TAG | Culture
The internet is a weird and wonderful place. It connects people all around the world, people with niche and sometimes bizarre interests, people that would never meet in everyday life. I once saw a couple on a forum – I was doing that creepy thing where you read everything but don’t join in – who claimed to have been in a long distance relationship for a number of years, they had formidable ‘rep’ and were ‘respected members’ of the forum but it then emerged that they had never actually met. Through these relationships, and others, the internet gives rise to hundreds of new ideas, fads and crazes daily. An internet sub culture has formed and given birth to the internet meme:
What is a meme? Memes are spontaneous, amusing things which reflect some aspect of society or culture and can become every very popular very quickly. Recent popular internet phenomena are the Harlem Shake, before that Gangnam style and in the past we’ve seen planking, Rick rolling, lolcats and the list goes on and on and on and on. They can be anything from images, catchphrases, videos, words or themes, in fact here is a list that Wikipedia has complied and it’s all pretty random.
Yet these seemingly pointless phenomena have much wider implications, particularly on marketing. The aim of marketing is to promote a brand; you want to spread your brand image far and wide. This can be done by brute force – pushing your message in the consumer’s face through relentless adverts in magazines, on buses, on billboards, on TV, on the radio and on websites. But the holy grail of the marketer is known as ‘word of mouth’ – make the customer do the work for you and spread your message on their own. No only is this much less work intensive, but it also is more effective since consumers believe other consumers more than they believe billboards. The internet is busy changing everybody’s lives as usual and has the potential to revolutionise word of mouth marketing through memetic marketing – using memes, as concepts that spread from person to person via the internet, to encourage consumers to share a brand message.
Such phenomena are born and live on the internet, like a shameful secret they were once confined to the shady corners of chatrooms or forums but now they are plastered all over Facebook walls and taped to tweet decks. They are even slowly clambering out of our screens and into the ‘real’ world. (The real world is a place where two individuals in a relationship have had actual face to face physical contact.)
These are ideas and messages that go viral with lightening speed, reaching hundreds of thousands, even millions of people will little to no effort on the part of their creators. It certainly sounds ideal if you’re trying hard to get a certain message across – enter memetic marketing. Memetic marketing, is a term that seems overly technical for something which essentially started just for a bit of a laugh, and it means using memes in marketing campaigns. Simples. Only it’s not quite as simples as it seems.
As we know from the story behind key board cat, these phenomena tend to be things that somebody does messing around in their bedroom late at night that at the time they think is kind of funny, then the internet swallows it up and vomits it out everywhere, so they wake up in the morning and suddenly everyone is doing it. So these things tend to arise fairly organically and happen by chance. Nobody knows what will go viral and what won’t. Satire and political parodies tend to be popular, such as Mitt Romney’s ‘binders full of women’ but ultimately circulation and uptake are decided by the ‘internet community’ on forums, chat rooms, social networking sites and all other areas of web 2.0.
It is important to remember that memes are at heart humorous and simple which renders them not relevant to all marketing campaigns, but if memetic markerting is what you want then you have several options. The first is to piggy back on an existing meme and use this for the basis of your campaign. This is what Virgin Media have done with ‘success kid/victory baby’.The ‘Y U NO guy’ has been used on hipchat adverts and keyboard cat has been used to advertise pistachios. However, choosing the right meme can be tricky. The choice of meme and its meaning must be selected carefully to avoid any mis-interpretations. Memes have a shelf life and die out so using an existing one means that people could already be tired of it. Most importantly, stealing memes could initiate a back lash from an internet community unimpressed by your lack of creativity and willingness to free ride on others.
The second option is to create your own meme and this is obviously a lot harder but can be more rewarding. Old spice created a meme with their campaign ‘the man your man could smell like’ and Compare the Market have created one with their meerkat campaign http://www.comparethemeerkat.com/. You need to come up with something that is genuinely appealing or funny yet is still relevant to your company or product. There is no point generating a hugely popular meme that nobody associates back to you. In this way the meme replaces the traditional marketing ‘catch phrase’ and it needs to be very cleverly designed so that people want to share it of their own volition.
Memetic marketing can be very dangerous, once you’ve released your meme out into the internet wilderness anything could happen and many end up subject to vicious parody http://arcticready.com/arctic-ready. The advice when this happens seems to be ‘just go with it’ – no publicity is bad publicity right? In fact, another way to stir up some meme attention is to create the inspiration for a meme rather than a meme itself – is this the purpose of some campaigns which are so bad they’re good? These campaigns can get a vast amount of attention, although they tend to be more popular if the attention is negative. I cannot believe that the instigators do not foresee the way some campaigns are going to go, like the #IShopAtWaitrose or #susanalbumparty – the latter must be deliberate, how could it not be? If it was it definitely worked – who cared about Susan Boyle’s new album before that and then suddenly, with that hashtag, everyone was interested.
Conclusion – is memetic marketing the future? I’m not so sure, it seems a bit gimmicky to me. Using memes in traditional marketing campaigns seems a bit odd, like taking a fish out of water and then expecting it to leap back into the water to tell all its friends. In digital marketing, however, it is more natural – using memes on social media is like speaking the local language. I suggest we turn to the King of social media for advice – Barack Obama. The subject of many a meme, Obama, during an AMA session on reddit referenced ‘his meme’ and the crowd went wild. He’s following the age old rule of talking to your audience in their own language. He looks cool and people love it. I think this highlights that there are two different ways to use memes – you can acknowledge them and use them to relate to an audience or take advantage of them. Obama does the former, aggressive traditional campaigns do the latter and speaking on behalf of ‘the internet community’ I think we’d all prefer Obama, I mean, the former.
Even the most casual visitor to the blogosphere will by now have read about Chatroulette, the website which indiscriminately matches strangers with each other and allows them to conduct webcam-assisted conversations. Disconcertingly for anyone writing about Chatroulette, there is no consensus on its relationship with capitalisation and spacing (Chat Roulette? ChatRoulette? Chatroulette? I’ve gone with the latter (obviously)). Created and run by Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old Russian student from Moscow, the site was estimated to have had 30 million unique users worldwide in February.
Most of the media coverage of Chatroulette – and there has been a lot of media coverage – seems to have focused on what one blogger calls “the masturbatory aspect of Internet expressiveness”. And, sure enough, a cursory visit to the site can be an unsettling experience for those among us whose idea of entertainment is anything other than watching the graphic onanism of a faceless 19-year-old from Wisconsin.
But others have been using the site more creatively. A number of Chatroulette-based games have become popular – while Merton the improv pianist has become, in his own slightly arrogant words, “a cultural phenomenon”. Meanwhile the imaginatively-named Cat Man has used augmented reality to good effect (as one chat partner says, “IT’S VERY NICE”), and one mischievous user has been taking her partner’s video stream, mirroring it back to them and then recording their reaction. Head bopping is the most common response, apparently. Make of that what you will.
The word “random” is bandied around these days with a regularity that if not alarming is certainly irritating, but Chatroulette is a rare worthy recipient of the adjective. And this randomness is the site’s greatest asset and its greatest flaw. The ease with which users can switch from partner to partner and instantly connect to people on the other side of the world is what makes the site appealing. But it also makes it unsafe for children and faintly pointless for adults.
As Larry Magid has pointed out, Chatroulette – or the idea behind it – has great educational potential. Children can speak to people in Afghanistan about their experiences of the War on Terror – or to women in Iran about life there. Israelis can speak to Palestinians. Creatives experimenting with QR codes or iPad software can learn from people in Japan or the US about these technologies. All these things were possible on the web already, of course, but the introduction of a video element brings people closer together – and this is a powerful thing. The draconian authorities in China have yet to ban Chatroulette, so it is providing a rare opportunity for the inhabitants of the world’s most populous nation to speak openly with Westerners directly and in confidence from the comfort of their homes. But as long as the user has no control over their chat partner, such edifying Chatroulette encounters are the exception rather than the rule.
And this leads to the other significant characteristic of Chatroulette conversation: anonymity. If randomness is one pillar of the site, anonymity is the other. There are no logins, no registration process, no name display – and people love it. Nick Bilton believed the success of the site “signals a nascent desire for anonymity online”. I’m not sure Bilton is right to describe this desire for anonymity as nascent – the anonymity provided by online chat rooms has been attracting many users since their 1990s heyday. In this sense, Chatroulette is not the future of the internet, but its past.
Either way, as with its randomness, Chatroulette’s anonymity is a blessing and a curse. The site is unsafe for children and its anonymity means that users tend to behave in ways they might otherwise not – hence the unsavoury scenes from Wisconsin. As Sarita Yardi, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the role of technology in teenagers’ lives, puts it, “Right now it’s kind of like an online Lord of the Flies.”
Magid suggests the introduction of channels so users can filter chat partners by things like subject matter, language and region. If these changes were implemented, it would no longer be Chatroulette, of course. If each participant in a game of Russian roulette knew which chamber contained the bullet, and chose whether to load that one or not, it would slightly defy the point. And in some ways, allowing users control over their partners would defy the point of Chatroulette. But the idea and the technology could certainly be used for educational purposes. With logins, channels, moderation and supervision, a video chat site could be a great resource to afford people an insight into the lives of others whom they would never encounter otherwise.
Some safeguards have already been put in place by Chatroulette spin-offs like Chatroulette Map, which ties users to their location. RandomDorm is Chatroulette for US college students, and requires them to log in using a verified college email address. But neither harnesses the educational potential of the medium. Until a site can get the security right and the user numbers up, Chatroulette and its various spin-offs will be like so many things on the web: nothing more than a fun way of wasting time. In the words of Cat Man’s chat buddy, it’s very nice – but that’s about it.
Courtesy of blogefl on flickr.com
“Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words” – Shailesh Nalawadi, Product Manager for Google Goggles.
Google’s new Goggles project allows users to gain access to information about an item or location simply by pointing their phone at it. So the phone can connect to reviews of a restaurant, the history of a landmark, or price comparisons for a book – all without any text having been inputted.
The technology works in conjunction with a mobile phone camera; the user takes a photograph of an object and the application scans it, comparing elements of that digital image against its database of images. When it finds a match, Google tells the user the name of what they’re looking at, and provides a list of results linking through to the relevant web pages and news stories.
The results can then be saved as a history, allowing the user to refer back to these links of interest. As the results are programmed to be relevant and are adjusted to each object: if the user takes a photo of an artwork, the results include the artist’s biography; whereas for a landmark, the phone provides historical background information.
Google Goggles also uses optical character recognition to identify text, allowing items such as business cards to be snapped and scanned to make phone calls and to add as a contact in your phone directory. Some results don’t even require a photo to be taken due to integration of GPS, augmented reality and digital compass technology. Simply pointing the phone at a location (a business or shop for example) allows the app to place a button with the company name at the bottom of the screen. This can then be touched to load information from a web search.
Google Goggles demonstrates the potential for computer vision technology, but it is not at its full strength yet (hence it is being released by Google Labs). At the moment users will be able to lookup things like CD, DVD and book covers, wines, barcodes, businesses, artworks, logos and landmarks with great success but other objects will not work so well. Cars, animals and food are still in need of development to be photographically understood. Despite the immaturity of the technology, Google states that Goggles can recognise tens of millions of objects and places.
Google also claims that the technology has the potential for face recognition. So in theory a mobile phone could provide personal information on anyone in its viewfinder. Clearly this raises some pretty major privacy issues – and there are currently no plans to release this feature of Goggles. As Vic Gundotra, Google’s Vice-President of Engineering, has said, “We still want to work on the issues of user opt-in and control. We have the technology to do the underlying face recognition, but we decided to delay that until safeguards are in place.”
With this new technology comes exciting prospects for education. Visual search allows for a more interactive and creative form of learning; education can be taken outside the classroom without the need to carry text books for reference. And the fact that these searches can be stored in a history allows for retaining and referring back to this knowledge later.
For example, a class could visit an art gallery on a school trip and simply take photos of the exhibits without having to make a note of the artist. This allows for a liberated experience not tied to pens and paper. Web links generated by these photos would allow a student to purchase a(n e-)book about the artist before they have even left the gallery.
This mobile learning style could engender a sense of adventure and exploration while still linking learners to reference material. Classes could strolls around a new city, capturing images to discover the history of buildings and landmarks. Google Labs state in their accompanying video that they envisage Google Goggles being able to discover the species of plant from a leaf. An added bonus to this visual search ensures that the students need not worry about spelling mistakes and the phrasing of searches in order to gain the results that they require.
Neither the technology behind the application nor the concept is entirely new. Quick Response (QR) codes are two-dimensional barcodes which link to online content when the user takes a photo of one on their camera phone. A simple piece of software enables the phone read the URL encoded within the QR code, and the user is taken directly to that site in the mobile browser.
Image-based searching isn’t completely new either. Prior attempts at the technology include Nokia’s Point and Find and Amazon’s image recognition search released in October. The most similar product on the market is an application called IQ Engines. But this has a much more commercial focus – connecting mobile users with reviews, prices and purchase links. It remains to be seen whether Google can bring the technology into the mainstream.
The real-time environment of the internet has evolved a concerning dichotomy for fact and fiction. When Michael Jackson died in June, word spread too fast for Google to cope, and the site began blocking any search for “Michael Jackson”. But the lust for up-to-the-minute news could not be kept at bay – word spread through tweets and other micro-blogs regardless. Real time reporting had the edge.
Or did it? On the very same day, Jeff Goldblum was also reported dead, provoking a similar unstoppable surge of rumours and gossip
Real-time internet may be powerful in keeping up-to-date with news, but it most certainly lacks reliability – Jeff Goldblum, as it turns out, is not dead after all. Therein lies the problem. In the explosion of information surrounding extremely recent events, how can we distinguish fact from fiction when we don’t know how the fuse was lit?
Real time is the talk of the internet search town at the moment. Twitter, the biggest contributor to real-time data, continues to grow in popularity and Twitter Search, the only real-time search engine with access to all tweets, is in a powerful position. But a wave of search engines which pull together data from across the web have sprung up recently. Sites like Collecta, OneRiot, and Scoopler broaden real-time search to include blogs, articles, photos, and videos as well as tweets. And in recent months the big players have shown that they want a piece of the action too: Google, Bing and Facebook have all taken steps to keep up with the real-time crowd.
But what exactly is real-time search and why is everyone so excited about it? Traditionally, search engines like Google have organised their results based on authority. Sites have authority if they have grown slowly and organically over time. Real-time search engines, on the other hand, sort their results by how recent they are. Through these search engines, users can access a river of the latest information on whatever topic they choose.
Increasingly people are turning to the web to find out what is happening right now – the recent protests in Iran are a perfect example (and a frequently mentioned one). But when you search for a term in a traditional search engine the results look very similar day after day. If a volcano is erupting, followers on the web do not want to read an old article about the properties of lava, however authoritative it may be. With the real-time web your results will be different every time, and often refresh before your eyes. So no out-of-date articles, and no need to wait for news; users have access to up-to-the-minute comments and images. They can find out what is happening at the heart of a demonstration or at the site of a volcanic eruption as the event is taking place.
The real-time web also tells you what topics everyone’s talking about. Most real-time search engines display trending topics, the most popular at that moment, and many can sort results by categories such as sport or entertainment. Want to know what your colleagues will be talking about at work tomorrow? A real-time search will probably tell you.
But a real-time search will probably also tell you all the information you didn’t want to know, or didn’t care about. Aside from rumours becoming gospel faster than you think possible, the current main disadvantage of real-time search engines is their inability to filter unwanted messages or irrelevant noise from results. The river just keeps on flowing regardless of what it has picked up along the way.
Collecta have openly stated they are currently paying no regard to relevancy in their results. Oneriot, however, have begun to experiment with reliability by introducing Pulserank, a toolbar which not only takes into account the freshness of the information, but also the authority of the website and person posting the information, alongside the velocity of the information passing around the whole web. The potential for the tool is huge, but although this seems like a reasonable approach, it may not catch something important as fast as simply watching the unadulterated stream.
Although far from fully effective, the Pulserank toolbar does pave the way for the necessary filters which real-time searching will require as the phenomenon grows. More users will undoubtedly lead to more spam and more noise being generated, increasing the need for an effective filter barrier. The challenge for real-time search engines is to combine recency, relevancy and reliability in their results without becoming elitist and losing the organic chatter of the online crowd.
Problems aside, the current animation surrounding the technology should lead to exciting developments. One such possibility being the use of real-time internet searching as an alert system – by signaling variations in the stream of mentions for a particular query, any abnormal rise in the quantity of chatter would trigger a notification. So the future of real-time search is bright, if hazy. Entrepreneur Edo Segal believes that old-school search will never vanish, but real-time news will create a society where we have an omnipresent sense of the moment.
In an interesting development last week, video sharing site Veoh left court relieved having successfully fought off copyright-related allegations. The victory could be good news for Youtube who are in the midst of a similar copyright battle themselves.
In response to Veoh’s victory, Youtube commented that they too ‘go above and beyond the law to protect content owners whilst empowering people to communicate and share their experiences online’. Whilst this immediately sounds like philosophical spin, I think it is important to look a little deeper at the ‘power’ and impact of Youtube.
Browsing the blogs I stumbled across Anthropologist bigwig Dr Michael Wesch who has been singing Youtube’s praises from the rooftops, or the digital soapbox, studying in depth the value of the virtual community. Most can appreciate Youtube on an everyday basis but what I found interesting about this guy was his determination to investigate the ethics and implications of the website. Who’d have thought there was more to it than Star Wars kid?!
Wesch’s research stems from his ‘participant observation’ methodology by which he submerges himself in social, cultural or occupational practises so as to gain a fully fledged understanding of them. It is this kind of strategy that journalist Louis Theroux is famed for, most recently entangling himself in the cosmetic surgery industry.
Louis Theroux goes ‘Under the Knife’
I enjoyed watching Wesch as he quirkily attempted to become a ‘youtuber’ in the same way that Louis Theroux gives you an access all areas pass on his ‘weird weekends’. I didn’t even have to leave my desk (not that I would have had to, ironically!).
Wesch serves up some great food for thought about the influence of Web 2.0, it made me think about the impact it has had on so many lives worldwide. Essentially:
Change in media and technology = change in human relations = change to lifestyle
My favourite illustration of Wesch’s was his likening of Youtube to the fall of the corner grocery store at the hands of the supermarket juggernauts. This honest observation illuminates man’s need for community, relationships and authenticity whilst we strive in the modern world for individualism, independence and commercialisation – a sad and complex tension. I think Wesch is strangely right when he says that Youtube bridges this gap because it is a community of individuals.
This community means that the vlog can potentially be viewed by millions of people. The strange thing is that in reality a vlogger is actually alone addressing a single camera, exposing their thoughts and feelings to an unknown mass of other users. There is certainly something disconcertingly Orwellian about this invisible audience. Despite this, the vlog has liberated people worldwide; ‘Hi Youtube’, a common opening to entries, has become our modern day ‘dear diary’.
Wesch’s discussion of hyper self-awareness praises the ‘diary-room’ setup for providing self-examination as well as the freedom (because of physical distance) to openly engage in dialogues with other users. Debate ranges from grappling with the finer details of Britney Spears’ breakdown to political rants! From the weird and the wonderful to the sober and the serious, 9232 hours of video is broadcasted on Youtube every day. In the last six months, Youtube has produced more than the 1.5 million hours of programming cobbled together over 60 years by the three major US television networks. What is incredible is that 88% of it all is new and original material. The world of vlogging has had an enormous impact upon this.
‘Leave Britney Alone!’ cries vlogger Chris Crocker
Evidently pressure mounts on Youtube and friends to tighten their leash on the user-upload/copyright chimera. The threat posed to this innovative environment by a $3 Billion lawsuit could be catastrophic, but with Veoh off the hook users are now optimistic about the website’s future.
Do, if you have time, check out Dr Wesch’s video: