The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

For the past year, I’ve been focusing my research on the power of networked resources. I’ve written blog posts that have demonstrated how both companies and individuals have used digital network technologies to innovate, solve problems, or even spread marketing messages. In each case, I’ve tried to quantify the monetary value created through such access.

Last week, I experienced an “Ah-hah!” moment after reading a MarketingProfs article that demonstrated the monetary value a story can add  to cheap knickknacks. The goal of the Significant Objects experiment wasn’t to mislead. According to its rules, misleading would have voided the test. Instead, the experiment involved writing knickknack-inspired stories that future owners could appreciate and therefore pay a premium.

According to the website, the experiment “…sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51,” simply by attaching a story to each item. Doing the math, storytelling increased the average monetary value of each object by 2,806%.

The X 28 Factor

Twenty Thirty years ago, my uncle gave me a three-inch stack of early 1900s post cards. Here’s an example, circa 1915, called “The Great White Way,” Broadway, New York City:

I’ve always known that these cards carried some monetary value. A quick glance at eBay reveals that their average price tag is about $5 per card, bringing the stack’s estimated value to about $500. However, after reading the results of the Significant Objects experiment, I considered the upside of adding a story to the collection. Would it be possible to increase the stack’s value twenty-eight fold too? Could adding a story to these old postcards increase their total value to $14,000?

Meet Elizabeth

What if I told you that the majority of these postcards were addressed to a woman named Elizabeth who lived in the greater Boston area over one hundred years ago? What if I told you that the cards contained clues to her life? For example, we know that she was married but we don’t know much about her husband. We know that she had a son named Eddie, she worked at a Boston-based Cigar Factory, and she vacationed on Peaks Island in Maine? Do any these tidbits make the postcards sound a little more interesting?

For twenty thirty years, I’d always viewed this stack of postcards as antiques to be sold-off piece-wise. However, after transcribing ninety-nine postcard messages and entering them into a spreadsheet last weekend, I saw them as something very different: a century-old mystery.

I wondered. Who was Elizabeth? What was her life like? Did she have to work in a Cigar Factory, or was it her choice? Who were Nellie, Sadie, Annie, Frank, Ella, Tom, Joe, Ruthie, Margaret, Debby, Mamie, and Kathryn? Why did so many of the messages end with “give my love to the girls?” Who were they? Her daughters? Her sisters? Something more…hmm…interesting?

Could a mystery centered around a woman who lived a century ago multiply the monetary value of these cards? Could the story become a book? A movie? Or, what if the story was less about Elizabeth and more about a quest to eventually return these cards to Elizabeth’s family? Would you watch a documentary of such a quest unfolding?

An Open Source Mystery

If we published all of these postcards online, could we harness the power of the network to help solve this mystery? Would participants from around the globe be willing to use the resources available to them to collectively piece together Elizabeth’s story, with the ultimate goal of delivering it with her postcards to her great-great (great?) grandchildren?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Jun 20, 2012

Lauer & BieberIt’s time for businesses to finally admit that the rules for communications have changed forever, reversing the roles between media and messengers. In the past, messengers tripped over themselves to gain access to the vast audiences of print and broadcast media. Today, those same arbiters of information are tripping over themselves to gain access to the audiences of the messengers that once pursued them.

For example, consider the odd Today Show “interview” that occurred last Friday between Matt Lauer and Justin Bieber. In the ultimate “Man Bites Dog” story, Lauer (the powerful media arbiter) asked messenger Bieber (a singer looking to capitalize on The Today Show’s massive television audience) for help in attracting Twitter followers.

At 8:18 a.m., Bieber sent the following Tweet.

Five hours later, Lauer (@MLauer) had 100,000 followers. Today, he has 142,000.

So, why would a famous, television personality beg for help in building his audience? The numbers tell us the whole story.

The 5X and 10X differences lead us to the following question: “Who needs who here?”

Beyond the whole “Man Bites Dog” aspect of this story, something else is amiss. Lauer suffers from the same affliction as most companies who are attempting to use social media. He values the quantity of his audience as opposed to the quality of it.

Justin Bieber has access to Justin Bieber fans. If Matt Lauer is looking to attract screaming female teenagers, his request makes sense. If not, his new-found audience has no real value.

The world of communications has been turned upside down. Is your company dancing on the ceiling or the floor?


Last post, Granularity and Innovation, we discussed the short and long-term ramifications of increasing the granularity by which we can measure things. We used the Green Button data from my Southern California Edison account to download energy consumption data and then made some extrapolations.

The Green Button is one of the first steps in helping people make informed decisions about their personal energy usage. It is also the building block for entrepreneurs who will come up with innovative uses for the data, something that the Department of Energy decided to build upon by offering $100,000 in prize money for the most innovative uses of Green Button data. The winners of this Apps for Energy competition were announced last Tuesday, May 22nd.

I found the breadth and depth of the apps refreshing, as each winner attacked the problem from a different and unique perspective.

For example:

Place App Name Description Motivation
1st Leafully Leafully is an app that allows people to visualize their power consumption in terms of saved trees. One section of the app shows how many equivalent trees were consumed. Another section contains a goal-setting game that maps a user’s behavior to saving a tree. Environment
2nd Melon Melon is an app that focuses on saving energy in commercial buildings. By providing basic information such as the size of building and its Green Energy button data, the app generates an Energy Star benchmark, comparing the user’s energy consumption with other buildings nationally. If the building scores in the top 25% of all buildings, it may also qualify for an Energy Star certification. EnergyStar Rating
3rd VELOBill VELOBill looks at the problem from the residential customer’s perspective, helping consumers make sense out of their monthly utility bills (gas, water, and electric). It puts mind-numbing, text-based content into an easier to read, more graphically pleasing format. Finally, it performs an analysis on usage, and make consumption reduction recommendations. Understanding Energy Bills
Student Wotz Wotz is an app that comes from the University or California Irvine. It’s an HTML 5 app that breaks the data into three different sections: Play, Explore, and Challenge. The Explore section allows one to take a look at their energy usage over time. The Challenge section offers not only ways to reduce consumption, but puts the various energy savings into fun terms like “cheeseburgers.” The Play section contains two games (Asteroid and Tetris) with each game’s difficulty based on one’s previous energy consumption readings. Education/Play

Challenged-based innovation is a way to tap into the collective wisdom of the crowd. It allows organizations to work with people who are passionate about a subject, as opposed to those who are only in it to meet the bare-minimum requirements of a contract. It’s a way to reach into the soul of the entrepreneur and more organizations should consider using it.