Mainstream, not meme

Quick Read: The next time you see something labelled as a meme, ask yourself if it is actually actually the expression of a mainstream culture (or counter culture) albeit within a specific societal context. Calling something a ‘meme’ strips off the necessary nuance and clouds comprehension. So – it’s mainstream, not meme.

1: r/Wallstreetbets

Would I expect to find Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Warren Buffet on r/WallstreetBets?

Unlikely.

After all, why would some of the world’s richest people fancy a speculative bet on fundamentally weak stocks? So I would be surprised if they’d even know, much less care about stonk memes.

Park that thought and we’ll be right back.

2: The 3-Ladders of Social Class

Alex Danco’s “The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class” has been one of the most thought provoking posts that I have read in the recent past. A highly recommended read in case you haven’t yet.

In it, he speaks about ‘Michael Church’s 3-ladder system’ and how once you recognise it and its constituent dynamics, you cannot unsee it play out across demographics and domains all around you. He writes:

Several years ago, Michael Church wrote a neat summary of the American social class system, and how the traditional metaphor of “climbing the ladder of social class” is wrong in an important way. There isn’t one single ladder; there are three – each with different values, norms and goals. You have the first, and largest ladder, Labour. Next, you have the “Educated Gentry” ladder that corresponds to what we typically call the Upper Middle Class. And finally, you have the elite ladder.

Climbing the labour ladder means making more money. At the bottom are really tough jobs, typically paid hourly, informally, or with tips. Above that there are stable, but modest blue collar jobs; then high-skilled or good Union-protected careers. Finally at the top you find “Labour leadership”, which doesn’t mean being a union boss, but means, “You’ve made it. You own stuff. You drive a new F-150, you have income properties, you enjoy nice things.”

If you’ve made it to Labour leadership, you are by no means hurting for money. But you have not actually escaped the category of “economic losers”, because the Labour ladder does not create paths to leverage. That is the fundamental difference between how the labour ladder works versus how the elite ladder works. The people on the labour ladder fully understand this. (…)

Skipping the middle ladder for a second, we move to the Elite ladder. The Elite ladder has a lot in common with the Labour ladder: it’s straightforward. You move up by getting more money and more power. The only fundamental difference is that you climb the Labour ladder by working hard, whereas you climb the Elite ladder by acquiring leverage. (..)

The middle ladder works completely differently from the other two. This ladder isn’t about money or power; it’s about being interesting. You climb this ladder by being more educated, and towards the top, by having costly habits and virtues. 

At the bottom is also a transitional layer: it’s how you get onto this ladder if you weren’t born there, often via Community or 1st generation College. Above that is the upper-middle class Petite Bourgeoisie. Higher up the ladder are “elite creatives”, people with obscure or virtuous-sounding PhDs, notably interesting lives, or Blue Check Marks on Twitter. (They may well earn less money than those below them on the ladder – this ladder isn’t about income.) At the very top of this ladder is an exclusive group: “Cultural leadership”. The litmus test for attaining this group is, “could you write an opinion piece in the New York Times.” 

Source: The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class. By Alex Danco

When I accept this construct even at a broader level, I’m tempted to posit the following.

Just as there is no single ladder, but three – each with different values, norms and goals, there is no single cultural construct, but (at least) three – each with different values, norms and goalsthat correspond to each of these social/societal ladders (this is diversity in cultural constructs that is over and above the conventional manifestations of cultural diversity that we usually recognise around the dimensions of region, religion, ethnicity etc). The idea here is that culture is contextual to its underlying societal ladder.

This might sound obvious (and it is to a large extent). But when we accept this thesis, one should also accept the corollary – there is no one counterculture. Because, different people relate in different ways to what is labelled as counterculture in popular discourse. For, what might resonate with me as a ‘cultural norm’, or what might appear to me as an artefact of an emerging counterculture in my social/societal context, might appear as an entirely different thing (or sometimes might not even be evident) for someone on a different societal ladder living with different constructs/conceptions of culture. So the emergent idea for me here is that counterculture is contextual to its underlying ladder (vs being a universally applicable relic of time).

Caroline Busta in her thought provoking article recently said that The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. I’d add a little further to this argument and say that I may, after all, perhaps find manifestations of counterculture on Instagram – but only I ; while others may perhaps find that on Reddit and others on Clubhouse.

The Internet has only siloed the contexts where the drivers of the (counter) cultural forces emerge and the canvas on which the strokes of (counter) cultural expressions takes form and shape. That’s why for people who worship at the altar of NYT Op-eds or meticulously follow the blue checkmarks on twitter, the Gamestop short squeeze would have come as a sensational meme or ‘breaking news’, while for those that are on r/Wallstreetbets it was just another day when a topically relevant cultural expression found its restless voice.

Gully Boy, Source

That’s why when the rest of India was enjoying it as a Bollywood movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime, the artists in the slums of Dharavi were discovering and finessing their craft through TikTok (now banned in India) and ShareChat.

3: Gamestonk!!

And that’s why I find Elon Musk’s tweet revealing.

When even those like Hedge Funds that have an existential stake in the emergent buzz cooking up in the worlds of Reddits and Robinhoods were caught unawares of the power of the ‘Gamestonk’ phenomenon, an unlikeliest person seems to have not just understood but also arguably played an influential role in the unraveling of a grassroots phenomenon on r/Wallstreetbets.

After all, that’s the world’s richest person showing that he is more culturally attuned to what is cooking up among the crowds versus anyone else that one may expect to care. He seemed to be able to see something as a mainstream force of a cultural expression – that has just been waiting for its time within a societal context – versus just as some amusing meme unleashed by Robinhood frenzy.

In a parallel universe he might have been a true blue marketer (which he perhaps already is albeit a wealthy one) or better still ……….. a President of a nation state*.

*Did you know that Elon Musk holds triple citizenship? US, Canada and South Africa. (source)

Pixels to Pronouncements

Quick Read: Pixels – the building blocks of our digital edifices – could be assuming an influence of mammoth proportions across verticals. For e.g., an interesting wave of ‘virtual dressers’ is catching the fashion world by storm.

30 Rock..

..or 30 Rockefeller Plaza is a skyscraper that forms the centrepiece of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. When walking by its Sixth Avenue entrance one might find something curious. It has four sculptures – bas reliefs, carved in stone by Gaston Lachaise, an American sculptor  – placed all the way up on the third floor.

One might ask, “What are they doing all the way up there?”

15kimmelman-rockcenter18-superJumbo
Sixth Avenue Entrance of 30 RCA Building. Source

The answer is that when Rockefeller Center was built, the elevated train still ran up Sixth Avenue. The Lachaise reliefs were placed so these ‘El riders’ passing through the station could see them.

This happens all around us. 

When real estate is at a premium – from facades of iconic buildings to the shelf space in our neighbourhood grocery stores – one can make an entire career out of optimising the design/layout of the underlying physical space for our attention, so it delivers on its intended ‘return on placement’.

These days it could almost be trite to state that it is actually the ‘digital real estate space’ that arguably commands a greater premium vs that of any physical space. And the job of the UX/UI designer thereby becomes one of the most influential (and in my opinion – one of most fulfilling) roles in Product Dev/ Management. In fact, the ‘pixels that they design’ essentially become the gateways to digital products/services shaping the user experience for millions of us around the world. No wonder great UX/UI designers are in great demand.

ux-design-book-combined

And never is the product designer’s* significance more evident than in the current Covid times when the design/layout of an app could be a true window into its product’s soul. (*’product designer’ as a catch all phrase for all design functions in the service of a product) 

For e.g,. given these unprecedented times, how does a product balance its rational (product/services) promise with that of its emotional (empathy/sensitivity) narrative? What are its core values and beliefs and how does the product reconcile it with its commercial underpinnings – its core reason for existence?

Check out a highly recommended read here on this very topic. Post reading it, one could even be tempted to take a walk down one’s playground of pixels (a.k.a one’s apps on their phone) to try and infer those subtle truths that govern their design.

These days, pixels don’t just make for subtle commentary, but also influential pronouncements impacting the zeitgeist of the times.

When pixels become fashion pronouncements

In what now feels like a different meta verse, human beings used to gawk at outfits on the streets or ogle at chic strangers’ coats to see what new brands/designs/designers people are into while designers used to organise their new expositions through coveted fashion shows and had hordes of fans waiting in lines for their exclusive pop up sales. Well now (or rather here in this current meta verse of social distancing) some designers have still been able to do this and more.

For e.g., on a recent weekend, the fashion designer Sandy Liang held an extremely exclusive pop-up sale. Only six people were allowed in at a time, with attendees (the list that swelled to almost 100 people at one point) waiting in line for over two hours.

Before you panic about the potential social distancing violations involved, know that this sale took place on a completely virtual plane: an island in the video game Animal Crossing.

sandylianganimalcrossing2-1588626066
Enter a captionScene from Sandy Liang’s Animal Crossing pop-up. Source

For the uninitiated, a quick crash course on Animal Crossing below:

With the Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players can customize their looks to show off outfits that reflect their personal style, something that piqued the interests of fashion enthusiasts playing the game, who quickly began designing custom looks that riffed on the trendy designers of the moment. Coupled with social distancing and less opportunities to show off fits in-person, it’s created an unorthodox, but amazing opportunity for Animal Crossing users to show off their outfits — so much so that many real-life fashion designers are creating official clothing codes so users can cop designs from their latest collections.

–Time

Today there are entire Instagram communities centered around Animal Crossing fashion. Marc Jacobs even created his virtual fashion line available for gamers through codes.

And if I’ve run out of style codes or ideas, there are even virtual stores like nookazon (a fan built enterprise) where I can buy clothing for in-game characters. And we have not even scratched the surface of this trend of fashion-conscious people using the game as a platform for style expression by dressing their avatars in pixelated versions of clothes by Gucci, Celine, Supreme and more.

For many, it could even look like Animal Crossing is the only place where people seem to get dressed up for now. Clearly ‘pixels’ seem to have become our canvas for self expression like never before.

Could this change the way fashion works forever?

[Featured Image: Animal Crossing illustration on The Washington Post]

Access Restricted

Quick Read: Want to generate footfall or demand? Sometimes all it could take is a board saying “Access Restricted”.

Iceland is renowned for its fairytale landscapes, waterfalls and dancing midnight lights. But of all the places, an unusual site has become one of its most talked about destinations – a site of a plane crash. 

Sólheimasandur beach in Iceland is a desolate site, but for the mangled remains of a US Navy’s C-117 aircraft. It was in November 1973 that the aircraft crashed at the site with the crew onboard having miraculously survived.

After the crash, the U.S. military removed everything that was salvageable in the aircraft and left behind the 10,000 pound shell by the beach. For over four decades since then nothing much happened around it.

The landowners of the site almost forgot about it and were perfectly content to let time and nature slowly eat away at the twisted wreck.

Iceland Plane Crash

(Photo Credit: Eliot Stein. Source)

But steadily over the years it has become a not so well kept secret among photographers – who lent it an extra air of surrealism, by way of their documentaries and photographs.

In recent times it came to be used as a location for destination weddings.  Not to be left behind Bollywood even managed to get Shah Rukh Khan to lean backwards, spread his arms while not forgetting to romance Kajol over its fuselage!

Dilwale

(Still from the song in Dilwale)

Hell even Justin Bieber skateboarded on the plane’s roof in a music video in November 2015.

Expectedly it led to a steady increase in visitors to the site and got people into driving all over the place with little consideration about the property around. So in March 2016 the landowners’ of the site decisively put up signs banning all access to the area. 

…and then things started to go crazy!

Google Search Trends - Iceland Plane Crash Site

(Google Trends showing a spike in searches for the crash site in March 2016)

All it took was a “No Entry” sign.

Now, hundreds of people every day are reportedly following GPS coordinates to a remote, unmarked gate on the side of the road and trekking four kilometers through a barren lava desert to try their chances at seeing the plane’s twisted remains.

How Hitchcock Got People To See “Psycho”

When Psycho hit theaters, critics weren’t given private screenings. Instead Hitchcock created buzz for the film by exerting an unusual degree of directorial control over the viewing experience of the audience.

Accordingly the showings of the film began on a tightly-controlled schedule in theatres in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.  And a firm “no late admission” policy was put in place.

hitchcok-rules

(A standee to announce No Late Admission policy for Psycho. Source)

Theatre managers initially balked at the idea, fearing financial losses. But Hitchcock had his way.

And he was right.

Long lines formed outside the theaters, pulled even more people in and Psycho went on to enjoy critical and commercial success.

Sydney Opera House says “Come On In”

Sydney Opera House is the most Instagrammed destination in Australia.

The challenge:  Only 1% of those who upload a photo ever go inside.

Sydney Opera House found who these people were, recorded personalised invitation videos on the fly, and got them to step in to experience the Opera House from inside with exclusive access and perks.

See the case study video here

While it is definitely a smart intervention that effectively leverages relevant consumer touch points on the fly to get people to step inside, I wonder if the management of the Sydney Opera house had considered the contra idea.

…that of putting up a sign saying “Access Restricted”.

(Featured Image: Sólheimasandur plane crash site by Eric Cheng. Source)

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)

The New Marketing Mindset

Invention and Innovation could sometimes be polar opposites.

Seems counter intuitive, right? But when you read this brilliant piece on Segway, it would seem almost commonsensical. Segway, the article posits, failed because it was focused solely on inventionbelieving that it alone has come up with the perfect idea for a great product. The company didn’t spend as much time or effort on innovation the ongoing iterative process of going back and forth with the consumers to test and understand what the market wants and ensuring that the product meet their needs.   

This on going iterative process with the consumer to test and understand what market wants and applying these learnings to make your product meet their needs has a specialised name today.

Growth Hacking.

Depending upon who you are / what you’ve been smoking / or what you’ve been reading recently, this could possibly be the first time you hear this term or probably even the zillionth! Whichever be the case, Growth Hacking as a term is topping the charts in popularity, appeal and relevance to describe a must have mindset in the world of product design and marketing.

Coined by Sean Ellis in this legendary article, Growth Hacking is essentially marketing albeit repurposed to the evolving dynamics of consumer, product and consumption today. Chances are that most of us would have been witness to, experienced, and were target consumers of live Growth Hacking experiments. Don’t believe me?

  • Did you yearn for an invite for a Gmail account back when Gmail was introduced? That was neat Growth Hack from Google!
  • Did you refer your friends to try out Dropbox to get free storage space in return? You were being Growth Hacked!
  • Do you remember those end lines in mails that said something like Sent from my Blackberry/iPad/iPhone..? Growth Hack, it was!

Read about the 10 of the best growth hacks of all time here. Aaron Ginn’s page is a great place to start on a journey to explore more resources on Growth Hacking and Ryan Holiday’s book Growth Hacker Marketing could make for a great primer on this topic over an afternoon meal.

Today ‘Growth Hacker’ as a term has gone mainstream even in the jobs’ lexicon. For it is not unusual to run into marketing job postings that come labelled as “Wanted Growth Hackers”!

While case studies of how Growth Hacking has worked out for (now) big brands like Instagram, Pinterest or Airbnb make for a fascinating read, lesser known examples can give an equally compelling perspective and an insight on how Growth Hacking can actually move the needle. The story of Bilingual Child – an iOS App to teach Spanish for kids – is a recent example. Not content with how their sales were panning out, the team at Bilingual Child went on to delve a bit deeper into the data and discovered a Growth Hack. The result:  they tripled their revenue by adding one button! Read the story here.

Bilingual Child

(Source, Medium. Click on the picture to read the story)

Well, if you have come this far you could be forgiven for thinking that Growth Hacking is majorly applicable to software products or startups. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Amy Webb was having no luck with online dating. So she figured out the system, monitored and measured the impact of her  ‘hacks’ and went about achieving what she set out to do – finding her match. Hear this story of how she went on to hack her online dating life — with frustrating, funny and life-changing results.

Is this Growth Hacking? You bet it is – Amy’s bold and calculated attempt to drive growth in the quantity and the quality of potential matches for her. The core essence of her approach is equally (if not more so) applicable to something like say updating my LinkedIn profile. And that for me is a compelling takeaway from her TED talk.

So the bottom line is clear, irrespective of the field of application – a company, a product or even a person, the ability to delve into data, bring in curiosity and operate with a mix of creativity and an analytical ability has huge implications in driving growth. No wonder then, Growth Hacking is said to be redefining the very mindset of marketing as we know it.

After all, when was the last time you had a name for a discipline that neatly encapsulated the objective and the enabler of the activity in a single breath?  

(Featured Image, Medium’s collection on Growth Hacking, Another great resource on this subject)

Taking Over The World One Mobile At A Time

These days it is not uncommon for food to get onto Facebook / Instagram or Pinterests of the world before it gets into the mouth. 

Armed with this insight, Spoon – one of the largest restaurant chains in Costa Rica created the following campaign.

Developed by GarnierBBDO, the beauty of this campaign is that it smartly builds upon an existing habit of people.  And why Facebook? Apparently, Costa Rica has one of the highest ratios of Facebook to internet users of 95% (source).

Damn smart! I’d say.

Such campaigns can be a great inspiration for restaurants and bars seeking to drive awareness and generate talkability with minimum investment and presumably a high ROI. In fact, fast food industry today is known to be one of the most represented on Instagram with a near 100% adoption rate!

Instagram Adoption by Brands per Industry

adoption-of-instagram-by-brands-per-industryFrom left to right: cars, fast food, soft drinks, apparel, telcos, retail, personal care, beer, luxury, financial institutes, insurance, technology, oil & gas

(Instagram adoption, MillwardBrown 2012 BrandZ index, Source)

And yes, Food happens to be the  #1 category of content on Pinterest too with 57% of Pinterest users known to have interacted with food-related content during 2012. (source)

Now, let’s take one step back in the process and look at another emergent habit

Even before we tag the food in our plates on our Social Media pages, what do we do? We place our order with the waiter/bartender. However this poor waiter today vies for our attention with – surprise, surprise –  our mobile phones.  Thanks to our emergent habit of ‘checking in’ also called ‘location tagging’.

In fact, during the two year period ended in September 2012, Facebook has seen 17 billion location tagged posts including check ins (source). And to put that number into perspective, using May 2013 statistics, this would equal every single user of Facebook in the world checking in/ location tagging at least 8 times in an year over 2011 and 2012!

Understandably Facebook wants to make this key statistic- that of every user around the world checking in on Facebook – a reality. So after a pilot that was successfully run for over an year at over 1,000 SMEs in the US, Facebook – on October 2nd 2013 – has formalized an arrangement with CISCO. Named as ‘Facebook Wi-Fi‘ program, it converts retailers’ routers in the US into public Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to customers of the merchant establishment for free on one apparent condition. The deal? Go to the retailer’s/restaurant’s Facebook page and check in, and you have the Internet for free!

In other words, the three-step Facebook Wi-Fi system, which can be deployed by merchants running a Cisco router setup, lets people connect to a venue’s Wi-Fi, launch their browser, and click on the blue check-in button to gain unfettered access to the Internet.

Facebook WIFI

The deal for the merchant establishment?

  • Obviously each customer check in generates visibility leading to additional exposure that could pull in more customers or inspire more ‘likes’
  • While Facebook shares with the merchant an aggregate of anonymous demographic data such as age, gender, and interests on customers who sign-in to Facebook Wi-Fi, which they can potentially use for more effective targeting of their upcoming Facebook advertising campaigns

For Facebook, the Wi-Fi-with-check-in initiative is part of a broader plan to attack the local market by encouraging merchants to set up and maintain Pages on the social network and more importantly to seed – in the general public – the habit of ‘checking in’ on Facebook and thereby become the default gateway for the Internet.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world…

Chances are that you would have heard of Facebook Zero. If not, you should read this post right away. Essentially in 2010 Facebook collaborated with several mobile operators around the world and worked out an arrangement whereby the end users of these mobile networks can access  0.facebook.com – a faster and a free version of Facebook for your mobile, no matter which phone it is –  without any data charges.  People will only pay for data charges when they view photos or when they leave 0.facebook.com to browse other mobile sites. So, when they click to view a photo or browse another mobile site a notification page appears to confirm that they will be charged if they want to leave 0.facebook.com.

When this was launched in 2010, Facebook signed up 50 mobile carriers in 45 countries. The following image shows how Facebook made itself accessible on every class of phone through this initiative:

ubiquitous_mobile_facebook

How Facebook made itself accessible on every class of phone (Image source)

A smart way to drive usage of Facebook in emerging markets where the average monthly spend on mobile connectivity, which is often just voice and text, is 8-12% of the average take-home pay of a cell phone user. (source) In fact in just 10 months after its launch, Facebook Zero has become so popular in Africa that the site was said to have driven the adoption of broadband internet, just so users can have faster access to all those pictures and status updates!

Read this brilliant post on Quartz on how Facebook is conquering the world one mobile at a time.

Today, with more mobiles on earth than are people, and with smartphone penetration exponentially increasing in the emerging markets, the story has but just begun – after all there are 250 million Facebook users in Asia , more than on any other continent, and yet that’s just 6.5% of the population. In Africa, its penetration is less than 5%

And then Google launches Free Zone.

And the battle for world domination continues one mobile at a time.

Pillars of Digital Influence and what it means for G+

As per the recently released report by the Altimeter group, there are 3 pillars of Digital Influence –  Reach, Relevance and Resonance.

(Image Source: Altimeter)

While it’s hugely instructive as a framework, what interests me is that can potentially explain many trends that we see play out in the digital arena today. Let’s take Google +.

Google+ does a great job at building strong foundations given its legacy and thereby straddles 2 of the 3 pillars of Digital Influence:

  • Reach:  G+ rides on a phenomenal user base that Google has built through Gmail
  • Relevance: given that most web journeys start with a search and given the dominant market share that google has in this domain, G+ can naturally syndicate itself through these multiple touch points and hence thereby have the ability to target with relevance (eg: highly targeted ads etc)

That said, there is a critical pillar that G+ is yet to figure out – Resonance. Why?

My hypothesis as follows

First let’s consider 2 obvious facts about social networks and how they scale:

Social Networks Scale with participation: It is known that the worth of a social network increases exponentially with the growth in the user base. In other words, the more friends of mine I see on a particular social network, there are greater chances that I buy into it. In fact that’s precisely why I ‘graduated’ from orkut to facebook a few years ago.

Social Networks scale with time: Secondly, the more time I spend on a social networking site, the more valuable it becomes for me, simply because over the years I would have built a network of friends, interests, groups etc. that I am interested in.

As a corollary to this – given that garnering a critical mass user base becomes the holy grail of any social networking site, it gets all the more elusive progressively for the newer social networking sites  as users find themselves within very high exit barriers.

So what does it mean in the context of Facebook Vs Google+?

Inertia: As facebook users, while I, along with millions of others have built our own social networks over the years and have started creating our own digital footprints, Google+ now asks me for my willingness, time, effort and patience to painstakingly recreate a similar network on Google+! Does this offer any scale for me as a user? Hardly.

The Proposition: Even in terms of its core proposition, G+ offers me a very similar value as a social network as that being offered by facebook and doesn’t offer me anything differentiated (like say Linkedin). Does that entice me as a user? Hardly – unless I want to review it as a techie.

With all the recent news about Google+ over hauling its design of the interface and arguably even doing a great job at that, it doesn’t seem to be moving the needle in the right direction for G+.

It is here, I guess Pinterest has done an extremely smart thing – it offered a new platform for content creation and sharing and not necessarily a new social network. It just rides on the social networking footprint of facebook and focuses on what it does best – pinning!

And that could partly explain why Facebook finds Instagram as a very attractive acquisition – as it sees it more as an opportunity to acquire the ‘most valuable’ user base (most Instagram users are naturally content creators and not mere spectators or joiners) than as an acquisition of a photo-editing and sharing software.

It is really interesting and extremely instructive to see how Mark Z and his aides are mapping out Facebook as a Social By Design edifice strongly predicated on the 3 pillars of Digital Influence. Result: an enhanced social experience for users and value for marketers.

The New Theory of Constraints

What is common between Lego, NASCAR and Instagram?

Answer: A shared set of constraints (in functionality/features) and a shared set of capabilities that form the bedrock of the whole experience for any ‘participant’ in any part of the world. Well almost.

Let’s start with Lego – a brand with a phenomenal presence around the world that charmingly scales to ‘62 little color blocks for everyone on the planet’.

Throughout its roller coaster ride, over the last 60+ years, ‘despite’ new ideas and innovations that redefined dominant themes and possibilities that can be realized out of these toys, one thing remained the same throughout the times: the Lego brick.

(Dimensions of standard Lego bricks and plates. Source)

Lego bricks have constituted the fundamental building block of any Lego toy built through the ages. While they come in various sizes and shapes opening up newer possibilities, they are basically and functionally similar (if not same) to each other – in fact it is said that Lego bricks of 1950s can connect even with their 2009 counterparts as if they have been made for each other! So barring some theme specific add-ons that are sometimes bundled along with the building kits, all Lego toys come with the same/similar set of capabilities and constraints at a fundamental level. I feel it is this shared awareness of the multitude of possibilities that can be realized using the same set of blocks and the constituent constraints (or absence of them), that fires up peoples’ imagination and makes them co-creators of the brand’s physical and virtual footprints. And thereby makes this a real shared experience.

NASCAR is different from F1 in a number of ways.F1, besides from being a race among the drivers and their teams, is also a race among the ‘constructors of the car chassis’. So there are a number of factors at play in the run up to that coveted podium position in every Grand Prix– the engine, its aerodynamics, tyres, the technical support, the strategy, the drivers etc. But NASCAR on the contrary largely remains a race among drivers – with everything else (for most part) being equal. So what essentially matters is just the competency of the drivers and their strategy. In fact, this is what makes maintaining any given position consistently (1st or the 25th), while aiming to overtake the next man (or woman) in front of you  extremely challenging in a NASCAR rally. So in many ways, it is this ‘race among equals’ philosophy that makes NASCAR for as engaging a watch and fan following that it has as of today.

Over to photo sharing.  There are many social networks predicated on the concept of photo sharing and social networks. While they must be doing a great job in terms of providing a common platform for people to share their photos with friends and others, they lack what it takes to foster a real shared experience among the users. For eg, if I want to share my pictures that I have taken with my mobile phone and hence were to be on say flickr (I must admit I really like flickr for what it is, but that’s besides the point now), I might run into tons of stunning, visually breathtaking photos posted by a number of photographers around the world. So, while I might sometimes stop by and enjoy these pictures for what they are, I don’t and cannot relate to them. I might think that these have been shot with a Full Frame DSLR by a trained photographer and even post produced in some professional photo editing software. So this benefit of doubt that I give to these pictures in deference to those great cameras / photographers and software stand in my way of seeing this a real shared experience. Enter Instagram.

There is no doubt that factors like the quality of its filters, the reach (of iPhones), a well designed interface, the access to a visceral world that it fosters and the immediacy of outcomes that it presents the user have all made Instagram as popular as it is today. But, these factors alone never answered my question as to why Instagram has become ‘this’ popular. I set out to find out and I was so glad to have discovered this great insight. Nate Bolt’s article on TechChrunch nails it when he says…

“…There’s something enticing about knowing that most Instagram photos are created on the iPhone…… That makes it fun to see what other people can create with the same technical constraints you have. Photography has always been all about the equipment, and not at all about the equipment. Knowing millions of people are creating with roughly the same camera and app as you makes it exciting creatively. So constraints, combined with quality and an audience are what makes Instagram so addictive…..”

This also answers why Instagram hasn’t been in a rush to release an Android version of the App so far; for if it does so, there could be a sudden explosion of photos taken by thousands of different mobile phones / tablets with different specifications and capabilities. Hence suddenly the whole deal ceases becoming a real shared experience that it has always been till now.

So there you go – a common thread that connects and potentially explains the popularity and the impact that brands like Lego, NASCAR and Instagram enjoy. A celebration of the lowest common denominator in features/functions and constraints.

Can you think of any other brand/innovation/business model that thrives upon fostering a shared experience for the user/consumer based on a set of common constraints (and common capabilities)?