The End of the Social Network, the Dawn of the Social Object

A few friends and I are all sitting around the couches in our living room, when Kerry receives a Snapchat from our mutual friend Matt. It’s a video. “I’m opening it!” she exclaims. Panic ensues. We’re sure it’s going to be hilarious — and we only have 5 seconds to take it in. Sienna and I leap across the armchair and plop down next to Kerry right as she holds her thumb down in the bottom right of her iPhone screen.

It doesn’t matter what the video was — the point is that it’s gone now.

A few years ago I wrote an essay on the importance of designing information objects for share-ability. That was in 2012, when Facebook went public.

My argument then was that the network a piece of content originates on doesn’t matter — in favor of condemning it to life on only that network, it should be designed and packaged to take on a life of its own as it travels from place to place.

Now networks, it seems, are dissolving into content. Even the largest social network can’t maintain its outer walls. As MG Siegler puts it, “we’re entering the era of the great unbundling of Facebook.”

“There are powerful categories emerging that once fell under the “social” umbrella that can now stand on their own. The latest ones that interest me are based around new types of specific intents,” he explains, pointing out that photos were the first to break free of the walls of a larger network — then messaging became an independent use case.

As Peter Morville pointed out in Ambient Findability in 2005, “at the heart of many of today’s killer applications lies the power and prevalence of gossip.” The social network has long built on the idea of “communal construction of meaning,” presented by Bruno G. Bara in his study Cognitive Pragmatics. Once an information object is put out into the ether, the internet works together to construct the significance of it.

But are people sick of communal expression?

“Part of Snapchat’s lightweight appeal is that message recipients can’t comment on a photo you’ve sent,” says Ellis Hamburger in a The Verge article on the science of Snapchat’s success. It’s not just the ephemeral nature of the content, but the fact that once we huddled together to laugh over Matt’s video on Snapchat, we’d exhausted its greater meaning.

Total control — that seems to be the prevailing advantage of using Snapchat to distribute a simple visual commentary you might otherwise send on a network with more permanence.

Total freedom, then, might be the motivator that explains the rise of the anonymous social network. In the growing genre of apps that include Secret, Rumr, Whisper and the recently shuttered Rando, the social object is longer lasting, but will never be credited to its owner.

“Anonymity reduces our hesitation to create and express ourselves,” says Ryan Hoover. Fear of judgement is a consistent thread in the discussion — as our resumes are slowly replaced by our digital reputations, no social network is a safe place to think out loud.

The buzz surrounding these apps is no surprise — the physiological attraction we have to sharing dirty secrets in a public forum was long ago popularized in high school bathroom stalls, and even in a wildly popular art-project-come-book-series.

This space is growing quickly — and catching the eye of Silicon Valley’s top investors — with more players like WUTShrtwv etc putting their own spin on the anonymous social object. Their success is unclear, but their existence is telling.

When the founders of Snapchat pitched the product to Lightspeed Ventures, they insisted it would create “a more real and authentic mode of communication, one where you weren’t “performing” for every present audience in most social media.”

Performing online will still have its place. But Instagram’s one-to-one messaging option, recently replicated in a similar feature by Vine, makes it clear that even in a massive public forum, we’re hungry for more ways to speak in secrecy.

I’m excited to watch communication become more and more fragmented; maybe it’s a growing social anxiety that will force us to reach for new ways to interact.

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I’m Not Sorry

The most important thing I learned in 2 years as a high school athlete (let’s just say, I’m not a natural) was simple: Never Say ‘I’m Sorry.’

My coach was emphatic about it. No matter how truly sorry we were about missing a ball, striking out, showing up late to practice, our apologies fell on deaf ears. “If you are truly sorry, it won’t happen again. Don’t apologize to me. Tell me you’ll fix it.”

Her intentions behind the ‘never say sorry’ rule ran deeper than a pet peeve. She knew all too well than women who apologize frequently, especially in the professional world, are less successful, less hard-working, and ultimately make less money that those who do not. The Grindstone calls it the ‘dutiful daughter’ ideal — The Telegraph references mens’ prevailing fear of hiring ‘Sorry Skirts.’ I’d venture to say that it’s not only a gender issue. Men — whether my superiors, an intern, or my peers — who apologize unnecessarily come across as weaker, less trustworthy and lacking in confidence.

Removing ‘I’m sorry’ from your vocabulary has nothing to do with rejecting responsibility. According to an April BusinessWeek article on the topic, “apologies act as a transfer of power from the offender to the victim.” A passive apology intends to do just that — give the victim the sense that he or she is in control, in order to demean yourself and earn their sympathy. Ultimately, ‘I’m sorry’ is a rejection of responsibility. There’s a better way to make things right:

“When someone accepts responsibility, they’re basically saying, ‘I’m in charge,’ ” says Adam Galinsky, a Columbia Business School professor who studies negotiation and power.

That means that emailing your boss about missing a deadline on a proposal shouldn’t read “I’m so sorry, working on it now.” It should simply read “I missed the proposal deadline, it will be resolved ASAP.”

What happens when you don’t say ‘I’m Sorry’ as often is significant. Suddenly, it means something. So when you are completely at fault, and the victim in the situation does deserve redemption, you can look them in the eyes and apologize like you mean it. But not about being busy this Friday.

Your Brand Should Be in a Mobile Game

I generally prefer to write about design, but this is something that’s been front of mind lately — I do work for a mobile game studio, and we have considered working with brands, but as someone who works to promote an early-stage startup all day, I find the increasingly lucrative marketing opportunity for brands in mobile games really fascinating.

More than half of all US mobile phone users – we’re talking 125 million people, or 40% of the total US population – will be playing games on those mobile phones by the end of the 2013 (eMarketer, 2013). As you’re likely aware, those same devices dominate a large portion of minutes in the average American’s day, 150 on average. 

Thinking long term, this number looks even better – 8 out of 10 smartphone users are projected to play games on their phone by 2016. Your audience is already spending time on social and mobile gaming, immersed in an interactive experience that is in its very nature one of the most engaging digital interactions available.

The most exciting opportunity in the space, from a brand perspective, is that in-game advertising can actually enhance the player’s experience – brands can become a hero to the user by providing them value within the game environment. Creative engagement aside, more traditional advertising within gaming continues to impress in terms of performance, with over 22 times the average engagement rate of online banner ads (AdoTube, 2013). The success of social and mobile gaming campaigns is exponentially higher than other digital alternatives; marketers needs to make mobile gamers their priority.

A few creative options:

[1] Value Exchange Ads

Services: SponsorPay, Kiip, Lootsie

[2] Video (in-stream, interactive etc) 

Services: Virool, Sharethrough, Unruly Media

[3] Location-Based Features + Gaming and Social Media Components

Services: Zigi, Plot

[4] Custom Experiences Tied to Gameplay – Making your Brand the Hero

Services: MediaMob, a few others I can’t find at the moment! Often these campaigns are the result of one-on-one relationships with developers and brands, like SimCity and Dunkin Donuts (below):

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Living In The Now

We’re all too aware of the concept of ‘carpe diem.’ From Andrew Marvell’s cheeky poem, To His Coy Mistress, written in 1681, to ‘YOLO’ by Kendrick Lamar, released this year, we’ve never been oblivious to the passing of time. While the digital age might make us think ‘now’ is a more urgent phenomenon, people have been stressing about it since the dawn of man.

Here’s what we’re not aware of — the digital age hasn’t squeezed ‘now’ into smaller moments. It’s turned ‘now’ into our eternal reality. As Douglas Rushkoff puts it in an interview with Fast.CoExist about his book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens NOW: 

“The cultural bias and economic bias metaphor is shifting from hard drive to RAM, from potential energy to kinetic energy… we need not worry about the future at all, because we are living in a present that will continue forever.”

 

If we think of the future in this way, we start to realize we’re not stretching towards some climactic conclusion, but collectively making decisions, choices, mistakes and memories together in real time, and will continue to do so for eternity. I love thinking about time as an element…  there was a quote in a novel I read in high school that sparked a long interest in how we create Time artificially by developing context for the ‘passing of time.’ Can’t remember the book, but it was about a tribe in Africa, where their leader claimed that in their remote, self-sufficient society, “we create our own time.” And it’s true!

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Alicia Eggert’s most well-known world, ‘You are (on) an island.’

I love this quote from Alicia Eggert, a TED Fellow and multi-media artist who focused on time, found art, and words in her work: 

When I was a kid, I lived in South Africa for a few years because my parents were missionaries there during apartheid. South Africans had three different ways they used the word “now.” A simple “now” was a really casual reference to the present; it lacked any sense of urgency. “Just now” was even more casual. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll get around to it.” And then “now now” was a more urgent expression, meaning “This is happening right at this very moment.”

 

As she says, we don’t have enough words to describe the concept of ‘now.’ Rushkoff mentions the difference between the Greek terms chronos and kairos in his interview — the difference is time and timing. “We’ve been living in chronos for the past thousand or so years,” says Rushkoff. “Time was what’s on the clock. And now that our digital devices can take that for us, we can move into kairos.”

Put simply, the time that a ‘moment’ occurs no longer matters. What matters is the ‘timing’ of that moment in the context of what happened before, during and after it. And this isn’t just philosophical — these changes have huge impact on political events, product design, our understanding of the human body, workplaces, the global economy.  

So Living In The Now isn’t so much about Living While You Can. It’s not about living in the Future, it’s not about not living in the Past. It’s about avoiding that feeling of falling behind on all the information, all the incoming messages, the constant flow of alerts and updates. It’s about realizing that we create the present that the digital world records for us. It’s about living with the knowledge that we’re not trying to catch up to it — it’s trying to catch up to us.

In Rushkoff’s words, “I’m a Presentist.” 

 

If you want to …

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood … instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery


This is an awesome way to think about building company culture. Check out Helpscout’s post on building Customer-Centric Companies.

How do you deal with an uncertain future and still move forward?

In other words — how do you embrace the questions while still providing answers?

Designers have a a fairly accurate stigma surrounding them. People who work with designers often have the same complaint: “designers always think they’re right.” Sometimes, they are right — but in the event that almost infinite solutions could be found for the same problem (which I believe is always the case), their inability to form a new opinion can be crippling.

That said, the opposite — designing with uncertainty — is also not advisable. As Bob Johansen, of Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future, observes, “weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them.”

In Bob Sutton’s words, the solution is to have ‘Strong Opinions, Weakly Held,” going on to say that you should “fight like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.”

Andy Grove put it another way when he said he wanted all his people to have “strong beliefs, loosely held.”

And John Lilly carried the concept into a design-specific bit of advise when he made the case that a designer should “design like you’re right, read the data like you’re wrong.”

Ultimately they’re all conveying the same important idea: that a designer (or any problem solver) should be driven by strong, well-formed opinions that they’re willing to defend — and ready to upturn at any moment.

Bob Sutton approaches this concept from the angle of someone trying to define the difference between intelligence and wisdom. In his book, Hard Facts, he makes the observation that the wise are “those who have the courage to act on their knowledge, but the humility to doubt what they know.”

I think many people jump between the two — from great confidence in their knowledge and ability to great doubt in their conviction and acceptance of the unknown. It’s the ability to operate as both people at once — the authoritative opinion, and the humble student — that proves mastery.

And that may be a process of recreation. One of my favorite quotes is  by Henry Sidwick:

“One has to kill a few of one’s natural selves to let the rest grow—a very painful slaughter of innocents.”

As Andy Grove put it, you need to “act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.”

At the end of the day, moving forward can be accomplished only one way: by moving forward. Tom Petty has the best advice of all: “Don’t dither; you can always change your mind later.” In his words, I aspire to be “confident… but not really sure.”

3 Themes To Drive Social Innovation

This article is edited from the CoLab Boston blog, the initiative I’m launching to connect creative professionals to community projects in the Boston area. Check it out! 

Last week I attended the final presentation of Harvard’s inaugural Community Innovation Lab class, where students were pitching projects to 3 local organizations, The Dudley Street  Neighborhood InitiativeUpham’s Corner Main Street Development and the Orchard Gardens Residence Association in Dorchester.

A few major themes stood out as the framework for any solution that might be implemented in these neighborhoods:

Make Data Accessible, Participatory and Relevant

One of the first “A-Ha” moments I had was when a group pitched the idea to project local survey results onto the side of the Orchard Gardens Residential buildings. To increase voter participation, they proposed to ask inhabitants a yes or no question in person every time they handed in their rent checks. The question of the month, and a dynamic graph of the responses, would be projected outdoors for all to see. The implications of this could be huge!

A lot of the solutions were built around the importance of participation and transparency in local decision-making. One example was the SMS-based voting system in which passerby would read questions spray-painted on the sidewalk and text in their votes. The results would then be advertised throughout local store fronts and gathering places.

Another great example is the “I am Upham’s Corner” idea, where community members could write their ideas for community development on stickers around the neighborhood, ultimately gathering data that could inform the community’s own identity. Which brings us to…

Give the Community Ownership of Its Identity

The “I am Upham’s Corner” sticker project was created to give Upham’s Corner a real ‘brand.’ They identified a ‘brand’ as “a set of promises that aims to deliver on an experience.” Now, defining branding isn’t easy, but this team did a great job of uncovering the real issue: an identity needs to come from the people.

The “Planning on the Street” project did a great job of building on the idea that you need to “bring the meeting to the people, not the people to the meeting.” They identified a huge opportunity to start a conversation around the Fairmont Indigo Planning Initiative in a way that gives locals a voice in the debate and a stake in the future of their Fairfmont Corridor.

One group’s proposed redesign of DSNI Youth Centers did a great job of promoting the concept of collaborative identity-building by designing spaces that were ultimately defined by the people who used them. They knew why this was so important:

Design for Interaction

A few of the groups pitched great projects about telling the community’s story, but they were all defined by one point: we need to create ways for the community to tell its story together. The playground redesign project revolved around creating places for people to meet, hang out, and engage with each other in positive ways. The Dudley Village Campus group proposed ways that people could record their stories together in physical meeting places. The Dorchester North Burying Ground initiative suggested community events and meeting places to support the historical site. The first group pitched a redesign of the Orchard Garden’s Residence Association lobby called “Walk of Stars”, creating a space where residents could meet, learn and record stories together.

One of the keys to effective urban planning is creating ways for people to “bump into each other.” Cities can be very alienating places, and designing safe spaces for community members to interact should be a driving factor in any solution.

If you want to learn more about our initiative, we hope to get involved with these projects as they move towards completion and CoLab Boston needs your help! Shoot me an email at liz@colab-boston.org!