Better Than New

Life/Media Balance is Rare, Underdone by morepete
July 17, 2007, 10:30 am
Filed under: New Needs

Bruce Nussbaum, quite astutely, wonders whether new forms of social media are taking too much of our time. Are we communicating too much?

Having made, at one time, a significant portion of my living as a professional blogger — and being engaged to someone who is realizing her entire income in that arena — I still find myself ambivalent toward the notion of the age of conversation. We still haven’t found effective strategies for preventing fraud online between individuals, and the only sites where I ever see people using their real names a majority of the time are those where commenters hope to garner PR for themselves in the process (not that I’m innocent there, of course).

It’s many nights in my household that both residents arrive home from work, eat a brief dinner and begin blogging until we both drop. This lifestyle is a challenge. The Age of Conversation is, perhaps, most effective when its parties are people without a large social network in the real world. Were I living back home in Michigan, I’m sure I would devote much more of my time to forging new connections with strangers online instead of wishing I could kill my WiFi connection for a few hours and just read a book.

Granted, this is a pattern that has repeated itself for decades, at least back to the era when radio was introduced. Every time we create new media, some people become addicted to them. I’m sure we could even find exhortations to stop our addiction to newspapers – “scandal sheets” – if we go back to the right time period.

The question becomes whether our media are becoming things that can only function when the rest of our lives are shaped around them. This, too, has precedence, as we have seen from the way that broadcasting schedules “enslaved” viewers to sacrifice their evenings to catch favored shows. But with social networks, with tools like Twitter, with blogging, I would argue, for many of us, that failure to update is a kind of death.

Staying connected and up-to-date means that I scan 500 article headlines in a day through my RSS reader rather than read the 10 that sound most interesting. If I go without, I fall down a hole of not knowing. If I go more than two days without blogging, I might vanish from the landscape. Is balance possible? Not if we are to take full advantage of the tools before us. Social media are the heartbeats of the current era. If the regular pulse of Twitter updates fades, the networks we create crumble.

I don’t know if we have an answer to this dilemma yet. Maybe it just takes willpower and a recognition that we can’t be all things to all people. But an awful lot of folks I know are putting off the important works of their lives because they have to blog the urgent ones. And that’s not going to help any of us grow, either individually or as a society.

Picture via Edobarn 


Being “Market-Driven” Means Being Needs-Driven by morepete
June 19, 2007, 10:22 am
Filed under: Context for Innovation, New Needs

By Pete Mortensen

Always entertaining and provocative, Seth Godin has attempted to categorize the prime motivators of, well, every company in the world. It’s a fun list, with lots of humor (especially about the Troll Driven or Paycheck Driven companies), but it misses a pretty key point.

In Seth’s hierarchy, JetBlue sits at the pinnacle, representing a Market-Driven Company, one that creates “what the market wants.” This incredibly rare category is clearly the ideal. But doing “what the market wants” is not what’s going on here.

JetBlue has tremendous empathy for travelers, and it creates incredibly compelling solutions to meet their needs. People might want a cool TV screen in the back of their chair and a handful of snacks nearby. But they need to travel at a low price and to find ways to entertain themselves during a flight. And yes, that does correspond to what the market “wants.”

But market demand is the expression of a shared human need that few marketers are meeting. The reward to anyone who identifies a big, unmet need is tremendous. Interestingly enough, Godin’s “Founder-Driven” category often fits this rubric as well, largely because Richard Branson is himself brilliant at identifying needs.

The greater challenge for both of these companies is figuring out how to maintain the empathy that has brought them this far. And that will take the creation of a systemic approach to needs identification across the company and functions. But if anyone can do it, they can.

Image via MSNBC

Those Comics Sure Are Interesting! by morepete
May 29, 2007, 11:52 am
Filed under: Context for Innovation, New Needs

By Pete Mortensen 

I couldn’t agree more with Rob Walker‘s assessment of a recent spate of attention for AD, Josh Neufeld’s epic graphic novel of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. A blog, upon learning of its existence, posited that comics might have a “new role” of chronicling serious matters in an accessible and immediate form. As if Maus weren’t published 20 years ago.

Serious comics are still far from mainstream, however. I’ve been enjoying the recent series of manga that chronicle the development of notable Japanese innovations, such as Cup Noodle or the adaptation of 7-11, but these are not bedside reading for most people in business. I know about the many uprisings of Louis Riel thanks to Drawn and Quarterly Books, but it isn’t exactly a conversation-starter, you know?

So why is this? Why do comics remain the ultimate fringe medium? I don’t think it’s any of the typical issues around the diffusion of innovations. Comics do look like real books now. Some even ship in identical formats and bindings, and a boring, weighty comic about the civil war shouldn’t be any more embarrassing to read than a boring, weighty non-fiction prose version of the same, but it is.

More interestingly, translations of Japanese manga are by far the most popular and acceptable comics in the United States at this point, and they look very different from western notions of either comics or books. To read them, in fact, people have to learn how to read panels and speech balloons from right to left. Why is manga a more readily adopted innovation than the serious graphic novel is?

Somehow, I bet it’s Batman’s fault. Or the fan culture of comics. One of the two. I’m only kind of kidding. For years, Apple faced a real challenge. It had an insanely loyal customer base who defended its practices and products against fierce critics in the darkest times, but these same loyalists scared off PC users contemplating a switch. People still rail against the lunatic fringe of Mac-dom, even though we’ve mellowed a lot. Apple overcame that stigma in part through the Switch ad campaign, but much more through the release of the iPod and consistent, good products that people could understand easily. Once it became mainstream to own a Mac, freakish behavior looked less freaky.

I wonder if this is the challenge facing publishers of western comics who really want to break out of the tiny and fiercely loyal fanbase who read superhero comics. These fans can and do buy every comic with Wolverine and Spider-Man in it (I know, I’m one of them), but their strident views are intimidating to new readers. The Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons is funny for a reason, you know? So when a company like DC Comics releases a fairly serious comic about the Reconstruction, like Loveless, it’s hard to distinguish that work from the 4-color adventures of Superman. More to the point, DC isn’t all that interested in changing the way things are done. They do very well by being a niche publishing company with a bunch of very hot media licenses.

Perhaps Manga is able to avoid the stigma simply because it looks and feels totally different from what people think of as comics. It has benefited from tremendous interest in comics over the last decade, but it doesn’t carry the same stereotypical burdens. People who don’t want to walk into a comics store full of action figures and cartoon T&A posters can walk into any bookstore and buy a Manga paperback. It’s a model that really works.

The western publishers are trying to respond these days. DC just launched an imprint called Minx that will sell black-and-white Manga-sized comics aimed at young women, and the first book, “Plain Janes,” is fantastic. But how well Minx catches on might have less to do with the quality of the product or the shape of its package, but with whether DC can hide the product’s origins enough so that customers view it as being a safe buy like Manga, instead of a fringe buy like Batman comics.

I’m sure there’s a lesson for defining new products and services or building new businesses, but I’ve lost my way a bit. Anyone spotted my conclusion here?

Dissipating The Digital Shadow is an Unmet Need by morepete
May 23, 2007, 4:35 pm
Filed under: Digital Life, New Needs

By Pete Mortensen 

Jessi Hempel wonders if there are any tools for destroying defunct social network profiles available. To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t yet, and this points to a real opportunity for someone if they can figure out how to take care of it.

Someone close to me has a similar trail of profiles greater than she could manage, and an ex-boyfriend of hers who wouldn’t accept the end of their relationship managed to hack into all such profiles. In many cases, she only found out about the profiles because she got harassed by one of them.

So there’s an annoyance need, and there’s also a security need here.
Interestingly enough, Douglas Coupland talked about this when I saw him speak at Powell’s Books in Portland last summer. As is typical for Coupland, he was ostensibly there to do a reading from his new book “jPod” but he mainly ended up musing on the way technology is causing us to live now. And one thing he noticed was the digital “Shadow” all of us who have been online for a long time have — reams and reams of data about ourselves we can’t get rid of. As reported in a Time article, Coupland said:

TIME: There’s a character in the novel named Douglas Coupland. Why is he such a jerk?

DC: Oh, the anti-Doug. He’s evil. Getting back to Google, in this world you stand in the sun and you have your shadow that follows you everywhere. Now you stand and Google casts a “shadow you” on you. You’ve got this thing that follows you no matter where you go. It’s going to survive your real shadow long after you’re dead. It’s composed of truth, half-truth, lies, vengeance, wishful thinking, accuracy, inaccuracy. It grows and grows and gets bigger. It’s you but it’s not you. Mine’s pretty large at the moment but I think in a few years, everyone’s is going to be huge. It won’t be just people in the public light any more. The anti-Doug is my creative response to all of that.

Some of this is in the form of abandoned or forgotten social-networking profiles, but it’s also your banking details, credit reports, shopping history, browsing history, e-mails, poorly thought-out rants and photos you wish you’d kept better control over.

We’re already starting to see a demand for products that give us no footprint on the Internet — there are plenty of privacy browsing services these days — but no one has yet found a way to begin going through to not just minimize harm now but go back and fix mistakes dating from the early 1990s. I know I would be interested in such a service: I mean, Amazon still has track of every address that I have shipped a package to, including the little dorm room in the New School where I lived for three months! And I don’t even want to think of some of the words ascribed to my name that exist on various comic book message boards over the years…not to mention on my blog at Wired…

We live in an era of digital shadows. Won’t someone help us shake them?