The annual presentation of internet trends by long-time influential technology analyst and commentator Mary Meeker has become a kind of a “state of the web nation”, and her latest was given this week at the D10 conference.
Many people, myself includes, take her dense slide decks of stats and insights as a chance to reflect and take stock on how the web is changing.
Today was the second time Mary had given this presentation as part of legendary VCs Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers (KPCB). The format changed a little from her days at Morgan Stanley, with more focus on a insights and discussion of what the stats and apparent trends might mean.
In the post below, I’ve filleted the presentation slides and highlighted some strong insights that caught our attention in the Brilliant Noise office (the slides can be seen in full on Scribd or at the foot of this post).
We’re not progressing through the day in chronological order, but now we have discussed the talk that was practically of use to me as a writer, let’s move on to the one which was both exciting but also so intellectually challenging I felt exhausted afterwards.
Adam Curtis is someone I previously knew mostly from The Power of Nightmares, a documentary that probed how fear and specifically terrorist threats are useful to those in power. After hearing him talk at The Story, I just want to hear more.
The caveat for these notes is that I may have at times missed the point, or got the wrong end of the stick, but here’s what I heard:
Can you use the web to tell stories?
Adam began by saying that many at the BBC were beginning to doubt that the web was something you could use to tell stories effectively.
He seemed to feel that we hadn’t reached a point where we understood the web well enough to talk about it, to tell stories about it and with it.
The web manifests the emotional realism that defines our culture. Emotional realism is about thinking that what you feel about things is the most real, most important thing.
The web is associative – you go where you like, where your fancy takes you. Narrative needs constraints, for you to be able to hold the attention of the person hearing the story.
So far story-telling on the web has not lived up to initial hopes for its potential, it has been whimsical at best…
It comes down to a fact that we have not come to terms with the power structures of our time and how they are manifest in the web (see below) – stories about these things give rise to great art, e.g. Tolstoy writing about the relationship between individuals and historical forces.
The web is useful for sharing long-form content, by-passing media formats we no longer trust
Adam showed a video clip from a news piece of an Afghani BBC journalist interviewing a member of the Taliban, a soundbite about the arrival of British troops.
He then gave us context – there were five Taliban who were all local farmers previously. The journalist was a metropolitan poet, who was new to the job, and both scared of the Taliban and feeling socially and intellectually superior to them. They’d not been interviewed before, he’d not interviewed many people in this situation before – the Taliban marched past the camera in a circle, changing the positions of their weapons each time, presumably to give the impression that there were many more of them.
the longer, raw version of the video was played and it felt altogether more bathetic, scary, odd, almost funny at times. It reminded me of Four Lions, especially the marching Taliban and the awkward responses from the interviewee that wouldn’t have made the final news report.
Emotional realism meant we valued this longer clip with all the disjointed human detail more than the news report. We, the journalists, everyone knew that the narrative from the politicians and the news organisations didn’t make sense. Why were we fighting there? It didn’t really add up. We all accept that its false and begin to look elsewhere for meaning.
“The fact that it doesn’t make sense any more makes it feel more real.”
What history feels like as it happens
Adam talked about a project he worked on with a theatre group called Punch Drunk. He made a film of spliced together TV, film and news clips trying to capture a sense of what it was like to live through some momentous events in the 1960s in the United States.
When we are living through events, they don’t make sense, they are confusing and disconnected – he said the films were emotional realism, representing the emotional experience of the 60s. I can’t find the exact piece of film he showed, but this is part of the same piece of work.
Follow the power
Adam railed against cyber-utopians – who doesn’t? – presenting the web as a free space, separate from the hierarchies and constraints of the “real world”.
The web is in fact “plugged in – literally – to the power hierarchy of the real world”.
If you understand how modern power flows through the web and shapes your experience of it, your emotions, then you are seeing it as it really is…
There’s no innocence or freedom online, the web is a cultural expression of our age of emotional realism.
Adam talked about Soviet Realist art, which looked nice to people at the time, but now we understand and see as representing the brutality of that power hierarchy in Soviet Russia. Some day, perhaps people will look at our online world and see it in a similar way, as “a cultural expression of the dominant power structures of our time” (perhaps about the tyranny of individualism, self-obsession, greed prevalent in our culture).
Image: Little did they know they would be seen as artistic expressions of the regime’s brutality…
Adam was making lots of different points, related to one another, but it was hard to follow a central argument through his talk (not that it was any less thrilling for that). But he seemed to draw some of the strands of thought together in his conclusion, which went roughly like this:
The strength of the idea that we can’t make sense of the world is one that suits those in power.
There is a power framework around the web which shapes it.
If we can develop a framework, articulate it and talk about it – a big theory – then we can move on from the light, whimsical storytelling that we’ve seen so far on the web.
Stories are complicated – we shouldn’t shy away from trying to tell this one…
The SuperSkills idea was one which I was airing for the first time, and am continuing to work on. The notes and links are all in the post – TEDx Brighton notes on my talk – I put up on the day. If you have any feedback at all I’d be immensely grateful…
And just so you can see what the slides are like with the fonts in beautiful Gotham – here they are again…
Image: A troop train in the First World War (cc) drakegoodman
@avschlieffen: Is anyone srsly suggesting trains caused the biggest war of all time? WTF!?! Get over it, you trainspotters. Rail isn’t everything.
@billthekaiser:LOLIt wasn’t me it was the 11.24 to Gdansk that made me do it. ;)
Train timetables caused the biggest conflict the world had ever seen. 16 million dead, 21 million wounded. Mechanised destruction and suffering, literally on an industrial scale.
That was the argument of AJP Taylor, one of the most influential British historians of the latter part of the 20th century (and the godfather of TV dons). What he said was that the plans for troop movements a large scale war against both France and Russia simultaneously by German military planners depended on a sequence of trains deploying troops quickly to both fronts. Once you pressed the button, as it were, there was no turning back. If you paused you would lose the advantage and then the war.
So when they thought they had to go to war, the logic of the technology, the context created by the communications technology of the time (trains and telegraphs, to put it simply) meant that Germany had to commit completely.
It was a startling insight. Tragic and disorientating when you thought it through – this apocalypse was brought about by a human’s decision, but one which was warped by the technology, the systems they had created about themselves.
The web reveals the complexity of the world about us. It speeds things up. This much we know.
One effect of this is a flight to simplicity, it seems. People see the complexity and can’t accept – they want to know cause and effect: thing x causes thing y. Yes or no. You agree or disagree. Win or WTF.
It’s hard in 140 characters to include caveats and disclaimers, maybe that’s part of it.
Take the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia over the past few weeks. Communications technology and social networks have been present, both on the streets, among the protagonists.
Did Facebook cause the revolution? Is it a Twitter revolution? These are partly silly questions, partly interesting ideas to follow through. Historians will soon enough, why shouldn’t we?
One thing is perspective, another is evidence, and then there’s time to reflect, think over hypotheses for and against. As events occur, it is hard to get a lot of any of these things.
Which is why a lot of the Twitter updates I’ve seen on this subject are likely to be filed/filtered as less useful noise, less likely to follow the links if they are saying something binary and self-evidently unconsidered “It’s a Twitter revolution!” or “social networks play no part in it – get over yourselves you technocrat Western narcissists.”
It is not unimaginable that the presence of web technologies have enabled people to communicate and coordinate street actions – there seems to be evidence that is the case. Twitter’s not the sole cause of the uprisings, just as train timetables were not the sole cause of the Great War.
Social networking technology and mobile phones are important part of the context, not of the causes of these events.
On a different, related note: corporations and Governments will behave differently about diplomacy because of the logic, the context of a hyper-connected world. Transparency will be assumed, knowledge will be assumed, the inevitability or high likelihood of disclosure will colour decision-making.
Twitter and Facebook and Google aren’t going to be the root causes of these things, but they will be the context, why things are able to happen in certain ways, why people choose to do certain things, for good and ill.
Coming back to the main point of this post, though – we shouldn’t waste energy on black and white debates about technology and current affairs. Acknowledge the fuzziness, embrace complexity – it’s the only useful way to make sense of the world.
(NB: I *know* – I’m late with this. What? I’ve had a break. It was Christmas…)
That TIME magazine’s judging panel refused to listen to the same crowd it named person of the year in 2006 is amusing and irritating and predictable at the same time. Instead of Julian Assange, it went for Mark Zuckerberg.
It actually says a lot, especially since the cover-story (geddit) will be that despite what readers say, Mark Zuckerberg is the hero of 2010.
You could take it as an example of the thinking error that currently plagues media owners and policymakers everywhere (and good of deal of others besides): in trying to come to terms with the web, they are fixated with platforms rather than the broader trends of the web and the emerging outcomes of those trends.
In other words, they are obsessed with Facebook, Google and Twitter, the media platforms, the channels, the business success stories, and mistaking those for the big deal the important story of what the web is doing to the
For journalists, the story is king. The story that can be told in 200 – 2,000 words, that it is.
It is wishful-thinking, of course. If Facebook were the sum of the social web, if the upstart Zuckerberg were the only person you need to come to terms with, tame and bring into the media estabilshment fold, all would be fine, all would be simple, all would be business as usual.
The uncomfortable truth that Assange represents – one of the uncomfortable truths at least – is that the outcomes of the web, the implications of this world-changing machine are not simple, not merely commercial, not things that be easily categorised, dealt with and assimilated.
It’s not business as usual out there. The more you refuse to fixate on the platforms and open your eyes to the broader effects, the more you will be ready for the (near) future.
ChangePlayBusiness was an unusual event, to say the least, living up to its promise to be an unconference. About 40 innovators and entrepreneurs gathered at the ICA to play a game about creating businesses, the playing of which included connecting with one another (there were a lot of interesting people) and meeting subject matter experts on everything from financing to marketing (which is where I came in).
My role was to deliver a “masterclass” on understanding and communicating with customers in a “changing economy”. I chose to interpret this as an opportunity to talk about businesses in the age of networks, in the age of complexity.
The slides are here for those (with the push/pull error reversed!) who attended the session:
This is the contract publishing industry, the kinds of publishers that create the supermarket mag, the in-flight periodical, the car brand’s customer title. Largely due to this lack of reliance on advertisers (beyond the client) and cover-price revenue it was a different kind of publishing gathering to ones I’d seen before.
There was little of the web-denial, the over-obsession with iPad as a saviour for the industry, a way of porting old formats (and business models) into the age of the web. The sense I got was of opportunity, of openness to new ideas and possibilities.
As I said in the notes to my talk, the marketing and media sectors are wide open for new approaches, new business models Everything is up for grabs, from content formats to how advertising is sold.
On that last point, I was really impressed by the analysis of the decay of the traditional advertising model presented by William Owen of Made by Many (one of the most interesting firms in this new space). His slides are below, but I recommend taking a look at his blog post which walks through his arguments.
William was set the brief by the APA of answering the following question: “is the traditional [advertising] model dead?”.
His response was to begin with a sensible “no”. Obviously the media buying-centred model of advertising is alive and kicking multi-million pound behinds. But it is decaying, and evolving.
Walking us through possible stages of the advertising model’s evolution (or decay, depending on your point of view), William took us through mass, fragmented, earned media models and arrived at this networked model (I nearly stood and cheered at that point, but this was an English conference so resisted):
The networked media model. This diagram is really a crude approximation of something much more complex: communities of customers becoming value producers in their own right, creating content, making recommendations, providing thousands of small services to each other. There’s an opportunity for brands to harness that power by adding services to products and creating communities of interest around social objects.
And of course there are also opportunities for still-powerful media channel brands in television and print to build direct relationships with advertisers and sponsors, using technology creatively to build applications that add co-branded services to content and facilitate direct transactions. This removes their reliance on ad networks and ups their margins.
He’s got it dead on, I think. That’s not to say I won’t be continuing to mull this presentation over for some time to come to challenge and build on the ideas, but for now I simply applaud…
Experience Design will become the master discipline for businesses that want to be good at selling stuff.
That actually sounds obvious to a lot of us in this space, but it is worth repeating, rolling around the brain, and repeating again. That is experience design, not media buying, that will be at the core of the selling part of the media/marketing complex in years to come. Those experiences will be conceived in, of and through networks.
Open-source spying is a term which has been around for a while, reflecting the fact that when it comes to gathering information, the web is often as good a place as going into the field. In-Q-Tel’s investments reflect a justified fascination with the social web by intelligence agencies.
Well it turns out the CIA is also interested in this kind of information. In a post about the CIA’s Silicon Valley VC firm, In-Q-Tel, the Not So Private Parts blog on Forbes found the firm…
…likes companies coming up with better ways to mine social networking sites and geospatial location data. One of its investments, Geosemble, a private spin-off from USC, estimates that “80% of online content has location information.”
“Our mission is to shine a torchlight on geographic unknowns and help organizations neutralize threats and capitalize on opportunities in their areas of geographic interest,” says its website. Another of IQT’s geospatial investments, FortiusOne, promises instant maps based on Tweets and photo uploads, for mapping election-day threats in Afghanistan, for example.