The Internet Elephant: Your One-Time “Promotion” and its Persistence

We are used to the world of internet communication as an ephemeral, “one-time” communication. Send your email or IM communication and it disappears, without a sound, into the ether. But at least some of those communications are permanently cached and indexed. We’re seeing this today in product placement and promotion, and in the future will likely see similar behavior with tweets, statuses, and emails. The internet is an Elephant with a long memory.

Take the 2006 Jones Soda Thanksgiving Pack as an example that may shed some light on our future consumption of personal communication. Jones creates a limited-edition soda pack every year to drive buzz. In the olden (pre-Internet, 20th century) days, marketers would create limited edition packages that most people might forget. The 6 pack of Thanksgiving Meal flavored sodas was one of a string of innovative and attention-getting soda packs from Jones that emphasized the Jones brand: irreverent, sugared (instead of corn-syrup sweetened, and fun). This was supposed to be a limited-time phenomenon. But almost three years later, the Jones Soda photograph referenced above and a blog post I made in early 2009 are some of my most widely hit posts/photos.

What’s the message to be gained? The internet is an Elephant with a cyclical memory. Search engines and site such as Flickr and Facebook allow consumers to show their support for limited editions, ask for cancelled products to be returned, and even (in the extreme case) campaign for fake products to be made real (think of “Email n’ Walk”, the iPhone app that started out as an April Fool’s joke. The web archive allows you to see cached versions of prior web sites and see the web as it was a few days, months, or years ago. Yet this “memory” or “nostalgia” is not easy to parse. Who published it? What was the original intent? These questions become less relevant when the content is separated from the original marketing campaign.

So what can we learn from the persistence of the Jones Soda Thanksgiving promotion? One-time promotions for products Jones are easy to find: the Internet makes it possible to search among user-generated content and official information. We should apply the same principles to the way that we find information about people and companies with whom we communicate. The ability to verify the communication as “authentic” and to build critical thinking abilities will be crucial in the future for users to validate these communications, improve the ability of marketers to get their message out in the blogosphere/real-time search world, and for consumers to find the products and services they want (not just the ones they find). What does that mean for the Internet Elephant? It will continue to remember, so ensure that the communications you’re placing out there in the world are ones you want it to share days, months, and years from now.

Can you trust what you read on the Internet?

Before Google was a verb, Twitter was an avocation, and Facebook was a way to spend your evening, it was easy to know where to get your information. Step 1: Go to your local library. Step 2: search the catalog (and before that, peruse the card catalog). Step 3: compare the citations for the term you are searching to see if they came from “reputable” sources such as a major newspaper, a mass-market book by a “famous” writer or historian, or if the same facts were corroborated by different sources. How can you get similar fact-checking on Internet sources when the news itself might only be minutes or seconds old?

The easiest way to trust what you read on the internet is to rely on the old Mass Media (WSJ, NYT, etc), and ignore the web sites or sources you don’t know or trust. This is a reliable indicator for major events that are well-covered by the traditional mass media. However, the NYT doesn’t help you with the small decisions you make every day. But an interesting new web site aims to improve the ability of your personal network and of the personal networks of others to arrive at the Truth (from your perspective). Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, explains that Hunch can provide the right answer for you for the question you asked.

Hunch operates on two levels. The first level, popularly known as Collaborative Filtering, can provide reliable recommendations “liked” by the crowd that are more accurate than individual predictions and produce recommendations for future “likes” based on present behavior. Hunch also asks you questions about You — so that it can take the crowd-sourced recommendations and give you a lens through which to view them that matches your personal views — and “guesses” or creates a Hunch tailored to you. This second level of filtering matches the large number of random (or not-so-random, depending upon the question) answers from the crowd with your actual likes and dislikes. I think this is the beginning of a critical thinking ability for the internet that can help you to identify unknown sources of content as valid or invalid (with the help of networks like Hunch).

What are the implications of getting a personalized version of the “Truth”?
It’s a little scary on the one hand to think that you are seeing the “Right Answer” to your question based on your likes and dislikes. On the other hand, the only person who can accurately rate an answer to your question as correct is … You. Hunch’s grand potential is that it could take the questions individual people have, distribute them to others to validate, and then take the “right answers” and syndicate them out in bulk as “crowd-sourced” news.

Imagine a world where you can ask your Hunch network to help you decide (provide you with options, not tell you what is right and wrong) whether an individual piece of content, or a personal decision to take the freeway instead of local streets, or whether the hamburger or the chicken is most fattening. Ok, you say, — what’s different about this from Mechanical Turk, Yahoo Answers!, or any one of the other answer-my-question sites that have sort of succeeded, sort of failed in the past few years?

Two differences are interesting to me that will make services like Hunch succeed: scale and mobile computing platforms. Caterina Fake has already determined how to build a large consumer service to scale. Flickr executes billions of interactions for millions of global users, and does so in a way that is pleasing to use and consume. Mobile computing platforms (I’m thinking of iPhone, but others like Android are on the way to becoming ubiquitous as well) make the idea of “asking a question” to your Answer Network more plausible at the moment that you need it.

One final thought on this issue. Could Google + Twitter produce this harmony of information, albeit in a more brute force, “ask my friends and index the result” sort of way? The folks at ReadWriteWeb recently covered this development, and it will be interesting to see where it leads. In the meanwhile, Hunch is an interesting and new way to answer the question: Can You Trust What You Read on the Internet. The answer? Maybe.

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