Posts tagged ‘internet’

Science confirms that the internet rewires our brains. Of course, I told you that years ago.

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.


June 9, 2010 at 3:23 pm Leave a comment

Billion-dollar ad agencies versus twelve-dollar branded content

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.

April 8, 2010 at 10:26 pm Leave a comment

Apple has $29 billion in cash. Will it use $3 billion of it to buy internet rights to all TV shows?

steve_jobsRobert X. Cringley has written a fascinating article called “The Future of Internet TV (in America).” You can find it in its entirety on his blog. 

His argument is simple. Despite’s growth, it’s not making any money. It’s only growing because it doesn’t have to pay writers and actors, having received unprecedented concessions from their respective guilds. Since it can’t pay its own way, it’s destined to fail. When it does, who’s going to fill the vacuum? As always, the guys with the money. And in this case, almost no one has more money that our old pal Steve Jobs at Apple. Cringley writes:

Apple has at this moment just under $29 billion in cash and not many good ways to get a reasonable return on that money.  Only Microsoft has more cash than Apple and Microsoft is being pulled in a lot more directions so Microsoft doesn’t have Apple’s flexibility.

What will Apple do with that money?

Most of it will remain unspent is my prediction, but I’m guessing we’ll shortly see $3 billion or so per year go into buying Internet rights for TV shows — not old TV shows but NEW TV shows, shows of all types.

It seems all too plausible. Monetizing content is something Apple has already done brilliantly in the music business. Would anyone really be surprised if they figured out a way to do the same thing with television (to say nothing of the things we read)? Not me, brother. Always bet on the black mock turtleneck sweater.

May 13, 2009 at 12:03 am 1 comment

The death of direct mail – or at least of the organization that delivers it


Georg [sic] Jensen has written an insightful article for the American Interest Online about the grave problems of the United States Postal Service. With all due respect to the longstanding incompetence of Chrysler and General Motors, if ever there was an organization that has been begging to go out of business through half-assed management and non-existent strategy, it’s the Post Office. Here’s a taste of what Jensen has to say about their future:

“By rightsizing the infrastructure and implementing secure and legal ‘electronic postal mail delivery’ like other countries have, the USPS could become profitable and sustainable within two years, preserving far more jobs than if it continues to operate as if the Internet has not changed the world forever. Darwin, Deming and Schumpeter are all looking down on the USPS to see if it becomes a victim of natural selection, or a beneficiary of it. As things stand today, its survival prospects don’t look so good.”

Of course, if the USPS tanks, the private sector will rush in–or perhaps in this economy, it may be more accurate to say “limp in”–to fill the void and deliver the time-share real estate offers on which so many direct marketing careers depend. Certain though that is, it is equally certain that mail will only continue to become less important. Electronic communication eliminates another reason for it with every passing day.

On a final note, am I the only one who finds it astonishing that Postmaster General used to be a cabinet position? Does anyone need another indication of how far snail mail has fallen? Today the head of the Post Office no more deserves a seat in cabinet meetings than the president of Quizno’s does. But a cabinet-level position overseeing electronic communication–that, friends, may be worth discussing.

April 29, 2009 at 12:47 am Leave a comment

Does the internet need a border fence to be profitable?


Brad Stone and Miguel Helft write in today’s New York Times that the exponential growth of internet usage in developing countries is bleeding the profit from many web-based companies. What’s happening is very simple: People in places like Turkey, Indonesia and India are spending extraordinary amounts of time on sites like YouTube and Facebook–far more than the average consumer in North America, Europe and Japan. They’re sucking up a tremendous amount of bandwidth. The problem with this is that thus far advertisers has placed little to no value on the eyeballs popular sites are attracting in the developing world. If these foreign consumers can’t or won’t buy their products, they don’t want to pay for reaching them.

As a result, the big online players have to ask themselves if growth that cannot be monetized is something they really want. It’s not out of the question that some of the most popular sites on the web will become restricted to residents of certain countries. Though this seems a betrayal of the egalitarian ethos of the internet, failing to make money is a betrayal of the reason the companies exist in the first place.

April 28, 2009 at 1:27 am 2 comments

The television re-stakes its claim as the most important electronic device in the home.

Samsung has introduced a new television with an integrated Yahoo widget engine that will enable people to access the web while they watch TV. Similar products from Sony, LG Electronics and Vizio are on the way. It’s a great idea and one that Mark Cuban predicted would take the marketplace by storm quite some time ago.

Of course, the big losers in this could be computer manufacturers. It’s too early to say for certain, but a 52-inch HD screen that can access any kind of content you want–whether it’s live TV, video on demand, web sites or games–at any time is pretty stiff competition. Check out the full story from the Wall Street Journal Online here.

March 27, 2009 at 2:09 pm Leave a comment

“No sex, no gasoline. Just give me some technology and leave me alone.”

A recent study by German boadband association Bitkom reveals that 84% of young people would choose having the internet and a mobile phone over having a romantic partner and a car. No word on whether the car was German or American.

What do you suppose the figures would be for other media? I suspect television would be nearly as high. MP3s and gaming consoles as well. While I take the study with a big grain of German salt, I think it’s not wrong to ask how technology is changing both what we feel we need to have a happy life and the social structure itself.

Perhaps Sartre got it right when he said, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people.”). Heaven, apparently, is an iPhone.

March 25, 2009 at 1:24 am Leave a comment

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