Friday Five: media, social and dropping out

Some interesting articles from the past week:

Off the Grid – by Stephen Fry

British writer, actor and comedian Stephen Fry lets rip on his vision of an unplugged life for today’s young:

“Signing off and logging out may seem to some like a move back, a fatuous attempt to disinvent the wheel, a modern equivalent of The Good Life, digging up Wikipedia and planting cabbages over it or steampunking the new to create a simulacrum of the old, but what I am talking about is a move forward for those who have never known anything but the digital world. Generation Z (it brings vomit to the gorge even to type that) must invent their own reality, not replay mine. No, this is not about the retro chic of analogue, it is about forging a new reality outside the – for want of a better word – matrix.”

Whether you agree with him or not (and he doesn’t expect you to), this is a great read, full of wit and hope.

“But first, what would motivate any young person today to pull the plug?

Well maybe they should consider this for a moment. Who most wants you to stay on the grid? The advertisers. Your boss. Human Resources. The advertisers. Your parents (irony of ironies – once they distrusted it, now they need to tag you electronically, share your Facebook photos and message you to death). The advertisers. The government. Your local authority. Your school. Advertisers.”

— x —

No, this isn’t an oil painting by an abstract artist. It’s an image of Australia taken by a satellite for the US Geological Survey.

image via artnet

satellite image of Australia, via artnet

You can see a collection of some of the most beautiful ones at their website, and at Artnet News.

earthasart contrails

satellite image of California, via artnet

satellite image of Australia, via artnet

satellite image of Australia, via artnet

— x —

How Uber Conquered London – by Sam Knight, for The Guardian

A searing mix of personal struggle, entrepreneurial determination, history and philosophy gives us a gripping tale of how Uber launched in London and went on to change how the city moves. We meet the first London employee, the first driver, and, of course, Kalanick himself. And we get a glimpse of how a city’s transformation began, one driver at a time.

“Liquidity used to be something you associated with the stock market, he explained. But now sharing networks such as Uber and Airbnb are making assets and labour available to consumers in ways that were simply not possible before.”

A long read, but worth it.

“It takes a moment for this notion to sink in: that with more drivers competing for cheaper fares, everybody can still come out on top. (American drivers have begun to call this “Uber math”.)… The only trouble with “Uber math” is how it feels to be part of the labour force that delivers it.”

— x —

Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved – by Joshua Topolsky, via Medium

The problem with today’s media is that…. it’s different. Things that used to work don’t work anymore. And the media, the “old” media, doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.

“So over time, we built up scale in digital to replace user value. We thought we could solve with numbers (the new, seemingly infinite numbers the internet and social media provides) what we couldn’t solve with attention. And with every new set of eyeballs (or clicks, or views) we added, we diminished the merit of what we made. And advertisers asked for more, because those eyes were worth less. And we made more. And it was less valuable.”

— x —

Check out these stunning light portraits by Eric Paré.

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

Light-painting-fantasies-5721bf04abe20__880

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

by Eric Paré, via Bored Panda

There’s more on Bored Panda.

— x —

How social entrepreneurship is making a difference in the world – by Bérénice Magistretti, for TechCrunch

Banish the do-gooder condescension that most Silicon Valley types bestow on third world problems (although usually with very good intentions). Here we have some examples of clever ideas that are actually making a difference in quality of life. Tackling sanitation, healthcare, waste recycling and education, good ideas and smart management can make local impacts that have the potential to scale.

I dislike the label “social entrepreneurship” – it’s too limiting and misleading. I mean, Facebook and Instagram can be considered cases of social entrepreneurship, right? “Constructive” entrepreneurship doesn’t work, either. The closest I can come up with is “make-the-world-a-better-place entrepreneurship”, which is just not going to catch on. Maybe just “better place entrepreneurship”?

— x —

Have a great weekend, wherever you are. I came to London this week expecting dire weather – the forecast said rain, sleet and even snow! The same forecast as the last time I was here. And yet again, beautiful sunny weather. Cold, though. But lovely.

Sunday Seven: work, startups and ether commerce

So I think I finally have this blog migrated to self-hosting, although there are still a few (cough, several) glitches to work out. Thanks for your patience, and any constructive suggestions are welcome!

Some of the most interesting articles and ideas from the past week:

After The Gold Rush – by Jon Evans, for TechCrunch

The always brilliant Jon Evans calls the end of the tech bubble.

“The startup gold rush of the last ten years is over. Sorry.”

Why? Because of too many startups, too many VCs, too many unicorns…

“…the more the startup ethos — MVP, “disrupt,” etc — becomes conventional wisdom, the less effective it is. The day we reached a consensus that “startups will define the future” was the day it ceased to be true. Innovations rarely come from mindsets adopted by the mainstream; you can’t be revolutionary when everyone else is trying to be revolutionary in exactly the same way.”

Yet there are still fields where new entrants can do real good:

“Tech giants may have adapted (somewhat) to the startup threat, but there are other fields — healthcare, for instance — still trying to adjust to last decade’s technology. These will remain fertile ground for some time yet.”

And bitcoin, blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality and IoT still have a ways to run. Niche apps might get some focussed traction. But the startup sector’s buzz is gone. Which will hopefully curb the egos.

— x —

Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You – by Samuel Hulick, via Medium

Image via Medium

Image by buchino, via Medium

This entertaining article will have you nodding your head in agreement and fighting the urge to rush outside and look at some nature. (It’s Sunday, why fight it?). Even if you’re not a Slack user (and it appears that most of us are these days), you’ll be familiar with the overwhelm, the creep of helplessness, the sense of sacrifice for the Greater Good.

“Then, out of nowhere, here you come riding into my life like a goddamned Clint Eastwood straight out of Bridges of Madison County. The personality! The colors! You were all promises, rose petals, and sex appeal. And SO much more responsive to my needs.

Soon, we were messaging every day. It wasn’t long until it was hard to think of a time I’d ever gotten things done without you.

And that, really, was where things began to unravel for us.”

Samuel lays bare his lack of commitment to the relationship, citing the “clingyness” of the fun user interface and the intrusion of the conversation drip.

“I may have been fooling myself when we were still in the honeymoon phase, but when there was all the talk of you killing email, I have to admit I thought it was the email problem you were attacking, not just the email platform.

Which is to say, I thought you were providing some relief from the torrential influx of messages, alerts, and notifications I was receiving on a daily basis. “Me + Slack = Fewer distractions and more productivity,” I thought at the time. I have to say, though, that I’ve since found it to be the opposite.”

While the article is a good read, it overlooks the fact that people’s expectations of how you are going to behave are generally based on how you behave. Extrapolation. You don’t want to have to be on Slack all the time, don’t be on Slack all the time. If it’s to gain productivity, your team will understand. I love Slack for the amount of email it cuts down on, and how it makes distance work relationships feel more face-to-face. And I’m on the platform maximum 1 hour a day.

That said in Slack’s defense, Samuel does hit home with some very good points:

“I wonder if conducting business in an asynchronish environment simply turns every minute into an opportunity for conversation, essentially “meeting-izing” the entire workday.”

“Everything is scattered, and the mental load that comes with it is real. Linda Stone calls this perpetual, shallow quasi-presence “continuous partial attention”, and this makes each conversational thread, almost by definition, a loose one.”

There is always a backlash when something becomes so popular. And it’s important that we question what holds our attention. Of course Slack is not the perfect solution. Conversation itself is not the perfect solution. It’s complicated, messy and distracting. Yet it is productive. Slack is a step towards putting warmth back into virtual work conversations, and the juggling of channels and threads is no different to the fragmented reality of office life. And anything that reduces chain emails is, in my opinion, A Very Good Thing.

— x —

 

Code is political – by Julianne Tveten, for Motherboard

In case you didn’t have enough to worry about, I present to you: the politicisation of code.

“Historically, programming languages have lain on structures of domination. Software engineering consists of one agent (the programmer) giving commands, and another (the computer) receiving and, unless there’s an error, obeying them.

To make a programming language feminist… would require shifting to a collaboration-based structure.”

What?

““Just because certain forms are technical, it doesn’t mean they don’t have social or political influence. Computation can’t have this pure, objectified, position-from-nowhere objectivity. Objectivity is marked in influence specifically by who you are and where you are and what you’re bringing to it.””

I have no idea what that means.

A programming language has been developed in Arabic “to challenge the anglocentric nature of computer science” (although it will have a hard time interacting with, um, 100% of other languages out there).

Taking issue with the binary dominance of 1s and 0s, TransCoder – a “queer programing anti-language” developed by digital artist Zach Blas – introduces a whole new set of, well, statements.

“For instance, running the matrimonial function “iDo” causes a computer to self-destruct, while “metametazoan” deletes all language “that is representative of gender binaries” and “sets everything in the program equal to itself.””

I just might take up farming.

— x —

The Next Amazon (Or Apple, Or GE) Is Probably Failing Right Now – by Ben Casselman, for FiveThirtyEight

Known for its strong grasp of statistics, FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the startup scene in the US eloquently sheds light on trends most of us were probably unaware of.

First, that entrepreneurship has been in decline in the US for the past 30 years. (What?). In 1980, 450,000 new businesses were started in the US. In 2013, 400,000, even though the US population was 40% larger.

“The startup drop-off has corresponded with a decline in other measures of economic dynamism — Americans are changing jobs less often, for example, and are moving across the country less frequently — leading economists to worry that the U.S. as a whole has become more risk-averse.”

via FiveThirtyEight

via FiveThirtyEight

But new research shows that the narrative is not that simple. There are fewer new businesses, but amongst those 400,000 are opportunities with greater potential.

“Startups as a whole may be declining, they find, but the kind of entrepreneurship that economists care the most about — fast-growing, innovative companies like Amazon — hasn’t shown the same downward trend; in fact, in the past few years, those kinds of startups have surged in number.”

Yet those kinds of startups are having a harder time in creating sustainable growth and jobs.

“The U.S.’s problem is less a failure to create enough new businesses and more a failure to help those businesses grow…Restarting that engine is key because historically, nearly a fifth of all new jobs each year have been created by new companies.”

It turns out that most entrepreneurs don’t want to build an empire. And the problem has been, how does the system identify those that do? A new study claims to be able to do just that.

“Ambitious startups share certain qualities. Their names, for example, tend to be shorter and are less likely to include the founder’s name. They tend to be set up as corporations, not limited liability companies, and they are often incorporated in Delaware, a state known for its business-friendly regulations.”

So far so good, right? No. The study goes on to show that, once identified, the “high potential” startups have a much lower chance of success than, say, 20 years ago. And those that do manage to grow are not adding jobs as quickly as their predeccesors. Tech efficiencies and scalability (more sales with less staff), offshoring and globalization, contract workers and the freelance economy… The forces at work holding job creation back are a potent mix of economics and culture, fostered by tech companies themselves.

— x —

The Music Startup Meltdown – by Cortney Harding, via Medium

This is not unique to the music industry. The startup world is very, very hard. The general rule is that 2 out of 10 startups “make it”. Courtney does add the valid point that startups are now a riskier place than ever from which to launch your career.

“Now, that’s par for the course in startups, and really in most businesses. But up until now the rotating door of companies was spinning — you could easily move from startup to startup without much disruption. But now all the VC money that was greasing the doors has dried up, and people are stuck — there’s just nowhere to go.”

Articles like this one serve as healthy reminders that we are all susceptible to survivorship bias: those that do well or get media coverage do not represent the sector. We tend to not hear about the ones that don’t get off the ground, or that do but then fizzle out. So we get brainwashed into thinking that technology and a good idea will bring riches and a dynamic lifestyle.

“Being in the middle of the music startup meltdown right now is terrible, full stop. It’s never fun when people lose jobs and companies close, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and the next few quarters are going to reveal even more turmoil in the sector. But it’s not like the internet is going to be turned off for all time; plenty of startups rose out of the web 1.0 collapse, and just as many good ones will come in the future.”

Slumps, especially of the meltdown variety, teach us that having a good idea is not enough. Having an identified and unattended market is not enough. Even getting a lot of funding is not enough. The current change in atmosphere is sad – it’s never fun to see so many dreams crumble. But it is a wake-up call, a reality check and hopefully a return to fundamentals, which will lead to stronger innovation and healthier investment. If only we can be sure we won’t forget again, like we’ve done before.

 

— x —

 

Amazon Edges Closer to Fully Automated Retail – by Ian Bogost, for The Atlantic

This article is not so much about Amazon, as about the creep of “ether commerce”, or commerce that happens without us really being in control.

“This is commerce sublimated into the secret recesses of ordinary life rather than commerce conveniently accessible from the computer. And not digital commerce, either, the comparatively easy domain of digital downloads and in-app purchases. Ether-commerce winds its way around you, invisible, like an H.P. Lovecraft monster.”

We’re talking about product-specific digital commerce, such as the buttons that Amazon is distributing that allow you to re-order supplies as soon as the idea pops into your head.

“The ultimate endpoint of ether-commerce is full automation: purchasing things without even really buying them.”

Since we end up paying, this can sound very frightening. And the cultural and psychological shift – and let’s not even talk about the business side – is deep.

“Those of us who are shackled to our smartphones might wonder: Why not just use the Amazon app to order a new carton of Huggies or box of Larabars? But from this perspective 1-Click doesn’t make sense either—the shopping-cart checkout process isn’t so laborious, after all; consumers just become less tolerant of any inconvenience as new conveniences arise.”

Ok, let’s talk about the business side. The participating brands gain marginal revenue, but at significant logistical cost. Enter the network effect: delivering a box of detergent to your front door is not a problem if I’m going by there anyway. And with the ecommerce or ether commerce or whatever boom, chances of that are high. But even having to stop the van, haul the detergent out of the back, walk it to the front door and wait for someone to answer has a cost. Is the small additional amount earned on that sale worth it?

It seems that the answer is yes. Volume, from both a mindshare point of view (why would I buy another brand of detergent when this one is sooooo convenient?) and from a logistics perspective (more deliveries = each delivery costs less!) is the holy grail of big-brand ecommerce. Which makes Amazon the ideal partner for the big consumer brands.

Just wait until the Internet of Things goes mainstream. You won’t even need to push a button to order your staples. Our agency in the running of our household will be pushed even further into the background. Convenience? Or the relinquishing of control?

— x —

Is the meaning of work about to change? – by Rick Goings, for The World Economic Foundation

Being told that your job is in danger is beginning to sound old. Still scary, but old. The WEF presents here a concise and blissfully easy to understand summary of the main causes for the radical change in the employment outlook, and a recipe for turning this ship around.

“It’s increasingly clear to me that creating more jobs is not enough, nor is it the real solution. This solution is based on a big misunderstanding. To tackle this crisis cubed, we need to focus on not just jobs but on people earning incomes. This requires us to develop a new model of work.

What is clear is that the transformations that are now taking place worldwide, resulting in the loss of jobs, are caused by forces we cannot alter. The disruption of our world of work is the result of a tectonic shift just as dramatic as industrialization and urbanization – and it occurs along three fault lines:”

Those fault lines are technology (automation reducing the need for people), talent (a skills gap), and Millenials (who want different things from their employment, such as meaning and a healthy work-life balance).

“Neither governments nor companies can become sustainable engines of job creation. But then this crisis is not actually about “jobs”.”

The new model of work mentioned above?

“Take away the hierarchies of today’s corporations and what are we left with? At their core, companies are a collection of people engaged in collaborative efforts. It is this collaboration that is at the heart of our new model of work.”

This sounds like the spread of the entrepreneurial mind-set, even within big corporations, at every level. Slack-connected teams, on-demand platforms and a re-thinking of what work means are both symptoms and causes of the shift. The difference between “work” and “a job” is becoming glaringly vague. The fragmentation of large entities, both locally and internationally through globalization and outsourcing, is changing what we understand by “corporation”. And the quantification of “trust” through platforms and ratings is shifting professional relationships into a looser, more superficial structure.

“So to survive, corporations have to reinvent themselves as conveners of collaborators. That is their new template. They have to morph into collaborative ecosystems – with their own rules and community ethos – in which individuals can plug in their skills. The collaboration economy can be our new model of work.”

— x —

This opens your eyes to the power of context.

“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it.”

— x —

Two things I enjoyed this week:

Rain Fall, by Barry Eisler (inexplicably republished as A Clean Kill in Tokyo). Not exactly high literature, but very enjoyable, morally dubious, satisfyingly complex and exotically detailed. And, in my opinion, very well written. It’s about a half-Japanese, half-American assassin based in Tokyo, who unravels the fallout of his latest kill.

rain-fall-by-barry-eisler-isbn-0451

A MOOC on Coursera from Yale University on The Global Financial Crisis. It’s just started, but so far it’s totally compelling. Get this, one of the professors is Tim Geithner! In the first week he’s already talking about what they did wrong.

 

Sharing in the hype: the collaborative economy and motivation

Ironic that today in the financial press we read that a judge has banned Uber from operating in Spain (although not really, see Enrique Dans’ article), and we read about the launch of Sharing España, a “collaborative economy” association. The objective of the new association is to represent the sector’s interests, and to convince users of its efficiency and security. And Uber, poster child of this new economic activity, is not invited.

Sharing España

One of the participating companies, Cabify, whose image decorates the Sharing España article (and of which I am a happy client), competes with traditional taxis in that its prices are on the whole lower and its cars are nicer. It has a convenient booking app, but so do several other taxi companies. It lets you pre-book, and the payment is automatically and conveniently taken from your credit card, as with other taxi companies. Cabify operates in several Spanish cities without legal problems, and has passed several inspections. The difference between Cabify and Uber is that Cabify’s drivers have the requisite chauffeur licences (which cost a fraction of the taxi licence price). The similarities are mainly that Cabify’s drivers are independent contractors who own their own cars. They don’t “work for” Cabify, they “collaborate”.

I’ve said before that I think that the “collaborative economy” is badly named, and I stand by that. Cabify drivers, EatWith chefs and Myfixpert technicians are selling their services, their time, their effort… It’s a commercial transaction. In general they receive a fixed, market-based amount for their efforts. In a collaboration, economic or otherwise, you work together to produce a result, which you then get to share. The participants in the “collaborative economy” companies collaborate in generating the platform’s profits, but they don’t get to share them.

image by Sylwia Bartyzel via Unsplash

image by Sylwia Bartyzel via Unsplash

However, collaborative economy is a much better name than “sharing economy”, and why the founding members chose to call the association “Sharing España” is beyond me. It sounds innovative and kind, which should appeal. But it is misleading, and that almost always backfires.

Calling it “Sharing España” is buying into the hype. In case you doubted that there’s a lot of hype, here’s venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar: “This is a movement as important as when the web browser came out.”.And take a look at these headlines: “Sharing Economies are Here to Stay”, from the Guardian. “The Rise of the Sharing Economy”, from the renowned Economist magazine. And I got the Pishevar quote from an article in Forbes, a usually serious business magazine, called “Airbnb and the Unstoppable Rise of the Share Economy”. A magazine of that level should know that nothing in the economic world is unstoppable, especially after the economic crisis that the developed world has been clawing through. Wasn’t it hype that got us there in the first place?

Take the case of Airbnb. They started out in 2008 by advertising floor space in their apartment during a trade fair that had flooded the city with cash-strapped creative types. They had space for three airbeds (yes, that’s where the name came from, Airbedandbreakfast), which they managed to rent out. Is that a new business? No! Could they have done that without the Internet? Yes! A few flyers taped to lampposts around the area and pinned to bulletin boards in coffee shops would no doubt have produced the same effect. Were they sharing? No, they were renting out space. A commercial transaction.

And that’s the key. Sharing should not be commercial. Sharing is worthy, valuable, and gives benefit to the sharer and the sharee. But it should not have any motive other than the satisfaction of doing the “right” thing, of being kind.

In 1995, two Swedish economists launched a motivation experiment that had unexpected results. They visited a clinic in Gothenberg and divided the potential blood donors there into three equal groups. One group was told that they could give blood if they wanted, it would be appreciated. The second group was told that they would be paid 50 kronor to give blood. The third group was told that if they gave blood, 50 kronor would be donated to their favourite charity. Interestingly enough, the number of willing donors in the second group dropped significantly. Offering an economic incentive “tainted” an altruistic act, and the participants lost interest. Simply “doing good” was enough motivation for the first and third groups. And that’s my main point. Sharing is good. Let’s not taint it by equating it with a commercial transaction.

Sharing, empathy and honesty are the three main pillars of childhood values. And yet, of the three, sharing is the only one whose definition is being re-engineered by the media (in most cases at the behest of the businesses) to create buzz, generate hype and coin sound-bites. We’re doing ourselves a disservice. Hype can generate some short-term attention, but it generally fizzles out to the catchy tune of “I saw it coming” and “I told you so”. And the damage is not just limited to the number of closed businesses, the millions of $ or € wasted on buzz-based funding, and the subsequent prejudice against valid businesses that got tainted with the hype brush. The price will also be paid by education, values and society as a whole. I can so see little kids in the playground, when being urged to share, ask “what’s my percentage”?

We need to reclaim the word “sharing”, to give it back its generous meaning. That would generate a benefit for current and future generations, which we could all actually share.

 

—- x —-

If you’re interested in more stuff about the Sharing Economy, check out my Flipboard (and yes, I did, I called it “Sharing Economy”):

Flipboard magazine on the Sharing Economy

What does the Sharing Economy have to do with sharing?

On Thursday I went to the screening of “Compartir Mola” (“Sharing is Good”, in Spanish), a short documentary about the sharing economy in Spain produced by Tutellus and AlfaZulú. An impressive film, very well done, dynamic, informative, thoughtful…. It’s in Spanish, but if you would like to see it, and I do recommend it, you can sign up on the Tutellus web (UPDATE: now it’s open, you don’t need to sign to see it!).

Compartir Mola

Yet, the title annoyed me. Sharing is good, yes. But I don’t see what sharing has to do with most of the businesses springing up in this sector. “Sharing” for me is more “Would you like some of my sandwich?” or “Sure, you can borrow my coat any time you want”, than “Would you like me to help you with this in exchange for money?”. In what way is “please use my empty apartment for €120 per day” not “renting”?

The round table debate after the screening focussed mainly on the fiscal aspects of the companies in the sector, whether they pay tax or not. Everyone agrees that of course they should, the obstacle is that the systems are not yet in place here in Spain to ensure that that happens efficiently and fairly. However, I don’t want to get into that debate today, as I am sure that it will get sorted out by the tax experts (and I so hope that they actually consult with the entrepreneurs, for a change). I would like to talk more about the misconception that the label “sharing economy” helps to propagate, a misconception that hinders the concept’s acceptance by the consuming public.

One of the protagonists of the film, Rafael Martínez-Cortiña (@rafaelmcortina) of Peers.org, mentioned the true nature of the concept, and a much better name, in my opinion: Peer to Peer. P2P. Similar to B2B (business to business), only much bigger, and more charming. And not at all similar to B2C, or business to consumer. Please notice the absence of a “C”. We are no longer just consumers, we are peers.

Many of the new platforms in this space are two-way, bi-directional. WeSwap and Moniefy, for example, pair up travellers wanting to buy a currency with travellers wanting to sell. Homeexchange facilitates home swaps. With Zilok, you can be both a renter and a rentee.

Moniefy

But even if the roles of supplier and consumer are interchangeable, is that sharing? To me, it sounds like a marketer’s hype, up there with “gluten-free” and “organic”. It sounds lovely, but let’s get real. We’re taught to share, not to share-in-exchange-for-some-material-good-or-service. Sure, there’s some playground negotiation along the lines of “If I let you use my iPod, can I play on your PSP?”. But that’s not usually how kids understand sharing. And it’s not a business model.

What is a business model, and a very exciting one, is the “democratizing” of supply. We can all be suppliers, now, of our services, expertise, time, household appliances, unwanted clothing, extra space, cars, pet care, cooking… Whatever you have or can do, there’s probably a platform that lets you offer that, for money. Many people even make a living from offering their services or products on these platforms. Etsy gives artists and craftsmen access to a large enough market to make their niche products economically viable. O-desk and similar give freelancers a relatively steady stream of potential work. FarmDrop gives me a chance to sell the fresh mint I grow on my balcony (or it would if I grew mint and lived in North or South London).

Farmdrop

Labelling all such platforms part of the “sharing economy” is confusing, and as such, actually delays its mass adoption. When it comes to commerce, we’re not hard-wired to share. I want to own or rent my own place precisely because I don’t want to share my space with anyone. I would rather own a KitchenAid and be able to use it whenever I want, than have to wait for availability to make my chocolate chip cookies. You know the saying “Good fences make good neighbours?”. Sharing is fine within the playground and within families, everyone can get on board with that. But as an economic principle? Not in our capitalist societies. And the longer we call it “sharing”, the longer the mainstream consumers will consider it a “hippy” new technology thing that’s not worth spending the time to understand.

Another term used for this concept is “Collaborative Economy”. That is also not the best label. Collaborate in what? Generating traffic and profits for the platform? Didn’t we always collaborate in generating profits for the companies we bought from? In the Peer to Peer models, we are working more closely with each other, but we don’t generally have a common aim. Yes, recycling is a worthy aim, and we are collaborating on that, I suppose. But basically, we want an income.

There is a Collaborative Economy, but it’s not the Airbnbs and the Muncherys that populate it. It’s the crowdsourcing platforms such as Quirky or the crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, in which participants supply their ideas or their funds to achieve a common aim. I’ll talk about them another time, because the concept is fascinating, and does reveal a significant shift in the supplier/customer relationship.

bondsy

And there is a Sharing Economy, but it’s not the Ubers or the Rent the Runways that fill its ranks. Its platforms like Bondsy, which allows users to swap unwanted items, or GoodGym which pairs runners with elderly people who need companionship. Neighborgoods.net connects neighbours with goods to lend or borrow. Again, we’ll talk about that later on, too, because the creativity and spirit is inspiring.

I would like to propose a new name for the concept, that encompasses every company that I’ve looked at so far in the sector: the Connecting Economy. You could argue that even in the era of Big Business, we connected with… well, with Big Business. But the communication technologies that make the new businesses possible are all about connectivity. They allow you and me to connect with a vast number of people simultaneously, something that previously only mass media could do. The fact that I can efficiently connect with a potter in Australia or a translator in Iceland, opens up huge marketplaces for me and for them. The fact that I can make something – a scarf, a song, a tutorial – and with a few clicks put it out there for people to hopefully buy, opens up a world of marketing and business opportunities.

But we’re not sharing. We’re connecting. When I participate in your crowdfunding, we’re connecting. When you download my pdfs, we’re connecting. It’s more than just peer-to-peer. Its me-to-the-world, but at the same time it’s intimate. It’s big business, but it’s about relationships. These businesses are more than just marketplaces, they are connectors and relationship-generators. Inventory is distributed, transaction friction is eliminated, and it’s changing the way we think about our role in society. While there are many issues that still need to be worked out, and while not all of the companies currently operating in the sector will survive, this business concept is not going to go away. We do need, however, to tone down the hype, stop pretending it’s all altruistic, and look at the important part of this disruption: connections.

(I’m working on a “map” of the sector. It’s fascinating. I’ll keep you posted.)

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If you’re interested in more stuff about the Sharing Economy, check out my Flipboard (and yes, I did, I called it “Sharing Economy”):

Flipboard magazine on the Sharing Economy

 

And, if you’d like more about crowdfunding, I have a Flipboard magazine on that, too:

flipboard crowdfunding

Social television and the second screen

I confess that I don’t watch much television, mainly because of lack of time, but also because to unwind I actually prefer to curl up with my iPad and tap and swipe my way around the Internet (stumbleupon.com is dangerously fascinating). So imagine my interest when I discover that there are many, many more out there like me (hi!), and that some innovative TV shows are including the smaller screens in their storytelling.

By that I don’t mean trying to get us to watch the shows on the iPad (although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind). They want us to have our tablets or phones in our hands while we’re watching the show on TV. They’re developing additional content, complementary visuals, ways to connect with others also watching, and, yes, they want us to divide our attention between the two screens. Welcome to multi-screen entertainment.

walking dead second screen

The idea is that, in grabbing our attention on two levels simultaneously, and in feeding our peripatetic quest for more stimulation, faster, they get us even more hooked on the show. According to a 2013 Nielsen survey (Yahoo and Razorfish surveys produced similar data), as much as 80% of tablet and smartphone owners say that they use their device while watching TV, for checking email and/or social media sites, and for looking up information. What got the TV executives (or whatever they’re called these days) sitting up was that half looked up information about the TV show they were watching, which shows a surprising interest in “going deeper”. 20% spent time simultaneously reading social media commentary on the show. Almost 15% said that they watched the show because of something that they read on social media.

Now, even though these figures don’t show a majority, they are enough to make the show developers drool. Imagine, all those people caring enough about your show to spend time and energy talking about it online! Yes, we do that with family and friends after the show anyway, and maybe at the office or gym. But with people we don’t know? During the show? It’s not only the “hearts and minds” part that marketers fantasize over. It’s also the possibilities of viral marketing for the show itself. On creating a buzz around watching a show with dual-screen content, the relatively solitary act of watching TV becomes social.

watching tv with a second screen

The situation gets even more interesting when we look at it from an advertiser’s point of view. The audience for TV ads is dwindling, as more and more of us watch “delayed” shows, that is, we record it and watch it at our convenience, or we use a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon. Do you know of anyone who, given the chance to fast forward through the ads, would voluntarily sit and watch them? (True, some ads are excellent, but again, I would rather watch them when and where it suits me, not the channel.) The social aspect of two-screen viewing, with the possibility of chatting with other fans as the show is being broadcast, or even of chatting with the show’s producers or actors, could encourage more people to watch “live”. And to prevent them from getting up to get a drink or go to the bathroom during the ad break, the show could “continue” on the second screen with additional content, behind-the-scenes, interviews, quizzes or contests… The second screen is the antidote to delayed viewing.

Several networks and individual programmes have launched apps to deliver an integrated social experience. And over the past few years a flurry of startups has emerged vying to catch the second-screen eyeballs. Tvtag (previously GetGlue) and Beamly (previously Zeebox) are among the leaders in terms of shows and users, and the previously-in-parenthesis in both cases is due to each being purchased for undisclosed sums, after raising a significant of venture capital. As in, there seems to be significant economic potential in this concept.

Defiance game and show

And, creatively speaking, there is huge scope. The crossover potential is so much more than just chats and information. Defiance, a futuristic Syfy channel series about an alien invasion, was launched very soon after the Defiance game hit the market. It’s not a show based on a game, or a game based on a show, the two were developed simultaneously. The characters and storylines cross over, and the free-to-play game is continually updated to reflect plot twists. The gamers keep playing, because there’s always something new. And they watch the show. Going in the other direction, the series fans might try their hand at the game, which they will probably come back to often, because there’s always something new.

The functionality is also creative. Some apps show replays of sports events, exclusive interviews, contests… “New Girl” ran simultaneous relationship polls and offered quotes from one of its quirkier characters. “Grimm” now comes with an e-book. “The Vampire Diaries” app lets viewers capture screen shots and add captions to share with their friends.

Scandal tweets

The drama series Scandal doesn’t have an app, but is one of the most-tweeted-about shows on air in the US this year. Fans, celebrities and even the show’s producers and actors chat away about the episode as it is happening. Slate magazine’s Willa Paskin once tried to reconstruct an episode just from reading the tweets – it turns out her version was pretty accurate. (“Can I watch Scandal by only reading Twitter?”) Smart brands can also get involved: on one particularly tense episode, during a scene in which the main character is desperately clutching her usual glass of wine, Seagrams Gin tweeted:

Seagrams Gin tweet

That was retweeted almost a 1000 times. Effective and very low-cost marketing. The second screen is a fertile field for marketers, not only with tweets and good timing, but also within the apps. Some audio-sync episodes and show ads your tablet or phone that relate to the scene, or show an ad for the same product that is being advertised in the ad break, but with a direct tap-activated option to buy. More immediate, more measurable, and with considerable scope for creativity.

As Scandal shows, the programme-specific apps are perhaps not necessary. Ever since Twitter emerged, fans have been communicating on that micro-chat platform with each other. In fact, Twitter was the trigger for the “second screen experience”, the original, basic engagement tool. Fans would tweet away during a show and during the ad break, too, finding each other through the show’s hashtag (such as #BreakingBad or #Suits). Jokes, theories, questions and comments from Twitter users found an audience with other Twitter users watching the same show, and made the viewing more fun. I confess to getting annoyed when people I’m watching with talk over the dialogue (I’ve never been able to figure out how they can follow the intricacies of the plot when they miss out on chunks of the action because they’re discussing the previous scene!), but “listening” to others by glancing at the screen does add another level of interest to the show.

With live events, the chatter is even more relevant and interesting. Sports, awards ceremonies and talent shows tend to unite people eager to chatter. Twitter invites you to live-tweet opinions, facts and jokes that make you feel like you’re sharing the experience with a room full of friends. The broadcasters also get in on the act by tweeting “inside information” (and ads) and by responding to some of the audience tweets. It’s participatory, it’s entertaining and it generates program/event/brand loyalty.

In all of the conferences that I’ve been to recently, I see a similar phenomenon, with people listening, tweeting and reading simultaneously. Surprisingly, it’s more stimulating than distracting, and often the synchronous activity on Twitter is almost as entertaining as the actual talks.

And here’s an interesting development: you don’t need to be watching live anymore to participate in the social aspect of the second screen. Your tablet or phone can audio-sync to the program, detect which show and episode you’re on, and link you up to the appropriate chat group, fan page, fact centre… The chat may not be live (or, depending on the size of the audience, it may be, there are probably others somewhere in the world watching at the same time, whatever time that is), but it’s still participation.

Obviously not all television viewing will be “disrupted” by the second screen, at least not for now. But the concept does deepen our relationship with what we watch. Many have proclaimed that the rise of the Internet would lead to the death of television. But it turns out that it’s actually saving television viewing, by helping it shift from a passive medium to an interactive gathering. Second-screen viewing, by adding layers of information and social interaction, gives dimension to the flat screen. The creativity, humour and sense of community that the “new” channels provide are leading to a new concept of programming, in which the audience participates, influences and takes care of a large part of the marketing. As with interactive ebooks and digital art, television programmes are adapting to the new media, and generating a new form of entertainment. Yet again the content adapts to the medium.

Handing victory to the competition

On Wednesday morning I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee. I was looking forward to seeing her and didn’t want to arrive late, so I decided to take a taxi – quick, and not very expensive for short routes, at least in Madrid. I should have walked. Forty minutes later it dawned on me that there were no taxis, not even full ones. I went to the three hotels near me, no taxis. Then it started to rain. So I sent a damp and apologetic text and slunk home. Should I have known that there was a taxi strike? Yes, obviously. Should they have gone on strike? No, doing so did them so much more damage than good.

empty taxi stands

image via El País

The taxi strike was Europe-wide, and its main objective was to “protect the consumer against unlicensed taxi rides”. Yes, I’m sure that our welfare is of significant concern, but not even the strikers themselves bother to deny that the strike is to protest the encroachment of Uber on their livelihood.

Now, it’s worth noting that Uber is not even in Madrid yet. It does operate a limited service, in Barcelona, which interestingly enough did not have a city-wide taxi strike. So most of our fair city had never heard of Uber. Now they have, and a large percentage of them are liking what they hear. Uber’s downloads have grown by over 800% this week compared to last. UberMadrid’s Twitter page already has 164 followers at time of writing, without ever having issued a single tweet.

UberMadrid Twitter

a snapshot of UberMadrid’s Twitter page on the 15th of June

It is also worth noting that I have nothing but good things to say about the taxi service in Madrid (in spite of being seriously pissed at them on Wednesday). It’s relatively inexpensive compared to other European cities, they all have GPS so not knowing where they’re going is not the problem it once was (I once took a taxi to the airport and had to tell the driver how to get there), they’re no longer allowed to smoke in the vehicle (definitely an improvement) and they have pretty much all of them been pleasant.

I do understand their position. After putting up huge licence fees (between 80.000€ and 200.000€) and struggling through reams of administrative hassle and enduring a significant crisis-induced slump in business, along come the under-cutting Uber drivers with much fewer requirements and restrictions. It does not seem fair.

But rather than “How can we stop the competition from coming?”, why are they not asking “How did we get in this position in the first place?”. Why do the taxi drivers have to pay such high licence fees? The reason given is that they are a government-approved monopoly, a public service with a more-or-less “guaranteed” income. But, if they are a public service, why are they allowed to strike without at least guaranteeing a minimum service and being held to standards of good behaviour (no destruction of property, no violence), a “privilege” not granted to other public services?

A sector-wide strike against fair and inevitable competition is futile and self-defeating. Even Neelie Kroes, the Vice President of the European Commission, stated publicly in a fascinating post that the strike is pointless: “We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence.”Imagine the hotel sector going on strike to protest against Airbnb. The only ones that were negatively affected were the taxi drivers, through a day of lost income, and their clients, through a day of transport hassle. The yet-to-arrive competition is happy with the major and free publicity.

Rather than taking clients away from the traditional taxis (although that obviously will happen), Uber and its peers see their service broadening the market. More cost-efficient taxi rides, less will-I-find-a-cab uncertainty, and the social aspect do make finding a ride through Uber more appealing than standing on a street corner with your arm raised, especially among the younger users.

Taxi drivers are going to have to accept that change is inevitable. Whatever laws the respective European governments implement to protect an antiquated monopoly, their market will be eroded, and they would be better off lobbying for lower licensing fees and more entrepreneurial freedom (= fewer restrictions) than giving huge free publicity to the enemy they fear. As Marc Vidal says in his excellent post “Taxi drivers use Uber”, “To continue regarding a taxi license as an investment is a mistake that many are beginning to realize”. He also says that he knows taxi drivers who are signing up with Uber, taxi drivers who realize that adapting and innovating goes beyond having magazines and wifi connection in the back seat.

It is interesting that no protest has been made against the Spanish government’s decision to allow testing of driverless cars on city streets and highways. Now there’s a coming disruption for you.