Archive for January, 2011

Protection Won’t Save You For Good

January 29th, 2011

When Amazon released its numbers for the last quarter of 2010 last week, it was a small surprise for me that in the US e-books are already ourselling paperback books, after they have already done that with hardcovers last summer.

In the country considered the origin of press printing it’s easy to forget that the book market is not a free one in terms of pricing. Every vendor of new books is bound to the price the publisher sets, and this applies to e-books as well, there’s just a little catch: Print books are being sold with a VAT of 7%, whereas e-books have the regular VAT of 19%, making them even more expensive than their physical cousins. Not only has this regulated protection served the publishers, it’s also the reason Ye Olde Bookstore hasn’t yet had to surrender to discount retailers.

If you’ve being living in the real world for the last decade, it won’t be too hard for you to guess that this model is not set up to endure the future we’re heading to. What we have learned from the desastrous decline of the coal and steel industry in the last century is that a country can’t protect its perceived vital industries for good, because sooner or later global competition will have taken over, and you’re an anachronism, far behind the pack.

What not only Germany’s politicians and leaders of protected industries (let’s coin the term LOPIs now) need to understand:

  • trying to protect anything from competition does more harm than help in the long run
  • the business of physical products is steadily decreasing, at least in consumer markets
  • you need the courage to sacrifice your sacred cow in favour of a new not-yet-beyond-risk one or you’re going down
  • what’s more important: you need to have people you can encourage to come up with fresh ideas that take your business to the future, even better if they do it by themselves.

Always a Day Away

January 27th, 2011

Recently a Slideshow by Microsoft showed up in which they try to persuade business partners to prefer Windows tablets over the iPad — there’s just one catch. If you’ve ever tried to sell something to a client, what’s working better? Showing ten slides or giving them the actual item and say “Go ahead, give it a try. … Doesn’t it feel great?”

Microsoft would have a better chance of getting some market share if they had a real, tangible product, not just a better idea of “That how it is. How it is going to be, tomorrow, one day. Maybe.” The former is how Apple did it with the iPad, once they knew the iPhone was working and the way of interacting with the device was accepted, they took the next step they’d been preparing for years in secrecy, not boasting about an idea of a future that would maybe never come.

The Second Impression

January 25th, 2011

We’ve been told for years that one never gets a second chance to make a first impression. Is this why nobody tries to give a second one?

After all, it’s much easier to come up with excuse after excuse instead of straightening up and take responsibility. It takes more guts to say “We might have given you the impression of being a bit jerkish at the time we first met, but that’s not what we are, and you can rest assured we’ll continue working hard on getting better, being aware of the consequences” instead of “Y’know, it’s always a bit chaotic with us, but we’ll get it done somehow”. It might be easier to sympathize the second way, but you’re not giving a good example a all. Muddling your way through is hardly a reliable long term strategy.

When Adding Momentum

January 24th, 2011

In one of the early Spiderman comics it says “ With great power there must also come — great responsibility!” (and further reading on the quote can be found here, it’s quite interesting). It also applies when power is little. And often enough, responsibility doesn’t scale down proportionally.

The issue I’m talking about: Last week, a show host of German radio station Fritz (located in Berlin) published an Open Letter to Kristina Schröder, German Minister for Family, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (or as I used to refer to it, DEBYM), in which she heavily attacked the minister who had tried to sympathize with young families because she’s pregnant now. Voilà, promotion — Twitter took it to the next level. And then Fritz’s program director stepped in and took the page offline, accompanied by a statement that “the Open Letter did not represent the opinion of Fritz’s editorial team … [and they would] not accept infringements of Personal Rights.”

And that’s how the fight started. What the program director did wasn’t the best he could (and should) have done. The appropriate thing to do here is to make your employee see sense and ask her to publicly apologize for the inappropriate remarks. That way he would have avoided the accusations of censorship that are now being raised by the audience who have already taken care of the issue themselves.

The problem is that the Web makes it easy to let things run out of control. Once an information has been published, it’s being cached, copied, multiplied in all sorts of ways, and whenever it’s done manually, the ones in charge don’t necessarily pay attention to what they’re doing. Issues like this are easy to pull out of frame, because the outraged public doesn’t necessarily understand that just because you feel a certain way, it’s not okay from a moral point of view, neither from a legal one, to insult a person in whatever medium. That’s why the page was taken offline, but it’s not what the public thought the reason was. The story of some politician trying to undermine Freedom of Speech spreads much better, and so does support by people who think that censorship must be fought against with all means available. The only problem is that whoever re-publishes the original article without additional comments, just to add momentum for a perceived good cause, becomes liable for the same reasons that Fritz would have become liable had they not taken the page down, and this is what most people don’t know.

Which again leads us back to media competence, and why this would make an excellent case study for social science lessons at school. It’s a multidimensional issue, covering social dynamics, media dynamics, public law and, last not least, communication. This is something not only the next generation better knew, but it’s also the most sensible place to discuss the topic outside of Fritz’s commentary section, in the real world, because that’s where having the discussion can really have an impact and make a difference.

The 3 Most Important Things To Do

January 23rd, 2011

It just came to me as a strike of genius when writing an e-mail to a friend. They’re in no particular order, because they’re somewhat interdependent.

  • Enable. The How-To.
  • Inspire. The What. The Why.
  • Permit. This is often forgotten. The “it’s okay to fail, as long as you keep on trying. Go ahead.”

Voilà, Promotion

January 19th, 2011

The other day it just occured to me why Twitter is a better means of promotion than Facebook, not meaning advertising but “spreading the word”. The key is the default action, so to speak.

When someone posts something on Facebook, the default action to show your appreciation is to click the “Like” button. But this doesn’t create a movement (so it’s no literal ”pro-motion”), it’s a popularity feedback for the originator of the post because it stays within the boundaries of his circle of friends. The promotion happens when people click “Share”, so the post translates to their own circle — but that happens very rarely in comparison.

This is where Twitter does better, because it makes no sense to reply “I like your tweet” to the author. The only sensible thing you can do is re-tweet the original tweet (Twitter word for post), so now your followers will read it. Voilà, promotion.

Fooled by the Status Quo

January 18th, 2011

It’s always amazing how one’s imagination is being fooled by the status quo though the own memory should tell otherwise. When Wikipedia celebrated thier 10-year anniversary three days ago, I was thinking back when I actually started using it. In 2001 I didn’t — and it’s worth noting it’s the same year I started using that new search engine called Google. It occured to me that when writing my diploma thesis on analogue audio compressor circuitry design and implementation in 2002, finding mere bits of information was actually work that was not too far from the days when you had to go to the library and skim through boxes of index cards. The whole thing just went off well because a fellow student was writing his thesis on EQ design so we could update each other about our latest findings.

Just a few years later, maybe in early 2005, I was using Wikipedia to pull together a script for my students’ electronics lecture, just as an expanded appendix for all the stuff I couldn’t cover in detail because the lecture was quite dense already. Only 4 years after its birth, Wikipedia had become the go-to resource for every geek topic, not to mention the thousands of other sites that had spawned up on stuff like audio circuitry. But what was funny back then is that most of them still referenced the same sources that we had to dig out years before.

Today, more or less everybody is online, be it as a consumer or content creator, but you better not assume that the absolute number of “web literates” has increased proportionally. In this is becoming a problem, because at some point, we’re passing it on to the next generation. According to an interview with two media experts published in the German magazine “Der Spiegel”, there is a shocking deficiency in media competence among teachers, and as they point out, it is the responsibility of schools to educate the kids in the why and how of media, because it’s the only place where all of these kids go — and you don’t know how well-informed their parents are in terms of Web and so forth.

The real problem is of course not media but responsibility, and it’s hard to teach responsibility because it’s rather something you learn. The digital era has a massive downside compared to the glory days before it: As Google put it, the Web doesn’t forget. People do. If you broke a window, it’d be a shock at first, you’d get punished, and some years later you’d have a funny story to tell. I don’t want to spread paranoia here, but in absence of a better excuse a digital record of you having smashed a window in your child days might serve as an unspoken reason why you’re not getting a job. So it may well mean the chance of anyone getting a second chance (to do better) will go down, just because you’re the one who, as is anybody on one subject or the other. The Web is no good place to start when you haven’t learned the analogue model. The only advantage we have today is that we still have analogue models, because there a only few web services that don’t have a real world counterpart.

On the other hand, it’s hard to draw a line in terms of when available information is to be used fairly. When a government can use information published on WikiLeaks to prosecute tax evaders — no matter if this information was obtained legally or not, it’s available now, and it’s hard to argument that one shouldn’t use it to enforce the law — it seems unfit to force an employer to not consider dubious information they got about their job candidates. It’s again a question of responsibility. And as we know, when faced with the opportunity, most people will prefer to get rid of it instead of taking some more, something they learned along the way too. Everything scales, you just need enough iterations to make a small difference to yield a large result. It actually works both ways. That’s why Wikipedia won.

Coin-age

January 17th, 2011

The number varies, but there are at least 5 new words “invented” each day in English alone. And I concur that in cases where we have a whole new thing going on that can’t be described any other way that’s fine. But I do start getting trouble when the new term is being coined for no other reason than the desire to coin a term, to tag whatever you think should be tagged without thinking about if it’s really appropriate.

Some years ago, this was something reserved for scientists and copywriters, but since everyone has their own funnel to yell at the world it’s become a nuisance, especially when some of these words, e.g. neoliberalism, are catalogued in encyclopedia or the all-popular Wikipedia, and suddenly people start showing up saying “no, that’s not how I meant it when I was using it”. Worse when they claim to have “invented” it, and then the hassle begins.

Instead, it might be better to remove the ambiguity first and then start yelling.

Island Thinking

January 7th, 2011

In one of his last year’s Linchpin Sessions, Seth Godin riffed on business using a model of sugar cane processing on an island. It’s worth adding that not only everyone has a sugar cane machine today — the islands (in the developed world) are gone too. Of course you can choose to only offer your services locally, but that doesn’t mean no one will enter your market area. There’s no more barrier to protect you.

Different vs Better

January 5th, 2011

One year back, I was creating a TV trailer for a crime thriller feature, and when discussing the concept with the feature editor she insisted on having a certain shot in the trailer: “These wooden stick figures, they’re like the ones in The Blair Witch Project, that’ll help sell the thing.”

Except that the whole feature had nothing else in common with The Blair Witch Project. Whenever there’s something in your product that’s a reference to another product, you really need to question hard if that reference will do any good, because people can easily distinguish between “same but different” and “same but better”. And they choose accordingly.

[Just to tell the end: For me the only selling point were the two main actors. I’ll leave it to you to make up why the feature went successful.]