Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Secret Sharing

This year, Trend-watching has been talking about rise of what they dub the online Transparency trend, a phenomenon fuelled by the likes of Microsoft. But there is perhaps a counter-trend simultaneously occurring – one concerned with the power of secrecy.

Brands have long recognised the seductive power of secrecy. Coke was arguably one of the first to utilise this basic human truth by creating the urban legend around its
secret formula back in 1920. Even today in the midst of a culture heavily concerned with truth and transparency, a culture that has spawned the phenomenon of blogging, secrecy is still a highly powerful driver, especially when it comes to forging communities - or at least making people feel as though they are part of a community. Mini for example recently produced some fascinating DM packs which enabled Mini members alone to decode print adverts. Secrecy is a very powerful way to make people feel part of a select group. Nokia’s The Passenger uses a similar tactic, inviting you to momentarily become part of what appears to be a secret, covert mission. MSN’s Conspiracy Theory is another example, as is Puma’s hidden web page (lift up the bottom right hand corner). All are designed to create a feeling of collusion and secret belonging.

Indeed secrecy is a sure fast way of forging very strong group feelings. Secret societies are after all, some of the most tightly bonded communities around - something that ARG’s tap into. Sharing secrets can forge bonds between complete strangers. “We are bound by the secrets we share” Dame Judi Dench tells us in Notes on a Scandal. As a result the types of groups that spring up around ARG’s are perhaps less ‘communities’ than secret societies, each member bound to others by the knowledge he/she has. In fact
secret sharing is nothing new. ARG’s are simply tapping into a notion invented by cryptologists almost thirty years ago.

The vast popularity of both the Da Vinci Code and LOST is evidence of the hugely seductive power of secrecy and our increasing desire for it. And the digital world is well placed to take advantage of this. In popular culture it has long been closely associated with secrecy – from
hackers fighting governments and institutions to the mysterious computer program in LOST and of course the digital conspiracy of The Matrix - the digital world has always been closely linked to covert operations and conspiracy theories. Computer gaming communities for instance have long been based on the secret codes and hidden information involved in the games. And just as agents in the real world receive information and tip-offs from unknown sources, identified only by coded pseudonyms (think The Cancer Man and Mr. X in the X-Files and M in James Bond) online, we too readily accept snippets of information from strangers we know only by usernames and pseudonyms. The very set up of the communities we form lend themselves to a notion of secrecy and the covert.

In an age where information is more accessible and companies more open than ever before, we are still fascinated by secrecy and its power to connect us to other beings. We have an overwhelming desire to share secrets anonymously with others. It is a social currency - just look at the success of
Postsecret and the soon to be live Wikileaks. It is simple human nature. “Secrets,” Howard Barker once said, “seduce us. We all want to share secrets.”

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Rhythm of Life

According to the IPA, the content of what we say is only of 7% importance to anyone listening. How we are saying it is much more important; the tone of our voices (38%) and our body language (55%). The rhythms and modulations of our bodies and voices are, it would seem, far more important than the actual words we speak.

Which is no surprise - we are programmed to perceive meaning through movement and rhythms. It is an essential part of how we pick up meaning from each other. In a classic experiment Johanson (1973, 1976) created displays of human movement by attaching lights to the major joints of human models. The models were filmed so that only the points of light were visible to observers. What he found was that although observers rarely percieved a human form when it was static, when the displays moved observers were rapidly able to detect different human movements. Since then however, other researchers have identified a whole range of actions such as emotion and intention that are readily recognisable from point-light displays of moving people. Even basic rhythm and movement it would seem, belies human traits and emotions. In Blink, Gladwell gives us the example of the World War II Morse code operators; during the war, allied forces intercepted a wealth of encrypted radio messages from the Germans. Although they were never able to break the codes, they learned to identify the individual style of each radio operator from the unique pauses and rhythms each used. Each individual's style was so distinctive that the interceptors could not only recognise which German radio operator was sending the message just from a few seconds of code but more importantly could also understand the tone of what was being said. They were able to perceive different emotions - whether a particular operator was his relaxed, chatty self or rushed, formal and under pressure simply by listening to the rhythms in the messages. In The Tipping Point Gladwell also draws our attention to William Condon’s study of cultural micro-rhythms:

"He realised that in addition to talking and listening, the three people around the table were also engaging in what he termed "interactional synchrony." Their conversation had a rhythmic physical dimension...the speaker was, in effect, dancing to his or her own speech."

Communication is clearly not just about words and what is said. There is a subtle, yet rich rhythmical dimension that surrounds it. And it's not just in speech that this occurs. Experts can tell a lot about the psychology of someone just from observing the nuances of their handwriting and the movements that formed the words. Graphology is the study of human handwriting in relation to psychology: “Graphologists proceed to evaluate the pattern, form, movement, rhythm, quality, and consistency of the graphic stroke in terms of psychological interpretations.” Handwriting captures human rhythms and emotional states in a way that traditional print cannot. Indeed, it could be argued that the static printed word is highly limiting when it comes to trying to capture that all important 93% of what we are trying to communicate. The printed word cannot be easily imbued with rhythm or movement unless perhaps in the hands of an artful poet. It does not naturally flow with rhythm as handwriting does. The art of typography has off course done much to try to re-embed some of this lost layer of communication into the printed word. And it is no surprise that typography and form have become such essential parts of advertising. David Ogilvy infamously remarked:

"Once upon a time I was riding on the top of a First Avenue bus, when I heard a mythical housewife say to another, "Molly, my dear, I would have bought that new brand of toilet soap if only they hadn't set the body copy in ten point Garamond." Don't you believe it. What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising, not its form.”

This is perhaps a little naive: the form, the typography used can imbue a word with a whole set of connotations and create a layer of communication above and beyond what the words themselves are struggling to tell us. Indeed it could be argued that in a static, printed world this was how we tried to sneak back some of that missing 93%, to communicate tone and body language through words.

But in today's digital world, words no longer have to be static. With the advent of the appropriately named Adobe ActionScript came animated gifs and animated text. And as a result rhythm and modulation could, for the first time since pulsating neon signs, be imparted into the previously static written word. Nowadays, words fly, jump and move all over sites, banners and on TV. No one has capitalised more on this notion of animated text than Audi with its Vorsprung durch Technik – it’s a good bet that not many people could tell you the literal German translation of that phrase or offer a reasoned, articulate definition of the term and its meaning. But the spinning DNA helix on it’s website and the words flying through the TV ad somehow reveal more about the essence of the brand than any finely tuned paragraph of copy could. Like those Allied operators of World War II we have little idea as to the content of what is really being said. But the rhythms and movements of those words tell us everything we need to know.

One of the fastest growing advertising mediums on the web in recent years has been rich media – essentially something that moves. Which is no surprise - it is clear that rhythm and movement are a fundamental part of human communication. We are naturally programmed to use them to 'read' people. No co-incidence then that there are numerous sites offering animated text for customising Myspace pages; on a site where people want to capture as much about themselves as they can, (albiet crude) animation and moving text are a fundamental part. Somehow animated text, people seem to believe, appears to help capture some vital essence. The words move, jump and pulsate with life all over Myspace profiles. Mercedes' A to S site has received huge plaudits from the likes of the IAB for the fact that the “advertising and website mirror Mercedes' approach to vehicle production with a host of interactive elements that reflect the real world experience.” All created through an animated alphabet and interactive, moving text. No close ups of the car and it’s engineering, just an animated textual adventure as words glide, appear, move and reform on the page in front of us.

To 'animate’ quite literally means to breathe life into and the beauty of digital text is that it is just beginning to allow us to start exploring that 93% of communication that is inevitably lost when words are written. Slowly, we are beginning to get used to a new kind of text: one that moves, and pulsates - it is no longer just on TV commercials where words move. It is commonplace all over the web now.

In Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum's character declares that "if there's one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories. It crashes through barriers.” As Gladwell's Morse code example showed, build a device that strips communication of meaning and locks it into a mechanic code and that 93% will still find a way to come out. The rhythms of life will crash through. And so it is with the web. As technology evolves, slowly but surely the static printed word of the literate society is becoming more fluid and animated. Digital techniques are increasingly allowing us to experiment in new ways and to try to capture some small amount of that 93% of communication that is traditionally lost when we move from an oral to a literate medium.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

'Sent' Marking

Image from the Honolulu Zoo

Faris wrote a very interesting piece for Contagious last week regarding the advent of what he calls Mobile 2.0. One of the three themes he identified as currently characterising the phenomenon was the importance of 'social locations' and how 'social networks' are increasingly being taken to the networks. In particular mobile geotagging seems to be taking off; Socialight for example allows you to share and discover virtual sticky notes at specific locations using your phone. Dodgeball notifies you when anyone in your extended network is in the area. And Twittervision plots updates of what people are doing at that precise moment on a map. All very cutting edge and innovative services.

Or are they? Geotagging is nothing new. Nor is it something that we humans have suddenly invented either. Watch any dog as it walks along a street or path and you suddenly realise that geotagging is in fact a core part of most animal societies - the only difference between theirs' and ours being that they use chemical instead of electronic tags. Instead of electronic sticky notes, animals leave complex pheromone messages at different locations for others to pick up as they pass. Rubbing against particular trees, urinating by certain boundary marks, scent marking is a powerful way of communicating with other members of a particular pack or herd.

Which inevitably brings us to Mark Earl's notion of the Herd - because mobile geotagging is perhaps just another example of our propensity towards herd or even pack-like instincts. Mobile 2.0 is no longer simply about connecting to those ten or twenty closest to us - we are beginning to talk to the wider herd; leaving text 'sent' markers for other unknown members to pick up as they pass.

Of course animals use scent marks to communicate a wide variety of messages. Research for example has found that lemuers use scents so complex that they are effectively leaving whole sentences. Scent tags, according to Gese and Ruff are left for a variety of reasons:

"Scent marking may serve as a mechanism for territory maintenance (Peters & Mech 1975; Rothman & Mech 1979; Bowen & Cowan 1980) or sex recognition (Dunbar 1977; Bekoff 1979), as a signal of empty food caches (Henry 1977; Harrington 1981, 1982), as an indicator of sexual condition, maturity or synchrony (Bekoff & Diamond 1976), or as internal information to orient members of the resident pack (Wells & Bekoff) and to dispersing animals entering occupied territories (Rothman & Mech 1979)."

Scent-marking by coyotes, Canis latrans: the influence of social and ecological factors Eric M. Gese & Robert L. Ruff

Unsuprisingly we're not so different when it comes to the type of information we're leaving other herd members either. We too are leaving messages that are primarilly concerned with food caches and sexual condition; a vast number of Socialight's sticky notes are reviews about "food caches" with strangers telling us that this restaurant or bar is good; and as for sexual condition, Dodgeball allows you to "choose up to five crushes online and they get notified when you are nearby."

In his original paper Earls' notes the importance of movement to the herd dynamic. For herds "to be static is also to be vulnerable." Monty Roberts the extraordinary horse whisperer Earls cites, uses "movement" to control his herds. Roberts has even "applied the same basic thinking to juvenile delinquents - understanding their need to belong to a herd, their need for movement and so on." (My italics) Movement is clearly a key element of herd behaviour. So it comes as no surprise then, that it is in the world of mobile technology that we are beginning to see herd-like communications forming. Like many other species, we have it seems an overwhelming urge to communicate with the herd as we move through our environment.

Thursday, 3 May 2007


For years, people have been trying to capture the essence of their personalities through scrapbooking. We are after all little more than a sum of our experiences, associations and memorabilia. What we store and how we organise what we've stored is a strikingly effective way of discerning our personalities. In Blink for example Malcolm Gladwell draws our attention to an experiment in which it was found that college students who spent 15 minutes in another, unknown student's dorm room could give more accurate personality ratings than that student's close friends. Just by looking at the objects, scraps and ‘stuff’ collected by a student and how they had been organised, strangers were able to discern personalities.

Scrapbooks work in the same way - the associations we choose and how we embed and link them (either physically or through narrative) are what defines us. Give someone a scrapbook and they will no doubt get ‘a sense' of the person who produced it. In the same way looking through an attic full of trinkets or a room full of clutter gives us an overwhelming, subconscious ‘sense’ of a person. What we choose to keep, what we mark as ours and how we organise all this, reveals our personality. The places we go, the things we do, the scraps we keep. Indeed management icebreakers are never “tell us what type of person you are;” rather they’re ‘tell us your favourite film,’ your first memory, the first CD you ever bought etc. etc. Cringing - but they have a point none the less. Somehow we seem to be able to tell an awful lot about a person simply by ‘collating’ scraps about them - something brands are beginning to understand as well. Faris and Diginative have recently been talking about the multiplicity of online brand personalities, Diginative citing Innocent and Absolut as examples of what he calls 'brand portals' aggregating content for users. But these sites are also both perhaps examples of what we could call an emerging form of 'scrapbranding' where brands collate all the things they want to be associated with, all the things that create a collective memory or essence of the brand. Absolut for example gives us its favourite street, its ideal burger and its favourite city to name but a few. In some ways these sites are extensions of the kind of eclectic scrapbook style designs we’ve seen brands use online before – such as Southern Comfort’s eclectic mix of associations and styles.

Scrapbooking is essentially just another form of storytelling and brands as we know, tell stories about themselves. The notion of ‘Scrapbranding’ also goes back to Russell Davies theory that brands are in fact webs of associations that we link and embed together:

“We take one idea; a company or a product, we link it to some other ideas; perhaps some attitudes, some aesthetics, a bundle of associations and we embed some other ideas within it; a colour, a logo, a piece of music, a smell.”

This, as Russell also points out is something that the digital world can only encourage: we can easily embed and link, as brands such as Innocent and Absolut are doing. Cut, paste, copy, crop and edit, the common language of the scrapbooker is also of course now the standard language of the digital world as well. And like a real scrapbook that is made up of page after page of events and memories, built up as the person experiences more things and new events, the digital world allows content to be updated and added to on a regular basis – an ever evolving Scrapbranding process.

"People build brands" Jeremy Bullmore once said "as birds build nests, from the scraps and straws they find." It seems the reverse is true too. Brands are building themselves from the scraps and straws they find.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Digitravel - Digitourists and Digitravellers

The web is essentially a place, a virtual space that people travel through and around. In the real world space, the ‘traditional retail space,’ it has long been argued that there are two types of consumers:

“…there are two broad categories of customer to be accounted for here: the type seeking inspiration and willing to spend time on the process of discovery and the type who just want to find what they need and get out. The way in which you must communicate to these audiences is very different even though it is sometimes the same consumer on a different shopping mission or day.”

Successful Retail Brands Engage their Customers In-store; Craig Thatcher, The Marketing Managers Yearbook 2006

I recently wrote an article that posits the same notion about online space – that there are essentially two different types of digital consumer journeying through cyberspace; the digitourist and the digitraveller.

The premise for the article is that the dominant metaphor for the Internet is that of space; it is a vast media landscape, a place of virtual worlds that we explore or navigate around – and as in the 'real' world there are tourists and travellers.

Digitourists, like any tourists, know exactly what they want to see and what they want to find - whether it be a product or a piece of information. Digitravellers however are different to Digitourists - no less or no more technologically able in many cases, they want however to explore things for themselves. They want to navigate their own way around the wilderness of information and stories of the internet, roughing it unguided through the digital landscape. Their interest lies not so much in arriving at a piece of information or a particular site, as the Digitourist’s does, but instead on the journey itself. For the Digitraveller it is all about the people they meet and the unexpected, undiscovered places they stumble across along the way. “A good traveller,” Lao Tzu once wrote “has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” And so it is for the Digitraveller. The article goes on to demonstrate how seven behavioural parallels can be drawn between the internet culture of web 2.0 and traditional travelling cultures.

Faris very kindly hosted it for me over at TIGS.