Cumulus Partners

Ideas / Words / Actions

Storytelling, content or IP? From a writer's perspective, they're all the same ...

clock January 5, 2014 09:38 by author Mike Barlow

I remember when I first heard the word "content," I was happy because it suggested that people other than storytellers were taking storytelling seriously and that beancounters were consciously assigning economic value to stories.

That said, things spiralled out of control fairly quickly afterwards, and it wasn't long before the term became genuinely wearisome. But that's cool. Some clients still prefer to see the word "content" in a contract and wince when they hear me talk about "storytelling." I have a client who will only refer to content as "IP," which I find really irritating. As long as his checks don't bounce, I can live with it, no matter how silly. From a writer's perspective, words such as "storytelling," "content" and "IP" all pretty much translate into the same thing. And that's fine with me!

Writing about big data and its impact on the real world

clock November 10, 2013 18:23 by author Mike Barlow

Way back in October 2012, mere days before Hurricane Sandy filled our basement with five feet of water, the nice editors at O’Reilly Media asked me to write a white paper on the emerging architecture of big data. That paper was followed by two more, one about the emerging culture of big data, and another about the impact of big data on the traditional IT function.

You can download the papers from the O'Reilly website. They're free, and the folks at O'Reilly will appreciate your interest. If for some reason you cannot access the papers directly from O'Reilly, you can click on the images at right and download them. Either way, they're free! 

Despite my attempts to make all three papers seem wildly different, they all share a common theme or subtext, namely that the technology of big data is evolving far more quickly than the people and processes of big data.

In other words, the tools are more advanced than the organizations using them. At least that’s my takeaway. After interviewing dozens of data analysts, industry experts, and senior-level corporate executives, I’m convinced that the technology is advancing faster than the abilities of the people trying to use it.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the technology of big data has evolved more rapidly than the organizational structures required to harness big data and convert it into a steady source of value. C-level executives and boards of directors regard big data as promising, but they weren’t born yesterday, and they need to see the business case before they start writing big checks. “Tactics in search of a strategy” is how one senior executive recently summed up his thoughts on big data.

Many of us sense that big data is destined to become the next big thing, but none of us is quite sure how it will all play out.

We can take comfort in the knowledge that this has all happened before. When airplanes were first pressed into military service, they were used exclusively for reconnaissance. When a team of engineers led by Anthony Fokker developed the synchronized machine gun, airplanes morphed into lethal weapons and a new strategy—aerial warfare—was born.

Most of us know the story of how the folks at Xerox didn’t understand the value of the clunky computer mouse they had invented, and how Steve Jobs took the basic idea and engineered it into a practical tool that helped launch a revolution in personal computing.

Based on what I’ve been hearing from my sources, I have the feeling that we are five or six inventions away from a similar revolution in big data. I’m not really sure what form those inventions will take—or I would quit my day job and invest in the companies making them—but I am certain that multiple disciplines and technologies will be involved.

When it arrives, the big data revolution will transform the modern enterprise, accelerate the growth of markets, and launch a new era of social commerce. The changes—particularly in emerging economies—will be mind-boggling in both scale and scope.

Ten years from now, we’re going to look back and wonder why we didn’t see it coming, but by then we’ll be on to the next big thing, and big data will seem about as interesting as a laptop from the 1990s. Meantime, encourage your kids to learn Python, Ruby, and R.


Editor's note: This post initially appeared in the O'Reilly Strata newsletter

Big data vs. big reality

clock June 2, 2013 07:58 by author Mike Barlow

Quentin Hardy's recent post in the Bits blog of the New York Times touched on the gap between representation and reality that is a core element of practically every human enterprise. His post is titled "Why Big Data is Not Truth," and I recommend it for anyone who feels like joining the phony argument over whether "big data" represents reality better than traditional data.

In a nutshell, this "us" vs. "them" approach is like trying to poke a fight between oil painters and water colorists. Neither oil painting nor water colors are "truth;" both are forms of representation. And here's the important part: Representation is exactly that -- a representation or interpretation of someone's perceived reality. Pitting "big data" against traditional data is like asking you if Rembrandt is more "real" than Gainsborough. Both of them are artists and both painted representations of the world they perceived around them.

The problem with false arguments like the one posed by Hardy is that they obscure the value of data -- traditional data and big data -- and the impact of data on our culture. I'm now working my way through "Raw Data" is an Oxymoron, an anthology of short essays about data. I recommend it for anyone who is seriously interested in thinking about the many ways in which data has influenced (and continues influencing) our lives. I especially recommend "facts and FACTS: Abolitionists' Database Innovations" by Ellen Gruber Garvey. As its title suggests, the essay focuses on what proves to be an absolutely fascinating period of U.S. history in which the anti-slavery movement harvested data from real advertisements in Southern newspapers to paint a vivid and believable picture of the routine horrors inflicted by the slave system on real human beings.

That 19th century use of data mining built support for the anti-slavery movement, both in the U.S. and in England. The data played a key role in making the case for abolishing slavery -- even though it required the bloodiest war in U.S. history to make abolition a fact.

Data itself has no quality. It's what you do with it that counts.


Reading two cool books on data and decision making ...

clock December 9, 2012 12:39 by author Mike Barlow

Well, I'm not exactly sure that Nick Taleb would agree that his new book, Antifragile, is about data or decision making, but I'm seeing everything these days through those lenses, and Taleb's book certainly fits into the big data analytics worldview -- at least from my perspective. The other book I'm reading is The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don't by Nate Silver. Both books are really about fate, fortune and understanding the future. And both were recommended to me by a client, which is a nice side benefit of working with smart people who care about the underlying laws of the universe.



A deeper dive into the big data dimension!

clock October 23, 2012 07:10 by author Mike Barlow

Heading off to Strata Conference + Hadoop World in NYC this week. Should be valuable, and interesting. I've been writing about "big data" for a while now, but an upcoming gig puts me deeper into the weeds of real-time big data analytics. I'm looking forward to learning more, meeting a bunch of really smart people, and then turning all of my experiences into a series of seamless narratives. Of course, I also hope the snacks are good ...

Meanwhile, back in the hall of mirrors ...

clock July 1, 2012 21:15 by author Mike Barlow

As a parent, I approached Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent article in the New Yorker about spoiled children with a reasonable degree of trepidation. I mean, who wants to read more about the awful failure of our generation to produce kids who are as perfect as we were?

Like all of Ms. Kolbert's articles, this one was lucid, entertaining, and frightening. About halfway though, however, I had the distinct feeling that I was trapped in an echo chamber, or perhaps a hall of mirrors. Older generations always find fault with the habits of younger generations, and the Baby Boomers are no different in this respect. What's odd is how we've blamed ourselves for the alleged flaws and shortcomings exibited by our children as they face one of the most difficult periods of social transformation since the Industrial Revolution.

People are going to look back at the early 21st century and wonder how anyone kept their head screwed on straight. I have complete faith in the ability of my children and their pals to negotiate the twists and turns of whatever lies ahead. And I have no doubt that the future will be difficult and dangerous because that's the nature of the future. The past is always less dangerous because it's dead and buried. 

I counsel my children to enjoy the present, seize the day, and cherish the moment. I also advise them to follow the timeless motto of the Boy Scouts: "Be prepared."  


If a tree falls in the forest ...

clock May 22, 2012 08:18 by author Mike Barlow

I recommend reading John Stepper's excellent new post, "Your best use of social media may not require a single post." Although John's post is about regulated industries such as banking, it touches on an area that many social media professionals find ... touchy.

Here's the rub: Ask most social media pros how they judge the success of a post and they'll tell you by the number of comments that it generates. Many people consider comments to be a valid proxy for engagement and interest.

Personally, I don’t believe that comments are a valid proxy for engagement or interest. The content you post has intrinsic value whether lots of people or few people — or no people — reply. Not every piece of information you post has to inspire a dialogue to get the job done.

Seems to me like a variant on the old, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it fall, does it make a sound?” Yes, of course it makes a sound, and yes, when you post content on a social collaboration platform, that content has value — even if it does not result in a social conversation that can be tracked and quantified.

Flying into the cloud

clock April 10, 2012 13:34 by author Mike Barlow

So it looks like HP is going into the public cloud business. Can't hurt, I suppose. There's still plenty of room for competition, so it makes sense for HP to join the party. Ed Oswald has a good post about it in betanews. I don't think the news will rock the industry, but it's another data point in the slow march toward broader acceptance of the public cloud as a legitimate part of the IT infrastructure universe.

Very nice interview with John Glenn

clock February 16, 2012 10:46 by author Mike Barlow

Definitely worth watching ... I remember listening on the radio as Friendship 7 orbited the Earth. We didn't care that the Soviets had already send cosmonauts into orbit -- we were delighted by our achievement, and we knew that more successes would follow. Unlike the Soviets, who cloaked their space program in secrecy, ours was wide open and transparent. We all knew that Glenn was experiencing problems with his heat shield, and we prayed that nothing would go wrong. It was an exciting, exuberating time -- and we loved every minute of it! Back then, we believed that all of us had "the right stuff!"

Spare us the analogies ...

clock February 2, 2012 22:29 by author Mike Barlow

Writers love using analogies. Like shortcuts or quantum wormholes, analogies can get you very rapidly from Point A to Point B in a manuscript. In conversations, however, they are much less effective. Instead of helping you communicate, they tend to add layers of abstraction onto a process that is already abstract.  Nobody likes feeling confused, and abstractions tend to have that effect when they're used in a conversation.

My point? Leave analogies to the writers. We're trained to use them safely. When you're having a chat, speak in concrete terms. The people you're chatting with will appreciate it!  

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