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Blogger Book Club III: Little Boxes

By Matthew Guerrieri

Am I the only one that finds it funny/odd that so many Web 2.0 terms
sound like they should be characters on a kids’ TV show? Whuffie,
Twitter, Flickr, Wiki, Bebo, Plurk, Yelp–I feel like I’m naming the
Lost Boys. And I think it points to something about Internet
interactivity: the services are, at least initially and sometimes
exclusively, driven more by the gee-whiz novelty of the technology
rather than filling an actual need. Reading The Whuffie Factor,
I similarly sensed a solution in search of a problem. I noticed that
both of Hunt’s key points–that online social networking covers an
enormous, unignorable demographic swath, and that social capital will
translate into financial capital–were illustrated anecdotally, not
comprehensively. The case studies were interesting enough: obviously,
some entrepreneurs have been able to leverage social networks with
some success. But every time the book moved into its broader
don’t-miss-the-boat rhetoric, it felt a little like a salto
mortale
. And I think it’s because the book is studiously ignoring
the quirky limits of social networking.

I find Twitter the most
fascinating of these platforms, because a) it’s the first piece of
well-known technology that kind of makes me feel like a cranky old
geezer, which is even more fun than I had imagined, and b) it’s an
unusually pithy example of how Internet technology is full of hidden
restrictions that make the Internet a lot less stylistically universal
and democratic than we like to think. I’ve been reading Hegel lately,
which gives rise to an easy Hegel-on-Twitter joke:

The
object has the form and character of thinghood, i.e., is independent:
but self-consciousness has the conviction that this independent
ob

1807 from
Jena

One could certainly argue that a
140-character limit might have made Hegel a little clearer, but that’s
the way the man wrote, and, by design, the style is inseperable from
the content. More importantly, though, it’s a style criticism that’s
based not on aesthetics, but on the technological limits of Twitter
itself. Now, all language is limiting in this way, but it’s normally
nowhere near this restrictive. (For perspective: everyday English is
flexible enough that I can be meaningfully networked, even through the
screen of translation, printing, and physical distribution, with a
long-dead German without much trouble.)

This is an extreme
case. But think about the shift from the old classical-music industry
structure to an online classical-music industry structure. The old
system was plauged by inequities based around aesthetics. But the
inequities of the new system are based around the technology that
holds up the system. I’m not sure one is better than the other. As
someone who loves a lot of, well, unpopular music, my spider-sense
started tingling as soon as Hunt started talking about the 80/20 rule.
Is this argument going where I think it’s going? Yes! Yes it
is.

Finding out what your customers need, then designing
for the features that most of them need, while cutting the extra
features that only some of them need, will help you design your
product for your wider audience…. This builds more whuffie for you
as those customers spread the word that they love your product because
it’s so easy and straightforward to use. (p. 86)

Pick any
musical genre you want, and it won’t be hard to come up with a list of
pieces for which cutting the extra features that only some listeners
need would take away everything that makes that piece special.
(Real-world example: iTunes’ distinction between 99-cent tracks and
longer, “album-only” tracks, which leaves those 20-minute symphonic
canvases at a marketing disadvantage.) This is not to say that online
networking can’t be a boon to musical entrepreneurship, but there are
some genres and styles that lend themselves more readily to it; for
the rest, I think the necessary decision between changing style or
waiting for the technology to catch up somewhat blunts the sweep of
the book’s prescription.

Then again: I’m still skeptical just
how well social capital translates into actual profit. An awful lot of
Hunt’s case studies are Web 1.0 companies integrating a social
networking element into their already fairly mature business model. I
kept thinking of Burger King and McDonald’s–Burger King has spent the
past couple of years rolling out an elaborate, attention-grabbing
marketing campaign with lots of online interactivity and social
network presence. McDonald’s has stuck largely to boring traditional
advertising. Guess
who
increased their market share? Hunt mentions the cautionary
tale of Federated Media (which includes Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow’s
site) taking money from Microsoft. But this spring, they
did it again
, taking money from previously-criticized Comcast.
Mea culpa: just more anecdotal evidence. But maybe whuffie is
harder to monetize than Hunt is letting on.

Comments

  1. Trevor O'Donnell says:

    I think it is worth adding a temporal factor to the the juvenile names and the depth-defying limitations of emerging social networking technologies. Time will tell which ones take hold, which ones die off, which ones make money and which ones offer value beyond shareholder ROI.
    As an arts professional, I’m tempted at times to be a cranky old geezer, but I prefer to assume the role of patient observer. To date the arts have gained little by jumping on the social networking bandwagon and we’ve probably lost no more than we would have otherwise – anecdotes notwithstanding.
    My limited understanding of Hegel suggests that any initial proposition or ‘thesis’ carries with it an opposing thesis, and that resolution of these opposites requires a trial and error process that unfolds over time. If youthful, shallow technology fads are the thesis, I’ll happily offer up the arts as a mature, deep, time-tested antitheses.
    Personally, I’m rooting for a synthesis that leans toward the latter.

  2. Hi Matthew,
    I hear all that you say. While a great deal of Ms. Hunt’s thesis is as applicable to those of us in the arts as it is to those running a construction company, there are some points she makes that do not cross the lines as readily. The quote you pulled from p. 86 happens to be one that does not translate well outside of business. The very definition of art lies in the personal, emotional, and creative decisions we make to present our clients what WE feel is worthy and true. That which Tara describes in this quote (cameras with lots of features, in this case), has far more to do with craft, and with addressing the limitation of what the market wants. As artists, we are not about limitation, we are about endless sky. We push the edges of the boundaries of what the market wants, and sometimes, care little about what it wants at all.
    Regarding your skepticism about how whuffie = profit, how many anecdotal case studies are enough? Maybe there are not scads of them yet in the arts because artists have been slow to adopt this new technology. Give it time. Some of us are very definitely reaping the benefits: the two most recent 5-figures-in-front-of-the-decimal-point commissions I have received this year have come directly from MySpace, from two clients who would otherwise never have found me. My bank account and I have found this rather significant, and this is what drives me to shout from the rafters about the power of social networking: I want all of my colleagues to experience the same delight. Few things make us feel better than when we are discovered and appreciated for what we do, rather than asked to alter it in some way to suit someone else. This is the purity of what I observe on the web, professionally. I am a true believer when it comes to imagining that many more artists can have these results with their quirky work, too. Give it time!

  3. Matthew, Matthew, Matthew. How could you go so wrong? Social networking isn’t about something so boring as profit, it’s about pizzazz, flash, bling-o, whatever you want to call it, that indefineable thingness that makes people want to hang with you! And maybe once they really trust you, they’ll buy something. But first you have to dazzle them with your slick interactive web 200.0 combination bell-whistle.

  4. Alex: Just so I’m clear, I think that there are opportunities with the whole whuffie thing, it’s just that the book kind of assumes that how it will translate over will become obvious once you have it. But I think also that, somewhat contrary to the book’s tone, there’s plenty of opportunity left outside social networks as well.
    The anecdotal thing wasn’t so much the number of cases as the lack of numbers therein. For example, she mentions that Zappos is a billion-dollar company—but how much of that worth has been created with tweets as opposed to just shoes? I would love to see some crunching of the amount a company has spent on marketing via social networks, and how many customers or how much revenue that translates into (incoming traffic, increased sales, &c.), which would then give a good comparison with more traditional online customer acquisition costs. (I can’t believe we’re already talking about “traditional” online business models.) I did a little hunting around for such evidence, but the discourse around whuffie still seems to be in the “telling example” stage rather than the “cumulative data” stage. Like you say, give it time.
    Trevor: Believe me, cranky old geezer is totally fun. As a side effect, you get a real taste for scotch.
    The Hegelian dialectic is a little more subtle (the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model actually comes from Fichte): one way to think about it is that the nature of historical progress is such that turns of the odometer tend towards whatever will render the internal contradictions of the previous epoch irrelevant. The drawback to Hegelian thought is that it logically tends to put one in the situation of defending the power status quo as an inevitable outcome. But I like your idea of looking at the technology that way—if you judged the technology from a Hegelian standpoint, you’d value it in as much as it makes, say, the conflict between artistic integrity and commercial value a meaningless way of looking at things. I don’t know that I see that in the Internet yet, except maybe in the possibility of creating large enough stylistically-like-minded communities that artistic integrity and commercial value are the same thing—a sort of virtually-local kind of whuffie posited around genre.

  5. Trevor O'Donnell says:

    Damn, all we patient observers get to drink is green tea.
    I must say I like the path-of-diminished-contradictions idea. But every time I hear someone suggesting that real time program notes should be tweeted to audience members’ phones, or that it’s good buzz when audiences text friends from their theatre seats or that arts patrons can be magically transformed into online communities, I suspect the synthesis will favor technology over art. What’s to stop it?
    As for virtually-local kinds of whuffies posited around genre, I think I’ll have that scotch now please…

  6. Matthew, I get what you’re saying. But, while it’s quite clear where this social-capital equation doesn’t work with artists and arts organizations (your example being a good one), the book provides examples that are applicable.
    No one claimed the book is fully suited to the endeavors of artists. It’s the applicable that’s essential. In the pursuit expanding the audience for an artist or an arts organization, there are various tools that the potential audience is already making use of. All that the book (goofy word aside) is suggesting, at the bare-bones level, is that artists and arts organizations make use of those technologies.
    Just a few examples:
    — tie in concert-ticketing with Last.Fm and Pandora usage
    — create fan bases on Facebook (etc.), to easily get information about upcoming events
    — use the geo-coding of various social networks to send announcements related to touring
    — study the geo-coding of those same social networks when planning tours, looking for local support, etc.
    — fill the gap between events/releases by communicating with fans via Twitter, a blog, etc.
    Those are just a few.

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