We can do better! SxSW, Social Media: Content Intent and Context

Note: October, 2012 – This post is really old. Enjoy!

I am going to be jotting down a variety of thoughts in the coming weeks, as my brain is about to spill over with things inspired by the hundreds of conversations I’ve had in the last week at both the South by Southwest technology conference in Austin and the Microsoft MIX conference in Las Vegas.

There is a lot happening in the industry right now. There is a major battle that is about erupt between Adobe and Microsoft around user experience-based technologies (Flash Platform vs. Silverlight/WPF). Augmented reality is becoming real (ish). Location-based information has grown from “what if” to “must have”. Mobile devices are everywhere, even to the extent that the mobs in Austin last week brought down AT&T’s network with their iPhones, and I am really starting to love my Android device.

A lot is going on, but I don’t feel a wave of mind-blowing innovation. Most of what it seems people are talking about is simply extending the status quo.

It almost seems that most people are just making marginal improvements to things that already popular or widely accepted.

It seems as if most of the people I’ve talked to at both events are also feeling the general lack of forward motion attached to many ideas that are being produced en masse. It almost seems that many ideas that are being presented are almost mass-produced… rip offs of things that already exist.

Don’t get me wrong. There is indeed a lot of really innovative stuff in the works. But most of it isn’t ready for prime-time. Most of it is under wraps. Most of it lives as ideas, prototypes and behind closed doors where teams (like mine) are working out the kinks before revealing things to the industry.

Ideas like this are great, but you can’t log in to an idea. There is not a lot of tangible stuff being released that really blows my mind. (But I really like what is happening at the MIT Media Lab)

Because of this, it almost seems as if most of the public buzz around interactive, web, online (however you want to phrase it) technology is mostly about cleaning up what we currently have (i.e. – Facebook redesign) and making marginal improvements to what already exists (APIs?).

I went to Austin to see if perhaps I could bump into the next big, amazing thing that would make me smile and tell everyone I know about it. I had a great time. It was great to see that the work we do at Roundarch was as good as anything else out there, and that people were blown away by some of the conceptual work that is being done by Roundarch and by folks working on “Roundarch Labs” projects.

It made me realize that we really do “think big” and that we are doing very sophisticated work. We are doing truly next-generation application design and development. Our design team is second to none, and our engineering folks are solving incredibly hard problems.

I was expecting to encounter a lot of this in the last week. I had planned on being overwhelmed by a blizzard of thinking by people I’ve never met. I thought that perhaps there would be huge ideas floating about, that would make me question what I thought was happening and would make me change strategic direction on one or more ideas that I’ve been brewing in my head.

Instead, I found that 80% of the conference in Austin was focused on “Social Media”. I get it. I love it. I understand it. And all the same, I am really over hearing about it.

What is it really? (Social Media).

I had a conversation with a couple of peers the other evening about this, and we came up with the following. The term “social media”, seems to be encompassing everything from user-generated original content, remixed content that is redistributed, and content produced by businesses that grabs the public fancy, therefore “going viral”.

You can argue that Web applications like twitter are a hub for the creation and distribution of social media, but that would then require us to also include “tweets” and random thoughts captured in text to also be social media content.

Backing up, let’s just rip the term apart: Social = Between individuals or groups / Media = Content.

So, is it true that social media is any type of content that is created and shared by individuals or groups (assuming we are still talking about digital content, ie – delivered online).

I am having a hard time with someone telling me that they are a social media expert. I don’t really know what that means. What do you do? What makes you an expert? Are you a sociologist? Do you have expertise in the creation of media? Delivery of content? The taxonomy of online conversations around specific subjects? Do you have expertise in everything? Anything?

HELP!!!!!!!

I probably sound cranky. I probably sound upset. I’m not either of these. What I am is concerned that the expertise that so many people that I am close with in our industry is being diluted by made up words and “in-the-now” terminology. (as opposed to in-the-know).

What would I rather see?

Instead of talking to no end about how a person or business can leverage social networking Web sites to advance themselves, I’d rather us all be engaged in a conversation about how we can learning from the behavioral patterns that we see being developed. We should be learning from them, understanding the gaps between the needs and wants of users and focusing our energy on what we can do to design and develop future experiences that address these gaps.

If “the community” were to reallocate 40% of the time that they use talking about twitter, skittles, Facebook, and Zappos (which I think is an awesome company) we could make major waves in terms of really solving problems and advancing the Web forward.

I am not a hater. I think these Web sites are great, and I rely on my Facebook account to stay in touch with old friends and I often toss out random thoughts to my pals on Twitter. I get it. I like it. I think it is relevant, but I don’t think it is the end game.

I want to work with people to get closer to that end game. And yes, I realize that it is always going to change, push forward and be out of reach… but at least we should be thinking about how to improve upon the existing patterns that surround us.

For example: Intent

Saurab Bhargava, another Director at Roundarch, is passionate about the idea of defining intent. How can we, from a technical perspective, create applications that understand the intent of a user and therefore the intent of content created or distributed by that user?

I’ve been hearing a lot of social media experts talking about the pros and cons of Cheerios, Cheetos and Chi-Chi’s having a social Web site presence. I guess, in my own mind, are these things not obvious? Is it experience that makes me feel this way? Or is it something burning inside me that knows we can do better.

It reminds me of Tim O’Reilly’s feelings about “fart” applications for mobile phones. Millions have been made by developers in their quest for a better mobile fart machine. Really? Can’t we redirect the energy of developers to do something more important?

Likewise, in the social media space, I think we can do better. We can start to get aggressive in the mission to improve the shortcomings of content creation, sharing, measurement and meaning. We should be thinking less about “who to make a friend” and instead focus on how we can reclassify our online “Friends” into hierarchical groups that identify more than a 1-to-1 relationship.

We should be thinking about creating applications that think like we think, that group things like we (as humans) group things. I want to move towards a world where the content that is posted by users can be distributed to “friends” based on context and my own intent instead of forcing me to assign permissions or tags to that content manually.

Yes, I know…

These aren’t simple problems. These are hardcore computer science challenges. But I believe that these are the conversations that we should be having as top-tier professionals in the Web, interactive, mobile, internet, etc industry.

So there you have it. A challenge. Stop being complacent with having conversations about how we can leverage the tools of today. Start thinking about tomorrow. Start inspiring yourself to do better. Start thinking about next year, or 3 years out. Better yet, don’t put a time frame to your innovation!

I think we as professionals need to step up and define where this is all going. I am hoping we lean towards changing the world for the better. I believe we can use design and technology to make the infinite amount of information that lives in the cloud relevant to each of us, individually, all the time.

We can do better. Can’t we? …… (please)?

To prove I’m not just a hater… you can find me on twitter: @dmeeker