A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Designing (For) Trust


A few years ago, I discovered a conversational framework in pre-marital counseling that opened my eyes to how trust might actually operate in relationships (you can already guess what happened to my marriage... ;). One of the revelations I had was that you don't just build trust in relationships, you go into relationships having trust in yourself.

I sometimes cringe when people talk about trust as though it is a given, as they tend to gloss over the realities of physical and mental interaction. This is especially the case when people wax on about social business or social technology innovations. But that is all well and good, because it is all part of the process of awareness, and I think the concepts tied to trust are important for people to build upon in their own ways and at their own paces.

We all know that relationship dynamics can be very complex, but I do believe that trust itself is quite simple in its faculty. I've also witnessed some very interesting transformations, both in the startup work I've been doing, as well as in some of the innovation work I've been privileged to be a part of. This is one of several scientific studies I've researched that seem to corroborate what I've experienced in different entrepreneurial and corporate settings. And there is always the inimitable Csikszentmihalyi (tongue-twister!) from which to draw inspiration.

If I were to reduce the essence of trust down to single equivalent, it would be this: love of self. A natural extension of that would be confidence in self. This confidence is expressed quite clearly at the personal and collective levels, and takes on various forms of creative and cognitive energy. Some questions to ask ourselves (per the graphic) might be:

- How do I feel about myself when I enter group environments?

- How do I choose to communicate those feelings?

- How do I express my values in such a way that they can be understood?

- What are my true intentions?

- What are my perceptions of self as I interact with others?

- What are other people's perceptions of me (how do I 'occur' to them?)

- What am I willing to do or contribute to change those perceptions?

- Can I empathize with others and align my values to theirs?

Self-love, of course, doesn't refer to a reliance on Ego (the self-consumed part of it), but rather a completeness or a mindfulness that one can share love and be loved. Confidence, therefore, can manifest as an organic expression of that self-love, and can literally permeate a room or physical space with an incredible aura. In online spaces, it can certainly catalyze the visions or perceptions of what a relationship might become.

Lest we forget that we can design platforms, experiences and/or ideas for trust-building, and we can engage in trust-building exercises, but there is a significant awareness factor that cannot be ignored.

Admittedly, I've made a lot of mistakes in this respect; it's one thing to want to trust someone, but it's another thing to hold trust, earn trust and share trust with other people. I've had a few situations over the last several months in which trust was broken, in part because I failed to see what the the potential for trust could even be. That is something I've had to own as a part of my self-responsibility, my own learning experience. I also have to reconcile with the possibility that perhaps, to those people, I just wasn't trustworthy, for whatever reasons there may be (some of those reasons I'm still trying to figure out and incorporate into my own realm of understanding). On a more positive note, I've also repaired a couple of broken relationships because I was able to communicate my ownership of the issues, and was able to align a set of values with those people.

So, it seems we can design for trust, but we don't actually design trust itself, nor do we really engineer its mechanisms. Then again, who knows what today will reveal. In the meantime, perhaps the graphic at top will help you in your own design work.

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Sorry Jason Calacanis, Google Isn't the Only Game in Town (The Amazon Principle)

Next month, I'll be delivering a keynote at TruEffect's Brand Partner Summit in Boulder, Colorado, on the topic of storytelling and advertising. I've talked a bit about the future of ads in general, in particular as a service industry.

The real context I'd like to address right here -- and what will serve as the backdrop for my talk in Boulder -- is what is actually driving the media ecosystem and respective information systems as a whole.

Right now, Google seems to have the upper hand. But this won't be the case for much longer.

As you may recall, late last year Jason Calacanis wrote a really interesting piece entitled "#googlewinseverything".  The post generated quite a lot of buzz in technology and venture circles for obvious reasons. In the piece, Calacanis provides a list of truisms about Google, saying rather emphatically:

"In truth, the 10 ‘facts’ I’ve outlined above are not mine; these are the opinions I’ve collected over the past year asking intelligent folks, ‘So what do you think about Google?’ These are the 'facts' as the people see them. Although, I haven’t found anyone who disagrees with these 10 facts – do you?"

Well, I'm not going to disagree with Calacanis per se (he has access to a lot more inside info than I do and I have lots of respect for him as an entrepreneur and investor), but I am going to challenge the list of assertions he provides within context.

Here they are, point and counterpoint.

1. No company has as many smart people as Google. -> Define 'smart'. In a 'wicked' complex world, creative intelligence (or 'EQ', emotional quotient) is just as important as quantitative or purely scientific chops.

2. No company is as ambitious as Google. -> Define 'ambitious'. Do you mean to say that a host of companies without Google's market cap or footprint aren't taking on significant cultural mores, or attempting to create massive social change (for the better) -- like Amazon?

3. No company is working on as many hard problems as Google. -> Define 'hard problems'. Defer to counterpoint #2.

4. No company makes as many big bets as Google. -> What kind of bets? With what intentions? Defer to counterpoint #2.

5. No company is willing to make as many crazy acquisitions as Google. -> Maybe so. But there are lots of companies that don't have to acquire as much in order to 'push the envelope' as it were (i.e. market ownership is not the same as market creation...). Defer to counterpoint #2, with the caveat that Amazon is buying a lot in order to strengthen its infrastructure and market positioning.

6. No company has more data than Google. -> Perhaps. But is it all the right/best kind of data? (i.e. Is it clean? Can it be parallel processed? Is it behavioral? Does it seamlessly connect to the knowledge/social graphs? Is it scalable through reference/inferential databases? etc.). Defer to counterpoint #2.

7. Few companies understand how to play the government better than Google. -> Probably the case. But in Google's position, and given backdoor surveillance (as just one example), is that a good thing? More importantly, is Google really influencing policy in the best interests of us (its users)?

8. No company has more global influence than Google. -> Right now, probably true. But that won't remain to be the case. Defer to counterpoint #2.

9. No company is as ruthlessly efficient as Google. -> From my own experience working with Google (Google 'proper' and YouTube), that's simply not true. Great company and great people, yes, but 'ruthlessly efficient', no.

10. Only one CEO is more ambitious than Google’s Larry Page.* -> Jeff Bezos?

As you might've gathered, I have a thing for Amazon. Don't get me wrong, I think the world of Google, but Amazon is a special kind of dark horse (if you can even call a company that big a 'dark horse'). This Atlantic piece, which came out right around the time Calacanis wrote his post, was a really good, balanced take on how Amazon is making seismic moves.

The basic premise -- and my firm belief -- is that any company which thinks the way Amazon does long-term, to include massive financial risks, will 'win' long-term.

Now of course, pundits will say that Google has always thought long-term. That's debatable. Per the (counter)points above, Google has thought long-term about experimental domains like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, sustainable cities and transit, but I would assert that it actually hasn't thought that way about its own $28bb+ core search/ad business.

Here's why/how.

Amazon has just about every asset in the new commerce toolkit, and it's only a matter of time before its search product catches up with its capabilities in content, storytelling (journalism especially), publishing, purchasing, production, cloud/quantum computing and network distribution (private, social and virtual).

Bottom line: with its advanced ecosystem, Amazon doesn't need ads or impressions to rule the web like Google does currently.

If you'd like more validation on this position, check out a wonderfully curated thread my friend Alex Schleber put together in early February -- he poses a great list of questions (probably better than those I did here), and there's lots of contextual grist to explore, replete with great data-points.

The 'battle' between Google and Amazon, as it were, will likely produce cultural tensions that will push all of us to think differently, consume differently, produce more thoughtfully and tell stories with more of a bent towards real social utility. As a result, I think we will see the emergence of a truly co-opetitive economic landscape, in which ecosystems amplify these tensions and create amazing new ways to improve our world.

It will be exciting to watch and participate.

Story Evolutions

Try this mental exercise for a moment: Remove an ad unit or an advertorial or a listicle or an aggregated news feed from your line of sight.

What do you see?

You might find a contextual truth about a person, a company, a place, a region, a mission and/or an idea. Call it 'data'. The substance presented to a 'consumer' (let's call him or her an 'observer' to be a bit more respectful here), and represented through individual and collective narratives, is one that really stretches across time and the imagination itself. Call the substance itself a 'story'.

Any person who connects with a story will retell it and own it as their own -- this has been the case for centuries. Whether that person advocates a product or a service is another matter, but suffice to say, stories told well and curated meaningfully build relationships between people. The participatory nature of storytelling itself is actually what makes media social to begin with. And networks have existed long before the wonders of modern technology such as the telegraph, the phone or the web ever came to be. (Have we already forgotten this?)

As I've espoused for years, the duty of any company is not to manipulate consumer segments or audiences into believing that they need products and services via their 'brand', but to give them questions and/or ideas that empower them to think about why things matter... Whether products and services are sold or not. In turn, a real relationship can be had and maintained, and the opportunities to explore various fictional and non-fictional modalities are abundant (hence the multi-dimensional power of evolving and hotly debated disciplines like 'transmedia storytelling'). Not only that, the functions of a participatory relationship denote untold prospects for co-creating value -- the kind of value that builds better products, empowers employees, creates new markets, and makes honest men and women out of organizational leaders. Believe it or not, that leads to more profit and sustainable revenue streams.

If you want examples (or more of them), feel free to sift through myriad posts on this blog, or gander a presentation or two, and certainly check out some of the folks I mention who are doing great work across domains.

But for now, I'd like to challenge you to expand your thinking: Perhaps it's time we looked past what 'content' can do inside of a search field or a communications plan or on an affiliate link, and think more about what stories can do to transform the way we think about ourselves and our ecologies.

How does this actually translate to better marketing and digital media practices?

How can we monetize products and services without having to sacrifice the integrity of the information we put forth, or more importantly, the people with whom we share our information?

What are we doing to enhance our roles and respective disciplines inside and outside of organizations? (Are we not just relying on automation, compartmentalization and optimization to prove our value?)

Addressing these questions head on is the mark of future success for any company and news organization. You can count on it. In fact, it's already happening.

We are moving from broken economics in media, to a 'new' economic system of story. And story evolutions have always been here for us to use responsibly!