NEW ORLEANS – In some ways, the Collision tech conference (a spin-off of the popular Web Summit in Europe), has everything just right. They are located in The Big Easy; they integrate the day-long panels, booths and meetings with “Night Summits” out for more boozy networking; and the timing is perfect to come for the conference, and stay for JazzFest (guilty as charged).
But in other ways, the conference isn’t right at all. Panels and speakers aren’t asked questions from the audience. This speeds things along, but gives you the feeling you’re not worthy of those on the podiums. Tech is more accessible than ever, media is more accessible than ever, creative tools are more accessible than ever, but talking to the exalted ones on stage is not very accessible.
The caveat there is that speakers often showed up on more than one panel so you do have more chances to catch them out and about, and it’s possible to set up meetings separately with them. But that seemed more like a bug than a feature – couldn’t they book more speakers to fill those holes?
Double-Vision on Fake News
That was especially the case on fake news, a subject of so many symposiums in media and tech, and obviously necessary here at Collision. But two different panels on different days, and with a panelist appearing twice? It had a bit of a rerun feel about it, though they tried to spin the second one as being about media literacy (though that only came up at the end when the moderator implored people to correct friends when they shared fake news on social media).
The first panel did include Adam Singolda from recommendation-engine Taboola to mix things up. Companies like Taboola and Outbrain (who are heading toward a potential merger) are infamous for recommending shady stories, so you’d think they would have some ideas when it comes to filtering out misinformation. The problem is that the sites with the worst information probably pay them the most to get included on more trusted sites.
Singolda rightly said that Taboola can’t be in charge of censoring what sites are allowed in its service, but like all distributors of content it does have to play a role of some sort.
Taboola’s Adam making a good case that his company can’t play censor #collisionconf
— Gavin Dunaway (@AdMonsterGavin) May 2, 2017
The fake news panel on Day 2 of Collision included Jared Grusd, CEO of HuffPost; Ana Kasparian, host of The Young Turks; and John Avlon, editor in chief of The Daily Beast, back for his second round of fake news panels.
While I agree with Avlon’s contention that journalists shouldn’t always default to a false equivalency – getting two sides to a story when only one is true – there are still times when you need to hear from people outside your filter bubbles. In this case, it would have been good to have someone from a conservative publication to hear their own take on fake news and misinformation. Instead, the two panels had left-leaning panelists decrying attacks on media. Basically: people talking about filter bubbles inside their own filter bubble.
I can see why Avlon was on two panels, as his points were forceful and eloquent.
“[Fake news has] become epidemic in a short time, so it was hard to react to it,” he said. “We’ve seen this in other countries, but what happened here during the election was Facebook ‘pulling the goalie’ in filtering what was going onto the platform… The election results were so tight you can’t pinpoint one thing. But yes, it’s real and it’s happening in France right now. We all need to work against this, from advertisers to publishers to academics.”
Meanwhile, Grusd of HuffPost, took a global view of the problem.
“Parts of the world are un-newsed or under-newsed, they are disenfranchised from society around them,” he said. “One of the opportunities in front of all us is to help a broader group of society to get access to power structures, that can go toward bettering our democracy … Here’s the opportunity, one of the great things about Twitter, social media, it’s easier than ever to consume content and have conversations, the lines between serious journalism and opinionated conversations become blurred. We have to invest in our brands to show why we matter to people.”
And Grusd pointed out that HuffPost was trying to break down filter bubbles with its new Flipside product, which shows readers where various stories on hot topics sit on the political spectrum, giving context and showing relevant articles from different political views. (At the moment, it just looks like a way to make Breitbart News an irrelevant, untrusthworthy outlier.)
And when it comes to solutions for fake news, the problem is always who will decide what is fake and what is real? Can you trust one entity, like Facebook or Google or Snopes, to be that arbiter?
“We will always have a ‘who will watch the watchman?’ problem,” Avlon said. “We need to have more transparency and not a black box on who gets in. Democratization of media means we can’t wait for someone to save us. It requires vigorous citizenship like what Sleeping Giants did with Breitbart. It’s not about conservative or liberal, as conservatives can support National Review or better publications and not those that go over the line. Consumers, businesses, everyone needs to be part of the solution.”
And the moderator, Ana Kasparian, stressed the media literacy angle at the end, imploring people in the audience, as smart people, to do their part and point out fake news when they see it on social media.
“Do your part if you see someone sharing propaganda, don’t confront them but show them why it’s wrong,” she said. “It will continue unless we all find ways to solve it.”
The Superhero Complex in Silicon Valley
Kasparian retured right after the fake news panel to take on an even more difficult task: moderating a discussion about the superhero complex in Silicon Valley with two very large egos: Naveen Jain, a controversial figure from the first dot-com bubble now running a space-related startup called Moon Express, and Robert Scoble, the VR/AR evangelist and omnipresent optimist.
It didn’t take long for Scoble to launch into a soliloquy about VR and immersive video, and how he had shot footage from Preservation Hall in New Orleans with a cheap camera setup that would have cost $6,000 in days gone by.
And when Kasparian asked Jain about the problems with the health care system, he quickly pivoted into an incredible future of human-machine potential.
“We are hardly a human with our limited senses,” Jain said. “What if you could see in ultraviolet, what if you could hear a song on shortwave while listening to me? You think this is too far out, it’s not! When growing up, I used to know everyone’s phone numbers and birthdays. Now the phone is augmenting my memory, I don’t need to know those. My brain is already connected to the cloud but I need this device.”
But Kasparian made the mistake of trying to bring kryptonite to a superhero panel. Over and over again, she wondered about the downsides of tech, the collateral damage caused when the superheroes go too far. But over and over, she was interrupted and “mansplained” by Jain and Scoble that she just didn’t get it.
At one point, Scoble took matters into his own hands, and just began asking his own questions of Jain to cut Kasparian out of the conversation. One typical exchange:
Jain: Tech isn’t good or bad, people do good or bad things. People as entrepreneurs need to think about how we can become a superpower. Does a country need to be superpower, or can people be a superpower? I think this will happen. Look at space exploration, it’s not being done by nation states, it’s being done by us [entrepreneurs].
Scoble: You said, “nothing is impossible.” How do you get to that?
Jain: The only limit to what you can do is your imagination. Even your mother says “the sky is the limit” and she was wrong. There is no sky. When you believe something is impossible, then it is impossible for you, not for someone else…I want you to dream so big that people think you are absolutely crazy. But if you really are crazy, then all bets are off.
(And yes, if you’re keeping score, this was the “Silicon Valley” moment of the conference when the speakers were spouting future lines for the HBO spoof show.)
You would think Kasparian would have given up eventually, but she pressed on about downsides until finally Scoble admitted that AR and VR experiences made his wife sick, and yes, tech companies would have to fix that. Perhaps what could have improved the panel was having a psychiatrist there to get at the root of the superhero complex, and temper some of Jain’s more megolomaniacal rants on entrepreneurs becoming the next superpower.
Thank You, United Airlines, for the Great Talking Point
One section of the conference was called “Creatiff,” which was zoned for creative marketing pitches (I think). A tech conference like this is rife with one-on-one conversations, Q&As and quick talks by people at companies who probably paid for that chance to talk. But the brilliant business model of these conferences, which spout bouquets of prose for transparency, is that they can have these people pay to speak and don’t need to mention that fact before the talk, in the program, or anywhere. It’s just understood, and people who attend a lot of these confabs like to play the game of figuring out who paid for what.
In any case, there were two straight panels in the Creatiff zone that touched on the recent brouhaha at United Airlines when they decided that a reticent passenger should be dragged off the plane by thugs (a.k.a. aviation police). What was the error of the airline, in branding parlance? Not that it did the dragging and the bullying, but that it was caught in the act by people videotaping it with their phones and posting on social media.
If only we lived in an age when thuggery could just be rumors and innuendo and not spread like wildfire on social media. But your average Chief Marketing Officer, who now apparently has more power in large corporations than ever, also has to deal with rogue customers – and even non-customers! – complaining to millions on social media about their horrible experiences with their company.
Lauren Crampsie, chief marketing officer for massive creative ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, was “in conversation” with Time magazine’s Matt Vella in Creatiff, and sometimes Vella apparently strayed from the script, asking questions she didn’t know about in advance. Luckily he pointed that out to the audience with a wink. Well, we as the audience don’t get to ask questions, but luckily our appointed questioner is ready with tough questions! His tough question?
“Do you miss the days of ‘Mad Men’? Peggy Olson is now a handmaiden. That says something about the culture now.”
Let’s leave aside Crampsie’s response, as she was not quite around in those days. More interesting was her commentary on how brands need to message to a new, unexpected audience.
“The most important audience for a brand was the consumer, but now it’s an employee. Inside-out branding is important and employees need to understand your brand more than ever. What you say doesn’t matter if one employee on one runway doesn’t understand. Matters more than ever. Employees first, consumers second. Think about Pepsi [and its ad with Kendall Jenner], it’s a learning experience. Sure, you can blame the in-house agency but the next time they do it, it will be even better. Be able to admit when something doesn’t hit the mark.”
For a conversation called “The New Buyer,” Crampsie did an amazing job slamming the new tech buyers and praising the old school brands.
“From a CMO perspective it’s better being at an established brand, because newer brands put too much focus on product and utility but not on brand and image,” she said. “If you get product right but don’t build your brand, then someone can steal the utility and beat you on brand … Uber is doing interesting things to build their brand and message, but in the main there’s disproportionate focus on product instead of brand.”
It takes some chutzpah to slam tech giants such as Amazon and Uber at a tech conference.
Promising Media Startups
One of the more entertaining aspects of tech conferences is hearing the pitches of so many startups dreaming the dream. And when you wear the green “Media” badge at Collision, that means you’re a prime target for pitches. I waded into the “Alpha” area of the conference where startups have a tiny piece of real estate to pitch their ideas to conference-goers — and my focus was in the media / content / advertising area.
Here are a few startups that caught my eye. Many are in a real alpha or pre-alpha state so keep that in mind.
Pitch: Crowdfunding platform that lets people make automated donations to non-profits based on real-world events.
Upside: You can make tax-deductible donations each time something happens in the real world related to that non-profit, for example giving $25 to the Red Cross each time there’s an international disaster.
Downside: Who decides if the event is worthy of the donation, or if the non-profit is worthy?
Pitch: Creative agency helping small businesses, tourist attractions and others create 360 and VR immersive experiences so people can experience teasers before visiting.
Upside: Great business model with lots of businesses in need of enticing promotional videos.
Downside: Always hard to convince those businesses to part with their money.
Pitch: Search, license and publish user-generated content, including photos and video. Started by looking at breaking news content, but pivoted to brand and marketing material.
Upside: Great way to entice companies to get cheaper marketing images than from professionals.
Downside: Crowded market with similar offerings, but does have advantage of being part of 500 Startups.
Pitch: Agency that does post-production for podcasts. Podcasters submit audio files, and Podcasting Press edits, adds music and all post-production work.
Upside: Podcasting is hot, and more people want them than ever.
Downside: What goes up can always come down.
Pitch: Gives local discounts to locals at local businesses, typically in an area swarming with tourists. Test market in Miami.
Upside: Helps build more loyalty among local customers, and supports local businesses.
Downside: Always difficult to get those local businesses to listen to yet another pitch from another app.
Mark Glaser is publisher and founder of MediaShift. He is an award-winning writer and accidental entrepreneur, who has taken MediaShift from a one-person blog to a growing media company with events such as private roundtables between platforms + publishers, and weekend hackathons; the weekly MediaShift Podcast; and digital trainings, DigitalEd, in partnership with top journalism schools. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.