The 3 Problems with MakerFaire

It’s nice to see the Maker “movement” arrive at a grand stage of its own, well, design. Out there in deep Queens, where the Mets and Men in Black play, the Maker community gathered this September to showcase their craft spirit and the do-it-yourself tools that power it.

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There are arduinos, robots, quadcopters, wearables, e-textiles, and endless 3D printers. Around them is the hurried chatter of eager nerds and home hackers – people who want to tell you what they’ve learned and how you could go further.

I’ve always wanted to go.

But in attendance this year, I was disappointed by three overabundances. Corporate branding, feral families, and miles of 3D printing all suggested that the Maker spirit has slipped into predictability and showing-not-doing. I didn’t want to visit a well-branded kid’s science fair, I was looking for something with more… chops.

Innovate, Don’t Assimilate 

Corporate sponsorship is never something I find repugnant. How could I? My work routinely brings me to partnerships between brand and event or organization, and I labor to ensure we get activations right for all parties. Sponsorships are worth $50 Billion dollars annually. They represent one of the most sizeable parts of the marketing world. And everytime an event/community gains enough visibility to be interesting, brands will look for ways to share values or assist the nascent organization.

This means that seeing RadioShack teach soldering was fucking awesome. They supplied the equipment, the instruction, the materials, and the inspiration. Over the past few years, I’ve seen RadioShack practice what they preach by stocking arduinos at every store, then providing books and phsyical computing assistance in a dedicated retail section. These guys belong at MakerFaire.

Microsoft was equally well-positioned. They showed off big toys and little home projects. They staffed their tent with charismatic researchers from around the world. In place of hobbyists, Microsoft showed its impressive yet human tech credentials. Each staffer was a Neil deGrasse Tyson of nanoparticles or computer sensors or 3D modeling.

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But what were Kix, Disney, Coke Zero, and Ford doing? This co-optation showed me the event had become more about its demographics than its substance. As young families dominated attendees these brands were looking for new, innovative ways to renew their presence in city households. But each failed to show off credentials for being at something called a “Maker” fair. The latest Ford model was simply plopped among booths of quadcopters and underwater robots like it was progressive hacker design. Kix sponsored a low-imagination update of the Pinewood Derby. Disney provided the title sponsorship but nothing discernible to add. At the very least, I would hope Disney could be inspired by the event to create programming about Maker projects in the average American home. Don’t just slap your label on innovation, make your brand innovative and earn your booth.

Catering to 10,000 Families 

When I was younger, nothing held the thrills of Boston’s Science Museum. My dad secured us an annual membership that we used constantly. So with New York’s Hall of Science as the MakerFaire hosts, it makes a ton of sense that families would be in ample attendance. What was less clear was just how watered down the entire event would be to accommodate this audience.

In place of adult tools, useful projects, and helpful workshops, everything became about toys. The 3D Printers worked on oozing out playful tchotchkes. Robot demonstrations became simple games. One tent promised passerbys a t-shirt if they could catapult a rock into a small hole 10 feet away.

The tragedy here was the lose of ability and purpose. Hobbyist creators are already maligned as kids-who-won’t-grow-up and amateur technologists who cannot create meaningful hardware projects. So while each kid-oriented demo briefly showed kids and parents how a few lines of code worked, or how easy robot controls are, they also lowered the entire event’s IQ.

My solution: adult swim. Find a way to partition the MakerFaire so that adults who are looking for more fidelity can avoid the watered down presentations. Add a beer sponsor for this three hour session from 5:30 – 8:30 on Saturday and Sunday, and I think MakerFaire would be better off.

3D Printing Needs to Grow Up

The problem with consumer 3D Printing is that the printers remain more interesting than the printed. Looking at the sleek additive manufacturing tools rolling out of start-ups, it’s exciting to imagine the world of things one could do with one. Then the machine whirrs to life and prints a simple tchotchke – the ‘hello world’ of 3D Printing. The limitless horizon of imagination shortens considerably.

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At MakerFaire, there were dozens of new 3D Printers given an entire “village” at the event’s north end. But as one wove down the corridors, they were churning out the same neon polymer models. They were quick to compare features (linear vs. vector, level of infill detailing) but none had imagined the top consumer priority: a use case.

3D Printing has spent the past two years celebrating its arrival and none of that time seems to have been applied to what the hype is about. Even for folks who want 3D Printing to become something of a revolution, there’s no clear target for disruption. Will this print 3M products so we don’t need to go to the hardware store? Or will it be for modeling Warhammer pieces? Both are current use cases. Neither are compelling.

The sublime silver lining

Three frustrations don’t define an outing. I was impressed, and I mean really impressed, by the Arduino Yún and the work of Temboo to support it with native APIs. With an Arduino unit like this, I could have made my Social Hearth A LOT simpler. So after speaking with some of the folks at Temboo, I’ve set my eyes on getting one.

In general, I like the Maker movement and the related periodicals, hardware projects, and partners it’s assembled. But if it wants to be serious – think Kickstarter not Draw Something – it will move beyond entertaining folks with the cheap wows of novel gadgets. When you teach someone how to make, you teach them how to think and advocate for thinking. That’s what brought me to Maker culture and it’s a core message I hope will not be lost.

Posted in Culture, culture studies, free culture, ideas, Internet, internet of things, new york, programming, technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hoisting the WeatherFlag

Data flies loosely in the breeze over the backyard. Uncoiling slowly,  old glory beams flashes of illuminated light- hot white dots bursting from a line of stars against the navy.

Call it a #WeatherFlag.

Custom made for Fourth of July in Rhode Island, the flag contains 5 LED stars in sequence which measure the ambient air temperature. Each star, from bottom of the navy “union” box to the flag edge, represent 5 degrees of temperature above 65 F. To manage this, the flag contains a LilyPad arduino sewn with conductive thread to a powerful thermosensor and the 5 stars.

In the corner of the flag is a handcrafted map of Rhode Island, honoring the locale whose climate is being displayed.

Betsy Ross uses Arduinos 

Colleen Brogan and I have been playing with e-textiles since 2011. But like so many others, we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking only about electronics and clothing. With flags in season for Independence Day, I suddenly realized that these flown fabrics are even better suited for “wearable” technology because they are visual symbols we expect to impart messages.

So we bought a cheap flag, pulled out our ready LilyPad Arduino and began brainstorming e-Flag uses. We generated about 21 ideas and then culled down to things that made the flag speak, or rather communicate something valuable. With the heat of summer all around communicating the temperature felt most right.

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Colleen led our fabrication. She cut a template of Rhode Island (not the most iconic of states) and stitched it to the flag.

I worked on the arduino code ensuring a stream of thermosensor data was 1. converted to Farenheit and 2. changing our LED patterns appropriately. I was disappointed by the complications of the thermosensor – it required significant calibrating for power supply voltage (which varies from USB to battery) and conversion math to go from read-outs to recognizable temperature.

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Code aboard, Colleen began stitching in the Lilypad arduino – a process very different from the more familiar wiring challenges. Threads here must both create a connective path (anchored in device endings) and hold the electronics in place. Ultimately, Colleen opted to stitch all of the electronics in with regular thread, then pursue the electrical stitching. This seems advisable.

Up on the roof

We tested the flag on our roof in the East Village because we needed a consistent temperature that was accurately reported. We also wanted to test whether a breeze or flapping impacted performance.

It didn’t, wonderfully.

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Live in RI: the Weather 

We hoisted the WeatherFlag in Newport, Rhode Island on July 3rd. The switch went on and worked perfectly – reading out temperatures at 80 degrees that soon dropped to 75 and then 70 around midnight.

With a battery on board, the flag was easy to transport – like an illuminated cape. But mostly, we just let it flap lightly in the seabreeze alongside our BBQ and give us a sense of heat.

WeatherFlag

Posted in art, Culture, ideas, internet of things, lifestyle, newport, programming, research, rhode island, technology, video, visualization | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fires from Friends: The Social Hearth

I recently transformed my non-functioning fireplace into an interactive sculpture. When one of 18 close friends share a photo or video to Instagram, it shares that light across the web into my living room, lighting what I call a “Social Hearth.”

The Social Hearth directly references fire. When “lit” 9 red and orange LEDs illuminate and flicker algorithmically. They are controlled by an Arduino coded to continually tweak and modify the sub-routine. Because looking at fire is like looking at water, I spent a great deal of time trying to emulate flickers, colors, and bursts in great detail. Ultimately, I concede that 9 LEDs simply don’t have the resolution to truly mimic nature. But they can suggest enough of the pattern to make the fireplace work as an essential semiotic gesture, and that might be more fun.

Duct tape and wood conceal the hearth’s wiring and arduino. They also allow visitors a chance to double-take the fireplace. Wait, what’s this here?

A cocktail of connections

If This Than That connects the hearth to Instagram. The bridge of electricity comes from a WeMo switch. In the future, I’d like the bridge to be smarter allowing patterns based on whom has lit the fire. The Berg Cloud would be ideal.

In this technical challenge, the Social Hearth allows me to explore on-going questions in the Internet of Things space. After developing my tweeting plant earlier this year, this more ambitious project allows the web to “publish” actions back into the thing-layer of my home. That’s an exciting trend we often connect with aesthetics of the future. Think Tron Legacy read-outs or Minority Report interactive displays.

Living with it

The Social Hearth has been in production for sometime. Soldering, modeling, programming, and animating the hearth took nearly 3 months of afterwork tinkering. But living with the Hearth is far more interesting. Now I have an entirely abstracted relationship to social media content production. When a friend shares something, the fireplaces is often the first place to tell me. It may distract me while reading or waking me while sleeping. Who is out partying at this hour? 

If I want to find out who is lighting the fire, I can visit the fireplace’s Twitter log. This log is also helpful in assessing the Hearth’s use: how often is it lit, what times are most common, and who’s dominating? 

Towards Social Hardware

As a line of inquiry, the Hearth explores a question posed by Bobby Grasberger: what would social hardware look like? 

This is one possibility. Built into the domestic space, the Social Hearth abstracts the explicit notifications we are constantly interrupted and distracted by, directly re-presenting them as simply fuel for a private fire. The more friends socialize through content sharing, the more active the fireplace proves. It’s light from a friend – but it’s not a needy SMS message or Facebook “like.” You can choose to simply nap on under the rain. Let friends show you the world.

SocialHearth

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Art of an Anxious Society – Rhizome’s 7 on 7

Get 7 artists, pair them with 7 technologists, then wait and listen. This is the couplet-styled social formula driving Rhizome.org’s 7 on 7 conference, now in its 3rd year. Headlined by Harper Reed, Dalton Caldwell, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and Dennis Crowley, this year’s works were pre-occupied with the anxieties of social media.

If we always wait for updates and alerts through technology, asked Fatima Al Qadiri, are we perpetually in a state of low alert? 

In a world increasingly interested in “loop functions,” suggested Paul Pfieffer and Alex Chung, perhaps we are simply trying to desensitize ourselves through repetition. To make the odd, violent or unexpected more familiar. 

What if we had you delete between 1 and 10 Facebook friends, asked Harper Reed and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, would you even notice who was gone?

Rhizome 7 on 7 2013 McCune

The conversations and products circled on an implied sociological critique: that the technologies we’re most attached produce anxiety alongside utility. And these technologies are increasingly producing the direct anxieties we look for them to solve. Problems like connection, comfort, answers, or inspiration. As we wonder about the Boston Marathon, shocked by its senseless violence, we activate in ourselves an obsession with the event’s imagery, chronology, and meaning. We quickly marshal social media to provide us with more information than we can make sense of, even as we push our own misgivings and concerns back into the network.

It would be wrong to suggest that the conference’s assessment of social media as anxiety platform was negative. Because most of the pairings felt as grateful as they were concerned, as relieved by notifications as they are alarmed, as amused by “fracking friends” as they were horrified to lose connections.

That duality feels a natural place for brief creative pairings to net out. Not because collaborating is about compromising between two ideas, but because with two visions at work, ideation remains in conflicting motion.

Notes on the projects: 

Friend Fracker Screen Cap

Harper Reed + Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Friend Fracker was a big fan favorite. Just authenticate with Facebook and you can lose 1 to 10 friends with a click. No, they won’t tell you who. “The art is not knowing who it deletes.” If a friend dies in a forest of connections, can the broken link even be found?

I adored Dalton Caldwell + Fatima Al Qadiri’s “Constant Updatevideo. Simple, elegant, high conceptual art for the plights of a connected masses. Are we just Pavlovian dogs trained to our beeps and buzzes? Wish they cataloged more update/alert sounds to form a comprehensive encyclopedia.

Dabit Screenshot

Live for just 30 minutes, Dabit.org earned $953 in donations from conference attendees. The project from Billy Chasen + Matthew Richard collects donations for charitable causes then splits the total pot 50/50 with someone who donated that day. Pretty hefty incentive. They duo felt being an angel was too hard, and that we need more than social messaging to take part.

Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, was unable to complete a project with Jill Magid. He caught a 24 hour flu going into the event. It was a pretty big letdown. Hope he feels better.

Posted in art, Culture, culture studies, data culture, ideas, Internet, new york, research, Social Media, Social Networks, sociology, technology | Leave a comment

The Half Lives of Social Content

Nick Law recently told me that while the web was about space, social media is about time. He was citing a piece in Wired called “The End of the Web” in which Dan Gelernter argued that streams of content have replaced the web’s “flatland”  where everything exists at a fixed position: a file path, or URL.

In the new timescape, content is always moving. We simply tune in to a social media stream and can watch in real-time as stories are generated. Publishing becomes so frictionless, we push back into the streams easily. Even without interacting, we find digital space consistently populated with new stories and data from connections known and new. As Gelernter imagines:

It’s a bit like moving from a desktop to a magic diary: Picture a diary whose pages turn automatically, tracking your life moment to moment … Until you touch it, and then, the page-turning stops. The diary becomes a sort of reference book: a complete and searchable guide to your life. Put it down, and the pages start turning again.

In this world of the magic diary, there are two key questions. First, how fast do the pages move? Second, what content breaks through the movement and makes us pay attention?

These are the current chief tactical questions of social media, where strategists and publishers look to understand stream algorithms in order to stand out in hurrying pace of data.

A Perspective on User Engagement 

In nearly every social media environment, user engagement drives the success of content. As a post receives likes/retweets/shares/reblogs/etc. it enters new streams where other users may too interact with the content amplifying its impact and visibility. On Facebook, user engagement proves particularly crucial, as it signals content quality to the News Feed algorithm and results in more or less reach.

With engagement driving so much, I recently decided to look at the comparative engagement time periods of social media content. Basically, how long does it take for a piece of content to generate most of its user engagements.

The current answers, culled from existing research and a small original study of Instagram, show the lives of social content to be very brief. Minutes, not hours are the primary units.

Tactically, the full lifespan of social media content is less interesting than its initial pickup.  Successful social posting is about something we could call “sharing velocity,” a measure of the speed in which early (read: impact) engagement happens. This is what promotes a story within the ‘fast flipping of pages’ and makes it stand out. It’s something we might call the “half-lives” of social media.

In science, a half-life is the period of time it takes for a quantity to fall to half of its value. If we imagine engagement growing towards a fixed, final engagement total, we can apply a half-life metric to see the moment it reaches half of engagements – a zenith in the user interaction curve after which it will likely long-tail. Half-lives of social media allow us to see how long something stays ‘fresh’ on a social media platform and when we might expect content’s impact to have passed.

Half-Lives of Social Media Content 

Ahead of Kristen Joy Watts “Sustainable Stories from Disposable Content” SXSW panel, I pulled together the existing data on the half-lives of social media content. The graphic design was done by the brilliant Elliott Burford.

HalfLivesOfSocialMediaContent

Sources

A lot of research had already been done on the half-life of engagement for Facebook and Twitter. In November, SocialBakers reported that a post will receive half of its lifetime engagement in the first 30 minutes its published.  This followed earlier research by Bit.ly that showed half of a Facebook post’s clicks coming in 3.2 hours. But a major change in the Facebook algorithm separates these two posts and likely has shortened the Facebook post engagement curve.

Bit.ly research also showed the average Twitter link reaching its half-life in 2.8 hours from their study in June 2012. But a November 2012 study found that half of all retweets came in just 18 minutes. From experiences, that seems most right as content moves hyper-fast in a Twitter stream.

The YouTube data, pulled from Bit.ly, is probably the diciest data. Because YouTube works well as an archive, a piece of content can always go viral well after being published. So while Bit.ly may be right about click-through YouTube links, I am not sure about all-time watches.

Original Research on Instagram

To date, there has been no public research in how long it takes an Instagram image to reach its engagement half-life. So along with Kristen Joy Watts, I conducted a small study via Statigram. We asked two dozen friends and colleagues to examine their “Photo Average Lifespan” under Statigram’s Statistics > Optimization menu. This lifespan measures photo comments over time, a good indicator of inter-user engagement even while likes over time would be much preferred.

With nearly 18 responses, the clustering was very consistent. Instagram users surveyed received nearly all comments within 5 hours. The range of most comments was from 3 – 6 hours overall. Averaging the lifespan numbers, we then divided by 2 to find the half-life. The average instagram image receives half of its lifetime comments in just 2.23 hours!

It’s Quickening 

The lifespan of social media content is shortening. Arranged chronologically, each article would show the period of prime user engagement shorter and shorter. There is also, of course, the dimensions of user influence and amount of followers/friends to consider. Klout did a very interesting study of Twitter content lifespan correlated to level of influence. Unsurprisingly, the influential user’s content lasted longer.

Viewed optimistically, the shortening half-lives of social content is not a demise of cultural value but a new opportunity. We increasingly realize that the most impactful social posts are timely. Or they come from a place of habit: a creative formulation where repetition brings emergent value. Much like Maddie on Things, we can learn to love the frequent return of light, original content in the rapidly flipping pages of our timely web.

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Is Snapchat the next Draw Something?

I’m as happy as anyone that 15 year olds love Snapchat. But what does that mean? If you’re the Disney Channel or 16 Handles, it means investing some time and energy realizing the platform as a powerful marketing and communications channel. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean much.

With all the buzz Snapchat is getting, it’s popular to imagine the photo-exchange app as “the next Instagram.” I’ve got another comparison: it’s the next Draw Something.

Draw Something as illustrated by Penny Arcade

Remember Draw Something? Of course you do. It is a social drawing game that challenges users to guess a word off their friends’ illustrations.  Peaking in April 2012, Draw Something had a reported 14.6 million daily active users. At that point, the app’s $1.99 paid version was Apple’s top paid app and developers OMGPOP were said to be generating $250,000 a day.

On March 21, 2012 – just weeks from this peak – social game giant Zynga bought OMGpop and Draw Something for $180 Million dollars. The deal was huge. But it didn’t stop some from claiming Zynga had got a steal, with Flurry CEO Simon Khalaf claiming “[OMGpop] left $800 Million on the table.”

Then something unexpected happened: Draw Something started shedding users a prodigious rate. Over a single month, Draw Something lost a third (6 MM) of it’s daily users. Between May and June 20th, the app lost another 4.1 million to settle at 5 Million daily active users.

Draw Something was fun. For the first few exchanges of illustrations with friends, there was distinct charm and excitement. But the novelty quick fades. And as friends pilled in, the game became onerous, even “more of a chore.” Without something to keep the game new and fresh, the urge to return subsided and literally millions of users stepped away from the app.

This is what feels destined for Snapchat. As a stand-alone application, exchanging quick and disposable photos has a fast half-life. Even if it is a form of ‘communication’ that is natural for younger audiences (the same claim made for Draw Something), it’s a communicative experience that could quickly be baked into existing text and social network platforms. Perhaps, as some as argued, there’s something novel about sharing silly and disposable content on a network that is not a name-brand social network. That might be the reason Facebook’s Poke has failed to launch in popularly and been panned by tech critics as a failure.

But as I see it, teens and tweens were the primary engines of Draw Something’s popularity and their rate of boredom is famous. With a similar demographic powering the Snapchat buzz, why should we expect something different? Even 24 year old TechCrunch writers don’t readily see the attraction of Snapchat, and sentiment that has been echoed across the web. That’s a damning forecast for long-term growth.

This is not to say Snapchat lacks value. To the contrary, its disposability and impermanence have shown that the silly and jokey have as much attention value as the sublime and ‘viral.’ If Instagram inspired everyone to pose as an auteur, Snapchat might be our allowance to be jesters and fleeting love-note writers. But like the difference between MoMA and a penny arcade, one’s better built to last.

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Notes from the Hurricane: Surviving Sandy in NYC

When the power went off, I saw a blue flash in the sky and heard something like a sonic boom. But an earlier Con Ed robocall had promised “pre-emptive” power shutdown, so we didn’t think much of it.

The lights had already been flickering. It was 8 PM. Forecasters had said this would be the worse point of the storm. Outside, it was blowing “wicked, wicked hard.”

We were having a nice dinner. Initially, I felt Sandy had helped “set the mood” by lowering our lighting and drawing a powerful sense of intimacy.

A little later, I noticed a missed emergency text message from the city officials. It was powerfully simple: TAKE SHELTER NOW.

Scanning Twitter, I found more causes for alarm. That blue flash and sonic boom was the Con Ed substation at 14th and FDR exploding.

That substation is half a mile away from the apartment. The explosion clearly caused the power outage. Perhaps power restoration would not be easy.

Images of cars floating in 7 feet of surge on Avenue C began to fill my Twitter feed. In the dark apartment, I felt a new sense of terror. Avenue C is two blocks away. Would there be floodwaters at our stoop soon?

The sky was inscrutable. We finished our beers and went to sleep.

Day 2: The Return of the Payphone

Day 2 was still, calm, gray. The ample 3G service that had provided data in the early blackout was gone. In fact, I couldn’t complete phone calls or send text messages.

We decided we had to go out. So we took our cash, dressed warmly, and stepped into the dark stairwell with our flashlights.

You know those scenes from 28 Days Later and I am Legend? The scenes of urban desolation and emptiness that terrified the urban psyche? The East Village was nothing like that. It was PACKED with people scurrying in all directions. Cabs were running. People were out running and exploring the damage.

We walked down to Washington Square. A shocking number of bodegas and pizza places were open. There were simple rules: you could come in if you had your own flashlight. In some bodegas, purchases only took place with flashlights.

“What do you want?”

“Oatmeal”

[Flashlight beam probing]

[Oatmeal located]

“That one right there!”

The only seriously dangerous thing were all the traffic lights being out. Intersections were a mess, particularly as motorists drove with abandon rather than concern. Was it a sense of panic that sent NYU students in BMWs screaming up 1st Ave?

There were only lines for two things: coffee at MUD and payphones. I’ve never seen so many people use pay phones. For a single day, all of the unused telecommunications of lower manhattan were suddenly hot commodities again. I’ll file that under “unexpected technology revivals: NYC 2012.”

There was no cell reception anywhere. But there was pizza. East Village Pizza was already one of my favorite places on earth. Then they served pizza in the dark to the hungry village. Current status: Living Legends.

Sometime in the early evening, I managed to get a few text messages on the roof. They came in bursts. Tom Rodelli texted in news updates, my brother sent a few power updates. My mom panicked. I learned that work was marginally on for tomorrow. But how would I get in?

On the roof, I could look up town towards a glowing midtown. The Empire State Building was fully illuminated, while beneath it tiny candles flickered in cold windows.

Day 3: The Disaster Fare

With no hot water, lights, or telecommunications for a third day, I awoke to an alarm on my iPod Touch. It was the last thing with power.

I crossed the city with a gym bag and a change of clothes, hopeful I could find an open Health & Racquet Club uptown.

There was supposed to be bus service running everywhere. But I found few in the East Village and those few were overstuffed with passengers. Everyone wanted out. NYU dorms were now officially closed, dispelling a stream of undergraduates across the city.

I walked completely across town to 18th Street and 8th Ave, looking for an empty bus or an open cab. Miraculously, I managed to hail an off-duty yellow cab who was ignoring his meter and offering flat “disaster fares.”

$10 got me 20 blocks north to 39th Street and work. I made a triumphant entrance to a status meeting of four people. They all applauded.

It turned out that most people at work were just like me. Dark, bored, and cold in Lower Manhattan, we had fought our way north to the electric bliss of midtown. We worked eagerly, soaking up the heat, light, and power. Overdue Instagram photos and Status Updates were blasted out. Con Ed news was checked closely, but it was increasingly clear that power was days away.

As night fell, I slipped into the evening with my flashlight ready. At 23rd and Broadway, I confronted the new electric front between power and darkness. The Flatiron building loomed up like a cenotaph marking a dead city. I continued past it, down Broadway and through an eerie Union Square. Cutting through sidestreets was terrifying. A homeless men slept in darkened store entries and coughed out as my flashlight scanned the sidewalk ahead.

The Empire State Building was lit in black and orange.

I remembered it was Halloween.

Day 4: The Guardsmen

I hit Thursday with force. I jumped between overflowing 1st Avenue buses to get up to 45th and Lexington – home to the New York Health & Racquet Club and my first hot shower in days.

I walked across midtown to work in Hell’s Kitchen. The work pace seemed undiminished by Sandy and her aftermath. New Yorker’s are an odd bunch: we love to work. I realized that the rapid resumption of work was less for the businesses in question and more for the rest of us who needed that sense of purpose. Without basic amenities in over 500,000 NYC homes, there was nothing to look forward to.

Sandy was not a snow day. Snow days are defined by being comfortable and home-bound by an enveloping weather event. Snow days invite relaxation, reflection, and above all, a sense of well-being.

Think of the words in “Let It Snow” – “the weather outside is frightful / but the fire is so delightful.” That’s fundamentally about having a good time inside. In the aftermath of Sandy, there was no inside “delightful.” Work became the best part of the day: warm, lit, and socialable.

I walked home through Gramercy. Near those fine, granite homes I found National Guardsman seemingly fighting the dark itself.

Things had improved slightly. There were more traffic cops on busy intersections. Flares were marking side streets with an eerie red glow.

Back in the apartment, Colleen and I reached capacity. There was almost no one still in our building, few candles peeked out around our block, our foodstuffs were depleted, the neighborhood felt empty/even dangerous, and we really wanted some hot water. It was time to go.

Day 5: Escape & Redemption 

Almost effortlessly, we woke, lit our candles, washed in the dark bathroom, and caught an empty uptown bus. It was a sign of total adoption; we barely noticed our electricity-free habits.

Work went quickly. A series of presentations and content deliverables. We finally found two intrepid Hoboken residents in the office, back from a harrowing National Guard evacuation. While the Lower East Side and East Village crew swapped stories of plumbing work-arounds, we had a quick “survivor’s lunch” at Tir Na Nog. It was a chance to pretend briefly that things were normal, even celebratory!

Throughout the blackout, those affected by the power outages and flooding experienced a parallel existence to the rest of the city. Uptown, life continued with just transit disruptions. Businesses were opened, restaurants functioned, meetings continued, and schedules were un-impacted.

This proved most frustrating. When you needed to walk into the darkness every night, then wake to no subways, no power, and no heat, simply arriving at work in a chipper mood was remarkable. Gawker observed this marked lifestyle distinction and satirically called it out.

I caught the a quick train out of the city at 4. On the other side of Newark, I felt relieved. Power was streaming by. Heat was comfortably set. Then I got a flurry of good news. Power restored to the East Village, Con Ed tweeted. Dozens of friends of friends and neighbors confirmed.

 

Watching the Knicks later, I enjoyed seeing a friend celebrating  new hot water while hating on the Heat. “This is for New York!” he mused as Carmelo Anthony lit up the night.

 A new week

Many things are back to normal now. With heat, light, and telecommunications back, it’s easy to rush back into New York’s frantic idea of business-as-usual.

But the storm’s wounds have not truly been healed. Lots remains to do. I’m proud to see the Occupy movement recognize service in the face of need as a political orientation point. It’s also wonderful to see FEMA and Red Cross support rush to the needy.

I am looking for some small way to give back and help out. Until then, we should all give what we can to the Red Cross.

Posted in adventure, culture studies, Internet, lifestyle, new york, reflection, rhode island, Social Media, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Basketball, Here to Save New York

They say Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball. But in my visits, I’ve never found the arena (or its tenants) impressive. Back in the heyday of the NIT, which has been on 34th street for over half a century, Madison Square Garden was synonymous with marquee basketball. Add in competitive a Knicks with a strong Big East Tournament, and MSG surely was sacred.

Basketball has other religious sites now. Jordan made Chicago a place of pilgrimage. Kobe, Jackson, and the Lakers have made the Staples Center ring with power. 17 times Boston has shown the world why Celtic parquet is where greatness performs. Even young Oklahoma City has shown how new arenas can contend for basketball’s best environment.

Hello Brooklyn

Fortunately, New York has a new temple to basketball. Conceived in hip hop, manifest through shark real estate manuvers, and clad in a pre-rusted shell, the Barclays Center breathes new life in the City’s basketball culture. For New York City is the undisputed global capital of basketball, and it’s long needed a rebellious self-conflict to bring out it’s very best.

London, by my estimates, is the capital of world football. As both a historic hub and current site of the sport’s very best (let’s remember Chelsea are the current Champion’s League winners), the city thrives on having several (not one or two) world class clubs. Left to it’s own devices, London alone could entertain with it’s own civic football league. In the tension of a several cross-town “derby” matches, the city even produces narrative drama that outpace record or league position. No matter their current form, Tottenham and Arsenal will do anything to beat one another.

Now New York gains its own, unprecedented basketball rivalry. Where the Lakers – Clippers series disappoint, this match-up has the makings of something special. I sincerely hope that the league (or at least the Mayor) offer a tangible trophy for the inter-borough champions. It would sweeten the pot considerably.

The first visit

I took the ride out to Barclays on October 18 to see my Celtics in pre-season form. It was a conveniently excellent opportunity. Pre-season tickets were cheap, everyone wants to see the Barclays Center, and I haven’t seen Boston play live since the Antoine Walker era.

Coming above ground from the subway, one is pulled into the arena by its open “oculus.” This pinched LED screen wraps above the arena’s entry plaza like the eye of a hurricane. It focuses the crowd’s energy.

As display ads and game stats whirled overhead, I experienced the new sense of being in a public threshold space between transit systems, a coliseum, and the rest of the city. The space inverts the relationship a fan will soon have in the stadium. There, we will all be parts of the overhead whirl. Here, we are briefly the focus of the impending event’s energy.

The arena entrance is wide, high, and transparent. The actual arena floor is below street level, so staring straight ahead, the entrance only promises a peek into the scoreboard. Beneath fan feet, there is a private practice court for players, a private concierge for VIPs, and “turntable” for spinning delivery trucks around. Cool.

The interior of the stadium is actually rather weak. In the upper deck (where my ticket placed myself and a friend) the arrangement is odd. Protuding suites interrupt the stadium-in-the-round effect of conventional seating. The lights are drawn incredibly dim, so that’s nearly impossible to find your seat. There are too few escalators to the upper deck, and only an elevator game bring you down again during game play.

The House Hip Hop Built

Hip Hop is everywhere in the Barclays Center. The Nets entire rebranding has been steeped in the virtues (and vices) of New York’s signature urban music. Jay-Z tunes introduce the players. The Brooklyn Nettes dancers pulse to choreography lifted from Def Jam videos. Instead of a cheesy organist, key Net possessions and plays are underscored by a live DJ scratching up tunes and dropping heavy drumlines.

Jay-Z, the arena’s spiritual architect, has poured his creative soul into basketball recently. He is credited with designing the Nets new minimal black logos, and his merchandise team ensured that Brooklyn Nets gear name checks several Brooklyn Hip Hop acts. He also served as the executive producer of the NBA 2k13 video game. Because why not?

While Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Garnett blew out D. Williams and Joe Johnson, I snuck down to row of courtside seats with some co-workers. We sat close enough to the action, to see Garnett jaw with Brook Lopez, and Rondo throw his signature dribble fake.

Zachary McCune - Boston Celtics - Brooklyn NetsWe also saw Jadakiss.

I mean of course we did. This is the arena opened by Jay-Z to return Brooklyn its dignity and use the rebel attitude of hip hop to challenge MSG to get serious. Here’s hoping the so-called “Mecca” of basketball, and it’s celebrated tenants, play up to the challenge.

Posted in basketball, boston, Culture, lifestyle, london, new york | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My plant’s big on Twitter

Since last Saturday, my small, potted ivy has been announcing it’s watering needs on Twitter.

It’s wonderfully futuristic. Though I’ve long yearned to be more green, I’ve proven inept enough to let one bonsai tree, one potted evergreen, and three basil plants go to ruin on my windowsill. This advanced technological intervention puts the latest house plant online where I can understand it. As a social media professional, I am more attuned to social gardening than real-world horticulture.

The hardware for my Twitter-enabled plant comes from botincalls, an NYU ITP project that was enshrined in MoMA’s Collection for the Talk to Me exhibit. The kit came into my life as a birthday present from AC Gears down the street. I’ve been staring at it for nearly a year now, and someone caught the hint.

The botanicalls hardware is not ready-out-of-the-box. To get it jamming, I resuscitated my college soldering skills and carefully wired it up over a few evenings.

Zachary McCune soldering up a botanicalls kitThe original botanicalls kit was first developed in 2009. The latest code on botanicalls.com dates from June 2011. So while the kit will get online and tweet by simply soldering it up and plugging it in, adjusting the botanicall to tweet to a custom Twitter handle and add personal messages takes some advanced finessing. I spent at least four hours tweaking code and updating Arduino libraries to get the thing working on @zacks_ivy.

The most important things to add to your botanicall are a custom handle, and personalized Tweets that actually mention your personal handle for watering requests and thank your. The botanicalls code comes with set messages that I felt were a little too mechanized. So I’ve recast the ivy’s tone to be more bro. Perhaps it’s a holdover from all the lax guys who lived down the hall from me at Brown.

Zachary McCune twitter ivy

There’s something so charming about having your plant communicate simply and relatably on Twitter. As an exercise in the not-yet-arrived “Internet of Things” revolution, I am heartened to imagine a world in which interpersonal communications are shifted into the larger environment. Our homes are a sensible place to begin, with appliances, area air quality and yes, dependent plants and animals connected with light communications devices.

But we are still far from that moment. The current cost of the botanicalls kit, in expertise,  execution, and the expense of the parts, ensures that many of who might find a tweeting plant enchanting will not attempt to create one themselves.

We’re still in need of the first Apple-simple, ready-to-go, GUI-wrapped internet of things module to blow open this “web 3.0.” In this, the Twine project and the Air Quality Egg seem most likely to set the stage. But where Twine works simply and easily, it currently lacks a clear use. The Air Quality Egg is just the opposite. It’s single use is quite clear and compelling, but will it’s operation be simple enough to reach the mainstream?

Let’s set up the following culture test: in order for the Internet of Things to truly arrive, it will need to be as ready-to-use by readers of Home & Garden as Wired.

Until then, my plant will be tweeting. If only I could water him with an @ reply…

Posted in Culture, free culture, ideas, Internet, internet of things, lifestyle, Social Media, technology | 1 Comment

What I’ve Learned: Community Management

Start here: lead and develop a culture that represents the ideals and actions of a brand, product or company. Tell great stories. Open up a real conversation. Or 12. Deliver legitimate product insights and offers. Analyze and re-adjust constantly. Talk to everyone: at both your company and among your fans/followers/users/customers/consumers.

In doing this, build something that enriches both company and consumer – a creative social body that produces the stories, interactions, and images that both parties benefit from. Get consumers feeling closer to your product, and your company feeling in tune with your customers. Try to get into constant ‘win-win’ scenarios.

Skills

Community Management goes way beyond social media acumen – so don’t just rely on “knowing Twitter.” Employ f***ing great writing, tactical marketing sensibility, customer support patience, strong visual design, powerful client service, a touch of French-styled culture studies (just me?), and big data analytic prowess. And possibly a cat. Because when in doubt, cats seem to work.

Community Management is rarely about physical social organizing. It can happen, often in the form of special events or Meetups, but the bulk of what Community Managers do is Social Media-related. Hence, the term “Social Media Manager” which is a pretty comparable position. The importance of the word ‘community’ comes from your brand having someone to talk to. And that ‘someone’ is preferably, the optimal/actual consumer of a product motivated by a tangible, practical interest in what your company has to say.

In general, a community manager executes strategic uses of social media channels for brands, companies, and/or products. They also serve as a front-line for customer support inquiries, market research and brand sentiment assessment (e.g. early warning system for bad news). Community Managers also surface exceptional brand evangelists, run contests, and publish content for all social channels, slowly building authentic cultural capital with consumers over time.

Start Rocking at Community Management

  1. Be Real: The best community managers are fluent social media users. They know the difference between a tweet, a Foursquare tip, a Facebook photo album (with captions) and a status update that actually makes people want to respond. Bring your gut understandings to every post or you’ll be odd and alienating.
  2. Lead with personal engagement: Comment constantly. Respond to questions, even when they are banal as other users will see this and be more likely to ask a harder question. Like things that your brand/company wants to hear. Share the kinds of photos, articles, stories, and resources you’d hope to get from your community. The culture of successful community management comes from hundreds of light touch engagements. Do not retire on four “awesome” posts.
  3. Show people what they should do: If you want to solicit creative work from your community (aka user-generated content or UGC) you should show them great, legitimate examples of what you are looking for. Lead experimentation by explicitly offering creative direction and helpful tips. Champion early authentic responses that fit into expectations. Curate with attention.
  4. Identify and celebrate influential users: There will be great users with wonderful stories as surely as there will be ‘trolls.’ Don’t feed the trolls, fete the wonderusers. Highlight great experiences and stories. Reach out to key users, if possible, and thank them personally. Company swag and/or validation will cement their sense of loyalty and positivity. Build out contact info for big projects/campaigns that you need help getting off the ground.
  5. Moderate hard and consistently: Moderation of content and interactions is the filter to create the user culture your brand/company needs. Try to be as open as possible, but draw a hard line where freedom of speech begins to alienate the positive fans and followers you cherish. Consistency in moderation will protect your reputation and right to censor content as viewed by the community. Inconsistency is always indicted as a form of tyranny, and can unsettle the all-important sense of trust successful communities rely on.
  6. Try to break your sh*t – before your users do: Every thing you release will have bugs, errors, and issues. Go through expected behaviors (log in, register, complete basic actions, share to social networks, etc.) on several platforms and browsers. Then go back and do the weirdest things you can. Document everything. Tell your developers. If no changes can be made, figure out the work-arounds.
  7. Conduct constant research on your own community: Watch constantly for patterns in user behavior. Test constantly for content that plays well and content that falls flat. Use this to optimize publishing calendars. Use polls and questions to invite direct user input on trends you’ve noticed. Present weekly or bi-weekly summaries of community dynamics to highlight patterns and important learnings for leadership and clients. Use these presentations as a regular opportunity to redirect efforts and improve engagement benchmarks.
  8. Develop 24-hour support systems: Social media channels are not a 9-5 business. Plan for peak engagement times and shift coverage accordingly. This probably means you don’t need to be at work at 7 am. Unless you’ve got an active community in Japan :-/ Find loose coverage for times outside of explicit community management windows. Also develop clear systems for escalating issues from outside coverage to the community manager.
  9. Think long term: In all the day-to-day work defining community management, it’s easy to loose track of the big picture. Find milestones to mark and celebrate. Leave time for thinking about big events. Develop long-term goals for community interactions, tone, and sentiments. Watch for emerging social networks and social media tools to try out. Succeed. But stay hungry for more success.

Where I learned this

As the current Community Manager of a Fortune 500 company, and the former Community Manager of an TechStars-backed iPhone app, I’ve seen the importance of social media management at all levels. There is a distinct advantage for businesses that take engagement with customers via social media seriously. As Facebook use in the United States passes 50% of citizens, and smart phone adoption rates have jumped to 47% of Americans, more and more consumers are entering the worlds of community managers. And that’s where companies are going to want some great talent. How good is your Community Manager? will be a benchmark for how social is your company?

Posted in community management, Culture, ideas, Internet, media, sociology | 3 Comments