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3D Printing

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Check out my newest piece on 3D Printing (which, by the way, is going to a huge new issue in social media, as plans for “counterfeit” items are exchanged everywhere) at the Life Sciences Now blog!

Revolution and Social Media – And What It Means For You

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In a post I did last October, I freely stole a lyric from Gil Scott-Heron, and asked whether The Revolution Will Be Reflected in Your Status Update. In light of what is going on in Egypt right now, it is a issue worth revisiting.

The central question in my post was whether social media is actually a force for social change at all.  This is not an idle question — and in fact has some fairly significant implications for business, regulation, legal risks and the even nature of our society.  In other words, almost everything worth thinking about. 

Much of the thinking on this issue at the time was driven by an article by famed public intellectual and New Yorker writer Malcom Gladwell.  Gladwell argues that, as I put it at the time, “the cloying triumphalism of social media advocates, those who claim that social media tools will help overthrow dictatorships and such, are nuts.”  As Gladwell puts it:

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

“Strong” ties between people are necessary in order to inspire people to put their lives at risk: mere acquaintances do not have that level of “buy in” to inspire revolution.  Social media, conversely, is about cultivating “weak” ties — capturing the interests of more people, rather than developing dedicated fanatics.  He makes a distinction between “motivation” and “participation”: Social media is fantastic at increasing participation of people already interested in a subject, it is not designed to increase the motivation of folks not already interested.  Motivation, Gladwell clearly believes, is the key to a successful revolution.

In light of what happened in Egypt, however, I have decided that Gladwell’s theory is completely misguided — and I have further concluded that Gladwell’s very wrongness has some profound implications for social media.

Revolution and social change (and, for that matter, the urge to buy a product or give up your privacy rights in exchange for game on Facebook) is not about trusting someone else with your life.  Instead, it is about the viral nature of ideas, and becoming convinced that something (the overthrow of a dictator, for example) is inevitable.  If you trust in the inevitability of something happening (or something becoming popular) you are free to buy into it, and it becomes more likely.  In other words, most people are not early adopters (of anything from social change to new technologies).  They need to be convinced that others are buying it too before they take the plunge.  That is the power of social media.

Another interesting angle on all of this, however, is that shortly after things really began to seem serious in Egypt, and social media had become a central part of the spread of demonstrations, the government turned off the Internet completely.  Now, as we all know you can’t really do a complete shutdown without turning off phone service (and satellite phones can still work even then) but this diminished mass access to Twitter and Facebook and similar social media tools for most of the population.  But, at a certain point, you don’t really need that access anymore if you are trying to inspire a revolution.  Once people think it is real enough, the mere fact that the Internet has been taken away may be confirmation that victory is at hand.

This brings me to another thing I discussed back in October:

It’s easy to divide the world up into “things that are important” and “things that aren’t,” but in many respects that’s a lazy outlook on life.  In fact, the semiotics of communication are the same whether you are trying to throw off the shackles of your oppression or figure out a way to start a new business.  This can seem superficially offensive, but it intuitively makes sense: in commerce, in your social existence and in politics you are trying to convince people to think and act in specific ways.  Social media is merely one more tool at your disposal.  Thus, it is important to understand the types of things it is good at doing, and the types of things it is less well suited for accomplishing on your behalf.

So what is social media good at?  It is good at connecting unaffiliated people who are interested in similar things.  It is good at delivering superficial messages.  It is good at branding.  It is good at keeping people up to date on what is going on.  Social media is good at keeping in touch with people, products or companies that do not demand constant attention.  Social media is good at encouraging small acts of creativity from large numbers of people.  Social media is good at sharing.

So in other words, if you have a good idea, a powerful idea, social media is an effective way to communicate it to lots of people and help the idea become viral.  If you have a lousy idea, it will not make it any better.  So whether the revolution will be televised, tweeted or e-mailed is less important, as I have noted before, than whether the inspiration is there in the first place.

Traveling – Posting To Resume Shortly

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Sorry for the lack of posts these past two weeks — my incessant travels have kept me from the blog.   And there is so much to write about at the moment!   Have no fear, however — posting will return in earnest right after the Thanksgiving holiday.

All apologies…

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Due to technical problems beyond our control, every permalink referring back to this site has been altered, and thus severed.  We are trying to fix this, but don’t let that stop you from looking around and admiring the furniture.  Thanks for your patience!

A random social media development that is deceptively important: Buying airline tickets on Facebook

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Delta Airlines has just announced that customers will soon be able to purchase tickets through a “ticket window” on its Facebook page.  Despite the routine nature of this announcement, this is actually quite important, as it marks yet another milestone in the transformation of the world’s largest social media site.  Facebook was originally a communication tool.  Then it was a marketing tool.  Then it was a gaming site.  Then it was a data mining tool.  Now, it has becoming an e-commerce platform.  This may cause you to wonder if Facebook’s goal is actually to create a private Internet, with all of the functionality of the Internet but with everything you might need under a single roof.   And yes, that appears to be their goal.  Google has noticed this too: in buying virtual currency site Jambool, Google hopes to create a worthy competitor to Facebook credits, and create a seamless social e-commerce experience of its own.

But what are the legal ramifications of these developments? If you are going to be doing more than merely advertising on social media, but will instead be engaging in some kind of actual commerce through a platform that you neither own nor control, perhaps using “currency” that merely represents real dollars, you need to understand how your terms of sale interact with the terms of use and privacy policies on the site.  You need to determine whether or not the data collected as part of the social media experience is going to undermine, in any way, your relationship with the customer.  What kind of things can go wrong, and who will be blamed if they do?  This is why it is always so important to track the ways in which your social media presence is changing, and to ensure that your online policies cover your new behavior.  Like a shark who dies if he stops swimming, remaining static in this vibrant and rapidly evolving social media space is a path to irrelevance.  But failing to note the real life impact of these changes on your legal position is just as unwise.

Is Apple really trying to “patent apps”? Defensive patenting explained!

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Many folks were distraught at the recent news that Apple had applied to register patents on a variety of basic app-related technologies (these applications become public 18 months after filing).  In particular, applications related to travel apps, hotel apps and shopping apps went public, seeking coverage on basic functionality like reservation modeling and promotions.

“Why would Apple do that?” asked a chorus of worried voices.  “Why would they try to kill an industry by asserting patents against everyone?”  One writer, clearly appalled, wrote that  

I really hope that U.S. Patent office will see through this Apple ruse, and quickly reject all these patent applications for mobile apps.

But is that really what’s happening here?  Is Apple trying to monopolize the space?  Probably not. 

Is it in Apple’s interest to crush the nascent app industry? That question pretty much answers itself.  Apple could not possibly create enough apps to satisfy demand.  Given the small scale of so many developers, it is even questionable whether Apple would want to create a royalty system.  A different question, however, is whether it is in Apple’s interest to build a defensive patent portfolio in the app space.  The answer to that question is a resounding “yes!”

So what does it mean to develop a “defensive” portfolio?  Don’t folks get patents solely for the purpose of suing other people and stopping competition?  Well, not exactly.  In fact, there are a variety of different reasons to get patents beyond the obvious ones:

(1) To make it clear to competitors that you have weapons to assert of your own.  For example, Nokia and Apple are currently involved in a fairly heated battlewith each other over patent rights.  Nokia sued Apple claiming that the iPhone (and later the iPad) infringed its patents.  Apple, because it had a portfolio of its own patents, was able to countersue, alleging that Nokia phones infringed Apple patents.  The best defense can often be a good offense.  Now, Apple has weapons of its own to use in the fight, and a settlement (should one be reached) will not be one sided (and might, in fact, involve cross-licensing arrangements).

(2) To mark territory for patent trolls.  Patent trolls (also known as patent holding companies) are in the business of owning patents and extracting licenses and/or suing folks.  But in order to enforce patents against companies like Apple (and Apple has been the target of many a patent troll) these trolls must have valid patents.  If you can demonstrate that these patents are neither novel nor non-obvious through the evidence of your own patent portfolio, you can stop that type of activity before the suits are even filed.

(3) To announce to the world that you were there first.  Sometimes, obtaining a patent portfolio serves no other purpose than PR — we own the rights to this space, so don’t even try to claim it.  While this has the feel of a dog claiming territory by urinating on a fire hydrant, it is not without its power.  Ownable distinction (a phrase I coined to describe this phenomena) is, in the end, the power of and reason for intellectual property.  Anything you can do to enhance the perception that you are the master of your domain will further develop the basket of associations you are creating for your customers, your competitors and the market more generally.

So do not assume that Apple is trying to push everyone else out of the market.  From their perspective, they may be trying to protect the market from predation by others who do not have the same interest as Apple in having the space thrive. 

But beyond Apple, this tale should also make you think to yourself about your own patent strategy.  Do you have one?  Maybe you should.

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