Episode One Hundred and Twenty Two: A Real Hunger; Will The Real Blue Ant; A Category Error

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I’m in the basement, a particularly American pursuit (they’re like sheds here, I guess – or the garage), from which I’ve hollowed out a small space with enough power, USB and close enough to the wifi router that I can hole up and write, think and generally sit before I get on the bandwagon and fashion myself a standing desk out of whatever dumb material I can find. Or go to IKEA.

I am still thinking about homes – not smart ones, just ones that will exist in the future. You don’t even need to think about what the smartness means. You just need to think about tropisms, I think. Leaning this way. Yearning toward that. Instinctively reaching out. Stimulus and response. None of this personality crap, none of this affected voice interface. Just regular alien smartness, the kind you wouldn’t know about or think about.

1.0 A Real Hunger

You might remember Upworthy (or you might not be able to forget it) as the news site that emerged, post Buzzfeed-era, as having pioneered the clickbait headline ideally suited for sharing on Facebook. You know exactly the kind of headlines I mean, er, I mean You Won’t Believe The Headlines That These People Clicked On – And What Happened Next. So it turns out that Upworthy’s business model is somewhat of a bait-and-switch (well, as much as a bait-and-switch as you can perform on the internet, where people should be inherently suspicious of the thing that’s being given away as a free lunch).

Upworthy’s plan, see, is to

“to find topics of shared interest and get tons of people talking about them by highlighting the best of their content, curating great videos and graphics from across the web, and engaging Upworthy’s passionate, influential community to spread the word.”

In other words, This Amazing Video Shows You What Real Happiness Is When A Coca-Cola Truck Arrives In Palestine – But You Won’t Believe The Twist At The End. We shouldn’t just take Upworthy’s word for it though, because they’re kind enough to link to a combined Google/TNS and Ogilvy study (uh-huh) which they summarise as (and if you have a Cayce Pollard reaction to dubiously formed statements regarding the way people like to connect with brands, then you might, as they say, want to look away now):

“There’s a real hunger in our society to connect with brands on a meaningful level, to see their advertising rooted in something purposeful and important.”

If I were being mean, I’d just pick the first part of that sentence and aim a double-barrelled shotgun of “oh please” at it – I mean, when was the last time you experienced not just a mild inkling, but a real hunger to connect with a brand on a meaningful level. The answer to that rhetorical question is, for the most part, no, I don’t feel really hungry about connecting with a brand on a meaningful level. Unless, maybe, I’m the kind of activist who likes disrupting Google developer conferences to protest gentrification of San Francisco. In which case, go ahead. But I wouldn’t call queueing up around the block for the opening of an Apple store a connection on a meaningful level. Well, I might. And I might actually do that. But that’s beside the point, right?

The second part is the important qualifier. I mean, if you’re going to have advertising, you might as well have it be rooted in something purposeful and important. If the question was: hey, brands are going to advertise. Would you like regular advertising, or would you like advertising that’s purposeful and important, I’m pretty sure most people would say: whatever makes me look better, so, uh, the second one, please.

Perhaps the opposite tack is to see brands – not just their advertising – rooted in something purposeful and important. This is why it wasn’t a bad idea for Toms to differentiate using their whole buy-one-give-one tactic (and something that they’ve followed through into other areas, like glasses, for example), but when you’re given the choice between a brand that’s trying to make the world better (through, say, instant coffee?) versus one that’s just spunking money around the place (like, er, bad yet cheap instant coffee) then of course you’d like to choose the former.

No, what’s objectionable is the description and perpetuation of people – regular woman on the Clapham omnibus people – who have shit to do in their lives, as somehow vacant engines yearning for brand engagement. Perhaps the real issue is people wanting to connect – in any way, at all – in a meaningful way. And that we’re noticing now that all this wanking around at the edges is just a bit of wankery around at the edges.

Oh, and it’d be great if you could still make a good anthem spot for the next Olympics, please.

[1] Look Ma, Upworthy Is An Actual Business Now

[2] When the Path to Purchase becomes the Path to Purpose

2.0 Will The Real Blue Ant…

One of my readers wrote to me in response to my Mundane Blue Ant piece back in Episode 120 that the evolution of Blue Ant and Bigend in the Sprawl trilogy is ultimately disappointing and depressing (actually, my reader was a bit more explicit than that) with the ultimate conclusion being that “in book four, they’ll all be excited about operationalizing Kickstarter Potato Salad[2] in October, telling their clients about this crazy thing that’s long burned up into the atmosphere.”

Well, that’s what advertising is. I’m sorry. Especially in this day and age. There’s a lot of recycling of “I saw this thing” and repurposing it. It’s happening faster and more transparently – just ask people like Chris O’Shea, whose Hand From Above “inspired” Forever 21’s Times Sqaure billboard back in 2010[3].

The more exciting question, of course, is who, if it isn’t Blue Ant, will pay us to prod our noses into the interesting and be among the first to know completely before anyone else, to recombine and generate new things out of that bleeding edge? And it’s not just a technological bleeding edge, but more of an ideological bleeding edge. Are there people with job descriptions – ha, jobs! – whose remit is to be aware and to understand enough, to have that network that they can activate at a moment’s notice (or, indeed are lucky enough to be part of someone *else’s* network, to be activated at a moment’s notice).

Bigend is the orchestrator who has a plot-contrived reason – advertising and commerce – to want to know what’s new so that it can be repurposed into moving SKUs, to increasing awareness, to prod herds in this direction or that. It’s increasingly likely that Blue Ant finds himself disrupted by Facebook, Google, Twitter or any other number of Valley-based tech companies who will claim, ever increasingly, to be on the pulse of knowing what’s new and being able to do a better job. Who’s the self-facilitating media node – Bigend or Pollard?

At least in the way that it’s worked with my circle of friends and acquaintances, it’s been a gradual mish-mashing of stuff, of reputations and introductions accreted over the past twenty years or so, of “you must be good at this, I’ll introduce you to someone else who’s good at that” and a pseudo soft-power, non-quantified whuffie but for the fact that if someone starts spinning up their blogging engine of choice and dusts off their CMS, redesigns their website and starts writing prolifically in an interesting way, you know they’re doing a sort of pre-flight check sequence before they power up their engines and escape the gravity well of whatever organisation they’re currently embedded in.

I tell a lie – I don’t want to *be* Blue Ant, Warren Ellis, I want to be Bigend. I want the wherewithal and the budget and the network and the addressbook and the ability to form that crack team to solve that problem and then to disband, to melt away in the night but instead of having found a new way of pointing people toward the world’s number two sneaker brand, to have built something new and erected it in the middle of the night.

But then again, what we’re seeing is that the connectors like Bigend are dealing with smaller pieces of infrastructure than what we’re seeing now. The big impacts are still being seen by products that are tiny at their inception, but then worth a Whatsapp by the time they exit, about five years later. Bigend’s skill was precisely directed attention, concentrated, z-machine style[4] to produce a fictional universe fusion explosion of brand engagement. Kony, you see, has Bigend written all over it.

There’s another model where Bigend is a venture capitalist, a sort of Marc Andreessen perpetually circling the world in a G6 (apart from the fact that the bandwidth is terrible when you’re airbone, a *critical* piece of lacking infrastructure for Shield’s helicarriers unless they *also* have an orbiting laser-based Iridium network that can deliver the gigabits per second their airbone command centres require), picking out talent, finding the holes and then assembling teams.

In fact, having thought of it a bit more, perhaps those are the mystery backers behind the Frequency. Larry and Sergey, alarmed at the state of world affairs, fund a secret division of Google, dedicated toward minute course-corrections whenever the world veers that little bit too toward a critical instability point. It would explain the phones, at any rate.

[1] Episode 120: Mundane Blue Ant

[2] Kickstarter Potato Salad

[3] TIMES SQUARE BILLBOARD TOUCHES OFF CONTROVERSY OVER ARTISTIC CREDIT-SHARING

[4] Z Pulsed Power Facility

3.0 A Category Error

A category error is the “one of these things is not like the other”, and I think – if I’m right – that the Huffington Post just did an interesting (to me, at least) one in an article about how Netflix is catching up to HBO[1] in terms of becoming whatever a broadcaster or producer of television/film content is these days. See, this year’s Emmy nominations came out, and Netflix got some, and HBO got some, and Netflix got way more than last year, as well as a higher proportion of its shows being Emmy nominated than HBO’s shows being Emmy nominated.

Anyone who knows statistics knows that with two sets of data like this we can immediately infer a trend and we should see, over the next eighteen months or so, every single other broadcaster-producer pretty much capitulate in the face of such inescapable conclusions gained from big data.

Anyway.

The particular red flag raising sentence was this one: “What’s perhaps most surprising is that Netflix is a website, not a traditional TV channel. Netflix has only been around for 17 years, while HBO has been around for 42.”

This is the thing that the internet has done to some peoples’ brains. They see the delivery mechanism and not the thing being delivered, insisting that the delivery mechanism is more important in a world when that delivery mechanism is just becoming part of the background noise, some sort of cosmic microwave wi-fi that’s just infusing the rich, middle-class bits of the world.

(There’s a good article – I can’t remember where, but it’s probably one of Jean-Louis Gassé’s Monday Notes about the network operating system and thin clients being predicated upon ubiquitous connectivity when obviously the one qualifier that’s missing is ubiquitous cheap connectivity, because thin clients are all very well and good but if you’re paying by the megabyte it doesn’t matter that your wireless internet connection works in most places, it’s just too expensive to use in a take-for-granted infrastructural sense).

Because here’s the thing: saying Netflix is a website is a bit like saying Google is a website compared to your library, or Amazon is a website compared to Best Buy or Target or WalMart, which are shops. Similarly, saying something is an “app” doesn’t help you understand what it is that the thing *does* and means that you’re likely to continue making the wrong kind of assumptions.

Netflix’s customers don’t care that Netflix is a website. Netflix *is* now a broadcaster-producer, that just happens to use IP as transport for its content rather than analogue or latterly digitally encrypted cable signals. Argh. It’s like saying “What’s perhaps most surprising is that Uber is an app, not a traditional black car service.” They’re both black car services: but one has just applied technology to the delivery of the service that’s valued by the end-user.

[1] The Battle Between HBO And Netflix Just Got Real

Hello, all you Warren Ellis fans. I’ve been writing this stuff for a while now. I have an archive, but what you probably want to do is have a look at episode 100, which is pretty much the episode where we sit back and reminisce about other episodes and is hence a Clip Show.

You should introduce yourself, because it’s interesting when I know who I’m writing to, even though I repeatedly insist that I’m doing this for myself, and not for you (see, I’m doing it again), and you should also reply and tell me what you think, because even though I might not reply, I do read all of them, and even if I don’t agree with you, you’ll have reached out other TCP/IP packets, radio waves and pulsed light to change the state of my brain, irrevocably and forever. Which is pretty fucking awesome.

Have a good weekend,

Dan