"Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy." —Louis C.K.
The iPhone 5 was just released. And the usual pageantry unfolded: the detractors detracted, the defenders defended, and all-the-while the press blogged, tweeted, and then tweeted about their blogs. But the overall air had strange feeling to it… there seemed to be a sense of disappointment to everything.
There were new features, but not all the features that could have been. And the design changed, but it didn’t really change-change… what gives? Apple has implicitly promised that every product they release is world-changing. Towers fall, paradigms shift, angels weep with tears of sugar and honey.
But with paradigms still firmly sitting in everyone’s pantry, there’s a sense of disappointment from both sides of the fence.
This four-ounce 2.31 by 4.87 inch box can take panoramic photos, check-in your flights, and play music from a cloud.
And the best critique of that is “Well, this other phone already does that for a cheaper price.”
How incredibly wonderful is that? These magical boxes send signals into the sky to access the entire sum collection of human knowledge—and we are bored because we could already do that.
Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy. Well, except me. I’m pretty jazzed about the whole situation.
As a sidenote, Louis CK will be visiting Minneapolis on October 4th and 5th.
Empathy, like anything else, is a skill. It can be learned, practiced, or forgotten. Think for a moment about a piece of art or cultural expression that you completely and utterly do not understand. It might be this, or this, or this… They seem like strange and obtuse things in this world, like the crazy uncle who shows up to family reunions. But empathy is not an exercise with things you already care about, empathy is a skill that derives most value when applied to what you would normally dismiss.
Let’s try this exercise on two seemingly opposite categories of art. I’ve always struggled to appreciate classical art. I didn’t hate it but I found it boring and irrelevant. I didn’t understand why Romeo didn’t just run away with Juliet and forget the haters. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the confounding modern series called Twilight. Why couldn’t Bella just nut up and get over Edward? The answer lies in the mindset of the audience. In this case, both Shakespeare and Meyer alike are speaking to a particularly passionate and emotional stage of romantic relationships. To people who have lived and experienced those types of relationships, these stories resonate very deeply.
I began to see culture in a different light. I wondered what issues might plague the juggalos or the furries. I turned the eye on myself and tried to discover why I like the art I like. Why do tUnE-yArDs and african music resonate with me so much? I won’t delve into the specific reasons I discovered for my tastes, but I learned the importance of taking the time to make sense of that which we don’t immediately understand. This view of culture lends itself to empathy and unlocks the key to understanding art and audiences alike. In our work at Catalyst, this skill is fundamental to making successful technology. The apps and systems we create are rarely intended for us. We must adopt the mindset of our clients and users in order to create something that they find worthwhile. If we can’t understand where our audience is coming from, then we will certainly fail.
The world of podcasts is fantastic, but it can be hard to know where to start. Natalie and I made a quick round-up of podcasts each with an episode to get your feet wet.
This American Life
An on-going radio show, Ira Glass and his crew collect and produce short stories based on a weekly theme. Sublimely crafted, the stories come from all-over and range from funny to truly tragic.
Episode: “This I Used to Believe”
Design Matters with Debbie Millman
Debbie Millman, Partner and President of the Design Group at Sterling Brands, interviews various designers about their work and lives. Millman dives deep asking about how designers built their career, or developed certain philosophies and ideas. She keeps the conversation at a steady clip while blending in her own opinions and stories.
Episode: “Alex Bogusky and John Bielenberg”
Roman Mars feels like a candymaker to me. He blends a calm narration of a story paced with music cut perfectly morsels of nougat and chocolate. Each episode is around the ten minutes mark which makes for an easy listen when you get a break.
Episode: “Frozen Music”
NPR Planet Money
Planet Money episodes usually consists of a brief check of latest financial news, and a larger story that the staff had been researching. The stories aren’t number-based, but rather stay on the human-interest side of things. The energetic reporters keep things bouncing along despite the normally dour news.
Episode: “Does Medicaid Actually Help People?”
A British podcast hosted by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. Each episode is an interview with a philosopher revolving around their particular research expertise. The two hosts do a great job of parsing the more complex concepts while delving deeper into the subject matter.
Episode: “Mark Vernon on Friendship”
New Yorker: Out Loud
The format of the “Out Loud” series has changed slightly from its older incarnations. Each episode provides a recap of the articles published in the print edition of the magazine. They then pick one of the articles’ authors, and record an extended discussion about the article’s topic.
Episode: “The dramatic effect of e-books on book publishers.”
Stuff to Blow Your Mind
Listeners of Stuff To Blow Your Mind are often confronted with the nagging desire to contribute little known facts to everyday conversations. Somehow, everything becomes a segue into musical hallucinations, ethical robots, the Stendhal Syndrome, or gay animals. You’ll be a wealth of knowledge but beware, you likely won’t remember much of anything beyond a cursory explanation.
Episode: “This is your brain on art”
Radiolab is in the same vein as This American Life where in each episode they collect stories that relate to a chosen theme. They lean much more in the science world, finding odd curiosities and relating them back to human-interest stories. Radiolab is worth listening if only to hear the hosts’, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, infectious enthusiasm for the stories they find.
Episode: “Musical Language”
Have you listened to any awesome podcasts lately? What are some of your favorites and why?
Our eyesight, hearing, even the way our brains work are the result of two forces:
- countless, random genetic mutations that turned out not to kill us, and
- our ancestors avoiding predators and not falling off cliffs long enough to breed.
Life is infinitely complex, but the rules are fairly straightforward. If you’re able to detect the rustling of the leaves before your buddy, you can start running from the bear sooner. And if you have large floppy ears, but you’re able to breed more successfully, the human race becomes a species of large floppy-eared creatures.
I see companies and corporations the same way I see organisms and evolution. Some are large hulking behemoths that lumber across borders and stock markets. Others are tiny hummingbirds that only feed on one type of orchid. For the longest time, companies existed like floating microbes in the ocean. If it brushed against amino acids, it would eat it. If something was pricking its cell walls, it would run away. They simply reacted.
Today, we welcome the age of social media - Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. These social platforms are a company’s eyeballs, ears, and vocal chords. We’re given an immediate sense of the world around us, an ability to better react to changes, even act before any changes occur. And as empowering as that is, dealing with a constant flood of new information can be disorienting.
Learning how to separate the noise from critical insights requires both a strong intuition and a strategy. And it’s safe to say that only the fittest will survive in this new social environment. At Catalyst, our goal is not to proclaim who’s the “best” at social media, but to build long-term strategies that improve the relationship between a company and its customers. We’re rewiring our brains to see social media not as an extension of the brand, but as the brand itself. People connecting with people.
Because when was the last time you were impressed by the guy who bragged, “Man, I have the best eyesight ever,” but then fell off a cliff?
How do you view social media survival?
What is your company doing today to become the fittest?
This summer will surely be remembered fondly as the season of the superhero. There are plenty of awesomely geek-tastic comic book movies showing on the big screen this year, marking the undeniable cinematic rise of the superhero (again). With the most recent, The Avengers, and soon to be released The Amazing Spiderman, The Dark Knight Rises, and Superman: Man of Steel, there is an outpouring of big-budget superhero movies coming your way.
But let’s step back, look past Captain America’s sexy, seeeexy biceps, and take a look at the films that came before these sure-to-be blockbuster hits. Just a year or so ago, there were several films highlighting the “Batman theory” - see enough injustice and any human could and should become a superhero, “super” perhaps being optional, depending on your pain tolerance and financial means. Movies like Kickass, Scott Pilgrim VS the World, and Super highlight this idea; given the right evil to fight and/or the right amount of insanity, regular joes will resort to sewing up a latex suit, finding and accepting (albeit cautiously) a sidekick, and fighting the powers that be in the name of heroism.
Now refocus on Captain America’s biceps. Okay, now look away, they’re like the sun.
Yes, Superman, Spiderman, Batman, etc. are characters we are familiar with, we’ve seen the prequels and the sequels and maybe even the television shows but this year, Hollywood is revisiting them with millennials in mind. We are a generation no longer driven by money (because seriously, there is none), rather we are ideators, dreamers, believing we can be the next big thing, changing society for the better and maybe walking away with a cool billion in our pockets. We want to do good because we’ve been left with a whole lot of bad. Movies and music have always reflected cultural climate. We create in order to understand the world around us - sometimes we dive deep into our pain, produce a heart-wrenching Denzel movie or wallow with Arcade Fire. Sometimes we sugar-coat our problems, bathing them in squeaky clean pop music and Disney movies where the day is always saved.
The beginning of the Cold War brought with it a new fear - the fear of nuclear power. The 60s were a high tension point in the clash between the world’s titans, bringing to light the nation’s worries of nuclear destruction. And our superheroes responded. The Fantastic Four were brought to life through cosmic radiation. Gamma radiation brought the Hulk out of his lab coat. Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider, became our arachnid hero, Spiderman. We dealt with fear by bringing heroic goodness out of nuclear disaster.
The reawakening of the Cold War in the 80s brought us new heroes. Nuclear waste created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Toxic Avenger. Radiation transformed wimpy Jon Osterman into the superhuman, Dr. Manhattan, capable of ending wars and bringing victory to the American troops, in the Watchmen.
And then the 90s arrived. Our wars were over and our greatest problems were scheduling our Tamagotchi’s lunchtime around our own and which Backstreet Boy was the best (obviously AJ). Superheroes became fun again, comical even. We let George Clooney and Michael Keaton pass as acceptable Batmen and our greatest villains were Danny Devito and Jim Carrey. We dressed up as Power Rangers and with every plastic ring worn, we attempted to call Captain Planet.
So today, with economic crisis and constant threat of new wars, how do the superheroes respond? They aren’t here to calm our fears through their own powers. This time, they are here to empower, to show they are just like us, that we too can possess their heroism. They are here to help us save ourselves.
It was a curious thing. At the time, Facebook barely made sense itself, much less this feature that was never explained. So we clicked it, chuckled, and collectively moved on. But every once-in-awhile, someone new would join and start asking questions about this-and-that. And inevitably the poke would come up.
“What is this?”
The group would answer, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s nothing”. And while everyone would agree, someone would inevitably tell a little story about how they used it once, or a long time ago.
“I got into a poke war with my best friend.”
“One time, I accidentally poked a girl I liked.”
These stories were a revelation to me. Here’s this little lowly link on this website that did absolutely nothing, and yet there were stories, there were implications of social etiquette. People were imbuing this action with no function with well, something…ish.
Now the other actor, the Like. This button had a purpose. It was declarative. “I see this, and in my opinion, I approve.” This Facebook feature is omnipresent. You can like a post, a photo — you can even like whole websites on the website itself.
I talk about the Poke and the Like together because they illustrate the state of, not just social platforms, but the internet today. Facebook is a toolbox, helping people perform social tasks. And while it’s one of the most complicated toolboxes created thus far, it’s still incredibly inadequate in expressing the full range of human communication and emotion.
The Poke and the Like speak to these inadequacies. The Poke is too ambiguous, people form their own meanings, but it doesn’t immediately translate. Perfect for an inside joke, but doesn’t scale otherwise. While the Like is sharper, it still demonstrates the need for more nuance. It reveals the platform’s weaknesses. It can’t yet account for dislike, disdain, fervent support, apathetic acknowledgement, or enthusiastic love.
The internet doesn’t yet know how to love.
The videogame industry is nearly 40-years old, and brought in $74 billion dollars last year alone. World of Warcraft has 10.3 million subscriptions (each with a monthly charge of $15). Motion-sensor cameras let you move your entire body, while broadband connects you to anyone playing anywhere in the world at any time. The television station, G4, was the first of its kind, creating content geared specifically towards videogamers - it’s not the greatest television, but it does exist. The “geeks” have grown up playing games and are now teaching their own kids how to game. The videogame industry has become its own entity, existing alongside movies and music - a staple part of our culture.
So what is a casual game, and what is gamification?
The easiest mark of a casual game is where it exists. If it lives on your phone, or inside Facebook - it is most likely a casual game, like Cityville or Draw Something. Instead of shooting aliens or saving Princesses, casual gaming tasks the gamer with simple actions, that can be done repetitively and continuously.
As a genre, they are fairly innocuous diversions, so why is it significant to talk about casual games?
The biggest reason: they completely destroyed the zero-sum game.
Back in the 90s, there were the “Console Wars”. Companies like Nintendo, Sega, Sony, (and later Microsoft) were all fighting, primarily over eight year-olds. Their market share was the collective allowances of kids, and maybe how weak their parents were to begging. There were a finite number of kids, so if one dollar went to Nintendo, then a dollar was lost for Sega or Sony or Microsoft.
Casual games changed that. Eight year-olds aren’t necessarily playing Cityville, but their moms are, and their uncles, and their aunts, and their cousins… The accessibility and playability hasn’t stolen market share, in fact, it has created new markets. As aforementioned, World of Warcraft has 10.3 million monthly subscriptions, while Cityville has six million people playing every single day. These are brand-new gamers, people who don’t know Mario & Luigi, but are now spending 99 cents here or $2.99 there to build a gas station in their virtual city.
These games are engineered for new demographics. Easy to start playing, ubiquitous (always on your phone reminding you to build houses), and socially-binding (you always know when your Facebook friends do something on the same game.) Which leads to the other fundamental development of gaming culture: the psychology of addiction has matured. The principles of rewarding players at certain tasks, having your friends play to make it a localized place to socialize, time-delaying certain aspects to encourage returning - these concepts have been refined over the past decades, and are now being tracked down to the click for these “casual” games.
Which leads the other gaming shift: gamification. To “gamify” something is to apply these principles to non-traditional gaming environments. Adding rewards for reading a blog, or collecting points for posting comments. To be able to track your “progress” for shopping, and compare it against other shoppers is a new level of granular psychology that wasn’t possible before the ubiquity of internet usage. You are no longer “keeping up with the Jones’ family” but also the Smiths, the Adeoyes, and the Chengs.
Tim Roger’s essay on Casual Games: who killed videogames? (a ghost story)
Brian Reynolds, Chief Designer at Zynga: A brief interview of Reynolds about how casual games differ from traditional videogames.
Our client, Devil’s Advocate is officially opening the doors TODAY @ 3PM. Featuring over 40 taps, a wide selection of wine, and a full bar, welcome to your new favorite spot, Minneapolis. Check out their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter. or BOTH.
Drink. Debate. Defend.
Oh hey there, blog readers. Welcome to the first Q&A session with one of Catalyst’s best and brightest, Béla Vander Voort (yeah, that’s a real name). Fueled by Diet Coke and the intensely competitive pull-up battle currently happening here at the office, Béla is a master coder, short-short wearer, and Chipotle consumer. Let’s ask him a few questions.
- Hannah: So what is your title, besides “exceptional employee #4”, which you have listed on your business cards?
Béla: I guess my more official title is lead developer.
- H: Morgan Freeman or Samuel L. Jackson? and why?
- B: Samuel L. Jackson, because he was in Pulp Fiction. And he was a bad ass muthaf***er. Obviously.
- H: What is your favorite current project?
- B: Right now it’s Marketing Partner Agreements because of all the new code I’m rewriting, that’s always fun. I’m getting to solve new problems. I imagine Béla was any teacher’s favorite student, “getting” to solve new problems.
- H: Who’s your favorite spice girl?
- B: uh, F. none of the above.
- H: Fine, I’ll write that down, but if any of them read this…
- B: They’re going to be very disappointed. I sense no remorse from Béla.
- H: Any significance to your stellar name?
- B: I’m actually named after the famous composer, Béla Bartók. COOL.
There you have it. Stay tuned for more Q&A’s with the staff here at Catalyst.