A status update from 1940

Brynn and I went poking around Alemeda this weekend and stumbled into Pauline’s Antiques, the kind of place where you can find thick-walled whiskey glasses that were once sipped from by people who wore yellow sweaters unironically. Of course, you can find such yellow sweaters too, but what caught our attention were the unremarkable postcards scattered around the store reminiscent of a simpler time.

But one must ask himself: was it really so different then?

Superficially of course it certainly seems to like things are quite different from back then: faster, bigger, and more connected for starters.

The hallmark of this change, it would seem, is the simple status update. As more people have taken to publishing online, we the group formerly known as the audience has invariably gravitated to consuming smaller and smaller bits of content, leading to a culture of snack-sized sociality. For many of us, the status update seems distinctly modern — a sign of the times, cut from the networked medium of the age:

Status Update from 1940

But hold on. Take a closer look there.

That tweet above? It’s a fake. It’s photoshopped. I took that content from one of those postcards I found in Pauline’s shop. It was post stamped in 1940:

Postcard Back

Postcard Front

Just goes to show that the more things appear to change, the more we prove what habitual creatures we are.

…Though I don’t doubt Miss Phyllis Epstein’s reply was terse, I reckon she was ever able to reply quite so immediately:


So maybe the drive to communicate, coordinate, and group hasn’t changed much, but perhaps our ability to do so quickly, cheaply, and at an unprecedented scale has? It’s surely no surprise, but only time will tell.

Don’t make me a target

Brightkite ARG
The augmented reality view in Brightkite’s mobile app.

Brightkite, a location-tracking service, recently launched version 2.0 of their service after merging with Limbo and taking $9M in funding this past April.

In recent months I’ve found myself using Foursquare more and more, though I still update Brightkite from time to time since it powers the location status on my personal homepage. In some ways, Foursquare is to Brightkite what Twitter was to Jaiku: a more personal, streamlined experience that builds on a core activity and dispenses will all other distractions. And, through game-like mechanisms, get you to perform the core activity more regularly (i.e. mayorships in the case of Foursquare, and, up until recently, follower counts in the case of Twitter).

I bring this up because I just stumbled upon Brightkite’s advertising section of their website, and there’s some extremely interesting stuff in there!

First of all, it’s very clear that Brightkite is one of the first (at least in my experience) to be pushing their location platform as a walk-up-and-create ad platform, much in the same way that Facebook is (you can start creating your own Facebook ads here).

Like Brightkite, Facebook gives you a considerable amount of control over the targeting of your advertisement as well, which leverages Facebook’s horde of user-contributed demographic information:

Facebook Ad Targetting

But here’s where Brightkite’s platform gets interesting: this class of mobile ads — which we’ve known have been coming for some time (so-called proximity marketing) — target the individual based on their location and real-time behavior. Thus, when a user engages in some kind of action or activity tracked by Brightkite, the system can respond with an “appropriate” ad in real-time, triangulated off of a number of aspects of the user’s situation. Brightkite has enumerated the current set of attributes that they use:

  • Location and place
  • Real world behavior
  • Time of day
  • Activity
  • Demographics
  • Language
  • Content and interests
  • Weather

The only thing missing, it seems, is friends, but they could easily fit into the “content and interests” category.

Now, as a user, if Brightkite is able to leverage all this information — presuming that I’ve provided them with accurate information — the ads in their app better be friggin’ awesome.

Indeed, Brightkite’s blog post on freebies (as in, “free beer”) suggests as much, and the example they provide shows that Brady (Brightkite co-founder), having checked into the Rackhouse Pub, has just been offered a free draft or well drink:

Location-targeted ads

Hard to argue with that. But this is where things get dicey, isn’t it?

Maybe I’m reading this image wrong, but since Brady’s already in the Rackhouse Pub, why would they want to give him a free beer? Unless Brightkite is underwriting such a promo (say, to counter Foursquare’s similar promos), Rackhouse Pub wants to get OTHER people in — not just give away drinks to their current patrons.

Of course there are countless ways to spin this — for better and worse.

Word of mouth for Rackhouse Pub could skyrocket, since people would virally spread the offer to their friends through social networks — amounting to a fairly cost-effective way to “acquire” new customers, especially if Rackhouse is able to recoup the costs of its giveaway on new dine-in guests.

But it could also backfire. For the price of a free downloadable iPhone app, countless single-drink seekers could take up Rackhouse on their offer and then leave, making for a costly marketing ploy with little upside.

Who knows. It all depends on how Brightkite “pushes” this kind of information to its users.

And Brightkite et al. aren’t alone in this space. Some companies are starting to leverage location and social networks in their own apps too. For instance, the 1.1 update to the Starbucks iPhone app adds Twitter, Facebook, and location-sharing features:

Starbucks 1.1 Features hosted by Ember

Now, with all these companies offering deals and incentives, I want a piece of the action! But I don’t want to be treated like some generic, disposable target. I want to be engaged with, and respected by, companies that want my business.

We have a long way to go to make this kind of engagement simpler, but longterm, I want to be the one who manages who does and doesn’t get the right to “target” me. I don’t want to opt-out — I want companies to request the privilege of showing up on my phone, in my activity stream, or in my inbox when I ask them to, at my convenience. I want to be able to put out a list of my desires and requirements, and then have companies bid for my business. And it’s fine with me if there’s a middleman broker in the middle that takes a cut, as long as I’m getting a better deal with better service than I would have otherwise.

Is that too much to ask?

Some months back, I wrote up a vision for what I call “connected commerce“, using Comixology as a preview of where I see this going, though that service is still far too manual, anti-social, and, critically, a bottleneck between me and my preferred retailer. This is a recipe for disaster, as Apple’s App Store continues to prove.

Attention brokers, like Brightkite, therefore, need to remember their place in this ecosystem: they need to first be the friend to and advocate of the individual (their customer), and second, to the advertiser or brand. Companies that don’t get this prioritization right will fail (and is why, in some respects, Facebook continues to change its platform rules while drawing the ire of developers, because, in order to keep their users, they must ultimately continue to make their environment a safer and more trustworthy space).

Doc Searls calls this consumer-driven leverage VRM or “vendor relationship management”. I’ve been a fan of the idea, but I think it falls down on the last word: management. Big companies are willing to devote thousands and millions of dollars “managing” their customers; individuals are not. But services like Brightkite and Facebook are beginning to change that by enabling us to leverage our real-time, real-world behavior as a gating apparatus, removing the “management” requirement of VRM, and allowing us to “flow with the go”. As we invite these attention brokers into our list of recipients to whom we release increasingly contextualized and precise information about ourselves, we stand to benefit a great deal. And privacy, then, becomes a rational, economic instrument that determines whether a company gets to serve us well (based on knowing us better) or clumsily (as they make presumptions about us through circumstance rather than intentional disclosure).

Implicitly, I am already benefiting from such opt-in vendor relationships. Through Twitter, I’ve “invited” several local vendors to send me real-time updates about their offerings to me via SMS, from Luna Park around the corner to Sightglass Coffee across town. They’ve earned my trust by not spamming me, instead offering actual value and insider information, treating me as a member of their esteemed coterie.

On the surface this model doesn’t appear to scale, but that’s just a failure of imagination. Scaling up is what the web does — if you know how to embrace it. By giving individuals more control over their experience and over the kinds of data that they can share, the need to “target” (in the military sense), recedes. Instead, opportunity emerges from being available, on-demand, and ubiquitous. Attention aggregators and identity providers can then broker relationships on behalf of their customers, and both parties will, ideally, end up with a better experience, and stronger, enduring relationships.

I hope Brightkite and Foursquare and the other location-based services keep this in mind. In as much as we let them broker our attention, they work for us — and not the other way around.

Umair Haque’s Awesomeness Manifesto

Umair Haque at Next ConferenceI don’t always agree with Umair Haque, a Harvard economist, though many of his ideas resonate with my own experience on the web. And I can imagine that much of his message comes across as rather radical to his audience, so I’ll cut him some slack if he has a tendency to wax revolutionary when he talks about the social web.

Still, I find his “Awesomeness Manifesto” actually useful, if only because it’s an argument against innovation as we commonly think of it.

His point echos a common refrain among many of the web’s independent progeny of late (consider Tim O’Reilly’s “work on stuff that matters” first principles, including the invocation to “create more value than you capture”, and 37 Signals’ recent rants on the “VC-induced cancer that’s infecting our industry and killing off the next generation“). As it happens, innovation for the sake of itself can really be rather damaging if we never arrive at a point of stability and equilibrium — enabling us to benefit from — or at least consider in a broader context — the advances we’ve made.

In other words, innovation at all costs is just that: at all costs.

To counter this myopic obsession with the superficially novel, Haque describes four pillars of awesomeness (which I won’t detail here — read his post):

These are much more squishy, feminine qualities. These traits show up where diversity and balance are valued. But, contrary to Haque’s implicit suggestion, I don’t believe that we should just pendulum in this direction. Instead, like kneading bread or stirring a risotto (can you tell Brynn and I’ve been cooking lately?), I believe that we need to constantly pay attention to and work at this mix. It’s not one or the other — we’re post-zero sum economics even if our definitions of success haven’t caught up yet.

Haque closes thusly:

Let’s summarize. What is awesomeness? Awesomeness happens when thick — real, meaningful — value is created by people who love what they do, added to insanely great stuff, and multiplied by communities who are delighted and inspired because they are authentically better off. That’s a better kind of innovation, built for 21st century economics.

I’ve talked to many boardrooms about awesomeness. Beancounters feel challenged and threatened by it, because it feels fuzzy and imprecise. Yet, it’s anything but. Gen M knows “awesomeness” when we see it — that’s why its part of our vernacular. It’s a precise concept, with meaning, depth, and resonance.

What makes some stuff awesome and other stuff merely (yawn) innovative? I’ve outlined my answers, but they’re far from the best, or even the only ones — so add your own thoughts in the comments.

You might be innovative — but are you awesome? For most, the answer is: no. Game over: in the 21st century, if you’re merely innovative, prepare to be disrupted by awesomeness.

Does Haque’s manifesto resonate with you? If so, how? If not, why not?