'the medium is the message' and 'messages by the medium' - corporate social media.

Everyone remembers 'The Medium is the Message' - it's succinct, and is a great reminder that means of delivery alters potential interpretation.  It's a classic for a reason.

We're reaching the era of 'Message for the Medium' - your content will have to be defined by, and tailored to, the limitations and most importantly cultures of each medium.  Regurgitating the same creative across social networks, banner ads, billboards and TV spots won't work unless your creative operates like a native, to the natives on each platform.  Awkwardness is tantamount to invasion, and will be responded to as such.

Corporate blogging is almost always terrible, mostly because it's usually press release content, advertising content, or marketing content designed for another channel, spooged into blog form.

[Spooged is, if I remember right, taken from Douglas Coupland's Microserfs - the context is in taking an application made for one OS, and then screwing with it until it works on another one.]

Spooging content is poised to become an even bigger problem, for many reasons.  First, social media has larger corporations in a panic, and they are starting to demand a presence without understanding that they don't fit.  Second, old business models are being made less relevant by the second, so content and business plan are being spooged into new media in an attempt to 'modernize' without having to completely re-create a revenue stream.  Third, mobile internet, and mobile social media, are going to be dead easy to sell (who wouldn't want to advertise in someone's pocket) and hard to execute.  The first iteration of this will be horrid, like most first iterations.

Some corporations have such a perfect angle, though, I wish I could convince them to blog just so I could enjoy it.  The one I want most: 3M's Research and Development Division.  A bunch of geniuses with a colossal budget creating tiny outbursts of the future, and sharing it with us step by step and constructive narratives by both the research team, and the project.  But it won't happen, due to trade secrets and the simple fact that it's too alien a concept for the higher ups to approve.  But it's an example where a corporate element would actually fit into the character and requirements of blogging, as opposed to trying to turn the medium into something more familiar.

penny arcade, authenticity, and branding

Yesterday morning, I downloaded the demo of Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode One: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.  Then I purchased the full version.  Then I played the whole thing before I went to sleep, told at least 5 people how much fun it was, had a long conversation about how it was accessible*, in relation to my recent post on gaming and exclusivity, and woke up this morning wanting to play it again.

This post is going to be able the game, yeah, but more importantly it's going to be about authenticity, in an odd way.

Penny Arcade is an absurdly popular webcomic, it has a colossal audience, and it has an untold amount of influence in terms of the videogaming media.  This includes PAX, a hugely influential convention, and Child's Play, a charity that, frankly, is the only piece of evidence you need to throw in the face of someone who says young people today only care about themselves and their toys.

We're talking about a pair of guys, and the company that is built around them, who are best known for brutal sarcasm, frank appraisals of fail, and a great collective sense of humour.  And although anyone successful is accused of selling out, I think they've remained very honest and very connected with the dynamic that made them famous.  This is despite massive amounts of money, creating promotional content for major studios as a kind of side business, and now, creating their own game.  

When someone starts out as a critic of sorts, then moves to being a collaborator with the large, supposedly evil companies, then begins creating in the medium that spawned them, it usually does not go over well.

Authenticity, in my conception, is more accurately described as the ability to grow and evolve without making your audience feel as though you have betrayed them.  That feeling of betrayal is simple enough to understand - they have been using allegiance to your brand as a sign of their intended persona.  They associate with you because you help define them clearly to others, whether this is conscious or not.

The short version is, people like brands because they want to be seen as like that brand.  Lots of people want to be associated with the what the fictionalized Gabe and Tycho represent.

There are many reasons the PA guys are seen as remaining authentic, and I could reference the tendency of the target market to accept corporate success as a goal, or the particular brand of sarcasm, etc.  But the two main things that come to mind are quality, and what seems like a complete refusal to consider compromise on core values.

By and large, everything that comes out of PA is good.  Varying degrees of good, sure, but none of it feels like an out and out cash grab, because it is 1) absurdly niche, and 2) totally willing to bite the hand that feeds.

That willingness to bite is the refusal to compromise I was talking about.  They will shit on your brand, the game you really needed to be a blockbuster, your promotions, your screenshots, whatever you happen to do that will offend them.  And they will smile as you take your business elsewhere, because, from what I've seen, they won't work with you if you suck anyways.

What I'm trying to say is there is a certain brand of antisocial, unreasonable geekery that is integral to a brand like Penny Arcade, with that level of scope, maintaining the qualities that make people everywhere in their niche, want to be associated with them.  Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is a lot of fun, and it's a great game, but really it's impressive because nothing was toned down, nothing was taken to an extreme.  It was faithful.  Barely anything switches from one medium to another and remains faithful. [There is another post in here somewhere, I'll find it.]

The funniest part is, I don't think any of this was intentional.  This was, for lack of a better word, an authentic representation of the personalities behind the comic, not a strategy.

*[In relation to my post on accessibility, this game still does what I was complaining about - it's major reference points in game play are those great old adventure games, like Final Fantasy.  It runs on more or less the same mechanics.  But it was fun for someone like me, because, well, I loved those games.  And it transcended them because the writing, the art, and the humour were very, very original.  Go Play It.  You'll probably like it.]


on brand tags.

Noah Brier has put together one of those things that reminds you what the internet is good for.  Brand Tags is simple and functional - it tells you what people think of when they see logos.  It's interesting to read, but more importantly, oddly pleasurable to use.  Checking it out pretty much guarantees you'll spend a few minutes typing out what Hienz, for example, brings to mind.

It's an interesting tool, but it drives home the difference between my approach and most other people's.  My immediate question is what common ground connects brands - what brands have the most tags in common, which brands in different markets share similar mindspace.

Knowing what comes to mind when people look at your brand is useful, and it's intriguing for me to see the connections people make (guess how often adidas is connected to song lyrics?) I feel like my personal interests are more geared to crossreferencillia.  Anyways, Brand Tags.  Check it out before it gets ruined by people trying to be disruptive or witty.  


narrowing audiences by catering to them.

I was recently attempting to explain why I don't play many videogames to Angus McQuarrie, a friend of mine who is an avid gamer, and on the cusp of starting out in that industry. His assumption was half right, that I don't play more 'complex' (read, non-nintendo) games because I don't get any gratification from them in the short term.

The reason behind this, though, is that the majority of blockbuster videogames are absolutely incomprehensible to me, in terms of control scheme, and game dynamics. I have pretty good reflexes, and I have an excellent academic understanding of different game dynamics, but I am useless at playing a game aimed at the 'hardcore gamer' well enough to enjoy it. Whenever I attempt to play Halo, or GTA, I get killed a dozen times in the first ten minutes, and then think to myself 'There are things I can do that I will actually enjoy' and go off in search of one of those things.

The game is designed with a curve that appeals to the people the game is marketed to. This is the fairly large segment of people, they are the ones who give the aforementioned game franchises opening weekend tallies that embarrass the biggest blockbuster films. But I, and many others, don't fit into it.

I don't speak videogame. Which is fine, except that the games which become pop culture touchstones are entirely inaccessible to me - I can't draw on past experiences, skills developed in previous iterations, and understanding of how to solve a specific problem with the controls that an avid gamer would know intuitively at this point. This is because gaming has, in part, evolved to meet the need of that specific subset of hardcore gamer - to keep them engaged, the references and experiences they have developed needed to be built upon.

When I try to play a game aimed at the hardcore gamer, it's as though I decided Finnegan's Wake would be an excellent follow up to the initial reading experience of Goodnight Moon.

Comics (the mainstream superhero market) has the same problem. The people who buy comics now are the same ones who were buying them 5 years ago. And, to cater to those consumers, continuity is an appalling mess for anyone not intimately familiar with the characters and history, impossible to delve in to. Even ignoring the tendency for Marvel and DC to directly reference events from the mid 80s, certain that the readership will understand, most flagship titles are now written based on the assumption that the reader at least superficially follows another 5 or more titles, within that company alone.

Both of these markets, the hardcore gamer, and the hardcore comic reader, have inherent limits to their size. Consumers will age, lose interest, decide to move on, and the product is not accessible to a larger group of potential new consumers.

The solution to this problem is to challenge and engage people by creating new experiences, not just further refining old ones, increasing the complexity to flatter those who have developed insider status. Nintendo does this, after falling behind in an attempt to compete by refining it's old experiences, by stepping outside of the conventional control scheme. Many comics publishers are doing the same, creating new worlds and content that doesn't re-hash the same tropes and characters as the mainstream successes.

The problem is, that this process of refining and focusing on a mainstream, hardcore consumers in both mediums has gone on for a long time. Long enough that the scope of the medium is conflated with the mainstream successes. It's very difficult to avoid - when I say comics, you think superheroes, and when I say videogames, you think sci-fi, fantasy, or crime - based characters completing tasks in search of reward or advancement. And of course, when the mainstream products all inhabit that genre-space, all media attention further supports that bias.

In short, developing a relationship with your core audience is great, but the potential fallout is altering your product to the point where it will not appeal to anyone else. If you can't continue a relationship with your current followers, without driving other potential customers away, you're doing something wrong on a very basic level.


nin, the slip, and tailoring your product to multiple consumer profiles.

Recently, Nine Inch Nails released yet another album, The Slip, online, for free. This was, for me, enough information to start speculating as to the strategy that Trent Reznor is going for. Frankly, if he's doing what I think he's doing, he's not just dedicated to figuring out a better way to sell music online, he's actively looking at how the online space fits into the greater business of music, including touring, promotions, etc.

Ghosts, which I wrote about at length, was released about two months ago. By any reasonable analysis, it was a product for true fans - instrumental, sprawling, beautiful and haunting, but without a single to drive it, or potential for much radio play, or even a great likelihood that an individual track would stand out, rather than the entire record being considered a singular experience.

NIN has enough of a true fan base that projects such as this will make money - knowing this, it was released in many forms, allowing real fans to spend as much as they wanted to a) support the band, and b) get a physical object at the same time as the instant gratification digital download. While nothing is piracy proof, pretty much the only people who were deeply interested in Ghosts already cared about the band. No one heard it on the radio and ran to the Pirate Bay for a copy.

Ghosts was an album for the real remaining market for albums. People who love the band, the album experience, and the cachet that comes with ownership and status as a real supporter.

After my copy of Ghosts arrived in the mail, about a week ago, I received an email from the NIN Store, informing me of tour dates, and tickets going on sale (as well as early chances to buy, for the 'true fan' faithful who purchased Ghosts).

The Slip is a more mainstream product. It's a rockier album, less sprawling, with lyrics, pounding beats, and radio play potential. It's a mainstream product. As such, it's prime piracy fodder - it will be publicized, popularized, and spread far faster and wider than Ghosts ever could have been.

I have a lot of trouble believing this didn't factor heavily into the decision to release it for free.

There will be a physical release later, to satisfy the 'trufans', and capitalize again on the segment of the market that buys albums, but think of the promotional potential. For the trufans, The Slip is a preview of what they'll see at the show they were just granted early ticket buying opportunities for. For everyone else, it's a reminder that the guys who made Year Zero are touring again, and this is what you will hear.

The release of The Slip is, in my mind, an admission that mainstream records are a promotional tool for ancillary goods, such as concert tickets and merch. They still have value to the dedicated trufan population as an individual product, and will be marketed to them as such, capitalizing on that loyalty. But now downloads aren't considered lost revenue, or theft. It's an expansion of the promotional process, one that uses the tools of the revolutionaries. (The larger versions of the record are downloaded via bittorrent.)


  • If this is the reasoning / structure behind this release, recordings are both a promotional tool for the casual, and a product to the faithful, while diminishing neither.
  • This option likely increases the potential for income related to the tour, and later release of the record (although that is a guess, educated or otherwise).
  • The trufan population is rewarded with little enhancements like physical product, and early ticket sales, thereby granting them the special status that keeps them coming back, along with an innate sense of superiority.
  • Trent Wins.
It doesn't hurt that The Slip is another great record, artfully packaged for the medium of it's release, with details like different album art for each song.

This is how you deal with change. You adapt your business model not to the differences in distribution, but instead to the differences in consumer behaviour and interests that those changes have enabled and created.


the unrestrained data shadow.

A discussion with Angus of Ghostrazor about the point of Halo novels got me thinking. I support brand extension, and building a larger history to interact with, but do I support the creation of stand-alone consumables that exist expressly for this purpose? I'm still trying to figure out where I stand.

The example that came up was Star Wars, and how the expansion of the universe through games, comics, novels, action figures, etc, is what kept the brand strong until Lucas released episode one - three, and ruined all of it. Unquestionably, there was a lot of crap involved in that endless stream of product, but it served a purpose - films that were decades old remained relevant, discussed, and in possession of a fandom that is hard to argue with. That fandom is a pretty solid justification for why most sci-fi or action films immediately have a companion novel, video game, and graphic novel waiting on store shelves at release.

The part that I'm not so sold on is the apparent irrelevance of quality, or 'fit', to the benefit of this enterprise. I'd argue that Halo doesn't have enough plot, or character depth, for a novel to be of real value. I think webisodes, or ARG, or even comics could make an excellent extension of the brand, but I assume a Halo novel ignores the only non-character of note the franchise created (Master Chief) and sets up a completely separate group of characters, dealing with alien war on ring-shaped worlds. There's nothing inherent in the book that makes it connected to Halo, other than the cover. There's not really justification, excepting the value of brand extensions in building a dedicated fandom.

What depressed me, is that brand dilution isn't really a worry with creative properties like video games, because everyone already accepts and expects the cash-grab extensions like novels, regardless of how crappy. The quality of the core property carries it, as long as the fandom is 1) slightly underground, and 2) not too critical.

I include those caveats because, well, Tom Clancy. The man has written several solid books, but now his name (and brand) is pasted on anything, because someone will buy it. In my circles, at least, this has made Tom Clancy a joke. I'm wondering how much longer until brand expansion is something carefully considered, because any sub-par offering, anything done only for the financial return, will discredit an entire product line.

I think we've already reached this point in music, because there is an (absurd) expectation of authenticity in that medium. When will crap like the 24 magazine, the Lost magazine, the Heroes Magazine, novels, etc, be abandoned, because the potential influx of cash isn't worth the risk of the brand becoming more known for it's endless desire for easy money, than for the creatively viable core product.

Context is great and powerful, but injecting crap into the mix to increase the data shadow is, to me, the same as re-writing the core product to make it worse.