Arbitrary targets, arbitrary decisions [GIGO is alive and well]

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about goal-oriented behaviour and its pros and cons in marathon running and personal finance. It’s a good piece. But this line, toward the end, really grabbed me:

Goals can be useful when they motivate us to perform better, but they’re harmful when focusing on arbitrary targets leads to arbitrary decisions.”

Does that seem obvious? Well, yes. But think about it for a minute. We see this kind of behaviour all too frequently in the startup world, where companies habitually spend more money on marketing (to acquire enough users to meet a relatively arbitrary target number) than on designing a great experience. At a startup scene party last summer, a friend of mine overheard one founder boasting that he “decided not to waste any money on design.” I’ve heard similar dismissals more often than I care to count.

One recent survey found that while 78% of mobile app users will give a disappointing app a second chance, only 16% will go back a third time. And according to Localytics, 22-25% of all downloaded apps are only ever used once. So it would seem that no matter how many people your marketing attracts, it’s the experience that keeps them around long enough to contribute to your bottom line. And lest you think, ‘Oh, whatever, my app is paid, this doesn’t apply to me’ – those disappointed people have no qualms about telling everyone they know (and everyone they don’t, via the magic of Twitter) that your app sucks and not to buy it. Conversely, people who love a product become advocates. Advocates are free marketing.

So that guy who didn’t want to waste any money on design? That’s his prerogative, but it seems pretty shortsighted.  People will pay for what makes them happy, whether the payment is in attention, personal data or cold hard cash – so making them happy should be priority one, then numbers.

A similar problem arises when the goals we strive toward are not so much arbitrary as outdated. Media, particularly broadcasting, has a habit of clinging to old ways of thinking that grow more and more problematic with each passing year. Many broadcasters remain myopically focussed on trying to push everyone, including digital natives, to the traditional television-in-the-lounge setup (which many some don’t even have), rather than investigating and investing in new ways to monetise their content in the digital domain. Their litany, their refrain: “There’s no money online.”

Really?

Granted, broadcast advertising sells for more than online advertising. A lot more. Sometimes exponentially more, depending on the online property and the programme being broadcast. Still, last year, Vice was valued at 1.4 billion. Whatever we might think of their more recent claims of $28 billion, $1.4 billion is definitely not “no money.” And Vice is an internet-first content creator – sure, their stuff has aired on HBO and MTV, but most of it lives firmly in the digital sphere. And ads on their online properties bring in a lot more revenue than videos on YouTube.

How have they achieved such success? They focus on what matters: making consistently high-quality content that appeals to their audience. They do whatever it takes to connect with those people, and they’ve got no time for old-school conventions that don’t contribute to that goal. In a panel I moderated at MIPTV earlier this month, Keith Hindle of Fremantle Media told a story about a meeting at Vice to discuss a new set of content. When he asked how long the individual pieces would be (because linear television is all about 30, 60 or 120 minute blocks of time), the Vice team looked at him like he was nuts and said, “It’ll be however long it needs to be to tell the story.” And it’s working - Vice viewers apparently regularly watch 20+ minute videos. The national average in the USA for online video viewing is just over 4 minutes.

To put it back in the terms of the quote up at the top, instead of aligning with a framework that’s ‘just the way it’s always been done,’ Vice based their targets, and their content strategies, on their audience.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people will pay for what makes them happy. If you’re a media company, make or acquire good content, tell stories that interest the audience, and the audience will love them, watch them, pass them around. They might even pay you, if you give them a chance to.

This applies no matter what you’re doing – making apps or designing retail environments or opening a restaurant. Whatever you’re doing, it’s people who will make or break you. Their money, their attention, their affection, their hard work is what makes your business go. So instead of focussing on arbitrary targets, figure out how to measure how happy you’re making them and focus on that. Numbers are important, but make sure you’re looking at the right ones and seeing them for what they really mean.

Singularity, Schmingularity

There are those who insist that by 2045 we will have  achieved the Singularity: Artificial Intelligence will have surpassed our own. This may be the case, but then again it may not be. In the 1960s there were those who thought they could crack AI in one summer.

What’s interesting about the AI debate is… well, a lot. But one thing I find curious is that although it is still a debate, the way we are designing and building products and services seems to be tacitly assuming that it is, in fact, going to happen, and that it will happen relatively soon, and most of all that it will be a good thing. I wonder whether we might be missing out on a whole lot of opportunities by thinking this way.

Look at the services that are most often used these days – their promise tends to be one of ever-increasing relevance, of learning about us and catering to our needs before we’re even aware that we have them, of bringing is only what we desire and love. The reality is that in most cases, the better a service ‘knows’ me and the more ‘relevant’ its recommendations become, the smaller my world becomes. This is true across many domains – media, music, fashion, even who to follow on twitter. But we know that one of the great joys is that of discovery – stumbling across something you’ve never heard of before, that might be very different from what you’re used to, but that you love. And that thing, whatever it is, opens a window into another world.

In the real world, one way we do this is through conversation. A friend of mine is fond of saying that while we may share the same space from time to time, every one of us carries our own discrete reality with us. This is where miscommunications and misunderstandings come from (a lack of understanding of subtext) and also the reason why conversation can be such an extraordinary thing. When we have good conversations with others, they open a window into their reality. It’s part of the human condition that we understand ourselves better in contrast to what’s around us – the me/not me dichotomy. It follows that good, meaty, substantive conversations help us to hone our sense of self, our opinions, our thoughts, in a way that little else can.

So why don’t we spend more of our time and energy focussing on the conversation and less on filtering, relevance, messaging? It’s partly because there’s no real business model for monetizing conversation. I don’t have to pay to have a conversation with someone in a bar or on the street, so why should I pay to have one online? What we do pay for is things that enhance these conversations – food and drink, books and magazines, tickets to events and conferences that provide us with access to new people and/or ideas.  We also pay to watch other people have conversations – on television, in films. Storytelling is core to the human experience, and what is conversation if not a story that tells itself as it goes?

I’ve been saying for a while that businesses need to stop thinking about entities like Facebook and Twitter as “channels” and start paying attention to what people are actually saying. The conversation I have over dinner isn’t a medium, and I certainly wouldn’t want some stranger coming along in the middle of it and telling me about a car or dress or whatever he’s selling. I’d ignore him. But if a stranger, or a group of strangers, were to pay to listen in on my conversation over dinner (only with my explicit knowledge and consent, mind!), then they might learn a lot about what we think – about things that they don’t care about, and things they do. What we think about cars, and driving, and real estate prices, and hipsters, and food. Twitter and Facebook are essentially massive public conversations that anyone can listen into for free. And, presumably, a lot of brands and businesses do.

The leap is in what they do about what they hear. Years ago, a designer and I created a comic to show what’s wrong with a lot of brands these days. It depicted the brand as a Man In Black listening in on the conversation at a party to which he was not invited. When he heard a trigger word, he came in brandishing a pistol and a megaphone to deliver his message. It was funny, but it was also more or less true – businesses claim to want to cultivate relationships with their customers, but more often they just shout their messaging and then wonder why they don’t get the response they’d hoped for.

Not a whole lot has changed since then. Business still thinks in linear ways, which is probably why we are heading on a linear path toward the singularity, whether or not that actually is on the horizon or is a good thing. We need to get off the conveyor belt and strike out into new territory.

I’m not saying the singularity isn’t going to happen – it might or it might not. But in the meantime, surely we should be exploring what we can do with technology to enhance the experience of being human rather than to put ourselves in ill-fitting boxes? Businesses need to adjust their strategies from tactical to-do lists to frameworks for evaluating opportunities. Then they can look at the vast and beautiful global human conversation and see it for what it is – a wellspring of ideas for making people’s lives just a little bit better.

Your life as a cyborg superhero

A few weeks I did a workshop with this title at Frontiers of Interaction. This was not about dressing up as Seven of Nine or the Terminator; this was about getting people thinking differently about technology, design, the things we all make. I’m as enamoured with shiny new toys as the next person (probably more so than most), but that’s not what drives me. People are.  And I think that when we put technology first, we miss opportunities to make things that truly improve our lives.

There are a few real-life cyborgs out there: Neil Harbisson hears colours instead of seeing them; Nigel Ackland and Jesse Sullivan have prosthetic limbs with incredible fine-motor dexterity; Kevin Warwick has (among other things) RFID in his arm and an implant in his brain.

But if a cyborg is any being whose natural or normal capabilities are enhanced by technology, there’s an argument to be made that everyone with a smartphone qualifies. These devices extend and enhance our memories, amplify our voices, enable us to accomplish tasks we were unable to before. The downside is that they remove us from the world around us, place us in a cocoon. Sure, in that cocoon with you is all the content on the magical interwebs, but the only actual human inside it is you. You are either living your life in the real world, or you are engaging with the powers your device lends you. One or the other, but not both at once.

We keep cramming more and more technology onto our pocket supercomputers – the default delivery mechanism for almost any new idea is the Almighty App. And yet we know we only have limited, human attention spans, and that over 70% of downloaded apps are only used once. So why do we persist? Because we are creatures of habit, and because that’s the way the business ecosystem is currently structured.

In the workshop, I asked each group to think about it from the opposite direction. The brief was to design a specific, themed superhero (e.g. super cop, super-firefighter, etc.) by thinking about what kind of problem they’d want a superhero to help with (or what kind of hero they’d like to be), and which abilities their superhero would need to face those challenges – implants? Wearables? Connectivity with sensors and cameras in the environment? The point was to focus on the person and what they were trying to accomplish, using technology to address human needs and desires.

Then we explored what that would mean for the superhero – what they’d have to give up in exchange for these powers, what their lives would be like. At the end, each group told a story that featured their character. All of them were interesting, but one really leapt out at me: this superhero was by far the most augmented, with enhanced vision, hearing, smell, touch, etc. But the story described a journey where at the end, the man turned off all his tech-powers, because (as one of the participants said), “It’s the human that’s the real superhero.”

Well put, and I couldn’t agree more.

There are some products that are beginning to take us in this direction – Google Glass of course, though it remains awkward and difficult to use and this its future is still up for debate. Then there are smart watches, and various Quantified Self wearables and accessories that track our pulse and movement and provide us with reports later on. At this point, though, they’re still all more or less single-purpose devices, and don’t play together nicely, if at all. Each one has its own app to configure, consult and control.

Surely we know by now that a good experience is critical to success. Every year I hear more and more people talking about how important it is to think about the customer, the audience, the user. Yet, even though individual product experiences might be great, the digital consumer landscape is increasingly fragmented and chaotic. It’s clearly unsustainable but there isn’t yet much appetite for complementary (and perhaps even overlapping) digital products and services to work together.  Remember when we had a different remote for every item in our home cinema/hifi system? Remember how much that sucked? It’s like that. Only it’s going to get much, much worse when dozens of things – your wristband, your thermostat, your shoes, your home security system, your car, even perhaps (god help you) your refrigerator – are connected and have individual controls.

There is plenty of evidence that products and services that focus on people’s needs, articulated or not, are commercially successful. I’d suggest we begin to concentrate on the human need for our environment to be comprehensible and function at a tolerable noise level. If we start now, we can perhaps avert a saturation-related crisis and avoid the ‘Universal Remote’ problem happening all over again.

Indispensably Useless (the value of art)

In September, I spoke at Retune13, at the behest of the lovely Ms. Marguerite Joly. My talk was on a topic I don’t touch on all that often but which is hugely meaningful to me: art.

Specifically, my brief was to talk about the value of art, to try to address the question of what makes good work. I’ve spoken to a few people about it since, and they’ve suggested I blog it. So here we go.

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First off, I should reiterate that I’m not an artist. I don’t make art, and I also don’t sell it. I do love it. It has enormous value to me. But I’m not talking about financial value here – I’m more interested in why we continue to be driven to make art, and why it continues to move us.

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This talk was partly inspired by a quote from Oscar Wilde: “All art is quite useless.” When I was at university, this used to make me angry, but I’ve come round to his side now – the value of art is not utility. So what is it?

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I had a look at some of the earliest art we have access to – cave paintings. These were done as much as 25,000 years ago, and nobody knows exactly why. Some say they are the fantasies of adolescent males; others say they are magic, drawn to invoke what they depict – usually, plentiful animals for a good hunt. Whatever they are, these pictures tell a story. Not a story of what happened that day, but a story about the experience of living at that time.

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Later, the Egyptians took great pains to paint their tombs. These told a story of what would happen to you after you died and were entombed there. A story of a dream of an experience, a story to make people feel better about the fact that we all die, perhaps?

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And I thought: maybe that’s the value of art: it lends context to living.

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This made sense to me. I thought about world events and how we understand them. For instance, the Spanish Civil War: photojournalism, which was still relatively young at the time, told us what happened.

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The technology – airplanes capable of aerial bombardment for the first time ever – showed us what we were capable of. But neither of those convey how it felt to be there, to experience it.

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Picasso’s Guernica does, though.

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Looking at a current example, we’ve got a lot in the news around spying these days. And we know we have more technology than ever, both for encrypting information and for accessing it – legally and illegally, ethically and unethically. But what does that mean? This piece of art gives it context – it’s called Who Watches the Watchers? by Eric Drass and shardcore.

The other thing about Watchers is that it’s provocative – some people are probably quite taken aback to find their likenesses peering back at them from within the magpie’s nest.

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Which led me to my next thought: maybe the value of art is in provocation.

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Julian Oliver makes provocative art about similar topics. Newstweek disrupts the connection between people and the online media they consume, perhaps causing us to question where that content comes from anyway, and why we believe it so completely. Pull the pin of the Transparency Grenade and it captures network traffic and audio at the site and securely and anonymously streams it to a dedicated server where it is mined for information - making it a weapon of construction rather than destruction.

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Both of these pieces provoke, but they also transform. So that was my next thought: maybe the value of art is in re-framing things to get us to see them in a different light, see something about them that we couldn’t see before.

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Klara Liden uses urban detritus like graffiti-covered bins and orange traffic cones to make her sculptures.

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Michael Sailstorfer makes machines that serve no purpose – this piece simply runs the tyre against the wall forever – not only is it not doing anything useful, it’s destroying itself in the process. Much of his work has a real sadness to it – something about a machine stripped of purpose is moving to me.

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(Image by Antonio Roberts)

Perhaps the ultimate example of re-framing is Glitch, which also lauds what many would discard. Glitch artists often go to great lengths, bending circuit boards to get images and videos to display incorrectly. They make art that’s intentionally broken.

Glitch artists also re-raise an age-old question in the art world – how much of the art is in the act of making it? Nowadays, what used to take 20 years to learn how to do, a teenager can do in 20 minutes in her parents’ garage. What does that mean? Does that mean the person who took 20 years to learn it is less intelligent? Does it mean that what the teenager makes isn’t art? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have my opinions, but everyone’s entitled to their own.

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And that brought me to my final thought: maybe the value of art is meaning. And meaning can only really be created in the moment of interaction between the piece and the person engaging with it – that moment that makes you want to laugh/cry/play/scream/go home and have a cup of tea and a lie-down.

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So what’s the point of art? Here, I defer to the words of Nikki Giovanni, who said it far better than I ever could.

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There was a lively discussion afterward – I wish you’d been there. If there is video forthcoming, I’ll update this post and include it. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts, too.

 

Enforced Thievery (the zero-sum copyright game)

I have been known to rant about the utter insanity of copyright enforcement/anti-piracy action, but it’s been a while. The past few days have riled me right back up. Between Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the ridiculous new ’6 strikes’ legislation about to go into effect in the US, and the fact that virtually every music video anyone links to on YouTube is blocked by GEMA (more on them below), and of course Lionsgate’s blatant disregard for fair use, I don’t know whether to shake my fist at the heavens or hang my head in despair.  This prosecution/persecution is such a tragic waste of time, money and talent, and the human victim tally is growing. And while yes, progress has been made (or at least crisis averted, in the case of SOPA), rights holders continue to fight their corner exactly as before, blind to both the damage they are doing and the opportunities they’re missing.

Germany, as it happens, is full of great examples of how not to do things.

I live (partly) in Berlin. A guy I know manages several holiday flats around the city. All of these flats have internet connections, which accounts are in his name. About a year and a half ago, he got a letter from a law firm notifying him that he owed a €2000 fine. One of the guests in one of his flats had downloaded a torrent of a major Hollywood film, and he was being held liable. He tried fighting it, to no avail. He ended up paying the fine. He also took further precautions – basically everything that can be done with standard (affordable) consumer-grade equipment. Less than six months later, it happened again. This time, the fine was €5000. The fact is, there’s not much that one can do with a normal router that can’t be circumvented in a matter of minutes by someone who knows what they’re doing.

So what’s a guy to do? Not offering WiFi would damage his business; buying professional grade kit for each of the flats would be less costly than the fines but still prohibitively expensive; trying to pass the fines through to the offenders was impossible. He reached out to his ISP for help. They politely told him there was nothing they could do. Last I heard, he was still fighting.

Your response to this story might be, “those assholes who downloaded the content should have to pay the fines. Thieves should be punished!” However, consider this: in Germany, if you want to pay to watch a Hollywood film in its original language online, legally, you can’t. Yes, you heard me: for most Hollywood releases, there are no legal options for OV online viewing. And even if you can find a DVD rental place, laptop DVD players are routinely region-locked, so if you’re not from the EU, you still might be screwed.

Does this strike anyone else as a problem?

At the same time, we’ve got this great group called GEMA (Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte). Their job is to police the internets, blocking any musical content that hasn’t been rights-cleared for the German market. Ostensibly this is for the good of the artists who create the music, but functionally it just prevents those artists’ work from being heard (especially on YouTube). It also occasionally blocks video made by ordinary people for and with their friends, if said video happens to include a song that GEMA decides we’re not allowed to listen to.

I am all for people getting paid for the things they create. My problem is that all this nonsense isn’t really helping those people – if it’s helping anyone (which is arguable), it’s major labels and studios. Copyright law is a complex area, it’s true, and there are loads of questions to explore and answer to get it to the point where it’s fit for the 21st century, but there are some pretty clear places we could start. How about taking the money that’s currently being spent on hunting down and prosecuting illegal downloaders, and using it to make content legally available to everyone? I guarantee that will be a more sustainable (not to mention far less depressing) revenue stream.

Making “examples” of ordinary citizens – whether they’re activists like Swartz or everyday guys like my friend – is neither humane nor effective. Let’s be human about this, shall we? Please?

Signal emerging

It’s amazing what a few days of near-offline-ness can do. Since the 21st of December, I’ve ignored Twitter entirely, spent very little time on other social networks (maybe 60 minutes in 2 weeks), and engaged in only the bare minimum of emailing. I’ve also thought and conversed very little about matters digital, giving preference instead to longish periods of stillness and silence, to joyful catching up with friends and family, and to more fun conversation topics such as zombie apocalypse logistics planning (aside: if vampires can train themselves to drink only animal blood, why can’t we train zombies to eat only animal brains? This could solve a lot of problems, people. Just sayin’).

One of the upshots of this downtime is that I’m starting to see signal emerge from the frenetic overstimulation that was the end of 2012. The plan for this year is coming together, and toward that end I’m slowly beginning to ramp up 2013. As a first order of business, I’ve put a bit more information on my speaking and workshopping capabilities here. I’d love to spend a good chunk of this year putting these skills to good use, so please do get in touch if you see something that interests you.

More will come in the next days and weeks. It’s going to be a brilliant year.

All change, please

The end of an era

After 4+ years of working, playing and generally wallowing in the digital world with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, my time at Fjord has come to an end. I’m proud of all I was able to be a part of – countless client engagements, launching the strategy/business design practice, redesigning the agency, spearheading points of view  – shopping, travel & transportation and of course the 2013 trends. Most of all, I am honoured to have been able to work with so many extraordinary people, within the most unique agency culture I’ve ever seen. It’s been every kind of awesome.

So what’s next?

Good question. There’s a lot going on in the digital word at the moment, and I have the luxury of a cohort full of genius ideas to work on. I’m going to take a bit of time off to organise my thoughts about the next step, but it will almost certainly involve storytelling, the digital self, and making things that improve people’s lives. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, “if you’ve got something fascinating, drop me a line,” so there, I’ve said it. But don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me until January.

2012 has been a long, wonderful, inspiring, challenging year. I’m looking forward to 2013. In the meantime, I wish you all a fabulous holiday season.

See you on the other side… Over and out.

People are people (and data is data)

[Update: NB: this post only addresses one side of big data - the more commercial one - and doesn't touch on the enormous wealth of other applications of huge data sets (environmental, medical, etc.). I'll try to cover those in another post soon.]

There’s been an enormous amount of talk across the whole of the business world about Big Data. It’s one of the biggest themes out there at the moment, and yet it’s difficult to find anyone actioning it in a positive, sustainable way. This is leading us straight into a disaster, as the brilliant Jonathan MacDonald explains in his latest post. It needn’t be so. One of the cruelest ironies of the whole Big Data debacle so far is that the struggle for personal data has all but eclipsed the potential of all the other data that’s out there. Which is a shame, really.

Look at it this way: you know what you know, and I know what I know. You can tell me what you know and then I apply what I know, and this is how we arrive at a decision. Simple, right? This is the way humans work, at the most basic level. So what if you knew a lot more about my stuff and the same amount about your own? Or vice versa? Would that lead to better decisions? Maybe, maybe not. When we know each other better, we’re better able to persuade. But when we know ourselves, we make the best decisions.

So what if you could know a lot more about your stuff, and I could know a lot more about mine? Wouldn’t that be the ideal? Then we’d both make better decisions, and we’d both understand them better too.

The right application of big data and personal data could make this a reality. But at the rate we’re going, it may well not.

Data is, quite simply, stuff we could know. Businesses gather data about all kinds of things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know what the data contains. Take retailers. They have data on what’s purchased in their shops, at what time of day and in what quantity. They have security cameras that show the flow of foot traffic through the door (and past it) and through the merchandise. They have equivalent data for their digital presence. What are they doing with all this information? Sadly, most are using it to target marketing. But it could do so much more.

Data about what’s purchased at what time of day can help to optimise the supply chain – are the right items being stocked? Are there things that regularly sit on shelves until they need to be marked down? What are the patterns and how can they be improved?

Data about the flow of traffic into and past the door can be used to evaluate window displays and signage – are people interested in what they see? Is the right merchandise on show? Which are the items that have the most impact? Which are the ones that get people to turn around and go inside?

Data about the flow of traffic within the shop can be used to optimise merchandise displays. Many clothing retailers now rearrange their collections every few months, because someone told them that keeping people moving (even if it’s because they’re lost) takes them through more merchandise and increases the likelihood they’ll see something they want to buy. But is that really the best way to treat people? What if we looked at traffic data and tried to spot the patterns in how people shop? Maybe we could create paths through the shop that took people past things they might like, without being lost or annoyed.

These are just some obvious beginnings – things these businesses could know that they might not know today. None of them are to do with what they know about an individual customer, but all of them could help to improve the customer’s experience.

Speaking of customers, let’s focus there for a moment. The customer’s job is to know what they like. And we are perfectly capable of identifying the things we like (and don’t) when they’re put in front of us. It’s rather difficult to persuade a woman to like, for example, a pair of shoes she thinks are rather ugly. It’s even more difficult to persuade her she doesn’t like the ones she likes. True, getting to know her makes it possible to show her things she’s more likely to like – this is why local boutiques are still such a pleasure to visit, as I wrote in my piece for Fjord about The Shopping Revolution.

It is this idea of ‘the more you know, the better you suggest’ that has so many businesses salivating over personal data. As Jonathan quite rightly states, when it comes to that stuff, the most personal is the most valuable – the better you know someone, the more likely it is you can make them happy. But that’s the thing – you have to want to make them happy, not just make them spend more money. There is a human element to all this that’s being ignored, just as the potential power of the data is being ignored.

Having a lot of data about someone is not the same as knowing them, just as having a massive data set about traffic and purchases doesn’t mean you understand your shop. Getting to know someone is about more than facts. It’s about interpretation – the subtleties that come out through conversation. It’s about trust. It’s a two-way exchange.

Yes, spies have spent centuries perfecting the art of getting to know people clandestinely, but apart from Bond and Bourne, we don’t really like spies all that much. There’s a reason for that – we like to make our own decisions about who knows us, how and why.

Where things start to get really interesting again is in what would happen if we knew ourselves better – or if we could make better use of our own personal data. For example, I might be on the lookout for a pair of mid-heel boots in grey to fill a gap in my footwear wardrobe (yes, I went there. Clichés are clichés for a reason). I might let my favourite boutiques in Berlin know (giving them that bit of personal data), and get them to ring me if something interesting comes in. But what if I also could, when I head out for lunch in London and have a bit of time to browse, release that information, just for an hour or so, to see who’s got boots that might be a match*? That would be great – I’d find and buy them more quickly. And if I liked the shop, maybe I’d start a conversation with them, introduce myself, give them a bit of information about me. Maybe I wouldn’t. But if I did and then they misused it, I’d regret it and distrust them.

This is what we mean when we talk about having conversations. Is it magic? No. Is it labour intensive? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. But this has always been the case. Big data hasn’t created this opportunity, or changed it in any substantive way. It has the potential to amplify it, certainly. It also has potential in a number of other ways. But people are people, and need to be treated as such. Anyone who tells you more data will make that any different is selling you something you don’t want.

*For more reading on this sort of thing, see Doc SearlsVRM project.

The myth of productivity

Pretty much as long as there have been ways for people to interact online, there have been articles written about how that kind of thing is killing productivity. Email and MUD/ MUSHes were killing productivity when I was at University, then Email and the Web and IMing were killing it at work in the 90s. Lots of employers went to great lengths to block domains like Yahoo and Hotmail to keep their workers from being distracted by personal communication. One client of mine in the early 00′s blocked most of the internet to their employees, with only what was deemed ‘necessary and productive’ being allowed. Did this work? I didn’t see any numbers on it, so I don’t know for sure. I do know that it made people feel resentful, and that just as they felt they weren’t being treated with respect, they didn’t treat their employer with respect. They’d come in late and cover for each other, take 2 hour lunches, spend as much time as possible in the break room, pass paper notes back and forth between their cubicles… I can’t imagine all that stuff didn’t have a negative impact on their productivity – perhaps a bigger one than access to Friendster would have had.

These days, we’ve started to see numbers. Today, this article came across my twitter feed (via @jmacdonald): Social Media at Work – How Social Media is Destroying Productivity. The numbers are big, yes. And with attention share this high, I buy that there’s an impact on productivity. But that’s not what bothers me about this article. What bothers me is the smug tone of condescension there at the end: “The next time you think about checking a social media site, consider how much time and energy it will actually take.”

When an individual checks a social media site, says the article, it takes them “a whopping” 23 minutes to get back on task. I’m not sure how whopping 23 minutes is – and even if it is a long time, is it necessarily a bad way to spend that 23 minutes? If I were to spend 23 minutes investigating GreenGoose, which I discovered on Twitter this morning, is that (a) whopping or (b) bad?

Granted, GreenGoose is relevant to my line of work as well as being interesting enough to hold my attention for a few minutes. But how do we know that a significant percentage of what people get from their social networks isn’t relevant? Just because it’s social doesn’t mean it’s not productive – I’ve had some of the most productive hours of my career over lunches with friends.

And even if the stuff we’re reading on Twitter and Facebook and the like isn’t directly relevant to what we do for a living, who’s to say that’s inherently bad, either? PNAS studies tell us that daydreaming – formerly considered a shameful waste of time – is actually good for productivity. When we daydream, we are actually improving our problem-solving skills and making ourselves more productive, not less. And conversation is also considered a good productivity-boosting break, according to many sources including this recent Forbes article.

And what is social media but one giant conversation?

So why is the time we spend on social networks such a problem? What’s behind the condescension? I suspect it’s a few things:

1. It’s sneaky. Because surfing Facebook or Skyping with friends is done in the same place, in the same posture, as actual work, it can be done clandestinely – unlike, say, pushups or a cup of coffee and a chat about Doctor Who. This leads us to be suspicious – is she really working hard on that report, or is she IMing about xfactor with her sister in New York? We hate to feel like someone’s getting away with something, or pulling the wool over our eyes. So maybe this is part of the reason for the stigma. But let’s face it – how many of those hours of face to face ‘study group’ back at school did we actually spend studying? Yeah.

2. It’s sneaky. Because we do these things in the same place, in the same posture, as we do our work, it’s hard to draw a line. it requires real discipline to sit down and write that article instead of spending another 20 minutes poking around xkcd and Thought Catalog. Believe me, I know. I speak from experience. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it – it’s just a new kind of discipline to be learned. And any number of studies (and experience) have shown that when people are treated like children, they behave like children – curtailing freedom in one way will usually only lead to rebellion through other means. What about time management training? That might help us learn how to cope with these temptations.

3. Different is still suspicious. It is a genuine fact that I get a very large percentage of the things that inspire me through conversations and other social means – and because my friends and loved ones are spread across the world, I get most of those through the magical interwebs. In my line of work I suppose this is ok, but perhaps it’s still looked on with suspicion by lots of employers. Some might argue on the basis of the quality of what’s out there in the social media world. But here’s the thing – what are businesses and publishers and content creators, for better or worse, watching to clue them in to what to make next? That’s right: conversations.

Maybe I’m being pollyannish again. Maybe the problem is really as bad as some say it is, and our businesses and schools are about to collapse because of social networks. But I can’t help but think that if we ditched the alarmism and applied a bit of common sense and personal responsibility to this issue – the same kind of common sense we’ve applied to other, similar, issues in the past – we could make a lot more headway.

What price success? (a note on corporate ethics)

Last week I spoke at FOM12, and the closing question was a proper BOOM. The questioner asked whether I think it’s inherently wrong for businesses to use personal data to target products, ads and content. I found myself saying, “It comes down to ethics.”

It felt a little weird to say that, although I was gratified to see a few smiles and nods around the room. As usual, I had to ask myself why it felt weird. My conclusion: the very idea of corporate ethics seems quaint and old fashioned, the kind of thing that only the extremely naive or not particularly bright believe in anymore.

This is very, very sad. Also very, very dangerous.

Ethics have, it seems, slipped away as regulation has crept ever deeper into the corporate landscape. If you’re not supposed to do it, commonly accepted practice seems to say, there’s a law against it. If there’s no law, then it’s all good. Besides which, you can probably find a way around the law if you really want to.

And we the people accept this. Sure, we’ll gripe and complain about it, but we seem to just kind of assume that’s the way of the world and get on with our lives.

The thing is, the data landscape is so rich and complex and chaotic and unpredictable that I don’t think legislation can even begin to cover it – at least, not without being cripplingly draconian. It’s like regulating the internet – really the only way to do it is to shut it, or people, down. It’s going to have to be good old-fashioned ethics – enforced by the watchful eye of we customers, users, citizens – that makes this landscape liveable.

Recently I’ve had the good fortune to discuss the question of personal data rather often and from a variety of angles – notably with the fabulous Jonathan MacDonald, with whom I collaborated on this Guardian article: Restoring the balance of power over online data privacy. I also talked about it from a different angle at PICNIC12, and with a number of other brilliant friends as well. We all agree that ownership of one’s data is critical, and we also seem to have the same cynical (realistic?) impression of the state of the corporate landscape.

So here’s an interesting question: is the dearth of ethics in the corporate world down to some level of genuine malice? Or is it the product of a fear born of the pressure for constant fiscal growth? I suspect it’s the latter, or at least habits that stem from that pressure. And habits are hard to break; change is scary.

The reality is that the explosion of data, personal and aggregate, *does* represent an amazing opportunity. But leveraging that opportunity in a sustainable way will require rethinking a lot of what businesses take for granted – new business models, new ways of engaging with and exchanging value with individuals, and new ways of thinking about and measuring success.

It occurs to me that an ethical approach is natural for any practitioner of human-centred design, and that means we can help. It’s not going to be easy, but by learning this new landscape and helping our business partners engage with its complexity to uncover real, sustainable opportunities, we can help ensure that data enriches our world and our lives as well as filling our coffers.