engagement as facilitation.

While working on the last 2 posts, and considering how to generate engagement, I realised that my core point wasn't the focus on issues, per se, but rather creating a tool to facilitate action. This is a pretty simple rule for whether or not something will generate engagement in a user base, so I thought it should be made explicit.

Content, or Information, or even Distraction don't guarantee engagement, and if they do, they can only do so for the short term. People talk about the value of Facebook as a 'social graph'm but I find I can only explain the value to non-users as a means of keeping in touch with people I would otherwise lose track of. Facebook is filled with information, and things to do, but the engagement comes from it's use to facilitate events, or friendships, or contact.

Wikipedia works the same way. It's not naturally engaging to the majority of users - we show up, get the information we want, maybe click a link or two, and move on. But to those who see Wikipedia as a way to facilitate explaining their expertise, and sharing it with others, it becomes an addiction. These superusers are the ones who keep the project alive.

I use Tumblr because it facilitates sharing short bursts of information with my friends. There are other ways I can do that, but Tumblr also facilitates interaction with the information my friends post. It gives me a dead easy way to take someone else's content, respond to / remix it, and repost it on my own account. This is then shared with anyone following my account.

This is obvious, and should be fairly intuitive. You can't just offer something, you have to offer a means to action, to actually engage users. So, there's the short version of how I need to consider any changes to anything in my life - what action am I facilitating, and what am I trying to shore up with nothing but content?


redefining a personal experience (OYP)

I've been spending a lot of my spare time considering how to update a conference that has meant a lot to me over the years, basically an attempt to make politics, and faith (specifically Christian faith) more relevant to 14-21 year olds in Ontario. As a raging atheist, the Christian part is a hard sell for me, excepting the core values (golden rule, etc) that I think most people can agree are good ideas, at least when removed from the confines of a faith system. So I've been focusing on how to make politics interesting enough for youth to want to join a model parliament with religious components.

We have a socially aware and active youth base, but they aren't interested in politics in isolation. The point that keeps popping up in my head is that youth care about issues - you can see them proving it in Nathan Phillips Square every couple of months - and a political outreach program for youth, even a model one, has to be issue based to tap into that. The current model we use is based on getting cabinet ministers to write legislation on various issues they care about, debate it, amend it, and surround that time with structured social activities, fundraising, and spiritual reflection. (note: I think this is great, and that is backed up with me spending 9 years involved in an organisation partially based on a religious tradition I actually have disdain for).

I think the solution is to take the entire experience issue based. If the core issue for a session is, say, Darfur, as an example, then have everything focus on that. Draft legislation relating to banning trade with nations who condone genocide, or reinforcing Canada's lagging UN Peacekeeping commitment. Have the charity (we usually have one local, and one international) be directly related. Have workshops that educate kids on the issues before debating legislation. Screen a documentary or two. Make the religious component, bible verse, etc, complement the theme, and deal with the core moral violations that make it something that needs to be challenged. Create a framework for people to get involved when they get home. Make that issue live beyond the weekend - go as far as to organise meetups, a letter writing campaign, anything to create actual results from the effort.

The problem isn't that kids don't care about politics, it's that they've gotten used to actually doing things, rather than talking about them.

This is likely going to be one in a series, as I figure this out. I realise it's not overly accessible, but I hope it will become clearer as I come closer to a final product.


new media and the oscars.

I watched the majority of the Oscars this year, although I had assumed I wouldn't.

I'm neither strongly for or against the awards show, I just didn't see a point. The formatting of the Oscars seems more or less irrelevant, given the way I curate my online media consumption.

Standard (old) Model: Watch the red carpet, discuss / mock interesting choices, ignore bland ones. Watch the intro, laugh / discuss good jokes, ignore bland ones. Watch the performances, usually well executed but somewhat boring. Watch the presenters, half-paying attention to the pre-presentation patter, and half checking to see if they flub a line or mispronounce a name. Watch the Winners, ignoring the bland (often technical) awards, and agree / disagree with the marquee award winners.

Debatable Model: Read / Compulsively refresh 2-5 different liveblogs of the event on your laptop while watching, so as to achieve the maximum amount of witty commentary / recap possible. (Does anyone actually do this?)

New Model: Ignore the Oscars broadcast. Wake up, and go to your RSS reader. You now have a breakdown of Winners, Snubs, Reactions, Bad Outfits, Good Outfits, Great Jokes, Flubs, and the Performances deemed relevant. With this comes youtube videos of anything notable (therefore, time/location shifting, replay, etc), smarmy commentary, little bits of supporting info you wouldn't have known otherwise, etc. This is basically a distilled version of the standard watching experience, and you can feel free to ignore what doesn't interest you. You will learn everything you would from the show that you cared to, and in around a quarter of the time.

More importantly, the parts that most people enjoy are readily available in online coverage. The context, critique, jokes, etc, take the place of the unending montages that no one cares about, the technical awards (which, I'm sorry, do not matter to wider, not intensely dedicated to film crowd), and the thank you speeches.

Funnily, watching the Oscars made my RSS list a lot faster to sort through this morning, as most of the information had already been absorbed. But, it should be noted that I didn't finish watching the broadcast, because I got bored at around 10, brought my laptop to the TV, and then left at 11.

The standard counterarguments about 'knowing first' or 'shared experience' only partially apply. The interesting thing to me is that watching the Oscars has become an entirely dispensable part of the Academy Awards Experience.


adbusters, authenticity, and the inherent insult.

Kalle Lasn thinks everyone is a moron.

Reading his most recent editorial, where he states "Suddenly, people are waking up in droves from the dreamland of corporate cool. We’re realizing that ever since we were little babies crawling around the TV sets in our living rooms, we’ve been lied to, propagandized, and told incessantly, day after day, that we can find happiness through consumption. That’s why, like rats in a Skinner box, we’ve kept on pressing that BUY button – millions of us marching in lockstep, all dreaming the same consumerist dream." it becomes clear that he thinks we're all morons. Lasn, and the entire ethos behind Adbusters, buys into the idea that 'authenticity' is something that the chosen few counterculture warriors can understand and identify, and that the rest of us are so worn down by advertising that we cannot possibly understand it.

If you've been reading for a minute, you know that I think the concept of authenticity, as it applies to consumerism, is really code for 'continues-to-represent-consumer-identity-over-time'. The same concept can be applied to music, as bands 'sell out' when they stop being a signifier for the kind of identity that the fan wants to project.

I would submit that the assumption that authenticity is like taste, and only a certain, dashing, revolutionary few can locate it, is a bigger endorsement of the capitalist mindset than anything else. Adbusters advocates consumer action, a lifestyle, and more or less a uniform (blackspot sneakers, a no blood for oil pin, and a keffiyeh) in it's fan base. And it tells you to do this because it is supposed to suggest you are better than other people. This is the core of the suggestion that everyone else (who isn't buying the magazine) is being duped.

The idea that consumers don't realize the separation between the corporately created and the 'authentic' offends me. Because it's the companies that lose touch with consumer needs that fail, and it's the ones that identify a niche and change with it that succeed. But anyone who assumes that the consumer, that the society is composed of mindless sheep should, and will eventually fail hard.

But Kalle Lasn thinks that everyone who doesn't agree with his interpretation of capitalist culture is an idiot. And people keep looking to him for ideas on how to kill this dominant culture that only tricks the unlucky morons who don't see the truth available to his chosen few.


commodification of street art.

Now firmly entrenched as the graffiti artist most lauded by the fine arts crowd, Banksy raises an interesting point. While I can understand the rising auction prices of his work, all rooted in the street art he made his name with, I'm more interested in the speed with which his rise in stature has connected directly with changing attitudes towards his (still illegal) graf pieces.

At least two times that I know of, Banksy's work has been removed from it's original home (a public object) and auctioned off for notable amounts of money. This in and of itself doesn't bother me. My issue is with the forced commodification of something that Banksy's own work seems to classify as a means of fighting back for a chunk of public space. When that weapon can get cut or chiseled free, and then becomes a commercial object despite the wishes of the creator, that becomes something of a problem for me.

The same thing happened recently with Murakami taking a tagged Murakami billboard, and adding it to his collection.

I'm not saying I'm surprised, or that I don't understand the motivations, but at the same time, this seems reprehensible to me. The value in these pieces, in my opinion, is as a public good. Graffiti serves the commons, whether as inspiration, decoration, or call to arms. I have no issue with a graf artist working for corporate interests, but I have a problem with a public good being turned into a private one for profit.

In short, this is turning graf into what I considered it the antithesis of - advertising - is as much as it takes a public good (space, graf) and turns it into a private one (ads, auction fodder).

The thing is, objectively, there is little difference in this, than in getting an artist to paint on a branded pair of shoes, or bag. So I suppose this was inevitable, although it seems doomed to strip the whole enterprise of meaning.


dirty denim and brand values.

Starting with a polemic: Jeans are more or less interchangeable. There are obviously differences in fit and finish, but more or less everything is based on the original designs by Levi Strauss, which are more or less ancient.

The idea that 'Denim maniacs know that the only way to wear raw selvedge denim is to wear it often and never wash it so that the denim develops natural wear and incredibly unique features like a patina, whiskers, and honeycombs' is something I have been exposed to before (and something I'm currently practicing), but it was put back into my head when I read about the Evisu Dirty Dozen + 1 Project.

The general idea is to pass around a pair of jeans, and add value to it by creating a history and a story. Another, similar idea, arguably even more attached to the idea of authenticity that I have encountered is sending the jeans to be worn in farming communities for 6 months, then selling them worked in. (as referenced in this PDF)

What amuses me is the core idea, wearing in denim over time, creating a personal attachment and story, and stepping outside the brand for value, is completely lost. Buying raw denim and wearing it in yourself can be seen as a signifier of dedication, understanding of fashion, and to a certain extent, individuality (the jeans are yours, partially created by you, and unique). But someone else wearing them in, in a particularly authentic fashion, strikes me as missing the point entirely.

This is the same brand of authenticity which seems to mean 'fake in a real way'. This is the brand of authenticity that makes PBR the beer of choice for hipster trust fund kids.

Associations are all powerful, when creating a brand story, and Evisu is obviously counting on that to overcome the questionable authenticity of having cool people wear jeans to increase their value.

My immediate reaction to dirty denim is that it has the value of placing the consumer directly into the brand story - the product is then unquestionably authentic, because it reaches it's value only when used, and even then, only when used in a manner determined by those dedicated to the idea. The jeans are the same product, whether washed or not - but expressing an understanding of the 'proper' course of action is basically a statement that the brand considers their time with the product preparation, and the consumer should consider it the same.

Masterminding programs to 'create' wear in an authentic manner is amusing, because it's no different than taking a belt sander to the product for 30 seconds and shipping it - except that it also contains a strong whiff of colonialism, masked in the hunt for authenticity. I would be more impressed by the notable charitable value in providing work clothes for farming communities, if it didn't intentionally piggyback on an existing trend. I suppose it amuses me that the charitable aspects are related to getting residents in developing nations to pre-wear jeans for western markets - everything else has been outsourced already.


ignoring cost, piracy vs. legit retailers.

Sometime in the last year, I read a Yahoo exec (Ian Rogers) talking about the future of music. His major point was that the power legal alternatives to downloading had was the ability to add context to consumption - he was willing to admit that the legal music biz had already lost in terms of what people considered the first stop, to consider developing the creation of context and extra content to go with music as an alternative business model.

This is a very good approach to the issue of competing with piracy. If music is already free, what do you sell? However, it appears that the glacial reaction times of the music industry have struck again. The Pirate Bay, beloved destination of copyright criminals everywhere, has (I know not when) started to add context to the files available for download. The kind of context that, arguably, makes the sites illegal downloads a boon to artists, as it shares the albums available from the back catalogue, upcoming shows, and similar artists.

For a look at the Justice artist page, click here.

There is no huge incentive for those at The Pirate Bay to make provisions for this information, it just makes it a better place for users, and make the tools available more complete. Justice, or their label, aren't paying anyone to do this. But it's getting done.

This is why legal music always falls short of the service offered by the illegally downloaded content available. The format is always better, it's always easier (to the suitably tech-savvy), it always works, and there are less hoops to jump through. But most importantly, the focus is always on what will make the users happier - the music industry should be focused on the same thing (considering it would sell records), but instead they skip the keep-customers-happy step, and try to focus more directly on how to sell digital music.

And they fail. Again.


content management systems applied to the music business.

A friend of mine pointed this out to me: officialCOMMUNITY, a company that builds web-presences for musicians, including e-business and online communities. This is, in short, exactly what I feel the music business (the business surrounding music, not the business of making it) should be like - focused on creating a context for music.

I say context because, as I've argued before, the consensus we are dealing with is that the content is not something that can be charged for.

The future of music is in creating services that benefit both the artist, and the consumers, rather than just the system. Companies like officialCOMMUNITY expand my earlier comments on the music business re-imagined as a content management system, where services (expertise, information, connections, etc) are on offer, rather than a strict trade of control for access into a closed, but powerful system.

I'm still waiting, however, for the first targeted concert management company to come together. In a time when live performance revenue is the backbone of an artists earnings, I imagine it would be hard to find a bigger hook than guaranteed sell out shows. All you need is some way to gather the data... I've suggested a few options, if you recall.