts I’ve seen since have taken that advice to heart. The McDonalds contest, however, might reflect a change.

See, company judges just announced five finalists and oddly, one of them is a man who tried to job a Mickey D’s in his teenage years. According to TechCrunch, this is a sign that the idiots at McDonald’s don’t know to run a Google background check. But in fact, I think it’s a sign that McDonald’s understands Web 2.0 branding. People are saying things about you–good and bad–all over the Web anyway; so why not bring your “enemies” inside, where you can counter the attacks. Moreover, the ad in question isn’t critical of McDonald’s so it’s the company’s way of saying that even if you hated us at 14, you might come ’round. I gotta admit, I think it’s pretty coy.

Pixar Nails It, Again

By , 2 July, 2008, No Comment


I saw WALL-E last night and completely fell in love. There are many film critics better qualified than I to wax eloquent about the animation and the soundtrack. But what got me about the film was its approach to technology and industrialization.

To summarize, WALL-E lives on an Earth that is so covered with litter that it can’t sustain human life. His job is to clean up while the humans orbit the Earth in a space-station cum shopping mall and become fatter and lazier as they continue to buy, and throw away, more junk. But WALL-E also picks through the litter before he runs it through his compressor. He saves relics of human civilization that appeal to his sentimental side: tapes of “Hello, Dolly!,” a rubiks cube, a spork, some Twinkies for his pet cockroach, Christmas lights etc. All of these are the outgrowth, in one way or another, of the same technological and commercial trajectory that produced the mess WALL-E cleans. So, for that matter, is WALL-E.

In our current debates about globalization or climate change, we often talk as though there are two sides: humanitarian, environmentalist lefties who oppose technology and right-wing libertarians who believe it can do no wrong. Meanwhile debates about copyright or social media privacy controls often pit free culture radicals (who believe the Internet SHOULD be allowed to do everything it CAN do) against an old media establishment (who believe, the story goes, that the Internet should be allowed to do as little as possible).

WALL-E is a film that points out the middle ground in these binaries. Just because industrialization can pollute does not mean pollution is its necessary outcome. Nor does that destructive potential compel us to abandon its positive abilites, like making the computers that give us digital animation. Just because the Internet allows us to see everyone’s personal information and steal company secrets does not make those practices okay. Nor do the dangers of the digital world mean we ought to give up the convenience of the Google search.

Fitting, then, that WALL-E comes from Pixar, and thus from Steve Jobs, a titan of the digital age.

Nice Try, Google

By , 1 July, 2008, 2 Comments

Google thinks they’ve struck gold with a new scheme to monetize online video. They’ve hired Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane to produce some short (1-2 minute) webisodes of a new series to run on their AdSense network. Advertisers can run their schtick in the intro to each episode.

Tapping the Family Guy viewers is a good call, and going for short videos, rather than TV-show length episodes, makes sense for the web audience, used to two paragraph blog posts and 140 word tweets. But as an ad project, this will fail. Within weeks, I predict, viewers will be downloading the webisodes, stripping out the ad portion and uploading them to YouTube!, just like they do with ordinary TV shows today. In fact, the best web-video ad-ventures involve putting adverts onto YouTube! as content, a la Dove Evolution.

Not sure if every brand can opt for that approach, but I’ve yet to see another feasible pathway.

Bye, Bye Bill

By , 27 June, 2008, No Comment


It’s the end of an era. Bill Gates is leaving Microsoft to be a full-time dogooder. Over at TechCrunch, there’s an interesting discussion about who might replace him as the individual who “controls” the tech world. For almost two decades, Gates and Microsoft have had enough of a hold on computing that whatever you built or designed at least had to work WITH Windows. Even Apple caved.

But according to TechCrunch, nobody “controls” today’s platform–the Web. So no one can ever do what Gates did again.

Puhl-eese. It’s true that neither Facebook nor Google nor Yahoo can become the one-and-only platform for everything (they’re all trying to do that, but I think Web 2.0 consumers like having multiple foci for their internet lives, so the titans will have to coexist).

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an entrepreneur out there who gets to be the chief change driver. The thing is, with today’s set of tech leaders that sell consumer experiences as much or more than they sell technological gadgetry, the leader need not devise a platform or a set of code that everyone has to use and work with. Rather the next Bill Gates will be the person who devises a culture, a way of connecting to consumers, that everyone has to use, no matter what they sell.

TechCrunch’s poll is still valuable, and I encourage you to read it. But by asking who’s making the most/best STUFF for the web, I’m not sure they’re thinking about the question the right way.

Too Much of a Good Thing

By , 14 June, 2008, No Comment

Whenever there’s a newfangled trend on the scene, the soothsayers are quick to decide it’s going to get out of hand and take over the world. Women’s suffrage had men worrying about domestic anarchy. Same-sex marriage has crazy cultural conservatives predicting the legalization of bestiality. TV had George Orwell all worried about Big Brother surveillance. And the first computers had a lot of sci-fi writers predicting the age of robots.

That’s not really how change works, of course. When Thomas Edison invented electricity, and offered to help Congress tally votes faster with an electric ballot box, they said no. Counting by hand gives them more time to schmooze, and schmoozing is essential to politics. TV didn’t kill radio, because for some things (like driving long distances) radio is still useful. And just because we CAN use computers and the Internet all the time, doesn’t mean we want to. Sometimes, the old-fashioned way is best.

Two stories today suggest I’m right about this. First, companies are finally starting to see that constant web access, first hailed as a productivity aid, is a problem if it means we’re all IM-ing our friends from work, or doing things piecemeal in little emails instead of actually having meetings. Second, university profs have figured out that Microsoft Word is great for notetaking, but students using laptops to play Minesweeper in class is not so useful. So the companies and the profs are experimenting with ways to regulate technology and channel it in exclusively positive directions.

Which means the soothsayers should calm down: Pens, paper and conference halls are not going anywhere as yet.

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

By , 8 June, 2008, No Comment

You know, I always had a thing for Kermit and I was thinking of his famous quip today when I saw this story about UPS. Apparently, the dudes in brown are going “green,” by telling all their drivers to take delivery routes with only right turns. That way, they won’t waste any gas waiting to turn left.

Get real, UPS. Going green, for real, isn’t about making little tweaks like that, though they help. It will require rethinking the big picture of how we live–it means deciding to call a local store near your grandmother’s house to have them deliver her a gift (by bike), INSTEAD of buying a present and shipping it via UPS.

Not to mention that UPS has had this program for two years, but managed to make it a new story this weekend as part of the global warming media hype.

Then again, I’m sometimes afraid to beat up on companies for greenwashing for fear they’ll stop trying altogether.

Capitalism 2.0: If you really want to beat them, join them

By , 4 May, 2008, 2 Comments

I’m pretty skeptical of free culture political theory. The Free Culture radicals (people like Larry Lessig, McKenzie Wark and Richard Stallman) argue that the collaborative/non-proprietary ethos of online software production, and the YouTube!-Wikipedia-Napster world it’s unleashed, necessarily contribute to a communitarian model of society: that Web 2.0 technologies represent a shift away from classical economics.

Even after taking a media studies class in college where the professor, Mark Tribe, was something of an open source evangelist, I have my doubts about this technological determinism. But I can sometimes see where the radical theory comes from.

A recent move by Google is a case-in-point. Among the keys to the company’s success is their model for online advertising–using search technologies and consumer behavior online to target ads, and selling that capability to others. One of the very Web 2.0-esque features of that model is the fact that a small-time company has a decent chance to compete with the big shots, since it’s popularity with users (not corporate ad dollars paid in advance) that sends an advert to the top of Google’s lists. That’s one point for the radicals.

This week, Google decided to extend this model to television with Adwords TV. Anybody can make a video spot online (Google has tools to help you do it yourself), and use their crowd-sourcing model to pick a target audience/time slot to air it. You make all the decisions online, pay by credit card and Google does the leg work of getting your ad on TV. The DIY approach fits the collaborative utopia Lessig and Stallman envisage.

Today’s entrepreneurs sometimes argue that Web 2.0 technologies are “additive” not “competitive,” meaning that one new tech feature isn’t out to replace another. You can have a profile on MySpace AND Facebook. Where video may have killed the radio star, Google’ s new ad scheme suggests that Web 2.0 can coexist with the old-school small screen.

Warm and fuzzy as that sounds, however, it seems to me that Google’s philosophy is as old-school as TV itself. Recognizing that people still prefer watching the the Super Bowl on the couch with snacks to YouTube-ing by themselves, they’ve found a way to make online dollars from offline behavior. Google’s “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach sounds to me like a high tech version of age old game theory.

The Internet Police

By , 29 April, 2008, No Comment

Throughout the Web revolution of the past decade, pundits and journalists have angsted endlessly about the implications of new technologies on privacy and the capacity for unwanted “Big Brother” surveillance or dangerous identity theft. Counter-arguments from tech-geeks have mainly centered on the entertainment potential of Google Earth or Facebook-stalking. Breaking the impasse means proving that the new technologies are more than a toy, but a useful and socially constructive tool.

The proof has arrived. Facebook and Google are putting their surveillance and information capacities to work fighting crime. A new Facebook list of suspected war criminals encourages users around the world to post information about sightings. A new Google Earth map marks crime scenes and likely locations.

How effective this will be, however, is still an open question. After all, criminals have computers too and it can’t help to tell them where we think they are. Not to mention that the Facebook lists wanted felons rather than simply suspects: due process dictates the individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Hopefully, the officials in charge will follow the law books over the Facebook.

On the other hand, there are interesting principles behind this technology: crowdsourcing, global technologies as a form of international law/world governance, linking virtual networks back to the physical world. As imperfect as this particular project is, these are the general contours of the coming era. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Facebook and Google would be the first to sign up.