Archive for social media

Should There Be an Ecosystem of the One?

In a recent article of CMSWire, I outlined what I called the Ecosystem of the One. The basic premise was that digital transformation will allow personalization to progress to the point where a completely individualized digital environment will be possible. My analysis revolved around the technical possibility not the ramifications of such a digital culture. Unfortunately, the article was written only within the context of what could be done, not what should be done. What was clearly missing was an analysis of the benefits to society. That analysis reveals two things that are quite disturbing and may well outweigh all the benefits.

An analysis of the societal effects of the ecosystem of the one can be encapsulated into these questions:

  1. Are there benefits to individuals and society from an ecosystem of the one?
  2. Can the ecosystem of the one be used to harm individuals especially through manipulation?
  3. Does this fuel in individuals increased narcissism?

Is the Ecosystem of the One Beneficial to Individuals and Society?

The benefits of the ecosystem of the one that I envisioned were mostly in the form of delivering an individualized user experience from digital interactions. By leveraging mobile and analytics technology, the individual could enjoy an experience that was tailored for them. But is this enough? Sadly, no. The problem with machine generated experiences is that they are based entirely on the behaviors of the past. Just like Amazon and Spotify recommendations, computers analyze past experiences and delivers a predictable and related experience. That’s very safe and likely profitable but leaves little room for new experiences. Individuals are spoon fed products and experiences that they are psychologically programmed to enjoy because they are familiar. Even when something is “new” it is only a variation on what has gone before. A recommendation engine can recommend a song that a listener has never heard before because it is similar to other songs they’ve listened to in the past. What the engine is unlikely is to deliver is a recommendation that is substantially different than any that a person has encountered before. In other word, they are unlikely to suggest something entirely new.

I’m reminded of a personal experience. When I was in high school, I listened to a brand of rock music called Progressive Rock. ELP, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Genesis were the mainstays of my listening habits. One day, someone gave me a copy of The Ramones “Rockaway Beach” as a single. Punk Rock was about as far from Progressive Rock as one could imagine. Progressive Rock favored long suites, often spanning entire album sides, with poetic lyrics that drew on myth and literature. Only incredibly talented and classically trained musicians could play this type of music. Punk Rock musicians, on the other hand, could often barely play their instruments. They produced songs that were three minutes or less and made up of three chords or less. One was intellectual, intricate, and required extreme musicianship; The other furious, raw and, at times, intelligent but always simple. Both appealed to me for different reasons, reasons that no analytical or AI engine could ever have teased out from my past interactions. Only a human could see deep enough into my psyche to know that this might be for me. Until I discovered Punk Rock it was impossible to predict that I would have liked it.

This story personifies the overall problem with the ecosystem of one – it’s safe, easy, and familiar and never asks someone to stretch. Society as a whole suffers dramatically when it’s citizens become too comfortable and aren’t exposed to new things. It’s how we end up living in a bubble that becomes intolerant of outside influences. It’s also how innovation slows to a standstill.

Will We Be Manipulated?

The second question follows from the first. If we can make the world sanitized and safe, if we can deliver an experience that will be easy to accept, can this experience be used to manipulate people? Absolutely. In fact, marketers are betting on it. By providing a potential customer something that is naturally appealing but safe, and reinforcing those traits all along the customer decision journey, they hope to encourage people to buy their products. Marketers are not interested in getting a customer to radically change their mind and dive into the complete unknown. They are interested in getting consumers to buy something by any means possible. To the merchant, manipulation of an individual’s personal ecosystem to drive a purchase is a benefit, not something to be avoided. The same is true of employers who want happy employees that won’t leave until told to do so.

Widespread Narcissism

Finally, there is the question of the elevation of individualism over the needs of communities and societies as a whole. To put it another way, it leads to encroaching narcissism. By pandering to the ecosystem of the one, we help cement in the minds of many people their place at the center of the universe. Software makes it possible for us to feed these tendencies and that is not good at all. If a person is always led to expect that experiences will be exactly the way they want them to be, won’t they come to demand it in other aspects of their lives? Is individualized religious experience a real expectation? Is it reasonable to believe that politicians will always tell us what we want to hear? That’s called pandering and we are living through its effects right now. Widespread narcissism tears at the fabric of society because it makes individuals lose site of the community at large. Instead of encouraging people to do what is best for society as a whole, it creates an expectation that society exists simply to fulfill their own immediate desires. It’s a neoliberal, Ayn Rand type of hell where everyone is left to their own devices without the benefits of community.

The ecosystem of the one sound great on the surface. It promises the delivery of exactly the digital experience that people want when they want it. However, it also opens us up to manipulation, closes us off to new experiences, and encourages one of our most base personality traits, narcissism. We are quickly approaching the ability to deliver the ecosystem of the one but I have deep reservations as to whether we should. It might be time to take a step back and think about this a bit more.

An Open Letter to Prince or Whatever You Are Called These Days

Dear Prince, Prince’s Publisher, and Prince’s Management,

Are you daft? Not as in Daft Punk – who is quite popular– but meaning “have you lost your mind?”. All of your music has been removed from Spotify and a bunch of other streaming music and video sites. And not just all of the music you recorded but anything you wrote and someone else recorded. This includes the Cindy Lauper recording “When You Were Mine” from her classic “She’s so Unusual” and the iconic Sinead O’Conner song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Classic songs form a classic age. Great music just waiting for a new generation to discover it – and put money in your pocket.

Instead you and your publisher prefer to live in the musical equivalent of a cave. It’s dark, lonely, and you can’t see what’s happening in the real world. And in the real world services such as Spotify not only play the songs you want to hear but recommend songs that you may ever have heard of before. You know, like music written by someone in a dank cave. Let’s be honest, at this point in your career any connection you can make to young people, any time they can find your music and enjoy it, is a plus. You’re an old guy like me. If anyone in the 15 to 20 demographic runs across your music and thinks it’s pretty cool, you are way ahead. It’s certainly better than fading into obscurity or, worse, embarking on those nostalgia tours with Flock of Seagulls and Adam Ant. And if you doubt your obscurity, you pulled your music from streaming music services in July and I just realized it and I’m from your era. That’s not a good sign.

How do you think young people will find your music? From the music press? Almost no one under 40 reads music magazines, especially Rolling Stone. Even if young people are reading the music press (which will be online by the way), the music press isn’t writing about you. At least not since you changed your name back from an unpronounceable symbol that caused everyone to refer to you as “the artists formerly known as Prince.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the statement you were going for. How else? MTV? Ha! They haven’t been relevant from a music perspective in 25 years – at least! You won’t show up even on VH-1 since they ended the “Behind the Music” series. So, unless you plan to get drunk and plow your car into a crowd with a Kardashian in the passenger seat, I doubt any of these outlets will care enough to mention you.

So, let me help you out here. Young people get their music in one of two ways: through YouTube, and similar video services, and streaming music outlets such as Spotify and Pandora. In other words, the very outlets you eschew. They like to go to concerts which means we’re back to the nostalgia tour and the hope that someone in their 50s will drag their college age kids along, most likely against their will. Seriously, the technology of music delivery changed 15 years ago. No one under 45 buys CDs anymore and even digital downloads are on the way out. Just wake up and smell the bits and bytes.

And do you know why this is? Do you have a clue as to why people pay for streaming services? Three reasons. First off, many don’t. Music listeners who are not real serious about music or lack a real job don’t mind a couple of commercials if they can binge on Best Coast. Second, they can binge on Best Coast. Or R.E.M., Alabama Shakes, CHVRCHES, Stray Cats, Bryan Ferry, or even The Three O’Clock for cryin’ out loud. Except for Prince. That’s off limits.

Finally, it’s the recommendations. Whether recommendations come from friends or they come from predictive analytics, people like a good suggestion. And this is where you really miss out. Those social and automated recommendations help explain why we see teenagers and college students listening to music from the 80’s, 90’s, 70’s, or 60’s. Not the 50’s. They haven’t discovered that decade’s music yet but it’s coming.

Let me outline how this works. Someone hears a song by a band through a recommendation or a friends sends them a link to a video on Vimeo. They tell their friends about it who then go on a streaming music service to listen to it. The friends love the song too! Suddenly, they receive recommendations that basically say “if you like this band, then you might like these other bands”. On Spotify, you get a weekly playlist of recommended songs based on what you’ve been listening too. And in among those recommendations might just be one for Prince. Except that you and your publisher won’t allow these young people to discover your music that way.

See, streaming music and video services are all about reducing friction. Friction, in this context, is conceptually like friction in Physics. It’s an impediment – something that holds us back. A force against forward motion. In this case, streaming music makes it affordable to try out artists you never would have listened to, including those no longer on the radio (not that young people are listening to the radio). They make it easy to discover new artists that would have taken more effort to find than most people have patience for. In a nutshell, they reduce the impediments i.e. friction to finding and enjoying music, perhaps even your music. By removing yourself from streaming music services, you add to the friction, ensuring irrelevance to modern audiences. That is unless their parents are huge Prince fans and positively insist on playing old vinyl records for their children morning, noon, and night. Their kids will hear you but resent you so that doesn’t seem like a strategy you should hang your hat on.

Perhaps your music cave is full of money and you don’t care about royalties. Perhaps, but your cave is not full of relevance. As an artist, don’t you want to be heard? Doesn’t it bother you that there is entire generation of young people just waiting to discover your music, just waiting to hear you party like’s it’s 1999 (back in 1982), but who won’t because you and you’re publishing company are – what? Looking for more royalties? Please, get over yourself. Your heyday was 30 plus years ago. It’s one thing when a current megastar like Taylor Swift postures. It’s still not smart but she at least doesn’t need these services to remain relevant and, sadly, you do. It’s also why Bruce Springsteen continues to attract young audience members – he makes his music accessible to his fans and their friends.

So as someone who remembers your peak days somewhat fondly, I implore you, for your own sake stop the madness (but not Madness who is on Spotify and YouTube)! Allow 50-something women to send their college age daughters links to “Purple Rain”. Leverage all the predictive analytics, automated recommendation engines, and ‘bots to introduce your music to a whole new generation. Or, sit in your money filled music cave, fade further into obscurity, and let the Blake Babies become the avatar of music for the current generation.

And may God have mercy on our souls.