Business, Society

TED, We Have a Problem

TED Vancouver

On March 19, 2014, Amanda Palmer hosted #NinjaVan at the Vogue Theatre. More info here: http://amandapalmer.net/blog/20140318/

“Ideas worth spreading”.

It’s tough to argue that TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design)’s slogan has never been more appropriate than today, as the massively popular series of conferences continues to become more prominent each and every year. As social media’s presence in our lives has grown in the last decade, so has TED, which wisely started offering their signature 18-minute talks online for free in 2006. Since then, TED Talks have been watched over a billion times. Not bad, considering it was founded in 1984 as a one-off event.

Today, TED’s history of speakers is long, diverse, and impressive. From JJ Abrams to Al Gore to Bill Gates to Sergey Brin and Larry Page, some of the world’s finest entertainers, scientists, world leaders, and business minds have contributed to the TED archives. As such, TED’s seems to be well on track towards achieving their mission statement, which begins with, “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other”.

To that end, TED is a brilliant concept that is unlike any other in human history. With globalization and technology making the world more connected every day, a janitor in India and a restaurant owner in Idaho can now both have the same unabated access to the musings of the founder of Microsoft. That statement alone should indicate that TED has unquestionably had a measurable impact on the world.

But while the impact has been unquestionable, has all of it been positive? That’s more questionable.

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This year, TED’s main conference moved to my hometown of Vancouver. Although I, like many other residents of the city, wouldn’t be attending the conference in-person, something interesting was still available to us. Though we’d miss Ed Snowden appearing via robot and Boston Marathon bombing survivor Adrianne Haslet-Davis dancing on stage, performer Amanda Palmer announced that she would be hosting a free show called #NinjaVan, featuring TED speakers and other notable luminaries at the Vogue Theatre on March 19th.

The Vogue has a capacity of 1100 people. I was probably the 1150th person in line, so I didn’t end up making it in. Too bad. Still, before I departed, I noticed a sign with the words “#NinjaVan VIP line”. A few folks with TED conference badges were admitted through this line, after the venue had already reached capacity. The rest of us could do nothing but turn away and depart.

One of the primary criticisms of TED is access – specifically, who has it and who doesn’t. Despite the fact that TED Talks are available online for free, attending the conference in-person is next to impossible for most folks, since tickets for this year’s conference cost $7500 USD. Aside from that, prospective attendees had to go through an application process to get a ticket, which includes providing two references. All told, with TED growing more prominent in society in the last couple of years, what the conference seems to amount to these days is the affluent rubbing shoulders with the affluent.

With limited space and high overhead costs, one can understand why the tickets are priced so high. Still, the resulting economic and societal filtering seems to run contrary to TED’s mission statement of building a “community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other”. And yet, TED is right in line with the rising cost of university tuition fees and other conferences which charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of hearing someone “influential”. Indeed, TED seems to be following the pattern of society as a whole, where education is no longer considered a human right, but a commodity. Like most commodities, who can afford it and who needs it are not always one and the same.

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In their 2012 year in review, TIME called Invisible Children, Inc.’s film Kony 2012 “the most viral video of all time”. Surely, it was virtually impossible as a Twitter or Facebook user in particular to escape mention of the film by those in your network. Now, aside from making Joseph Kony a household name, the film was criticized for being one of the early examples of Internet “slacktivism”, in that individuals who expressed outrage about the film’s content did not actually do anything constructive about the issue.

They may not be as viral as Kony 2012 was, but social media has undoubtedly played a large part in TED Talks garnering over a billion views as of 2012. “Ideas worth spreading” sounds about right. Yet, the problem is that TED has fostered a culture where the majority of those involved are spectators. Aside from the speakers, everyone else that “participates” in TED is essentially a mere observer. This isn’t necessarily bad, mind you – the way I look at life has definitely been impacted by some of my favorite TED Talks by speakers such as Simon Sinek or Daniel Pink.

However, as educational as TED Talks can be, they sometimes are no more practical than an article like “9 Weird Things Highly Successful People Do To Be More Creative”. Other times, they are simply rehashed ideas from one of the speaker’s books or blog posts. TED’s mission statement seems to imply that they value “engagement”, but in the world of “clickbait” headlines that we live in, TED Talks often become nothing more than ephemeral talking points over social media, quickly forgotten about once the next headline grabs our attention.

This notion of eschewing practicality for inspiration and prioritizing ideas over action is the same reason why TED seems to achieve visibility in the same way that Buzzfeed does. Professor Benjamin Bratton, in his criticism of TED, says that we need “more Copernicus, [and] less Tony Robbins”. In the world of social sharing that we live in, however, the presence of actionable inspiration is far less common than vague, feel-good touchpoints that we can all rally around. Indeed, while wading through the line at the #NinjaVan event the other night, I wondered to myself how many of the folks in line were only there because of this sort of “groupthink” mentality.

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Although TED Talks and the variety of “self-improvement” articles that are popularly shared these days are not inherently bad (they can contain great insights that can be applied to one’s own life), it’s telling that TED’s slogan is not “actions worth spreading”. But what if it was? TED attracts some of the most brilliant and unique minds in every industry and specialization in the world. If the focus was instead on collaboration and applied problem solving, I can’t imagine how some progress couldn’t be made on real-world societal, economic, or scientific issues.

Beyond the TED Talks and various articles, one thing is clear: more than any greatly inspiring 18-minute lectures, what we need in today’s world is people who are willing to go beyond the initial stage of inspiration and roll up their sleeves to tackle the important and complex challenges that we face today and in the future. For those who are willing to try and are successful in doing so, these are the people who may just yet change the world for the better. Of course, not long after, they’ll no doubt be asked to speak at TED.

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Business, Tech

Nintendo and the New Era of Entertainment

Mario. Luigi. Donkey Kong. Pikachu. Princess Peach.

If you you grew up in the last 25 years, you’ve most assuredly heard of – and likely played at least one game featuring – these iconic video game characters. Personally, I can definitely attest to playing my fair share of video games in my childhood, which is why it was interesting to read about how the company behind these characters has been struggling of late. According to Bloomberg, Nintendo reported “disappointing sales of its Wii U console and [forecasted] a surprise loss”, which has lowered their market value by an estimated $1.2 billion.

Your first thought might be, “What? Do people not play video games anymore?”. But you would not be further from the truth, since Nintendo operates in a $93 billion industry. Indeed, gaming is alive and well as more consumers of all ages are progressively embracing digital entertainment options. So with such a large market, why is Nintendo struggling so much, then? In my opinion, there are two key factors, both of which are part of larger trends in the entertainment and tech industries.

Firstly, with the vast amount of entertainment choices available today across all manner of platforms, the overall consumer group has become perceptibly fragmented. For starters, traditional video game consoles today have competition from computers, tablets, and smartphones (not to mention games integrated with social networks such as Facebook). Yet, although gamer demographics have broadened and the amount of platforms has grown significantly, it’s becoming clear that gamers probably fall into only two groups these days: “hardcore” and “casual”.

Hardcore gamers can be best described as people with either high-performance computers specially built for the purpose of gaming or those who purchase the more expensive (and powerful) consoles from Nintendo’s competitors, Sony and Microsoft. Meanwhile, the advent of Facebook games and smartphone/tablet applications has opened up a world of cheaper, less intensive gaming options for more casual game players. As the market has increasingly split into these two directions, Nintendo’s Wii U system has found itself uncomfortably caught in the middle: too expensive and inconvenient for casual gamers and not powerful or “serious” enough for the hardcore player.

This uncomfortable position that Nintendo has found itself in should serve as a lesson to companies today, seeing as even a renowned brand like Nintendo isn’t safe from the dramatic shifts in the entertainment market if it doesn’t ensure its business strategy is in line with customer desires. As such, analyst Michael Pachter was quoted in the Bloomberg article as saying that “Nintendo should exit hardware altogether” and instead focus on delivering high-quality content with their great cast of characters to other platforms such as mobile.

This brings us to the second factor in Nintendo’s decline. They are proving that it’s difficult to play both sides in the tech industry these days, which like the gaming market, can easily be divided into two groups: hardware and software. With the tech industry riding a boom, companies are increasingly becoming successful focusing on developing highly specialized solutions for a certain market (communications, entertainment, etc.), rather than trying to do everything. With the amount of competition in the tech environment, it simply isn’t realistic for most companies to try and dominate several markets.

Furthermore, there is a broader array of software tools and solutions than ever, but the amount of successful hardware companies has become more concentrated, making it difficult to succeed in both arenas. Take a company like BlackBerry Limited, which once made its mark on the wireless industry with their revolutionary BlackBerry product. Their software remains popular, but they have struggled in recent years as sales of their phones and tablets has declined significantly. Like Nintendo, BlackBerry’s troubles can be pointed to the high cost of producing hardware that ultimately goes unsold. Like Nintendo, BlackBerry has great software applications that might be more successfully and profitably delivered at a more controlled scale and cost.

Thus, whether it’s the gaming market or the tech industry, the situation that Nintendo finds themselves in is indicative of their standing in two industries which are rapidly growing, yet becoming more and more divided. Understanding your position, your target market, and your end-user is more necessary than ever as these industries continue to become more complex and saturated. You only need to look at Nintendo and BlackBerry as examples of companies which didn’t adapt to the fact that while the game might still be the same, the rules are always changing.

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Business, Tech

Gambling, Movies, and Wall Street: The Age of the Tech Startup

Alex Wilhelm posted an interesting article on TechCrunch today, in which he concluded that there appears to be “a negative correlation between celebrity interaction and a startup’s future health”. He cites Path, Wiredoo, Airtime, and Moonfrye as examples of ventures that have fizzled with involvement from celebrities such as Soleil Moon Frye, Ashton Kutcher, Sean Parker, and MC Hammer.

You read that right: MC Hammer, best known for his 1990 hit “U Can’t Touch This”, was behind a startup. More specifically, a tech startup, Wiredoo, which was a search engine with aspirations of competing against Google and Bing. If there were any doubts in your mind that we are living in the age of the startup (or perhaps more accurately, the age of the tech startup), then the image of Hammer agonizing over “deep search” and “relational topics” should erase those permanently.

Maybe MC Hammer was inspired after watching The Social Network or reading the book which the film was based upon, Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires. Either way, the movie (which received 8 Academy Award nominations) seemed to signal the arrival of Hollywood glitz into the previously unexplored world of nerds, hoodies, and ramen-fueled marathon coding sessions. But is Hollywood, with its focus on style over substance, the right dance partner for tech companies? As Wilhelm muses in his article, “Are companies with celebrity backing less focused on their fundamentals, or perhaps more focused on how they appear?”

Yet, it’s not only Hollywood that has been enchanted by the wizards of Silicon Valley. Wall Street has been equally compliant in building the hype of the “tech startup”. The prime example in today’s headlines is Snapchat, headed by 23-year-old CEO Evan Spiegel. In the wake of Snapchat allegedly rejecting Facebook’s $3 billion all-cash(!) acquisition offer, news emerged that others have valued the messaging app at $4 billion. This number is shocking when you consider that Instagram was purchased by Facebook last year for $1 billion, or only 25% (or possibly less) of Snapchat’s eventual acquisition price.

It looks like Wall Street isn’t actually located in New York, but rather Las Vegas, because only in the tech industry does a company spurn $3 billion in cash for a product/service with no existing revenue! Of course, you can’t really blame Snapchat for turning the offer down, especially if they think they can get $4 billion (or more) by holding out until 2014. Rather, it might be investors who are the ones confusing investing for gambling, because never before has “potential” traded for higher than “reality” in any other era in modern business history.

Traditionally, companies have tried to answer two key questions: “How can we do or make something better/different than our competitors?” and “How do we make money on it?”. In the age of the tech startup, one query takes precedence over either of these: “IPO or acquisition?” For better or worse, your goal if you run a tech company today is to cash out when your chips are worth the most, or at least when they appear to be worth the most. Thus, while Wilhelm might be right when he says that the slick Hollywood packaging doesn’t necessarily help, it certainly can’t hurt.

So this brings us to today, where our story is about Ashton Kutcher, gambling, and 23-year-old future billionaires. No, this isn’t the next big movie in theaters; this is the marriage of Wall Street and Vegas, with Hollywood presiding. Welcome to the age of the tech startup.

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Business, Society

Rogers, the NHL, and the demand for “more choice”

Rogers Place

Photo courtesy of CNW Group/Rogers Communications Inc.

In a major announcement earlier today, Canadian telecommunications giant Rogers Communications revealed a partnership with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers for the naming rights to Edmonton’s new downtown arena set to open in 2016. In addition, Rogers is set to introduce multimedia and technology initiatives for the new arena that will significantly impact the “fan experience”.

This news follows the even more significant event from last week, in which the NHL and Rogers announced a landmark 12-year, $5.2 billion media rights agreement that will see Rogers own the broadcast, digital, and media rights for the NHL in Canada, effectively shutting out primary competitor TSN while stripping CBC of its editorial control over the iconic Hockey Night in Canada program.

This kind of agreement is not surprising when you consider that only eight corporations control the 100+ basic cable and broadcast networks in the United States. In Canada, which only has about 10% of the population of the US, the telecom industry is dominated by the “Big Three” (including Rogers) who control about 85% of the wireless market share, a statistic that hasn’t sat well with many Canadians. In fact, the issue of wireless monopolization was recently the topic of a $9 million ad campaign run by the federal government.

Now, when it comes to the Rogers’ initiatives surrounding the NHL over the past week, it is clearly good for business for both Rogers and the league. Rogers will profit from an arrangement that will give them an unprecedented relationship with hockey-mad Canadians across the nation. The NHL, meanwhile, is clearly thrilled with the business prospects of the agreement, which dwarfs the 10-year, $2 billion deal they signed with NBC for the US television rights in 2011.

For fans, these developments could represent an incredibly positive change in their experience of the game. The deal will allow Rogers to use all of their multimedia options (including television, mobile, online, and print) to deliver comprehensive content to fans before, during, and after the game, regardless of whether they’re in the arena or on the couch at home. Without regional restrictions, Rogers could present fans across the country with a unified, consistent experience.

Still, these same fans are still contending with Canada’s highly concentrated telecommunications and media ownership situation in which Rogers is also a major player. As many people continue to be frustrated with their telecom options nationally, could this arrangement also alienate some fans who are loyal to TSN and CBC’s hockey coverage? It’s quite possible that the demand for “more choice” could soon extend to Canadians’ beloved game of hockey as well.

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