Show don't tell

I suspect we do a better job teaching children than adults, and much of that has to do with trying harder to explain things visually, in the most intuitive, simple way possible, to children. As we grow older, we start stacking on level after level of abstraction, losing more and more students along the way.

Even language is an abstraction, and while I enjoy writing, the ratio that a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliche that describes a very real ratio. As someone I chatted with noted this week, we have an actual way of quantifying the relative value of video versus images versus words: the CPMs that advertisers are willing to pay for video ads versus display ads versus text ads. My early years at Hulu, it was unbelievable how high and rock solid our video ad rates were compared to other ad formats on the market. All the recent pivots to video are surprising only for how late they're coming for many; trying to run a business off of text and display ad revenues is life with poverty unit economics.

This is not to say video is always better. As a format, it's harder for many to master, and like many, I often roll my eyes when sent a link to a video without a transcript. It's not because I don't believe video is a more accessible, democratic, and moving medium. It's just that a lot of instructional video would be just as information rich and more quickly scanned for its key messages if transcribed into text. Many a media site will struggle with pivoting to video unless they understand the format at the same level they do text and photos.

Video at its best is much more than a camera pointed at a person speaking. Now, granted, some speakers are immensely gifted orators, and so a TED talk may have more impact when watched rather than read. However, the average MOOC video, to take one example, is dull beyond words.

Video as a medium still has enormous potential, especially for education. In the trough of disillusion for MOOCs, I expect we'll see something rise from the ashes that finally unlocks video's potential as a communications medium. We've done a solid job with that format as a narrative storytelling device, and that's partially because the revenue in Hollywood supports an immense talent development infrastructure. Education might be able to provide that level of financial incentive if global distribution through the internet allows for aggregation of larger scale audiences.

One of the core challenges of education, as with disciplines like fitness and diet, is motivation. That is another area where video shines. David Foster Wallace warned of the addictive nature of video in Infinite Jest, and the fact that the average American still watches something like four to five hours of TV a day, despite the wealth of alternatives in this age, is an astonishing testament to the enduring pull of filmed entertainment.

As with anything, the seductive nature of moving images is merely a tool, inheriting its positive or negative valence from its uses. When it comes to teaching abstract concepts, I prefer good visuals over clear text almost every time if given the choice. Our brains are just wired for visual input in a way they aren't for abstractions like language, which explains many phenomenon, like why memory champions translate numbers and alphabet characters into images, and why they remember long sequences like digits of pi by placing such images into memory palaces, essentially visual hard drives.

One could try to explain the principles of potential and kinetic energy, for example, with a series of mathematical formulas, in a long essay. Or one could watch the following video.

Here's the video of the full routine by Joann Bourgeois, performed in San Sebastian. Just gorgeous.

This is what I wish Cirque du Soleil would be every time someone drags me to one of their shows.

Dear Airbnb

"Dear SF Tax Collector,
You know the $12 million in hotel taxes?
Don't spend it all in one place.
Love, Airbnb"
"Dear Public Works,
Please use the $12 million in hotel taxes to build more bike lanes, like this one.
Love, Airbnb"
"Dear Board of Education,
Please use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep art in schools.
Love, Airbnb"
"Dear Public Library System,
We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later.
Love, Airbnb"

Those are some of the by now legendary and misguided ads by Airbnb that went up last week and came down just as quickly after the understandable public backlash. AdWeek reports the ads were from Airbnb's agency of record TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A. which is surprising as they've done some legendary campaigns in the past, especially for Apple, their one time prized client.

Still, Airbnb is the client, and the client has to sign off on all this. It's on them for approving this incredibly smug and tone deaf campaign. One of the serious challenges companies like Airbnb and Uber have to battle is regulatory capture, but they have so many consumers who love their services that they really only need to make it clear that government officials might take away their offerings to rally a formidable wave of public support.

And yet almost all the Airbnb ads I've seen come across as really odd and cult-like. It's already strange enough sleeping on someone's sofa, the last thing the public needs is to be reminded of it. If I were Airbnb I'd be doing everything possible to make the service seem normal and more smart relative to the alternatives. My suspicion: some creative director is trying to be too clever by half.

One way to create demand

An ad from the early 1900's, with the opening paragraphs excerpted below:

Milly caught the bride's bouquet but everybody present knew that nothing would come of it...that she wouldn't be the next to marry by a long ways...and they knew the reason why, too.
People with halitosis (unpleasant breath) simply don't get by. It is the unforgivable social fault.
You never know when you have it—that's the insidious thing about it. Moreover, you are quite likely to have it, say dental authorities. Conditions present even in normal mouths constantly produce objections odors.
Don't take a chance
The one way to make sure that your breath does not offend others is to rinse the mouth with Listerine.

From How "Clean" Was Sold to America with Fake Science in Gizmodo. Worth a read if for nothing else than to see some of the photos of unbelievable ads about body odor. Even the use of the term “halitosis” to give bad breath a scientific term, as if it were some serious malady, is fiendishly clever. It's also shocking how the ads pictured are all targeted at women, reflecting the sexism of their times.

The tech industry has a lot to learn from consumer packaged goods companies about how to manufacture demand or consumer desire. The ads in this piece are negative and scare mongering, but companies like Procter & Gamble are just as good at generating desire with positive emotional triggers. It still feels like most tech brand advertising derives from viral stunts. One notable exception, of course, is Apple, most of whose ads now have more in common with fashion ads than technology ones.

Do you see the black and blue?

The dress meme was a bit exasperating for a few days there in its oppressive ubiquity. It was the overexposed photo that launched a thousand think pieces about perception and epistemological humility. If there is an optical illusion hall of fame the dress can assume its position next to old lady/young lady and which line is longer.

I thought I was done with that damn dress forever, but this is a clever newsjacking of the meme by the Salvation Army in South Africa, even if the practice of newsjacking, a term I'd never heard of until I saw this piece, sounds a bit shady, as so many content marketing practices do.

Effective income equality, ad-supported business models

UK households with the lowest income faced the fastest cost of living rise in the past 11 years, figures show.

The rising cost of domestic gas and electricity was one suggested reason for the trend.

Households without children and retirees also experienced faster price increases in their typical basket of goods, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

The ONS analysed inflation rates for different households from 2003 to 2014.

Those who spent the most money saw the lowest level of inflation, the ONS concluded.

This could be explained, in part, by prices of package holidays and education barely rising over recent years.

Full article here. It's not just absolute but effective income inequality that is seeming to rise.

Among some sizable number of people I follow on Twitter, ad-supported products and services in tech are seen as evil. ”You get what you pay for!“ and “If you're not paying, you are the product” and variants thereof are common dismissals or denunciations of any ad-supported product.

They lament the proliferation of free apps in mobile app stores, turn their noses up at Facebook, lament the ad-free days of Twitter. Look at anyone who writes such things and a few things become clear. They're almost always fairly well-off (middle to upper middle class on up) and so spending a few extra bucks is no big deal to them. Also, they almost always generalize off of one egregious example.

Ad-supported business models have enabled many people without the financial means otherwise to access many products and services. You may not think it's that important for someone who's poor to access Instagram without paying, but that's a very privileged stance, one that ignores how many people in other countries use such services.

Many businesses can only achieve the scale necessary to be useful with a free, ad-supported business model. Facebook is just one example. Sure, it means that many companies that set off in that direction will fail—scale businesses require, well, massive scale—but a high extinction rate for those who attempt to build a scale business is to be expected.

Finally, it's hardly clear that either a pay or ad-supported business is more friendly to customers. Derek Powazek had a great post on this a few years ago.

I don't mind paying for services I love. For example, I'm strongly anti-piracy when it comes to people who can afford the things they pirate, no matter what reasons they come up with to justify their behavior.

I'm happy, though, that the things I enjoy come in a mix of pay and ad-supported models. As I've noted before, I just hope ad-supported businesses embrace the natural evolution to native ad units more and more in 2015, especially all the old media sites I enjoy but whose user experiences are being destroyed by their advertising unit selection.

I don't now how I got from an article on income inequality to a discussion of ad-supported business models, but all my New Year's Eve alcohol consumption seems to have connected some strange regions of my brain this morning.

Google Autocomplete knows

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows." 

The modern equivalent, one might say, is Google Autocomplete. One ad campaign capitalizes on that by using Google Autocomplete suggestions to highlight gender inequality


More of the images can be seen here

I love Google Autocomplete, it is like some modern crowdsourced, mass-distributed free art installation. I have spent hours putting random queries in there just to plumb the collective mind of humanity.