Monday, December 20, 2004

On Mumbling and Humbling

See Chris Caldwell's excellent essay in The New York Times on the dangers of false humility. Next time you're asked to comment on some fantastic honor bestowed upon you, do pause before you say you are "humbled," lest you offend your audience.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Berkeley Study Converts Biggest Skeptic

As many of you know, my agency recently advised a research group at UC Berkeley that found significant statistical anomalies in the 2004 Florida electronic vote. The Berkeley study has generated heated debate in academia and in politics. But in a story that is running tomorrow in The Washington Post, MIT's Charles Stewart -- the most vocal and reputable critic of the study -- lays down his sword and joins a growing list of academics who feel something went wrong in Florida. Berkeley's Michael Hout puts the focus on where it needs to be: the electronic voting system, not allegations of fraud.

In Florida, ground zero for 2000's election meltdown, professors and graduate students from the University of California at Berkeley studied this year's voting results, contrasting counties that had electronic voting machines with those that used traditional voting methods. They concluded, based on voting and population trends and other indicators, that irregularities associated with machines in three traditionally Democratic counties in southern Florida may have delivered at least 130,000 excess votes for Bush in a state the president won by about 381,000 votes. The study prompted heated critiques from some polling experts.

Stewart of MIT was skeptical, too. But he ran the numbers and came up with the same result. "You can't break it; I've tried," Stewart said. "There's something funky in the results from the electronic machine Democratic counties."

Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout, who directed the study, said the problem in Florida probably lies with the technology. (Florida's touch-screen machines lack paper records.) "I've always viewed this as a software problem, not a corruption problem," he said. "We'd never tolerate this level of errors with an ATM. The problem is that we continue to do democracy on the cheap."

Sunday, December 12, 2004

NYTimes: The Year in Ideas

We look forward to this special issue each year, where the New York Times Magazine looks back on the most significant trends in technology, commerce and public policy. 2004 was a year when policy and ethics were aggressively tested by a still largely unregulated and ever-expanding Internet economy. The most interesting trends: citizen vigilantes on eBay; do-it-yourself Internet political attack ads; technology for detecting fraudulent photos; the rise of corporate blogging, even among the most conservative and staid of institutions; Big Music's embrace of "mashing" (we'll hear more about the embrace of other underground practices in 2005); and "strategic extremism," an approach to communication exemplified by the closed-world practices of political operatives like Karl Rove (but vulnerable to attack by open-Internet muckrackers like Matt Drudge). All good fodder for discussion in 2005, as technology continues to disintermediate, and shift the balance of power to "the former audience" (to paraphrase Dan Gillmor).

Saturday, December 11, 2004

More Buzz on BzzAgent

The Concord Monitor in New Hampshire weighs in on the BzzAgent controversy (see our previous posts on this subject, here, here, and here). After noting that the red-hot word-of-mouth marketing company openly discourages people from concealing their shill status, the Monitor describes its less-than-open encounter with Jason Desjardins, one of BzzAgent's most successful agents:

Desjardins wrote two brief reviews of books he received from BzzAgent. He submitted them in response to the Monitor's standing invitation to readers to send us brief comments about books they had read. We published them.

By telephone yesterday, Desjardins said the reviews of Across the Nightingale Floor and The Five Patterns of Extra-ordinary Careers reflected his honest opinion and he had no intent to deceive us or our readers. He did not realize that reputable newspapers would not knowingly publish anything that was part of an advertising campaign without saying so.

BzzAgent is not alone in creating groups of "volunteer" marketers, some in their teens, who spread a good word about the products they are given to try. All appear to be based on the premise that the people who hear the sales pitch are unaware that they are the target of a marketing campaign. One BzzAgent even wound up giving a testimonial for a beauty product at her grandfather's funeral.

So the next time someone raves about a book or talks about a great new restaurant or the most comfortable shoes he or she has ever worn, we'll be wondering if the comment is an honest expression or just unwelcome stealth advertising.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Dan Gillmor Moves On

A big loss for Big Media, but a boon for grassroots journalism: Silicon Beat reported yesterday that long-time SJ Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor is leaving to head up a VC-backed, new-media project. Little about the venture has been disclosed, but we're guessing that it has to be good given Dan's leadership in this new world. Eastwick, my employer, recently hosted a book signing by Dan; it's with mixed feelings that we wish him bon voyage, and bienvenue.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

How to Avoid a Public Spanking

The irrepressible Jason Calacanis has decided to taunt Seth Godin for his allegedly ambiguous support for BzzAgent (actually, his support is pretty clear -- he takes credit for inspiring the business). Will Seth accept the bait? Last time we checked, there was no response.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Open Source Marketing?

So, we had to check out Slashdot.org today, to see what one of the Internet's most anti-marketing communities have to say about "The Hidden (In Plain Sight) Persuaders," the New York Times article that we covered here yesterday. Worth the read.

The ethical questions will persist, and someone -- if not the network -- will certainly figure out a better way to work with the new hidden persuaders. But in the meantime, posters on Slashdot appear to be amused that Madison Avenue may have finally "figured out what open source developers knew all along." Definitely an angle worth exploring -- what could inspire so many different types of people to work for little or no material gain? Contrast and compare the open-source software community and the masses who pitch for companies like
BzzAgent. What's the common element?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Shill Next Door

Marketing and PR friends: please check out Rob Walker's "The Hidden (In Plain Sight) Persuaders" in this week's New York Times Magazine. No, I am not a shill for the author, but to see why I must protest my neutrality, read on.

Walker takes a close look at the burgeoning "word of mouth" marketing industry which recruits volunteers all across the U.S. to talk up thousands of products, from anti-puffing eye creams, to cool sneakers, to books on marketing (you'll enjoy the subtle irony in the marketing plan behind "Purple Cow" by Seth Godin, the doyen of permission-based marketing). Once you get over the shock -- if you are still capable of being shocked -- you'll be impressed by the utter simplicity of this approach and wonder if there are more ethical, transparent ways to work with the legions of people who apparently enjoy persuading others for little or no material reward. A note about the new, not-so-hidden persuaders:

Who are they? Check out the word-of-mouth industry's favorite graph. The graph is meant to show the pattern by which ideas or products or behaviors are adopted, and it looks like a hill: on the left are the early adopters; then the trend-spreaders; the mainstream population is the big bulge in the middle; then come the laggards, represented by the right-hand slope. This is not new stuff -- Knox himself cites research from the 1930's, as well as the 1962 academic book ''Diffusion of Innovation,'' by Everett Rogers -- but it has become extremely popular over the past five years or so. Seth Godin, who wrote ''Permission Marketing,'' ''Unleashing the Ideavirus'' and other popular marketing books (and whose ideas partly inspired BzzAgent), uses it, as do dozens of other marketing experts. Malcolm Gladwell's ''Tipping Point'' made an argument about these ideas that was simultaneously more textured and easier to digest than most of what had come before (or since), and it became a best seller. But whatever the intentions and caveats of the various approaches to the subject, the most typical response to the graph is to zero in on the segment that forms the bridge over which certain ideas or products travel into the mainstream -- influentials, trend-translators, connectors, alphas, hubs, sneezers, bees, etc. Let's just call them Magic People.

Friday, December 03, 2004

David Corn: Election Flawed, Not Stolen

The Nation's David Corn has written a critical but sympathetic column on the Berkeley report and other post-election reports (reprinted here, on CBSNews.com). He concludes:

Yet the voting system is shaky enough to warrant serious concern. The General Accountability Office was right to agree to a request from Representative John Conyers and four other Democratic House members that it investigate election irregularities in the 2004 election. According to these members of Congress, the GAO will examine the security and accuracy of voting technologies, distribution and allocation of voting machines, and the counting of provisional ballots. "All Americans, no matter how they voted, need to have confidence that when they cast their ballot, their voice is heard," the lawmakers said in a statement. Indeed. There are Bush critics who probably never will accept the November 2 results. And the systemic problems that do exist — secretive voting technologies, the opportunity for partisan hacks to engage in voter suppression — will allow these people to hang on to their worst fears and to continue to share look-at-this! emails with fellow believers (or nonbelievers). But the evidence to date is that the election results were not rigged but were produced by a flawed system.