The Top 1%

I checked the Technorati rank of my blog today.  According to that authority, I have the 1,291,269th ranked blog on the Web.  That’s out of an estimated 120 million “active” blogs.  And over 300 million that have been abandoned or are in some other way “inactive.”  So the bad news/good news is, that while there are 1,292,268 blogs that are ranked higher than mine, I am still in the top 1% of all bloggers.

That got me to thinking about what being in the top 1% really means.  It sounds very elitist and special; but I, my family, and probably you, are already in the top 1% in many categories.  And we didn’t expend any inordinate effort to get here.  If you live in North America, odds are you are among the top 1% wealthiest people in the world.  And I’m too lazy to look it up, but chances are you’re right up there in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality, workplace safety, and a bunch of other stuff.

So I don’t want to get all Stuart Smalley on your ass or anything, but next time you’re thinking about the millions of people who are better off than you, also think about the BILLIONS who envy  your position.  And, doggone it, people like you.


Crowdsourcing Set Design

The image to the right is a still publicity shot from a British TV show called The IT Crowd.  It is apparently hilarious, and follows the lives of some “sysadmins” or what we would call network support people or simply IT guys.  In a recent blog post, the creator of the program is asking for fans’ help in populating the set for the next season with interesting, geeky stuff.  This technique of getting strangers to do work for you using Web 2.0 tools is called “crowdsourcing.”  Perhaps the best example of crowdsourcing is Wikipedia, where millions of contributors come together to produce an excellent end product.  Other frequently cited crowdsourced projects are Linux, Mozilla, and similar open source software development efforts. 

What could you crowdsource in a bar environment?  And why would you do it?  I can think of a number of examples: you could have a place to vote, both at the bar and on the bar’s website, for which band you would like to see play there on an upcoming evening.  Or what new beers to bring in on tap.  Or what sporting event would be shown on the big screen Saturday afternoon.  Or what items to add to the food menu.  Or whether to get a pool table, or foosball, or airhockey, or pinball machine, or couches, or nothing for the back room.

By allowing your patrons to influence or even make some of your bar management decisions for you, you stand to gain (at least) three advantages:

1. According to “wisdom of the crowds” theory, if you have a large and diverse enough group of people contributing, the decisions will be more consistently correct than any one person could make alone.

2. You add to the feeling of belonging  that your customers experience – if they are part of the “tribe” that determines what goes on at your establishment, they will have more loyalty to it.

3. People are more likely to show up and consume a food, drink, or event they helped bring about than one arbitrarily selected by the bar owner.

Fake Olympics Fireworks

It seems that the Chinese planners of the (awesome) opening ceremonies were leaving nothing to chance Friday night.  The 29 footprint-shaped firework bursts that appeared to “walk” across Beijing from Tiananmen Square to the Bird’s Nest stadium really did happen, but the video of them – which was shown to 4 billion TV viewers and the 100,000 people in the stadium – was digitally generatedStory here.

Just so we fully understand, fireworks very much like what we saw did actually happen outside the stadium, but the video that was shown inside the stadium on the jumbotron and sent through the official video feed to networks all over the world, was cooked up on someone’s computer.  The reasoning was that for such an important and difficult airborne tracking shot, relying on a human being to precision-pilot a camera-bearing helicopter was too dangerous and uncertain.  So what we all saw was basically an artist’s rendering of what we would have seen if there really had been a cameraman at work.

For me, there are two take-aways from this:

1. Don’t believe anything without supporting evidence.  We all know that Photoshop can be used to alter still photos to show anything, like this fake Iranian missile picture.  We’ve always known that just because something appears in print, it doesn’t mean it’s true.  We know that audio tapes can be mixed to make anyone “say” anything.  But this is the first instance of video imagery being used in such an extensive hoax (that I’m aware of anyway – I know people that think men walking on the moon was staged in a studio).

2. This is a perfect example of the philosophical challenge I posed in this post, where I asked if it would be OK to charge people a lot of money for wine that didn’t really cost a lot of money, because it is scientifically proven that they will enjoy it more that way.  This is exactly what China did – hoodwinked me to make my experience better – and I’m glad they did it.  The inclusion of that sequence increased my enjoyment of the Opening Ceremonies spectacle.  Now that I know it was “faked,” I still have a better memory of the event than I probably would have if I had not seen, or not seen as well, that part of the show.

I guess I have to conclude that tricking people for their own good is a bad thing to do, though, or else I’m basically endorsing the whole Matrix  concept…

[UPDATE: Purely by concidence, I saw this story today at BoingBoing that tells how easily photographs can be misrepresented, without even altering them at all.]

[UPDATE #2: By now you’ve all heard that the little girl that sang the anthem at the ceremony was just lip-synching another girl’s singing, and everyone appears to think this is wrong; whereas the reaction to the fireworks fakery was generally benign.  What’s the diff?]

StephenBrooks™ Wrote This

Over at the Slate site, there is an interesting article about someone who filed for, and was granted, a patent by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  He was actually filing on behalf of his 5-year old son, Steven.  Steven’s invention: how to make a swing go sideways by pulling alternatively on the chains, instead of the more common back-and-forth technique driven by leg pumping.  Sound silly?  Of course it is, but it’s no sillier than some of the mania these days about protecting and extending copyrights for everything from music to e-books to Mickey Mouse.

If you want to delve into the issue deeply, Lawrence Lessig explains the situation fully in this 18-minute TED talk.  It is also touched on in the video about kids doing dangerous things lke breaking the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) that I wrote about a few days ago.  Basically, it’s the debate about how much freedom should people have to enjoy music, words, images and performances without directly compensating the artist.

I personally don’t see why any creative person would favour legally restricting people’s ability to experience their work.  I’m not talking about piracy here – piracy by my definition is someone selling someone else’s creation as if it were their own.  So fake copies of software and knock-off movie DVDs that are sold to people, without the producer getting any money from the sale, are pirated.  I’m talking about sharing or copying the work in order for more people to enjoy it.  Nobody pays me to write this blog (like a journalist is paid, for instance); and nobody pays to read it (like you pay for a magazine or newspaper, for instance).  I would be ecstatic if hundreds or thousands of people “stole” my words and reprinted them in their blogs or newsletters or whatever.  The widespread enjoyment of my product would enhance the value of the producer (me).

But Stephen, you commie pinko hippy socialist, how then will people be enticed to make great things, if they can’t expect to get paid for them?  We’ll never see another Abbey Road  or Casablanca  or To Kill a Mockingbird!

To answer that question, I point to the sold out $175/seat Elton John concert here in Moncton next month, the recent release of The Dark Knight  and its record-breaking box office, and the free ebooks that Seth Godin has written.  I can get Elton, Batman and Seth for free on the Web – why would I ever pay for a concert, theatre ticket, or hardcover book?  Because the proliferation of the product (songs/film/words) has enhanced the value of the producer, to the point where I will pay a premium to experience the producer in a special venue (live show/big screen theatre/physical book).

What has changed to enable this era of self promotion via giving stuff away?  Digital media.  It used to be that when you shared something with someone, you no longer had it.  If you handed your LP to your friend, you could no longer listen to it.  Same with video tapes and books.  But now, you can effortlessly make a copy of it, so you and your friend both have it.  In the old world, before you could sell a million copies, you had to manufacture a million copies.  Now, you can give away a million digital copies for free, and you’re just as popular.

Irrational Marketing

Here in New Brunswick, Canada, everyone is bemoaning the sharp drop in tourism activity this year.  It is being attributed to the strong Canadian dollar, and, of course, the high price of gasoline.  What a crock.

If a potential tourist in, say, Connecticut, chooses not to take their vacation in Atlantic Canada; then the cost of fuel is not the real reason.  Think about it: of the hundreds of dollars they will spend on hotels, tourist attractions, food, ferries, tolls, and souvenirs; only a small fraction, say 10%, will be gas.  And gas only costs 20% more than it did a year ago.  So the total trip cost is only 2% more than it was in 2007.  (Not to mention that most people could save that much in fuel consumption by properly inflating their tires, maintaining a slower highway speed, and accelerating more gently…)  But people are still using it as an excuse, and as I’ve said before, perception is reality, so there you go.

What I like is that the government of New Brunswick is taking advantage  of people’s irrational reasoning on the topic.  They are promoting the concept of “staycations” – where New Brunswickers are encouraged to travel close to home, and spend their leisure dollars within the province’s borders.  I think this is brilliant, if a little devious.  It would be more “honest” to tell them the truth about how great the local attractions are, than to pander to their ridiculous emotional reaction to gas prices.  But you can’t blame them for picking the easy way.

Of course, this government has demonstrated its skill at marketing to people’s unreasonable beliefs before: they were elected on the promise that they would lower automobile insurance rates.  You might as well promise to lower the speed of light.

Posted in General. Tags: , . 5 Comments »

Why Viruses Spread Faster Now

We all know that viral marketing is the new term for what has been known as “word of mouth” for years. It is the idea that you can make or do something so remarkable that people will voluntarily pass it on to their friends. So it spreads organically, friend to friend, like influenza or any other virus. And since people trust their friends’ opinion more than a TV ad or spam email, it is among the most effective ways to market. It’s also one of the least expensive, since the spreading of your message is being done by other people instead of you purchasing airtime or email lists.


The thing is, it’s been around for years, but the velocity has increased remarkably. The reason? It’s easier to spread the virus now.


Remember chain letters? You would receive a letter in the mail from someone you may or may not know. The missive would urge you to make copies of it, and forward it one to some number of other people. They were a kind of virus. Sometimes they were benign, sometimes criminal. They might promise good luck will follow if you send it on to at least 10 recipients, for example; or it might be part of a pyramid scheme where you send $5 back to the letter’s sender with the expectation that all the people you send it to will send money back to you.


In the years BX (before Xerox), this was a somewhat onerous thing to ask of someone. Re-writing even a short letter 10 times could take half a day by the time you address and stamp the envelopes. But with the dawn of photocopiers, that time was reduced to half an hour. Fax machines further lightened the load in the mid 80s. And the coming of email brought the time in which you could forward something to many people down to a few seconds. So funny or provocative or thoughtful or spiritual messages could spread very quickly.


[Aside: The idea to write this post came from an email conversation I’m having with my friend Bill. He was a Webmaster (in the days before email could actually infect your computer with a virus), and he had to constantly explain to people that simply opening an email could not possibly harm their PC. There was an email going around in 1994-6 titled “Good Times” that told people that if they received a message with that subject line, they must delete it immediately without opening it, or their hard drive would be wiped out. It also specifically urged the reader to forward this warning message to anyone they “cared about.” Well-meaning but technologically impaired people fearfully sent this email around the world many times before it died off. The irony is that, while it warned people of a virus spreading through an impossible mechanism, it itself was a kind of self-replicating virus.]


And now we’ve come to Web 2.0, where you can instantly share an idea or a message with potentially millions of people almost instantaneously. Facebook, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, Twitter, etc. all contribute to the speed with which interesting content proliferates. So back to my first paragraph, where I said that it’s a cheap and effective way to market, especially these days: why, then, isn’t it used more? Simple: it’s really, really, really hard. Creating material with the necessary cachet to “go viral” is very difficult. But it makes for interesting stuff out there, like this video from the band OK Go, where they dance on treadmills, so I’m glad that people still try.

Child Endangerment – I’m All For It

If you have 9 minutes, 20 seconds to spare, I highly recommend that you watch this video, especially if you have young children.

It’s a talk given by a fellow named Gever Tulley, a (childless) computer scientist who also runs a summer camp where he teaches kids to “tinker.”

He’s not a super-great speaker, but I think he makes some excellent points. His talk is called, “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kid Do.”

As an aside, and related to my old post about how not to use PowerPoint (or Karaoke), note that there are no words in his slide show, other than the section titles.

This talk is hosted on the TED site. TED stands for technology, entertainment, design. It is an annual conference that features really interesting people sharing amazing ideas in less than 18 minutes. (This one by Gever isn’t an “official” TED talk, which is why it’s shorter. It’s also why he’s not nearly as riveting as most TED speakers.) The 240+ past presenters include magicians, activists, scientists, businesspeople, artists, musicians, and much more. Bono, Branson and Bezos are a sampling just from the letter B. It’s a leisure-time black hole – every single session on this site is one I want to watch, but alas even 18 minutes is often too much to carve out of a day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to teach my 7-year old daughter to drive.

Moncton Needs a Newswiki

I’m sure there will be a million comments telling me that there already are such things.  Bear with me. 

I have written before about the ludicrous amount of errors in the Moncton Times & Transcript  local paper.  I have seen malapropisms, poor grammar, misspelled words, even misspelled words in headlines.  But the good ol’ T&T  reached a new low today: an error in a headline ON THE FRONT PAGE.

I haven’t got my trusty scanner at the office I’m at now, but that’s OK, because they have dutifully reproduced the error on their Web site  (shown – click to enlarge and see the headline at the bottom of the page).  If you want to read the article, here is the link to, “Retails growth in Metro tops in Atlantic Canada.”

Do you suppose they meant “Retail’s” – i.e. the growth that belongs to Retail is tops?  That feels awkward, but would make sense.  And apostrophe errors seem to be the most popular kind of mistake these days, even by educated people, so that’s likely what the writer meant.  “Retail growth” sounds more comfortable to my ear, but I’m on shaky grammatical ground there – that structure works in some places (e.g. “population growth”), but would sound silly in others (e.g. “street growth”).

Regardless, it’s clearly wrong the way it is, and hasn’t even been fixed in the medium that is perfect for instantly correcting errors.  In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson writes about the democratization of the tools of information production, and uses Wikipedia as an example.  Thanks to the wisdom of crowds, it’s almost as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, but contains content about many, many times more topics.  And, the moment an error is discovered, by anybody, it’s corrected.  Britannica  has to wait for their next printing.  And there are no “wrong” versions of Wikipedia hanging around, whereas inaccurate leather-bound encyclopedia tomes are extant everywhere.  My daughter could open the “P” volume of last year’s Britannica, and learn from a highly authoritative source that Pluto is the ninth planet in our Solar System.  Wikipedia tells her the more current version of the facts.

The Times & Transcript  could easily make a change to the article on their site.  Do they not know the mistake is there, or do they just not care?

Why Don’t They Take Credit?

The caption of this print ad is “Well, at least he drives a Prius.”  The obvious joke is that we can forgive even murder if a person is working to save the planet.  This is not an official Toyota ad – it’s a project undertaken by the proprietor of a design firm in order to gain notoriety.  And it’s working – I read about it on the Trendhunter Magazine site.  There are two other treatments of the same concept there: a man soliciting a hooker and a housewife making out with the gardener.

I was originally going to write about this ad being an example of what is happening to interruption marketing – it has to get increasingly funny or sexy or loud or shocking in order to get our attention.  But in the course of researching this example of outrageous ideas being used to sell stuff, I encountered a few roadblocks.

Both the creator of the concept (according to Trendhunter), David Krulik, and the photographer, Luke Stettner, are easy to find with Google.  However, I could find no mention of the Prius ads on either of their sites.  If I were the author of a successful viral campaign designed to bolster my reputation and career, I would let people know they had found the genius behind the campaign as soon as they landed on my site.

Anyway, speaking of outrageous ideas in ads, especially in cultures where they are allowed to be a little more off-the-wall with television ads, check out this spot from Thailand:

Happy New Brunswick Day!

The first Monday in August is a civic holiday in many provinces of Canada, so I have a long weekend coming up and will not be posting on August 4.

Here in my home province of New Brunswick, we call it New Brunswick Day (how creative).  Even less creative is Ontario, where it’s called the Civic Holiday.  In Alberta, I think it’s Heritage Day, and in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, it’s Natal Day.  Québec doesn’t get one because they take their national* holiday on June 24th, and call it St.-Jean Baptiste Day.

A few other provinces don’t get it either – I don’t know why.  See you Tuesday.

* Here in Canada, we let some – well, one – of our provinces pretend they are a nation within a nation.  Cute, eh?