So I went to TEDx Bradford the other week, which was loosely about the future of the internet. TED is a wonderful thing, I can’t remember anything else that offered so many of ideas and fodder for all sorts of stuff for free. The videos from the main events are fantastic, not just for the quality of the idea, but the delivery. The presentations tend to be showstoppers.
TEDx is a little different, these second tier events are orgnanised locally under the TED name. Same principle, but less guarantee of high quality inspiration.
This was my first take-out from the day. There’s an old saying that good ideas should be able to sell themselves. Up to a point that’s true, of course, but I saw a wide variety of aptitude for presenting ideas, not mention styles and it reminded me how important delivery of an idea really is.
There was a, quite brilliant, presentation that was funny, witty and entertaining – the person doing it was a natural performer. But then there was another where she was softly spoken and rather shy, but she was so open and enthusiastic she took us all with her. More importantly, she didn’t do a presentation, she told a story. Humans are hardwired to love storytelling and this really worked for her.
But then there was also an intelligent, focused and energetic talk from a guy who presented through a series of infographics. He was direct and simple, but his ‘props’ transformed the whole experience.
As a rather shy, un-flamboyant person myself, the best advice I was ever given on presentations was to just be myself and find what worked for me. Whenever I’ve tried to do funny, I just look stupid. Whenever I’ve tried to do ‘slick’ I look even dafter.
But I put a lot of work into preparation, people can tell I’ve made a lot of effort, they can see I care and this helps a lot. I tend to look for great video and pictures, not to mention forgoing typed words and using my own handwriting. In other words, I work hard on props. Hopefully never letting them overshadow what I say, but adding weight depth and context. And I try to tell stories.
There were some talks where the speakers actually read out from a script and, despite what they were saying being interesting, you could see the audience fidgeting, twiddling with their phone and generally waiting for it to be over.
Some were too clever by half and instead of getting out the way of their story, they ruined it with gimmicks.
In other words, ideas should sell themselves, but there’s nothing like the (very varied) delivery people.
Second take-out was that people that live in the loose community of digital technologists, marketers and academics need to be careful they don’t disappear up their own behinds. You couldn’t help but notice a particular uniform for the day, which was largely based around skinny jeans, check shirts with national health specs, artfully dishevelled bourgeouis bohemians and the genuinely threadbare, thrown together outfit of the genuine, careless academic. There was an air of self important smugness to much of the day and the sense of a niche community talking to itself, incredibly pleased with it’s own cleverness without any genuine understanding, or care for the context of real people in the real world.
Much of this is fine or course, you need ridiculously clever people to care about the kind of things others don’t in the hope that others can apply their stuff to the everyday eventually. The World Wide Web came directly out of CERN for example and the cathode ray tubes that created TV images came from quantum physics that are still incomprehensible to most of us. Even the orginal algorythm that enabled Google to search so much more effectively came from an apparently useless, publicly funded, project.
But there’s always the danger of believing your own hype. The internet is littered with incredibly clever apps, platforms and other wheezes that no one ever bothers with, because their inventors forgot to put people at the heart of what they do rather than technology.
One thread of the day was the importance of net neutrality and freedom to post what you want and get what you want for free. No one seemed to want to say why, or discuss a point of view where a form of control or rules might be useful. It’s up to you what you think of course, but you can’t make an informed decision unless you see both points of view and the group think of the digital elite doesn’t seem to question itself that much.
Anyway, I’m not going to bother going through every talk. They’ll be published soon for you to see for yourself. I’ll just share the bits I found interesting or useful.
Jane Macdonald talked about Tales of Things. An ongoing project where objects are given their own QR codes and people can attach their stories about them to it. I love this, because so much of how we relate to ‘things’ is based on what we believe about them and what we know of our story. This very month, someone has paid thousands for a piece of old box that has some of Ghandi’s blood on it. The box is worthless, even blood is worthless, it’s because we know this is Ghandi’s blood that it’s so valuable. Just like my Grandmother’s china tea set has untold value to me. She taught how to make tea properly with that set, which was a wedding present to her nearly 100 years ago. Take away the memory of her and it’s just an old fashioned tea set. Daniel Miller in this book compellingly captures how important our relationship with ‘things’ really are and how much that’s about memories and shared history.
This is why A History of the World in a 100 Objects was so popular. We relate to things and their stories in such a powerful way.
She also talked about the possibilty to preserve social history. Imagine a museum where you don’t just get the object, say an antiquated Nokia from the 1990′s, you also also get the stories from people about what it meant to them and how incredible it was to them to have a phone they could carry around, let alone the internet in your pocket.
Imagine going into the V&A and not just being able to admire Dior’s New Look from the 1950′s but actually hear stories from the women that wore them, how it liberated them and enabled them to feel a little more spontaneous and free in very austere times. Imagine what the women in the 1960′s could tell you about their mini skirts, or what people could tell about what their original Sgt. Pepper meant to them, or in my case, what it felt like to get my prized Millenium Falcon replica in 1981 at a time when Star Wars meant more to me than life.
She talked of Oxfam Shelflife, where clothes donors could attach the story of what they were donating to a QR code and the clothes sold out, as people responded to the added value they created for the object.
She forcibly reminded me that the point of digital stuff is finally coming to life, it’s not really about another virtual world, it’s about enriching the one we live in now and much of that is about what it will add to objects. To quote Heidegger, “Objects are points of conversations” what’s amazing about the future that is nearly with us, is that those conversations will live IN those objects.
Mark Graham discussed how knowledge is concentrated geographically and gave evidence that the history of the internet is actually one where this is exacerbated. The pattern of history is one where knowledge production has been concentrated in the richest parts of the world, books, newspapers, periodicals etc have all been more accessable to those in well off areas and the greater education and knowledge reinforces the economic superiority.
These days, digital maps shape our knowledge of places and the people that live in them, from Googlemaps to Wikipedia, from Twitter feeds to the weight of personal blogs and reviews, not to mention visual history – Flickr, Facebook Instragram and so on. But, like print beforehand, because digital technology is distributed so unnevenly, history is still being written by the winners. Most people in the world can’t access the internet and even where they can, broadband, fast laptops and smartphones are a distant dream.
So there is more user generated content about Tolkien’s Middle Earth than most places in the developing world. There are more edits of Wikipedia from Hong Kong that all of Africa put together and more from Israel than the rest of the Middle East put together.
Makmende was an East African viral hit that couldn’t get an official listing on Wikipedia because the editors were all so removed from the region, geographically, socially and econimically that they didn’t believe it was genuine, and certainly didn’t understand it.
Why does this matter to me? Because as someone who grew up studying social sciences, and learned to question EVERY peice of source material, something I think is massively important for research for what I do now, it reminds me to never believe what I read on the internet until I get some proper proof. I see many strategy and research types presenting ‘researched’ ideas when what they really have is some desk research from social media or articles and such. If you want to understand what’s going on in any culture, any social group or anyone;’s head, you have to actually go out and meet them.
This is even more important if you do global stuff, which is what is taking up most of my days at the moment. You won’t get much insight from the web about most of the world because it’s written from the point of view of people like you, not them.
Even looking at what people do and say on your large Facebook fanbase, if you’re lucky to have one, isn’t of massive use because social media is digital showing off, it’s not what we’re really like, it’s what we want people to think we’re like. Not to mention, these ‘visible consumers’ are only the weird ones that can be bothered to spend time with a brand instead of their peers, this is not representative of both the brands buyers or normal human beings at large. Going back to my sad Star Wars obsession, if the importance of friends and family in the lives of most people is the size of the Death Star, the size of real entertainment and fun stuff is roughly the size of Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer, so the size of brands probably equates to the size of the Millenium Falcon.
Finally, Dr Kieran Hulse did a talk on the history of mixtapes and editing your own music – from the classic cassette mixtape through to new streaming services like LastFM and Spotify. He showed how the original mixtapes were, more often or not, acts of romance and ways of forming and cementing relationships. Personally, I spent far too many hours as a teenager making tapes for girlfriends and friends alike. They always had the person and the relationship in mind, but they were also me telling others something about myself in a very subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) way. They were about basic human needs to share and communicate (and non-verbal communications tend to be more powerful that what we actually say), not to mention the objects with specific stories to them.
I know for a fact that an old girlfriend (we’re still good friends) has a few I made for her over twenty years ago, least importantly because she likes some of the songs, overwhelmingly because they’re a sweet reminder of our shared story and, dare I say, the person I was back then, naive, earnest and slightly odd (not much changes).
CD’s began to kill all that, then along came Itunes and suddenly it all became personal. Your playlists became your own mixtape, but they were rarely shared.
But along came streaming sites and we’re gone back to the sharing, personal side of things. But amplified a million times. Now we can make mixtapes of anything, through playlists, and share them with anyone. Not just our friends, but anyone. We can find new music thanks to sharing with people who like what we like – some say the web is killing serendipity, perhaps this is example of why it doesn’t have to be like that.
That’s the main point I got from this, but there is another. Technology is changing faster than we can keep up,which in turn is changing culture in many ways. Some good, some bad. But human nature took millions of years to evolve, billions in fact, since much of what it is in us originated in tiny mammals evading dinosaurs and the first fish that crawled on land way before that.
The fundamentals of who we are, what motivates us and what we need does not change, it just responds to what is around it in different ways. The need for sharing, for community, to have our senses stirred by stuff like music, for love and companionship and for a story (in mixtapes and other objects) are universal. And because the fundamentals of human behaviour does not change, that’s what we as marketing and/or technology folk need to address first, rather than be blinded by the latest innovation, trend or fad.
Coming back to slight self-congratulatory tone of the day, I hope that’s something everyone took on board.