Remembering Steve Jobs

There has been so much written about him already. I wanted to share a few random, personal reflections.

— Jobs was an icon to me, though he was not a role model, mentor, or muse. It's interesting how people differ in where they find inspiration; the most inspiring people in my life are people who seem within my reach. Jobs always seemed in a different orbit–so astronomically more creative and talented than I was/am/will be that I never followed his life in the obsessive maybe I could be him/her way that I follow some people. He was certainly aspirational, but not relatable. And that's why, while I feel a lasting sadness over his death, I do not feel like I've lost something as profound as a personal pole star. 

— I've written about the Think Different ad. I've spoken the text dozens of times to people over the years, and have begun nearly every public speech with the story of being forced to memorize it while in school. The text of the ad has been hanging in my childhood bedroom for years. The newly released video of Jobs narrating the ad, embedded below, is so moving. 

— When I was very young, I mailed a letter to Steve Jobs asking if he could donate a computer to help me start a company. My family had a couple computers (early Macintoshes), but I figured maybe I could get a new fancy one for free, if I asked nicely. A few weeks later, I received a letter back from an Apple spokesperson. It was two sentences long. The first sentence said Apple doesn't make donations. The second sentence requested that I remove Apple from my mailing list. Looking back, that's a pretty amusing reply.

— There's so much pessimism about politics and economics in the world right now. The celebration of innovation that accompanied Jobs's death reminded me why I love the technology industry.

— As with all breaking news events, the best action that day was on Twitter, for the raw emotion.

RIP, Steve.

Are Online Reviews Making Brands Irrelevant?

My friend Nathan Labenz writes about the success of TripAdvisor (the leading review site of hotels) and what it means to the future of brands:

Historically, brands were built on the assumption of limited information. As mass production made it possible to sell soap and soup nationwide, companies developed brands to represent quality and cultivate product loyalty. Brands were a natural fit for radio and TV advertising, and brands thrived with the proliferation of cable channels, which kept advertising costs down while offering unprecedented demographic targeting.

Facebook and Twitter get most of the attention for brand disruption, but the biggest problems for brands are in search and e-commerce.

Take this Google search for Super 8 Motels, for example. On the front page, you’ll see ratings that hotel guests have written about particular Super 8s on TripAdvisor, Yahoo Travel and Yelp. Importantly, the reviews vary widely. When I checked, a New Mexico location was rated 4.5 stars, while a Los Angeles location was at 3.5 stars and one in British Columbia had only 2 stars. Such location-specific information undermines brands’ ability to affect consumers’ purchasing decisions with 30-second TV spots and gives TripAdvisor a powerful position….

For the Super 8 brand, the end game could be scary: as TripAdvisor accumulates more and more trusted reviews, the best-performing Super 8s, all of which are independent franchises, may eventually realize that their business is suffering from their association with lesser motels. At that point, we might see a “brand run,” wherein the best locations leave the chain, lowering the brand’s value and ultimately leading to its collapse.

It's a solid point and underdiscussed in the hoopla about social media and how it's affecting big brands.

An even better example than Super 8 might be Mariott as I'm guessing a large percentage of Super 8 rooms are sold on no reservation and reviews don't play as much a role.

In the case of Mariott, I'm likely to have reserved a room in advance. In the old days, perhaps I assume that all Mariotts around the world are good. Now, in conjunction with booking the reservation online, I can read reviews of individual locations. There's more variance in the quality of Mariott properties than Mariott HQ would like to admit (I've stayed in dozens of Mariotts myself), and that variance is now for all to see on sites like TripAdvisor.

The end game that Nathan proposes–the outperforming properties dissociating from the national brand because they're being hurt by the low performers–seems quite possible in the long run. After all, wouldn't you rather stay at a hotel you've never heard of (i.e., no national brand) but one that has hundreds of credible five star reviews over a Mariott location that has hundreds of two star reviews?

Eventually, the good franchises will recognize this. And Mariott HQ–whose business is premised on the benefits of a national brand uniting thousands of independent franchises in an information-poor world–will be hurt.

Randomness and Serendipity on the Internet

This is a short biography of a link, as it relates to the randomness and serendipity that drives conversation on the web.

A couple weeks ago Tim Harford, the Financial Times columnist and author of the stimulating new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, was in town on book tour. I've read Tim's stuff for some time but hadn't met him, so I went to his talk at the World Affairs Council and we grabbed dinner afterwards. We had a delightful chat, and later that night Tim linked on Twitter to an old blog post of mine, 50 Ways to Expose Yourself to Randomness.

Seeing that Tim is — according to the hottest economist in America — the best economist on Twitter, he has a strong following and the link got picked up a bit.

This morning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a noted foreign policy scholar and former Obama State Dept official, tweeted: "Someone that I follow sent out a great piece last week on ways of adding randomness to your life, but now I can't find it. Pse resend!"

An hour later, Michael Clemens, an economist from the Center for Global Development — who I randomly met at a conference in Miami on Latin America and who I've stayed in touch with online ever since — replied, "50 ways to expose yourself to randomness" from @BenCasnocha" Presumably, Michael remembered Tim tweeting about it and figured it was the link Anne-Marie remembered.

Shortly thereafter, Anne-Marie wrote a post for CNN's GPS blog about creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and linked at one point in the piece to my post on randomness. It was cool for me to see this – I read Anne-Marie's book The Idea That Is America a couple years ago, and linked to her post on the development of China three years ago. Cooler yet, Fareed Zakaria just tweeted the CNN post on creativity and asked Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua for her reactions. And Amy Chua just replied.

I'm detailing the backstory here because it's fun to point out the random connections that gave rise to Anne-Marie's link on…cultivating randomness. Every day in the blogosphere and twittersphere these types of conversations happen; being able to trace the outlines of how ideas and memes come together is one of the unique joys of the online intellectual experience.

It's also worth pointing out that it was a year-old blog post that got picked up by Tim et al. Blog posts are easily searchable and archivable. It would have never happened with a tweet. It supports the point of my post (and Anil Dash's): Twitter, Transience, and Tempo.

Finally, I think it's relevant that in-person relationships played a role in how the link made its way into Anne-Marie's post. I met Tim for dinner, and afterwards he took a closer look at my blog and then felt compelled to tweet it out. I met Michael, the guy who responded to Anne-Marie's initial question, in-person in Miami and he started following me (and I him) after that. The internet does a marvelous job at connecting people from around the world. Even if I've never met a blogger or tweeter I follow, the connection I feel I have with them is anything but superficial. But it remains the case that an in-person interaction creates a unique bond. In my experience, even just one in-person meeting can enrich the online communications with the person for years to follow.

Twitter, Transience, and Tempo

Anil Dash notes the double edged sword of Twitter's transience:

Perhaps the most important psychological innovation of Twitter is that it assumes you won't see every message that comes along. There's no count of unread items, and very little social cost to telling a friend that you missed their tweet. That convenience and social accommodation is incredibly valuable and an important contribution to the web.

However, by creating a lossy environment where individual tweets are disposable, there's also an environment where few will build the infrastructure to support broader, more meaningful conversations that could be catalyzed by a tweet. In many ways, this means the best tweets for advancing an idea are those that contain links to more permanent media.

He's right that the guilt-free nature of Twitter is a delight. You can go a few days without checking it and it's "okay." But the downside of such a set-up is captured in Anil's post title: If You Didn't Blog It, It Didn't Happen. This is not just about the 140 character limit of Twitter (though obviously that's a major impediment to conversations). Tweets come and go, and if it's gone, it's (basically) gone. As evidence of this, I'd link you to a "debate" David Frum and Virginia Postrel had last week on Twitter about health care policy, of which I read bits and pieces, but alas, it's too hard to find and impossible to reference in full.

Blog posts are easily linked-to, archived, tagged. Lengthy conversations can ensue in the posts and comments section. And an RSS reader efficiently captures everything (though it could do a better job at tracking multi-blog conversations). I'd give up Twitter without much of a fuss, whereas you'd have to fight me to death to take away my RSS reader and blogs. I'd miss Twitter, to be sure — it's fun to see an on-going stream of gestures from people I care about. But it's not core to my intellectual experience on the web.

Stowe Boyd concludes on a philosophical note:

Lurking behind Anil’s practicality are the more philosophical issues of time and transience. Yes, we don’t need to retain every tweet ever read or written. We can accept the fast and furious impermanence of most tweets, and the up tempo pace of the Twitter bloodstream. But we want to also operate at a slower pace, dealing with deeper and abiding interests, ideas, and connections. We need to be able to shift tempo without missing a beat.


Here's my post on the evolving uses of Twitter.

Zadie Smith on Technology and Philosophy

I love Zadie Smith, but her lengthy review of The Social Network movie is disappointing. She tries to do a macro cultural critique of the online social network phenomenon but gets lost pretty quickly. A sample paragraph:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Say what?

Most negative pieces like Smith's are premised on the idea that Facebook and the web are changing our lives in a massive way. Most positive pieces are similarly premised except instead they argue that everything is sweetness and light.

Someone should write an article that argues the total impact (good or bad) of social networking technologies on an individual's identity, philosophies, behavior, and relationships may actually be overstated by the legion of recent essayists and filmmakers. And that it may be especially overstated even by those who claim it's been life changing — i.e., the piece skeptically assesses first-person testimonies. I'm not saying I hold this view, but it would be a refreshingly different way to frame the conversation.


Here's William Gibson on related topics in a recent interview. One line on globalization:

I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad. I don’t traffic in nostalgia. We’re becoming a global culture.