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From The Wisdom Of Crowds, To The Wisdom Of Friends

"I think the wisdom of crowds applies not just to Google but to a phase of the web, which was about information and about links. It was a lot of wonderful things, mostly based on anonymity and links between crowds... Ours just starts from a totally different place. So it's an evolution." Sheryl Sandberg

This quote is taken from an interview last week with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (some key bits in the video above, or you can watch the whole thing here). I think what Sandberg says reveals an interesting perspective on where Facebook see the value in what they do - talking about the wisdom of crowds and the 'phase' of the web it represents in the past tense, for example. And of-course about how they want Facebook to be the default mapping of links between people and the content they share. 

A key element of this is algorithmic. We don't see all the content all of our contacts share all the time in our newsfeeds. Edgerank, the Facebook algorithm, makes a judgement on what it believes to be the most relevant content to us, taking account of (amongst a few other things) an 'affinity' score - a measure of proximity based on the level of interaction you have with another connection. Facebook is effectively prioritising content shared by what it believes to be my closest friends and contacts over that shared by others that I have connected with.

In one sense this may be helpful. My friends on Facebook might be a diverse bunch of contacts sharing all kinds of different content so algorithmic curation of this kind might over time help me to filter out stuff I find less interesting. In another sense however, it is not. There is not a direct correlation, for example, between level of interaction and quality of content shared. Nor is their any appreciation of the context I am in right now and what information might be most interesing or useful to me at this precise moment. And given the diversity of most people's interests I'd say that Facebook has a pretty poor understanding of what I like.

There is also a not insignificant risk of narrowing our input over time, entering into a self-perpetuating cycle where we see content from those with whom we've interacted with most, which encourages us to interact more with those same people, which causes us to see even more content shared by them, and so on, and so on.

One of the trends that Gartner included in their recently released 'Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2012' was so-called 'Context-aware computing'. The idea of using information about an end-user or object's "environment, activities, connections and preferences" to improve the quality of interaction, anticipate needs and proactively serve up the most appropriate content and augment that with customisation and recommendation.

It's a fascinating idea, full of opportunity for content producers of all kinds, but it's also a big shift in how people access and find content that interests them. Whilst I appreciate that we're only at the start of this road and algorithmic curation will undoubtedly improve over time, my hope is that we don't lose more than we gain in the process. I'm generally an optimist about these kind of things and believe that serendipity will find a way, that people often go out of their way to seek out the new and the stimulating, and that the right combinations of professional, algorithmic and social curation (which is undoubtedly a content formula for the future) will naturally win out through increased demand. But in the rush toward the wisdom of friends, we should be very careful that we don't lose the wisdom, and the inspiration, of crowds.


Creative Britain, And Tech Britain

Creative Britain

I think John makes a valid and productive point in this post about the IPA's Creative Pioneers mission to Silicon Valley (which seems to be quite the thing to do these days) - namely the opportunity afforded to the ad industry of working more closely with tech and startup talent in the UK. 

There's clearly a big benefit with the increasing convergence (or marriage) of advertising and technology, in the industry developing a better understanding of startup and tech culture and practices. But there's another, very real, reason why this might be a good idea: the looming talent shortage in the kind of areas that will create the critical capabilities of the near future. The industry needs to think about not only what it can offer that talent, but how it might be able to work with it in more flexible, productive ways.

I get that there's other reasons for getting on a plane, but if so-called Creative Britain wants to start building some bridges and connecting with some of the best digital talent and ideas in the UK, the best place to do that is in the UK, not the US.


Peak Stuff

Ebay-and-Patagonia

There was a fascinating piece in The Guardian recently suggesting that 2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK reached 'peak stuff' - the turning point at which, after years of steady increase, the consumption of 'stuff' (the total weight of everything we use) reached it's peak and actually began to decline. The suggestion is based on analysis conducted by writer/environmentalist Chris Goodall using the little known UK Material Flow Accounts, data published annually by the Office for National Statistics. Handily, The Guardian have published some of the key data here.

The interesting thing about the data is that whilst the recession has, as you would expect, evidently had a notable depressive effect, 'UK material flow' as it's called, stopped ascending as far back as the the late 80s. We now apparently use fewer materials than at any time since records began in 1970. Since 2001, successive categories have begun to decline including the use of paper and cardboard, followed by the use of primary energy (raw heat and power generated by energy sources), the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated per person, purchases of new cars, household energy consumption, and the average distance travelled on private and public transport. Other consumption categories, it seems, have been falling for longer.

The fact that UK material flow has seemingly remained static, or even fallen, in times when GDP has steadily increased effectively means, says Goodall, that the UK has decoupled economic growth and material consumption.

No-one is suggesting that we have solved the challenge of the massive environmental impact we continue to have. As Tim Jackson points out, our investment in global commodity markets for example, means that our economy may well be still increasing resource use even if we are consuming fewer of those resources ourselves. And to quote Andrew Simms, "measures of environmental impact are only meaningful when they're related to the planet's ability to keep up". But its a somewhat radical idea, wonderfully counter-intuitive to the prevailing wisdom, and just maybe another reason to hold some hope.

Whilst I was reading it, I kept thinking about the Patagonia's 'Buy Less' campaign. For those unfamiliar with it, the campaign actively encourages people to buy less new Patagonia stuff through a partnership with Ebay to galvanize people to resell their used Patagonia stuff, as part of it's Common Threads initiative. It is, again, a wonderfully counter-intuitive idea. And one that, as Eric Lowett has said, may well have potentially significant side benefits

Which made me think about ASOS, and their Marketplace initiative, a cross between fashion-street-blogs and Ebay which provides customers and young designers with a platform to sell their own clothing to other ASOS customers via a heavily promoted section on their website. Most retailers would've run a mile from doing this. Conventional wisdom says that if those customers buy from other ASOS customers they're not going to buy from ASOS. What ASOS have realised of-course, is that if those customers wanted to buy second hand clothes there's plenty of places where they might do that, and by facilitating a genuinely useful service for their customers they are giving them a reason to come back to the site more often, advocate what they're doing and, paradoxically, buy more stuff from ASOS. Funny how the world works these days.


Post Of The Month - October 2011 - The Vote

Thanks everyone for the nominations, and thanks to Rick for nominating one of my own posts (I'm flattered). OK, our shortlist this month is between:

Why We're Not Hiring Creative Technologists by Igor Clark

The Trouble With Titles from Lars Bastholm

Can Mandatory Social Media Service Save America? by Edward Boches

Generation X Doesn't Want To Hear It by Matt Honan

What If An Agency Had An API? from, er, me

The Trouble With Talismen by Farrah Bostic

Apple's Aesthetic Dichotomy by James Higgs

Why Digital Talent Doesn't Want To Work In Your Company by Aaron Shapiro

And you can vote below: