Not only do I get to go to TED this year (hooray!) but I also had the great pleasure of participating in a truly brain-tingling workshop whose goal was to help TED figure out how to better facilitate the spread of breakthrough ideas.
Of course everybody (and their mother) is obsessed with web analytics these days: how many hits did I get? How many likes? But media engagement pros (and the workshop was chock full of them) realize that counting clicks doesn’t really begin to tell the full story. Who’s clicking and why? Did they talk to their dad about that TED talk over breakfast? Did they laugh or cry? Did they feel empowered to do something? Did they make a donation? It can be really difficult to accurately measure the impact of any piece of media (including a TED video) without finding a way to bridge that daunting divide between online click trails and offline actions. One way to do it? Surveys!
I’m a big believer in supplementing rigorous web and social media analytics with survey research. And I’m an even bigger fan now that my team at the Lear Center has developed some innovative new methods for taking into account self-selection bias in media consumption (i.e., only certain people decide to see certain TED videos – there’s nothing random about it – which makes it tough to accurately measure impact).
So, imagine my delight when I heard that the Knight Foundation is partnering with TED to work on amplifying and measuring the impact of their content as it “ripples through society, producing technology tools and best practices for connected action.”
One key theme that emerged at the workshop this weekend was the importance of sharing the discoveries that TED will make when they develop their new kick-ass website and state of the art dashboards for tracking engagement. Information is power and nothing is more empowering to an engaged audience than access to information about how their beloved TED talks, along with all the content and actions that they themselves have generated, are moving the needle.
I’m looking forward to what comes of this . . . stay tuned!
If you’re at TED2013, be sure to check out the Knight-sponsored pavilion centered on Tech for Engagement.
One of my favorite performances at TEDxUSC this year was by the actress and writer Dinah Lenney, who explored the connections between life and art. I can’t help but think that her training as an actress has made her a bit more sensitive than the average writer is about the “reality” of fiction and the visceral connections it forges between representation and material existence. Through a series of poignant and funny tales, Lenney explains why it is that she is more awestruck by a painting of a tree than the tree itself. To her, it’s the human intervention, the longing to capture in art something that simply occurs in nature, that gives her a sense of awe.
I was reminded of Jean Baudrillard‘s infamous formulation of the simulacrum: he argued that a really compelling representation of something (a picture of a sunset, for instance) may all too easily become the primary referent for the real thing (e.g., the actual sunset). Whenever you find yourself saying, “Hey! That looks just like a postcard!” then you have become subject to the allure of the simulacrum. But while Baudrillard bemoans the dehumanizing aspects of this displacement — this re-placement, as it were — Lenney celebrates it. She sees how important the witnessing of that sunset actually is: a human tried to tell us about it through a postcard, and the message was received.
Viva la simulacra!
The May issue of Vanity Fair features a great article about the “War for the Internet,” or, more precisely, the battles over Internet privacy, piracy and security. I found myself in alignment with the group of guys that VF calls the “forces of Organized Chaos,” including Vint Cerf, Jeff Moss, Joshua Corman and Dan Kaminsky. The article’s filled with quotable gems (e.g., “Anonymous is more like a brand or a franchise,”) but here’s a nice sum-up of the “Organized Chaos” vision for the future of the Internet:
…the forces of Organized Chaos, by and large, think that the Internet should be allowed to evolve on its own, the way human societies always have. The forces of Organized Chaos have a pretty good sense of how it will evolve, at least in the short term. The Internet will stratify, as cities did long ago. There will be the mass Internet we already know—a teeming bazaar of artists and merchants and thinkers as well as pickpockets and hucksters and whores. It is a place anyone can enter, anonymously or not, and for free. Travel at your own risk! But anyone who wishes can decide to leave this bazaar for the security of the bank or the government office—or, if you have enough money, the limousine, the Sky Club, the platinum concierge. You will always have to give something up. If you want utter and absolute privacy, you will have to pay for it—or know the right people, who will give you access to their hidden darknets. For some services, you may decide to trade your privacy and anonymity for security. Depending on circumstance and desire, people will range among these worlds.
In this context, structuring the Internet around authentication systems that make it impossible for anyone to remain anonymous seems as foolhardy as insisting upon only non-commercial usage of the Web (and, yes, I’ve heard serious people seriously suggest this.) Finding the right balance between order and chaos on the Web is the era-defining challenge we face right now.
I’m really proud to be on the board of advisers for TEDxUSC, the site of the first TEDx in the world (there have been about 4,000 of them since). Videos from this year’s event are just starting to trickle out: Doug Thomas, a colleague of mine from the USC Annenberg School, gave a stand-out talk about the ways in which the academy can quash creativity in the classroom and fail to tap into the passionate interests of the students.
His talk resonated for me because of my involvement in a broad, university-wide initiative at USC to promote Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy. It’s easy to claim that we want to be innovative and to think out of the box, but interdisciplinary work is incredibly hard in institutions defined by disciplinary boundaries, and working in groups to solve complex problems can be more time-consuming and frustrating than working quietly on your own on a topic that safely falls within your realm of expertise. Students who are trained to memorize information by educators who teach to the test aren’t exactly being prepared for the messy world outside the academy, where most jobs require teamwork of some kind, and the problems that need to be solved don’t fit conveniently in any single knowledge silo.
Pro-skateboarder and entrepreneur Rodney Mullen gave a wonderfully humble talk that clearly addressed this year’s theme: spheres of influence. He compared the skateboarder community to software hackers: both groups regard themselves as outsiders, often operating on the fringes of the law (Rodney mentioned what a trip it was to be in a building on USC’s campus — he was always outside, or being escorted off). Their creativity and their drive to innovate are driven primarily by their commitment to a fiercely loyal (and competitive) peer group that feeds off each other’s exploits. Group members are relentless in their effort to make their mark, to be even more daring than the last daredevil. Although it may seem like a battle of egos, both communities have an underlying open-source sensibility, where sharing knowledge is essential to membership in the group and the possibility of innovating within it.
Without question, the most galvanizing performer this year was the ridiculously talented Reggie Watts. A musician, singer and stand-up comic, Watts never sings the same song or uses a set routine. His clever, poetic riffs on the talks and the theme of the event, which I can’t even imagine paraphrasing, helped knit together the entire event for me. And while I’m a huge fan of the carefully choreographed TED talk, it was a welcome relief to be wowed by the free-flowing freshness of a skilled improviser. It made me wonder how all of us might find a better way to balance the two in our own lives and work: as a teacher, for instance, how can you respond to the vagaries of interest and desire in a classroom, and still communicate, in a precise way, the essential methodologies and hard-earned knowledge that are worth transmitting across generations? How do you make en ejxperience fun and substantial? We should all try to get better at it.