Jed Cohen

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Ritual is powerful.  It is larger than us, rising above our family and our friends to encompass something much more.  We take comfort in ritual, we acknowledge it, and we let it guide our decisions.

Ritual works hand in hand with belief to pass traditions from one generation to the next.  It can be the glue that holds society together, or the wedge that drives different groups apart.  It can keep us in line, or it can lead us to jump outside of the normal pattern of behavior.  It can comfort us in times of stress, or it can be the stressor pushing us down a road we don’t want to go.

Ritual drives us forward as a group.  It ensures that we step together, towards a common goal.  It lets us believe that we can be the master of our own fate, even if the ritual invokes a higher power.  It joins us together in a common experience, breaking down the barriers between the one and the many.

I write these words on one of the many days we’ve created rituals for in modern society – the last day of the year.  We consider it even more special as the decade ends as well.  For parts of the world it has already passed, and for others the night has yet to wane.  Some have already participated in the rituals associated with the new year, and may just be sipping champagne in celebration right now.  Some have woken up and started their day (I’m sure one or two has already broken a resolutions).  And some may be on their way home from work, looking forward to the celebration to come.

We have seen the standard posting of “The Best of 2009” lists in the last few weeks.  And we’ve seen people predict what will happen, both in the year and the decade to come.  Those too are rituals we have; they celebrate our accomplishments, reflect upon our tragedies, and allow us to imagine a bright future.

Regardless of who or where you are, the rituals we’ve created as a society touch your life.  You may take comfort from them or seek to flee from them; either way, we must acknowledge their power.  We have seen these things before, and we will see them again.  There is something grand in that, if only because it touches all of us.

Don’t you think so?

Written by Jed

December 31st, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Posted in psychology

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Noise in the Internet Era

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The act of communication can be broken down into just a few simple steps:

  • You have a thought and turn it into a message.
  • You send that message out through some kind of medium.
  • I receive that message and assign it some kind of meaning.

It’s a pretty simple process, and one we’ve managed to complete successfully for at least the last 2000 years. And it can also be applied to the Internet as this model doesn’t require two way communication. That said, there are a few differences.

There’s way more noise here.

Photo by David Sim

How many e-mails do you get a day (including spam)? How many tweets are in your stream? Facebook updates? FriendFeed posts? RSS entries? We’re surrounded by so much information on the Internet it’s almost incomprehensible. Some of it is useful. Some of it is junk.

If you’re consuming content, you get to be the judge of what is helpful and what is pointless; the more time you spend on something, the less it’s noise and the more it’s a message.

If you’re creating content, most of it is noise. Noise you have to cut through to accurately convey your message to your intended recipients.

We all try our best at this, and it’s more important for some than others. For marketers, it’s a do or die kind of thing – greater signal to noise ratio means greater chance of conversion into buyers/subscribers/promoters. For friends, it’s not quite as big of a deal.  Still, the digital landscape is awfully cluttered, isn’t it?

We want to be heard.

Ironically, the act of self-promotion produces more noise that others will attempt to cut through (because your message is noise for them). So we do what we can to keep the eyeballs on us. One of the tricks is emotional investment – if you can instill in people a sense of concern, or interest, or desire to know what comes next, they’ll be more likely to spend their own energy seeking you out. Another is to have novel, groundbreaking content that people simply. must. see. A third is to present it in some way they haven’t seen before, whether through video, audio, augmented reality, or whatever the next big medium/fad is.

Of course, these are just a few ways to make your signal stand about above the noise, and they may or may not work for you. But there are times when I can’t help but ask – do we all need to take a step back? Do we need to let the noise wash over us to understand what’s going on now and in turn understand what we have to do next? Or do we just need to keep on pressing forward, shouting out into the noise, letting our voices join the ever growing din?

I think maybe the answer is somewhere in between. I’m really curious to find out.  How about you?

Written by Jed

December 30th, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Do Numbers Equal Value?


Every so often, someone new starts to follow me on Twitter.  Most of the time I look at the e-mail, click through to their profile, and decide whether I want to follow them back.  But every so often I get a follower notification that I just delete immediately.  More often than not it’s spam.  But not this time.

Here’s what Twitter told me about a certain “person” who just started following me (names omitted to protect the not-so-innocent):

Does this seem kind of ridiculous to anyone else?  What sort of earth shattering revelations must be in this person’s 99 tweets that over 40,000 people are following him?

Let’s take a look…

I decided to take a slightly scientific approach to this.  Here’s a few vitals:

  • According to When Did You Join Twitter?, this person joined Twitter on March 25, 2009.
  • I looked the handle up on Twitter Grader, where the account scored a 98.
  • I then used Twitterholic to get historical data on friends, followers, and updates.  Then I graphed the results:

To give myself a sense of perspective, I ran a number of other users through Twitter Grader as well.  Guy Kawasaki’s, Justine Ezarik’s, Drew Olanoff’s, Evan Williams’, Biz Stone’s, and Jack Dorsey’s accounts all scored a 98.2.  I plugged in another 15 or so users (not all celebrities), and only four of them had scores lower than 98 (sampling biases include following them and finding them interesting).  Only one had a score lower than a 90.

It’s absolutely obvious that this user is gaming the system.  They’re using any one of the hundreds of ways out there to increase their follower numbers, probably by agreeing to follow everyone back.


We’ve come to use following/follower numbers as a measurement of influence or value.  But it’s simply not true.  I don’t care what rationale you have, 99 tweets in 270 days can’t enrich the lives of 40,000 people.  It’s just not possible.

Numbers have become a heuristic for the social web.  We have a mental shortcut that says that higher numbers are better than lower ones, and we use it to judge authenticity or likability or popularity or any other number of traits.  But we can’t keep on using numbers as an indicator.  This user that I’ve featured here shows us that it’s much too easy to fake them.  And if you don’t believe me, consider that there are 15,740 experts on Twitter according to Mashable (Pete Cashmore scores a 100 on Twitter Grader by the way).

What else is there?

There’s a lot written on how to sell social media to your boss, and almost everything will at least mention return on investment.  And ROI is always going to be measured based on numbers – whether it’s sales, cost per thousand (CPM), click-throughs, subscriptions, or customer surveys.  It’s a numbers game, sadly.

But maybe, together, we can come up with some better numbers.  What do you think?

Written by Jed

December 27th, 2009 at 11:12 pm

Emoticons – Online Body Language?

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Emoticon Pumpkin

Photo by Neal Gills (via Flickr).

Chances are you’ve used some variant of that pumpkin’s symbol somewhere.  It could have been in an e-mail, a text message, or a tweet.  Maybe it was to a friend, a relative, or someone you’ve never even met.  Perhaps you were surprised, or happy, or just plain confused.

When you think about it, text based communication online is lacking quite a bit compared to person-to-person interactions.  Perhaps the most significant  difference is body language.  There is quite a bit of contention about how much communication is nonverbal, and it certainly depends upon the circumstances of the situation as to whether you’re going to trust someone’s words, tone, or body language more.  But the bottom line is that in most forms of digital communication we don’t even have the option of using the extra data that tone or facial expressions provide.  We’ve got to go on text alone.

And let’s face it, the written word isn’t always crystal clear (consider the case of Roger Casement, who may or may not have been hanged because of a comma).  So oftentimes we can be left in the dark about the writer’s state of mind – they may despise you or think you’re the best thing since sliced bread.  No way to tell.

Well that’s not entirely true.  When you think about it, we can use text based representations of emotions like emoticons and emoji as a substitute for nonverbal communication when we’re online.  They can provide us with at least a hint of a person’s mood or intended tone in a quick and dirty fashion.  Sure, they may not necessarily be appropriate for the corporate world (yet), but they’re great for two friends talking.  And with over four billion people across the world connected to both one another and the web via cell phones, these icons may just represent one way to overcome some of the language barriers that separate us all.

And that’s kind of cool, don’t you think? 😛

Written by Jed

December 14th, 2009 at 11:02 am

Posted in internet

Tagged with , , ,

Inside Outside Upside Downside

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We all want to be on the inside.  It means we’ve got it (whatever “it” is).  Being on the inside means that you know what’s going on, that you have access to information that those on the outside may not know.  It means that you are in a position to find out information that your friends aren’t.  And it means that we can cloak ourselves in the aura of exclusivity that comes with being “in the know.”

There are times when we want the line between inside and outside to stay concrete.  Research and development and public relations both strive for this; in R&D you want your secrets to stay secret, and in PR you want the company line to be the one everyone hears.  Conversely, sales and support agents may jump to the end of the pitch or reach for the most complicated solution because they’ve been inside for so long they’ve memorized the basics.  After all, it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting the questions we know the answers to or not explaining the fundamentals because we know them like the back of our metaphorical hands.

In a way getting to that stage is a good thing; experience and expertise means that a) your company is still alive and b) you can have better interactions with your customers.  But it has its problems.  As demand increases, so does the chance that some element of the purchase or support process may become transactionalized instead of individualized.  The technology we employ often doesn’t help this either – when was the last time you had a pleasant conversation with an automated phone system?

In the end, the human element may be one of the few things that can keep the flow of information from in to out steady.  Creating an open corporate culture can help us step away from the transactional elements of our interactions with others.  And providing opportunities for both mentorship and the fresh perspective of the outsider is another step we can take from building impenetrable barriers between the inside and the outside.  Because once that happens, chances are that both you and your customers will experience the downside of your success.

Written by Jed

December 11th, 2009 at 4:20 pm