Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Revolution Won't Be Marketed Properly

According to news reports I've seen this week, the iPhone is the new Star Wars (the movie series, not the missile defense system, though maybe it wouldn't be shocking for a future generation of the device to equipped with a built-in app for anti-aircraft fire). People are now lining up to buy technology the way they used to line up only for movies (or more recently, for video game systems).

While tech connoisseurs debate the quality of Apple's latest gadgets, one thing I think everyone can agree on is that Steve Jobs knows how to roll out a product. I've convinced that the smartphone and the iPad are still niche items, and for a lot of consumers, perhaps more fashion accessory than anything else. Yes, these devices have legitimate business applications, but I think for most people, including myself, a regular cell phone and computer are still enough to fulfill all their technological needs. (I'd contrast these devices with an mp3 player, which I would regard as a legitimately mainstream product, as it fulfills needs that CD players can't).

What makes Jobs's ability to get attention for the introduction of niche products impressive is that truly paradigm-shifting innovations have come out to much less fanfare. In fact, I'd assert that since (and including) the dawn of the World Wide Web, technologies have caught on with a slow burn, often virally, rather than with a sudden splash. Of course,I would presume that this is nothing new. I'm pretty sure that the day after Thomas Edison patented the light bulb there wasn't a rush to the Apple Store to put in preorders. But I find it interesting that now that technology has made communication instantaneous and information more accessible than ever before, that there is a still a gulf between what is available and what people know is available.

For example, society has been conditioned for decades to accept the concept of the video telephone. Anyone who watched The Jetsons in the 1960s accepted that along with robot housekeepers (which have actually been around for years now), video phones would be a staple of the future. Well, we now have it, and it's relatively cheap and easy to use, but a significant amount of people have no idea that the technology exists. (It doesn't help that it comes with names like "Skype"). I'm convinced that there is a huge underserved market out there--older people who otherwise would have little interest in technology who would love to see their grandchildren more regularly.

Another example: GPS units. Now that you can get one for under $100, it surprises me that anyone would own a car and not have access to satellite navigation, yet I'd estimate from anecdotal experience that the majority of drivers don't. Maybe I'm biased because I struggled for years to be able to find places, but the lure of never getting lost again seems too strong of a siren call to resist. Granted, I don't usually watch television commercials, but I don't remember any great fanfare introducing these products to the mainstream (though I do remember a confusing Super Bowl ad for Garmin a few years ago). I would think a product rollout with a "Never get lost again" tagline would have been gold in the bank for a sat-navigation company. But by not hyping GPS units back then as the "next big thing" (which I truly think they were/are, especially compared to iPads), there still exists a relatively soft market for them today.

Going forward, it will be interesting to take notice of whether inventions and innovations continue to follow the old models for public acceptance, or if Steve Jobs's legacy encompasses marketing along with technology. One possible barometer: a real life "universal translator." Now that it has apparently been invented, how long will it take people to notice?

Saturday, June 19, 2010


This week, ESPN aired a documentary entitled June 17, 1994. It's hard to believe that a baby who was born that day is now old enough to legally drive a white Bronco down the freeway (though they would be advised to pull over at the behest of law enforcement). I have clear memories of watching TV that evening, switching back and forth between the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase and the NBA Finals (the Milwaukee NBC affiliate aired O.J. while the Madison affiliate stayed with the NBA).

Sixteen years later, I wonder how much our culture remembers about the O.J. case, which for at least the summer of 1994, seemed to be the central, most important event in the entire world. I'm guessing that for those who are old enough to remember 1994, most would be able to tell you that O.J.'s ex-wife was named Nicole, and quite a few probably remember the name of the other victim (Ron Goldman). Most would remember that Lance Ito was the judge (thanks in large part to Jay Leno's "Dancing Itos"), most would remember Johnnie Cochrane (and "If it does not fit, you must acquit"). Some may not recall Mark Fuhrman's name, but they may have a vague recollection of an allegedly racist L.A. cop accused by the defense of planting a bloody glove at O.J.'s house. And if prompted, many would recall the comical Kato Kaelin, O.J.'s houseguest at the time of the murder.

Most people probably wouldn't be able to tell you that Ron Goldman's father's name was Fred, or that Nicole's sister's name was Denise. Most people wouldn't know that Lance Ito had a wife named Margaret York, a police officer. Some may recall that in addition to Cochrane, Robert Shapiro served on O.J.'s "Dream Team," but would they recall F. Lee Bailey? Carl Douglas? Would they remember that Alan Dershowitz consulted for them? That Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield of "Project Innocence" worked on discrediting the prosecution's DNA evidence? Would they remember that O.J.'s personal attorney (before he hired any of the others) was Robert Kardashian, who at the time was more well-known than his daughters? Do people remember prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden? Do they remember that Gil Garcetti was the DA?

How well do people remember the witnesses in the case? Does anyone remember that O.J.'s limo driver was named Allan Park? That in addition to Kato Kaelin, there was a dog named Kato (who just might have witnessed the murders)? Does anyone remember that a guy named Ron Shipp testified that O.J. had told him that he dreamed about killing Nicole? Does anyone remember that Dennis Fung was grilled by the defense about the LAPD's evidence collection (or that Shaprio made a non-PC joke about getting fortune cookies from the "Hang Fung" Chinese restaurant)? Do people remember Gina Rossborough, a juror who went on Oprah shortly after the verdict? Surely some recall O.J.'s vow to track down the "real killers" after his acquittal, but do they remember his allegations that Nicole's death was connected to the "shadowy world" inhabited by Nicole's friend Faye Resnick? Does anyone remember Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran?

Reading the above paragraphs, one might conclude that I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia reading about the case. They would be wrong. With the exception of looking up how to spell "Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran," I pulled all of the above out of my memory banks. (But I'm glad I looked up Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran--otherwise I wouldn't have known that he performed Michael Jackson's autopsy). Upon learning this, some may come to the conclusion that in 1994 (and in to 1995, when the trial finally ended), I must have been obsessed with the O.J. Simpson case. But the honest truth is that I didn't really care all that much. I didn't watch the preliminary hearing, which was a big enough deal to pre-empt soap operas, which were still popular in the mid-1990s (Most of it took place when I was in driver's ed class). I didn't watch the opening statements--I think I was in school by then. Most of the rest of the trial wasn't on network TV, and my family didn't have cable. I saw about twenty minutes of Hung's testimony on Court TV in a hotel room in summer 1995. I remember listening to closing arguments on the radio, and I saw the verdict during lunch hour at school. (And no, I did not watch E!'s re-enactments of the civil trial).

So how did I come to acquire this knowledge? Every day, I would purchase a USA Today newspaper, mostly for the sports section. But every day, on the top of page three of the news section, there was an article about the O.J. Simpson case. And nearly every day, I would take five minutes and read that article. And why has this information stayed with me all of these years? I'll admit that part of it is that I've got a mind for trivia. But part of it is an exigency of time. At the age of 16, I was old enough to pay attention to and have a passing interest in the affairs of the world, but young enough to not have any real demands placed upon me by the world. The fact that the case broke in the summer was even more fortuitous, since I didn't have school and had only a token job (working for my dad).

But the other factor, no longer repricable for me or for young people today, is that there was less in the way of entertainment options. The ipod was not invented yet, the nascent world wide web was not yet on my radar, there was no netflix, I didn't have to check anyone's Facebook status updates, and in my particular case, there was no cable television. Particularly once the baseball strike hit in August of 1994, my entertainment options were limited. I figured that I may as well read about O.J. Simpson for a few minutes every day.

Looking back, what I find ironic is that it was the reletive lack of information available that allowed me to accumulate a storehouse of information. I read the other day that the Rod Blagojevich trial is streaming on-line. If it were 1994, and a former governor was on trial for corruption, and the trial was televised, I could see myself watching it. But on the Internet today?--forget it. I also saw recently that a Stone Temple Pilots concert was streaming on-line. If it were 1994, and there was a Stone Temple Pilots concert on TV, I would have watched it in a second. But on the Internet today?-- even though I still listen to STP (and even bought their latest album)-- nah. Minor league baseball games stream all over the web. If it were 1994, especially during the major league strike, and minor league games were aired on the radio, I would have tuned in all the time (heck, I remember listening to "classic games" on the radio Sunday nights during the strike). But on the Internet today?-- not so much. Because there is so much available, I avail myself of practically nothing. But I've got to think that if it were scarce, I would be all over it.

And to really drive home the point, O.J. Simpson is sitting in prison right now and I can't tell you the name of the prosecutor who put him there. I can't tell you the name of the judge, any defense attorneys, or any material witnesses. All I know is that he was convicted of committing a robbery in Las Vegas a couple years ago. And I know that Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran was not involved.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Geography Matters

Geography matters. I suppose I would be hard pressed to make a more obvious statement. After all, geography has always mattered. With apologies to Karl Marx, the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of geographical struggle. Yes, societies have fought other societies over the control of land. But in a larger sense, culture and geography have always been intertwined, and cultural differences have by and large fallen along geographical boundary lines. Imagine an alternate mid-19th Century America, where half of the northern states were slave states and half of the southern states were free states. Actually, it's impossible to picture such a scenario. And anyone who has looked at a presidential electoral map in recent decades would have ample evidence that America is still largely ideologically divided and grouped into geographical concentrations.

Again, I concede that these observations are rather mundane. But where this discussion becomes interesting to me is in considering the concrete (and not necessarily political) differences between geographical areas. Others have done a better job than I could do here in exploring such distinctions. David Brooks has practically made a living doing so. Chuck Klosterman used the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry of the 1980s as a prism for dividing all of society. While he didn't technically attribute the differences between the two teams to geography, one just can't imagine Larry Bird playing in L.A. or a Boston team known for "Showtime."

And I ran across a sports story just yesterday that reiterated the relevance of geography. The ugly divorce of Los Angeles Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt has allowed some stunning facts (and innuendos) to be revealed. And one of those revelations is a real doozy: In a story similar to that of Rasputin, Jamie McCourt credited a Russian-born faith healer with ending an eye affliction she was suffering from. Apparently, this led to the faith healer (a guy by the name of Vladamir Shpunt) ending up on the Dodgers payroll, and according to Jamie's lawyer, drawing a salary of over six figures. And to earn this sum, he had to sit in front of his TV during Dodgers' games and send the team "positive energy."

What does this have to do with geography? I know what I am about to write will seem like a joke, but let me be clear when I say with absolute seriousness: "Only in L.A." I honestly can't imagine a team outside of Los Angeles employing a faith healer, much less at that kind of a salary, in order to provide "positive energy." (Though with the St. Louis Cardinals now spending six figures on Jeff Suppan, it is arguably not the worst expenditure from a major league baseball team).

But for all that, there was another sports story yesterday that indicates to me that there may yet come a time when geography doesn't matter anymore. A day after it was reported that Nebraska was bound for the Big 10, Colorado was reported to be going to the Pac 10 conference. When what we now know as the major college athletic conferences were first formed, they were created entirely on the basis of geography. Big 10 Universities represented the cream of the Midwest. The Pac in Pac-10 was short for Pacific, etc etc. And for many years, schools, media, and fans never considered it desirable to play games on a national scale. A conference championship and a bowl game against a team from another conference were all that were striven for. But it's hard to wrap one's head around the fact that when some of these conferences were first formed, radio wasn't even invented, much less television, much less the Internet. The Big 10 was actually formed before the Wright Brothers took to the sky. So it's only logical that as times change, as technology makes the world smaller, that geographical identity would be loosened. And maybe some day when our electoral college map resembles an impressionist painting, we will look back on the day that Colorado joined the Pacific-10 as a key shift in the history of the world.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Radical Transparency

I recently discovered a cool Facebook game. And when I say I discovered it, I really mean I discovered it--I'm not talking about Farmville, Mafia Wars, or Restaurant City; I'm talking about something that doesn't require an application. When Facebook started linking the items under "likes and interests" to "fan pages" or "community pages," I noticed that each of these pages displays the names of random people who also "like" that band, person, book, or movie. I noticed that by clicking on the first name that came up, and then proceeding to click on that person's first listed friend (which is also randomly listed), and then each subsequent person's first listed friend, before long I would invariably land on someone who I didn't know, but who shared a common Facebook friend with me. So in short, the goal is to see how many clicks it takes to get from a fan page (such as Led Zeppelin's) back to someone who is connected to me. I ran through a couple examples just for the purposes of this blog:

The Bible: The Bible has just over 1.3 millions fans (this number might prove useful to those left behind in the event of The Rapture). The first person displayed was a 19-year-old girl from Huntsville, Alabama. Her first listed friend was a college student who has attended two different Concordia universities. Since I went to a Concordia university, one would expect some connection to be coming along before long, but in this case, the connection was immediate. This person is Facebook friends with my wife's cousin's husband (who also attended a Concordia university). So in total- two clicks!

Shakespeare: This one proved to be challenging, since the first listed person was from India. The next eight clicks were all Indians, as was the ninth, but he is currently living in the UK. The 10th click was another Indian guy who is going to a Swedish university. He connected me to a series of people from Hong Kong. One of those Hong Kong residents, though, connected me to a guy from Indiana who just graduated from Ball State. Three clicks later I was on a woman from Ft. Wayne, who somehow became facebook friends with a guy from Illinois that I went to college with (more specifically, he played on the basketball team, and I broadcast games for our campus TV and radio stations). In total-- 26 clicks

Beatles: This one proved to be even more tedious than Shakespeare. I should stay away from global icons. The first fan was a guy from Indonesia. I found that Indonesians tend to be Facebook friends with other Indonesians, and since I don't have any Indonesian Facebook friends, this became a chore. Finally, on the 46th click, I ended up on the Philippines. This wasn't much better--it took me until click 90 before I ended up with a Filipino expat working as an electrician in California. I stayed in Cali for awhile before my 100th click was a guy in Massachusetts who has written for the Boston Symphony. I then actually ended up with a German composer, before my 103rd click, which was a guy from LA who had earned a degree in music from the University of Louisville in 2005. I was attending grad school at the same university at that time, and though I don't believe our paths crossed directly, we did manage to make not one, but two mutual Facebook friends. Total-- 103 clicks

Alice in Chains-- I start with a guy from Indiana. Fifteen clicks later I am looking at the profile of an Allstate agent from Chicago (the mother of twins for what it is worth). This Allstate agent is Facebook friends with a salesman at the Madison, Wisconsin radio station I worked at from 2003 to 2004. He was from Chicago, too (and all Chicagoans know each other, of course). Total-- 15 clicks

The Trial
by Franz Kafka-- I begin with an audiobook narrator and theater director from New York. Ten clicks later I am on the profile page of a TV anchor from Denver. He is somehow connected to a student that was in an English 101 class I taught at the University of Louisville in 2005. Total-- 10 clicks.

So what did I learn from this game? I don't know. I suppose one could use Facebook to research the six degrees theory, or to explore Malcolm Gladwell's theory of "connectors."

Or not. One thing I left out of the above summary: many times I had to click the back arrow and go back to a different friend because the one that I clicked on had hidden his or her own friend list from public display (I didn't count these in the totals). Other times I found myself looking at very spartan profile pages, with the vast majority of the content hidden from strangers. And this has become more noticeable in the last couple of weeks, as Facebook, under pressure, has enabled people to more easily make information private.

There has been a lot of media attention recently about the issue of "Facebook privacy." And I suppose this is not surprising. This is a classic example of the type of "scary" news item that media outlets so often use to drive up ratings. "Who is looking at your Facebook page?" ranks right up there with "Are your kids sexting?" and "Are there bears in your backyard?" Many people, terrified of the ramifications of leaving their profile pages public, are shifting over to private settings. But what exactly are the ramifications of public pages?

The classic ramification: you post a drunken photograph on your social networking page, a potential employer sees it, and you are not hired for a job. This scenario probably played out a lot five years ago (with Myspace in particular). But as Facebook has now expanded beyond its roots as a playground for college kids, all people are a lot more savvy about what they put on-line. When your grandma and your Aunt Myrtle are your Facebook friends, you are already censoring the potentially embarrassing stuff, so is there any need to worry about what your boss might see?

Meanwhile, there is also a nebulous fear of "marketers." What might marketers do if they get ahold of your private data? Well, what can they do? Aren't you on the "Do Not Call" list? Is it really so bad that Pandora can personalize your experience?

On the other hand, what are the potential benefits of what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg supposedly calls "radical transparency"? Perhaps one could make an argument about the need for society to realize its own interconnectedness, how we should learn to appreciate the term "social network" in its truest sense, or how we can come to a better understanding of how we do connect with one another. But I would simply assert that my Facebook game would be a lot more fun if people would open up a little bit more.