MiT5 – Disruptive Practices, Reproducing Images and Brand Strategy/Consumption Practices

The next morning came early. I was moderating a panel at 9:00 so I got into Kendal just after 8:00. I wandered around a bit taking pictures and talking with people and before I knew it I was running to make it to the panel before it started. (I made it with time to spare.)

Disruptive Practices
The panel was on Disruptive Practices. The first presenter was my old college chum Jim Cypher. Jim is doing media art through Somerville Community Access Television and is also the operations manager at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum.

Cypher showed a handful of videos that he’s created. Most of them were around vaguely (and is some cases explicitly) political themes. They included no narrative or interpretation and left it to the viewer to draw whatever conclusions they saw fit. The content itself was conceptual and generally repetitive but effective (if blunt) in conveying meaning withing the interpretive limits mentioned above.

Following the videos Cypher did a brief presentation on the idea behind disruptive mixing and mashups. One interesting point that he raised (and which all of the panelists did in one way or another) was around identity and the use of anonymity for creating this type of content. My own feelings on identity as ambivalent. Sometimes I feel that social media content and communication should always be done under ones own name and identity; but I also understand that there are times and cases where that can’t happen. In those cases, maintaining a persistent alter ego seems like the appropriate thing to do.

The next panelist was Jay Critchley. Jay is a visual/conceptual artist and his videos and presentation were mind boggling. Critchley incorporates his ideas on a regular basis. Establishing corporations allows him access and freedom that he might not receive as an individual.

He showed a handful of projects that he’s worked on that certainly deserved to be called disruptive. One was his submission to the Army Corps of Engineers for the development of Nantucket Sound. It included remaking the island as Martucket Eyeland and featured some outlandish ideas and suggestions for improvement. Now lots of people might come up with interesting ideas like this, but Jay takes it a step further. Not only does he have the ideas, he also develops them and has incorporated several companies to promote his ideas and bring them to whatever degree of fruition they might achieve.

Another one of his projects was the Old Glory Condom Corporation. Started as the realization of an idea first presented at an exhibition at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT in 1989, Old Glory Condoms went on to market condoms with a trademark incorporated the US flag and a condom. This led to the trademark’s initial rejection – a decision that did not stand.

During his presentation Critchley also aired video to illustrate ways that people are engaging with content in new ways. One example he used was a group of singers covering the Oreo cookie jingle. As I watched and thought about the idea of disruptive media and its application, I wondered how easily it might be co-opted. Unintentionally, the next speakers provided a hint.

Next up were Ben Mako Hill and Elizabeth Stark. He is at the Media Lab and she Harvard Law (which I mistakenly referred to as HBS and was quickly corrected. They discussed different – and often controversial – approaches to copyright: reformist (which aims to make current system work), Utopian (which seeks a new approach that builds on what is already in place) and transgressive (which rejects current thinking on copyright and encourages actions that challenge the current system).

They discussed the fact that copyright was essentially focused on the rights of the creator paid little attention to the rights of content users. The transgressive model seeks to challenge this thinking and is represented through the growing “pirate politics” that has emerged in various forms around the world. The most recognized example has been Sweden there the Torrent site PirateBay has spawned a full-blown political movement.

They also cited a case in France where Aziz Ridouan, a high school student has become a visible and outspoken advocate for piracy. Ridouan gained prominence by voicing his opinions of copyright laws during a press conference of the French equivalent of the RIAA.

One interesting point that came up during discussions of his situation touches on the issue of co-opting ideas and individuals for commercial or political gain. In the case of Ridouan, there have been questions as to the part of the Socialist party in his becoming the public voice for transgressive copyright thinking in France. While neither Hill nor Stark supported or refuted the claim, it did raise the issues (in my mind at least) of transparency and authenticity.

The only other issue that I wondered about during this discussion (and during several points during the conference) is the fact that many people (at least in the online communities that I spend time in) try to justify piracy by citing the poor quality of many copyrighted films, TV shows and music. I’m never clear on why – if the content is so bad – people want it in the first place whether it is free or not.


Reproducing Images

The next session I attended was Reproducing Images. Let me admit right here that I thought it was going to have something to do with Flickr and how images are shared. It wasn’t. It had more to do with how images can be used to convey meaning beyond their content and how content consumers have understood and interpreted visual information. While much of what was being discussed was interested it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was also highly academic and so was not, in the end, an especially interesting session for me.

Brand Strategy and Consumption Practices
I next was moderating the session Brand Strategy and Consumption Practices. This was absolutely fascinating to me – and not for the reasons I had assumed. I was imagining a discussion of how brand is conveyed and how it is changing. What was discussed instead was how brand is understood and can be studied in the current media environment. Because I was moderating the session I was unable to take notes as I now wish I had been able.

Zvezdan Vukanovic, the senior advisor for media analytics for the Government of Montenegro started off with a discussion of the interactive television and its role as a brand building tool. How can one really define interactivity with so formal a media channel as television – and how interactive can television as a channel really be?

Interactivity in the cases he described seemed to be limited to the ability to access increasingly discreet content pools (enabled by the fragmentation of the channel), the ability to get additional and deeper content on topics (or brands) of interest and to interact with brands through games, etc. His content was interesting but it described only a very limited form of brand interactivity.

One area that he touched on briefly though was the idea of peer-to-peer interactivity through enhanced television service and how this could give rise to user-defined branding. I think that this is something that happens naturally among people through unmediated channels and interactions but wondered how this type of thing would work in a medium like television where advertising and sponsors are so central to the content. Would they feel comfortable paying for a communications channel that could be harmful to their brands?

Andrew Feldstein, a doctoral candidate at Pace University went next. He discussed the ways in which consumers co-opt brands and build communities around shared experience. These communities, he pointed out, were originally started around tangible brands. What has been the impact, he wondered, of the divorce of the physical from the brand? And how do you validate, view and interpret what is essentially a nameless/faceless brand community?

Answering this question is at the root of the research he is doing. How can one measure and understand the attitudes of a brand community without a tangible good or a physical community? To do this, Feldstein has developed some deep analytic tools and has begun applying them to discreet communities that share some attributes (in this case, the negative attitudes toward Microsoft Vista within both the Macintosh and Ubuntu communities) but are, as it turns out, dramatically different in the underlying reasons for their shared opinions.

The complexity of his methodology – and the clarity and implications of his findings – were fascinating. As someone involved in marketing, I’d never seen so much information about the attitudes of brand communities distilled and presented. By Feldstein’s own admission, this work is still at a very early stage. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it though as I try to understand (and help clients understand) how brand communities operate in the online environment.

The sessions final presenters were Masahiko Kambe and Yuichi Washida, both of the Japanese advertising agency Hakuhodo. (Washida is also a research affiliate at CMS.) Their topic was word of mouth (WOM) and how a more developed understanding of the concept could be achieved and whether messages in word of mouth communication could be effectively controlled.

As was the case with Feldstein, Kambe and Washida based their comments on extremely deep and comprehensive research. They looked at two classes of WOM – common WOM (which is essentially people sharing commonly-known information about a brand) and gap WOM (which involves people with greater amounts of information sharing it in a way that increases their audiences understanding).

The research they presented was around the impact of WOM (in Japan) on the Toyota Yaris brand. They measured the impact of various media types (print, TV and online advertising; newspaper and magazine articles; etc) on common and gap WOM and found (one surprisingly) that different media types had different effects on WOM activity.

They also looked at how increasing the frequency of exposure to these media types would impact WOM and found that in some cases increases made the communication less effective. Given the general interest in WOM, I am hoping to get my hands on their detailed findings when I am able. As is the case with understanding the behavior of brand communities online, this research on the channels that influence WOM and their effectiveness was fascinating.

Of the sessions I participated in during the first part of the day, the one on brand consumption was the most interesting and the one who’s lessons I most want to understand and apply to my own work. I was disappointed by the image session but that had more to do with my expectations rather than the content that was presented. All-in-all, a good and thought-provoking set of sessions and information.

[tags]MIT, MiT5, Media in Transition, Disruption, Jim Cypher, Jay Critchley, Ben Mako Hill, Elizabeth Stark, Brand Strategy, Brand Communities, Zvezdan Vukanovic, Andrew Feldstein, Masahiko Kambe, Yuichi Washida[/tags]

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