Is Live the New Live?

HQ Trivia – the popular mobile game app –  seems to be going backwards. It’s an anachronism – going against all the things that technology promises. It tethers us to a schedule. It’s essentially a live game show broadcast (when everything works as it should, which is far from a sure bet) on a tiny screen – It also gets about a million players each and every time it plays, which is usually only twice a day.

My question is: Why the hell is it so popular?

Maybe it’s the Trivia Itself…

(Trivial Interlude – the word trivia comes from the Latin for the place where three roads come together. Originally in Latin it was used to refer to the three foundations of basic education – grammar, logic and rhetoric. The modern usage came from a book by Logan Pearsall Smith in 1902 – “Trivialities, bits of information of little consequence”. The singular of trivia is trivium)

As a spermologist (that’s a person who loves trivia – seriously – apparently the “sperm” has something to do with “seeds of knowledge”) I love a trivia contest. It’s one thing I’m pretty good at – knowing a little about a lot of things that have absolutely no importance. And if you too fancy yourself a spermologist (which, by the way, is how you should introduce yourself at social gatherings) you know that we always want to prove we’re the smartest people in the room. In HQ Trivia’s case, that room usually holds about a million people. That’s the current number of participants in the average broadcast. So the odds of being the smartest person is the room is – well – about one in a million. And a spermologist just can’t resist those odds.

But I don’t think HQ’s popularity is based on some alpha-spermology complex. A simple list of rankings would take care of that. No, there must be more to it. Let’s dig deeper.

Maybe it’s the Simoleons…

(Trivial Interlude: Simoleons is sometimes used as slang for American dollars, as Jimmy Stewart did in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The word could be a portmanteau of “simon” and “Napoleon” – which was a 20 franc coin issued in France. The term seems to have originated in New Orleans, where French currency was in common use at the turn of the last century.)

HQ Trivia does offer up cash for smarts. Each contest has a prize, which is usually $5000. But even if you make it through all 12 questions and win, by the time the prize is divvied up amongst the survivors, you’ll probably walk away with barely enough money to buy a beer. Maybe two. So I don’t think it’s the prize money that accounts for the popularity of HQ Trivia.

Maybe It’s Because it’s Live..

(Trivial Interlude – As a Canadian, Trivia is near and dear to my heart. America’s favorite trivia quiz master, Alex Trebek, is Canadian, born in Sudbury, Ontario. Alex is actually his middle name. George is his first name. He is 77 years old. And Trivial Pursuit, the game that made trivia a household name in the 80’s, was invented by two Canadians, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. It was created after the pair wanted to play Scrabble but found their game was missing some tiles. So they decided to create their own game. In 1984, more than 20 million copies of the game were sold. )

There is just something about reality in real time. Somehow, subconsciously, it makes us feel connected to something that is bigger than ourselves. And we like that. In fact, one of the other etymological roots of the word “trivia” itself is a “public place.”

The Hotchkiss Movie Choir Effect

If you want to choke up a Hotchkiss (or at least the ones I’m personally familiar with) just show us a movie where people spontaneously start singing together. I don’t care if it’s Pitch Perfect Twelve and a Half – we’ll still mist up. I never understood why, but I think it has to do with the same underlying appeal of connection. Dan Levitin, author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” explained what happens in our brain when we sing as part of a group in a recent interview on NPR:

“We’ve got to pay attention to what someone else is doing, coordinate our actions with theirs, and it really does pull us out of ourselves. And all of that activates a part of the frontal cortex that’s responsible for how you see yourself in the world, and whether you see yourself as part of a group or alone. And this is a powerful effect.”

The same thing goes for flash mobs. I’m thinking there has to be some type of psychological common denominator that HQ Trivia has somehow tapped into. It’s like a trivia-based flash mob. Even when things go wrong, which they do quite frequently, we feel that we’re going through it together. Host Scott Rogowsky embraces the glitchiness of the platform and commiserates with us. Misery – even when it’s trivial – loves company.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, HQ Trivia seems to be moving forward by taking us back to a time when we all managed to play nicely together.

 

Advertising Meets its Slippery Slope

We’ve now reached the crux of the matter when it comes to the ad biz.

For a couple of centuries now, we’ve been refining the process of advertising. The goal has always been to get people to buy stuff. But right now, there is now a perfect storm of forces converging that requires some deep navel gazing on the part of us insiders.

It used to be that to get people to buy, all we had to do was inform. Pent up consumer demand created by expanding markets and new product introductions would take care of the rest. We just had to connect better the better mousetraps with the world, which would then duly beat the path to the respective door.  Advertising equaled awareness.

But sometime in the waning days of the consumer orgy that followed World War Two, we changed our mandate. Not content with simply informing, we decided to become influencers. We slipped under the surface of the brain, moving from providing information for rational consideration to priming subconscious needs. We started messing with the wiring of our market’s emotional motivations.  We became persuaders.

Persuasion is like a mental iceberg – 90% of the bulk lies below the surface. Rationalization is typically the hastily added layer of ad hoc logic that happens after the decision is already made.  This is true to varying degrees for almost any consumer category you can think including – unfortunately – our political choices.

This is why, a few columns ago – I said Facebook’s current model is unsustainable. It is based on advertising, and I think advertising may have become unsustainable. The truth is, advertisers have gotten so good at persuading us to do things that we are beginning to revolt. It’s getting just too creepy.

To understand how we got here, let’s break down persuasion. It requires the persuader to shift the beliefs of the persuadee. The bigger the shift required, the tougher the job of persuasion.  We tend to build irrational (aka emotional) bulwarks around our beliefs to preserve them. For this reason, it’s tremendously beneficial to the persuader to understand the belief structure of their target. If they can do this, they can focus on those whose belief structure is most conducive to the shift required.

When it comes to advertisers, the needle on our creative powers of persuasion hasn’t really moved that much in the last half century. There were very persuasive ads created in the 1960’s and there are still great ads being created. The disruption that has moved our industry to the brink of the slippery slope has all happened on the targeting end.

The world we used to live in was a bunch of walled and mostly unconnected physical gardens. Within each, we would have relevant beliefs but they would remain essentially private. You could probably predict with reasonable accuracy the religious beliefs of the members of a local church. But that wouldn’t help you if you were wondering whether the congregation leaned towards Ford or Chevy.  Our beliefs lived inside us, typically unspoken and unmonitored.

That all changed when we created digital mirrors of ourselves through Facebook, Twitter, Google and all the other usual suspects. John Battelle, author of The Search,  once called Google the Database of Intentions. It is certainly that. But our intent also provides an insight into our beliefs. And when it comes to Facebook, we literally map out our entire previously private belief structure for the world to see. That is why Big Data is so potentially invasive. We are opening ourselves up to subconscious manipulation of our beliefs by anyone with the right budget. We are kidding ourselves if we believe ourselves immune to the potential abuse that comes with that. Like I said, 90% of our beliefs are submerged in our subconscious.

We are just beginning to realize how effective the new tools of persuasion are. And as we do so, we are beginning to feel that this is all very unfair. No one likes being manipulated; even if they have willing laid the groundwork for that manipulation. Our sense of retroactive justice kicks in. We post rationalize and point fingers. We blame Facebook, or the government, or some hackers in Russia. But these are all just participants in a new eco-system that we have helped build. The problem is not the players. The problem is the system.

It’s taken a long time, but advertising might just have gotten to the point where it works too well.

 

Bose Planning to Add a Soundtrack to Our World

Bose is placing a big bet on AR…

Or more correctly: AAR.

When we think of AR (Augmented Reality) we tend to think of digital data superimposed on our field of vision. But Bose is sticking to their wheelhouse and bringing audio to our augmented world – hence AAR – Audio Augmented Reality.

For me – who started my career as a radio copywriter and producer – it’s an intriguing idea. And it just might be a perfect match for how our senses parse the world around us.

Sound tends to be underappreciated when we think about how we experience the world. But it packs a hell of an emotional wallop. Theme park designers have known this for years. They call it underscoring. That’s the music that you hear when you walk down Main Street USA in Disneyland (which could be the Desecration Rag by Felix Arndt), or visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal (perhaps Hedwig’s Theme by John Williams). You might not even be aware of it. But it bubbles just below the level of consciousness, wiring itself directly to your emotional hot buttons. Theme parks would be much less appealing without a sound track. The same is true for the world in general

Cognitively, we process sound entirely differently than we process sights. Our primary sensory portal is through our eyes and because of this, it tends to dominate our attentional focus. This means the brain has limited bandwidth to process conflicting visual stimuli. If we layer additional information over our view of the world, as most AR does, we force the brain to make a context switch. Even with a heads up display, the brain has to switch between the two. We can’t concentrate on both at the same time.

But our brains can handle the job of combining sight and sound very nicely. It’s what we evolved to do. We automatically synthesize the two. Unlike visual information which must borrow attention from something else, sight and sound is not a zero sum game.

Bose made their announcement at SXSW, but I first became aware of the plan just last week. And I became aware because Bose had bought out Detour, a start up based in San Francisco that produced audio immersive walking tours. I was using the Detour platform to create audio tours that could be done on bike. At the end of February, I received an email abruptly announcing that access to the Detour platform would end on the very next day. I’ve been around the high tech biz long enough to know that there was more to this than just a simple discontinuation of the platform. There was another shoe that was yet to drop.

Last week, it dropped. The reason for the abrupt end was that Detour had been purchased by Bose.

Although Detour never gained the traction that I’m sure founder Andrew Mason (who was also the founder of GroupOn) hoped for, the tours were exceptionally well produced. I had the opportunity to take several of them while in San Francisco. It was my first real experience with augmented audio reality. I felt like I was walking through a documentary. At no time did I feel my attention was torn. For the most part, my phone stayed in my pocket. It was damned near seamless.

Regular readers of mine will know that I’m more than a little apprehensive about the whole area of Virtual and Augmented Reality. But I have to admit, Bose’s approach sounds pretty good so far.

 

 

 

The Pillorying of Zuckerberg

Author’s Note: When I started this column I thought I agreed with the views stated. And I still do, mostly. But by the time I finished it, there was doubt niggling at me. It’s hard when you’re an opinion columnist who’s not sure you agree with your own opinion. So here’s what I decided to do. I’m running this column as I wrote it. Then, next week, I’m going to write a second column rebutting some of it.

Let’s face it. We love it when smart asses get theirs. For example: Sir Martin Sorrell. Sorry your lordship but I always thought you were a pontificating and pretentious dickhead and I’m kind of routing for the team digging up dirt on you. Let’s see if you doth protest too much.

Or Jeff Bezos. Okay, granted Trump doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about regarding Amazon. And we apparently love the company. But just how much sympathy do we really have for the world’s richest man? Couldn’t he stand to be taken down a few pegs?

Don’t get me started on Bill Gates.

But the capo di tutti capi of smart-asses is Mark Zuckerberg. As mad as we are about the gushing security leak that has sprung on his watch, aren’t we all a little bit schaudenfreude-ish as we watch the public flailing that is currently playing out? It’s immensely satisfying to point a finger of blame and it’s doubly so to point it at Mr. Zuckerberg.

Which finger you use I’ll leave to your discretion.

But here’s the thing. As satisfying as it is to make Mark our scapegoat, this problem is systemic. It’s not the domain of one man, or even one company. I’m not absolving Facebook and it’s founder from blame. I’m just spreading it around so it’s a little more representatively distributed. And as much as we may hate to admit it, some of that blame ends up on our plate. We enabled the system that made this happen. We made personal data the new currency of exchange. And now we’re pissed off because there were exchanges made without our knowledge. It all comes down to this basic question: Who owns our data?

This is the fundamental question that has to be resolved. Up to now, we’ve been more than happy to surrender our data in return for the online functionality we need to pursue trivial goals. We rush to play Candy Crush and damn the consequences. We have mindlessly put our data in the hands of Facebook without any clear boundaries around what was and wasn’t acceptable for us.

If we look at data as a new market currency, our relationship with Facebook is really no different than that of a bank when we deposit our money in a bank account and allowing the bank to use our money for their own purposes in return for paying us interest. This is how markets work. They are complicated and interlinked and the furthest thing possible from being proportionately equitable.

Personal Data is a big industry. And like any industry, there is a value chain emerging. We are on the bottom of that chain. We supply the raw data. It is no coincidence that terms like “mining,” “scraping” and “stripping” are used when we talk about harvesting data. The digital trails of our behaviors and private thoughts are a raw resource that has become incredibly valuable. And Facebook just happens to be strategically placed in the market to reap the greatest rewards. They add value by aggregating and structuring the data. Advertisers then buy prepackaged blocks of this data to target their messaging. The targeting that Facebook can provide – thanks to the access they have to our data – is superior to what was available before. This is a simple supply and demand equation. Facebook was connecting the supply – coming from our willingness to surrender our personal data – with the demand – advertisers insisting on more intrusive and personal targeting criteria. It was a market opportunity that emerged and Facebook jumped on it. The phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” comes to mind.

When new and untested markets emerge, all goes well until it doesn’t. Then all hell breaks loose. Just like it did with Cambridge Analytica. When that happens, our sense of fairness kicks in. We feel duped. We rush to point fingers. We become judgmental, but everything is done in hindsight. This is all reaction. We have to be reactive, because emerging markets are unpredictable. You can’t predict something like Cambridge Analytica. If it wasn’t them – if it wasn’t this – it would have been something else that would have been equally unpredictable. The emerging market of data exchange virtually guaranteed that hell would eventually break loose. As a recent post on Gizmodo points out,

“the kind of data acquisition at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is more or less standard practice for every other technology company, including places like Google and even Apple. Facebook simply had the misfortune of getting caught after playing fast and loose with who has control over their data.”

To truly move forward from this, we all have to ask ourselves some hard questions. This is not restricted to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s symptomatic of a much bigger issue. And we, the ground level source of this data, will be doing ourselves a disservice in the long run by trying to isolate the blame to any one individual or company. In a very real sense, this is our problem. We are part of a market dynamic that is untested and – as we’ve seen – powerful enough to subvert democracy. Some very big changes are required in the way we treat our own data. We owe it to ourselves to be part of that process.

The Rain in Spain

Olá! Greetings from the soggy Iberian Peninsula. I’ve been in Spain and Portugal for the last three weeks, which has included – count them – 21 days of rain and gale force winds. Weather aside, it’s been amazing. I have spent very little of that time thinking about online media. But, for what they’re worth, here are some random observations from the last three weeks:

The Importance of Familiarity

While here, I’ve been reading Derek Thompson’s book Hitmakers. One of the critical components of a hit is a foundation of familiarity. Once this is in place, a hit provides just enough novelty to tantalize us. It’s why Hollywood studios seem stuck on the superhero sequel cycle.

This was driven home to me as I travelled. I’m a do-it-yourself traveller. I avoid packaged vacations whenever and wherever possible. But there is a price to be paid for this. Every time we buy groceries, take a drive, catch a train, fill up with gas or drive through a tollbooth (especially in Portugal) there is a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved. The fact that I know no Portuguese and very little Spanish makes this even more challenging. I’m always up for a good challenge, but I have to tell you, at the end of three weeks, I’m mentally exhausted. I’ve had more than enough novelty and I’m craving some more familiarity.

This has made me rethink the entire concept of familiarity. Our grooves make us comfortable. They’re the foundations that make us secure enough to explore. It’s no coincidence that the words “family” and “familiar” come from the same etymological root.

The Opposite of Agile Development

seville-catheral-altarWhile in Seville, we visited the cathedral there. The main altarpiece, which is the largest and one of the finest in the world, was the life’s work of one man, Pierre Dancart. He worked on it for 44 years of his life and never saw the finished product. In total, it took over 80 years to complete.

Think about that for a moment. This man worked on this one piece of art for his entire life. There was no morning where he woke up and wondered, “Hmm, what am I going to do today?” This was it, from the time he was barely more than a teenager until he was an old man. And he still never got to see the completed work. That span of time is amazing to me. If built and finished today, it would have been started in 1936.

The Ubiquitous Screen

I love my smartphone. It has saved my ass more than once on this trip. But I was saddened to see that our preoccupation with being connected has spread into every nook and cranny of European culture. Last night, we went for dinner at a lovely little tapas bar in Lisbon. It was achingly romantic. There was a young German couple next to us who may or may not have been in love. It was difficult to tell, because they spent most of the evening staring at their phones rather than at each other.

I have realized that the word “screen” has many meanings, one of which is a “barrier meant to hide things or divide us.”

El Gordo

Finally, after giving my name in a few places and getting mysterious grins in return, I have realized that “gordo” means “fat” in Spanish and Portuguese.

Make of that what you will.

Why Do Cities Work?

It always amazes me how cities just seem to work. Take New York – for example. How the hell does everything a city of nine million needs to continue to exist happen? Cities are perhaps the best example I can think of how complex adaptive systems can work in the real world. They may be the answer to our future as the world becomes a more complex and connected place.

It’s not due to any centralized sense of communal collaboration. If anything, cities make us more individualistic. Small towns are much more collaborative. I feel more anonymous and autonomous in a big city than I ever do in a small town. It’s something else, more akin to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – but different. Millions of individual agents can all do their own thing based on their own requirements, but it works out okay for all involved.

Actually, according to Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, cities are more than just okay. He calls them mankind’s greatest invention. “So much of what humankind has achieved over the past three millennia has come out of the remarkable collaborative creations that come out of cities. We are a social species. We come out of the womb with the ability to sop up information from people around us. It’s almost our defining characteristic as creatures. And cities play to that strength. Cities enable us to learn from other people.”

Somehow, cities manage to harness the collective potential of their population without dipping into chaos. This is all the more amazing when you consider that cities aren’t natural for humans – at least – not in evolutionary terms. If you considered just that, we should all live in clusters of 150 people – otherwise known as Dunbar’s number. That’s the brain’s cognitive limit for keeping track of our own immediate social networks. It we’re looking for a magic number in terms of maximizing human cooperation and collaboration that would be it. But somehow cities allow us to far surpass that number and still deliver exponential returns.

Most of our natural defense mechanisms are based on familiarity. Trust, in it’s most basic sense, is Pavlovian. We trust strangers who happen to resemble people we know and trust. We are wary of strangers that remind us of people who have taken advantage of us. We are primed to trust or distrust in a few milliseconds, far under the time threshold of rational thought. Humans evolved to live in communities where we keep seeing the same faces over and over – yet cities are the antithesis of this.

Cities work because it’s in everyone’s best interest to make cities work. In a city, people may not trust each other, but they do trust the system. And it’s that system – or rather – thousands of complementary systems, that makes cities work. We contribute to these systems because we have a stake in them. The majority of us avoid the Tragedy of the Commons because we understand that if we screw the system, the system becomes unsustainable and we all lose. There is an “invisible network of trust” that makes cities work.

The psychology of this trust is interesting. As I mentioned before, in evolutionary terms, the mechanisms that trigger trust are fairly rudimentary: Familiarity = Trust. But system trust is a different beast. It relies on social norms and morals – on our inherent need to conform to the will of the herd. In this case, there is at least one degree of separation between trust and the instincts that govern our behaviors. Think of it as a type of “meta-trust.” We are morally obligated to contribute to the system as long as we believe the system will increase our own personal well-being.

This moral obligation requires feedback. There needs to be some type of loop that shows our that our moral behaviors are paying off for us. As long as that loop is working, it creates a virtuous cycle. Moral behaviors need to lead to easily recognized rewards, both individually and collectively. As long as we have this loop, we will continue to be governed by social norms that maintain the systems of a city.

When we look to cities to provide us clues on how to maintain stability in a more connected world, we need to understand this concept of feedback. Cities provide feedback through physical proximity. When cities start to break down, the results become obvious to all who live there. But when it’s digital bonds rather than physical ones that link our networks, feedback becomes trickier. We need to ponder other ways of connecting cause, effect and consequences. As we move from physical communities to ideological ones, we have to overcome the numbing effects of distance.

 

Sorry, I Don’t Speak Complexity

I was reading about an interesting study from Cornell this week. Dr. Morton Christianson, Co-Director of Cornell’s Cognitive Science Program, and his colleagues explored an interesting linguistic paradox – languages that a lot of people speak – like English and Mandarin – have large vocabularies but relatively simple grammar. Languages that are smaller and more localized have fewer words but more complex grammatical rules.

The reason, Christensen found, has to do with the ease of learning. It doesn’t take much to learn a new word. A couple of exposures and you’ve assimilated it. Because of this, new words become memes that tend to propagate quickly through the population. But the foundations of grammar are much more difficult to understand and learn. It takes repeated exposures and an application of effort to learn them.

Language is a shared cultural component that depends on the structure of a network. We get an inside view of network dynamics from investigating the spread of language. Let’s look at the complexity of a syntactic rule, for example. These are the rules that govern sentence structure, word order and punctuation. In terms of learnability, syntax offers much more complexity than simply understanding the definition of a word. In order to learn syntax, you need repeated exposures to it. And this is where the structure and scope of a network comes in. As Dr. Christensen explains,

“If you have to have multiple exposures to, say, a complex syntactic rule, in smaller communities it’s easier for it to spread and be maintained in the population.”

This research seems to indicate that cultural complexity is first spawned in heavily interlinked and relatively intimate network nodes. For these memes – whether they be language, art, philosophies or ideologies – to bridge to and spread through the greater network, they are often simplified so they’re easier to assimilate.

If this is true, then we have to consider what might happen as our world becomes more interconnected. Will there be a collective “dumbing down” of culture? If current events are any indication, that certainly seems to be the case. The memes with the highest potential to spread are absurdly simple. No effort on the part of the receiver is required to understand them.

But there is a counterpoint to this that does hold out some hope. As Christensen reminds us, “People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification.” From this emerges an interesting yin and yang of cultural content creation. You have more highly connected nodes independent of geography that are producing some truly complex content. But, because of the high threshold of assimilation required, the complexity becomes trapped in that node. The only things that escape are fragments of that content that can be simplified to the point where they can go viral through the greater network. But to do so, they have to be stripped of their context.

This is exactly what caused the language paradox that the team explored. If you have a wide network – or a large population of speakers – there are a greater number of nodes producing new content. In this instance, the words are the fragments, which can be assimilated, and the grammar is the context that gets left behind.

There is another aspect of this to consider. Because of these dynamics unique to a large and highly connected network, the simple and trivial naturally rises to the top. Complexity gets trapped beneath the surface, imprisoned in isolated nodes within the network. But this doesn’t mean complexity goes away – it just fragments and becomes more specific to the node in which it originated. The network loses a common understanding and definition of that complexity. We lose our shared ideological touchstones, which are by necessity more complex.

If we speculate on where this might go in the future, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see an increase in tribalism in matters related to any type of complexity – like religion or politics – and a continuing expansion of simple cultural memes.

The only time we may truly come together as a society is to share a video of a cat playing basketball.