Narrative Violations and Narrative Primitives

Quick Read: Sometimes narratives could have ‘violations’. And sometimes, what might at first appear to be a ‘violation’ could prove to be intrinsic to its narrative. Knowing the former from the latter could help unlock great value – across verticals or contexts.

Making sense of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is said to be difficult.

It is considered by many to be one of the most revered and feared compositions in Jazz history. In fact generations of Jazz musicians are known to approach ‘Giant Steps’ as the pinnacle in Jazz improvisation.

Why? This video could provide a delightful crash course of an answer.

Or take Afrobubblegum – the new film genre redefining on screen representation of Africa.

It refers to fun, fierce and frivolous African art that has joy and hope at the centre of it. The pioneer of this style, Wanuri Kahiu a TED fellow and a Kenyan filmmaker says “We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about war, poverty and devastation. We believe that Africa is joyful and full of pride and respect and hope,” and continues to champion the need for such art that captures the full range of human experiences to tell vibrant stories of Africa.

And tell she did!

In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s story of young lesbian love, Rafiki, made international headlines for being the first Kenyan film programmed at the Cannes Film Festival in 71 years of French Riviera cinema history.

What is common between Wanuri Kahiu’s ‘Afrobubblegum’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’?

The genre of Afrobubblegum or the Jazz track ‘Giant Steps’ standout because they ‘violate’ the popular narratives around their respective art forms or subjects. They are examples of what venture capitalists call Narrative Violations.

Narrative Violations

While the term could seem like a fancy jargon to reference the essential characteristic of what makes something a ‘contrarian bet’ to a VC, I should admit that it serves its semantic purpose of helping us put a label on something specific through descriptive and non ambiguous terminology.

Perhaps it is this pull that made Geoff Lewis and Eric Stromberg – the founders of Bedrock Capital – write a manifesto for their firm titled ‘In Search of Narrative Violations‘ stating the following..

Some recent ‘Narrative Violations’ listed on Bedrock Capital’s manifesto letter

The letter in its entirety is eloquent and makes for a great read and ends on an inspiring note saying..

“..As our keystrokes hunt for the next narrative high, thousands of possibilities that will never be remain trapped beneath our fingertips. When we allow popular narrative to dictate who, where, and what is worthy of our time or capital, breakthroughs that could transcend remain overlooked, underestimated, or simply fade away.

Against all odds, a few brave entrepreneurs violating the narrative today will come to define profound new truths tomorrow. We’re on a mission to find them

To be clear, the concept of ‘Narrative Violations’ has also had its fair share of critiques for being too reductive. It was even declared 2019’s ‘VC Bingo’ buzzword of the year.

Nonetheless, I find the concept to be a clarifying filter that helps me process or question most things with a healthy dose of scepticism and encourages me to seek out edge cases in popular rhetoric, including say even that around the concept of ‘Narrative Violation’ itself.

Why?

Consider this question.

What if, sometimes, narrative violations are part of the narrative?

i.e., what if a ‘violation’ is actually an inherent part of a larger pattern that constitutes the narrative itself? Like say, a recurring motif that becomes apparent if only one were to step back and consider the big picture. Being able to see if and when that is the case could help us identify emerging paradigms and recognise how such paradigms propagate.

For e.g., after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Carlota Perez published her seminal book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital arguing that the ‘burst’ was completely normal and qualified it by drawing patterns from four similar epochal periods over the last two centuries: the industrial revolution, steel and railways, electricity and heavy engineering, the automobiles and mass production.

Across each of these periods, she pattern matched its associated moments of ‘crash’ (the equivalent of the dotcom bubble burst from 2000) and recognised such instances as inalienable parts of larger cycles that play out over several decades (as opposed to say some inexplicable violations to the popular narratives of their times).

Source: Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital,2002

The master stroke of her framework is that it inherently provisions for moments of ‘big bangs’, ‘bubbles’, ‘crashes’ and then again necessary ‘recompositions’ as part of a single unified narrative that cohesively explains the interplay between financial capital and technological revolutions. And then continues to shine a spotlight on how this narrative seemed to have repeated itself across ages almost inviolably.

(Bonus reads: Two of my favourite thinkers, Alex Danco and Ben Thomspon have recently used Carlota Perez’s framework to write about Debt Financing and Paradigm Shifts in tech. Highly recommended reads indeed.)

To reiterate, a key takeaway for me here is the idea of the narrative as a paradigm that propagates.

Such a narrative construct that propagates needs to be essentially indivisible, should have a full self contained arc of a structure to serve as a standalone story if need be and be able to play out as a cohesive whole even with trivial variations in contexts or actors.

Matthew Ball has a term for this – The Narrative Primitive.

In one of the most intellectually stimulating podcasts I have listened to in the recent past, Matthew Ball joins Patrick O’Shaughnessy to discuss movies, the Metaverse and more and refers to the concept of ‘Narrative Primitive’ to explain why the worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars stand out as expansive and immersive. The following lines from the podcast’s transcript shine light further.

… “how would you have told the story 80 years ago if you had all the tools available? How are those stories going to change in the next 10 years?” And in some instances that is unlocking what you might call a narrative primitive, that’s perhaps some of the reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the tales of Star Wars are so expansive today, so immersive.

Now, when I consider these two concepts – Narrative Violation and Narrative Primitive – together, I am tempted to posit the following.

The essential insight that rock star traders, venture capitalists and story tellers possess is this – they know a good narrative when they see one. And more importantly they have an eye for a narrative violation. Because they think in narrative primitives.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this blog post:

[Featured Image: Pendulums on freepik]

Santa Claus and Peppa Pig

Quick Read: If ‘brand’ is a story and if ‘we’ constitute a culture, interesting things begin to happen when a culture seeks a story or when a story seeks a culture – all in that classic quest for resonance. 

When a Culture Seeks Out a Story

Rovaniemi – is a Christmas lover’s dream. It is a Finnish town that has – over the years – established itself as the home of Santa Claus. This sleepy town of around 60,000 inhabitants manages to attract over 500,000 visitors annually from all over the world all seeking the story of Santa Claus, or in other words the experience of the brand Santa Claus. 

It has the Santa’s office where people queue up for a brief 3 minute meeting with him, Santa’s post office that receives a flood of letters from all around the world addressed to  “Santa Claus, Lapland”, the Santa’s official elves and you get the drift – essentially the entire Christmas package that you could ever ask for. 

screen shot 2019-01-30 at 5.02.42 pm
Santa Claus at Rovaniemi. Source

While this could constitute a fascinating case study in itself about the power of an iconic brand as an enduring story, the last 18 – 24 months have seen an interesting phenomenon emerge. 

Let’s start with the letters. The Santa’s post office is said to have received upwards of 500,000 letters in 2018. Till 2017, most of the letters used to come from the UK. But now China is said to be way ahead. Apparently the Post Office is said to have received more than 100,000 letters from China alone last year. (source)   

Now the visitors. By some accounts in 2017 alone, close to 580,000 visitors flew into Rovaniemi (double the number in 2010) and much of that  growth is said to be driven by visitors from China. In fact as per this article..

Now, just about everywhere in Rovaniemi accepts Alipay, Alibaba Group’s mobile payment system, which is also available on Finnair flights from seven Chinese cities to Helsinki. …At (hotels) you can pay in Alipay and communicate with reception using WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media/messaging service.

 

santa china
Xi Jinping with Santa. Source

Now this is the interesting thing. 

Christmas is not an official holiday in mainland China, and has in fact increasingly been banned in various cities in recent years. On Dec. 15 2018, security officials in Langfang, a city in Hebei province, issued a notice prohibiting the display of Christmas materials and spreading of “religious propaganda” in public areas including schools and plazas. The notice also warned against selling Christmas products and instructed local workers to ensure a “healthy and orderly environment” during the Christmas period. One city even said it would fine individuals caught selling or making fake snow. (more on that here)

But Chinese visitors and letters addressed to Santa from China constitute the majority. Why?  

Most Chinese children may not be fully aware of Christmas’s religious background nor of China’s complicated relationship to the holiday. But the story of Santa Claus and Christmas –  the universal values of generosity, hope, and gratitude, could be what’s driving them to write to Santa Claus or visit the town of Rovaniemi. 

In many ways this phenomenon could be said to be the classic example of a ‘culture’ seeking out a ‘story’.

Nothing represents this sentiment better than the following lines from a letter written by a 19 year Chinese girl to Santa (as quoted in this article)  

“In China, we don’t have Christmas, and family is more important than gifts,” she wrote in both English and Chinese. ”But you know, one small present can mean so much to a child, and bring so much happiness. Although you don’t really exist, kindness does. In my heart, you represent kindness.”  

When a Story Seeks Out a Culture 

If you are not a parent, let me quickly get you up to speed on Peppa. 

screen_shot_2018_05_01_at_14.40.50.0
Peppa Pig. Source

Peppa Pig is a British preschool animated character that has spawned a multi billion dollar worth empire of TV series, toys, books, films, theme parks, merchandise and even video games. Each day this muddy puddle loving pre-school character has been winning legions of little fans from all over the world.  

In 2018 Peppa’s memes were banned from social media platforms by Beijing. So its chances looked dicey in China.

Well that was till early this month. 

By mid January 2019, Peppa Pig has been experiencing a huge boost to its popularity in China after the runaway success of a trailer released to promote a Peppa Pig film.In fact the trailer’s Mandarin hashtag #WhatisPeppa had been viewed more than 1.45bn times on popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo and the official video had garnered hundreds of millions of views across various streaming platforms. (source)

This short video, co-produced by Canadian media group Entertainment One and China’s Alibaba Pictures story has supposedly found its best resonance with the Chinese audience given the timing of its release –  the Chinese New Year marking the start of the year of the Pig – and for realistically depicting how societal changes such as urbanization and generational culture gaps have had an impact on Chinese families.

Given this, the short video makes for an uplifting story of the potential that could be unlocked when we have a story that successfully seeks cultural resonance. 

Now Try This Exercise

Think of a phenomenon gone viral or a campaign that back fired. And for each such example that comes to your mind: 

  • Identify if the brand or the central theme has a clear story to tell, a positioning that it seeks to carve out in people’s minds with a clear and a consistent narrative. Is it coherent or half baked? Is that rooted/ does it seek to root itself in the zeitgeist of the times or does it look like it is pushing its luck by tapping into a topical trend
  • Now, look at the recipients of the story (or sometimes the seekers of the story). Is there a tenet that unifies them –  a common characteristic, a cultural theme that binds them? Can there be a common story that could appeal to this culture? Or is the underlying cultural theme too fragmented or too nuanced that no single story could have a satisfying chance to resonate with it?  

Chances are that, a successful campaigns/ popular phenomena would always be rooted in strong stories appealing to strong cultural themes or the other way round. Have either one of these stand on weak or flimsy grounds you have a recipe for a backfire. 

[Featured Image: Peppa and Her Family Dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas, Video thumbnail

Expressions and Insights

Quick Read: No matter what we do, we tend to express ourselves. And these expressions can lend themselves to interesting insights. 

A very popular class of Kenneth Goldsmith at the University of Pennsylvania is called “Uncreative Writing”.  As part of this course, students are forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts. In fact, they are said to be penalized for originality, sincerity, and creativity.

What does the course do?

As Kenneth elaborates ..

What they’ve been surreptitiously doing throughout their academic career—patchwriting, cutting-and-pasting, lifting—must now be done in the open, where they are accountable for their decisions.

Suddenly, new questions arise: What is it that I’m lifting? And why? What do my choices about what to appropriate tell me about myself? My emotions? My history? My biases and passions? The critiques turn toward formal improvement: Could I have swiped better material? Could my methods in constructing these texts have been better?

Not surprisingly, they thrive. What I’ve learned from these years in the classroom is that no matter what we do, we can’t help but express ourselves.

No matter what we do, he says (and I repeat), we cannot help but express ourselves. And this forms of expression if interpreted and analyzed could lend themselves for some valuable insights.

Let us take a few examples from the most unlikeliest of the sources of expression.

The link between crime and ink

People choose to draw stuff on their bodies because of what that specific tattoo means to them. With one of the hotbeds of tattooing being the American prisons, The Economist set about to investigate what inferences it could possibly draw about a life of crime from different types of tattoos.

mob
Source:  Robert Gumpert 

 

Their question: If people’s ethnicity and sex determines their tattoos, can the same be said of their types of crime?

Using data from the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) – a downloadable database featuring records for all the 100,000 inmates currently incarcerated in the Florida state prison system –  The Economist built a series of statistical models to predict the likelihood  of criminals committing specific crimes based on their demographic traits and choices of tattoos. (see table below)

crime-ink
Source: The Economist

For example, their  analysis had found that inmates convicted of property crimes and weapons-possession offences have the most tattoos, while sex offenders, particularly those convicted of paedophilia, tend to have the fewest. For a full commentary on this revealing analysis read the full article here.

One big insight based on this analysis is that tattoos tend to be supremely effective in predicting recidivism – the tendency of an ex convict to relapse into criminal behavior. (Of the inmates who have been re-incarcerated, 75% percent had tattoos!)

So non profits like Homeboy Industries – one of America’s largest gang rehabs – have free tattoo removal services. For, the act of removing tattoos reflects a genuine investment in ones change and thereby almost guarantees a step change in how you see yourself.

Bespoke fashion: an investment in self expression

Getting a pair of bespoke shoes is considered an epitome in luxury grooming for men.

One, because of its obscene cost. And two because it requires a considerable investment of time—typically, you fly off to Europe to get your feet measured and place the order (or the shoemaker flies in to your city), there may be two-three more visits for fittings, and then you wait anything from 9-12 months for the final shoe.

These connotations of luxury don’t still capture the essence of the bespoke fashion movement, until one begins to see it as an investment in self expression.

Bespoke, thereby, is a journey where you typically start with shirts, move to suits, and then some men take the logical next step to shoes as a final expression of their overall style and look. So next time you see someone with a bespoke suit you know where they are in their journey of self expression.

berluti-shoes
Source: Berluti, Mastery of Form

Now, given that there’s greater variety in women’s body shapes than men’s, one would expect a greater choice for women’s bespoke fashion. Interestingly it’s the other way round.

Cost is one challenge – more curves mean more measurements, more places a garment might need to be adjusted and more time getting the fit just right, making the whole process more expensive.

But the key challenge could be in being able to support for the underlying vocabulary of self expression dormant in women’s custom clothing. After all, bespoke fashion for women is an ocean of choice for personal expression that goes beyond just body fit, spanning attributes like apparel, color, fabric, style, occasion and perhaps even mood.

Now that’s one heavily under served segment in the super lucrative world of bespoke fashion –  if only one could demystify the method to the madness of the infinite variations of expressions that constitute women’s custom clothing.

Anyone that’s sartorially linguistic?

(Featured Image: Bespoke Shoes by Gieves and Hawkes)

Modern Molinism

Quick Read: Want a sure shot ticket down a rabbit hole? Your bet: Choice Design. So much for free will. 

Morioka Shoten Ginza is a book store in Tokyo where you wouldn’t have a problem with deciding which book to buy.

Why?

Because in any given week it sells copies of a single title. Each title is displayed for six days in a row—Tuesday to Sunday—and then swapped out for a new book.

Yoshiyuki Morioka – the founder of this “single room with a single book” concept believes that focusing on a single book would help foster a deeper relationship between a book and its reader and drive up the pleasure of reading to a whole new level.

Additionally, every evening an event is organised to discuss the book and connect its author with readers, while pieces of art that relate to the book are displayed around the store for the readers to soak in and enjoy.

Morioka-Shoten-bookstore

(Morioka Shoten bookstore: Pic Source)

Unsurprisingly this approach of ‘choice design’ combats decision fatigue and stifles crippling indecision that customers tend to face in a conventional book store set up – online or offline.

Result: An invisible hand that influences its customers’ free will, subtly leading them from a cursory browsing mindset to that of a deeper meaningful engagement leading to purchase.

One customer at a time. And one book title at a time

According to Morioka, the store has sold more than 2,000 works since it opened last year and attracted numerous visitors from all over the world. (source)

Meanwhile at the other end of choice spectrum 

A unique adventure beckons you with the promise of debilitating you with mind boggling levels of choice at every turn of the journey.

Sample this.

You’re sitting alone in your apartment minding your own business when, out of nowhere, someone bursts through your front door. So what do you do? 

ClickHole

(Source: Clickventures)

So begins your adventure that starts off on a simple note.

But even before you realise, you will soon find yourself deep down a rabbit hole staring into frustrating levels of complexity and a ridiculous set of choices being thrown at you at each turn.

And surprisingly you find it addictive!

Clickventures, as they’re called, are exercises in absurdist escalation.

Despite the apparent air of triviality around them, each clickventure is an evil design experiment that lies at the intersection of comedy, interactive fiction, game design and behavioural research.

No wonder, brands are not far behind in tapping into this space.

For e.g, Old Spice has created a wild and wacky choose-your-own-adventure social experience on Instagram with Wieden + Kennedy.

The more you click, the further you go and the more wackiness you can experience. Exactly like in the Clickventures. Try out few of them here and see who wins.

Your “free” will? 

A basic tenet of Molinism is that in addition to knowing everything that will happen, God also knows what His creatures would freely choose if placed in any circumstance.

It’s essentially a doctrine which attempts to reconcile the providence of God with human free will.

Molinism is perhaps still going strong in the 21st century. It’s just that these molinists go by a slightly different name today.

And they subscribe to a doctrine that attempts to reconcile the providence of an invisible hand (also known as the ‘choice designer’) with human free will.

Now, did I just call marketers, the modern day molinists?

(Featured Image: Quote from the cult movie The Matrix)

Targeting Boredom

Quick Read: Marketers have always tried to dial up and capitalise on their consumers’ active interest and consideration levels. Now what if they could also leverage the lack of it? 

Let’s take boredom.

A common human emotion, boredom often makes us to instinctively reach out to our mobile phones.

With our attention spans thrown into a state of suspended animation, it is natural that we see ourselves seeking solace in the infinite scrolls of updates, tweets, videos, pics etc.

In fact there is research to prove that our boredom levels can be inferred from – surprise surprise – our mobile phone usage alone!

By leveraging features related to our mobile phone usage like recency of communication, usage intensity, time of day and demographics – the research has successfully built a machine learning model that can infer our state of boredom with an 83% accuracy!!

Bored-man-using-a-phone.jpg

(Pic source)

Interestingly, results from this research also suggest that people are more likely to engage with ‘recommended content’ when they are bored than when they are not.

Why?

Presumably because our ‘conscious choice’ takes a back seat when we are bored making us open to nibbling at a bit of whatever gets thrown our way.

Now these findings could have huge impact on targeting possibilities for marketers.

What if we could target not just by conventional cuts like demo, psychographics, affinities etc, but also by temporal mental states like say being bored, being excited, feeling low, feeling on top of the world etc? 

Not too unrealistic a prospect. Is it?

But when that happens, we are looking at dramatic implications for brands from across a range of industries – be it for media platforms marketing content, or for e-commerce players seeking to deploy real time pricing interventions  etc.

Now that’s interesting.

(Featured Image Source)

Annotations About Annotations

Quick Read:Who would have thought what had begun as a traditional 17th century readers’ habit of jotting down some thoughts and gossip on the margins of a sheet of paper could turn out to become a concept for world domination?

Annotations are in vogue today!

In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was traditional for newspapers to include space for readers to jot down thoughts, gossip, and observations before passing along their copy to others. Some papers kept their margins wide for such notes; others, like the very first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, included an entire blank page.

Annotations are an extension of that tradition.

Annotations in the past

(Annotations in Boston Gazette and Country Journal (1770): Source)

…Saying this, Quartz – a popular blog, annouced the opening up of its margins to users’ comments – also known as annotations.

Medium – the acclaimed blog publishing platform – introduced this concept of ‘notes’ that let readers comment (annotate) on specific paragraphs of the story instead of at the bottom of the piece.

Today Soundcloud allows users to annotate audio; Gawker Media allows users to annotate images and New York Times experimented with annotations around news as a more participative means of user engagement.

Annotations – as a creative narrative device

Even novels have begun to adopt annotations as a narrative device. S. – a novel previously featured on BrandedNoise –  has at least four different interconnected narratives unfolding at the same time. One such narrative is the dialogue between a guy and a girl who read and discuss a book through their notes passed on to each other written as annotations.

ship-of-theseus-3

(This is how an actual page of S. looks like. Image source)

If there is one book that you should buy – even for the sheer experience of just leafing through its pages and marveling at its creativity and design. This is it!

‘Annotations’ as a billion dollar idea?

Genius.com – a Andreessen Horowitz backed startup – is believed to be testing a new feature: the ability to annotate any page on the web, adding a new stratum of knowledge to the largest store of information in human history.

Currently in beta, the new functionality lets users add genius.com/ to the beginning of any URL to access a version of the page on Genius. The page is fully annotatable, so users can highlight and annotate any text on the page and view others’ annotations. (source)

Genius Annotate

(Annotations from Genius.com: Image Source)

Enough and more is already being written about Genius.com and its stated goal of “annotate the world”, with some even predicting that Annotate would soon transcend into the class of those fundamental verbs of contemporary culture, such as Google and Like!

Bonus read: Recently a mysterious billboard had appeared on the streets of Manhattan. (see the featured image above) Whereas most billboards are logo delivery vehicles, this one is unclaimed. The billboard is the work of Emily Segal for Genius.com. A great post on this avante-garde marketing campaign here

The Simmel’s Barrier

Quick Read: A Milan store with debranded perfumes helps consumers find the perfect scent without being distracted by the label. But is branding a barrier in consumer experience?

Wine tasting is arguably a junk science.

WineTasting

There have been several studies conducted over the years to debunk the accuracy of wine tasters in assessing the attributes of wines. A common theme of most of these experiments is an assessment of our capability in being able to accurately identify and analyse multiple sensory stimuli at the same time.

One such landmark study in debunking the expertise of wine tasters is called ‘The Color Of Odors‘. It investigated the interaction between our vision of colors and odor determination and found out that by a simple act of artificially coloring a white wine with a an odorless dye,  you can fool not 1, not 2 but an entire panel of 54 wine tasters into getting it classified as a red wine!

The insight? By just throwing in some basic visual stimuli you can effectively screw up your olfactory assessment skills.

Now add in the other 3 senses and it is not hard to begin pitying ourselves for the sensory overload that we subject ourselves to on a daily basis.

Sensory Overload

The wikipedia page on Sensory Overload speaks about Georg Simmel – a renowned sociologist who writes about an urban scenario of constantly appearing stimuli that trigger our brains’ senses. Interestingly he calls for a barrier that must be erected to protect the individual from this constant stimulation in order to keep one sane.

The new Desirée Parfums store in Milan has identified a particular marketing element as its ‘Simmel’s Barrier’ to protect its customers from sensory overload. What does it do?

It organises its fragrances by aromatic quality, rather than brand. According to this source, when walking into this store, customers aren’t subconsciously guided towards the most expensive perfumes like they might be in another store. Instead, the outlet has decanted all of the fragrances it sells into nondescript tester bottles, which are organized by their olfactory quality.

Assistants guide customers through the options available, helping them to find their perfect scent while also teaching them about the different qualities that make up a perfume. Only when they get to the counter so they get to find out which fragrance they’re buying.

desireeparfum store

(Image source)

With perfume stores using branding as their ‘Simmel’s Barrier’, wine stores might not be far off from adopting the same.

Have you heard of any other examples?

(Featured Image: Jacquelinewilkinson)

Fracking The New Oil. Digitally

Quick Read: If data is the new oil, how do we go about extracting and refining it – at scale? Introducing Digital Fracking and a few notable examples. 

Fracking, at its core, is an aggressive, invasive technique for extracting valuable raw materials out of hard to reach out places.

fracking-broomfield_73213_990x742(Fracking. Image Source)

While this term has traditionally been used in the context of oil mining, this can equally be applicable to data, to arrive at the concept of Digital Fracking. A few examples first:

Have you read  this recent story of a brilliant entrepreneur who’s been making money off you without you even noticing? He is Luis von Ahn, the Carnegie Mellon Professor who pioneered innovative interventions to extract value from what normal people normally do online. Some extracts from the story,

The ESP Game

A tremendous number of unlabeled images are floating around on the web, which impairs everything from the accuracy of image searching to the blocking of inappropriate content.  So, in 2005, Von Ahn launched a fun game called the ESP Game.

The concept is simple – The program would randomly pair each player with another user on the web, and show them a series of images. Both players were instructed simply to “type whatever the other guy is typing.” The more overlap you produced, the better your score was.

Result: Within just four months, it had lured 13,000 bored web surfers into producing 1.3 million labels for roughly 300,000 images (source). And was subsequently acquired by Google and relaunched as Google Image Labeler (2006 – 2011).

reCAPTCHA

Most of us would know what a CAPTCHA is. Essentially, it is a program that protects websites against bots by generating and grading tests that humans can pass but current computer programs cannot. By showing a distorted string of letters for example. 

Captcha

Now did you hear of reCAPTCHA? Most of us would have at least been subjected to it albeit unwittingly.

Launched by Von Ahn, the brilliant twist of reCAPTCHA is that this test isn’t just verifying your humanity. As this article says, it’s also putting you to work on decoding a word that a computer can’t. The first word in a reCAPTCHA is an automated test generated by the system, but the second usually comes from an old book or newspaper article that a computer scanner is trying (and failing) to digitize. If the person answering the reCAPTCHA gets the first word correct (which the computer knows the answer to), then the system assumes the second word has been translated accurately as well.

In 2009, Google acquired reCAPTCHA and put the program to work on a tremendous scale, digitizing material for Google Books and the New York Times archives etc. 

reCAPTCHA(Source: Google reCAPTCHA page)

And then more recently Von Ahn came up with Duolingo – a free language learning program that is again a crowdsourced text translation platform at its core.

duolingo

As he says, “It’s just taking something that people do anyways, and trying to extract value out of it.” See his amazing TEDx video where he explaine these in greater detail.

Drug Side Effects

Researchers estimate more than 90 percent of drug side effects go unreported. And it can take years for the FDA to detect a pattern of problems that leads to changes in how a drug is prescribed. While on the other side of the spectrum, hundreds of millions of people are waking up every morning and writing about their personal experiences on forums and social networks. 

Armed with an insight on this gap, two start ups – Treato and Epidemico have begun treading the path of fracking the social networks and online medical forums to mine data on drugs and their potential side effects for pharma companies and patients.

Treato(Treato)

Today, major pharma companies pay Treato and Epidemico for more detailed analyses of what patients are saying about their drugs: how they’re using the medication, what reactions they experience, or why they switch from one pill to another. (source)

Extracting Value From Online Reviews

And then there’s HugDug (a recent project by Seth Godin) – a brilliant intervention that has been able to hit a sweet spot between two disparate concepts – affiliate marketing and generosity. I keenly look foward to HugDug achieving scale and becoming a truly unique example of Digital Fracking by extracting value from tons of reviews lying out there.

As Von Ahn says “Look how many hours have gone into building the Panama Canal or the Pyramids – and with all the people that are on the web now, you can get a lot more hours.”

And to that point, the most important question that’s answered by the concept of Digital Fracking is this: How do you extract those hours – At scale? 

(Feautured Image, Source)

Straddle Categories, Redefine Competition

Quick Read: Straddling categories can sometimes help redefine competition and build a unique position in the market place. 

“If I should have a daughter, instead of Mom, she’s gonna call me Point B … “

began Sarah Kay, in a talk that inspired two standing ovations at TED2011.

Sarah Kay is called a genius. She has invented a new medium, a new way of sharing an idea. It’s called Spoken Word Poetry. Arguably others have done spoken word poetry before, but not like this.

Mixing in the magic of her poetry, presence, and exuberant energy her art form straddles two categories – poetry and theatre. This unique combination has helped her redefine her ‘comparison set’ – not poets and not theatre artistes, but someone at the intersection of both to become a truly unique voice to reckon with.

Today she is the founder and co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E., founded in 2004, a group dedicated to using spoken word as an educational and inspirational tool. Her TED talk has been loved so much that Seth Godin has published her poem ‘B’ by himself.

Why Do We Love Some Comic Strips More Than Others?

Most of us have our favorite four paneled comic strips that we enjoy and share on a regular basis. Why do we love them so much? Is it because they resonate with us at a deeper level? Is it because they have that spark of insight – a blinding flash of the obvious? Or is it because they remind each one of us that we are not alone?

calvin-and-hobbes-relativism(Source: Calvin and Hobbes)

Seth is a cartoonist, illustrator and book designer based in Guelph, Ontario. Based  on his research on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, his insight is that most of the best known four paneled comic strips have one thing in commonthey straddle the art forms of graphic design and poetry and occupy a truly unique space of artistic expression. He calls such comic strips Visual Haiku and elaborates.. 

It seemed so clear that his four-panel setup was just like reading a haiku; it had a specific rhythm to how he set up the panels and the dialogue.Three beats:doot doot doot— followed by an infinitesimal pause, and then the final beat:doot. Anyone can recognize this when reading a Peanuts strip.These strips have that sameness of rhythm that haikus have — the haikus mostly ending with a nature reference separated off in the final line. (source)

Peanuts - pe_c140414.tif(Source: Peanuts)

What Sets Brita Filters Apart?

Ever heard of Brita Filters? A leading company in portable household water filtration, its products are distributed in more than 60 countries world wide. But what sets it apart is how it straddles categories and redefines competition. As per this HBR article..

Brita filters compete against other filters when they are placed in the kitchen appliances section at big-box stores, for instance. But Brita changes both its comparison set and the economics of the consumer decision when the filters are placed in the bottled-water aisle at supermarkets. Here Brita filters have a competitive cost advantage, delivering several more gallons of clean water per dollar than bottled water. Of course, not all buyers of bottled water are buying solely for the criterion of cost (some are buying for portability, for example), but for those who are, Brita is an attractive choice.

Brita Filter Jugs

As the article goes on to say, in choosing how to position products, there’s a tendency to pay attention to the size and growth of the market and overlook the intensity and identity of the competition. Such times, all it might take is to challenge our playing field (the category) and see new niches emerge for tapping into a new consumer base.

Opportunity – it seems – could sometimes be rife at the intersections.  

For artistic forms of expressions or water filters.

(Featured image: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson May 05, 2014)

Diffusion – Of Ideas, Infections and Innovations

Quick Read: Why do certain ideas spread faster than others?  Diffusion – a social process where people talk to people is still the way that ideas and inovations spread. Stories from diverse fields like health care and ethnic foods provide further evidence.  

Did you know the story of the humble Doctor’s coat?

Till a major part of the 19th century, a doctor’s coat used to be black in color. Why? Because a visit to a doctor had an air of ‘finality’ attached to it, almost like the solemn nature of a funeral. As per this historical account, until the late 19th century, seeking medical advice was usually a last resort and frequently a precursor to death. The reason? Poor hygiene standards in medical practice.

In fact, back in those days,  a doctor’s badge of a busy practice was their black coats stiffened with blood and remains of previous operations. Practices like washing hands, sterilising instruments were virtually unheard of in medical practice during those days.

Naturally infection became the curse of surgery – becoming the single biggest killer of patients who underwent even uncomplicated procedures. Infection was so prevalent that the discharge of pus from a surgical wound was thought to be a necessary part of healing!

Ever since then, many medical practitioners tried hard to conceive of and spread the idea of basic sanitation as an effective means to combat preventable life threatening infections. But failed.

For e.g, Ignaz Semmelweis published the earliest known studies that showed basic hand-washing to be effective at reducing mortality rates of surgery patients. His findings were known to have offended the doctors! Even Louis Pasteur’s Germ Theory or Joseph Lister‘s concept of antiseptic surgery techniques contributed little to the mainstream propogation of the idea of sanitation in health care.

grossclinic(“The Gross Clinic,” by Thomas Eakins, 1875. Source)

The break through in seeding this key idea came over the course of several years as follows.

It turned out that the key message to teach surgeons was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. A few pioneering German surgeons siezed upon this idea – of the concept of surgeon as a scientist – and seeded this in their students’ minds, many of whom were young medical practitioners from US and other countries.  The result?

The students swapped their black coats for pristine laboratory whites and returned to their home countries as ambassadors not only for the use of antiseptic practice to kill germs but also to prevent germs.  Evangelising through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide.

So, the idea of basic sanitation and sterilization for health care and germ prevention spread not because of academic journals or publications, but because of social diffusion – where people (medical practitioners) talked to people (students).

Spreading a Miraclous Solution. One Person At a Time

In many parts of the world, Diarrhea remains the world’s biggest killer of children under the age of five. ORS (Oral rehydration solution) has been known to be a simple yet effective cure for the illness which required a miraculously easy formulation that can be made at almost every home around the world  (water + sugar + salt).

In 1980, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization called BRAC embarked on a nationwide ORS adoption drive. How did they go about this? The organization didn’t launch a mass-media campaign. It attacked the problem in a way that is typically dismissed as impractical and inefficient: by going door to door, person by person, and just talking.  

ORT(Door to door ORS Education by BRAC, 1979 . Source)

They hired, trained, and deployed thousands of workers region by region who went door to door through more than 75,000 villages and showed 12 million families how to save their children with this simple solution. Eventually, the knowledge became self-propagating and child deaths from diarrhea plummeted more than 80%  between 1980 and 2005. The program was stunningly successful. (source)

Shifting gears a bit and moving over to Ethnic Foods..

 The Greek Yogurt Revolution In The US

Till 2005, Greek Yogurt was a niche segment in the US with a market value of just about $60 million. But in just 5 years a new brand, Chobani has gone to become one of the most explosive food start-ups ever to hit the market netting more than $1 billion in annual sales and rejuvenated the entire Yogurt category in the US. How did that happen?

Ofcourse, Chobani, under the visionary founder Hamdi Ulukaya,  had a brilliant execution of its mix – from clutter breaking packaging, category defying in-store placement (he is known to have insisted that Chobani packs be merchandised in the main dairy area, not in the specialty section), competitive pricing and appealing flavours.

Chobani(Chobani Ad Campaign extolling its fruity goodness. Source)

But fortunately for Chobani – the timing was just right. Consumers were adopting healthier snack options into their busier lifestyles. So much so that when someone opened a pack of Greek Yogurt, it inadvertently became an instance of conspicuous consumptiona prominent scenario of social diffusion enveloped in a message of healthy tasty snack. 

So each time a pack of Greek Yogurt was opened, it created awareness and generated talkability around Greek Yogurt’s health benefits and unique taste. And this was even before its first mass media campaign. As Niel Sandfort, Director of Marketing at Chobani says..

“Before you even think about mass media or paid media, you have to have your ducks in a row on a number of fronts.”

So by the time, the company embarked on its first mass media campaign, the size of the population that was aware of or bought Chobani at least once, reached a “tipping point“, allowing the product to take hold widely. The result? An explosion in the growth of the Greek Yogurt segment. 

Today, the Greek Yogurt category – once a niche segment –  now accounts for 36 percent of the $6.5 billion in total U.S. yogurt sales (source) with Chobani being the number one seller in the category, with nearly 52% market share in the US!

Perks Of Being A Party Food

Guacamole – is an avocado based dip that originated with the Aztecs in Mexico. But in less than a generation, it went from an unknown Mexican delicacy to becoming part of everyday cuisine as a dip, condiment and salad ingredient. This growth of gacamole  was partly because it’s a party food. i.e., people discovered it when others shared it. 

So in essence, while we yearn for frictionless, technological solutions, people talking to people is still the way that ideas and innovations spread. In fact,Diffusion of innovations – a theory by Everett Rogers that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread throughcultures – says diffusion as a social process of people talking to people is central in spreading an idea or innovation among the members of a social system.

Meanwhile Sabra – a PepsiCo owned company that sells Middle Eastern food products in the US  – is fretting that 80 million Americans have never heard of hummus

(H/T: to Seth Godin for this riff on Guacamole, to Atul Gawande for this valuable article on idea diffusion in medical practices. Featured Image source