The power of perception, as told through the history of the potato.

Exploring Content Discovery

Have you ever wondered why people do the things they do when they’re watching TV or using the Internet? Sometimes it feels like the Internet is a giant time suck and other times it feels like you are learning about the unexplored wonders of the world.

I am embarking on the beginning of a research journey to better understand how we consume content and under what contexts. I’ll be writing progress updates about it here on Fads & Ads.

The project will consist of several research layers, but to get started, I’m kicking off with a survey to get build some initial hypotheses.

Your help would be greatly appreciated in filling out the survey, which can be found here:

Occupy What Street? We Need to Accept Change, Not Derail It

It’s been about a month since Occupy Wall Street has sprung from a hashtag to a global movement. The “99%” have taken their cause that corporate greed has overtaken our pure American nation to the streets. They have even issued an official manifesto of grievances. As easy as it feels, though, we shouldn’t be writing these protesters off; we should be trying to figure out exactly what the issues are.

The percentage of the population who owns the spending power, the “1%,” have been quick to dismiss these protesters as “free loading hippies” who don’t want to work. As a product of an immigrant family which has worked from a $28,000 family income in 1987 into becoming an aspiring 1%’er, I have found it very easy to dismiss these claims too. But something just doesn’t feel right. It’s too easy to say that these people are lazy. It’s too easy for the “haves” to say we got here through hard work.

Through years of behavioral economics research, time and again, we have shown that people aren’t good at determining what they need but their behaviors indicate their true desires. If we dig a little deeper and try to understand the real movements behind the inequality that OWS claims, we can become leaders of industry and policy to address the real issues.

Gin, Television and the Social Surplus

Sifting through the coverage of OWS has reminded of a story told by author and NYU professor Clay Shirky called Gin, Television and the Social Surplus. To sum up the story: at the start of the Industrial Revolution, cities underwent massive urbanization and with the urbanization, gin consumption rose rapidly. This consumption came exactly with what you’d think, loosened morals, increased fights and the invention of flip cup (ok, maybe not that).

The kneejerk response of local governments in this gin explosion was to clearly attack outlets for gin: producers, public houses and even the drinkers. Fines were imposed on gin consumption, bars were shut down, but gin consumption: unchanged. Why? Because gin wasn’t the problem.

The solution to the gin problem at the start of the Industrial Revolution? Address the challenges that urbanization caused that led people to drinking gin in the first place: introduce sewage to remove waste from the streets, increase living space inventory, and basically any other item that when without drives you to drinking. When life wasn’t so crappy anymore, the gin drinkers naturally declined.

The gin story holds strong parallels with today’s OWS movement, except that instead of governments looking to solve the problem, Wall Street occupiers are the ones who are pointing to the perceived issue. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, policymakers pointed the finger at gin for causing society’s issues when the root cause was a shift in underlying social behavior; today, Wall Street protesters are pointing the finger at “corporations” for causing society’s issues when the root cause is something deeper.

Today’s protests are a result of an evolving occupation base within our country. We are no longer a country of goods manufacturing; we are, however, moving into a country of leading information manufacturing. To best understand this change, perhaps it’s best to look at an example within our borders where this transition has been fruitful.

Pittsburgh: Steel Town No More

A city known for its grit and blue collar steel and coal mining, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has been a microcosm embodying the evolving United States. Steel drove Pittsburgh into prosperity from the late 1800’s all the way through the 1980s. Then disaster struck: the last steel mill closed in Pittsburgh in 1987.

During steel’s demise in the 1980s, the city of Pittsburgh lost 120,000 manufacturing jobs which were mostly never recovered. To give you a sense of perspective: that was 50% of the entire workforce! The city was going to hell in a hand basket (ahem, along with its baseball team).

But something unexpected happened: Pittsburgh found a way to thrive. The city thrived because it found a way to embrace change. Between the university systems in the city, including Carnegie Mellon (alma mater, woot!) and University of Pittsburgh, and corporate leaders from Fortune 500 companies such as Alcoa and Westinghouse, the “haves” banded together to build a business and economic strategies.

Together they diversified Pittsburgh’s employment pool to become an outlet for innovation. Since 1979, according to the Economist, Pittsburgh’s health-services business has nearly tripled in size, adding 100,000 jobs. These jobs were not break-the-bank types of employ, but they certainly fit the gap left behind by the rusted steel industry.

It was change. Corporate change. Citizen change. Change.

This is what we need to realize in today’s Wall Street protests: the problem isn’t that the rich are getting richer. Hardly. The problem is that these protesters don’t have a clear direction set forth by leaders as to how they can grow.

Asking Wall Street to Change Will Only Hurt

There is a scary dichotomy building: the more that the OWS drags, the less seriously it seems to be taken by key stakeholders within leading corporations in the US. This is a problem, because we should be taking this as a cue that we need to build a strategy for a collective employment growth strategy.

This doesn’t mean I side with the protesters. Quite the contrary, I think they’re exhibiting measures of groupthink that prevent the greater message from spreading. What I do believe, though, is that we need to begin to pair more corporations with education venues both locally and nationally to help build a strategy for how we can build programs to align people with jobs that have had job roles that no longer exist. This is especially important as we are clearly losing our traditional “blue collar” jobs.

On top of building these policies, we need to keep building. Sitting in San Francisco, it’s pretty easy to forget that the rest of the country isn’t creating in the same way that the Bay Area is creating. We are building new technology that’s rewriting the rules. It’s not limited to Silicon Valley, of course, but we need to see more.

Prominent VC blogger Fred Wilson makes this claim along with the claim that institutions are failing us. America became a powerhouse because we were able to create, able to produce. It used to be that we built cars, used to produce steel, used to be the face of goods manufacturing. Thanks to globalization, the economics of that no longer work. We’re undergoing change.

We are undergoing a transition away from manufacturing goods into manufacturing information and services. The protesters feel that pain, but they blame the corporations for falling subject to the rules of economics. As “corporations,” we can’t just write the protesters off because they don’t understand econ, we need to come together.

We at corporations need to work with our local governments and universities to understand how we can band together to build programs that are built for these transitioning Americans. If we do this right we’ll take them from occupying Wall Street into occupying the classroom.

Yes, the cost of education has risen astronomically, but this is part of the discussion we must have. It is in our best interest, as business leaders, to ensure that our long term plans involve having a pool of workers who can understand our industries. They don’t have to be writing your next line of code, but they do need to know what code is (hint: it’s not just 1’s and 0’s).

Let’s tackle the real issues. Let’s tackle the coordination problem that we have had in driving our local business and economic policies. It’s not about cutting or raising taxes, it’s not about universal healthcare, it’s about managing our country’s workforce transitioning from assembling cars to helping build the future.

Who’s coming with me?!