Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Secondary Second Life Value

Wagner James Au has an interesting post about how Second Life marketing may need to take into account the secondary marketing effects of repurposed media from SL. He gives the example of Chris Anderson's SL YouTube video getting lots of hits... probably WAY more hits than people in-game visiting the Wired HQ. Chris is, of course, editor of Wired, and their current issue has an article on the failure of SL from a corporate standpoint. Chris blogged about it, and posted Au's response here.

It's an interesting question/debate. If you go to YouTube and search for "Second Life" videos, and rank them by view count, you'll find that the top video has more than 4 million views. Now, it wasn't made with SL, but with other VW tools like The Sims. But the 2nd most popular is the U2 concert in SL, with almost 700,000 views.

700,000 views ain't nothin' to sneeze at. According to SL stats, about 656,000 people logged onto the service in the last 14-days. So more people have viewed one MySpace video, of a 6 minute event, than actually used the thing in two weeks.

This is really pinging around in my head, now. Google (and the Web at large) are involved in aggregating our Long Tail interests... pulling many disparate sources of content together based on individual requirements. When it comes to text, we don't really think to ourselves, "Yeah... that guy's keyboard must be fantastic," because there is a basic equality in how we generate letters; the technical source of written content -- a keyboard and maybe a word processor or blog engine -- is invisible, essentially.

Second Life, however, doesn't just create content for the folks who are inside. 700,000 people saw the U2 YouTube SL video. For them, SL was the content creation engine. And it can do some stuff that's not possible elsewhere.

So maybe one of the things we should be thinking about in our online lives is: How do we measure the opportunities for repurposing what we're doing? Could all the comments on my blog, for example, be collected into a blog of their own? Could my Flickr pics be a coffee-table book? Could I (should I...) splice my favorite YouTube videos into my home movies? Could my live book club discussions be recorded and podcast (podcasted?)?

I don't know... but I hadn't thought about the repurposeability of online activities as a measurement until today.  

By way of: Infocult

Sunday, July 29, 2007

An audience of one

I'm watching "Mad Men" on AMC (their first original series), and really enjoying it. The cinematography is great, the costumes and settings are lush and complex, and -- most importantly -- the writing is fantastic. For me, "fantastic" means tight, layered, funny-in-context and rich with irony.

Here's an example: Pete, who is (to be blunt) a dick (period term: cad), is on the phone with his fiance, whom he will be marrying in two days. It's Friday night, and his buddies are going to take him to a strip joint (which can be shown on basic cable 50 years later). He says to his intended:

"Of course I love you. I gave up my life to be with you, didn't I?"

Fatastic. You learn 57% of what you need to know about Pete from that one line of dialogue.

The whole shebang is like that. So, for now, after two episodes, I highly recommend it. It's especially fun for me, as they're using real advertising examples (like the Lucky Strike, "It's toasted!" campaign), and the 50's are an incredibly important time in American advertising, the history of which I teach as an adjunct at CCAD.

Which brings us to the WSJ debate between  anti-Web 2.0 anti-appologist Andrew Keen (author of "Cult of the Amateur") and David Weinberger (author of "Everything is Miscellaneous"). Read the debate; I don't want to excerpt my favorite lines here, because I'd be bringing over most of it. But it's good. Real good.

Keen does a very eloquent job of defining the benefits of a Web World where we do stuff together. Weinberger is equally well spoken about the benefits of top-down, authoritative, editorial review. If you know me, you'll know which side I come down heavy on.

Lots has been written on this. The best I've read is on Wired's "Crowdsourcing" blog, which includes an interview with Keen. He's a well-spoken guy with an important angle on creative technology; important because it's shared by many. It boils down to this: one line from his Wired interview:

This is where we fundamentally disagree. I don’t want the crowd to tell me what’s worth watching. I want a movie critic to tell me that. I don’t want the crowd to tell me where to eat, because I don’t trust them to know. Give me the old gatekeepers any day.

And here's where we get back to "Mad Men." I love my job (in marketing and advertising), and I think I'm in an industry (libraries) where I can put my talents to some good. But regardless of what is being marketed, I think advertising (per se) plays an important role in our economy and culture.

That being said, I think non-advertising voices should play more important roles. Watch "Mad Men." And then remember that it's mostly people like that -- like me -- who are the ones that Keen wants telling him what to watch, eat and listen to.

Where he's most confused is about "the crowd." There is no real crowd on the Internet. It seems that way when you browse fitfully, don't spend some time with others in online social situations, and pick from the giant field using the same tools and skills you use in a KMart or Barnes & Noble. This is a case of not seeing the trees because of the forest. The trees are people, and people are what make the difference here.

I like the New York Times. I like mainstream movies. I like good TV shows, well-produced music, professionally written and edited books. I like authority. But I don't always *trust* authority. Do you? And, on many subjects, I prefer the words and wisdom of people I know and like over those with paid agendas.

Before mass media, most "culture" was produced by many, many amateurs. If you wanted stories, music or news, you had to write them (tell them), play it or talk to someone. Cultural authority has only been top-down since about the invention of cheap pulp paper, sometime around the middle 1800's. Before that, the culture two towns over was vastly different than what you had in your meetin' hall. Because it was dictated by people.

This isn't either or. Though disaggregation and disintermediation may drive profits down or eliminate certain blockbuster categories, I believe there will always be a market for good content, and that *really* good content will often require major resources; time, money, process, etc.

But Web 2.0 (though I'm tired of the 2.0-ness of things) isn't about the quality of the content I consume; it's about the act of creation. And if I only find one person in the crowd with whom to have a meaningful dialogue about what I'm creating... then it's worth losing 1/10th of the mass media. Or more.

My audience of one is more important to me than being one in an audience of many. The crowd is only scary until you slow down and say hello, Mr. Keen. 

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Game review: Overlord (XBox 360) -- One fault doom

I'm not really going to do many reviews here. It just happened that I had a couple things to say that fall into a "review" mode.

I got "Overlord" for the 360 after having read a couple decent reviews online. And it is very close to being a good game. You basically order around a bunch of rascally imps and have them do fun, destructive stuff. You get to fight a bit with a weapon and cast some spells... but the meat of the game is finding new types of goblins, new things to do with them, etc.

Pointing at a far object and sending them out to destroy it, fight it, or bring it back is fun. You can just point and release, or use the right joystick to "sweep" them wherever you want. Loads of fun, that; brushing the landscape with a horde of your devoted, twisted minion.

Problem: no map, fixed or otherwise. No overhead, semi-transparent map a la Diablo. No mini-map. None. Niente. Nada.

Which is just bad, bad, bad. The game involves a bunch of running around the countryside, your way unnaturally blocked by low rows of stones, hedges, etc. If it was totally open, such that I could run any way I wanted from point A to B, the lack of map would suck less. As it is, you have to choose -- many times -- between several wooded lanes, all of which look very similar, and which lead down paths that take a good long while to get where they're going... only to realize, no... this was the path your were just on. You got turned around in a fight or something, and forgot.

Despite all the fun bits, I just had to stop playing when it became clear I was spending 2/3 of my time running around trying to figure out where the "path to that place I saw once but couldn't get into because I hadn't completed the quest" was. Boring, distracting, frustrating and obnoxious.

It's a good reminder for us folks involved in any way with UI or experience design; don't forget the little, obvious, helpful details. 

Sunday, July 22, 2007

New poem: Edge Of

Edge Of
Near dusk, the separate sea and sky
die. Blue-green-grey and violet-black
stand back-to-back and her blood
swirls in his hair, merged
in heavy, deep, same sleep.
So drab, this two-in-one. So flat.
No moon, no sun ring chords
from separate spheres. No tension
in the place between, no force
seen. We won't hear steam
hiss from the space
where depths touch heights.
So bland, this cuddled mass.
So similar. So tight.
But lightning shows the edge again.
The off-shore storm that rips
and kills the blend. White heat
points, "There!" We see
wind pull clouds to death,
waves toss spray.
The blood-stamp, eye-print
memory of edge
will keep us
until day.

Review: "Global Brain," by Howard Bloom

Long time no post. See: on beach in SC for a week. Much eating, swimming, reading, sleeping. Not much else.

While there, I read four books, one of which being "Global Brain" by Howard Bloom (Amazon, WorldCat). I read Bloom's earlier, "The Lucifer Principle" (Amazon, WorldCat), and enjoyed it. I bought "Global Brain" more than a year ago (for the 2006 beach trip), but didn't get around to it. Bloom's work, though entertaining, interesting and conversational, is not light. Last year was a year for light beach reading.

Anyway... "Global Brain" has, as its main crux, the idea that although many scientists and technologists are predicting a worldwide, (semi-?)intelligent mind of a cybernetic variety, there have, in fact, been global brains around for a couple-a-few million years. He starts with bacteria, moves up through various animal examples, spends a good bit of time on the Spartans vs. Athenians, and ends up with modern media and politics. In short, to prove his points, he gives us really interesting and fun examples of systems that improve their lot through group evolution that seems (in many cases) like learning.

It is a theory related to and built upon memetics. Richard Dawkins came up with the term "meme" to describe a "unit of cultural evolution." Basically, a meme is any idea or group behavior that can be summed up as self-contained trait that lives in a society rather than an individual. Though individuals express memes, they aren't biologial. Though, as Bloom points out several times, biology has established learning systems within other systems that encourage (usually) learning on larger scales.

Bloom identifies five elements necessary for group selection:

  • Conformity enforcers
  • Diversity generators
  • Inner-judges
  • Resource shifters
  • Intergroup tournaments

He provides lots of examples of how these elements work alone, and together, to promote the evolution of learning groups, be they prehistoric shrimp or fundamentalist religious groups.

It was a neat read and very thought-provoking. Some of what Bloom is trying to do is to get people to think about evolution outside the "selfish gene" paradigm of individual selection. And I've got no problem with the idea that nature favors the advancement of complex systems that work well together. Nor do I have any disagreement with the basic idea that groups of people, as well as many animal species, rely on the evolution of inter-member memes, as well as genetic evolution.

What kind of made me go, "Hmmm...." though was that Bloom's five elements can basically describe any kind of group interaction. He discusses ways in which conformity generators can help strengthen a positive meme... but also ways in which too much conformity can strangle growth. He clearly favors diversity generators, long-term, as a key to developing new memes for survival... but also acknowledges that diversity without some kind of stabalizing system is too chaotic for growth.

The other elements fare similarly. So my issue with this is that it's a way for describing systems... but not really categorizing them or making, shall we say, objective qualifications of the elements of group evolution.

We know, for example, that physical traits obtained through genetic, individual evolution will always favor survival, over the long-term, and barring sudden, catastrohpic events. Nature does not select for dumb-ass, weak, brittle or slow survival strategies. Individual creatures with those negative sparks of creative biology will die (on average) more often before reproducing, thus reducing the population of weaklings in a particular niche, and increasing the chances that competing creatures will flourish.

The same can't be true of Bloom's five elements, because he points out contradictory examples of how they work in groups. Which isn't necessarily bad/wrong... a complex system often requires balance. A bit of conformity after diversity... then some reshuffling of resources... then more diversity after a time of complacency, when opportunity presents itself. A description, however, that allows for so much flexibility in interpretation of positive effects leaves me a bit... well... puzzled.

In nature, faster is better than slower, all other things being equal. Stronger is better than weaker. You can't put "conformity" and "diversity" on the same kind of binary scale, though. There's too much mud in that water. If I conform to a self-reflective meme that pushes me to be different than my social group... am I being influenced by a conformity enforcer? or a diversity generator? Diversity in small things can be a mark of conformity overall, and vice versa. I almost wish Bloom had come up with a term/idea that captured, on one scale, the concept of the tension that exists between the two, and how the tension is what generates learning.

It made me think, and still is doing so. And that's a good thing. Lots of good anecdotes, too. But I've still not made up my mind about certain key elements. Which is OK, too.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Creative freedom

Since it's the 4th of July, I thought I'd wax philosophic on the role of freedom in creativity.

Question? What is freedom? My dictionary gives me two definitions:

  • The power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints
  • Immunity from an obligation or duty

Note that both definitions are negative. "Without... restraints. "Immunity from..." Those make sense when applied to specific restraints, obligations or duties, for sure. In the case of, for example, a legal relationship, freedom would mean that you don't have restraints imposed by the law on what you can say or do. If I am "freed" from a contract, it is no longer my duty to act within its bounds.

But we use the word in all kinds of vague, poetic, patriotic and aspirational ways. We want to be free. We live in the land of the free. We want freedom of expression, thought, religion, etc. But, again, when pressed... I think most people would equate these freedoms as expressions of double-negatives.

  • Freedom of religion = no negative effects from exercising a particular religion, or none at all.
  • Freedom of speech = not being punished for saying something unpopular
  • Freedom of assembly = not having your ass kicked by riot police while holding a meeting

See? Those are all double negatives. And positive, aspirational statements expressed chiefly as double negatives are generally less specific, less helpful and less directional than positive statements that can be actually applied to one's creative endeavors.

Do I want freedom of creativity? Sure. I guess. I don't want bad things (double negative) to interfere with my creativity. I'd prefer that the state (or other authorities) not put unreasonable restrictions on what I can think, do and create. But, again... once you have that "I don't want bad stuff" double negative in there... what does it mean for the process? How does it apply?

I believe that freedom of creation cannot exist -- and certainly cannot thrive -- without limits (negative forces) on your creativity that you understand, accept and embrace. And that by consciously balancing those restrictive forces, you actually become more ably creative.

I've said before that creativity, in general, involves breaking apart non-creative, natural or ordinary elements and putting them back together differently. Good writing takes familiar words, concepts, situations and characters and assembles them in surprising ways in order to provide a new, interesting vision to readers. In doing so, that creative act inflicts violent destruction on the old ways of thought or lack-of-thought that readers held. It destroys the previous space.

Same for the visual arts. A purely narrative photograph, intended to show a product or scene for informative purposes, may not be very creative. By applying various filters through whatever media is used, artists, however, change the scene in order to give us clues as to their vision. In doing so, they destroy the "pure reportage" angle and add elements from other pallettes.

We don't think of this as violence or destruction, because many times the result is something we find pleasing, interesting or informative. Which is great. But the foundation of those good feelings is an act which, though largely unnoticed, broke apart previous models.

The audience isn't really supposed to notice, except in the most extreme cases of shock art or genre-busting projects. The break/build sequence is like water in a cave drawing lime into pillars over time. Where before there were separate sets of rock, air and water... now there is a brilliant new structure, built upon the destruction of the singular elements.

What does this have to do with freedom? Well, if creativity is destructive in some sense, and freedom is the power to act without restraint, than perfect creative freedom would be the  ability to artistically destroy... well... everything. Which is clearly not particularly artistic.

For example, as a writer, I am free to use words in whatever order I choose. If I assemble them in new, interesting and meaningful ways -- such as in a good poem -- I have destroyed/created in a manner as to allow my readers to enjoy the process. If I just destroy, however, I may end up with a sequence of words which makes no damned sense to anyone.

Perfect freedom = no restraints = chaos.

What, then, is a good balance of freedom vs. restraint for the creative process? I think that you learn the most by accepting the most restraints. That if you create within the confines of very specific requirements, you will eventually learn to create with much more freedom. I've said before (especially as it regards marketing), that before engaging in "out-of-the-box thinking," you have to really, really understand the box. Because it's there for a reason. And to understand the box, you need to completely accept its limitations and restrictions. You have to become un-free.

Why? Because freedom without restriction is license, and not art. It is chaos. Which can be fun and has a place on the 4th of July, for sure. We celebrate with fireworks and booze the fact of our independence, our freedom from another country. The rules and laws of our freedoms (and responsibilities) are complex and, often, odd. But today, we simply celebrate the fact of freedom; maybe symbolically, maybe immaturely. That's OK. Celebration is not meant to be particularly balanced.

But creativity must be. And my guess is that the guys in charge of the most professional and amazing fireworks displays -- the guys creating sky art -- are not drinking too much before they handle their explosives. And that the gorgeous displays of light and fire we'll all watch tonight as part of our feelings of freedom are very, very controlled in their creation.

So as we "creative types" celebrate the fact that we live in a great country that allows us to act, speak and create without many negative, artificial constraints... let us also celebrate the restraints we can and must apply to our own works in order to better serve our audiences, and create more fantastic displays of glory.