I haven’t used this site in a while, largely because I have little to say and/or I am editing/censoring myself. Nonetheless, the biggest news of the season is almost upon us: River Monsters returns to TV (or computer the next day)  on April 1. The debut….

 

 

 

In the suspense-filled two-hour premiere, Jeremy Wade treks across the United States in search of deadly river monsters living in the nation’s waterways. Wade ventures from the popular Indian River Lagoon in Florida where unsuspecting water enthusiasts are faced with what could become a modern day Jaws, to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where underwater hunters have reached man-eating proportions.

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The link. The legend. The beginning of a perfect Friday night.

TV is broken. It needs design thinking.

Don’t blame Kim, Khloe and Kourtney. When it comes to the current state of TV, the Kardashians and others of their narrative ilk are neither the culmination nor the cause. Like Gigolos, Coal, Jail, Cops, Real Housewives, The Ultimate Fighter and Pawn Stars, their second generation of so-called reality TV provides a portal into human experience and alternative identification that no amount of Boston Rob can ever compete with.

Don’t blame the platforms. With high subscriber satisfaction paving the way for intelligent advertising and a migration of the Internet’s targeting, tracking and recommendation functions, PVR is just discovering its potential to generate revenue. And with the likes of Netflix drooling over the $800 million valuation of streaming TV, watching online isn’t the culprit either. Both will put money into the production coffers for years to come.

No, TV isn’t broken because it’s going broke. TV is broken because so much TV sucks. Case in point: Game of Thrones. Don’t know the show? Here’s how HBO describes it:

Based on the bestselling fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author), this sprawling new HBO drama series is set in a grounded fantasy world inhabited by ambitious men and women of both honor and ill-repute, much like our own real world. In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, whoever controls the Iron Throne holds unbelievable power, and the series centers on the rise and fall of several families that covet that power at all costs.

Forget metaphor or allegory – the only intrigue in Game of Thrones is how this show got made. A clear, present and dangerous signal that the organization responsible for giving the TV show a new set of legs over the past decade is slipping in a big way, HBO’s latest begs the question: If these guys are slipping, what does that mean for the overall state of serial or episodic small screen fiction?

That HBO is slipping with Game of Thrones is a point of personal assessment and concern rather than an alarm bell sounding in the TV business. Because of its sheer content scale – as well as ideas generated out of creative shops like HBO, Showtime, AMC and some of NBC – the past few years have seen a surge in the quality of ‘the show’. A recent quick poll of Idea Couture employees reveals the scope of what viewers connect with and some of the reasons for those connections:

– The Killing (“honest characters”)
– Weeds (“subversive, challenges gender stereotypes and makes me think about the concepts of right and wrong”)

-The Walking Dead (“human frailties, political commentary and survival fantasy”)

– Fringe (“I miss X-Files and it’s the closest, next best thing”)

– Law and Order SVU (“a long journey that’s never disappointed”)

– 30 Rock (“fucking hilarious”)

– Love It or List It (“where my fantasies play out come true, and make me feel like I’m living what they’re going through”)

– The Mentalist (“quirky and psychological”)

– America’s Next Top Model (“creative ideas coming up almost every time”)

– Archer (“funny and engaging stories that make cartoon characters look super attractive”)

To that list, I will add a disclosure of my current favorite TV shows: True Blood (for an exploration of our culture’s sexually charged romance with power, life, death, immortality and transformation) and River Monsters (for a fisherman’s ethnographic-like exploration of place, fear, mythology and the quest).

Some viewers have discovered something in Game of Thrones, too. The first two episodes scored a respectable 2.2 million U.S. viewers. That number climbed to 6.8 million via HBO’s OnDemand, and you can probably add another half million viewers who watched on the following Monday nights thanks to Ice Films, EzTV, TV Break, Megavideo and others grey market streaming sites.

And some viewers haven’t, like me. My issue with Game of Thrones is that its story just doesn’t seem relevant. To what extent that applies exclusively to me and others who watched episodes one and two with disappointment or applies to a wider demographic that never watched or will fall off the cliff before Episode 3 will only be revealed with time. I suspect I’m not alone though, and the reason is clear: zeitgeist.

TV, like Hollywood, has an odd relationship with zeitgeist. Sometimes it gets the prevailing mood or trope, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it drives that mood or trope, other times it reflects it. While doing one or the other, however, it always feeds on itself, following the Sneeze Rule where, every year or so, we get three law shows, three medical shows, three pawn shows, three junk buyer shows, three forensic science shows, three ghost shows shows and so on. Hopefully, two more Game of Thrones aren’t in development.

What ingredients of the zeitgeist might have inspired HBO to develop a teleplay of Game of Thrones? At first, the only signal I could locate to suggest there was a suitable scale of viewers who couldn’t wait for The Hobbit to provide them with majestic steeds, warrior’s garb and talk of valerian steel and dragon bone was Evony.


Then I thought longer. Lots of people are into combat, deflowering maidens and political maneuvering. But don’t the UFC, the Internet and the Birthers fulfill their desires? Maybe it has something to do with economic or other uncertainties over the future driving a desire among white Americans to live in simpler times? That could be it, given that the fiction of George Martin and others in his genre works as romantic fantasy for white men to reclaim an imagined, Euro-centric mythical past when we were all a little bit Celtic, when wenches didn’t complain about a good ravaging, and when the barbarian hordes who threatened to deflower them were suspiciously brown.

If that’s the inspiration for developing this into a show – and the zeitgeist is there among enough viewers to make it a financial success for HBO – go for it. Write off this and any ensuing criticism as the ramblings of a bitter old man frustrated with the fact that HBO has yet to develop a show around Weaveworld by Clive Barker, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill or Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear.

If Game of Thrones turns out to be a financial flop, however, consider investing in design thinking. The front end of the design thinking process – used by some of the world’s leading brands and businesses to generate, develop and validate ideas before they come to market – could be just the thing that battling channels like HBO, Showtime and AMC need to gain competitive advantage in this transformational time for TV.

So what happens at this front end?

At Idea Couture, we encourage our clients to conduct a comparative industry scan at the beginning of almost every job. Rather than leveraging ideas from within industries, we believe that more valuable signals for where to go come from outside your business. For example, if a client asks for help developing a cosmetics line we might suggest scanning new and emerging cooking or food cultures to understand the languages and ingredients of health, nourishment and inner beauty. Then, to more deeply assess if and how an idea is needed, wanted or might fulfill some latent, cultural or zeitgeist-y demand is to do exploratory (open to whomever, whatever) or more targeted (with a specific consumer, market or other focus) field research by an anthropologist or sociologist.

The aim is to beat the flu of ‘me too’ innovation where, like TV and Hollywood, brands and businesses continue to suffer from the Sneeze Rule. The result is always more than three ideas. And the process is longer, more detailed and more business oriented towards the middle and end. I’ll save that discussion for a later time. Until then, HBO, Showtime and AMC – please consider, or reconsider, Bear, Barker and/or Hill.

Wicked track found on my man Duane Watson‘s blog.

Does J. Jonah Jameson run the theater scene or what?

Is J. Jonah Jameson calling the shots on the theater scene, or what? An article in The New York Times reports that the producers of the Broadway musical, Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark, recently held focus groups to figure out why critics had largely panned the show.

I’m no fan of focus groups, but how anyone could expect to learn anything of value by letting participants only get to see Act I or Act II, fill out a questionnaire and then join a 15 minute discussion is beyond me.

What’s even more beyond me is that focus groups are, according to the Times article, not unheard of on Broadway. That’s sad. While I do have a populist streak to my view on culture, the idea that the collective expertise, experience and creativity brought to the stage by writers, producers, directors, actors and all could be tossed aside by the opinion of a sample of a supposed audience makes you wonder what’s next: Christian fundamentalists helping revise the next English translation of the Quran to make it more in-line with U.S. readership? Registered voters getting a first pass at the next Obama speech? Anime fans making over the Sistene Chapel? Movie goers getting to call the shots on the next Hollywood blockbuster?

Oh yeah, they already do that one.

In response to the news, Steve Portigal asks an interesting question on his blog: “Do we admire producers for being user-centered or do we decry them for being desperate?”

This isn’t a case of being user-centered. If the producers of the show were at all user-centered, they would have listened to the Spidey sense of Marvel fans and critics long before beginning production. That would have told them they were way off on the zeitgeist, that Broadway had already crossed the line on cannibalizing pop culture and that swing, not sing, is the leitmotif of Peter Parker.

Creativity by consensus kills the arts. Focus groups are little more than an abdication of responsibility and executional wisdom. The answer, Steve, is desperate. Forget Dr. Octopus – let’s hope the focus group participants pummeled this Spider Man senseless.

One of 37 cases where Dger applies corporate slogans to feature films.


When it comes to blog posting, sometimes I feel like Bill in Big Love: Margene’s bed or Barb’s bed? Tonight, it’s Barb’s bed at Idea Couture’s Noodleplay blog. Check out my latest piece on Pie & Provocation.


 

Start screaming “We’re all gonna die!!!!!!”

Something is going down. In the case of the – blackbirds in Arkansas and turtle doves in Italy – quite literally going down.

Is Google Maps plotting the end of days?

Better search might have yielded and led me to point out that “crowd-serfing” was christened long before this posting. Please see here for the first champagne bottle to hit the boat. Apologies to the author.

When anthropologists, historians, economists, philosophers, political scientists and others reflect on the cultural impact of the tangled web that has been woven into our lives since the dawn of 2.0, will they look at contribution or collaboration as a condition?

Whether it’s contribution, collaboration or even co-creation, the past few years have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of programs and platforms launched to harness the input and ideas of the crowd. But where the open-source approach to software makes obvious the power of collective thought and action for the benefit of users, what is the benefit of corporate programs and platforms created to vote for a winner, name a product, invent a flavor or design a soda can?

Aren’t those just part of a new twist on the old-fashioned contest, one that asks us to open our ideas and opinions rather than just our chocolate bars to see if we hold a golden ticket? If so, contribution, collaboration and co-creation could go down in the history books as little more than a late 20th Century spin on the consumer engagement game of chance.

Or it could go down as something more ominous: crowdserfing.

Recently, Matthew Lincez and I have been wondering about social, economic, power and intellectual property shifts that have occurred as a result of what most people call crowdsourcing. We think that a more accurate descriptor for what’s really going on is what I call crowdserfing.

Crowdserfing refers to how brands entice consumers to provide them with free creative labor and valuable data by harnessing the mythology of the Internet as a democratizing tool for the emancipation of ideas and decentralization of power. It’s a throwback business model steeped in feudalism where brands are kings, consultants are knights and the work generated for their benefit is performed by a digital generation of serfs who find themselves once again at the bottom of a peasant-heavy labor pyramid.

Crowdserfing is not crowdsourcing. When Jeff Howe, a contributing editor at Wired, and his editor, Mark Robinson, first coined the term back in 2006, Howe meant this:

Simply defined, crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.

In describing how companies or institutions can take advantage of the talents, skills, opinions and ideas of anyone and everyone, Howe states that “It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.” He’s right. It’s not. There are clear differences between outsourcing and crowdsourcing, the most obvious of which is that the latter is cheaper. At the risk of going all Lou Dobbs on you, we know outsourcing. From customer service to manufacturing, it offers corporations access to cheaper labor. Forget any trickle down savings to consumers, the advantage of having someone in India answer questions about your Internet connection lies squarely with the corporation.

When it first ramped up in the 1980s, a mythology was constructed to help sell outsourcing to those workers who were losing domestic jobs to it. Benefits such as economic efficiency, the development of local markets, cheaper goods for domestic consumers and greater competitive advantage for America were the core of the story. A mythology has been gathered around crowdsourcing, too. It draws on a lexicon that includes collaborative, collective, connective, community, customer-centric, user-generated, social, open, ideas and innovation to sell another fundamental shift in the social and spatial distribution of labor.

Like most of capitalism’s history, the labor (Howe’s “large network”) and the consumer are the same: you. The fundamental shift? You’re not getting paid for your labor. Instead, in lieu of any financial compensation that winners of or contributors to a corporate crowdsourcing platform might receive, you’re being offered shares in social or cultural capital for your labor.

Karl Marx and Adam Smith would not be amused. That a new class of laborers could be indentured into an idea economy with the dream of winning, the thought of being recognized or the thrill of participating seems scarily pre-capitalist. Pierre Bourdieu might be amused. That ‘cool’ could replace cash is pure genius for any brand looking to save costs with a few key go-to-market changes.

By recruiting consumers to do some or all of the design, marketing, branding, naming or CSR activities that once fell under internal job categories, and by framing that doing as social collaboration or competition where peers (read: consumers) amass status for participating (read: working), brands can increase bottom lines and look ‘cooler’ in the process. Cue: the benevolence of feudal royalty. And all hail game theory in action.

Of the brands that draw on the crowd to vote for a winner, name a product, invent a flavor or design a soda can, few, if any, understand that gaming has nothing to do with Xbox. That’s the job of consultants and other knights of the agency realm: bring new and emerging developments in technology and behavior up to the slow and traditional organizations. Of those developments, crowdserfing is arguably most bolstered by the trope of democratization.

The end of the 20th Century was rife with signs, symbols, tools and technologies of democratization: the rise of the DJ, the personal computer, ProTools, Napster, an AOL disc in every magazine, Photoshop, the birth of blogging, TiVo in your hands, streaming video and more. Most of these innovations were – and still are – described by media, scholars and users as increasing the power, choice, voice, reach and production capabilities of consumers. But democratization is not just a trope, it’s also a hope.

For people engaged in voting, naming, inventing or designing, there is often a feeling that their contribution is part of a process that represents a shift in the behavior of the brand; it is, or is becoming, more open, more collaborative and more social. The degree to which that is true or not has to be measured brand by brand, over time and perhaps (and here’s where the real work needs to begin) using some kind of criteria or transparency model that spells out the purpose and procedures of the platform or program. Until then, for many of these platforms, the source remains the serf. Some things to consider in that criteria or model:

1. THE REASON

Why are consumers being asked to contribute? Is it for fun, for the cool quotient or because its masters truly want to open the gates of determining direction? Has the brand run out of ideas? Or has it become so paralyzed by the requirements of innovation that it has abdicated ideation to its consumers?

Most brands state a purpose on the lead page of their platform, but many do so with their fair share of smoke, mirrors or the fact that the rules of the game have yet to be fully set out. One example of this, and I hesitate to cite Patrick Glinski at the risk of misquoting him, can be found in the space between cause marketing and CSR. According to Patrick, “branded cause competitions are a form of cause marketing, not CSR. In cause marketing it’s corporate first, cause second.”

Patrick sees huge value in how platforms designed to crowdsource ideas for social change “have given a voice to ignored communities, marginalized populations, and scrappy causes.” But he, too, seems to be calling for greater transparency and responsibility in stating the true nature of and reason for the platform.

2. PAYMENT FOR SERVICES RENDERED

Every time someone goes to a crowdsourcing platform to contribute an idea, a comment or some similar input, they create an asset for the brand. That asset has value – time another visitor spends reading that could boost ROI on display ads, an idea that might not win today’s competition but could lead to next ideas or actions on the part of the brand. Those assets should be recognized and, arguably, rewarded beyond the cultural capital of participating. Some brands have taken to the “$1 to a charity for every Facebook vote” model. Others could consider something more direct to contributors.

3. THE HIDDEN TAX ON SERFS

One sign that the brands asking for consumer input might not be behaving so openly, collaboratively and socially are the hidden taxes being levied on the digital serfs doing their work. In addition the clear call-to-action for contribution, collaboration or co-creation, these platforms amass huge databases of members collected by personal relationships and long-tail search benefits that, in the CRM world, are pure money. Some users know this. Most do not. Everyone should. And, like Payment For Services Rendered, perhaps all contributors should be somehow compensated for contributing to the data pot.

Finally, in that funny-but-dead-serious way that stand-up comedy (a precise barometer of the state of any nation and its concerns) has provided a critical lens and a cathartic coping mechanism for Americans whose technical problems with their Internet connections continue to be answered by outsourced workers overseas, what will be the jokes we tell about crowdsourcing in the future? And will we need Russell Peters’ political carte blanche to perform the accents?