Stephen Cass sees the future before most of us even know it’s happening.
With so many new technologies promising to change the way people engage and interact with content, how do publishers determine which ones to follow and which ones to ignore?
I caught up with Cass, special projects editor at MIT’s famed Technology Review, as he prepares to talk to attendees at the Custom Content Council conference, March 21-23, in downtown Washington, D.C. His answer: It’s all in the grammar.
Oh, and, just so you know, the opinions expressed in this article are his, not those of MIT or Technology Review.
When does a new technology become a new medium?
When I was asked to think about this topic, I thought what kind of filter, or rule of thumb, could I use to identify the upcoming technologies that people should pay attention to? And I kept coming back to this question of a grammar.
Hashtags on Twitter are a good example. The hashtag is something that spontaneously arose. And it’s very useful. If we all want to talk about the Oscars, for example, we type #Oscars. It’s also used for humor. You could type “I ate a salad today #signoftheapocalypse.” Sometimes it’s used very straight and sometimes it’s used other ways. But when it started it was unique to Twitter. Now we’re seeing it spread to other mediums like Facebook.
So, if you create content for a living—let’s use Twitter as an example—you need to speak the language, so to speak?
Grammar is a metadata. It’s like the stuff you have in your camera. Your camera takes the photograph, but there is this additional information down the side that helps you make sense of it—like when the photo was taken, where it was taken. It seamlessly clues you into additional information you need to understand the content. If you have a fuzzy border around a television screen, it’s a dream sequence. You don’t need someone to come out and tell you. You just know.
Your speech at the Custom Content Council meeting this week focuses on cutting-edge content. Where else have new grammars emerged from content?
One area that we’re looking at is gamification. Video games are a medium in their own right. They’ve had their own grammar for years. But it’s been a very insular kind of grammar—unless you’re a gamer, you don’t get it. Now with gamification, these grammars are expanding. It’s things like, hey, you did something for me and now you get a point or you get a badge. Or, congratulations, you checked in to watch our television program, you get to say something on Twitter.
It reminds me a little bit of those online travel ads, where you could shoot a puck or putt for a hole-in-one.
The point of gamification is to make things that aren’t fun, fun. When you gamify—say, trying to lose weight—dieting is not fun. But the game fakes the customer out a little bit.
When you use games to sell your brand, you have to be clear about what you are doing. You can’t promote a burger place by taking the icons from Space Invaders and simply replacing them with hamburgers. That might keep people engaged for a second, but it’s not really engaging the medium in a clever way. Maybe you shoot the burgers and, if you shoot five burgers, you get a coupon.
It’s using the fun stuff to sell the not-so-fun stuff. Look at how car manufacturers work with video game publishers. They put their concept cars into the games. They do the same thing with real parts that are offered for sale. With games, the goal should be to make your product an organic part of that universe. To do that, you have to pay attention to the grammar. There are plenty of companies that will help you do this.
Another potential technology that you talk about is augmented reality—sounds far out.
About 10 years ago, a genius science fiction writer—a guy who has been right before— named Vernor Vinge wrote a book called “Rainbow’s End.” In this book, he described a world where by the year 2020 everybody would wear glasses and the entire world would be skinnable, basically. So I could look out of my office here, and instead of seeing a rather dreary Cambridge landscape, have it intelligently mapped onto Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings.
Or, if someone came into my office, maybe there would be some kind of facial recognition that would take place and their social profile would pop up. When I read this book, I thought, “By 2020? Yeah, right. This is crazy.” But it’s happening right now. You can go to New York and download the subway app and it will tell you which way to go to catch the subway. If you’re in Boston, it’s updated with train information. And it’s all overlaid on what you are actually seeing.
So, rather than create resources customers or subscribers simply ingest, the goal today is to provide tools that people can use?
Yes. Build an augmented reality app that is useful, that has some functionality. If you’re Dunkin Donuts have an augmented reality app that makes it easy to find a Dunkin Donuts store. Maybe it’s a store locator. Maybe when you pass a store, it gives you the direct advertising sell, “Hey, you’re searching for a Dunkin Donuts store, great. Here’s the nearest location.” But not something that just dings as a person walks through the city. Think what kind of functionality can I offer, or what kind of fun things can I do?
An early example of augmented reality in Japan was used to get people into brick-and-mortar record stores. They created an app where if you went into the store, you could have your picture taken with a celebrity image that you could then send to your friends. That was clever and it was an exclusive photo that you could integrate with other social media. It got people into the store by saying, if you want this cool thing, it’s free, but you’ve got to come to get it. These mediums can be used to persuade people to do things at specific times and specific places.
Don’t fear time shifting. Time shifting is for people who miss the main event. You want to build the feeling of an event around whatever it is, whenever people access it. These tools allow you to deliver content at places—and, if you do it cleverly and smartly, you’re not going to offend people about privacy issues and you’re not going to bombard them with stuff. You don’t want to walk around the city and be ping, ping, pinged. What you want to do is create an application so that when customers or readers indicate a little bit of interest, you’re ready to exploit that. Or you give them something fun, so that they want to engage with your content.
Talk to me about HTML5. From what I’ve read, this stands to drastically change how people interact with content on the web, does it not?
I think when the Apple iPad came out people thought this was going to be our salvation. They thought we were going to have this easy electronic device with a form factor not dissimilar to that of a magazine; it would be nice and color and people would be able to page through it. Physically, it seemed like a great sell. But the consensus is that this has been a bit of difficult process. Apps are finicky. They have to be submitted and tested for approval, which takes time. In some cases, you have to give Apple a significant share of your revenues. Plus, it’s kind of a bulky container. You can’t change things quickly. And you don’t get great demographics. You’re not getting the same data you can extract from your web site or from magazine subscribers.
But you want this richness of content. HTML5 seems to be able to offer a lot of these things. It’s a matter still of waiting for these new HTML5 browsers to come out. These browsers can do things that even apps find difficult to do. I saw this demo where your entire screen becomes this box personalized to your home address. The first time I saw it, my jaw literally dropped. The last time my jaw dropped was the first time I saw a demonstration of hypertext in the early nineties. There was an article about the space shuttle and someone clicked on a linked and it showed an actual video of the space shuttle launching. That was that last time my jaw dropped, until this HTML5 demo. I thought, literally, “Oh my God. How did they do that?” That is a new medium, where you can pull in all of this web stuff and give me an incredibly rich experience at the same time, without it having to be an app.
Are publishers already looking at HTML5?
Several publishers are already aggressively asking the question, “Why are we sinking all of this money into apps?” We already have web sites. Instead of having this parallel development team—in the future, let’s just have one team, one web team that is making this really rich HTML5. And, hopefully, anybody can get it from any browser. And then we can keep all of our revenue and get all of our demographics. And we can create any content we want, which might include content that companies like Apple do not approve of.
What’s the timeframe for something like this? Realistically?
This is going to roll out over the next five years, maybe sooner. I would expect that by the end of five years HTML5 browsers would be fairly standard. When you buy a new computer or a new tablet and it comes with a HTML5 browser built in—I can’t imagine that being more than five years away.
Wait a second. Is this going to replace the need for mobile operating systems? Are apps on the way out?
Not entirely. There are always going to be things that apps are better at. Apps are always going to be a little bit faster. HTML5 is, by definition, dependent on network connectivity. You can only do a certain amount of caching. Apps are great if you’re on an airplane. Apps will always have a place. But, with magazines, for example, I think we’ve tried to drop these applications into the app mold. And it hasn’t sat very well, which is the reason why there is interest in HTML5.
So content publishers should be thinking about this stuff right now—like today?
I think so. Now is the time to start playing around with it, to begin looking at these advanced demos. Look for signs of grammar starting to emerge. I actually don’t think there is one yet for HTML5. There will be. But in two or three years, when things like HTML5 start to emerge, you need to be in a position to make smart decisions.
What’s the biggest mistake publishers can make? Is it possible to move too fast?
It’s great to be first. But take a little bit of time to step back and see what people like and don’t like. Be sensitive to the emergence of a grammar. Imagine a person who came on to Twitter in the early days and didn’t pay attention to the fact that people were using hashtags because they had their own way of doing it. In an early medium, lot’s of different things happen. Don’t get locked into one way of doing things. There’s always a sort of explosion, followed by a pruning back.
Wait until the grammar emerges.