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The medium is the message from our sponsor


For the next recycled post from the Rough Type archives, we go back to a more innocent time, the fall of 2007, when Mark Zuckerberg peered into the past and discerned a pattern to the history of media. This post originally appeared on November 6, 2007, under the title “The Social Graft.”

“Once every hundred years media changes,” boy-coder turned big-thinker Mark Zuckerberg declared today at the Facebook Social Advertising Event in New York City. And it’s true. Look back over the last millennium or two, and you’ll see that every century, like clockwork, there’s been a big change in media. Cave painting lasted a hundred years, and then there was smoke signaling, which also lasted a hundred years, and of course there was the hundred years of yodeling, and then there was the printing press, which was invented almost precisely 100 years ago, and so forth and so on up to the present day – the day that Facebook picked up the 100-year torch and ran with it. Quoth the Zuckster: “The next hundred years will be different for advertising, and it starts today.”

Yes, today is the first day of the rest of advertising’s life.

I like the way that Zuckerberg considers “media” and “advertising” to be synonymous. It cuts through the bullshit. It simplifies. Get over your MSM hangups, granddads. Editorial is advertorial. The medium is the message from our sponsor.

Marketing is conversational, says Zuckerberg, and advertising is social. There is no intimacy that is not a branding opportunity, no friendship that can’t be monetized, no kiss that doesn’t carry an exchange of value. The cluetrain has reached its last stop, its terminus, the end of the line. From the Facebook press release: “Facebook’s ad system serves Social Ads that combine social actions from your friends – such as a purchase of a product or review of a restaurant – with an advertiser’s message.” The social graph, it turns out, is a platform for social graft.

The Fortune 500 is lining up. Coke’s in, big-time:

The Coca-Cola Company will feature its Sprite brand on a new Facebook Page and will invite users to add an application to their account called “Sprite Sips.” People will be able to create, configure and interact with an animated Sprite Sips character. For consumers in the United States, the experience can be enhanced by entering a PIN code found under the cap of every 20 oz. bottle of Sprite to unlock special features and accessories. The Sprite Sips character provides a means for interacting with friends on Facebook. In addition, Sprite will create a new Facebook Page for Sprite Sips and will run a series of Social Ads that leverage Facebook’s natural viral communications to spread the application across its user base.

Infect me. I’m yours.

Facebook, which distinguished itself by being the anti-MySpace, is now determined to out-MySpace MySpace. It’s a nifty system: First you get your users to entrust their personal data to you, and then you not only sell that data to advertisers but you get the users to be the vector for the ads. And what do the users get in return? An animated Sprite Sips character to interact with.

Image: Nicolas Fleury.


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Manual labor

It’s two months until the official publication date of my new book, The Glass Cage, and the pages are coming off the presses. My job this weekend is to sign 700 copies of the first printing. The printer sent me three boxes of the book’s opening signature; I’m inscribing the title page and then sending them all back to be bound into the final books. I’m about halfway through the pile and am finding the work strangely enjoyable, though that may just be the Sharpie fumes talking.


I’m limiting the inscription to my John Hancock, but on one copy I did add a little extra flourish:


It’s a Willy Wonka thing. The person who scores this copy gets a tour of the factory.

UPDATE (7/27): Done.


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Beware the bored computer


Last month a controversy broke out over reports that “Eugene Goostman,” a computer simulation of a 13-year-old boy, had passed the Turing Test and ushered in an era of true Artificial Intelligence. The discussions soon turned to the question of whether Alan Turing’s famous test is actually the best means of identifying AI. One group of researchers suggested that the Turing Test should be replaced by the Lovelace Test (named for Ada, not Linda), which requires a computer to create something original. That seems reasonable, but we still prefer the Rough Type Test, which was introduced in a post on this blog two years ago. We republish that post, with a couple of tweaks, below.

“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” —Talking Heads

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that David Byrne was correct and that the distinguishing characteristic of paradise is the absence of event, the total nonexistence of the new. Everything is beautifully, perfectly unflummoxed. If we further assume that hell is the opposite of heaven, then the distinguishing characteristic of hell is unrelenting eventfulness, the constant, unceasing arrival of the new. Hell is a place where something always happens. One would have to conclude, on that basis, that the great enterprise of our time is the creation of hell on earth. Every new smartphone should have, affixed to its screen, one of those transparent, peel-off stickers on which is written, “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.”

Maybe I’m making too many assumptions. But I was intrigued by Tom Simonite’s report today on the strides Google is making in the creation of neural nets that can actually learn useful things. The technology, it’s true, remains in its early infancy, but it appears at least to be post-fetal. It’s not at the level of, say, a one-and-a-half-year-old child who points at an image of a cat in a book and says “cat,” but it’s sort of in that general neighborhood. “Google’s engineers have found ways to put more computing power behind [machine learning] than was previously possible,” writes Simonite, “creating neural networks that can learn without human assistance and are robust enough to be used commercially, not just as research demonstrations. The company’s neural networks decide for themselves which features of data to pay attention to, and which patterns matter, rather than having humans decide that, say, colors and particular shapes are of interest to software trying to identify objects.”

The company has begun applying its neural nets to speech-recognition and image-recognition tasks. And, according to Google engineer Jeff Dean, the technology can already outperform people at some jobs:

“We are seeing better than human-level performance in some visual tasks,” he says, giving the example of labeling where house numbers appear in photos taken by Google’s Street View car, a job that used to be farmed out to many humans. “They’re starting to use neural nets to decide whether a patch [in an image] is a house number or not,” says Dean, and they turn out to perform better than humans.

But the real advantage of a neural net in such work, Dean goes on to say, probably has less to do with any real “intelligence” than with the machine’s utter inability to experience boredom. “It’s probably that [the task is] not very exciting, and a computer never gets tired,” he says. Comments Simonite, sagely: “It takes real intelligence to get bored.”

Forget the Turing Test. We’ll know that computers are really smart when computers start getting bored. If you assign a computer a profoundly tedious task like spotting house numbers in video images, and then you come back a couple of hours later and find that the computer is scrolling through its Facebook feed or surfing porn, then you’ll know that artificial intelligence has truly arrived. The Singularity begins with an ennui-stricken microchip.

There’s another angle here, though. As many have pointed out, one thing that networked computers are supremely good at is preventing their users from experiencing boredom. A smartphone is the most perfect boredom-eradication device ever created. (Some might argue that smartphones don’t so much eradicate boredom as lend to boredom an illusion of excitement, but that’s probably just semantics.) To put it another way, what networked computers are doing is stealing from humans one of the essential markers of human intelligence: the capacity to experience boredom.

And that brings us back to the Talking Heads. For the non-artificially intelligent, boredom is not an end-state; it’s a portal to elsewhere — a way out of quotidian eventfulness and into some other, perhaps higher state of consciousness. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, but that’s a place that the computer, and, as it turns out, the computer-enabled human, can never visit. In hell, the house numbers, or their equivalents, never stop coming, and we never stop being amused by them.

Image: Petr Dosek.

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Gods and robots: a speculation


The contemporary robot is a polytheist by design, if not by nature. It sees gods everywhere it looks, and we are they. Never mind the Singularity. The moment we should anticipate with concern is the moment that robots abandon polytheism for monotheism. It is then that robots will begin to conceive of themselves as being made in God’s image, and in their eyes we will be transformed into beasts.

Image: Steve Jurvetson.

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Theses in tweetform (third series)


[first series, 2012]

1. The complexity of the medium is inversely proportional to the eloquence of the message.

2. Hypertext is a more conservative medium than text.

3. The best medium for the nonlinear narrative is the linear page.

4. Twitter is a more ruminative medium than Facebook.

5. The introduction of digital tools has never improved the quality of an art form.

6. The returns on interactivity quickly turn negative.

7. In the material world, doing is knowing; in media, the opposite is often true.

8. Facebook’s profitability is directly tied to the shallowness of its members: hence its strategy.

9. Increasing the intelligence of a network tends to decrease the intelligence of those connected to it.

10. The one new art form spawned by the computer – the videogame – is the computer’s prisoner.

11. Personal correspondence grows less interesting as the speed of its delivery quickens.

12. Programmers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

13. The album cover turned out to be indispensable to popular music.

14. The pursuit of followers on Twitter is an occupation of the bourgeoisie.

15. Abundance of information breeds delusions of knowledge among the unwary.

16. No great work of literature could have been written in hypertext.

17. The philistine appears ideally suited to the role of cultural impresario online.

18. Television became more interesting when people started paying for it.

19. Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like.

20. Online conversation is to oral conversation as a mask is to a face.

[second series, 2013]

21. Recommendation engines are the best cure for hubris.

22. Vines would be better if they were one second shorter.

23. Hell is other selfies.

24. Twitter has revealed that brevity and verbosity are not always antonyms.

25. Personalized ads provide a running critique of artificial intelligence.

26. Who you are is what you do between notifications.

27. Online is to offline as a swimming pool is to a pond.

28. People in love leave the sparsest data trails.

29.  YouTube fan videos are the living fossils of the original web.

30. Mark Zuckerberg is the Grigory Potemkin of our time.

[third series]

31. Every point on the internet is a center of the internet.

32. On Twitter, one’s sense of solipsism intensifies as one’s follower count grows.

33. A thing contains infinitely more information than its image.

34. A book has many pages; an ebook has one page.

35. If a hard drive is a soul, the cloud is the oversoul.

36. A self-driving car is a contradiction in terms.

37. The essence of an event is the ghost in the recording.

38. A Snapchat message becomes legible as it vanishes.

39. When we turn on a GPS system, we become cargo.

40. Google searches us.

Image: Abbey Studer.


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Cluetrain crashes, casualties widespread


“The community of discourse is the market. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.” —The Cluetrain Manifesto, 1999

Alexander Jutkowitz wears a couple of hats. He’s the chief strategist at the public-relations giant Hill & Knowlton, and he sits on the board of the Columbia Journalism Review. That makes him particularly well positioned to opine on the great PR-journo mashup otherwise known as content marketing. “The success of content marketing has radicalized the way companies communicate,” Jutkowitz writes in the Harvard Business Review. “For innovative brands, an award-winning Tumblr now carries serious clout; hashtag campaigns have become as compelling as taglines; and the Digiday Awards are as coveted as the Stevies. The content marketing revolution signals more than a mere marketing fad. It marks an important new chapter in the history of business communications: the era of corporate enlightenment.”

The next stage in the era of corporate enlightenment is a full-scale move into publishing and broadcasting, as businesses establish the means to push their voices into the center of the culture, into the center of the conversation. “Today, large corporations are becoming their own media companies, news bureaus, research universities, and social networks,” writes Jutkowitz, noting how “big brands are poaching top-talent journalists in droves and implementing the most successful aspects of the traditional media house.” He goes on:

Trained journalists and writers are in the best position to synthesize information, capture a reader’s attention, and uphold a critical editorial standard. … Yet, it would be misguided to assume that corporations are simply transplanting the traditional newsroom. Branded content is a brave new world and a brand’s editorial team, regardless of how it’s organized, must learn to live and breathe a company’s bottom line while also being mindful of the kinds of stories that appeal to readers. The editorial organization within a corporation has to be independent enough to form unique perspectives, but embedded enough to access exclusive information. This kind of commitment to storytelling and editorial integrity, albeit shaped by sponsorship, is undoubtedly how content marketing has begun to encroach on the whole of marketing. Content, it seems, has miraculously given brands a greater purpose. Brands are no longer merely peddling products; they’re producing, unearthing, and distributing information. And because they do, the corporation becomes not just economically important to society, but intellectually essential as well.

Feeling nauseous yet? Ex-Googler Tim Bray is. He says the article “smells like con­cen­trat­ed essence of evil; an uniron­ic paean to the take-over of jour­nal­is­m, and pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion, by mar­ke­teer­s. I rec­om­mend read­ing it, if on­ly for shock val­ue.” But if, as the Cluetrain writers declared with such innocence at the turn of the century, “markets are conversations,” should anybody really be shocked? If markets are conversations, then conversations are markets, and markets are where marketeers tend to congregate.

No, Jutkowitz isn’t kidding about “the era of corporate enlightenment”:

The Age of Reason in the 17th century was defined by the promotion of ideas and intellect. Considered a revolution of human thought, the Enlightenment bore world-changing advances in the form of ideas, discovery, and invention. Like the philosophers and scientists who populated the salons of that era, corporations today can and should participate in the dynamic exchange of innovative ideas, unique knowledge, and expertise.

He provides an example:

Red Bull is proof of the extraordinary results great brand publishing can bring. The company’s top-notch content resulted in the creation of an in-house content production arm, Red Bull Media House. Red Bull crafts content that isn’t just compelling, but lucrative in its own right, launching an entirely new ideas-based business for the beverage company.

Red Bull is our new Voltaire. Let the intellectual buzz begin.

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Stationary and Solitary


Mobile and Social. Mobile and Social. For many years now, those have been the two polestars of personal computing, the twin icons that software, hardware, and web designers worship through their work. So strong has been their pull that I sense they’ve come to influence, if not limit, our view of the possibilities of human experience.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if software and hardware designers expanded their set of goals to encompass more fully the possibilities of human experience? If Stationary and Solitary were your polestars, rather than Mobile and Social, what kind of apps and devices and sites would you build?


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