Reading tips

Time to honor Umberto Eco: for this sad task, I have an unlikely piece of advice for whoever has read Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci code”.

For those who enjoyed the thriller, but were left a bit unsatisfied by the shallow narrative.

For those who were entagled by the underlying conspirational theory, but found it a little bit flimsy.

For those who struggled through the book but were left with the feeling that art and history deserve a more competent treatment.

For those who dropped it because it’s so unsophisticated and did not waste their time reading similar stuff.

And finally, for those who didn’t even begin it, but read something about it because, at least in principle, it might have turned out to be interesting.

If you’re still with me, well, here’s my tip: go grab a copy of Eco’s “Foucault’s pendulum”.

Enjoy.

[Image credits: Pendule de Foucault au Musée des arts et metiers (Paris); des pions sont placés autour et sont renversés au fur-et-à-mesure que le pendule tourne. Auteur/author : Hervé Marchebois]

The One-Note Song

Innovation in music is usually about distribution: new channels to listen to, new ways to monetize, new networks to leverage in order to build popularity and reputation…

But what about music itself? Every new piece of music that is written has its own uniqueness, and is therefore intrinsically new. Old songs can be executed with different instruments and styles, providing countless opportunities for experimentation.

Sometimes, innovation comes at the expense of appreciation by the general public: experimental music can be tough to enjoy, and sometimes harder to understand than conceptual art. One would expect a song with a tune made of one single note to be a bore, and would hardly bet a dime on its success in a popular contest such as the Sanremo Music Festival. Yet, these guys managed to get the 2nd place (and, it goes without saying, all the prizes awarded by expert panels). Brilliant!

Note: the intro does not count for single-noteness, as it says

Pursuing the dream of a complex tune,
crowded with the most uncommon convolutions…
…and then you realize
that all you needed was that single note,
the most beautiful one.

What a fool, I should have thought about the single-note song
[…]

Open Source Banking

Axa Bank launched a forward-looking initiative aimed at gathering worldwide developers' creativity, offering 50,000€ for the most innovative retail banking application developed on the basis of their open APIs.

What does this mean? By registering an account on their developers site, anybody will be able to write an application that makes use of real banking data (anonymized accounts and transactions). In their own words:

this is a secure “entry door” allowing software developers to make the best possible usage of customer retail banking data, anonymized beforehand, under the condition the client has agreed to […]

Protection of personal data is of course a primary concern, and measures have been taken to make sure that this all happens within the regulations. By accessing real data, developers will have to agree to a strong set of rules, including (if my French is good enough) legal responsibility about data usage, cancellation, geographical restrictions, privacy: of course the bank has made it 100% safe for its customers.

Nevertheless, from the communications point of view, it is a really strong positioning statement: I do believe that openness and security are compatible, but would all their customers see it this way?

Tweetburger

Last week, the food giant McDonald launched a media campaigns on Twitter, inviting the public to share 140-letters-long stories about their experience with the restaurants, the food, the brand or whatever.

After a few hours, the hashtag #McDstories was taken away from the home page of Twitter as the thing had taken a bad turn, exposing an overwhelming number of badly negative remarks. Newspaper titles raced to create jokes about the outcome of the campaign: bashtag, McFail, McDstories without a happy ending… but was it really so bad?

A few horror stories, some negative generic remarks, some bashing which had already been, is and will always be vented in a thousand of ways and on every possible interactive media (including word of mouth).

What will remain, after the dust has settled, for McDonald's? Some learnings about how this particular medium works, perhaps the fact that, at the same time, a similar campaign base on the #meetTheFarmers tag worked somehow better, probably because it was more focused and specific and therefore attracting meaningful stories, possibly with a higher ratio of true versus invented or exaggerated ones.

So, since the damage has already been done, here is my Gonzo Innovation proposal:

McDonald should launch a new hashtag campaign, #McDHorrorStories, and give away a self-contradictory prize: free meals for the most amazing contributions.

The Calm After the (Brain)storm

Ever taken part in a brainstorming session? I enjoy both participating and facilitating, and I strongly believe that it is very important to always throw some ideas on the board, whatever is your role, as it is the best way to share all the feelings and emotions that come up together with the subject of your session.

And, when the time is over and all the notes are on the wall, I always find myself looking on the ground, at the crumpled notes that didn't express "the idea" properly and were therefore abandoned for a better version to be stuck on the wall: soon, other ideas will be dumped – molten in a cluster with other ones, misunderstood because there is no time to explain them in depth, or simply run over by other ones that have been expressed in a more attractive way.

My point here is that it is always very difficult to preserve all the positive energy while going through the subsequent phases of clustering and voting the ideas: the stronger the feeling of achievement that came with the brainstorm, the deeper the disappointment brought by the implicit discharge of the product of intelligent, brilliant and creative minds. Therefore, as a facilitator, I am always willing to experiment new ways to evaluate ideas, and sometimes wonder if it wouldn't be better to postpone the activity to a later time, allowing for a relaxed and thoughtful examination of the ideas.

Thanks to an initiative launched by Dario Taraborelli, I have discovered an interesting tool for asynchronous evaluation of ideas: All Our Ideas enables groups to collect and prioritize ideas, based on the assumption that while comparing many different ideas is difficult and tricky, it is much easier to compare two ideas and decide which one is better. By collecting a large number of relative votes, ideas are then classified according to their chance of being considered better than any other single one. In this way, it is also possible to introduce new ideas while the voting process is going on, without diminishing their chance of being noticed and selected (of course there is a weighting system in place, so as to take also the number votes into account).

Credits

The Calm After the Storm ("La quiete dopo la tempesta") is a poem written in 1829 by Giacomo Leopardi, in which the storm is not used as a metaphore for an exciting outburst of energy, so I recommend reading it because it's a great piece of poetry – but do not expect to find further enlightenment about innovation.

All Our Ideas is a research project led by Matthew Salganik from the Department of Sociology at Princeton University.

The Singularity is near

But not in the way Ray Kurzweil means it, in his foretelling of machines that become more intelligent than humans and therefore take the lead in all fields of human development. It is rather in a geographical sense, as the news say that a partnership between the 2015 Expo in Milan and the Singularity University was announced this week.

News are both good and bad in my opinion, as it is for sure a great way to secure a stream of attractive events and meaningful connections to relevant innovation hubs. But, on the other hand, I cannot help feeling discomforted by Kurzweil's approach and its success, characterized by coupling respectable research with compelling sci-fi narratives and leaving the borderline blurred – if not invisible.

In this scenario, my most discomforting thought is that I do believe that, sooner or later, the singularity will arrive – but not for the reasons pointed out by Kurzweil: it will be because, following a trend which, to be honest, has no other objective demonstration than my personal convincement, the benchmark for what mankind considers 'a reasonably average intelligence' is getting lower and lower.

For reasons that elude my comprehension (at least my current comprehension), there seems to be an unstoppable attraction between:
– the higher edge of results of algorithmic procedures expressed in formats used by humans in their interactions, such as a conversation, or a chess match;
– the lower bound of intellectual achievement, mainstream belief and common attitude for human beings.

In a playful conversation in the comments to his post, Guido Vetere called this convincement of mine "the Singularity race to the bottom" and I am not able to conjure up a better name for it.

Moreover, I firmly believe that the idea (or meme, as Richard Dawkins would put it) currently known as 'singularity', has very deep roots in our history and, during the last century, has been described in a fantastic number of variations.

In the forthcoming posts, I am going to try and list some exhibits of this trend in religion, literature and the effects of new media on the acceleration of our collision course towards a lower-bound singularity.

Newspapers as markets

What do we buy when we pay for a newspaper? Everybody says it is not the paper, and it is difficult to object. But perhaps it is not just the content as well.

After reading dozens of articles about the future of the newspaper industry, one would believe that we are condemned to reading increasingly lower-quality journalism (because writers will be forced to pursue only the most eye-catching stuff and publishers will stick to risk-avoiding choices in content and authors) or to an ever lower number of alternatives – as larger conglomerates will probably be the only possible way out of the crisis for some newspapers.

All the innovative thinking is aimed at improvement in technology (especially regarding physical support – eBooks and similar, but also in distribution) and refinement in revenue model, with different balance in income from advertisement on the one hand and subscription or purchase on the other. But nothing that really looks out of the box.

While I was writing this post, I came across this article on The Economist, celebrating 20 years of the web and looking at how the web has changed the way science and research work. The final suggestion is that a huge opportunity for further advancement – always looking at how communication tools are used by scientists and researchers – would be in creating a mechanism that could make use of reputation as an economic quantifier – a monetary unit for ideas:

no one yet knows how to measure the impact of a blog post or the
sharing of a good idea with another researcher in some collaborative
web-based workspace. Dr Nielsen reckons that if similar measurements
could be established for the impact of open commentary and open
collaboration on the web, such commentary and collaboration would
flourish, and science as a whole would benefit. Essentially, this would
involve establishing a market for great ideas, just as a site such as
eBay does for coveted objects.

This is a very clear suggestion for an attempt at finding a way to design a mechanism to make the reputation economy work (note: some hints about what this means in relation with blogging and for modern democracies), so I tried to make it fit into the ideas I was trying to frame.

I summarized all the exchanges that I was able to identify, with both monetary and intangible assets, in the following diagram:

Newspapers

The good old traditional money-generating exchanges are:

  1. the publisher is paid by advertisers for brokering readers' attention towards ads;
  2. the reader pays in order to access restricted content (restricted means that it is necessary to overcome a barrier, whether it is "getting the paper in your hands" or "logging in to your paid account");
  3. the writer is paid for writing quality content.

This is, with merely quantitative adaptations, what has worked for hundreds of years and somehow survived the first twenty years of the internet age. Will it evolve, or is a thorough and radical change needed?

The opportunity space is twofold, as new revenues could hypothetically come from exchanges that are currently not monetized – but also from new exchanges that still have to be enabled (both monetary and non-monetary). I'd especially point my attention to a restricted number of remarkable directions:

Reputation flows from reader to writer

This channel is the one that makes it possible for authors to rapidly increase their influence and popularity by means of the enormously complicated reputation machine that is put in motion with comments, links, trackbacks, tags and bookmarks on a thousand social platforms. How many authors are widely recognized as influential because of the augmented aura they have been able to build around their ideas?

Advertisement affects the publisher's reputation

A fascinating one comes from advertisement: what happens when readers perceive an ad as a contradiction with the system of values that the newspaper should represent? Every now and then, Famiglia Cristiana – the most popular catholic weekly magazine in Italy – receives (and publishes) letters that complain about advertisement with "scantily clad" models. It is not my intention here to evaluate the rights and wrongs, but the interesting fact here is that the editorial line might be challenged by readers because of advertisement – clash of values or simply because of excessive quantity, but the arrow means "detract". Nonetheless, I can also imagine some cases in which advertisement might contribute to the publisher's reputation.

Attention flows from publisher to writer

This is obvious as long as the writer is a paid journalis. But what happens when the reader opens a blog that is somehow related to the newspaper? This symbiotic relationship can be observed on repubblica.it, where posts from readers' blogs are highlighted on the home page, with a tremendous boost in their visibility (and popularity). This is clearly an attention exchange, working mostly in one direction (from publisher to writer). Yet, in a marginal way, the influential individual might attract a relatively small number of readers to the hosting platform.

Conclusions?

The one million dollar question is how might we transform these value exchanges to money-generating ones (and consequently add revenue generators), or how to replace monetary transactions with intangible ones (and consequently make the publishing business less money-intensive). My guess is that newspapers and media companies could possibly evolve into something that we might call (sticking to the financial metaphore) attention and reputation banks – or perhaps marketplaces for these intangible assets, trading one with another. And both for content – and money.