An eerie silence is present just before Windows 8 launch. The big stories of the day are the battle between Apple and Samsung, iPhone versus Android, and Google versus Apple. The trending topics on Mashable are in order: Twitter, Google, Apple, iPhone, Social Networking, Google+, Social Media, YouTube, Business, Android, iPad, Google Chrome, and… down the ladder somewhere is lurching Microsoft. No trace of Windows 8.
GigaOm, proudly promoting its own brand of research has almost no trace of Microsoft or Windows 8. Today on its navigation bar there is a prominent Apple menu item and a long list of articles on the home page, only one of which mentions Microsoft related story, although even that is about Xbox music service to launch on Android and iOS. Top articles menu bar has iPhone 5 on a prominent position.
Others are more preoccupied with the imminent invasion. ZDnet and C/Net have tons of articles on Windows 8, but they also have articles criticising the new operating system and predict failure (see below prediction for Win 8 RT certain failure). However, if you browse these two sites, it strikes you how many announcements of new Win 8 products are rushed by a large number of vendors even before the official launch of the platform software. The latest one is from Samsung, the Korean electronics powerhouse who unveils an ultrabook and tablets.
None of the media outlets dares to look into the significance of the new operating system. Sure, it’s risky and judging by the success of Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft has had an aura of outdated technology. I may be wrong, but I don’t understand why they fail to see the magnitude of Microsoft’s transformation. I can see how they would want to avoid publishing risky prediction, but at least they should take a look at what is going on deep under the surface and forget for a moment the buzzwords of the day. The online journals have columnist who cultivate a loyal relationship with its biased readers. This is always a gold mine for ratings. Whenever and article is published about Apple or Google, an army of loyal fans work hard to make their presence felt. The ratings go up and everyone is happy. Postings about Windows phone 7 have a far smaller ‘stir’ factor.
I don’t have that kind of problem, so I am at an advantage. I can write what I want. To me, Microsoft has achieved an incredible turn around and it has become the innovator, while the others have acquired the status of the conservative incumbents. The tiles introduce a very novel and powerful concept. Because they are designed to be dynamic displaying real-time information pushed by various digital services, the combinations across the massive array of technical services starting from cloud computing platforms, to music, emails, weather, and anything in between, Microsoft is building a super-ecosystem using a quasi-seamless operating system . An example of what kind of services is possible in this super-ecosystem is Xbox Music. This is very difficult to replicate. Google has an excellent search and social network platform, but its operating system is fragmented to say the least. Apple is mono-cultural and built around one service: the AppStore/iTunes.
The signs of adoption of innovation are there: first, all vendors have announced a myriad of products, many of them quite innovative. Secondly, the new products are creating new categories which promise to fill the gap between tablets and laptops. Microsoft Surface is leading this trend. For Microsoft the innovation cycle starts anew.
Thirdly, the IT managers show a great deal of interest in Windows 8. It is interesting that in a survey published on InfoWorld Google Android is loosing share, while iOS is gaining. This is pointing to a problem that Android has in the enterprise space: fragmentation. This makes it difficult to support. Windows 8 will not have that problem and because of its strong compatibility with the legacy Windows platform it will have a faster adoption than the other two. And finally, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 RT have a strong support from all vendors. This is where Apples win against Samsung might prove to be a very costly mistake, a Pyrrhic victory. I should also mention Nokia, which released Nokia Lumia 920. For the first time, Nokia looks better on paper than its main competitors, Samsung and Apple.
Windows 8 may have an impact on the education market. iPads are great looking devices, but they are difficult to integrate and use as effective learning tools. The new detachable and convertible ultrabooks may prove to be more practical and for the same reasons IT managers are ready to adopt Windows 8, education systems may have a strong interest in the new devices.
Microsoft is about to releas a ‘new’ Bing which promises “Transforming Search from Finding to Doing”. It will be rollout in US in early June over the course of few weeks. There is no word if these features will be made available to the rest of the world. Microsoft calls this the most significant upgrade since the Bing launch three years ago. It may be one of the most significant changes in the online search industry.
What is so different with the new Bing this time?
The page layout is changed. The left bar where you have Related Searches, Search History and Narrow by Region is gone. Instead the page has now three columns: the search results, the snapshot and the social. Microsoft says that the search engine will return more quality results which will be less cluttered by irrelevant data. That remains to be seen, but while it is not clear how much of the engine was changed, the two new columns are interesting.
The snapshot is meant to display right there in the middle essential information, the most pertinent response to your query, packaged in a way that describe the findings from multiple angles. I don’t know how they do this because it could be that they re-packaged the old Bing with a different appearance or it may be they went deeper and changed the rational side of the Bing’s brain by adding a brand new semantic map builder. The example given by Microsoft is a classic case of a user who wants to find a hotel. Bing tries to build in the snapshot a story around this subject, so it displays a map, room rate, some links to related services, and traveller recommendations collected from various web sites. This sounds like the old Bing. However, if beneath the hood the software ‘thinks’ about the meaning of the hotel and uses a semantic graph to pull in related information, the prospects are completely different. This is how I read into what Derrick Connell, the Bing Corporate Vice President, said when he referred to a new scalable technology. Connell says that Microsoft will expand the snapshot to include more and more attributes around searched subjects. I guess that when a search command is issued, parallel searches are run automatically based on the semantic graph, even if the user doesn’t mention any of the inferred attributes. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.
The most interesting bit though is the social bar. I am very pleased to see this. My research on knowledge behaviour around adoption of innovation indicates that people rely a lot on social networks, even when they don’t call on friends for help explicitly for help or advice. When information is not searched but stumbled upon, that is a case of serendipity. This type of accidental finding has been ignored most of the time in the past, but it is increasingly obvious that it has a key role in knowledge behaviour.
Where is Microsoft going with this is not clear yet. I am not sure if this is a Facebook only feature or if it is a social aggregator. But the fact that you could ask your friends about what you are looking for combined with serendipity (the lower part of the social screen has that role) is a very interesting development.
Certainly this looks very good for Facebook. It is very good for Microsoft because it suddenly it creates a social opportunity in response to Google’s ambitions in social networks.
Microsoft did something clever here: it removes the social content from the search results going in an opposite direction from Google. I think this is a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, the relevance could be a problem if the results include your social status updates, and secondly, people are a bit off about the idea of mixing social activities with search. The reaction to Google’s decision to mix Google with Google Plus and Gmail was not enthusiastic to say the least. But if you have two separate areas that work side by side and you are the one that decides when to use the social features, it looks more appealing.
The snapshot and the social bar have the potential to change the face of online search. One hint is the appearance of ‘Like’ in the social bar. The synergy between search and social activities could take many forms here with profound consequences, because each of these two represent aspects of our persona that until now have been separated. Facebook does not have a search engine and Bing does not have a social network. On the new page they are still separated, but you can make the connection. The ‘Like’ is about your friends and their preferences. In the future other social signals could be used: location, recommendations, photos, music, etc. The possibilities are barely visible at this stage.
In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, titled What Makes Online Content Viral?, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman analysed about 7000 New York Times articles to examine which articles made it to “the most e-mailed” list. The conclusion of the research was the emotional intensity evoked by the articles was a major factor in determining their virality. Thus a change in the article characteristic by one standard deviation causes the following changes in the probability of making it to the most e-mailed list:
The articles have higher virality (more shared) if they stir up emotions. Some emotions have higher impact than others, but the one outstanding aspect is that anger and awe have a higher influence than the practical value or the interest of the article. The research shows that the low-arousal emotions (like sadness) dampen our enthusiasm for sharing. This is also interesting. My reading into this is that sadness has lower social value and it is not looked upon favourably by our peers. I dare say this is in line with behaviour linked to depression when people tend to suffer in silence.
Do we have the same appetite for sharing in other social situations, such as Facebook or Twitter?
Ben Elowitz wrote an interesting post on his blog, where he shared (!) a few thoughts about emotions that drive sharing. He analysed the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 and discovered that the emotional drivers have a different pattern of influence on. Number one factor is emotionality at 23%, followed by negativity (18%), interest (15%), surprise (13%) and positivity (13%). The practical value is way down to 3%!
Sure, the emotional patterns differ from one sharing environment to another, but clearly sharing is an emotional act. As Berger and Milkman noted in What Makes Online Content Viral?, “Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal”. I guess spiritual/intellectual emotions would count as low-arousal – there is not one word about that in that study.
Harvard Business Review published research on the same topic. In The New Science of Viral Ads, Tales Teixeira describes five ways of increasing the chances of people sharing video ads:
- Utilise brand pulsing: don’t put your logo straight in the middle, but show it only from time to time. This increases the chance of sharing by 20%
- Open with joy: right at the opening do something that causes positive, joyful reaction. This prevents boredom.
- Create a roller coaster: keep coming up with surprises and joyful experiences: this prevents the drop in interest
- Surprise but not shock: if the shock is negative, embarrassing or venturing into taboo territories, people may feel inhibited about sharing
- Use all of the above: joyful opening, show the brand here and there, keep people hooked, don’t shock.
The methods of measuring the emotion, the type of sharing medium and the type of content are different, but the role of the emotion in the decision to share something is undeniable
This may explain why sharing in formal circumstances doesn’t work. When you get the emotion out of the content, sharing is not that attractive, lacking the virality we see in informal social situations. By contrary, as the Berger and Milkman’s research shows, the low-arousal emotions have an inhibiting factor.
We share more when we feel that emotional impulse in the content. However, emotion is involved not only before but also in the act of sharing. What do people feel when they share? Unfortunately the research is mostly focused on the correlation between the emotion triggered by the content and the decision to share ignoring the emotion of sharing.
Emotions such as feeling appreciated, feeling good about being funny, intellectual, practical or artistic, getting rewarding feedback, feeling social as opposed to isolated, feeling contributing to an important cause, being the best in some ranking system, all of these contribute to making people want to share the content. These emotions have to do with our character, and our character and experience have to do with our choice of environment for communication.
Our sharing behaviour must be influenced also by the kind of environment we use and the type of human network we are part of. For example, people are never going to share funny videos on LinkedIn. Why because there is an expectation you need to look “professional” there. You can’t take the risk of broadcasting on LinkedIn a prank video of the Pope dancing with Madonna at Mardi Gras festival even if you think is really funny. You will be frowned upon by all the HR departments.
This is why I think we should be looking on not only what makes the content viral, which is a marketing problem, but also about what makes people share, which is a social communication problem. Formal network environments miss the opportunity to engage and get people become more creative, curious and motivated because they lack of emotion, inhibiting the social communication.
As an example, SharePoint is a very good product, but it is too formal, too boring to capture the imagination of people making the information sharing less effective. The SharePoint 2010 My Profile feature is a typical corporate “search to find information” strategy. Even the voice describing the features is emotionless. The product design is all about information, fields, tags, skills and projects. There is very little about socio-emotional features, a comprehensive anti how to make information viral strategy. I dare challenge you to listen to that video describing My Profile feature until the end of it. If, as research shows, people are far more likely to share in a state of arousal, this sleep inducing video, has close to zero chance of being share. Oh, except for me. I just did it! I guess we can put this in the category “interest” or “practical value” basket. Anyway, it needs to add a socio-emotional dimension to it to really become an effective information sharing tool; let’s say a combination of Facebook/Google Plus and SharePoint would do much better.
Social games are derided by some as being too superficial, something for de-stress therapy in the weekend. But modern games are really getting better at engaging our internal emotions which defines us who we are. Gamifying the sharing experience works because it adds emotional value to the act of sharing. If the sharing environment adds features that tap into these emotions such as giving rewards, showing your approval/disapproval for shared content, follow and be followed, all these increase the chances content will be shared. This could mean that specialised social networks will spread and gradually replace the formal sharing environments and put more colour into our virtual office lives.
A while ago David Brooks came across a collection of autobiographies written by the Yale class of 1942 for their 1950 reunion. He was fascinated by their stories, and I was fascinated by his discoveries. It feels as if you have the privilege of being a very close confidant for all these people. Being the professional journalist par excellence he did not stop at just enjoying the reading experience. He tried to extract common themes and find patterns from which he can analyse and use in his other role as a social scientist. For instance, he finds the common regret shared by many of the respondents, the one of working for their entire life at the same company. Another interesting observation is that many other people would have loved to take risks and take a different road in life. He found joys and tragedies, he found satisfaction and bitterness.
While thinking about all these stories he found in the collection of autobiographies, David Brooks got this idea: what about if I ask my readers to send me their life stories? So he asked his readers who are over 70 years old to send him “life reports” in which they would write the story of their life divided into five categories (career, family, faith, community and self-knowledge) and give themselves a grade.
What an idea! During this time he published the readers’ content on his NYT column, David Brooks managed to “skip” his duties for a while by publishing the life reports on his column instead of his own writing. I am sure he didn’t stay idle. He received thousands of stories in response to his call and he needed to do some serious reading and evaluation of all that “user-generated content”.
This is an interesting social experiment. The content is interesting and a researcher would have enough material there to stay busy for a year.
But I think this experiment is more than interesting. David Brooks may just have made an experiment that could lead to a novel form of crowd writing. He has content sent by individuals who don’t know each other but responded to the same call. They don’t collaborate to write a shared text, but they contribute to generate a big picture around a central theme. The result is a fascinating read. Several aspects are worth noting here:
Why did they respond? One of the readers said “I believe that my life story is well worth noting and sharing” (Noah Inbody, November 11, 2011). This is such a powerful statement. My life is well worth noting and sharing! Don’t we all have a story that we want to share? This is about identity; this is about what really drives people in social networks to contribute. David Klement said “Thank you for asking. Not many do. After a certain age, probably mid-60s, I have felt like the invisible man. Having a hearing loss which limits my ability to understand – and participate in – certain group conversations leaves me further on the fringe than most my age“. Communication is probably one of the most important desires that motivate us in a social setting. It is selfish and altruistic in the same time. Yes, it is about the secret desire for achieving fame, but it is also about reaching out. Each personal account was offered openly to anyone else to have a look at it and if possible, offer a valuable idea. Each person who authored a life report agreed to have their name published so they are verifiable, and while they have the opportunity to have their name published in one of the most prestigious papers in the world, the genuine emotion that transcends their writing is undeniable.
Freedom of Expression
The initial request was for each author to divide their lives into five categories and grade themselves. That didn’t work. After the first week everybody ignored that request and just sent their story the way they saw it. The reports are clearly emotional. Putting a structure on them would have made them look like they were doing a job. That’s work. Who wants it that way? David Brooks was smart enough to go with the flow and adjust to the public tune.
The reports are so authentic and so well written. Have a look at this fragment from Gilda Zein‘s report (she lost her husband): “The loneliness will never disappear. The intensity ebbs as the years go by. To take care of the cold, empty nights, I have substituted an electric mattress warmer and a large pillow to hug and push into, to take the place of my beloved. As the years go by, I have come to understand that death is a part of life. … Who am I? I am that until I am not“. There is so much talent hidden out there that we don’t know. There is so much potential embedded in our society that yearns to be exposed. This experiment triggered a creative response which otherwise could have stayed there dormant in the minds of these people perhaps never to come out. How much are we missing, no, let me put this in affirmative terms, how much creativity can the social collaboration tools unleash? The term “collaboration tools” cause a grimace of my face. We need a better term to describe a way in which people genuinely participate as someone they really are, not as someone who plays a role restricted by artificial social or business norms.
Better Social Policies
This can lead to ways in which the policy makers can do something to improve our society. Maybe many contributions like these may reveal aspects of our society that we have never had the chance to discuss openly. There might be some brilliant research studies lost somewhere deep into specialised academic journals only a handful of people read, but because of the seclusion in their ivory towers nothing happens, they cause no action, they are of no consequence. Crowd writing can trigger a snowball effect and cause a huge public reaction which governing bodies cannot ignore.
The contribution of the participants would have not taken place if it wasn’t for David Brooks to initiate it. The participants trusted him and The New York Times and felt attracted to the idea of sharing. The issue of trust and perception of quality is important. The brand power matters. I very much doubt that if I issue a similar request people will rush to send me their stories. Actually I am certain that would not happen. You would not get a similar response on large social networks either because of perceived lack of potential recognition or because of lack of engagement quality. At New York Times the prize is valuable. David Brooks is a well-known journalist, political and social commentator. The contributors felt they are engaged in a conversation with a person who knows and being mentioned by him in a prestigious publication and read by its large audience is something worth trying.
Arguably, this may become a hybrid model for the traditional media. We have to remember that David Brooks reviewed the life reports before deciding which ones are worth mentioning. This is typical to traditional media where a few in privileged positions make decisions for the many, but the fact is that curation is becoming fast a critical component needed to make sense in the deluge of content that is made available on the Internet each second. Maybe publications like The New York Times could open the gates to the public to contribute on selected topics and have a team of experts weaving in their expert content and skills engaging with the public to promote the best quality material. This model can borrow a few lessons from the new media by letting the public add their views on what is quality and what is not. As an example, the books review system at Amazon works extremely well and it has become the de facto benchmark for book reviews.
Learning Life Skills
Then there is this thing called LIFE. We think too often in terms of activities, tasks, job and money. But when you look at the entire package, the whole thing is wow, so different. We don’t get to think about that until is too late. The serenity of an old person is because life suddenly has value in a social context in which people have meaningful relationships with other people. We need more of this. Is it possible to bring this message down a few generations so that we get to understand or at least get a glimpse of this when we are 20? Maybe young parents could get classes by the time they are 30, so that they can see their life unravelling in slow motion and get to understand there is no need to hurry and miss the good things in life.
This experiment must continue.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid giving a sense of political bias when writing about political events. Nevertheless, I will try, by preceding the observations that follow with a disclaimer: this is not a political post and I am as neutral as I can be. It is the social aspect of this political debate that interests me.
In his speech in South Carolina after the victory in SC GOP primary, Newt Gingrich made a very pertinent comment when referring to the strong reaction that people had to the news media. He said:
“I think there is something very fundamental that I wish that powers to be in the news media will take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites in Washington and New York who have been trying for half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system and in their action people completely misunderstood what’s going on. It’s not that I am good debater it is that I articulate the deepest felt values that the American people…”
There is a key element here that stands out. When Newt Gingrich talks about news media he means the big TV networks, the big newspapers, and the traditional media who are used to dominate the way the conversation goes about political events. He linked that media to the establishment in Washington and New York representing the political and financial powers and placed all of them against the “people”.
If you ignore the political context for a moment, and forget that it is Newt Gingrich we are talking about, you would have to agree that he is striking a chord here. The year of 2011 was the year of 1% versus 99%; it was the year of Occupy Wall Street, and the year of the “Facebook Revolution” in Middle East and North Africa. When he was asked about his past marital issues, his response drew a wave of sympathy from the voters who moved away from Mitt Romney simply because the public dislikes the “biased” traditional media and the establishment with which Mitt Romney is associated. He represents the big business end of the town and he has a large presence in the traditional media.
The distrust of the 99% in the financial and political establishment is so intense, that whoever manages to tap into this vein of emotional energy will get the “like” of many followers. More than ever, the American elections in November this year will see the influence of social media at an unprecedented level. But it would be a big mistake to believe that this happens thanks to the proliferation of social communication tools. It is more than that. We are going through a slow but profound transformation of our society which favours a different kind of engagement and socio-economic equity. After the GFC Wall Street and political establishment will never be the same.
There are two things that, I think will play a significant role not only in American elections but in other areas of high social sensitivity, where distribution of power is at stake. First of all, the media will be increasingly influenced by the collective opinions propagated through social networks. Secondly, there is a severe erosion of the capital of trust once owned by the dominant establishment. Governments around the world have lost the trust of people. Financial institutions can only dream of having the respect that banks had in the better days of the last century. There are very few people left that believe the government and large institutions will take care of them into the retirement.
A different kind of media is rising. They are inclusive, they are good listeners and they tap into the public opinion as it happens on the social networks. Instead of having professional journalists collecting the data through personal connections, they have the public bring the leads. Mashable, GigaOM, Huffington Post and the likes have strong communication links with the public at large and have them driving the news. They lead on matters that are important to the public, rather than by telling the public what the news is. Are these Web 2.0 outlets the media of the future? Probably not. Does this mean that the journalism is reduced to listening and second-guessing what others have to say? Does this mean the professionalism is dead? No, it just means that the way the news is sourced, discussed, prioritised and distributed changes. The New York Times of the future will be a newspaper – sorry I meant to say a newspad – much better connected to the public mind, and using more contribution from the public. The new professional journalism of the future is still under development.
This is not a trend limited to the news business. Staying connected through large social networks is key to staying relevant, informed and responsive to those who use and need your product. Collaborative consumption, networked consumption, however it is called, the idea that people with tiny contributions and opinions create something of importance in an aggregate form is too big to ignore.