Bridging the Digital Divide

10 05 2010

Digital media is everywhere.  Or is it?

As difficult as it is to see from high in our silicon towers, a large portion of the globe has yet to feel the impact of the largest ICT revolution in history.  A mere 15% of the global population accounts for 88% of all Internet users.  Industrialized cultures immersed in digital media have failed to recognize the harsh divide between technology haves and have-nots.   Misconceptions abound.  Despite arguments that insist that the gulf is shrinking, the water has only risen.

The Boston Digital Bridge Foundation is on the frontlines in the battle to raise awareness and trumpet digital inclusion.  The BDBF seeks to provide training and equipment to Boston communities still submerged in the rising waters of the digital gulf.  The non-profit corporation was behind the successful push to network all Boston Public Schools, transforming Boston into the first fully networked school system in urban America.  Since then, the BDBF has continued to create initiatives aimed at addressing the digital divide at the grassroots level.

BDBF’s Technology Goes Home program exemplifies the organization’s mission and methods.  Launched in 1999, it’s goal then is the same now.  Technology Goes Home partners with the Boston public school system to serve inner-city families in need of technology training.  The program offers students in grades 4-12 and their families the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of hardware, software and networking.   At the conclusion of their 25-hour curriculum, graduates have the chance to purchase a refreshed computer and new printer at substantial discounts.

Technology Goes Home illustrates the impact that local efforts can have in closing the digital divide.  The fight has also gone global.

One Laptop Per Child is a global initiative targeting technologically deprived populations.  Created by MIT Professor Nicolas Negroponte and the Digital Bridge Foundation, OLPC’s goal is simple.  By designing, manufacturing and distributing inexpensive laptop computers, OLPC has set out to provide every child in the world with access, equipment and education.   The XO laptops are open source, energy efficient and mesh networked.  They are designed with the specific needs of impoverished communities in mind and are distributed with the hope of assisting developing countries in nurturing their most essential resource; their children.

For some of us, the Internet is everywhere.  It’s not uncommon to find yourself feeling resentful of your hyper-connectivity.  Questions even swirl around the potentially detrimental effects of our ubiquitous connection.

But for most of us, access is denied.  And the hardships of those on the wrong side of the divide dwarf the issues surrounding inclusion.  While organizations like the Boston Digital Bridge Foundation act locally, initiatives like OLPC act globally.  By treating technology as a key to unlocking potential and a means to empowerment, both programs are helping to lay the foundation necessary to bridge the digital divide.


The Digital De-Evolution

10 05 2010

Douglas Rushkoff was once a digital enthusiast.  He could be seen as early as 1994 appearing on programs such as CNN Morning News to extol the revolutionary power of digital technology.  He adamantly professed that its widespread adoption will be remembered as a monumental step in our continuing evolution.  But as evidenced by his 2010 documentary Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, Rushkoff has recently grown cautious in his praise.

In the years since his national television appearances, Rushkoff has noticed a fundamental change in the Internet. It is no longer “a thing one does, but a way one lives.”  According to Rushkoff, that way of life is not without its risks.

His underlying concerns regarding our unbridled submersion into the digital realm revolve around the negative effects our reliance on the virtual can have on our connection with the external.   In addition to an increase in cases of legitimate physical ailments resulting from excessive Internet usage, Rushkoff is also wary of the subtler but equally debilitating psychological impact that an addiction to digital technology can have.  He refers to digital natives who have been consumed by digital usage as “casualties of the digital revolution.”

Specifically, Rushkoff, along with Rachel Dretzin, target their expose on the myth of multi-tasking.   American high school students spend an average of 50 hours per week with digital media.  While these students remain convinced that they are capable of multi-tasking successfully, recent studies have proved otherwise, concluding that multi-tasking learning environments do not optimize learning opportunities.

Test results cited by Rushkoff and Dretzin question whether multitasking is inhibiting our abilities to engage in genuinely analytical thought.  It’s a classic struggle between quantity and quality.

Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, has conducted studies that have demonstrated an increase in brain function when searching the Internet.   Small found that the amount of brain activity that one experiences while Googling doubles the functioning that takes place while one reads a book.  On the surface, the results are cut and dry.  Such a finding appears to support the notion that Internet activity is boosting brain activity, and therefore nurturing the intellect.  But Small is quick to point out that when measuring brain activity, less may be more.  A swell in brain activity does not necessarily equate to an increase in learning.  It may instead signal a decrease in efficiency as the brain works harder to accomplish less.

Once a champion of a deep integration of digital technologies within our lives, Rushkoff now wonders if our increase in digital media usage can be linked to what he describes as a “shrinking capacity to think.”  Ruskoff and Dretzin ponder the same question that Mark Bauerlein poses; are we raising “The Dumbest Generation?”  As Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future suggests, “the dawn of the digital age” once aroused our hopes for a hyper-informed era.  Now it raises fears for a hyper-connected but constantly distracted generation.

Rushkoff goes as far as to compare our naivety regarding the potential pitfalls of digital media to our long dismissal of the perils of smoking.  Though digital media may not be a killer, it is a threat.  Finding a balance between our digital and daily lives will be a key component to maintaining a healthy information metabolism in the digital nation.

Mice in the Social Media Maze: Have We Found the Cheese?

10 05 2010

Marketers love numbers.  And new numbers regarding social media marketing are in.

Michael A. Stelzner, founder of Social Media Examiner, has issued his 2010 Social Media Marketing Industry Report.  Published in April, Stelzner’s report outlines responses from 1898 participants to various questions regarding their social media usage.  When reviewing the numbers, it’s important to note that 63% of those surveyed are small business owners.  But despite an apparent lean towards the small business perspective, the report highlights some telling trends and statistics.

First, there are some big picture findings.  An overwhelming 91% of those surveyed indicated that they are currently employing social media marketing tactics, up from 80% a year ago.  Over 60% of respondents who have been using social media for a few years claimed that their use of social media has helped reduce overall marketing expense.  Now there’s a number that might catch an employer’s eye.

But what about attracting the all-important eye of the consumer?  85% of respondents identified “generating exposure for the business” as the number one advantage to their social media participation.  Among those who have been engaged in social media for a few years, 100% claimed that they are successfully attracting consumers through social media channels.

It’s one thing to get their attention.  What happens once you have it is another, and skeptics of social media usage often question the viability of leads generated through social network participation.   Stelzner’s study suggests that companies willing to devote just a few hours to social media marketing are seeing results.   Businesses that claimed to spend as few as 6 hours per week on their social media presence also claimed that they have generated “qualified leads” after only a few months.

Those successes are inspiring increased usage with a focus shifting towards the growing mobile market.  75% of marketers surveyed are currently using mobile networking apps to interact with fans, while another 43% have recognized the need to optimize their sites for mobile apps and have initiated the process.  While a relatively small percentage of businesses are developing mobile apps (19%), there’s an increasing overall awareness among marketers for the need to engage on the go.

The numbers are encouraging.  But they’re also incomplete.

Examinations of social media marketing strategies continue to overlook two major considerations — 1) ethical issues when entering social media and 2) the issue of what is done with the information that is gathered through social media participation.

Last year’s First Annual Social Media Survey conducted by PRWeek and MS & L polled 271 chief marketing officers, vice presidents of marketing and marketing directors.  As explained by Kimberly Maul breaks down some of the survey’s findings in her October article entitled Reality Check, the survey asked a series of questions around ethical issues that companies must consider when venturing into social media spaces.  Respondents were asked if their companies had engaged in any of the following activities:

  • positioning company-generated content as consumer-generated
  • changing content related to the company that others have posted in social media
  • removing negative comments or content from social media
  • offering gifts for company or blog reviews
  • paying cash for company or product blog reviews

Only 57% of those surveyed were able to deny using any of these tactics.  A surprising 21% of respondents admitted to presenting company-generated content as consumer-generated, while 13% revealed that they had changed content relating to their company that others had posted in social media.

Analysts and strategists have trumpeted social media as a conduit for genuine communication and collaboration between company and consumer.  An organization’s successful navigation of social media spaces depends largely on their ability to enter with an authentic voice.  If these numbers are any indication, this is proving even more difficult than skeptics had predicted.

The study revealed that nearly half of the businesses surveyed admitted to using dishonest tactics while attempting to participate within social media spaces.  Other survey responses indicated that many companies are attempting to carve out a social media niche without any concrete strategies or objectives.  In a presentation outlining current social media trends, Cathy Freeman explained that only 29% of companies who are using social media have installed an organizational social media policy.

Without a cohesive strategy in place, one can’t help but call into question the intentions of these corporations.  Are they exploring social media as a means of nurturing genuine relationships with consumers, or are they simply doing it because the guy next to them is?

Responses in the 2009 survey to questions concerning what becomes of the information that is gathered through social media platforms cast further doubt.  When asked if their company had ever made any changes to products or strategies based on consumer feedback from social media sites, just 34% of the companies using social media indicated that they had.

Much attention is paid to finding ways to better measure the effectiveness of a company’s social media presence. The question of how to measure ROI was the number one question on respondents’ minds in the 2010 survey.  Yet only a third of businesses have ever acted in response to the input they receive.  Why worry about collecting information or the accuracy of it if it’s not going to be used to effect change? What are marketers learning from their time spent “socializing,” and how are they employing their newly gained knowledge?


21 04 2010

Today I met iPad.

I should say we were introduced.  But I don’t feel like I know much more about it than I did yesterday. And I get the distinct impression that it doesn’t know much about me.

Anyone who has dared to venture into Apple stores since the April 3rd release of the much-anticipated hybrid media consumption contraption has been greeted by a singular request.

“Meet iPad.”

Today was my turn.

Banners bearing the request now cover the exterior of the store. Though subtle in their design, they’re uncomfortably forward in their frequency.  As I approached the store and noticed that the signage littered the interior as well, the banners started to look more like barriers.  I imagined a high school football team taking the field on Friday night busting through their school logo and wondered if I would need to call on their services just to earn the privilege of an introduction to this “magical and revolutionary product.”

Once I crossed the store’s threshold, there were more than enough opportunities for us to get to know each other.  iPads aplenty were laid out for display and demo.  They were placed atop five columns of display desks that a visitor entering the store would have to hurdle to miss.

The units were propped up and powered on, daring passersby not to pick one up.  The store display leveraged one of the tablet’s most undeniable characteristics, showcasing its ability to inspire touch.  Like its iPod forefathers, the iPad’s intuitive interface and sleek feel begs for self-exploration, and patrons were left to play without intrusion or interruption.

A few moments with the iPad and you can’t help but feel like you’re with an old friend.  Because you are.  It’s an iPod, just slightly bigger.

But having played enough with iPods to grow accustomed to their interface, I was surprised to find myself having difficulty mastering the changing display orientation of the iPad.  When I held the tablet parallel to the ground or placed it flat on the counter with the screen facing upward, the display would not change with rotation.  It was only when I tilted the unit so that the screen was perpendicular to the ground that the display adjusted to the orientation of the screen.  I wasn’t aware of the apparent limitation, and as I found it cumbersome to type while holding the tablet, the design flaw quickly became an annoyance.

In need of an iBreak, I returned the unit to its perch and turned away from the iPad display.  Not surprisingly, I was only met with more iPads.  The desktop and laptop computer monitors selflessly looped the iPad promotional video.  Hailed as a device in its own category, it was clear that the iPad had set its sights on vanquishing all would be competitors— even those in its own store.

Realizing there was no escape, I staggered back towards the unit I had been testing in the hopes that my return would attract the attention of a customer service representative.

Within a few minutes, a store employee approached me wondering if she could be of any assistance.  Apple has long been widely praised for its high standard of customer service.  But the ensuing exchange left me wondering if in their race to revolutionize media consumption, Apple had forgotten its focus on media consumers.

I asked if Apple intended for the tablet to replace our current computing methods or supplement them.  Her answer was less than definitive.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I think they’re still trying to figure that out.”

I applaud her honesty, but her response was not one that would inspire confidence in a prospective consumer, an ability that Apple has long displayed.  She later conceded that the tablet is not intended to supplant the laptop and instead framed her sales pitch around the beneficial uses in medical facilities.  I’m not often mistaken for a medical practitioner nor have I played one on TV, so I found her emphasis of choice an odd one.  Consequently, it fell on deaf ears.

She then addressed my concerns over the iPad’s incompatibility with Flash with a standard explanation of Flash’s imminent demise and HTML5’s impending rise.  She went as far as describing Flash as “unstable,” yet failed to explain the basis for her characterization.

I thanked her for her time and walked away from our conversation and my general experience in the store with the sense that Apple’s goals surrounding the launch of the iPad had more to do with a desire to shape and determine media consumption than to respond to consumer behavior and needs.

There’s a fine line between driving innovation that inspires a shift in usage trends and attempting to determine and control usage.  Apple’s latest product may flirt with that line.  And in a store known for its open layout and casual environment, I couldn’t help but feel cornered.

The signage explaining activation indicates that an additional monthly data plan is required.  AT&T is the exclusive provider of the iPad’s data services, leaving iPad consumers no choice but to partner with AT&T.

Apple would like us to believe that the iPad can be ours at “an unbelievable price.”  When compared to the cost of many laptops, the $499 price tag on the entry-level iPad model is not without its appeal.  But for a new device that touts itself as occupying a revolutionary category of its own, the cost represents $499 that consumers would not have spent.  It’s not replacing the laptop, just complementing it.

Once Apple is done upselling and dangling 3G capabilities in front of prospective iPad customers, $499 quickly becomes $829, and the price tag’s appeal is lost. With it may go some of the respect that Apple has earned from its army of loyal customers, leaving them and other prospective consumers rather iPathetic.

Take Me to My Leader

12 04 2010

In composing a personal management statement, I can’t escape the irony inherent in the process.  Effective management is determined less by what a manager states and more by what she hears.  As a manager, no one will listen to what you have to say unless you’ve done some serious listening yourself.

That said, my first definitive statement on the subject of management is that successful managers rely less on their ability to declare statements and more on their propensity to listen to what is stated.

But there’s more to management than listening.  The human relations school of management had it right when they realized that employee productivity and satisfaction was not fueled solely by wages and benefits.  Monetary incentive is enough to motivate employees to get their jobs done.  But more is needed to inspire them to not only get their work done, but to get it done to their fullest capability and done with an eye towards the organization’s bigger picture.

It’s no accident that a human relations school of management surfaced.  It doesn’t take decades of work experience to realize that many managers are in desperate need of human relations schooling.  It’s not often that we encounter a manager who recognizes that managers and employees play for the same team.

In order to help nurture a culture in which organizational objectives are understood and embraced by employees, a manager must assume a micro-perspective to personnel management.  It is imperative that managers focus on managing individuals within a corporation instead of overseeing a corporation of individuals.  Some employees may be hoping to achieve self-actualization through work, while others’ expectations are set lower.  Recognizing which employees seek this type of need fulfillment from work and which are content to find it elsewhere is crucial to determining what approach may work best with each individual.

Finding a balance between applying a personal approach to employee management and maintaining overarching principles of fairness and consistency is a daunting challenge.  That balance can only be achieved if there is overlap between what is good for the individual and what is good for the company.  The greatest challenge for managers comes when the decision that best protects and supports the product falls in direct opposition to what is best for the employee.  Concessions must be made, and the compromise that is reached should be grounded in the belief that short-term product enhancement cannot always take precedence over long-term employee growth and development.

Employee advocacy is made even more difficult by the inherent pressure that accompanies operating within a media industry traditionally driven by outcome goals and measurement.  Outcome goals play a significant role in product and employee evaluation.  But the success of a project and the effectiveness of an employee’s role within that project must also be measured by project specific and employee specific process goals.  Recognition of achievements made within the process is often capable of promoting the type of genuine employee satisfaction that transcends projects and infects a culture.

It’s not enough to simply set process-oriented goals.  The true management test comes when outcome goals start throwing their weight around.  When this happens (and it inevitably will) it’s incumbent upon managers to stick to their process guns.

Warren Bennis draws distinctions between managers and leaders.  According to Bennis, managers administer while leaders innovate.  Managers imitate while leaders originate.  The most effective management styles are ones that adhere to these distinctions.  Management responsibilities can often stifle an individual’s creativity, as priorities shift towards administrative charges.  Finding creative solutions while juggling administrative demands is nothing short of a high-wire act.  And when a manager falls, she drags others with her.

But it’s a misconception to define leadership as the ability to influence the behavior of others.  Genuine leadership can’t be so granular that it assumes influence over others.  A leader is instead defined by his ability to create a culture that promotes certain behaviors and discourages other behaviors while enabling those who operate in that culture to carve their own path within it.   The concept of transformational leadership centers on the ability to impart a vision and then instill confidence in and ownership of that vision among employees.  In this way, a leader is not one who attempts to influence others to do what they don’t want done.  Instead, a leader is one who helps others recognize the value in what needs to get done and embrace the purpose and challenge.  The need for micromanagement is sometimes born out of an over-reliance on transactional leadership and a lack of transformational leadership.

It takes a title to be a manager.  But leaders can emerge from all levels of the corporate hierarchy.  If given a choice between the title of manager and the status of a leader, I would choose the latter.

More Than One

7 04 2010

One describes itself as a grassroots campaign and advocacy organization intent on winning the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease.  One focuses primarily on eradicating injustice and inequality in Africa, but its goals are more far-reaching.  And so is its appeal.

With celebrities such as founder Bono, spokesperson Jeremy Piven, and a host of other recognizable faces, as well as a popular line of apparel all helping to raise awareness and trumpet One’s message, it’s become chic to be One.

But equally important to increasing visibility in the digital world is a non-profit’s ability to maximize their Web-based opportunities and prioritize their search engine marketing.   One has succeeded in both.  Look no further than their Google page ranks to find evidence that they’ve recruited a work force capable of more than singing and acting.  Google the word “one” and guess what appears in the #1 slot.  Last time I checked, it’s not uncommon to see “one” used in online communications and branding.  No further proof is needed to recognize One’s SEO command.

One’s website also illustrates sound interactive design centered on CTA principles.  One has included a JOIN US widget on its home page, has integrated a link to its JOIN US page within its banner, and offers a traditional ACT NOW navigation option.  Once a visitor lands on the ACT NOW page from any one of the multiple entry points, she is greeted with a choice of multiple methods of engagement and levels of involvement.

One’s ISSUES page follows a similar blueprint. Not only does it provide ample information, but it also presents that information from various different perspectives, effectively illustrating how the impact of poverty transcends beyond the individual or family suffering through it.  As the site explains, the issues must be viewed from within frameworks not readily associated with poverty such as education, health care, trade and climate control.  The page design ensures that there is a strong chance that a visitor will relate to one or more of the areas in which the issues are framed.

One is also no stranger to operating within the prominent social media arenas now enabling connection.  One’s blog more closely resembles a Twitter feed in frequency of posts and manages to provide substance as well as abundance.  In addition to their own blog, One also offers the news aggregator, WHAT WE’RE READING, that enables visitors to keep up-to-date on the news surrounding topics that One deems relative to its cause.

With over 122,000 Facebook fans and 430,000 Twitter followers, One has made a significant footprint in the two current dominant social media communities.  Its celebrity associations have helped its success in this area.  But One has also provided visitors to its Facebook fan page with much of the same valuable issue education and opportunities to get involved that can be found at One’s site.   College students, One’s target demographic, are also offered the chance to participate in the One Campus Challenge, an annual competition to determine which student body can conduct the most effective global campaign against poverty.

One’s YouTube channel highlights videos featuring influential figures in the collegiate population.  It illustrates One’s ability to leverage its celebrity relationships effectively.  Another strength of One’s Web presence is its emphasis on connecting its many Web outlets.  There is a cohesive design and each individual outlet is readily accessible through the others, making the content and value One offers easily shareable and spreadable through a target demo that is highly connected.

The most notable criticism of One’s Web presence can be found on its site.  The organization’s purpose is not overwhelmingly evident above the fold.  Most monitors and browsers require a new visitor to scroll before One’s cause is unveiled.  With One’s SEO successfully drawing Internet traffic, the site stands to attract visitors landing on the site who are need of an explanation.

Under Our Capitalist Noses

20 03 2010

The innovation and installation of the Internet, as described by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It has left me shaking my head in disbelief.  Zittrain forces readers to examine Internet history and its current trends from new perspectives.  His account of Internet evolution raises many questions.  First and foremost on my mind; “How did this happen right under our capitalist noses?”

I never considered myself a red-blooded capitalist.  And still don’t.  But tracking the story of Internet adoption, one can’t help but wonder how such a story took place in the American capitalist setting that it did.  The Internet is a global phenomenon.  Anyone with half a brain and broadband connection can see that.  But it is also the most anti-capitalist venture in American history.

Before it was universally adopted, the network we now navigate had to first beat out proprietary systems that also vied for cyber supremacy.  It is completely neutral, inviting any user who wants to join to hop on using the medium or platform of his choice.  Those devices, until very recently, have followed a very similar model.  As Zittrain describes them, they closely resembled the network they connected to; empty auditoriums that provided the lights and stage but allowed individual users to supply the actors and plot.

Now, as discussions of network neutrality heat up and appliances such as Apple’s iPad tablet pique consumer interest, concern circulates that the Internet and the devices we use to connect to it will start closing gates, constructing walls, and adopting a more tethered model.

My only question is, “What took so long?”