Authentic belongingness: Community, context and culture in a digital world

Belongingness: The human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, or a sports team, humans have an inherent desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves. The motive to belong is the need for “strong, stable relationships with other people.”  

Birds flock, fish school, humans….? What do humans do? It’s something I’m always thinking about. What are we hardwired for? It’s relevant to technology opportunities since to tap into them requires understanding what the human animal needs/wants at a primal level and then servicing those needs.

And my conclusion is that – of all the animals in the kingdom we are most like (get ready for it): wolves.

The similarities are interesting. We are both pack animals, with defined groups we belong to. Groups that have internal social heirarchies (alpha dogs, literally or metaphorically) and a constant struggle for some individuals to be that “alpha”. Groups that can be vicious to outsiders, or to those members who violate the “rules”.  Rules that are for the most part, completely (in the wolves’ case, totally) unwritten.

These rules and group norms are called “culture”. And although we don’t typically bite, both groups punish members who transgress those rules.

So I find it fascinating to watch how these hardwired behaviors impact on the evolution of virtual communities. Are the behaviors shown there really so different?

We seek out like minded people, with whom we share interests or values. On Facebook – are you “friends” similar to you? I always think of it as various circles I’m in. I have my techie friends, my political friends, etc etc. And within a few shades of gray, they align reasonably closely with my own interests, thinking and/or philosophy.

But occasionally someone will meander into a conversation, a friend of a friend from another circle, who doesn’t know the inherent “rules” (everyone here is an atheist, and a conservative christian with wander in, for example), and proceed to disagree. Wham! The group typically shuts down the conversation. They didn’t know the rules. How dare they enter. Tempers flare, words are written. It never ends up pretty. I regularly hear from a wide variety of people that the vitriol is  “getting” to them.

So let’s be honest, there’s not a huge amount of open minded learning-type discussions on Facebook. For the most part it’s either you’re “hanging out” with people who already have a fair amount of overlap with your own ideas (or you knew them in junior high and couldn’t turn down their friend request). Which contradicts what you probably THOUGHT a social place like Facebook would  (should?) be.

I wish it were a place of learning and expanding. Instead it’s interestingly becoming the opposite. Because human nature congregates and puts up walls, creating outsiders. The medium might champion (apparent) transparency, but human nature is doing exactly the opposite.

I use my own progression of involvement in social networking to illustrate.

Initially, like many, I friended lots of people outside my comfort zone. I figured that – a  la a traditional cocktail party – I’d mix with lots of different types. After all, I consider myself fairly open minded; I might not agree with you, but I’m interested in why you think what you think, and thought I might learn something, hear a different point of view, expand my horizons, kumbayah kumbayah. I think many exuberantly flocked with the same excitement; even my dad (the original Mr. Magoo himself) had heard, and was curious to try, Facebook.

I hesitantly dipped my toes in the social water, tentatively, politely, diplomatically, in well-brought-up style not reacting, contradicting, or challenging – but found instead is that it’s virtually impossible to stay on the fence and be “myself”. As time went on (and one pugnacious twat interaction too many), I started culling the pack, so to speak. And have been left with circles (groups) of people who’s values – within a few shades of gray – fairly closely already align with my own.

Which is a cop out, at least in my theoretical head. I’ve migrated to what is by my own definition being a bit close minded and occasionally (and I hate to admit it, but fair is fair) slightly (ok, I can’t admit to more) adversarial….and contradicts the way I *actually* like to think about myself. Perhaps it’s the subjects; social networking does seem to easily stray into subjects that were nary discussed with strangers until its advent (sex? politics? money? religion? how about all of the above?) – the transparency of the medium disallowing non engagement, perhaps. But for whatever reason, I’m clearly “there”.

I hesitate (nay, reject! don’t worry) to say that it’s possible to generalize entire humanity’s hardwiring based on looking only at myself as a petrie dish and am aware of the pitfalls in even mentioning myself as an example.

But I use it to illustrate what I’ve noticed going on all around me: from Facebook comments to online communities around a wide variety of interest / subjects / philosophies, people self form into groups where their own behaviors / morals / values are reflected, create a set of “rules” around behaviors there as naturally (and unthinkingly) as breathing, and gravitate towards situations where they do not feel their own inherent values are challenged.

We know the rules, the culture – the unwritten language – and drift to where we are comfortable. And I do think we are hardwired to do this; throughout history, humans have clumped together into (wolf like) communities, either physically or interest-based (or both), and are now adding virtually to the list of ways to connect.

So if each virtual group is creating it’s own “culture”, and we humans tend to reject what isn’t part of our “group”, how do you get your brand message heard? Or more to the point, how do you get people to interact with you?

Particularly if (as I believe) traditional “push” advertising as we currently know it will increasingly fail in this new world, as people become more and more spoiled used to streaming whatever they want on demand, sitting through enforced messaging will become less and less palatable – plus technology will enable them to choose what they want, when they want it, not on a predetermined schedule.

So they’ll be ignoring your messaging, if done the traditional way. No more commercial break during your regularly scheduled programming. Other than, perhaps, live sports events.

It means that brands will have to become “friends” so to speak. They have to be responsive. They have to have 3D personalities, much like taking a brand and creating a restaurant “experience” requires re-imagining what the brands feels like, and translating that to interior decor.

But it will have to feel “authentic” to the person who’s group you’re trying to woo; you’ll have to use their language, their timing, their norms, their rhythms; you’ll have create the kind of interaction they expect, and to do that requires constant learning and feedback loops.

Because otherwise, just like wolves, you’ll be snapped at and kicked out. Which will require a new way to analyze and learn the nuances of how we’re talking to each other (along with how we talked (channel), where, when, etc – see my previous entry The Borogoves are a’ Mimsying for a deeper explanation).

Traditional database analysis – where columns and rows are predetermined and the data fits neatly into the categories you set up – won’t work anymore. Because the data will be people talking, using their own, private jargon with their own, group context/frame of reference (culture). The things that go unspoken that everyone just knows – a common frame of reference. These things lubricate our every interaction, seamlessly, without even a moment’s notice for the most part. Even when you interact with someone from a really different culture – because you’re both so trained to only think from your own frame of reference, that usually you don’t even think to ask what their assumptions are (even if they could articulate them). It’s the water we swim in, either unknowingly, or by choice.

And as each group has their own jargon and context, it become impossible to standardize…and add even another layer on top, language itself is so imprecise, imagine trying to explain to a logical, linear computer how to identify sarcasm (you look GREAT!) or indeed, slang “fat!” – at least, I think that’s slang lol. But my own peeps grok me fine.

Our new gadgets create so much information as to make analysis fruitless, and indeed, back to that linear model – these need to be set up properly in the beginning, so if it’s structured around apples and pears, what do you do when a kumquat walks in? We need ways to have computers that learn from experience and apply that intelligently to a new situation, because programming by anticipating precisely each potential variation when there’s so much data, is impossible.

Starting to understand just how complex this all is?? Particularly since people are member of multiple groups, both real and virtual, and you’ll have to get the timing right too. No good talking sports appropriate language when your customer is in helping his kids with homework mode.

I’m hearing all over the place that this kind of insight analysis (based on learning algorithms – some call it “artificial intelligence”, or heuristic learning) vs linear analysis is indeed the next frontier; the limits of how far we can push the way data and analytics has always been done. And many are trying; there are fortunes to be made here.

So Skynet, here we come. Although I’d argue sentience is a far cry from learning abilities (I know not all agree…that’s for another day). So I wouldn’t be worried about those computer overlords just yet (Geek humor! – my group will “get” it!).

Asgard awaits: Analyzing the entertainment model

Gratuitous shot of Chris Hemsworth as Thor

So. Movies. Specifically, action ones (but any, really). I just indulged in 3D Imax Thor, good enough entertainment – shot a little too much with “angles” for gratuitous 3D impact, but overall beautiful and surprisingly sweet.

I’m just sorry the actual screen resolution is still so low….and that the 3D is a bit wonky. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an improvement in the “embedding” yourself aspect of being entertained, but why am I still faking 3D with cheap plastic glasses, and too low resolution on 2D screens?

Why am I not being surrounded with at the very least, a curved screen, and optimally – sitting in the middle of the action with a visor that put me into the movie? Whatever happened to the promise of virtual reality? The gaming industry is going there. I understand that it would require a tech revolution in filming technique (360° vision required), but as so much of the environment on screen is currently created with Cad-like programs anyway, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

I realize those owners of huge real estate housing large screens have a good reason to *not* go there, but entice viewers to shell out $15 (!) for the “big screen” experience, but to be honest the small visor / virtual reality version would look better.

And the established film creation industry has similar interests in keeping the status quo.

So while I understand the legacy industry players have a vested interest in keeping the seats filled, I wonder if there isn’t any room for other players to innovate the space? Particularly since other players in the entertainment industry are starting to create original content.

Instead of the current model (entertainment companies make a movie, which is turned into a game), how hard would it be for the game companies to create their own original movies / entertainment with a game-like interface? Or other players who don’t have a vested interest in the existing interface?

I’m not underestimating the amount of effort it would take to launch a completely new entertainment model, but I don’t think there’s a lot the established industry could do if a well financed, concerted effort was made – in partnership with the visor / hardware companies. It sure would be a really interesting space to innovate.

I’ve consciously kept this post reasonably attainable, because where I think really interesting development is, is in true interactive virtual reality so you’re not just watching from the vantage point of the producer but are free to interact with your surroundings in any way you want.

This would open a whole new world of commercial applications – from eliminating the need to travel (you can do that trip of a lifetime, without the food poisoning or uncomfortable beds) to simulations for any activity the requires any physical training (fire, police, pilot, race car driver, etc). You could actually walk through Asgard, sit on the throne, walk through the halls.

Reminds me of a “living theater” experience in Manhattan recently told me about: the entire building is made up of rooms, each of which has a part of a story line being acted out. You choose to sit, engage, walk from room to room, create the experience you want while being transported to a crime scene a la Agatha Christie.

It makes sense that people who are – by the time the technology arrives – spoiled for personalized experiences they dictate themselves, instead of ones foisted upon them – would prefer this type of entertainment. So: a merging of the gaming industry and movie / entertainment is inevitable.

Throw in augmented reality so that interactions in your daily life can be enhanced with game-like features, and the convergence is 360°. I have to admit, the idea of actually interacting the Chris Hemsworth – albeit, virtually – an enticing one! 

The Borogoves are a’ Mimsying: Marketing in a hyper-connected world

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long term impact an ”instantaneous, on demand” life. Imagine that from birth, you never had to wait for anything, and had everything you wanted delivered immediately. News, entertainment, connecting with your “group” – everything.  Never getting lost. The collective knowledge of the human race there for you at all times. How would this shape your assumptions and expectations?

Because this is what’s happening to the generation being born. My nephew is almost 2. What struck me is how – without any real language skills yet (my sister would disagree) he tells her what he wants to watch, and when.  He “requests” Blue Clues over, and over (and over) again. The concept of watching something on schedule – and waiting for it, and not choosing which episode, is completely unfamiliar to him. If it’s not on when he wants it, he gets very, very angry.

So clearly, his brain is being trained to work differently than yours or mine. It reminds me of the 1943 short story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, where an alien toy from the future is found by children and in the course of playing with them, they become “re-educated” to think differently.

Reality for him is a world where he will be completely connected to everyone he’s ever known, and (personalized) information, interaction, engagement, and entertainment will be fed to him how he likes it, and never more than a few seconds away.

What assumptions will he develop – as inherent to his interaction with the world as breathing? How will this quintessentially change the relationship he has with products and brands? And from a business point of view, how do you make sure your products and services are the “right” ones so that your company can successfully deliver what he will not just demand, but expect without thinking?

Well, for one: immediate gratification is a given. Patience will no longer be a virtue, when waiting is never necessary. So everything must be available immediately, and immediately relevant. This means devices that are never off, always connected to a information delivery infrastructure (10G?) with enough bandwidth (no doubt, an antiquated term by then) to deliver immediately.

It also means that accessing masses of data and instantaneously extrapolating what he likes, then projecting what he should like. Ultimately, continuing to learn who he is, then fine tuning that knowledge at an algorithmic rate will be a requirement, not an option.

Brands / companies will need to mine/model all the data they have about your preferences and past interactions to instantaneously tailor on-the-fly experiences for you. And woe betide the brand that guesses wrong – it will feel as inauthentic to him as a “real” inauthentic interaction does to you today.

And my guess is, he’ll have short patience for a brand interaction that doesn’t feel right. So branding in the future will be about creating entire experiences – including real time interactions (suggestions, whimsy, connections) just like a real friend would. A virtual concierge, as it were.

It will require a conflux of inputs, working together (and seamlessly) to create the experience he expects, and demands. So to hijack the traditional “Who, What, Where, When, Why, How” model, this is what the brave new world of branding and marketing will have to master:

Becoming interactive with him will require that your brand becomes a “friend”, someone who knows what you and your friends like, what you’re talking about, and how to be there in the right manner. You’ll need to deliver the information you want him to see and engage with in a manner that he wants:

  • Does he prefer text? Voice? Articles? RSS feeds? Audio? Something else? A mix of these? What are his preferences? When does he interact the most?
  • Snippets of info throughout the day? Is he an information snacker, grabbing bits in between other activities, or does he prefer to set aside a stretch of time to catch up on everything?
  • Does this behavior change depending on whether it’s a week day or weekend? Is he more receptive in the morning, or night? Can you ensure that you’re there at the right time?
  • Where is he? Close by? Is the message immediately relevant (is he nearby)? How close? Half an hour? Half a week?
  • Has he done something relevant in the past? Can you discern a pattern and overlay it on the present?
  • Who are his friends? Influencers? Who does he rely on for information? Opinion? Does he listen to different groups of friends depending on the situation, or product (fashion friends, tech friends, etc)?
  • What communities is he a part of? Active? Passive? Are these relevant to your brand? Who is he connected to there? This is the social networking part of the equation, where you mine his activity and network for insights an influence.

The friends/connection influencer role will increasingly be critical, as the only way for a brand to reach a consumer in the future will be through engagement with them AND the people they listen to. I personally believe the “push” model of advertising that we’ve all grown up with (billboards, print ads, television) will continue to atrophy in influence as people who’ve only ever, in the face of overwhelming messaging / branding, listen to “trusted advisors” – their own connections.

The list can go on, but obviously things are increasingly difficult as a marketer. It’s no longer about your brand, your market, your positioning, your message, and placing your message – it’s all about creating *true* context, meaning, authenticity. On your customer’s terms. I’m calling it Six Dimension Marketing. Marshall McLuhen said the medium is the message – in this case, the time, place, and context are too.

The brand challenge is/will be to facilitate meaningful engagements, and keep it going. Because by continuous listening and learning, the opportunity exists for a long and fruitful relationship. The barriers to creating a meaningful relationship with customers will be higher, but so will the barriers to exit.

So once again, technology will have the opposite effect many expected; instead of being a a great equalizer of opportunity, it will take more money/savvy / strategic creativity than ever to stay competitive….although I welcome seeing some of the “In Culture Marketing” (grassroots) that will emerge, that smaller brands can take advantage of (as well as some of the savvier larger brands). We’re just at the beginning of truly disruptive times for how business is “done” – all the things we “know” and grew up with are changing, and while it scares some, I personally find it exhilarating. Strap in for the ride!