What we read this week (8 Feb)

This week we read about Internet-centrism, questionable visions for education’s future, how music recommendation works, why Amazon wants its own currency, and how the way we buy things today is changing the way brands work.

Quote of the week

Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game.

Louis Gerstner

Articles of the week

  • New Republic: Up for Debate: Can Social Media Solve Real-World Problems?
    Evgeny Morozov and Steven Johnson battle it out over “Internet-centrism,” or whether the patterns in the way things work on the internet can be generalized to the rest of life. An intense debate, with some critical thoughts on the role and nature of the internet, as well as some fantastic name-calling.
  • The Awl: Venture Capital’s Massive, Terrible Idea For The Future Of College
    In this long and brilliant piece, Maria Bustillos gets to the core of what learning really is as she documents and contributes to the currently raging debates over MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and what exactly they can or cannot contribute to education. Also have a look at Clay Shirky’s reply.
  • Brian Whitman: How music recommendation works — and doesn’t work
    Brian Whitman of The Echo Nest goes into great detail on the complex subject of how good music recommendations are made, what these recommendations are good for, and where there is room for improvement in this field.
  • The Verge: Why Amazon wants its own currency
    Amazon has announced a new virtual currency, Amazon Coins, that will be an alternative to credit card payment in-app purchases for the Kindle Fire. Adrianne Jeffries questions the motives behind this move, explains how it will work, and concludes that the goal is “to shore up loyalty…and maybe avoid some taxes.”
  • Harvard Business Review: The Rise of the Unbrand
    On the trend of products that are less reliant on “brand”, and more reliant on quality, individualization and usefulness. But in the end, a brand without a logo/name is still a brand.

Week 120

Refining our learning project and focusing on technology’s impact on how people teach themselves, and helpful articles from Aaron Swartz’s blog.

Refining our project on learning

We’re still at work on building a repository of information and discussions on the impact technology is currently having on learning, or rather autodidactic learning as we decided recently. Guiding question: How is today’s technology changing the way people teach themselves things? While this topic encompasses quite a lot of what we were previously trying to tackle, it focuses on an area that currently abounds with particularly heated discussion. If you would like to talk to us on this topic, please get in touch – we appreciate as much perspective as we can get.

A thought on narrowing scope

Embracing fuzziness is something we like to do here – but it’s important to acknowledge when the fuzziness is simply too fuzzy to handle. In trying to do justice to the immensity of our learning topic, we initially thought that we would simply take samples from a broad range of fields. After a bit of discussion, though, it seemed a better idea to rein in the scope just a little bit, so that we have just one major lens to look through. This unified perspective then makes it easier to know where to start with each subtopic. The volume of possibilities becomes a more countable (or at least less uncountable) infinity, if you will, which is particularly helpful for the detail-oriented amongst us.

More reads from Aaron Swartz

I wasn’t familiar with any of Aaron Swartz’s writing until last week. I came across his series of blogposts called Raw Nerve, subtitled “a series on getting better at life” – and it really struck a chord with me.

In his introductory post, he touches on a problem that is so universally experienced that it can become almost invisible.

If someone was annoying me, I’d choose to avoid them. If something was bugging me, I’d choose to stop thinking about it. I mostly kept my eyes on what was in front of me.

His observations in this series hold just as well for individuals as they do for companies, and he goes into a great amount of detail as to why we behave like this, and what we can do to avoid this mentality. I encourage anyone, whether in search of advice for improving their business, their own work or themselves, to have a look at these pieces.

Week 88

A peep into the newbie’s mind after her first full week at Third Wave.

Starting out at Third Wave

I started working at Third Wave officially last week, and am delighted to be here. I haven’t had much adapting to do so far, seeing as I worked here two days a week for the last six months. One aspect of working in a small shop as compared to a mid-sized agency stands out to me: here, in a small team that fits nicely into one reasonably sized room, it can’t help but be personal. We share values and common interests – this is how we came to work together. In a bigger team, it is unlikely for the organizational glue to be quite as strong. The glue helps to create a sense of mutual support, which in turn helps to get things done, and realize when things aren’t working. Also, the nature and size of the team combine to make it an open space for expressing thoughts, concerns, ideas, questions – largely as they come up, rather than saving them up for meetings. I’m uncertain as to whether this is possible in larger teams.

Challenges

Some adjustments have to be made gradually. Becoming familiar with some of the tasks that crop up regularly is one thing, being efficient at getting them done is another. Writing relevant and coherent texts in a foreign language takes practice, and I’m increasingly impressed by how my colleagues manage it so successfully. I have to say I really enjoy the bilingual aspect of work here, and hope that I’ll make more use of the opportunity to sneak German lessons in here and there throughout the day. Another gradual adjustment is taking the reins myself, coming up with plans and executing them (relatively) independently. There is a kind of fear associated with doing this, and this also takes a bit of practice to overcome.

Dorota is our new trainee for VCCP, and we’ll be introducing her shortly. I’m helping out with her training, and have now found myself on the lower end of a learning curve when it comes to guiding a person in her job, figuring out how to best answer her questions, how best to make the big picture and not just the details clear. This in turn exposes gaps in my own knowledge, which is helpful. It’s also an interesting, tricky process, learning how to function on a professional level with a close friend.

I’m also encountering some new, more structured approaches to research. Jasmine has filled a wall with post-its, outlining a business model, competition, and ideas for improvement or ‘white spaces’ into which the business could expand/evolve. She’s used the scheme from the Business Model Generation book to structure her findings. It’s helpful to see information from a business/design perspective, since these are both things I have much to learn about.

Approaches to research

Last week, we were doing some market research for a new project related to stationery and pens. It’s funny how we automatically begin to research these things on the internet, without considering, at first, the option of looking for the products in person, to get a better idea of how customers might see them. At the office supply store around the corner, I had a look at some products, looked for patterns and trends, tried to identify what features make a stationery product good or attractive. I talked to the saleswoman about what products she sells, what ones the customers particularly like, her thoughts about the brand we’re working on. This kind of research yields very quick results, and can nicely complement what we find on the internet to give us a more complete initial impression of what we’re working with.

Stationery is an interesting field for a digital strategist to work in. Perhaps, and I believe this has been said before, we gravitate towards things like nice notebooks and pens in order to balance out our typey-screeny lives with things that have a more concrete, haptic appeal. In any case, I am a massive fan of stationery, and this project should turn out to be really fun once it gets going.