CAT | 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 as you can see it’s all pretty random.
Yet these seeminly 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.
In the build up to this weeks Changing Media Summit 2013, disruptive digital innovation has been a hot topic. The term, first coined by Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, describes the process in which ‘a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors’. Since the 1990s there has been a succession of digitally disruptive and ‘game changing’ enterprises. These have been rapidly debasing traditional business models across the media, entertainment, retail, financial and education sectors. In a report by the BBC, Saul Klein from Index Ventures comments:
‘Our long-term belief is that there is no sector that will not end up being changed by a combination of the Internet and software’
So what are the key features that make a digital innovation disruptive? So far common features of such innovations include:
- The opening up of products and services to customers at the lower end of the market who don’t necessarily require all functionalities offered by current products
- Business models which work from a grass-roots perspective, facilitating new, non-corporate interactions between individuals in these new markets
Kickstarter and Airbnb are two of the most successful examples of such innovations. Kickstarter has revolutionised the funding of new ideas, products and services; allowing innovators to bypass the financial sector in securing backing for new ideas, through individuals willing to pledge money through the site. So far Kickstarter has been responsible for the launch of 90,851 new products and services worth over 500 million dollars. Airbnb is a platform allowing people to book rooms at other people’s houses, as advertised on the site; it has been described as an innovation ‘turning spare rooms into the world’s hottest hotel chain’ (Austin Carr). In Airbnb’s fourth year of operations it facilitated over 10 million bookings worldwide and is currently surpassing the Hilton hotel chain in terms of the number of rooms filled. However, it is naïve to think that it has been plain sailing for all disruptive innovators, Über cars is a notable example that has generated considerable controversy (see here for more details).
It is clear that the acceleration in such developments over the last 5 years is no coincidence. With website and app creation becoming progressively more accessible, and an increased distrust of global corporations since the financial crisis, these types of innovations seem to be part of a natural progression. So should these innovations be seen as a threat or an opportunity? Many companies have taken a fearful stance towards such innovations, however as Genevive Shore (Chief Information Officer and Director of Digital Strategy at publishers Pearson) argues:
‘digital disruptions push companies forward to be more radical in our approach to digital, and more courageous’
In a recent report by the BBC, the greater benefits of a focus on creativity and digital development are evident; in tough economic times the digital and creative sectors have shone through. According to the study, this is currently the UK’s fastest expanding sector, contributing over 6% of Britain’s GDP and employing over 2 million people (read more here about the thriving technology sector). So it is clear that this growth in disruptive innovation is good for business and the UK economy, spurring companies to think innovatively to remain at the cutting edge. As Lisa Arthur of Forbes Magazine argues, it is clear that companies must face and embrace these ‘powerful and incredibly motivating’ innovations head-on.
A few days ago I was congratulating Graca Machel (current wife of Nelson Mandela) for being the only woman ever to have been the First Lady of two different states. I then realised that a) the bus was moving very slowly, and b) I didn’t know much about her first husband, the socialist post-independence President of Mozambique. Enter Wikipedia, pursued by a bear. After reaching the climax (death by plane crash – at the hands of either inebriated soviet pilots or merciless Apartheid agents), I noticed that the article could be read in *31* alternative languages. Alongside the major ‘international’ languages (by which I mean, widely spoken as second languages or studied outside their regions of origin, the article is also available (albeit in greater brevity) in Belarusian (7.6m native speakers), Breton (206k), Catalan (11.5m), Estonian (1m), Georgian (7m), Latin (0), Lithuanian (3.2m), Mongol (5.7m), Occitan (2m), Venetan (2m).
On scanning the list, my initial sentiment was one of embarrassment – embarrassment that I didn’t know that Belorussia or Venice even had their own tongues, or that Occitan was even a thing anymore (it appears to have more native speakers than than all six Celtic languages combined).
Emerging from this introspective shock, I noticed that the article only appeared in one language of African ‘origin’ (not the sturdiest of criteria, but here I’m excluding French, Portuguese, English and Arabic) – Ido. This I found bemusing, as I was pretty sure that Ido was West African (ergo, pretty far from Mozambique). Once again smacked down by Wikipedia, I soon discovered that I was thinking of Igbo (spoken by 24m in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea); Ido actually appears to be a descendant of Esperanto, and has a paltry 100-200 ‘users’.
And so, I was kind of stunned that an article about one of sub-Saharan Africa’s great independence leaders is available in a range of languages demographically-minor European languages (almost all speakers of which are multilingual), but not a single non-European language of Mozambique, or indeed of sub-Saharan Africa. According to a 2007 survey, Emakhuwa is the mother tongue of around a quarter of the Mozambican population, while only 10% claim Portuguese as their first language (although it is the second language of a further 40%).
Wikipedia handily details all 286 languages in which the page on Samora Machel is available, ordering them by the number of articles for which they are used. Incredibly, only seven ‘African’ languages are in the top 200: Yoruba (75th, with ca. 30k pages); Afrikaans (82nd, 26k); Swahili (84th, 25k); Amharic (112th, 12k); Somali (179th, 2.5k). ; Lingala (194th, 2k); and Kinyarwanda (200th, 1.8k). A further 31 African languages have a ‘wiki-presence’.
It makes sense; if you need to use the web to publicise a product, service or opinion, using Tswana, Kikuyu or Ewe makes little sense. It goes without saying that the global reach of the internet forces suppliers to market their wares/thoughts to a wider audience than they would in previously more localised markets. Uganda alone has over forty languages; although many within the same linguistic group may be mutually intelligible to a degree, the much wider comprehension of English makes it a much more dependable choice for anyone looking to use the web for intranational purposes (let alone international).
It’s not feasible to hope that individuals and businesses in African countries devote time to the creation and maintenance of web resources in languages other than (and possibly in addition to) those which will allow them to achieve their key economic or philosophical goals. It would actually be pretty paternalistic. But it is pertinent to ask if, as the web becomes an increasingly important mode of communication in ‘developing’ countries, can indigenous languages survive as means of verbal communication while being relegated to digital redundancy? UNESCO estimates that 90% of individuals in developing areas have no access to broadband, but a raft of initiatives (e.g. Inveneo’s BB4G) employing new business models and cheap technologies are changing the connectivity landscape at pace. Avanti’s HYLAS 2 satellite, launched in August 2012, has reduced dependence for millions in eastern and southern Africa on unreliable undersea cables. While cost may still be prohibitive to many, there’s an expectation this will decrease over time. As societies in Africa become increasing engaged in digital communications, how will the position of indigenous languages in the non-digital sphere develop?
It may even be possible to correlate the rise of the internet with the recently declining status of indigenous languages. Between the 1997 and 2007 Mozambican censuses, there was (apparently) a significant increase in the number of people claiming portuguese as their mother tongue to 10%. 42.9% of the inhabitants of the capital Maputo held the post-colonial language as their first language in 2007, although I couldn’t find out what this rose from. It would be interesting to see if it’s possible to plot sociolinguistic identity against the growth in internet access, although undoubtedly other factors must have major roles to play (tourism, demographic shift, increased literacy). If anyone knows of any relevant literature, forward it on!
Millions of people sleep at night completely unaware that personalised search has steadily been revolutionising the way they see the web and, as with most Google led initiatives, there’s essentially nothing we can do about it…or is there?
Imagine the internet as a vast department store filled with everything you could possibly think of and many things you’d rather not. Google’s place in this department store is the plucky store attendant; tell them what you’re looking for and they’ll gladly guide you to the relevant bits of the store. In the carefree days before personalised search, Google would guide everyone searching for ‘shoes’ to the same shop filled with only the most relevant items, presumably shoes. Now this store attendant takes us to our own bespoke storefront filled with shoes in exactly my size and taste; some utopian retail fantasy where the bricks and mortar are data culled from my past shopping excursions and those of my friends. It’s a favourable analogy: this notion of personalisation has been the death of the retail high street. In the online world where everything is freely available in shiny web 2.0 style, the consumer and search user expects, nay demands, to get exactly what they want.
But the façade of user control is a thinly veiled one. The problem with the covert landing of personalised web over the past few years is just this – it’s entirely justifiable from a user experience point of view. Hate them as you will, but the Panda and Penguin updates did actually provide better results for the casual searcher; this has always been Google’s prerogative despite the indignant gnatter of the SEO’s keyboard. This new UX incentive seems a little twisted though. Clearly everyone likes what they like so there is considerable justification in throwing up related items again and again in search results. But we may also like things we don’t know we like and more importantly, things Google doesn’t know we like. Perhaps I don’t want the same Italian restaurant in my area, but even after the food poisoning subsides the search history remains. I want to holiday somewhere new this year, far away from all my friends and everything they like and generally everyone else on the web, will Google let me? What if I want to boldly go where my search history has never taken me before?
Internet searchers have responded to the increasing relevancy of Google’s search results by making it their shop attendant of choice (alas poor Jeeves, I knew ye not), but personalised search have moved away from this key metric. The notion seems to be that by showing us results we’ve responded to before before, Google is second guessing our future preferences, presumably to make the choice easier, quicker or remove it altogether. But my search history is a terrible approximation of who I am and what I want and thus what is relevant to me. What if I’m on a public computer, my friend’s browser, his Gmail account, what if I mistyped those saucy search terms and never want Google suggesting them at work again? The illusion is that I have already chosen these results through my past search activity, that I am in control here – the reality is that Google’s algorithms are in control.
So is personalised search better in any sense? The pedantic answer is that it depends what you mean by ‘search’; Google, after all, would be the first to concede that not all searches and searchers are the same. Whether any of this bothers you or not will probably depend on whether you’re the semi-mythical user who always knows exactly what they want, or, more likely, if you’re just conducting a basic informational search. But to fall in the other camp you don’t even have to construct leftist arguments about equality and freedom of online information to all, you just have to posses that very human characteristic of mutability.
One site that seems to recognise this is Match.com. Their occasional suggestions of people who don’t fit your ‘type’ recognise the fascist half-truth that the people probably don’t know what’s good for them. ‘I am not just what I search’; a new kind of social rallying-cry against the algorithmic oppressors. Don’t shout it from the streets, rage against the search engine my friends. Turn off personalised search now and rediscover the joy of finding what you weren’t looking for.
This Christmas will see the 2012 Furby revival. The mechanical fur covered children’s must-have of the late nineties has been revamped and is back for a new generation of children to enjoy. The 2012 re – furbish – ments include LCD screen eyes which are even more disturbing that their slowly blinking predecessors, a more complicated mechanical body for an impressively large array of dance moves and more sensors so it will be even harder to turn off. Furbys remain without an off switch. But the most exciting addition is that the 2012 Furby comes with its own smart phone and tablet app.
You will be able to feed your Furby by virtually flinging food at it via an app – a vast improvement on just putting your finger in its mouth. And at last you can get an app that will translate Furbish. So you can finally understand that “yoo?” means “Why will you not play with me today?” along with the subtext “This usually means the Furby is upset”. This is, of course, only useful if you are too lazy to teach your Furby English.
The return of Furbys may not seem significant and indeed the popularity of the 2012 Furby may prove to be as short lived as its forebearers. But the kind of technology they offer and the uses to which it is employed are unlikely to be a fad.
Smart phone and tablet apps for children are very popular – 75% of parents share their smartphones with their children according to a recent study in the UK. There are thousands of apps specifically designed for children which range from educational games to apps for their favourite Disney character. The combination of an app with a physical – more traditional – toy is the next step in the evolution of children’s entertainment. The simplest way to integrate an app and toy is to create an app that functions as a remote control. For example, you can use your phone or tablet as steering wheel to control toy cars or helicopters. More impressive apps go beyond this, such as the app gun which uses a device’s camera to turn the screen into a view finder; transforming your surroundings into a battle field.
The app enhances the toy and the act of playing with it beyond the physicality of the toy itself and in doing so the app creates an augmented reality. Playing and experimenting is how children learn, so there will inevitably be worries regarding any detrimental effects relating to augmented reality i.e. that children will somehow be unable to function in reality.
Will it confuse children? Will it spoil them? Will it make them lazy? Whether augmented reality and gaming are beneficial to learning is a topic that we discuss regularly in this blog. Augmented reality creates new experiences and new ways to interact with topics and as a result facilitates learning.
Many commentators on news reports favour the ‘in my day we had nothing but imagination’ approach to attacking advances in augmented reality. The danger being that children could be presented with toys so brilliant that they don’t have to use their own imagination to have fun. These commentators forget that augmented reality works with imagination to ignite it not to replace it. Augmented reality involves the suspension of disbelief which requires imagination.
There are augmented reality apps that harness children’s imagination for their own benefit, for example the app that claims to make plasters fun. It aims to take away the fear associated with plasters for the child’s –minimal – health benefit demonstrating the possible constructive applications of this technology.
In 1998, age 8, I had a Furby for Christmas. A year later my sister had a Baby Furby. My main memories of the late nineties Furby craze are children telling horror stories. Terrifying tales of Furbys awakening mysteriously in the middle of the night were swapped around the classroom. Furbys that mysterious moved from across the bedroom through the night. Furbys that kept talking when they had their batteries removed.
Just typing the phrase ‘furbys are’ into google produces the above results indicating my recollections may be part of a wider phenomenon. It is very hard to prevent a child’s imagination from enhancing any toy and I doubt that the toys of the future, including this year’s Furby, will escape any imaginitive improvements.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are running for president in what has widely been said to be the first true social media election. The Democrats’ superior use of social media is claimed to be one of the factors behind Obama’s victory in 2008 and four years later the Republicans are determined to keep up. When 94% of social media users of voting-age are likely to watch an entire political message online the opportunity to be heard is unmissable.
Much of the debate surrounding this issue focuses on what social media means for politics and future political campaigns. Will facebook friends, followers and retweets become marks on a ballot form? Will events such as Obama’s ‘Twitter Town Hall’ replace more traditional grassroots political activities? Social media might be reshaping the political landscape, but what does all this political interfering mean for social media?
Politicians need to spread their message as far and as wide as possible and social media provides a platform to communicate with a vast network of users. We’ve seen businesses do the same and use social media sites to spread their brand message. But are they ‘taking advantage of’ or ‘manipulating’ social media? No, because social media can facilitate communication between politicians and citizens; on a broad scale as well as a personal one but most importantly it allows citizens to communicate back.
There is something about harnessing social media to aid political campaigns that makes me feel uneasy. But I think the reason for this is because campaigners’ approaches feel measured and calculated in a way that is in opposition to the free and easy flow of information that I associate with Web 2.0. There are teams of people who run the social media side of political campaigns and this can make them feel orchestrated or fake. Facebook even have their own Political Outreach Manager to advise political officials on how to use facebook most to their advantage in campaigns. However, social media can also facilitate interaction on a more genuine and personal level; Obama took part in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on reddit and Romney is running a competition to win a ride in his private jet. In these instances both candidates are trying to engage with individuals rather than a whole population; a task made much easier by social media websites.
The wonderful thing about Web 2.0 is the control it gives to users. Politicians can try to use social media to spread their political messages but ultimately they have little control over that message once it is released and as a result their attempts can backfire. Web 2.0 is a two-way street and if you communicate through social media you become involved in a dialogue. Therefore, politicians can’t carelessly throw out propaganda on social media sites because it will inevitably be thrown back and normally in a much more amusing format.
The fact that social media facilitates a dialogue means that it also allows citizens the opportunity to express political opinions. Social media is reported as playing a role- the size of which is disputed- in the recent political revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Twitter provided a fast way to spread information of protests with hash tags detailing times and dates. Facebook pages with times and dates of protests were created. But it is not true to say that social media provides a universal platform for communication free from the confines of geographical and political boarders. Mark Zuckerberg may intend Facebook to “bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people” but the ways in which politics and social media interact differ vastly between cultures with some political regimes ban social media sites completely. In comparison to this, politicians engaging with social media and using it to increase interaction with citizens looks like a very good thing.
UK politicians have made tentative steps into social media but it will be interesting to see if the recent trends observed in the US are mirrored over here. If the run up to the 2015 UK election has a strong social media focus, we may have more than just the return of WebCameron to look forward to. Is politics reshaping the landscape of social media? Yes, but social media is a constantly changing entity. The beliefs and actions of politicians shape every aspect of our lives – a lot more than a tweet about someone’s breakfast or a youtube video of a surprised kitten.
The standout moment at last month’s eG8 summit in Paris saw Nicolas Sarkozy offer a foreboding warning that the internet must not become a ‘parallel universe without rules’ – only days before David Cameron had been at pains to distance himself from the idea of state regulation of the internet. But why is it that the same morality and rules of law that we defend culturally are seemingly so inapplicable to human interaction over the net? The question is one which is rapidly forcing internet moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, who also addressed the eG8 summit, straight into the ring with political leaders.
It’s clearly an issue for governments and the internet industry to consider. Responsibility for regulating the web has for too long seemed a question impossibly gargantuan, perhaps too hopelessly multifaceted to be properly addressed by heads of state. A more accessible dialogue on what law is needed in cyberspace might have prevented the abuse of its liberal merits by tabloid newspapers in privacy scandals such as the failure of Ryan Giggs’ gagging order, whereby papers stake claim to a better representation of our rights as net-users than law courts do. As with the Space Race and contested rights to Deep Sea Oil Reserves in the antarctic before it, the internet seems to lack the clear geographical or institutional boundaries which would validate an open discussion on its regulation in national or global fora.
Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch was amongst the crowd who received Sarkozy’s assertion that governments must not allow the internet to remain unchecked. Looking at British politics (almost unavoidably through the window of a Murdoch-owned medium), it is hard to argue against any regulation of the internet. Just as parliament and the English courts are sometimes made to look irrelevant by the power of Murdoch’s media and the twitterati masses, Mark Zuckberg also presented the case for an entirely unregulated global space.
Zuckerberg said: “I’m happy to play any role they [the people] ask me to play… the internet is really a powerful force for giving people a voice.” In fact Zuckerberg openly undermined Sarkozy’s opinion througout the eG8, adding: “People tell me: ‘It’s great you played such a big role in the Arab spring, but it’s also kind of scary because you enable all this sharing and collect information on people…But it’s hard to have one without the other. You can’t isolate some things you like about the internet, and control other things you don’t.”