It seems to me far from right that Clay Shirky should write a book about the internet without first having spent a few minutes surfing it. In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, he lays out his case that as we turn off our televisions and log onto the internet, we are tapping into an enormous amount of brainpower that was being wasted watching Access Hollywood, Dancing With The Stars and Jersey Shore and using it to do all manner of useful things. His leading piece of evidence is Wikipedia, which he calculates to be the product of 100 million hours of human thought. Indeed, he says that if we tapped into the cognitive surplus of just the United States for one year, we could create 2,000 Wikipedia-scale projects.
Nothing wrong with his math. Plenty wrong with his example. First, if we were inclined to create 2,000 comparably “useful” projects per year, we would. This has not happened, nor will it. Second, let’s not simply accept that Wikipedia is an unalloyed gift to humanity. This the site that – I could choose from a more or less unlimited number of examples here – falsely published defamatory content (by its own admission) that implicated John Siegenthaler, publisher of the Tennessean and former administrative assistant in the Kennedy Administration in the assassination of both John and Robert Kennedy. It took more than four months for the error to be corrected, and Siegenthaler wound up writing an article about his ordeal and the pain it caused him in USA Today. Lest you think this is an isolated incident, look at the number of results Google provides for a search of the following terms:
+wikipedia +slander – 149,000
+wikipedia +lies -4,860,000
+wikipedia +mistakes – 1,860,00
Wikipedia doesn’t always get it wrong, but it gets it wrong a lot. Enough so that we should hesitate to crown it as the greatest collection of knowledge in human history. Even though it has tightened up its editorial standards a bit over the years, they remain far from rigorous. Reader beware.
Of course, Shirky is right that some other lovely things are happening online. People are coming together and raising money for charity and doing global sing-alongs of “Kumbaya” and so forth. But let’s be honest about what far more of them are doing. They’re going to icanhascheezburger.com. They’re looking at porn. They’re playing games. How much of our supposed cognitive surplus is spent on video games? In March 2009, bungle.com reported that the one billionth match of Halo 3 had been played. All together that’s 63 centuries of game play. And that’s just for one title. The numbers get out of hand pretty quickly when you start piling on Grand Theft Auto, Sims et al. Add in Facebook and Twitter and you are in danger of surpassing the power of most calculators.
Though it’s far from a perfect description, the interactive space can be divided roughly into things that save time and things that waste time. The latter predominate by far. That’s why we don’t and never will have a cognitive surplus to exploit. As we amuse ourselves to death with electronic media, our brains have been liquified. When we turn off our televisions and turn on our computers, the runoff is simply going into a different ditch.
Last week as I watched one news report after another showing hundreds of people lined up outside Apple stores across America, all of whom hoped – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say needed – to be among the first to get the new iPhone in their pink, sweaty hands, it occurred to me that this, at least from a corporate standpoint, is what love looks like. These people were willing to suffer for a product in a way that few people in the twenty-first century are willing to suffer for a cause. For a brand, it really doesn’t get any better.*
Very few brands will ever sniff the thin air that surrounds this mountaintop. Nonetheless, it’s important to know it exists because it reminds those of us who toil within advertising’s smoky factories of what what we’re supposed to be trying to achieve. As agencies focus more and more on the arcane sciences of data analysis, ROI measurement and predictive modeling, it’s easy for advertising to begin to feel like something that’s akin to strip-mining. Don’t let it. If you’re doing it right, it’s about love. It’s about generating passion for the brands you work on. It’s about tapping into visceral desire.
So how do you get there? How do you “ladder up” (an odious bit of corporate English) to a more emotional connection between the consumer and the brand? With apologies to the great American philosopher Frank Zappa, I have borrowed and altered slightly a few phrases from a song called “Packard Goose”** (it should be noted that the lyrics owe no small debt to a T.S. Eliot poem called “The Rock”–seriously) to remind us of our obligation to elevate the brand grist we are given and turn it into something that arouses passion:
Data is not information.
Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is the only thing that matters.
When one ponders these words, it’s apparent that they’re a pretty good re-telling of the Apple story. The company has taken a bunch of ones and zeros and through a bit of sorcery transformed them into products that do extraordinary things – things for which people will leave their loved ones and the comfort of their overstuffed sofas to stand sweating with the faithful in the heat of summer. May the rest of us one day be so lucky.
* For causes, I grant you, it is a bit disheartening.
** You may find Mr. Zappa’s original lyrics here.
In Wired Nicholas Carr writes about UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small who outfitted six volunteers with goggles on which they could see the internet as they surfed with a hand-held controller. Then Dr. Small used whole-brain magnetic imaging on them to demonstrate not only that the internet “rewires” the way the brain works, but that it does it very quickly–after only a few hours in fact.
It’s an interesting story and well worth a read, but not a particularly surprising one. In fact, in Ad Age a couple of years ago, I pointed out that this is exactly what the internet would do to our brains. And somehow I managed to do it without access to millions of dollars worth of sophisticated medical equipment or time-consuming experiments. All I had was some knowledge of history and an ability to catch a lateral from Neil Postman and run with it.
Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message.” Less famously (but more accurately, I think), Postman altered this to “the medium is the metaphor.” What he meant by that is that the dominant medium of an age defines how we believe the world is supposed to be. I’ll not go into a detailed explanation (though if you’re interested, you can read the original article here) of how that expectation changes the way we “consume” the world around us. I’ll merely point out that there is in fact a physiological reason (now confirmed by Dr. Small and his multi-million-dollar machines) that people no longer sit still for hours at a time to follow a complex argument (or, if you want to go way back, sit around campfires and listen to poets recite the Iliad from memory).
Does this change in the way our brains work make us smarter or kinder or more just? I have profound doubts. Does it make it easier to sell us things and distract us with whatever version of centrifugal bumblepuppy is all the rage at a given moment? Almost certainly.
Via the miracle of YouTube, I spent the last hour or so watching a lecture the late Neil Postman gave in 1998 at Calvin College in Michigan. In it he brought up a compelling idea (actually dozens of them, but here I’ll just focus on one) about how technology has changed our definition of community. Traditionally, communities have been united by broad commonalities (e.g., geography, culture, history, etc.) even as the individual members of the communities differed on many particulars. Indeed, the trick of making a community function was for the individual members to find a way to work around their differences and disagreements to create a socially cohesive unit. Take away the negotiation and compromise on the points of difference and the points of commonality would not be strong enough to hold the community together.
Yet when we talk about communities in the age of interactivity, we often mean something very different. More often that not we are referring to a group of people who are in near total agreement on a particular topic. Because technology makes it easy–indeed almost effortless–to create new communities, people who find themselves in any sort of disagreement in an existing community need not work through their differences. They can simply start their own community where they do not have to put up with the annoyance of dissent. This may seem like a dream for a marketer who will benefit from gathering together a group of people who are deeply loyal to a brand, but a community it is not. It is a fan club. (Indeed, in its political incarnation it can become something much more troubling–a walled compound of people who would rather enter into an infinite loop of mutual affirmation than engage in honest and thoughtful debate. Insert your favorite–or least favorite–cable news network here.) Remember that the word fan comes from “fanatic”–a person with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal.
But my purpose here is not to talk politics; I leave that for a different time and a different blog. In the age of social media, marketers throw around phrases like “online community” as if we all agree on what they mean. I submit to you than we don’t. As more and more brands venture into the interactive space, the ones who succeed will be the ones who are honest with themselves about whether they are looking to create a community or a fan club. Uncritical enthusiasm may seem appealing, but ultimately stronger brands are built on the support of those who see our warts and want to help us heal them.
One of the warnings I give clients (as well as bright-eyed creatives) who wish to produce “branded content” for the interactive space–they typically have in mind some sort of video that they hope will catch fire and become part of the popular culture–is that they must understand they’re not simply competing with other branded content for the attention of consumers. They’re also competing with every amateur video on YouTube that shows a guy stepping on a rake and accidentally hitting himself in the nuts.
Clay Shirky’s recent post, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” does a nice job of explaining why big organizations struggle to react to the threat posed by cheap, low-quality competition:
In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. They thought ATT’s famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time) would be valuable, but they couldn’t figure out how anyone could offer good web hosting for $20 a month, then the going rate. No matter how many eventual users they assumed, $20 didn’t even seem to cover the monthly costs, much less leave a profit.
I started describing the web hosting I’d used, including the process of developing web sites locally, uploading them to the server, and then checking to see if anything had broken.
“But if you don’t have a staging server, you’d be changing things on the live site!” They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. “Oh yeah, it was horrible”, I said. “Sometimes the servers would crash, and we’d just have to re-boot and start from scratch.” There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.
The ATT guys, part of a company so committed to the sacred dial tone it ran its own power grid, had correctly understood that the income from $20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good.
The world of content creation is facing a similar shift. YouTube sensation “Charlie Bit My Finger” is the most viewed minute of video in the last five years (175 million views and counting). It’s an amateur production–too grand a word really, for something so simple–with no budget, yet more people watched it than all the so-called “viral” videos that agencies spent millions of dollars making. How will big advertising compete against such bottom-dollar threats? Emulating “Charlie Bit My Finger” is not the path. The video was dumb luck, and the people who captured the moment are unlikely ever to capture anything as interesting again.
Offhand, I think there are a couple of models that could work. First, agencies could set up something like a content greenhouse in which they try to grow their own low-cost solutions. Assignments could be given simultaneously to dozens of film students (for example). (Perhaps for a different product the assignment could be given to dozens of moms.) They’d be asked to come up with branded content on a budget of essentially zero. (Think of this as the logical conclusion of Adam Morgan’s argument that if you are having trouble coming up with a great creative idea, you should cut the budget in half and start over.) Sometimes you’ll get nothing of value, but that’s OK, because you haven’t bet a million-dollar production budget on the outcome. The key to the concept is low risk, high reward. For the film students in the greenhouse, their compensation would be the popularity of the work itself, and perhaps some sort of promise of future employment. That may not be a compelling proposition for a grizzled forty-something creative director, but it could be quite appealing to an ambitious, young hoodie-wearer trying to make his way in the world.
Another possibility is that something analogous to the early days of silent film could emerge in advertising. Think about what happened in the second decade of the 20th century: Using rather crude technology, a few auteurs emerged who were able to consistently capture magic on film. No complicated special effects, no $100 million budgets. Just whatever they were able to make happen in front of the camera’s aperture. It came down to the genius of one man. Could something similar happen in advertising? Perhaps some of the agency world’s creative superstars will shed their cumbersome organizations and set up shop with a $300 camera and a couple of tungsten lights. They may even offer to produce branded content for free and be paid by the view. For the people who are really good at it, it could be the smartest business deal they ever make.
Among the most regrettable qualities of advertising professionals is their tendency not to dig deeply enough into the superficial (apologies to Andy Warhol for the slight rewrite of one of his aphorisms). We have a tendency to assume we know what words like “glamor” mean, and race off to create a television commercial that uses glamor (or its simulacrum) to sell 1,200-calorie cheeseburgers. Virginia Postrel in the Weekly Standard has written a whip-smart review of two books on the subject–Glamor, A History by Stephen Grundle and Glamour in Six Dimensions by Judith Brown–that I cannot recommend highly enough to people who are paid to sell things to other people.
Postrel debunks John Berger’s (you may remember him from his BBC series Ways of Seeing) Marxist notion that glamor boils down to nothing more than “the state of being envied” and suggests that instead glamor is “a generous quality, a sign of an open society.” But rather than attempt to summarize or improve upon what she has written (a daunting task), I’ll cite a couple of salient quotations from it to whet your appetite:
• The pleasure and inspiration may be real, but glamour always contains an illusion. The word originally meant a literal magic spell, which made the viewer see something that wasn’t there. In its modern, metaphorical form, glamour usually begins with a stylized image—visual or mental—of a person, an object, an event, or a setting. The image is not entirely false, but it is misleading. Its allure depends on obscuring or ignoring some details while heightening others. We see the dance but not the rehearsals, the stiletto heels but not the blisters, the skyline but not the dirty streets, the sports car but not the gas pump. To sustain the illusion, glamour requires an element of mystery. It is not transparent or opaque but translucent, inviting just enough familiarity to engage the imagination and trigger the viewer’s own fantasies. (Postrel)
• “The Apple tablet is the Barack Obama of technology. It’s whatever you want it to be, until you actually get it.” (James Lileks)
• When Anthony Patch, one of [F. Scott] Fitzgerald’s failed heroes, learns that “desire cheats you,” he refers to a phenomenon we now recognize as the power of glamour: “It’s like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it—but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you’ve got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone—.” We may demand the sparkling surface, like a cellophane coating, yet what we are able to grasp will be of little consequence. Glamour wields the power to capture its viewers’ attention as if by a spell that fascinates and arrests. . . . Transfixed, one gazes at a world of possibility that is foreclosed, inaccessible, yet endlessly alluring. (Judith Brown)
I encourage you to read the full article, then go forth to your next client meeting where you’ll be able to wield glamor with wisdom and terrifying precision.