Keith Hopper's blog

Presented on Emerging Trends in Social Media and its Potential Impact on News Production and Distribution at WGBH today.

PRI's The World is up to some cool projects, including reporter Alex Gallafent's planned multimedia trip to the Amazon next month. Keep an eye on his blog.

Full disclosure: They use my community engagement software.

And now, for something completely dorky. I have begun to play with DIY electronics. This is principally because it's tremendous fun. You should try it. Seriously. The possibilities are endless. Here is a video of a range test for my prototype homing device built with an Arduino microcontroller module and an XBee radio transceiver. The portable, handheld device cost me about $60 to make, but theoretically could be a lot less if you designed a PCB and didn't rely on prototyping components.


Short-term, I hope to join fellow Boston Dorkbot members to build on this prototype and construct a location-based game. Stay tuned... My longer-term goal is to develop a standardized radio/microntroller platform on which to load and share user-oriented software applications (like the homing software shown here) for proximity-based device communications. The range for the "homing device" seems to well exceed the 300' that the XBee specs claim. Cool. Please send me suggestions for improvements, other ideas, etc.



"The Break Up" video has been around for about a year, but it's so relevant to what we've been working on with Project VRM, I couldn't resist posting it. Produced by Microsoft (of all people) along with ad agency, the short video is a brilliant slam on how the traditional approach to customer outreach is woefully out of touch. It basically runs like an ad for The Cluetrain Manifesto.

The video is by Geert Desager and originally posted at

Seeing as I get "the mention" about once a year, and usually by accident, I figured I’d strut out the fact that I got two (2) unsolicited plugs this week on not totally obscure media outlets.

The first was from none other than the Cluetrain man himself, Doc Searls. During a Newsgang podcast from Steve Gillmore with Steven Hill, and the Interim CEO of NPR, Dennis Haarsager, Doc mentioned our work together on Project VRM at the Berkman Center. The future of public broadcasting discussion that ensues is an interesting insider view and a worthwhile listen.

The next one was great fun and truly a historic moment in our little sphere of nerds-who-work-in-public-broadcasting. Thursday’s Up to Date call-in show on KCUR (Kansas City) was sagely dedicated to the future of Public Broadcasting and its interesting and evolving relationship with the web and social technology.

Rob Patterson, Andy Carvin, and Todd Mundt then spent the next hour trying their damnest to not talk constantly about Twitter (and pretty much failed). In a particularly self-referential moment, Andy mentioned that I was livetwittering a bunch of twittering broadcasters as they broadcast twitter's impact on broadcasting. I’m not sure that last sentence was grammatically correct or even remotely what Andy said, but whatever. Listen to it yourself.

In a long anticipated move, idea submit & rate engines are finally catching some meme-like popularity. They're certainly easy to build. In a follow-up post, I will tear them to bits for the flaws they introduce and the assumptions we make around their utility. They do poke at some interesting aspects of Collective Problem Solving. Here are a few:

I had the good fortune to hear Clay Shirky speak last night at Harvard Law School. The event was hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center as a lead-up to their 10 year anniversary celebration. The event also coincided with the release of Clay’s new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Clay spent the majority of the discussion outlining the book. He began by pointing out that the book is not necessarily targeted to just the folks in the room (various flavors of webophile), but rather to a wider and more generalized audience. His argument for this was that "the web is no longer a decoration on society, but a challenge to it," meaning that usage and adoption of the Internet has become ubiquitious and integrated into how we do things to the level that for many of us, the Internet has become "the dashboard for our lives". So, theoretically, the book should have more universal readership.

I attempted to Twitter the presentation. I tried to capture his sound bites and cogent points, but Clay is a veritable font of wisdom and one-liners. I ended up with a serious case of twitterrhea. Below is a slightly cleaned up transcript of my tweats over the course of about an hour. Shirky direct quotes are in quotes. Everything else that isn’t labeled as my own thoughts [Ed:] can be attributed to Clay Shirky.

From Clay Shirky website: "If I had to describe what I write about, it would be "systems where vested interests lose out to innovation."

Historically, media innovations that allow two way communications produce active groups. Broadcast technology... not so good at this.

If Clay had to boil the book down to one bullet point = "Group Action Just Got Easier"

"Groups get complex faster than they get large" [Ed: i.e. the network effect, Reed’s Law, etc.]

The Internet acts as a prosthetic for existing group activity.

New social tools on the Internet make group connections ridiculously easy to form

Email was an afterthought of the Internet

"Reply all" was the Internet's first social feature

Curiously, once the technology gets boring, the social effects get interesting [Ed: by this, he means once the technology gets out of the way, becomes commonplace, and slides beneath the radar of awkward attention, then it becomes integrated into how we function as social creatures and the most interesting social effects of a technology begin to emerge]

"Me First Collaboration" = social effects that emerge from self-serving behavior, e.g. lets me store my bookmarks, but ultimately becomes useful to all [Ed: Or Google extracting social relevance from individually created links]

The annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade is an example where amateur photographers leveraged ad hoc online sharing (via flickr)

HDR photography as an example of using a flickr group to accelerate innovation through a community of practice (what used to take 8 years for a technology/process to emerge from lead users to professional process to documented practice to trade magazines to amateurs to shared understanding now takes weeks)

"every URL is a latent community"

"Sharing + conversation leaves a residue of instruction"

A comparison of a Buffy discussion board moving to a new platform is like a hermit crab changing its shell

Sharing -> Conversation -> Collaboration -> Collective Action are things that require increasing amounts of synchronization of group action.

"Thinking is for doing" [Ed: by this, he means that the purpose for human thought is so that we can then take action; quote attributed to someone I’ve forgotten] => "Publishing is for acting"

"Flashmobs are the Flagpole sitting of 2003"

"Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream"

Ridiculously easy group-forming improves sharing, conversation, collaboration, and collective action

Behavioral economics states that social behavior online is more than just enlightened self-interest, for example, see the ">ultimatum game and the self-defeating individual act of punishing defectors

Irrational individual behavior spent towards generating social cohesion cannot justifiably be explained away by enlightened self-interest

Social technology can be used for more than just good… case in point, YM magazine shutting down their discussion boards because pro-anorexic girls were swapping practical tips

What’s the future of investigative journalism and its impact on smaller cities that can’t afford newspapers who have historically played this role? "I don't yet see a way that blogs can create sustained observation that stops civic corruption"

There are no good examples of long-term collective action - institutionalization becomes a problem over time

What works with collective action right now [to stimulate participation and worldwide attention] are surprises... but they are a wasting asset

Where individuals change their behavior BECAUSE they're members of the group is the key definer of collective action

"Immersive games get us out of the hell of continuous partial attention"

A couple years ago, I wrote about Neil Gershenfeld’s cool MIT Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory). On Monday I was fortunate enough to join the Boston Dorkbot crew for a tour of the Boston Fab Lab. I’ve posted a photoset of a few machines. Pictured are three computer-controlled prototyping machines, including a room-sized router, a micro-milling machine, and a laser cutter. Missing from the photos is a sign/vinyl cutter, several non-computer-controlled tools, and a nicely-outfitted electronics workbench.

The mission of the fab lab is a noble one: to empower creative people to make things with the assumption that, well, we’re all creative. Exposing individuals to commercial prototyping machines encourages people to explore, learn and have a significantly wider range of choices – both in what we might envision and make, but also in how we view the world and imagine our role in its future.


What's the smallest portion of a person's name that can be typed into Google before the Suggest feature returns their full name? To allow for meaningful analysis and comparison, I propose the Google Infamy Coefficient (GIC).

GIC = (# successive characters entered into Google Suggest before the full name is revealed) / (# characters in the full name)

The results on the way to my own name are graphed below (The GIC of Keith Hopper = .727). The most infamous Keiths appear to be Keith Richards and Keith Olberman, tying at GIC's of .23. Anyone know what name might have the lowest GIC? Blog props and bragging rights to anyone who figures it out and lets me know.

Hat tip to uber-geek Randall Munroe (.385) for the inspiration.

As you have no doubt heard, Radiohead skipped the middleman with their latest release, offering the album online for download. This resulted in an estimated $10 Million in profits from 1.5 million downloads over the past week, more than the first week sales of their last three albums combined. Not too shabby, particularly when users could set their own price for the download, including being able to set the price of nothing. Radiohead's VRM-like experiment did trigger a flood of promotion, but at the end of the day, fans still volunteered to cough-up an average of $8 per album. Gets one thinking, don't it?

We will undoubtedly see more stunts like this to promote online sales, along with an increasing willingness to go cheaper and wider by offering digital downloads for free. But I want to know, will we see more customer-driven price setting? It feels a little like a public radio pledge drive, essentially asking the customer at transaction time - what is this worth to you? Applying this sort of purchasing model to product transactions is one approach that the VRM project is exploring - where the customer takes a more proactive stance in setting the relationship terms with vendors. Doc Searls introduces this idea in the context of public broadcasting at the tail-end of a video on the future of public media. Don't miss the first part of the video either, as Jake Shaprio takes on predicting the future.


Thanks to the Project VRM team, I now understand the concept of a personal RFP (Request For Proposal). The idea is simple: have the individual consumer dictate what they want and at what price. Let the vendors who can match this need come to them rather than the other way around. Product marketers currently have an annoying habit of telling us what we need and then inundating us with a sea of unsolicited communications around products we may not want. Removing this vendor behavior would reduce an unwanted advertising burden on the consumer (annoyance) as well as on the marketer (cost). This should decrease total unit costs, and by extension the cost to the consumer.

A Project VRM participant (I believe it was Chris Carfi as referenced here) suggested that Google’s AdWords already is a great vendor matching tool for highly-personalized consumer requests – albeit around the broader realm of information rather than more specifically of products (I’m paraphrasing). I think he was implying that an AdWord ad is a real-time response to an individual's "three word RFP" (e.g. keyword search).

Leading up to this insightful comment, I had been noodling on who might be the perfect VRM vendor. If we found a good fit to sponsor a VRM initiative, the solution definition and adoption would be a cinch. The secret is to find a vendor with a unique customer acquisition problem that can be best addressed by the VRM model – an organization that would benefit only if consumers were driving the relationship and a traditional vendor-consumer model just wasn’t working. This is essentially the crossing-the-chasm strategy for high tech products – focus on a vertical that is uniquely positioned to benefit from the format and structure of your solution. In essence, who is the perfect vendor candidate for what VRM could provide?

Traditional large product companies would probably be a bad fit for VRM. Their competencies are centered on creating narrow demand, not addressing widespread niche demand. Chris’s comment about AdWords got me thinking that when looking at a personal RFP, you are essentially looking at the Long Tail of demand – a big chunk of typical, common requests followed by an endless sea of nuanced consumer need. But large, traditional companies are experts only at The Short Head of product options. The combined forces of scarce shelf space and the economies of scale explains why these companies meet demand the way they do and are wholly unprepared to respond to individualized consumer demand. For example, scarcity of parking and the economies of mass production explain why you won’t find a convertible, hybrid-powered rental car with an MP3 player. For many existing mass-market products, these laws push less consumer choice into the short head of product options. In other words, they will not respond to the majority of personal RFPs. But then, who will?

I propose that those best suited to responding to niche, personalized RFPs will likely be those already in the long tail business, such as product aggregators like Amazon, retail aggregators like eBay and the thousands of specialized merchants currently relying on search and filter technology to drive personalized demand to their unique solutions.

Together with Karl Rexer, I published an article entitled Overcoming Innovation Barriers (pdf) in CEO Refresher and Effective Executive magazines. It was reviewed by and The Innoversity Network

''A growing body of empirical work shows that users are the first to develop many, and perhaps most, new industrial and consumer products.''
- Eric von Hippel

The idea that users develop great volumes of successful innovations is not new, but it is perhaps shocking in its implications. This idea suggests that our traditional view of manufacturers or entrepreneurs as the primary and best source of new ideas may be flawed. Are the billions spent on R&D misguided and only introducing limited innovations? Additionally, there appears to be a growing trend for users to freely and openly distribute their innovations (think open source). This won't help businesses relying on secrecy and legal protection to leverage their own innovative assets.

In his new book “Democratizing Innovation,” Eric von Hippel presents compelling evidence of how and why users innovate for themselves, and why they see many benefits in freely revealing these innovations. He points out that businesses that rely on innovation for continued existence (such as product manufacturers) should take note of these emerging trends and leverage methods for profitably working with user-driven innovation.

Eric von Hippel is Professor of Management of Innovation and Head of the Innovation and Enrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His new book “Democratizing Innovation” is available for download under Creative Commons License at his website:

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