Dark Knight. Why so serious?

As announced by Aden Hepburn, here’s a very interesting documentary about the Cannes Grand Prix viral winner: a promotional campaign for the rollout of the Dark Knight movie which got 10 million people around the world involved in not just internet observation and virtual participation, but games, scavenger hunts, cell phone interchanges, and massive public demonstrations.

As a demonstration of the organizing power of a digital agency, it’s really, really impressive. As a display of human ingenuity and cooperation, it’s truly inspiring.

As an index of what kinds of activities are able to get 10 million people motivated enough to shout, cheer, travel, and work together … well, it’s a little scary.

“Why so serious?” you ask me?

Well, here’s the documentary… you decide.

It does prove that people love what 42 Entertainment calls “immersive”. They love to participate, solve mysteries, be surprised, be the first, make an impact, do stuff in groups.

Now, if we can only make water, energy, or the environment our great authentic, immersive quest! I was thinking more in terms of compost toilets to reduce water use, electric cars to reduce oil consumption … you know, stuff that really makes a difference in our lives and our world.

I don’t believe in Harvey Dent. And I’m still sad about the authentic story that played out as a backdrop to this imaginary promo escapade.

We have two lifelines

I’ve been thinking about what the recent events with Twitter (Iran, Michael Jackson) tell us about the Internet and how we can or should relate to it.

The human nervous system seems to me like the ideal metaphor. Our nerves are tied together in multiple ways, but every sensory input can have two dimensions of response. The first, as you remember from junior high, is autonomic: involuntary, wide open sensitivity to surroundings.

The autonomic system regulates all the unconscious functions: breathing, heart rate, reflexes. As the online world grows and evolves, it seems to me that Twitter and its ilk increasingly fill this role. Like the autonomic nervous system, Twitter supplies data, and is alert to existential threats.  Without search software, it flies below the radar of consciousness. Watching it unfold is like attempting to monitor the waves of the sea. 

But the human body is not just nerve endings that trigger responses. Our bodies hum along, in touch with reality but not governed by it. Most of the time we are free to choose what stimuli we pay attention to, and what we prefer to ignore. This  somatic dimension allows us to choose our focus. When a bright light flashes, the autonomic response is to blink, perhaps increase heart and respiration; but then the somatic system regains the power to decide. We can now choose to look again, turn away, close our eyes, or go back to reading our paper. This power makes us more than conscious; it makes us human; able to sleep on a decision, to process complexity and nuance, to weigh alternatives, assess risk, delay gratification, make plans, be good judges and good jurors.

Bottom line, there are two distinct channels for sensing, and two distinct ways of responding. I diagram it this way:

 

2-channel Nervous System

2-channel Nervous System

 

 

 

It seems to me that volitional actions are more important than reflexes, most of the time. (as long as the breathing, heart-pumping functions are working as they should!) Our longevity and happiness do not flow from the fact that we salivate when we see Big Macs pictured; they flow from our decision to either succumb to the Mac Attack or choose better food.

Volitional actions impact what we choose to study, and how hard we work toward gaining our skill set; they impact who we marry, and how our kids turn out. They are far more important than chance or existential circumstances in determining where we will live, how we will live, how long we will live, and whether we’ll be missed when we’re gone.

And yet at times we all enjoy being able to lay aside our pressing engagement with matters of choice … and choose instead to allow existential sensations just reach us randomly in real time, while we focus on the moment and let it unfold around us. It’s fun to meander in the surf, lay on the beach, chill with our friends, feel the breeze, wander down country roads.

And so I see the real strength of Twitter and other real-time inputs as being three key, irreplaceable dimensions:

1. Quantitative information about what herds of people are thinking or doing existentially.

2. Qualitative insights into the motivations behind people’s thoughts, moods, and actions … again, linked to a timeframe and thus helpful for increasing our powers of prediction as well as our breadth of empathy. Often, this info can be linked to specific demographic information, and thus become a source of very nuanced quantitative info as well.

3. Personal means of sharing activities, expectations, moods, experiences, etc. within a chosen circle of friends and associates.

If we try to mix the streams of internet information — combining both real-time data and more reflective intelligence into one list — I think we’re going to run into trouble.

Until now, the internet has been slow in its response to give a meaningful reflection of the Twitter stream-of-consciousness.  And so it has been natural to entertain ideas about what can or should be done to give the Internet in general, and search engines like Google or Bing in particular, a finger on the pulse of thought that keeps relentlessly washing across it.

Social networking mavens such as Waggener Edstrom’s David Patton and Tac Anderson rightly call attention to the gaping hole in search results where immediate feedback is concerned. David calls for an uptick in search engine relevance via a separate stream of realtime info; and Tac invites discussion on the ways in which immediate blogging and aggregator tools such as FriendFeed and posterous change the game with respect to blogs. A mere few weeks ago, blogs were being spoken of as the journalism giant-killer; now blogging itself is hitting the obits!

Another commentator, Erick Schonfeld, argues that something important would be lost if real-time search is allowed to coexist alongside what he calls “memory” content.

My take is that both sides are right in important ways, and that the Internet should be used and enjoyed as two separate channels. If anything, I think the thoughtful, reflective channel should be strengthened so that, real-time, we can be alerted to the fact that the real-time stream could in fact be overpowered by rumor — could be false — and that sudden traffic explosions could be a hack; that both false and true content, devoid of context, can be dangerous.

Neither channel by itself, it seems to me, can be thought of as the sole or reliable companion of  human progress, safety, and freedom.

For example, a Twitter voting system would not be reliable or reproducible. It could be gamed by false rumors, sudden lies, mass hysteria. In my opinion an election that takes months to prepare for, a full day to accomplish, and a methodology that can be monitored and reviewed for distortions, serves the public much better than any instant response system ever could.

Thank goodness we didn’t have Twitter during 9/11. If Michael Jackson’s death can bring it down, what will a catastrophe do? I was thankful for the networks during the week of 9/11 and its aftermath. (By the way, the economics of all these models must be considered seriously. Now that the two leading social network sites are awash in a sea of red ink, we need to get serious about how we’re going to pay for this information that we all increasingly rely on)..

What I would like to see

I like having real-time streams as a passenger in the car, but I wouldn’t want to put them in the driver’s seat where they can influence values and actions too directly. Even aggregation would not be enough separation it seems to me … it might be like putting a robot in the driver’s seat of our policy and life-choice info stream.

I like David Patton’s suggestion of a real-time stream, as long as it does not involve a mixture with published results. That time lag, that slight difference between the moment of publishing and the moment of reporting, seems important to me, and I don’t want to lose it. Even posterous (which I began using this weekend) makes me a little nervous because of its blurring of the lines between these two channels. The avalanche of personal media access can easily turn the firehose we’re drinking from now into Niagara Falls…. and drown everyone in a tsunami of uncharted, irrelevant chatter.

What I love most about the internet is its power to give old  things equal weight with new things. This is a huge advantage, allowing for the first time in human history for a single generation to have before it the voice of all other generations and cultures that have gone before. Now, before we act, we can have ringing in our ears not only the words of mom and dad, grandpa and a few teachers; with one search we can hear what Napoleon, Newton, Caesar and Solomon had to say about that subject.

It’s like being on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Fortunately, we don’t have to decide whether we’ll choose between the opinion of the masses or the advice of our best friend as a lifeline. We can have both. And we need both.

Twitter soon obsolete? Tell me something I didn’t know… :-)

Jason Clark writes a great article in the iMedia Connection blog on the topic, “Why Twitter will soon become obsolete”. Key takeaway from his perspective: Google Wave is the Next Big Thing.

His article is well-researched and tracks other milestones in the social networking world: MySpace, Facebook, all the way back to the email and bulletin boards. Here’s his chart:

JasonClarksTimeline

I have been in the communications business since slightly before this chart started, beginning right out of high school as an apprentice typographer. I started on the NBT of that era, the Mergenthaler VIP machine… arguably the first successful photo-typography system to give hot lead typography a run for its money. No, this does not make me an old man! I’m a very young 56, and if you doubt it, I’ll meet you on the basketball court!

But the accelerating pace of change in all the media and methods of communication throughout my career illustrates why no one should ever think we’ve reached a plateau where we can rest and enjoy the view.

When I started, marketing meant sales, and sales meant “Push”. Shout. Ads. And the media were massive print — either mass-market ads or direct mail — and broadcast. I started on the print side, and the technology for most printed matter on the eve of when I started was the Mergenthaler Linotype machine, which had been the state of the art for about 75 years. (By the way, it was the Mergenthaler Linotype in 1886 that sent Mark Twain into bankruptcy when he sunk a fortune into the Paige typesetting machine). I joined the industry as part of a new wave of young people doing photo-typesetting on primitive computerized electro-mechanical machines. I learned on the Mergenthaler VIP,

Mergenthaler VIP

Mergenthaler VIP

a bonafide Next Big Thing in the advertising and design world, which opened amazing doors of versatility in the form of the written word. It required whole new approaches to every step of the design and printing process.

No one in the communications business had heard of an internet in the 70s.  But we had plenty of new ideas to adapt to and utilize in our work flow. Yes, we were talking at people. (more on that in another post). Yes, the technology of media communications was still firmly in the hands of those who could afford to use it: ad agencies, publishers, producers. But the trend of pleasing audiences, worrying about audience reactions, rapid-fire change and constant personal re-invention goes back at least that far. I’d say it probably goes back to the 50s in some respects, but a major technology revolution accelerated the pace of change in the 60s and 70s.  Here’s my quick list of the Next Big Things that I personally worked with, learned how to use, and then abandoned when something better came along:

  • 1972 – Phototypesetting via paper tape
  • 1973 – Citizens Band radio starts catching on after the oil crisis – By 1982 it has “chat” channels, its own language, etc. (no, I wasn’t a CBer)
  • 1975 – Phototypesetting via OCR
  • 1978 – 1980: Apple II; Visicalc; Wordperfect
  • 1980 – First telecopier I remember seeing – (Analog fax– a spinning drum, 3 to 6 minutes per page!)
  • 1981 – Fedex overnight letters — accelerated turnaround times and a lot less telecopying!
  • 1981 – IBM PC
  • 1981 – Mavica – first digital camera. It’s seen as a NBT, but early results are not practical
  • 1982 – Hayes 300-baud modem
  • 1982 – CD introduced; audio begins to migrate toward Digital realm
  • 1983 – Microsoft Word
  • 1983 – My client Digital was using TCP/IP communication for its internal email; it was 6 more years before Lotus brought Notes to PC users generally — the first real email within average businesses
  • 1983 – Deregulation unleashes a flood of fiber optic bandwidth for telephone data transmission
  • 1984 – Macintosh, and mouse, proportional fonts on a computer; Quark; Photoshop; desktop publishing revolution begins. I sell my printing business to focus on design and audio-visual production
  • 1985 – First cell phones start showing up … in cars only (size of a shoebox)
  • 1985 – First CCD professional video cameras make professional video cameras affordable and versatile
  • 1985 – Spent $2500 on first truly efficient fax
  • 1986 – Began using in-house dedicated computers to create vector-based digital slides, and send via TCP/IP to imaging centers digitally
  • 1986 – Kodak introduces first megapixel digital sensor camera — astronomically expensive and only high-production studios can afford
  • 1986 – First digital video medium introduced – D-1. Not initially trusted for high-end masters. Analog 1-inch lasted another decade
  • 1986 – Digital music production became a reality for music composition
  • 1988 – Purchased our own high resolution imaging camera for making slides digitally inhouse
  • 1988 – Purchased our own analog video editing system (electromechanical)
  • 1989 – First able to create slides entirely digitally
  • 1989 – Corel Draw adds another way to make slides on inexpensive workstations
  • 1989 – Microsoft introduces Power Point
  • 1990 – Non-linear (all-digital) video editing of low-res reference version becomes available (Avid and EMC2) Finishing still has to be done via analog electro-mechanical systems in expensive editing suites using D-2 mastering units
  • 1991 – First known case of Death by Powerpoint (just kidding)
  • 1992 – Digital projection supplants slides in business presentations
  • 1990 – First all-digital compositing system, the Video Toaster, becomes available. I didn’t buy one.
  • 1993 – Mosaic provides first visual user interface for tapping the information of the internet (access to libraries, databases, etc)
  • 1994 – Mosaic’s inventor launches Netscape. That’s when the internet reached my company and daily work life
  • 1994 – Caller ID finally puts phone spammers at a disadvantage
  • 1995 – Yahoo and Altavista emerge to help us search
  • 1995 – Amazon.com launches. Soon it allows readers to post negative reviews on books it sells … the shot heard round the world
  • 1996 – Palm and the idea of PDAs emerges
  • 1997 – Betacam camera package and Ikegami or Sony cameras become the standard
  • 1998 – Google starts a competing service which quickly becomes the verb for search
  • 2000 – FlashForward comes to New York, and my staff and I spend a week learning about this new platform that’s going to “transform the internet”
  • 2001 – Blackberry launches in U.S., allowing PDAs access to email
  • 2002 – Digital cameras begin to make sense for professional communication and quality-conscious amateurs
  • 2002 – Digital video (DV) supplants Betacam
  • 2002 – DVD becomes the fastest growing consumer appliance in history
  • 2003 – National Do Not Call list established, rockets to 62 million signees in 1 year
  • 2003 – Direct-to-plate printing begins to migrate to small print shops, opening doors for custom One-Off brochures
  • 2004 – Final Cut Pro becomes the dominant video editing standard, with 50% market share, and makes complete desktop digital video production possible.

For the last five years, the real action has been in hardware and software that enlarges the audience and its feeling of virtual community, as Jason documents in his article. Inventions from the iPod and iPhone to the xBox and PlayStation to the Pre and beyond become ubiquitous and inexpensive, and the Millennial generation adopts them … and then defines how all mediated digital communication must be prepared and delivered.

More and more, the tools of communication have become intuitive. Special languages, such as those required by everything from CB Radio to IM to Texting to Twitter are getting simpler. Spamming, whether via Direct Mail, Fax, Phone, IM, Email or Twitter hashtags has plagued each platform and eventually simmered down. But with every platform, the word “communication” has skewed in its meaning toward listening rather than speaking: and the power of the audience to penalize the obtuse and intrusive speaker has steadily grown.

For me what is most exciting has been the lowered threshold for response, and in spite of media overload and daily hecticity, an increase in actual participation in dialog. Yes, platforms come, get hot, and then get abandoned or at least back-burnered. Of course each becomes obsolete as soon as something more efficient at transmitting thoughts comes along. Will Twitter be superseded by something from Facebook or Google? Maybe. We’ll all know when it gets here, and we’ll all use it.

There’s never been a year in all the time I’ve been involved with influence that any serious communicator could slow down. Never been a Next Big Thing that wasn’t outclassed by Newer/Bigger Things. And never been a trend that wasn’t upstaged by the trend in line behind it. Since the Linotype hit the wall in 1970, the year before I began my career,  everything has been “soon obsolete.”

But I’m happy to say that changing with the times keeps all of us young, and protects us from obsolescence. If we care about ideas and people, we’ll always be ready for the Next Big Thing.

Millennials' webnetworking and ethnicity

Interesting research at Northwestern finds a connection between ethnicity and the sites millennials choose for their social networking activity.

The research surveyed just over 1000 freshmen at my daughter’s school, UIC — which is in the top 10 nationally in terms of student ethnic diversity.

Facebook enjoys 80% usage, 75% frequently. MySpace is used by 54%, 40% frequently. Then comes Xanga, Friendster, Orkut, and Bebo, all of them at under 10% usage.

Whites disproportionally choose Facebook, while Hispanics prefer MySpace and Asians disproportionally choose NOT to use MySpace. Asians use Facebook, too, but also choose Xanga in disproportionate numbers. The study found no preference of one site over another among African-American young people. It also found that kids who live with their parents (which happens perhaps more at a commuter school like UIC) are “considerably less likely to use Facebook than their more socially connected peers.”

Even more interesting to me was a very strong correlation between parental education level and the choice of social networking sites:

Students whose parents have a college degree are significantly more likely to use Facebook than those whose parents have some college experience but no degree. MySpace users, on the other hand, are more likely to have parents with less than a high school education than those whose parents had some college experience.

The study confirms what we all know instinctively, that we are all influenced by our nurture…. If we are inclined to get involved, we’ll also get involved online. If we are inclined to hang out in certain circles as children, we’ll be inclined to run in those circles as adults, even if we have opportunities to change our patterns.

My biggest takeaway is this statement by the researcher, Eszter Hargittai: “Everyone points to that wonderful New Yorker cartoon of the dog at the computer telling a canine friend by his side that ‘on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog’. In reality, however, it appears that online actions and interactions should not be viewed as independent of one’s offline identity.” (Emphasis mine).

Another excellent writeup on this report is found on Associated Content.