29 shades of insult to injury

For advertising agencies two critical moments are when the team pitches to get a new account and when it finally presents its creative solution after weeks of work to start production. How many “options” should be shown to the client at this juncture is a matter of creative-process folklore.

There’s always the good old triple: “good, better, best” a.k.a. “throw-away, can-live-with, must-sell”. Some would go further than three. It’s not uncommon for boutiques to bet on just one solution and try to convince the client. Whether it’s one, three or six, I bet no one has ever heard of 29 options. Unless you work at Yahoo.

A new CEO looking for a quick turnaround getting company logo redesigned? American as apple pie. Some succeed, some fail and most never get more than a week’s worth of traction. Not a big deal, if you just have a press conference, a happy photo-op and your designer gushing over the “how we did it” part in some design pub. (Especially double-delicious if it’s the CEO who’s doing the write-up!) These are as harmless as they are unavoidable.

But 29 days of unrelenting assault on the design sensibilities of the few who cared? Unfruitful. Yahoo’s intention wasn’t crowd-voting or crowd-sourcing its next logotype after 18 years. The crowd couldn’t do anything about the options. So it was a one-way presentation of five horrid letters plus a punctuation mark day after day for a month. And at no point the crowd could cry uncle.

Yahoooptions

What then is Yahoo telling us?

We don’t care: We think logotype design is a frivolous activity. Since the goal of what it needs to be isn’t quite clear to us, we can post 29 superfluous variations in as many days. Hey, if you challenge us, we could algorithmically generate 365 options in one hour, one day, one year or until you surrender.

We know we should care: We care about logotype design, it represents our brand. We want people to know that we’re changing Yahoo, the company. The crowd can’t yet see the change fully but they can see the logotype change before their eyes. Since the logotype represents our brand which represents our company…well, you get our drift.

More is less: Look, we already had the logotype design we wanted weeks ago. We had interns come up with a few dozen variations and we let you see just 29 of them. You have no idea what the rest looked like. You’re welcome.

We’re not pros at this: We can’t shout from the rooftops. We don’t have ad budgets the size of Samsung’s or even Microsoft’s. Fine, we probably have more web traffic than both combined to expose people to anything we wanted, but we didn’t bother figuring out how we could use that traffic to have them look at what actually matters: who we are and what we want to accomplish as a company. (OK, that would have been dicey because, frankly, we still haven’t figured that out yet.)

See if we care: Yes, we know we could have done things differently. For example, we could have:

  • respected the design community and the digerati by serving them something serious for a month so that they could become catalysts to positive conversations about our company on a daily basis. (We may still have to recruit a few of those creative types, after all.)
  • tastily presented daily videos and sketches of 29 different designers discussing our logo, brand and company.
  • hosted these logotype options at one specific Yahoo property per day (we have dozens of properties) to draw much needed attention to them.
  • set up a million-dollar (non-binding) logotype contest (with a nominal $29 entry fee to keep out the riffraff) to attract serious designers and design firms. Cheap.
  • video streamed the final selection process, with a few mega-celebs thrown in to attract a crowd and even serve a few ads (or promos for our properties) in the process to boot.
  • had the sensibility to not come up with an anemic rehashing of the old logotype, sans serifs but now with bevels (bevels!) like it was the go-go ’90s.

Yahoologos

It’s a logotype for crying out loud: Yes, we could have done a lot of different things besides throwing 29 disparate high school lettering projects on the internets for a month to see if anyone cared. But that would have required adult supervision for design and, honestly, we don’t care that much.

Now you know.

*

1. I’d love to see Yahoo succeed, I’ve been using many of their services for years.

2. You might also be interested in “Ordered Information” is not a paint job where we consider the sorry spectacle of Yahoo Finance design.

Google: “There has been a shift in our thinking…”

For many years when Google was under threat of regulatory action for manipulating its search results for its own commercial gain, the company used every trick in the book — including ignorance, incompetence, safe harbor, fair use, First Amendment and even web traffic beneficence — to avoid criticism in the press and investigation by regulators.

Above all, despite many examples to the contrary, Google appealed to manifest impartiality: its search results were algorithmically derived, untouched by human biases and thus fair. The list of grandiose promises and statements made by Google that turned out to be false and hypocritical is uncomfortably long. Unfortunately for the rest of us, regulatory capture being what it is and the rare penalties being laughable for a $275 billion company, there isn’t much of a black cloud left over Google to worry about, especially under the current U.S. administration.

So perhaps Google now feels freshly emboldened to tell it like it is. In any case, I was impressed by this frank admission in New York Times:

Even at Google, where algorithms and engineers reign supreme in the company’s business and culture, the human contribution to search results is increasing. Google uses human helpers in two ways. Several months ago, it began presenting summaries of information on the right side of a search page when a user typed in the name of a well-known person or place, like “Barack Obama” or “New York City.” These summaries draw from databases of knowledge like Wikipedia, the C.I.A. World Factbook and Freebase, whose parent company, Metaweb, Google acquired in 2010. These databases are edited by humans.

When Google’s algorithm detects a search term for which this distilled information is available, the search engine is trained to go fetch it rather than merely present links to Web pages.

“There has been a shift in our thinking,” said Scott Huffman, an engineering director in charge of search quality at Google. “A part of our resources are now more human curated.”

Not a shift, but a new admission of on-going reality, I’d say. Let’s hope for Scott Huffman’s sake he ran this by Google legal before it was published. Or better yet, let’s hope Google now stops the unbecoming pretensions to being philosophically open and algorithmically impartial.

Is it too hard for you?

Malarkey

When can “stuff” be called “malarkey”? Apparently, in a vice presidential debate.

We’ve always known that politics is the art of arbitrage of words and meaning. Now, researchers are using parsing methods (PDF) like the ATOS readability formula, the Lexile framework or the Flesch-Kincaid test to index “readability” against grade-levels of U.S. schools. Longer sentences and multisyllabic words indicate higher scores, shorter sentences and monosyllabic words lower scores. While there’s controversy about the validity and efficacy of these methods, they nevertheless provide some sense of textual complexity and density for historical comparisons. Here, for instance, are the Flesch-Kincaid scores of some well-known texts:

Flesch kincaid scores

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

If we go by recent findings, most of that list remains intellectually opaque to our youth. For example, in one large-scale survey (PDF) of the top 40 books being read in schools by 9th-12th graders, the average reading level was 5.3, not much above the 5th grade. Even more damning was the fact that when librarians compiled the “Top 25 Librarians’ Picks by Interest Level” from 800 books for high school students, recommended titles were at 4th or 5th grade reading levels.

Surely, politicians do better?

One would think those whose livelihood depends on their communication skills would do better. “That’s a lot of malarkey,” as our vice president would put it. A Flesch-Kincaid analysis by Sunlight Foundation found that while lawmakers still speak above the average American (who reads at 8th-9th grade level) Congress now speaks at “almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago”:

Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is at a 9.4 grade level. Most major newspapers are written at between an 11th and 14th grade level.

The degree of decline is not evenly spread between the two parties:

“Between 1996 and 2005, Republicans overall spoke at consistently 2/10ths of a grade level higher than Democrats, except for 2001, when a rare moment of national unity also seems to have extended to speaking at the same grade level. But following 2005, something happened, and Congressional speech has been on the decline since.”

Speeches

The Sunlight Foundation study goes into detail as to what might have caused the disparity and why the length of Congressional service also makes a difference.

Readability = comprehensibility?

Of course, some think the “dumbing down” of political speech is a positive development. Simplification begets greater understanding. Or does it? It may also be easier to speak about simpler “stuff” more simply. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, another study found that President “Obama’s SOTU addresses have the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score of any modern president”:

With three addresses under his belt, President Obama has the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president. Obama’s average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 11.1 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors.

President Obama says, “My message is simple.” Our problems remain complex. Our populace’s willingness to listen to and ability to parse the message continues to decline. Hard to say what needs to change first: speakers, what’s spoken or listeners?

Shouting

Slate iphone5

In what passes as technology journalism, 3 months = 180° turn. (Why this particular author changed his heart, brain, spleen and testosterone level for this particular story is a matter for another day.) What is worrisome here is that such fickleness of opinion has become excruciatingly common in online journalism. It pays to shout, shout first, shout often, shout loud, shout different, but most familiarly, just shout.

Shouting sells. We’ve known this for a long time. If companies are daft enough to let their ad buyers talk them into spending money on those who shout the most, then publishers would be reckless to leave money on the table. Some publishers say they would like to steer their publications away from yellow journalism, but in a compensation system based solely on pageviews and clicks, they are beholden to a Romneyesque principle: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

It’s far less important how one author feels about the iPhone 5 than the alarming fact that Slate let this author publish a 1,200-word essay about a device he hadn’t used, nearly three months before it shipped. Why? Because shouting creates pageviews and clicks, and…well, there’s nothing more to say: shouting sells. If this author or another wants to be in the game, sooner than later, he or she will have to start shouting, louder and louder.

Paradoxically, some of the most thoughtful people around work in journalism. And yet all efforts of transition from print-based to online publishing without reliance on pageviews and clicks have essentially flopped. The current crop ranges from VC-supported publicity outlets masquerading as online newsdailies to those whose contribution to civilization stop at copy-and-paste aggregation in a slide show.

While what’s new may not be fully satisfying, there’s no going back to the old either. Regardless, all around the world and especially in Europe there are calls to subsidize old print by taxing new tech:

Levy

Mind you, these aren’t really calls to incentivize companies to create new models of service delivery online but to subsidize and sustain their existing operating structures during transition to an online regime that expects them to inevitably adopt, yes, pageview advertising for survival.

Democracy

Nobody likes advertising, and yet we seem to be stuck with its corrupting effects on public discourse online. It corrupts news delivery, Facebook privacy, Twitter flow, Google search, Kindle reading and so on. There doesn’t seem to be any way to make profits online, or often just survive, without pageviews and clicks, and all the shouting that entails.

Sadly, publishing is not the only industry suffering the ravages of transition to digital. We want better and cheaper telephony, faster and more ubiquitous Internet access, digitally efficient health care, on-demand online education, 21st century banking, always-available music, TV and movies…

We believe the future is fully digital, and the future is now. And yet experimenting with new digital models not based on advertising at a scale that matter have not been successful. Entrenched players spend hundreds of millions to maintain their regulatory moats and leverage their concentrated distribution power. In Canada, just three publishing groups own 54% of newspapers. If allowed to merge, Universal and EMI would control 51 of 2011’s Billboard Hot 100 songs. Six Hollywood studios account for well over 3/4 of the market. AT&T and Verizon alone have over 440,000 employees. Predictably, the FCC remains the poster child of regulatory capture.

The un-digital camp is far from relinquishing their power. Models that can replace them aren’t here. Advertising online has been corruptive of user privacy and editorial integrity. I’m afraid it’ll be a miracle if the shouting subsides anytime soon.

Yellowcake, Yellow Journalism and Android

In 2006, Vanity Fair summarized how the Bush administration orchestrated a series of thinly disguised propaganda moves to justify the invasion of Iraq:

Thewar

The War They Wanted, the Lies They Needed

The Bush administration invaded Iraq claiming Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger. As much of Washington knew, and the world soon learned, the charge was false. Worse, it appears to have been the cornerstone of a highly successful “black propaganda” campaign with links to the White House.

There were innuendos, Congressional committee “testimonies,” off-the-record briefings, “experts” on TV, Italian connections and enough subterfuge to justify a decent Hollywood movie.

But most of all, there were journalists writing and talking about it everywhere. Without the benefit of fact checking. As “the world soon learned,” the U.S. went on to invade Iraq and, regardless of what you think about that decision, the cost in human lives and treasury has been devastating.

What color is Android?

What, you may ask, does this have to do with Android? Despite the smartphone wars everybody’s talking about, no lives are at stake and nobody’s going to thermonuclear war over Android.

Here’s how the Android yellowcake was sold:

Bestselling

Amazon told us the Kindle Fire was their best selling product on Black Friday and now some early Q4 numbers have arrived. A new report from iSuppli estimates that Amazon will ship 3.9 million units before the end of the year and Digitimes says that number could climb to as high as 5 million.

In a “Report” entitled, “Amazon selling 2,000 Kindle Fires every hour” the mainstream MSNBC.com syndicated a GeekWire.com piece:

Looks like Amazon.com has a hit on its hands, even before its new tablet computer is officially released to consumers.

The Seattle company is selling pre-orders for its new Kindle Fire tablets at a rate of 2,000 an hour, or more than 50,000 per day, according to website Cult of Android, which has gotten its hands on what it describes as internal Amazon inventory documents.

If the report is accurate, and the pace continues, Amazon will have sold 2.5 million Kindle Fires prior to the Nov. 15 launch — outpacing the first month of sales for either the iPad or the iPad 2, according to the site.

which referenced a website called CultofAndroid.com which referenced “leaked” documents:

Leaked

Even the generally more responsible The Verge couldn’t help itself repeat verbatim those Kindle Fire numbers. Numbers neither it nor any other publication had, because Amazon just doesn’t bother reporting them:

Kindle Fire remains Amazon’s best-selling item, million Kindle per week sales continue

Amazon just announced that it sold more than a million Kindle devices per week throughout December — that includes the Kindle, Kindle Touch, and Kindle Fire tablet. As usual for Amazon, no specific numbers were given, but the company says the Fire remains its best-selling and most-wished-for item, marking some 13 weeks that the Android-powered seven-inch tablet has held the top spot.

Are we there yet?

Indeed, if you read about the Kindle Fire around that time in any number of print or online publications, the unmistakable impression you’d get was: the Kindle Fire was selling in record numbers. So well in fact that same journalists would soon start telling Apple to come out with a 7″ tablet of its own or lose the iPad head-start, just like it “lost” its iPhone advantage.

And yet no journalist had any concrete evidence of the yellowcake: actual Android units sold. Not from Amazon, not from Samsung, not from HTC, not from Google…Nobody has actual Android unit numbers sold, quarter after quarter, in one of the biggest and most lucrative markets anywhere, which they’re supposed to be covering. No journalist has had the gumption to ask Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or Google CEO Larry Page, “Sir, have you no sha, err, sales numbers to give us?” And keep asking until Amazon and Samsung and HTC and Google tell us just how well they are doing. Where’s the yellowcake?

I am, of course, not the only one on Twitter who objects to this charade of corporate secrecy in the name of openness:

Bevans1

Isn’t it time honorable journalists asked Google, whose mobile operating system was created primarily to harvest users’ private info, to report just how many Android units are actually sold every quarter, lest they be labeled yellow journalists carrying Google’s water in a link-baiting game?