Episode Forty Four: Snow Crashing; danah boyd; Facebook and Oculus Rift

by danhon

1.0 Snow Crashing

If you were going to read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash again, which you should, because seminal science fiction and all that, never mind business plan and direct inspiration for a stupendous number of things that we now have to live and deal with on a daily basis, then you might re-read it substituting all the stuff that didn’t exist when Neal Stephenson wrote it with all the stuff that does exist now.

So here’s the first installment of a bunch of observations about Snow Crash followed by reckons.

Deliverators don’t exist and they certainly don’t belong to an elite order. Probably one of the Swiftian parts of Stephenson’s observations about the trajectory America was on, not least of which because he was pretty much right about nailing what America was good for: music (mostly, the role of YouTube in proliferating the odd bit of international music like Gangnam style notwithstanding and the constant import of new European genres), movies, microcode (software) and high-speed pizza delivery. Apart from the drones, of course.

Stephenson needed a bad-ass protagonist (ha), though, and a high-speed pizza delivery freelancer feels like the sort of step-up, adult job that a washed out ex-microcode whiz would take, rather than be a kourier. These days it’s not the deliverators that get the props in culture and the delivery environment isn’t as much a warzone as Stephenson imagined, but instead in, er, the food delivery vertical, it’s the startup founders of companies like Grubhub that get the attention. Where we might be seeing a weak signal of a new Deliverator is in the Uber and Lyft drivers of the present – mob run companies (just you wait) who emphasise customer service, quantification and big data (“graphed the frequency of doorway delivery-time disputes, wired the early Deliverators to record, then analyse, debating tactics, voice-stress histograms” – sound familiar to you?) who at some point might emphasise personal security and shit-hot rides to get you from A to B before the light stops blinking to ensure top ratings and continued employment.

And, of course, the Deliverator these days drives a Tesla S – moving people from place to place, pickup and delivery points not inferred by phone number but by a system of geospatial positioning satellites, plotting a glowing route on a heads-down Android display in a car that packs, well, lots of potential energy in the metaphor of the day.

All that’s missing is Uber getting into the personal loan business – just watch for that shift where startups like Uber, Lyft or TaskRabbit start offering payday loans or short-term personal loans in exchange for ’employment’.

Despite having more advertising than ever, it appears that we don’t have that persistent background visual noise of loglo. Powered screens aren’t that prevalent yet,and billboards still rule the day in outdoor advertising, installations of children pointing at planes up in the sky near Heathrow notwithstanding.

Burbclaves? Got them, but they got hollowed out by the mortgage crash. Didn’t see that one coming. People living in storage units? Give it a couple of years.

Hiro’s business card is pretty interesting. No doubt a Moo Card his would probably *still* have a phone number on it, but lose the “universal voice phone locator code”. Lose the P.O. box, too. But the address on half a dozen electronic communications nets? Try just one: his email address. And the address in the metaverse? Just the one URL. For all the talk we see later in the novel of hypermedia, one missed observation is that Hiro’s business card only needs one pointer, one URL, for anyone to find him.

We don’t have Sukhoi/Kawasaki Hypersonic Transports, but we do have Boeing 777s (and 787s and Airbus A380s), mainly because it turns out that one of the most powerful forces in the universe is not one of the nuclear strong forces but either a) NIMBYism or b) the cost of jet fuel. Slower and bigger and quieter and more fuel efficient is our thing now, not faster and more crushing-it, when it comes to air transport.

And when it comes to Hiro’s computing setup – well. A featureless aluminium wedge maybe, one softly glowing with a stylised Apple with a chunk bitten out of it, and just about doing without a power cord. But for the fat bandwidth connection? Gigabit ethernet, totally – not a fiber optic socket, but just some of your regular Cat-6 because seriously, wireless doesn’t cut it. And naturally, he’s got the VR headset Valve are convinced we’ll all be using in five year’s time.
Hiro’s main “job”, though, as freelancer stringer for the CIC. Now that’s weird. It’s almost as if Stephenson needed to retcon some sort of job for the overqualified underutilised information worker who just kind of hangs out and picks up on useful information. The weird part is that the CIC pays for it, which is some strange alternate universe where organisations use a centralised information system and pay for stuff. Hiro’s universe hasn’t been attacked by a race to the bottom in the content and information market – despite the loglo everywhere Stephenson needs to find a job for someone like Hiro who merely finds information but then doesn’t do anything useful with it. Hiro doesn’t analyse, he just uploads. These days, of course, Hiro would be a blogger and maybe have a nice little Adsense business on the side. Or a writer for Buzzfeed.

[1] Some of you have objected to buying things from Amazon. So I’m going to start including regular links to Powell’s and Wordery where possible, too.
Powell’s: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780613361620
Wordery: https://wordery.com/snow-crash-neal-stephenson-9780613361620
Amazon: http://amzn.to/1dtBGR6 (physical) http://amzn.to/OXhpb3 (Kindle)

2.0 danah boyd

I’m writing a couple of talks at the moment – both for xmedialab’s Video+Social+Mobile event that’s being held in Perth on Friday. And by “at the moment” I mean at about 30,000 feet on the way from Kansas City to LAX where I get to touch my feet to the floor for a bit before the epic journey from LAX to SYD and there to Perth. I lose an entire day in the process.

But the talks that I’m writing, I’ve decided to structure them (unsurprisingly) in the form of reckons because I’m entirely happy to professionally reckon, it’s when I get asked to have Proper Opinions that I start to get nervous. I like to retain a certain degree of flippancy. It’s probably a defence mechanism.

Anyway: it’s a conference (well, my bit is a keynote and a masterclass) and what’s coalescing is small, medium and big thoughts about each of those three areas of video, social and mobile. Video and mobile are easy – the first is simply a content format that’s being applied all over the place now, and mobile is easy because it’s just so big.

But social. Social is simultaneously difficult and easy, but fortunately easier because danah boyd’s new book It’s Complicated has come out and if you haven’t read it, you should[1].

Anyway: boyd’s been saying this for ages, and hopefully someone’s actually going to listen to her – social context and place is important. She puts forward a persuasive argument that the last few years with peak attention focussed in one place – Facebook – is an aberration and that people (teens especially) are moving toward having different social spaces for different contexts. Matt Locke hasn’t written his updated version of Six Spaces of Social Media[3, 4], which he should, but you should read it because it’s pretty much one of the definitive pieces on the subject.

With my work hat on, I ask questions like “But what are the brand/advertising implications?” of acknowledging different kinds of at-scale social spaces. Well, most of the implications are along the lines of further shattering of aggregated attention along with (hopefully) better targeting and ability to reach the right audience, as well as having to deal with pseudonymous audiences. But then, you had to do that with TV media anyway.

It looks like Facebook’s leadership is waking up to this (in fairness to them, the rest of the industry is waking up to this, too). With mobile, there isn’t (and doesn’t have to be) a one-size-fits-all communication/social networking utility or app. Facebook may well be the thing that everyone ends up having an account on, but in their latest earnings call, they reiterated their strategy to build more mobile apps and with the acquisition of WhatsApp alongside Instagram it seems clear to me (without my work hat on) that Facebook’s goal to connect the world is through Facebook the holding company, not just through Facebook the product/platform.

You can contrast boyd’s work with that of Paul Adams’ in his book Grouped[2], the result of which was Google Plus Circles shortly after he left Google for Facebook. Circles (and Google Plus) appears to me to be the sort of social network you end up building where you want everyone *and* you want to solve the problem of having different spaces and contexts. But we don’t work like that, not as people: Google Plus is the place and it doesn’t matter how many different circles I might have there – the cognitive overhead involved in placing people in circles is just too great and causes too much friction as opposed to just using a different app like Snapchat or WhatsApp or Twitter or Secret that comes with intrinsic contextual cues to being another place.

Adams’ research was right – people don’t like inadvertently sharing different facets of themselves to the wrong audience. No product has successfully catered for multiple facets, I don’t think, and trying to build it into a one-size-fits-all product has failed so far. Mobile, which has reduced context-switching to near negligble, as well as provided a new social graph through the address book, has finally let a thousand social flowers bloom at scale.

[1] Powell’s: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9780300166316
Wordery: https://wordery.com/its-complicated-danah-boyd-9780300166316
Amazon: http://amzn.to/Qd09A3 (Hardcover) http://amzn.to/1js1PSR (Kindle)
[2] Powell’s: http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780321804112-0
Amazon: http://amzn.to/1p1NUC7 (Hardcover) http://amzn.to/1ixPLM9 (Kindle)
[3] Original version: http://test.org.uk/2007/08/10/six-spaces-of-social-media/
[4] Medium version, where you can recommend it to increase his PartiRank rating: https://medium.com/a-brief-history-of-attention/8de460a23302

3.0 Facebook and Oculus Rift

I promised you reckons, and in the best style of someone who’s uninformed and responding to a BBC News Online request to vomit into a TEXTAREA, here are your reckons about Facebook buying Oculus Rift[1] for $2bn.

I’ve spent coming up to two years working on the Facebook account at Wieden+Kennedy, and I’m not going to talk about anything that’s not public. But in that time, I’ve spent time with others figuring out what exactly it is that Zuckerberg and his band are trying to do, why they’re doing it and why it’s so important to them. That type of thinking and strategy is at the heart of any good communications work, for starters.

Nothing I’m going to say isn’t anything that Zuckerberg hasn’t said before in public.

They’re serious about connecting the world. You go down to campus and it’s buzzing – just like the set of Dollhouse, in all the good ways and the bad ways – full of young people all committed to what they believe in. You can make it sound like a cult, but they’re genuinely excited and driven and believe in the basic tenet that more communication more easily, amongst everyone, is a net good thing. Sure there might be mis-steps along the way, but that’s a side-effect of someone who’s so driven in a utilitarian pursuit of what he believes to be a noble goal. And it’s a hard one to disagree with, allowing everyone to easily communicate with one another.

The devil, of course, is always in the detail.

I’ve said above that I reckon danah’s right about Facebook-the-platform commanding peak attention of such a wide swathe of population. And it’s not necessarily that teens are *leaving* Facebook, it’s that they’re spending less time on it.
This is going to sound horrible, but you kind of have to pull on the thread of the end-goal of connecting the world to get to it. It’s going to sound doubly horrible because I’m going to use Valley-speak as short-hand: Facebook want to be the full-stack of communication. Forget about whether Zuckerberg is evil or not or if he has a public company, because for the latter: he really does own Facebook. Take a look at the voting stock. Have a think about what that means for board meetings. Zuckerberg is already stupendously rich. Like all of our software gods, he’s *vision* driven, not money driven. If he wanted to make more money out of Facebook, we’d know.

So when you’re vision driven, look at Facebook the way you look at Google. One way of looking at Google is that they want to organise the world’s information and make it freely available. One way of looking at Facebook is that they literally want to connect the world and enable every living person to communicate as frictionlessly as possible with everyone else.

Like I said, the devil is in the detail.

Facebook – the product you and I use, the one with the newsfeed – is just one way Facebook the holding company is connecting the world. Instagram is another. WhatsApp is another.

Some of those products are ad-funded, some others aren’t. And if you’re thinking about an end-goal of connecting the world, what’s going to connect more people more quickly? Them paying for it, or the connection being available for free?
This might sound like having drunk the kool-aid, but try crediting Zuckerberg with more intelligence and think of him as the prototypical smart nerd: optimize for a connected world. What do you build? How do you deploy it?

It’s against this background that they buy Oculus Rift. And don’t think agency people have any knowledge – I’m in a plane at 30k feet, and when the news broke about WhatsApp, we were in a meeting *with our clients* – we find out about this stuff when you do, when Twitter explodes.

Like everyone apart from Apple, Facebook missed the boat. But Oculus as display technology – as another way to augment the human social experience is provocative and interesting. In the PR, Zuckerberg is quoted as saying:

“Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”

He’s not wrong. You are always going to be able to meet more people through mediated experiences than physically. Physicality doesn’t scale. Is this a terrible harbinger of the replacement of physical social contact? Probably not. We have always invented and looked for more ways to connect with people. boyd says in her book that teenagers aren’t addicted to Facebook in the same way they were never addicted to texting or tying up the house landline for hours. They’re addicted to *people*. And if Oculus genuinely has the way to change the way people connect, then that makes perfect strategic sense for Facebook.

It turns out that today, people are still using Snow Crash as a business plan.

[1] Press release: http://online.wsj.com/article/PR-CO-20140325-912577.html

OK. I have my two talks to finish off and a thirteen hour flight, plus Wednesday’s newsletter to write which will be interesting because when I land it will be Thursday local.

As ever, send me notes. Short ones or long ones or just ones railing about how I work in advertising and no, I haven’t heard that Bill Hicks quote before.

Best, from the metal bird in the sky with an internet up/downlink,