Ambient awareness is to humans what coconut shells are to an octopus

Octopus using shells as toolsEleven months  to the day after David Pogue of the New York Times posted on being a newbie in the “Twitterverse,” I think his piece is still one of the best introductions to the platform. Here’s a sample:

I’ll admit that, for the longest time, I was exasperated by the Twitter hype. Like the world needs ANOTHER ego-massaging, social-networking time drain? Between e-mail and blogs and Web sites and Facebook and chat and text messages, who on earth has the bandwidth to keep interrupting the day to visit a Web site and type in, “I’m now having lunch”? And to read the same stuff being broadcast by a hundred other people?

Then my eyes were opened. A few months ago, I was one of 12 judges for a MacArthur grant program in Chicago. As we looked over one particular application, someone asked, “Hasn’t this project been tried before?”

Everyone looked blankly at each other.

Then the guy sitting next to me typed into the Twitter box. He posed the question to his followers. Within 30 seconds, two people replied, via Twitter, that it had been done before. And they provided links.

The fellow judge had just harnessed the wisdom of his followers in real time. No e-mail, chat, Web page, phone call or FedEx package could have achieved the same thing.

I was reminded of this again over lunch yesterday, when I was chatting with a couple of really smart tech types. My lunch companions were very Pogue-like in their misgivings about Twitter. One was even leery of Facebook. Both made points that sounded familiar to me.

I acknowledged that when Twitter first came out, I was the same way. This post from 30 months ago is an example of my ambivalence toward Twitter. I have since seen it work as a valuable way to connect and learn, for both me and many of my clients. Some business has come out of it as well.

I’m sold on Twitter. Besotted in fact. (See for yourself, at @TheLarch)

But its success could be fleeting. Twitter is white hot right now, but flash fires often burn out just as quickly.

Maybe I should revise my oath of undying love. Instead, how’s this? I’m sold on the emerging social dance called ambient awareness, a concept explained eloquently in this Clive Thompson article.

Pack up your coconuts and see the world

Ambient awareness is bigger than Twitter, and even bigger than Facebook (now at 350 million users worldwide). It’s like the coconut shells in the arms of an octopus. For those who didn’t see that story, here’s the gist: Biologists diving off the coasts of Indonesia have discovered a species of octopus that has evolved to use a novel tool. Scientific American describes the discovery:

The octopuses were found to occupy empty seashells, discarded coconut shell halves or manmade objects, and on several dives, the researchers saw them carrying coconut shell halves below their body and swimming away with them.

Sometimes, an octopus would carry two shell halves and then put them together to form a shelter, the scientists said…

“Using tools is something we think is very special about humans, but it also exists in other animal groups we’ve never considered before, a low life form, a relative of a snail. These octopuses, they’re not simple animals.”

I learned about that story through — what else? — Twitter. This platform, and the ambient awareness it harnesses, is literally a new tool for helping those who put it to use. It helps us work, play and generally be the social creatures that we are.

Today record labels may find digital rights management less easy to defend

The adage I heard as a kid was, “Why would anyone buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?” True, these sages of my youth weren’t referring to music downloads and DRM (digital rights management). But record labels with much to lose financially have used this argument to defend their aggressive protection of their artists’ intellectual property. They have to be troubled this week by news of Radiohead’s In Rainbows topping album sales charts — in spite of the band’s offering this CD months ago for download, unprotected and at whatever price a listener would like to pay (including nothing at all).

Radiohead wasn’t the first to act on the urge to give fans a voice in setting the monetary worth of their music. One of the first artists was Issa, formerly known as Jane Siberry. As I’ve written before, this is an online business model not unlike street corner busking — in a way returning artists to their performing roots. Radiohead is, however, the most prominent group of recording artists to try this model.

Now, according to a New York Times account released late Wednesday, the band — and their recording label — are reaping an unexpected windfall from this experiment in open source music. Here is an excerpt:

In a twist for the music industry’s digital revolution, “In Rainbows,” the new Radiohead album that attracted wide attention when it was made available three months ago as a digital download for whatever price fans chose to pay, ranked as the top-selling album in the country this week after the CD version hit record shops and other retailers.

The album, the first in four years from the closely watched British rock act, sold 122,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Part of the reason I find this fascinating is, frankly, personal guilt. This news helps assuage any feelings I might have about copyright violation. Like millions of others, I too occasionally trade digital copies of CDs I like with a friend or two. I tell myself this is ethically acceptable, because it promotes music that my friends might not hear otherwise. In my defense, these friends are hardly a mainstream bunch.

They listen to long tail music.

That means chances are slim they would otherwise sample a given artist’s music. What’s more, these folks are the sort to glom onto an artist they like. They may wind up buying all of that artist’s work (yes, I’m thinking of you, Michael!).

As a business model, I wonder if all long tail artists and labels might benefit from “legal” DRM-free distribution. Perhaps DRM should be removed from any downloadable CD that doesn’t meet a certain sales level. And perhaps the stigma should be removed from ripping and sharing (one-on-one only, not using peer-to-peer online pirating platforms).

Call it a crazy libertarian streak, but I’m the type to wonder about decriminalizing other activities whose overall harm is in serious dispute. This latest news raises the “dispute level” for me of this common little “crime.” It makes me wonder even more about the real financial harm done when a CD by a relatively obscure artist is shared at no charge.

What do you think?

Who is Nick Haley and how did he earn his Gen C credentials?

Apple fan Nick Haley, an 18-year-old “fresher” at University of Leeds, got his first Macintosh computer when he was three. Earlier this year his enthusiasm bubbled over. The new iPod Touch inspired him to create a 30-second TV spot, complete with an infectious musical bed. But this act of creation didn’t earn Mr. Haley his Generation C strips. The “C,” after all, stands for Content, or Co-creation — as I described earlier in this post. No, he truly arrived when he posted the ad on YouTube.

If that were the end of the story, it would be inspiring enough. Here is a young man who acts on the urge to express his love for a brand — and home-grown video production — with like-minded fans and friends.That’s pretty cool.

But as this New York Times piece puts it, “Leave it to Apple to … think differently.” They rung him up, flew him to Los Angeles, and turned his concept into their newest TV spot. Kudos to the production expertise of Apple’s long-time ad agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day, for not distorting Haley’s vision in the final product (it’s a pity they had to ditch the catchy song from the original, by the Brazilian band CSS).

It’s no surprise that Apple gets it when it comes to helping their wired fan base spread the word about their products. I look forward to seeing how many other brands follow suit. For me, at least, user-generated ads will be a major force in slowing down my inclination to zoom past commercials on my DVR.