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Google Cardboard, the New York Times: Wonder Bread for the Mind? & Other Questions on Virtual Reality

Did you get a chance to check out the new VR content from the New York Times that was made available to print subscribers this weekend with its distribution of one million of the very cleverly designed, super low tech, Google Cardboards sporting both the New York Times logo alongside the somewhat ironic placement of the GE logo?
If so, did you get a chance to view the well made documentary short, The Displaced?   And if you could get through it without feeling ill, (I could not) what was your reaction?   Was it compassion for the subjects? Was it amazement at the novelty of a new media experience? Was it both?  Can it be both? Can compassion and the call to action that is the raison d’etre for documentary films be best fulfilled in a medium that is the most immersive experience that technology has yet offered us for widespread use?  The Times, to its credit, is aiming to find out.  But are we, as cutting edge consumers, willingly experimenting upon ourselves?

Clip from The Displaced Documentary Short

iPhone Screen Grab; The Displaced

The story of 3-D media is a twisted one, with various goes at the technology over the years many of which have not stood up well. Recall the famously documented paper glasses with red and green cellophane lenses of the 1950’s to the recent, and more obscure 3-D glasses with rapidly firing alternating shutters for each eye that is worn in front of your HD television to stimulate stereo perception of two superimposed images.

Camp of Pawnee Indians on the Platte Valley, 1866. John Carbutt for the Union Pacific Rail Road

Camp of Pawnee Indians on the Platte Valley, 1866. John Carbutt for the Union Pacific Rail Road

Among the most successful, and perhaps the oldest, are the stereographs that rose to prominence in the Victorian age with which the lady and gentleman of the age could indeed immersive into the almost tamed west of the Union Pacific Rail Road and the similarly  displaced Pawnee.  Similarly successful were the ViewMaster toys of the middle twentieth century with their circular paper transparency mounts that specialized in what essentially were 3-D, photographic comic strips featuring kid favorites such as Charlie Brown and Walt Disney characters.

GAF ViewMater Gift c 1970

Good Grief, Charlie Brown.  Is this really necessary?

Both the stereographs and the ViewMaster slides are fun and distracting (in the good way) for short periods of time.  Among serious minded viewers, stereo image analysis has long been a mainstay among intelligence professionals and researchers for many years.  But for average folks like us, 2-D seems to have stood the test of time as a medium of both enjoyment and learning from the prehistory of cave paintings to iMax at the multiplex.   And that may be because that’s all many people’s brains can handle comfortably, at least on daily basis when we are intent on consuming a purely visual phenomenon.

As I was looking at The Displaced on my smartphone, my conscious attention was mainly taken up the novelty of the 360 degree experience with secondary attention paid to the content. My subconscious mind, meantime, is trying to knit together the synthetic world on the screen as I twisted and turned left and right, up to down minus the sensing of much of my “real” surroundings.  24 hours later, I’m still mildly vertiginous, this after viewing just a few minutes of the short.  Clearly, as promising as this technology is, and as much as I think there will be really good uses for “immersive” media, something important is at play here that needs to looked at with extreme caution.  In the meantime, I think I will take a pass on the next installment.

More experimentation will have to be done to reveal the solutions for the dizziness and nausea that afflicts many. The slight angling of the head that occurs that tells your phone accelerometer to tilt both images might also be upsetting.   Other image processing factors such as image resolution, screen refresh rate and field of vision coverage will also be looked at.  But all this is the easy part.

Cognitive researchers will have to look even deeper, I think.  Is more “immersive” truly more positively affective in the sense that the craft of journalistic story telling is moved forward in its ability to inform and touch us? Or is this current iteration of virtual reality an end unto itself that does not connect us to a more authentic understanding? (Here is a potential positive: 360 degree views removes, in part, the context robbing frame around an image an editorializing photographer or videographer imparts though selective framing.)

Did the first listeners to radio and the first viewers of TV suffer from the sort of cognitive dissonance trying to rationalize the medium with the message? Will the 3 year old of today process the new VR content without ill effect as long as we start them young with Google Cardboard strapped on their heads for several hours a day?   And if so, how should we use the neuroplasticity of the brain to approach “formatting” it to suit VR comprehension? Should we trust large, publicly traded companies to expand their frontiers into our minds?

Is there a lesson of history here?  Think of the effect that the transcontinental railroad had on Native American peoples of the 1860’s as the Central and Union Pacific Railroads opened a new frontier, not only in transportation, but in media as well, accomplished with the direct financial support of the United States.  Yes, I stretch, but hints abound, even within something as seemingly innocuous as a randomly found stereograph at the Library of Congress used to illustrate this article.

Will the New York Times’ distribution of one million of these super cheap 3-D viewers become the game changer that will move “virtual reality” and “immersive” imaging into the mainstream?  Will we be putting ourselves on a Wonder Bread for the brain diet, pure content without the roughage of reality needed keep us intellectually (and physically) healthy and civilly engaged.  The Times and other media companies will have to move carefully into the VR realm.  Yes, content distribution must and will change.  Yes, humankind always will and should develop new models for story telling which is the essence of learning. And yes, in the same way that the Times is a nominal standard bearer of a disciplined journalism subject to verification and fact checking, I think they and other media companies, along with their staff and contributors,  will have to apply a new rigor on behalf of their readership (!) as they move into new cognitive territory.

Google Error 400

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Fun Things To Do With Google . . . If You Want to be Really Productive

Google is a great search engine. It does cool things, like successfully retype my query when I enter the wrong text. The playful Google Doodles are fun and educational. Heck, search “fun things to do with Google” and you will find that using Google is indeed more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

But Google has been kind of a drag over the past year. Search mavens who wanted to avoid the clutter and get to the best results used an easily accessible trick. They simply went to the More  drop-dopwn at the top of the search page and chose search and network types of interest. Among them was Discussions, But in January of last year. It disappeared.

Google Error 400

Well what do you know: The error message generated from the old discussion search code that now returns this disingenious message.

I was clearly indiscreet as I was easily heard muttering unmentionable words in the library quiet surrounding my cubby hole upon finding my trusty search buddy went missing. Dauntless, nonetheless, I found this discussion (really!) at Google Groups and this blog post at Search Engine Roundtable where the disenfranchised commiserated.

So there it sat for a while. My searches using Firefox were plodding and unproductive. Sometime later, I found Discussions nested under the More drop-down in Google Chrome. Weird, but giving them an uncritical the benefit of the doubt, I figured that’s cool, a perk of using their speedy browser and moved along. But, alas, that disappeared also.

So the whole purpose of this post is to ask, because I know, Google, that you and your friends are listening, is this: “Google, would you please bring back discussion search?” And, on behalf of all the souls in search of a better search, would you please bring back all that other stuff that our brothers and sisters searchers say you have taken from us?

The only reason I can offer you to oblige these requests is the only question I can think of that is its own answer: Why not?

But here’s the thing. I found it. In fact, if you search “fun things to do with google” and drop down More, there it is. At your command.


For a moment I felt sinfully proud of myself, but quickly recomposed myself and then had the presence of mind to copy the code. Paste the code  below into the search field. I hope you find it useful.

Search Term(s) inurl:forum|viewthread|showthread|viewtopic|showtopic|”index.php?topic” | intext:”reading this topic”|”next thread”|”next topic”|”send private message”

In fact, looking at the old Google group discussion mentioned above, the same solution was posted. Find the comment by Oolong Johnson near the bottom of Page 21.  Same thing. This should work in any browser if you’re not a Chrome user.

And if you are a Chrome fan, just updated, is this extension by Levi Melamed for Chrome, Discussions button for Google Search.

Search in happiness.

P.S. Thanks for listening, Google!  (And keeping it fun!)

UPDATED May 2: The code posted previously for discussion search did not work. It’s fixed. A couple of other edits were made, too.

Aeroplane.jpg - copyright E. S. Michelon

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Mayday, Mayday! I’m losing Facebook data!

Along with the warming days of spring a chill on social listening will soon be upon us. On May 1, 2015 Facebook will have retired their Graph API 1.0 and with that goes the capability to perform a key word search on posts across all publicly facing pages. For social media listening types, who get no small measure of satisfaction in finding that haystack needle with their painstakingly constructed, linguistically tuned Boolean search query, this is a loss.

But just how big a deal is it the end for the big brand monitoring team looking for brand threats that start small but could turn big? What is the impact on customer service managers trolling to turn sour customer experiences into sweet victory?

Some perspective on Facebook. It’s big, really big. Facebook’s Q1 2015 earnings report states that the number of monthly active users is up 13% from 2014 to a truly awe inspiring 1.44 billion people. That represents about half of everyone on the internet1. That, friends, is a lot of human beings gathered under a single tent. No wonder this is getting so much attention.

Why, Facebook, why hath thee hidden your very face from thee? Well, according to them, improved privacy. So for Facebook, rightly bludgeoned by privacy advocates over the years, it seems like another small step forward for members following another small victory with a slimmed down privacy policy rolled out earlier this year.

From now on data is shared exclusively through their partner DataSift. Keyword data will only be available in anonymized format but with key demographics intact from both public and privately exchanged messages. Importantly, nothing will be exposed through DataSift’s PYLON API unless there are 100 or more messages, as an extra layer to insure user privacy. In addition, DataSift’s analytics engine is said to add out of the box insight to all that unstructured data. DataSift’s details on that are here. So, in one sense, what they are offering is more leaves and fewer stems in their data salad to hungry marketers.

But it appears we can call it a day for those listening in on the publicly accessible Facebook “stories”, comments, likes and shares through social media listening platforms for single mentions from identifiable individuals. As of this writing, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that sort of data will be available in the near future. So, for example, a customer service issue shared among friends but not toward a company’s page won’t be easily found. Neither, for that matter, will other useful information be easily accessible such as activism or other threat mentions against a company that take place away from that company’s web page.

But there is a strategy for keeping some Facebook in your diet through your social media listening and analytics platform. They may already have a list of Facebook pages that they regularly visit and scrape, but they may not align with your needs. You can provide a list of sites to them for them to add to their daily crawls. While functions vary from product to product, you can use your existing queries to find the most prolific and the most engaged Facebook pages and hand them off to your account manager. This is far from a perfect solution because it only provides for search on the pages you already know about. Clearly we want to always find what we don’t know about. But that will take extra sleuthing, perhaps cross-referencing URLs with posts from other social networks. If you have other strategies, please let me know!

While it is fair to say this is a blow to those of us who want to make the lives of our customers and prospects better as they deal with the companies we work for, it’s not the end of the world. And a strong argument can be made for the privacy protections that appear to be the motivation here. One thing I certainly won’t miss is all the sham accounts clogging up my feed. Nonetheless, I look forward to a workable solution that allows me to discover customer issues and find a way to solve them. Furthermore, while it may not be what I do in an average day, it is also fair to consider how this change will hinder identification of those rare but real threats made against another being in a single public post.


Update:  I’ve received an email question from a Linked-in colleague.  The answer was too long to post there.

Q:  Eric, thank you for articulating what a lot of us are discussing regarding the end of the Facebook world as we know it (and I feel fine!). Regarding what you wrote about how you”…discover customer issues and find a way to solve them”, is Facebook really the main source of discovering customer issues? Or is Twitter? Theoretically, with the new Pylon, you’ll be able to discover customer issues but on a more macro level through analytics from demographics and using sentiment analysis.

A:  You’re welcome and thank you for reading the post.

Twitter certainly has the most famous reputation as the social venue for customer service issues, but in my experience, the most actionable complaints occur in discussion forums. Twitter is second and Facebook (and even Instagram) come in next and finally blog posts. But I get how Twitter has changed the mindset on social service, especially because it’s quite easy to determine a great deal of information about the poster, including their name, numbers of followers, websites and all that.  It’s relatively easy to engage and take an issue offline.

In discussion boards, measurements of influence are idiosyncratic to the board’s architecture, and things like the number of discussion views don’t get aggregated by listening platforms. But these boards do get read! Forums are the place for “specialist” discussion while Twitter is a life blogging platform. Just about every industry has it’s discussion forums so I would urge listening teams to take them quite seriously, not only from a customer service perspective, but also from an overall brand insights perspective.

As I mentioned in the post, “other useful information . . . such as activism or other threat mentions against a company,” is a big deal on Facebook. I’d like to know about these things before 100 mentions are made available through Pylon. 100 mentions by members with average followers of 500 is 50,000 potential impressions. It sure would be nice to know if someone is talking about a letter writing campaign to the boss before the emails start rolling in.

So I guess it’s a matter of perspective. My perspective is that every customer counts and even single mentions can be constructive. DataSift and Facebook have a different perspective. That’s ok, too.

Thanks, again.

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Ethical Web Data Scraping and Aggregation

We are increasingly living our public and personal lives on the Internet. For many of us, this is unavoidable as we seek to improve our careers and gather or share information to improve our quality of life or the quality of life of friends, family and business colleagues. The question that confronts those of us who work with “user generated media” (UGM) is, what information is fair, reasonable and legal to collect and what isn’t?

This post is the starting point here at for building upon the Code of Ethics for Social Data being considered by the Big Boulder Initiative.

I will start under the assumption that readers of this post work with or have an interesting in the analysis of user generated social media content. If you’re really interested in the voice of the online community, and have the money, you will likely want a tool(s) to find and aggregate the specific data you are interested in and will contract with a firm that will scrape and package the data on our behalf. This info graphic at Social Media Today presents some,  and there are dozens and dozens of others and still the list is not complete.  An entire industry has grown up scraping, storing, categorizing and selling UGM and, depending upon the company, offering varying levels of automated and bespoke analysis .

Some sites don’t want to be scraped. The voluntary robots.txt standard offers sample code that sites can place to inform web spiders and crawlers that they don’t want to be scraped. Additionally, sites can place limits on spiders from visiting too often. (The scraping process is basically a download from the site’s server that takes up some site resources.) Keeping in mind that data aggregators’ success is largely tied up in having the most complete data set available, what constraints should they adhere too? The robots.txt standard alone? Legal issues governing the collection this data could change given the right sets of circumstances. Indeed, there are a variety of potential constraints to content scraping and aggregating as summarized in this excellent overview by Snell and Care at Bloomberg BNA.

Some communities are private, requiring password authentication by a site member in order to access the content. NMIncite, the Nielsen and McKinsey joint venture that operated the now departed My BuzzMetrics social aggregation platform, was called out quite publicly in the Wall Street Journal for violating the terms of service for their collection of the private personal health care discussions at

Eye Graphitto.jpg

Eyes Only?

Personally, I am inclined to do business with a firm that shares my disposition in adhering to the highest possible professional and ethical standards. A data aggregator that offers transparency in their collection processes, and follows a meaningful code of ethics would be an excellent candidate in a vendor selection process.

If you or I post information into publicly accessible blogs, forums, Twitter, Yelp and so on, then it is currently fair game for scraping, collection and analysis. As such, my posts are generally not personal.  Knowing that “the world” is watching, storing and potentially analyzing my online presence, I try to take on a tone of positivity and affirmation rather than negation, even within a critical analysis. While others may not make the same choices that I do, laying bare intimate details of their lives and the lives of others, all are entitled to a measure of protection and privacy, even if they don’t think they need it.

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The Big Boulder Initiative’s Code of Ethics for Social Data

In their June 5th post, the Big Boulder Initiative starts an important discussion about a code of ethics for the social data industry. The published draft code appears to be a discussion outline for a proposed code around four basic areas:

  1. Privacy and specifically the beginning of a discussion on how to handle personally identifiable information
  2. Transparency and Methodology – A basic discussion on providing context to data in the analysis stage in order give stakeholders insight into the conclusions reached
  3. Education – The facilitation of insights to stakeholders based on data findings free from “fear and hype”
  4. Accountability – This point discusses crisis management when things go awry


It’s a start for something that requires deep thinking from a diverse group of people like you and me.   In my reply I suggested that there needs to be more specificity on personal privacy protections,  a code for data collection by aggregators and brokers, and additional thought given to the rights of the content creators.  Where do you think a code of Social Data Code of Ethics needs to go and what should it include?


Eric Michelson



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Can Advertising Agencies Build Their Business With Social Listening?

I was recently asked to provide an overview of how an advertising agency can leverage online discussion to add value to their own business and those of their clients. I thought it worthwhile enough to share for a larger audience as the premiere post for this blog. This can also apply to an in-house marketing department willing to do their own research or any department that has an interest in understanding the online voice of the customer.

The social web is in many ways like a most amazing wild garden you could possibly imagine; rich with juicy fruits, crazy greens and wonderful fungi that can be harvested yet never depleted. Substitute opinions, ideas and personalities for our plants and mushrooms and possibilities for cooking up tasty insights begin to become apparent.

At the same time, the harvesting of these discussions is made easy by a wide array of digital “combines”, or social media aggregation and monitoring tools that can harvest, categorize and provide basic analytics to these mentions so that you don’t have search and count manually.   These tools allow you to harvest the entire social web that is relevant to your interests rather than having to pick at only a small portion of it.

As an advertising agency, what is that you can do with this data? Let’s start with the most ambitious

  1. Provide analytic insights that inform all levels of an organization’s activities in order to align organization activities: As the engine that drives creative engagement with a company, this may seem out of scope of your services.   But if you are thinking that way, you may be missing one of the biggest opportunities for expanding the relevancy and reach of your business. Leveraging the online voice of the customer is a key part of development of your strategy just as focus groups and surveys are. But because the online voice references so many parts of your clients’ business, you are in a unique position to offer them deep insights that strengthen both of your businesses.
  2. Inform product and services development: Want to know what consumers want without anybody looking at them through a two-way mirror or within the confines of a carefully constructed survey? Follow what they have to say to each other online, where ideas are floated, criticized, and honed.   Then, engage R&D, product management, marketing and sales because you were successful with point #1.
  3.  Provide insight to help develop ROI on strategy (not just social strategy): Ok, you can measure ROI by click-throughs and so on. Now take it further by measuring on topic mentions of your messages. But be patient, it takes some time for consumers to build awareness and buy-in to your message. But if you are not seeing that buy-in after some time, it might be time to rethink the strategy or tactics. (How much time? For a modest online only campaign it could take several months or more of carefully placed messaging.   The internet speeds the propagation of ideas, but it doesn’t necessarily speed up the acceptance of ideas. In fact, the initial reaction to an ultimately successful campaign might even be rejection of the ideas expressed!)
  4. Help inform creative direction in media and marketing strategy for products and services: Your client’s revolutionary product or your smart creative might not be so revolutionary or clever if nobody gets it. These sorts of misunderstandings can be much more quickly identified and sorted before too much time elapses. As you craft your creative and go-to-market strategy, you have the opportunity to tweak as necessary.

 What else? Assisting in crisis management, building non-marketing content for a website such as FAQs or other support and educational content.

All of these activities can only be supported by a well-designed, structured and systematic process under the direction of a skilled social media manager. Briefly – beyond your capability to get at the data, a system needs to be in place to analyze, categorize and rate the information.   As a systematic process, listening and analysis needs to be conducted on an ongoing basis with dedicated resources. Without these pieces, context and trending capability are lost.