Sunday, May 31, 2009

Maslow's Internet - The Internet Evolved to Meet Our Needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is one of the first concepts taught in most early management and psychology classes. Although there is debate around the framework (especially around the belief that human needs are actually ranked), Maslow's hierarchy is still generally regarded as an important and valuable lens for evaluating human needs.

The gist of the theory is that humans have different levels of needs (starting at the bottom of the pyramid) and that we work to meet the bottom needs first before moving to fulfill the next set of needs. Sleep is more important than friendship, water is more important than security, etc.

When I take a non-scientific look at how the mainstream Internet has evolved - following the initial few years of the "getting to know you" period - it seems to follow the hierarchy pretty well:

  1. Initial communication over the Internet was relatively basic and mimicked the patterns of earlier forms of communication - facilitating basic needs. In addition, the pornography industry was one of the earliest widespread adopters of the Internet - as is usually the case with new technology.
  2. We soon realized that more sophisticated communication was possible over the Internet. The government began to develop simple ways of communicating with the wider population. Websites for health (WebMD), employment (Monster), financial services, and all forms of factual reference quickly multiplied.
  3. Real-time communication including instant messengers, chat, webcams, and now VOIP-services has further augmented our ability to communicate intimately. In addition, the mainstream acceptance of Internet dating has come to fulfill our need for Love.
  4. The proliferation of social networking worked to meet our esteem needs. From personal expression (MySpace) to friendly networks (Facebook) to professional networks (LinkedIn), social networking has allowed us to build a digital persona where virtual respect is coveted.
  5. Finally, the services that will fulfill the top needs are still in a state of fluid development. Crowdsourcing offerings like Wikipedia and Innocentive seem to be a natural way to fulfill our need for self-actualization. But there is still plenty of room and probably the greatest level of opportunity for new offerings.
I'm sure there are numerous exceptions to the path that I've outlined, but I believe that the overall trend is definitely present.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Dying Middleman

I'm a big fan of Bill Simmons, a.k.a. The Sports Guy. Although his writing usually focuses on sports, it's his ability to connect sports with wider culture that I most enjoy. Recently Simmons spoke with Mark Cuban about a wide range of topics including media and the economy. Cuban is an ├╝ber-entrepreneur who owns the Dallas Mavericks, HDNet, and a bunch of other ventures - his blog is also quite insightful and worth a read.

In particular, the two spoke about how new media (Twitter, etc.) has basically destroyed the need for newspapers to serve as the middleman between athletes and the wider public. Athletes and other celebrities can now directly speak with their fans. This got me thinking about what other traditional middlemen might be cut out by Twitter, Facebook, etc.:
  • The Health Middleman. Doctors, nurses, psychologists and other health professionals have traditionally served as the middleman between a wide array of health knowledge and the general public. This gatekeeper role is no longer necessary, although we'll still probably need health professionals for hands-on tasks.
  • The Education Middleman. Schools and colleges are quickly losing their competitive advantage over the Internet.
  • The Real Estate Middleman. Brokers will become an endangered species.
  • The Consultant Middleman. Data collection has become much easier. The analysis and recommendations have to shine for Management Consultants to survive.
  • The Public Relations, Marketing, Advertising Middlemen. If a company can directly speak with its customers, then why bother with a message middleman.

I'm sure there are many more industries that could see their value-proposition greatly diminished or even completely destroyed. The trick will be to ride the wave and adapt instead of fighting the losing battle - like many newspapers have attempted to do.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Hoard Mentality

My friend Sam and I often discuss, argue, and validate various random concepts. I find that talking to someone different from me often inspires more interesting and valuable conclusions.

Recently we discussed the often prevalent and usually innate human need to hoard possessions. This emotional drive probably comes from various evolutionary influences - i.e. those humans who collected and saved their food or their tools managed to survive longer. This need manifests itself through many different ways in our society. Sometimes we accumulate truly valuable things like gold, jewelry, real estate, etc. Often we hoard questionably-valuable items like stocks, baseball cards, Beanie Babies, etc.

The hoarding reflex can get us in trouble. It leads to emotional bursts of overvaluation and unrealistic expectations. The hoarding need is quite possibly a contributing reason for stock bubbles, real estate bubbles, and just absurd materialistic trends - such as Beanie Babies selling for thousands of dollars.

I believe that the hoarding reflex is also a major contributor to the profound success of social networking. Websites like LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook allow us to easily hoard co-workers, sales leads, acquaintances, and friends. These websites let us neatly and visually quantify all the people we've collected in life. These modern tools make us feel close to a wide network of individuals and allow us to constantly grow our social stockpiles.

Are we creating unrealistic expectations of the human hoards we've accumulated and the tools that enable this collection process?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The N.B.A. Conundrum

I love professional basketball, more specifically, the U.S.-based National Basketball Association (NBA). Globally-speaking, I'm not alone. Basketball is usually regarded as the second most popular sport in the world (following soccer). In certain parts of the world, particularly in Southern/Eastern Europe and Asia, it is considered as the most popular. The NBA is looked upon as the cream of the crop.

Surprisingly, professional basketball is barely the third most popular sport in its homeland, the United States (following professional football and baseball). Based on my logic, the NBA should be tied for first or at worst, the second most popular sport in the United States. Professional basketball is more dynamic than baseball and the games are typically shorter than both football and baseball games. Basketball offers more scoring than both its main competitors. Basketball offers the perfect mix of individualism and team-play. Basketball arenas offer the same perks that football and baseball stadiums offer. Most importantly, the best global players play in the NBA.

It's difficult to pinpoint why basketball lags behind in both fan passion and overall popularity. I believe that there are a few probable causes:

  • The Racial Divide. Due to the socio-economic and demographic realities of our country, the largest group of sports consumers is still a white, European-descendent population. The basis for this potential cause doesn't stem from the absolute portion of non-white athletes in the NBA (since baseball probably has comparable non-white proportions) but instead from the large absolute difference between the best white and non-white players currently competing. This difference is arguably smaller in professional baseball and probably non-existent in professional football. This extreme difference might foster some sort of conscious or subconscious bitterness from the largest NBA consumer group.
  • The Limited Live Experience. Arguably, experiencing professional sports in person builds passion and loyalty. Because NBA arenas are smaller than both football and baseball stadiums, a smaller absolute amount of fans is able to view any particular live NBA game and thus build a stronger connection to the sport. This is a relatively weak argument.
  • The Guaranteed Contract. Some have argued that professional basketball players are less inspired, dedicated, or driven than football or baseball players. That's tough to prove. But it is true that NBA contracts are typically of the guaranteed variety - once a player signs a contract for a certain amount of years and for a certain sum, that player is guaranteed to be employed for those years and paid that sum. No matter how little or how poorly the player plays, once the contract is signed it is basically written in stone. Most football contracts are not guaranteed. Many baseball contracts are guaranteed but baseball teams also usually have the ability to send players to the minor leagues (often to the detriment of their egos, current salaries, and future salaries). This difference in contract structure could breed a generally less driven collection of players and a weaker overall sports product.

I don't think these causes are the only reasons for why basketball lags, but they do begin to explain how the sport is potentially more flawed than its main competitors. Interestingly, two out of the three causes can be relatively easily fixed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

There's Something About Cool

I've been lucky to grow up with The Simpsons. The show has not only thoroughly entertained me but has also taught me quite a bit. The Simpsons helped me learn to speak English, to realize the brilliance of Phil Hartman, and to identify the value of vague cultural references. The show also taught me that "cool" is often a necessary ingredient for success. The Simpsons represented the cutting edge of cool and manifested all the usual symptoms - a subversive undertone, occasional controversy, rapid word-of-mouth expansion, and eventual mass success.

Cool is what made my friends and I decide to sign up for Facebook instead of MySpace. Cool is what made me go to Google.com for the first time. Cool helped me sign up for Twitter and cool inspired me to write this blog. Cool is both powerful and precious.

Unfortunately, cool is often difficult to identify, define, and manufacture. The Simpsons tackled this problem in
a brilliant car-ride conversation between the main family members:

Homer: So, I realized that being with my family is more important than being cool.
Bart: Dad, what you just said was powerfully uncool.
Homer: You know what the song says: "It's hip to be square".
Lisa: That song is so lame.
Homer: So lame that it's... cool?
Bart+Lisa: No.
Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart+Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I'm glad. And that's what makes me cool, not caring, right?
Bart+Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we've tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you're truly cool, you don't need to be told you're cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Montreal

I used the extended weekend to flee the New York area and escape to Montreal. Montreal is a wonderful city that genuinely provides a European experience (for a relatively smaller price). Sometimes it's difficult to leave the comfort zone of New York but the new environment inspired a few random observations:
  • Train travel is underrated. A fast-rail system connecting major metropolitan areas in North America would definitely offer a novel and competitive form of transportation. The trains were full, they were cheap, but they were also a little slow.
  • Jeff Howe's Crowdsourcing is a worthwhile read. The book offers a pretty clear analysis of recent trends concerning user-generated content, collective collaboration, and the disappearing border between consumers and producers.
  • Mobile Network Operators need to get their act together and create a seamless global network. The concepts of "roaming," paying extra after crossing a nearly invisible border, and generally having my connectivity diminished because I chose to travel outside artificial confines highlight the friction that still exists within mobile communication.
  • Bank security systems are getting better but still have room for improvement. Withdrawing cash in Montreal triggered a security alert for my checking account. I knew this might happen but I was too lazy to call ahead of time - there has to be an easier way to ensure security.
  • Vacations clearly help me think.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Powerful Past

Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion. We often find comfort in control and predictability - and what's more predictable than a moment or event that has already occurred? We feel the need to connect with our childhood, adolescence, young-adulthood, etc. Memories of both good times and bad are usually remembered fondly and are often unrealistically romanticized. Even friends and family seem better when we remember them.

Traditional media has realized the value of nostalgia. Prequels and sequels represent a major portion of new movies. If not a sequel, the odds are pretty high that a movie is either based on a popular book, comic book, or other well-established content. The music industry builds new music and artists by comparing with the past and applying convoluted tests based on previous hits.

New media has only begun to realize the value of nostalgia. Implicitly, social networks, digital imaging and video, and other new technologies have capitalized on this by allowing old-friends and family to easily connect no matter the temporal or geographic distance. It will be interesting to see how new media directly tackles this fundamental emotion.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Good Morning

I've started to document my thoughts through this public forum because there is value in sharing. My goal is to say something insightful eventually.

All my musings express my thoughts, beliefs, interpretations, and critiques. Hopefully you'll find some value in this exercise - I know that I will.