Technology and taboos redefined

Recently I met with some friends after a considerable hiatus. Meanwhile they had had a baby. I have kept up with the news and have watched the baby grow up through the pictures and updates the friends share on Facebook. Several times in the conversation, we all made casual references to what we know about one another’s lives through Facebook updates. Indeed they showed me some pictures of some big moments in the baby’s life that I had missed. It made me wonder about the role of pervasive technology in challenging behaviours deemed taboo before. In the pre-all-pervasive-tech world, we gossiped, got news through common friends, or phoned or wrote one another. Even so the signal called “life” was sampled quite infrequently and the transmission of the information could suffer fidelity issues.

But now that people themselves put out information about themselves, it has likely greater currency and respectability than gossip, which may have travelled through others. Indeed it is no longer taboo to know ambient information about the life of a friend or indeed, anyone who chooses to use the “global” setting on Facebook or indeed update on Twitter.

Has technology made other taboos acceptable too?

Like many others, I now know a fairly large number of people through my blogging and my use of social platforms such as Twitter or Quora. Often the opportunity arises to meet some of them too. It seems to me that checking someone’s background – using Google or LinkedIn – before meeting them for the first time is now deemed normal. I hasten to add though that my experience suggests it can still freak out the “non-intertubes” people, who are less frequent or less prolific users of the web. This needs to be used abundantly but talked about with caution. I sheepishly admit to not being able to maintain this caution myself. A friend recently invited me to dinner with a friend of his called R. Waiting for our table, R and my friend kept talking about cooking and eating fabulous meals. Then R turned to me and asked if I could guess what he did. Having checked out his profile on LinkedIn in advance, of course I knew he specialised in sanitation. When I said so, both R’s and my friend’s faces fell. I had committed a massive social boo-boo and I have never recovered from it. R never accepted my Facebook friend request, and the less said about the earache my friend has given me since then, the better.

Then there is the idea of flexibility. While in some cultures, it is still not uncommon to plan to meet friends way in advance, making last minute arrangements as well as last minute changes to a rendezvous seem to be common and acceptable now. This has been made possible by mobile phones, of course. And location based services such as FourSquare, where you may be able to locate friends in the vicinity.

This next point may resonate with those who live many time zones away from their parents or siblings. Rationing communication between time zones is a thing of the past. Earlier, when phone calls were expensive, we scheduled calls once a week or fortnight. Now with iMessage and Whatsapp on the one hand, and GTalk, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype etc. on the other, continual and richer communication is possible at almost zero cost. It helps people keep in close contact, regardless of how far apart they may physically be.

As I write this I am aware that the most important social taboo that has been removed or modified beyond recognition is our expectation of privacy. Mainly because we ourselves now put out a lot of information about our lives out there for consumption by friends, families or strangers (the last one is that global setting on Facebook status messages).

The second social taboo that seems to have been removed is exhibitionism. There is now a blurred line between sheer exhibitionism, and self-promotion and advertising of one’s skills for professional gain. Accordingly, persons such as Katie Price in the UK and the Kardashians in the USA have “careers” deemed mainstream and bona fide, although they still successfully shock some in my parents’ generation (and mine).

Of course, individuals themselves are curating and broadcasting this information, portraying themselves not just in favourable light but also sometimes engaging in outright fabrication of a life that looks glamorous and glittering when the reality may be vastly different. Seeing all this, some have argued we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. In evidence are vanity and attention-seeking. How else do we comprehend the need for daily changing digital avatars? And their handmaiden, a feeling of entitlement. “You didn’t like my holiday photos on Facebook”. Then there is blame-storming and rages that follow.

We have probably only just seen the tip of the iceberg called technological intersubjectivity. Hopefully it will not sink the Titanic advances that can also be made with technology.

Craftsmanship in luxury

Craftsmanship is the cornerstone of the luxury goods industry. The obsessive focus on the art, the cultural roots, the societal context and the history not only preserves and enhances the heritage, but also helps tell a unique story and find markets for luxury goods, increasingly in countries far from home.

However as emerging markets not only demand goods as consumers but also slowly develop their own brands in luxury, how does the slow and steady pace of craftsmanship reconcile with the speed of globalisation?

The answer is deceptively simple: the historically well-established brands become evangelists for craftsmanship.

The craftsmanship and long heritage distinguish some of the most coveted luxury marques from the luxury upstarts. Such evangelism manifests variously: from Tod’s commitment to La Scala for the special project titled The Italian Dream, to Bottega Veneta’s opening of Scuola della Pelletteria to train the future generation of master leather craftsmen.

Is this bad news for emerging markets and emerging market brands?

Well, not really.

It does, of course, benefit immensely and strengthen the European luxury brands with a long heritage to showcase. But it also potentially levels the field, somewhat, for emerging markets — notably those with a rich history and creative treasures that are underexplored as sources of inspiration.

Think about what a Chinese brand could do drawing upon the history of the Tang dynasty to create beautiful products!

As some of you know, I am also a co-founder of the British jewellery brand, Livyora.  At Livyora, we created our Overture Collection by drawing upon Mughal Art and Architecture, that can be seen in India’s capital city and surrounding regions. We abstracted a visually stunning artifact of Indian heritage, to create stunning, handcrafted pieces in gold and precious stones. A wonderful story could once again be retold.

Craftsmanship still rules. All that is required is a new lens to look beyond the luxury marques of yore.

Brands and the coattails of success

TAG Heuer congratulates its beautiful rebel – MC Mary Kom into the Semi Finals of the 2012 London Olympics.

The glamorous TAG Heuer Woman shares Mary’s restless and rebellious nature. Like her, she excels at her game, knows how to win, and how to celebrate. Creative, confident, always plugged in, she never stops building on her achievements and pushing herself to be better, but she also knows how to relax and have fun.”

Says the TAG Heuer brand page on Facebook.

This is Mary Kom, who now needs no introduction. Do click on the link to see Ms Kom looking beautiful and resplendent indeed.

Did you do a double take on seeing that photo? If so, join the very large club. To feature as a TAG Heuer ambassador, Mary Kom has to be airbrushed to look like someone she is not. Yes, being adorned and looking gorgeous is a woman’s right and privilege. But when that adornment makes Ms Kom’s appearance and not her performance or character the centre piece, one has to wonder about the O word in brand marketing. Objectification.

Objectification is central to “celebrity endorsement” in brand marketing. Picking a person to represent a brand’s abstract, often fuzzy, promise is the purest form of objectification. It also happens to be, in my view, the epitome of laziness and paucity of creativity in brand marketing. That is how TAG Heuer, that uses film actor Shahrukh Khan as a brand ambassador in India, now thinks Mary Kom is a fit for their brand. Yes, it is ok to take a few moments to get one’s head around what Shahrukh Khan has in common with Mary Kom.

Nor is the post-Olympics upsurge in luxury brands rushing to sign up medal winners – particularly in emerging markets – a compliment to brand managers.

In a mature market, brands sponsor and support promising athletes. When a sponsored athlete succeeds, the brand can stake a legitimate claim to associating with that success. In the UK for instance, RBS has sponsored Andy Murray since he was 13, when he was a relative unknown playing junior level. Like athletes, brand building isn’t an overnight success of TAGging along to someone else’s, but actually investing in it. But is that what is happening in the emerging markets (emphasis on markets)?

Mary Kom wasn’t entirely an unknown before the Olympics. Even if women’s boxing isn’t your thing, heck, the Intelligent Magazine did a superb piece on her stardom before the Olympics. Did the five-times World Champion Mery Kom not strike TAG as a woman who “excels at her game, knows how to win“? Or was her life story not an example of her “pushing herself to be better“? Her close shave with poverty can’t have been much about how to “have fun” but TAG could have eased all that by promising her support before she became famous. Instead of sponsoring her when she needed help, the brand now wants to ride on the coattails of her success.

Of course, emerging markets are less about brand building and all about reaping the rewards from the “markets” overnight. Aren’t they? Investment? What investment?

The Power of Us

Summer in India brings not only juicy mangoes but also the prospect of frequent planned and unplanned power cuts. The euphemism “load shedding” tries to hide the fact that the grid is unable to shoulder the demand for electricity. This demand is rising with India’s rapid economic growth. This economic growth also means that fewer and fewer Indian citizens have the time to take their utility companies to task for failing to deliver a reliable power supply. However they do now have the means to have spent a reported US$ 22 Billion on power back-up equipment such as inverters that store power in a battery while there is supply, or generators.

This is my third summer on Twitter. Come summer time, my Twitter stream floods with persons complaining about power cuts in the middle of a workday stymieing productivity, or in the middle of the night interrupting resting hours. On May the 4th, after seeing a few tweets, I suggested: “May be you guys SHOULD tweet #powercut with location. The infographic will highlight the need for investment. To many people.” Within a few minutes, an enthusiastic techie, Ajay Kumar had created a site with an Ushahidi backend to track such reported powercuts. Within seconds we had our first report – from Gurgaon, a new, modish town which is in the national capital region but whose powercuts are legendary. It has not stopped since. These reports mainly came from Twitter users reporting power cuts with their locations  and a hashtag #powercutIndia. In the first 24 hours, the hashtag reached an audience of over 98000 people with over 157000 impressions. In the next couple of days, Ajay and I took the decision to move to a proper own domain – www.powercuts.in. On the website persons can also report anonymously; this allays privacy concerns and security risks that were highlighted to us early on by some Twitter users. Soon a design firm provided us with a logo and is now developing the website further. We set up a Facebook page and one of India’s leading dailies, Times Of India, wrote a piece on the project.

From idea to execution, to the actual build-up and success Power Cuts In India is a crowd-sourced, open data project. This means everything we do is out in the public domain. The Wiki details in one place all the work and credits. An open document collates ideas on how to improve the data collection and what possible uses it can be put to. At the time of writing, we are testing SMS based reporting and smart apps for smart phones are in development. Purely on voluntary basis from enthusiastic donors of their expertise and time, who believe in the project.

Naturally there has been curiosity as to why so many of us, including Ajay and I, would give so much of our time to collate this information. Typically I have been asked why such monitoring is needed, since everyone knows how bad the power situation is. The short answer is that situational awareness allows specific responses. Whether from government, from utility companies, from investors or from citizens themselves. One of the most recent examples in another – admittedly acute, not chronic like the power cut situation – setting was seen in Libya.

For me, the project is a beautiful example of how the power of social media can be harnessed to take a simple idea into execution and how web and social technologies can build a resilient backbone for a project. The rapid prototyping and release of the website by Ajay deserves a special mention too. And with rapid prototyping come iterations and incremental changes.

These are being made based on ideas suggested through our open document. Collective wisdom continues to shape and define the project. We are all aware that this should not become yet another urban India project but also rolled out to villages where issues related to linguistic diversity as well as lack of literacy may be a problem. This awareness is feeding into design and reporting protocol related to SMS reporting and smart apps in development. With mainstream media carving a narrative out of something happening on the web, more citizens in India are getting to hear about the project as evidenced by reports now coming in from more regions than just the metros or individual towns where some of the Twitter users are located. SMS reporting will enable even more persons.

What can a corporate firm learn from our experience so far?

First, social technologies can be unpredictable in their scope, reach and success. When the Power Cuts In India project was rolled out, a Twitter user pointed out she had suggested the idea three years ago. But it did not take off then. However when I mentioned it on May the 4th, it did take off and is now growing by leaps and bounds. This unpredictability of uptake can be unnerving for those, who like to predict both the trajectory and the time line of their “social” undertakings.

Second, when an idea gains traction, crowd-sourcing can be benevolent or damaging. In case of Power Cuts In India, it has been benevolent so far. HSBC’s experience from a few years ago was bracing and different.

Third, “social” is not concrete, fully formed. It is amorphous, iterative. Or in the words of Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke: “Planning is everything. Plans are nothing.” Before launching into “social” an organisation needs cultural readiness. And comfort with amorphousness, iteration and tweaking in response to feedback.

Regardless of where you are, you can contribute to the project by sharing your views here. Or on this post.

Further reading:

An old post on the use of Twitter in emergencies/ acute situations.

Power Cuts In India in media:

Times Of India

PC World

CIO Magazine

Yahoo News

LiveNewsIndia

One India (online in Tamil)

Trak.in

The Daily Dot notes that for all its resilience, the web still needs electricity.

WiredCPU

TechGoss

Paant.com

Geo-spatial World

Social Media Guru

BBC – on Social Media for Social Good in India – features PowerCutsIndia (video)