Sunday, June 18, 2006
Under New Management
To Charge Up Customers, Put Customers in Charge
By WILLIAM C. TAYLOR / NY Times
FOR more than three decades, the designer John Fluevog has been selling colorful and distinctive shoes that win raves among rock stars and fashion models, have adorned an Absolut Vodka ad and attract legions of loyal customers that his company calls "Fluevogers."
Over the last few years, though, Mr. Fluevog hasn't just been presenting ideas about shoes and style to customers; he has also been soliciting ideas from them — encouraging brand enthusiasts to submit their own sketches for leather boots, high-heeled dress shoes, even sneakers with flair. He posts the submissions on his company's Web site (fluevog.com/files_2/os-1.html), invites visitors to vote for their favorites and manufactures and sells the most promising designs. He calls it all "open source footwear."
"Customers want to express themselves, to be involved with the brand," Mr. Fluevog said in an interview at the John Fluevog Shoes boutique on Newbury Street in Boston. (His company, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has shops in nine major cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.) "For so long, people would hand me a drawing of their personal design for a shoe or ask if I had considered an idea they liked. This program is a natural outgrowth of that desire for connection."
To date, the company has chosen nearly 300 finalists from the flow of sketches into Vancouver — and introduced 10 shoes based on customer designs. On the day Mr. Fluevog visited Boston, the Newbury Street store was selling five of the most popular customer-inspired models, including the Urban Angel Traffic, a walking shoe (retail price, $179) designed by a customer in Moscow, and the Fellowship Hi Merrilee, a vintage-style pump ($189) designed by a customer in Provo, Utah.
"Some of the ideas from customers are striking, but impossible to make," Mr. Fluevog said. What tends to work best, he explained, are intriguing twists on design themes that he and his colleagues are already exploring. "But even submissions we can't make add to the stimulation," he added. "Our customers get more involved, and we get insights into who they are and what they're doing. It's better for both of us."
Eric von Hippel, head of the innovation and entrepreneurship group at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls this bottom-up phenomenon "lead-user innovation," and has studied its effects in industries from extreme-sports gear to medical equipment.
In a time of ever more talented technology enthusiasts, hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, all connected by Internet-enabled communication, he says, the most intensely engaged users of a product often find new ways to enhance it long before its manufacturer does. Thus, he argues, companies that aspire to stand out in fast-moving markets would be wise to invite their smartest users into the product design process.
"It's getting cheaper and cheaper for users to innovate on their own," Professor von Hippel said. "This is not traditional market research — asking customers what they want. This is identifying what your most advanced users are already doing and understanding what their innovations mean for the future of your business."
Peter van Stolk, the founder and chief executive of Jones Soda, a fast-growing soft-drink company based in Seattle, doesn't expect his customers to invent new drinks or to reinvent any of his existing line of organic teas, energy drinks and carbonated beverages in offbeat flavors like Blue Bubblegum, Fufu Berry and Lemon Drop. But he does rely on customers to infuse his company's brand image and retail presence, and to exercise their voice in shaping a message to the marketplace.
"We started this company with the philosophy that the world does not need another soda," he said. "That forced us to look at things differently: How could we create a new kind of connection with customers, let them play with the brand, let them take ownership of it? Everything at this company is about sharing ownership of the brand with our customers. This is not my brand. This is not our soda. It belongs to our customers."
Mr. van Stolk makes his products more memorable by making their marketing more social. A key to the company's identity — what separates it from giants like Coke and Pepsi and keeps the buzz going among its 12- to 24-year-old consumer demographic — is its packaging on store shelves. Jones Soda comes in 12-ounce glass bottles with labels as distinctive as the flavors are exotic. The labels are designed around striking photography — mainly black and white, but some in color — of landscapes, children, cars, street scenes and so on.
The labels change regularly, and many customers eagerly await the debut of each new batch of photographs. Why? Because the photos come from customers. Over the years, Jones has received millions of photos from its customers. Its Web site, jonessoda.com, displays a selection of images that have been sent by mail or e-mail to Seattle.
Visitors to the site vote on which pictures should go on the labels. When a photo is selected, the label includes the name and hometown of the person who submitted it.
It's a clever grass-roots branding technique. Customers also vote on music posted to the Jones site by independent bands, and photos of popular bands go on labels. Customers can even order a 12-pack featuring their own photographs — a form of Internet-enabled personalization that is the company's highest-margin business. The personalized 12-pack costs $34.95.
"So what is Jones?" Mr. van Stolk asked rhetorically. "Are we a soda company? Are we an Internet company? Are we a social networking company? We're all of that. Our goal is to keep creating more ways for customers to exercise ownership of the brand."
Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart, co-founders of Threadless.com, based in Chicago, are developing an even more radical model of shared ownership with customers. Threadless, which has become something of an Internet sensation, is in a decidedly old-fashioned business: selling T-shirts. But the designs in its huge online catalog all come from the company's customers, who submit their artwork to the site.
Visitors rate submissions on a one-to-five scale. The company selects five to seven designs a week and sells them for $15 apiece. Winners of the design competition receive $1,500 in cash and $500 worth of merchandise. Other customers earn points — good for store credit — for referring new buyers and for submitting photos of themselves wearing Threadless shirts.
All of this online participation has built a group of deeply engaged users who design, select, market and buy products — an enterprise whose customers are, in effect, the company. Threadless has 300,000 registered users and adds 20,000 a month. It receives as many as 150 new design submissions a day and sells up to 80,000 shirts a month.
WE'VE got four rules we follow," Mr. DeHart said. "We let the community create the content. We let the community build itself — no advertising. We let the community help with the business; we add features based on user feedback. And we reward members of the community for participating."
It's a low-cost, high-involvement formula with plenty of room for growth. Indeed, Mr. DeHart and Mr. Nickell have started several related lines, from one for customer-designed T-shirts for children (which made its debut Monday on Threadless) to another for customer-designed fabrics for neckties. (The ties are available at a companion site, www.nakedandangry.com.)
"Most of the energy comes from how fast the product line is changing," Mr. Nickell said. "There's something for users to do every day — see which new designs are out, score the latest submissions, post a blog entry. It's just a very active community."
Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone Can Edit' Policy / NY Times
By KATIE HAFNER
Wikipedia is the online encyclopedia that "anyone can edit." Unless you want to edit the entries on Albert Einstein, human rights in China or Christina Aguilera.
Wikipedia's come-one, come-all invitation to write and edit articles, and the surprisingly successful results, have captured the public imagination. But it is not the experiment in freewheeling collective creativity it might seem to be, because maintaining so much openness inevitably involves some tradeoffs.
At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts — one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.
Those measures can put some entries outside of the "anyone can edit" realm. The list changes rapidly, but as of yesterday, the entries for Einstein and Ms. Aguilera were among 82 that administrators had "protected" from all editing, mostly because of repeated vandalism or disputes over what should be said. Another 179 entries — including those for George W. Bush, Islam and Adolf Hitler — were "semi-protected," open to editing only by people who had been registered at the site for at least four days. (See a List of Protected Entries)
While these measures may appear to undermine the site's democratic principles, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, notes that protection is usually temporary and affects a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million entries on the English-language site.
"Protection is a tool for quality control, but it hardly defines Wikipedia," Mr. Wales said. "What does define Wikipedia is the volunteer community and the open participation."
From the start, Mr. Wales gave the site a clear mission: to offer free knowledge to everybody on the planet. At the same time, he put in place a set of rules and policies that he continues to promote, like the need to present information with a neutral point of view.
The system seems to be working. Wikipedia is now the Web's third-most-popular news and information source, beating the sites of CNN and Yahoo News, according to Nielsen NetRatings.
The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.
"A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence," Mr. Wales said. "But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community."
The administrators are all volunteers, most of them in their 20's. They are in constant communication — in real-time online chats, on "talk" pages connected to each entry and via Internet mailing lists. The volunteers share the job of watching for vandalism, or what Mr. Wales called "drive-by nonsense." Customized software — written by volunteers — also monitors changes to articles.
Mr. Wales calls vandalism to the encyclopedia "a minimal problem, a dull roar in the background." Yet early this year, amid heightened publicity about false information on the site, the community decided to introduce semi-protection of some articles. The four-day waiting period is meant to function something like the one imposed on gun buyers.
Once the assaults have died down, the semi-protected page is often reset to "anyone can edit" mode. An entry on Bill Gates was semi-protected for just a few days in January, but some entries, like the article on President Bush, stay that way indefinitely. Other semi-protected subjects as of yesterday were Opus Dei, Tony Blair and sex.
To some critics, protection policies make a mockery of the "anyone can edit" notion.
"As Wikipedia has tried to improve its quality, it's beginning to look more and more like an editorial structure," said Nicholas Carr, a technology writer who recently criticized Wikipedia on his blog. "To say that great work can be created by an army of amateurs with very little control is a distortion of what Wikipedia really is."
But Mr. Wales dismissed such criticism, saying there had always been protections and filters on the site.
Wikipedia's defenders say it usually takes just a few days for all but the most determined vandals to retreat.
"A cooling-off period is a wonderful mediative technique," said Ross Mayfield, chief executive of a company called Socialtext that is based on the same editing technology that Wikipedia uses.
Full protection often results from a "revert war," in which users madly change the wording back and forth. In such cases, an administrator usually steps in and freezes the page until the warring parties can settle their differences in another venue, usually the talk page for the entry. The Christina Aguilera entry was frozen this week after after fans of the singer fought back against one user's efforts to streamline it.
Much discussion of Wikipedia has focused on its accuracy. Last year, an article in the journal Nature concluded that the incidence of errors in Wikipedia was only slightly higher than in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Officials at Britannica angrily disputed the findings.
"To be able to do an encyclopedia without having the ability to differentiate between experts and the general public is very, very difficult," said Jorge Cauz, the president of Britannica, whose subscription-based online version receives a small fraction of the traffic that Wikipedia gets.
Intentional mischief can go undetected for long periods. In the article about John Seigenthaler Sr., who served in the Kennedy administration, a suggestion that he was involved in the assassinations of both John F. and Robert Kennedy was on the site for more than four months before Mr. Seigenthaler discovered it. He wrote an op-ed article in USA Today about the incident, calling Wikipedia "a flawed and irresponsible research tool."
Yet Wikipedians say that in general the accuracy of an article grows organically. At first, said Wayne Saewyc, a Wikipedia volunteer in Vancouver, British Columbia, "everything is edited mercilessly by idiots who do stupid and weird things to it." But as the article grows, and citations slowly accumulate, Mr. Saewyc said, the article becomes increasingly accurate.
Wikipedians often speak of how powerfully liberating their first contribution felt. Kathleen Walsh, 23, a recent college graduate who majored in music, recalled the first time she added to an article on the contrabassoon.
"I wrote a paragraph of text and there it was," recalled Ms. Walsh. "You write all these pages for college and no one ever sees it, and you write for Wikipedia and the whole world sees it, instantly."
Ms. Walsh is an administrator, a post that others nominated her for in recognition of her contributions to the site. She monitors a list of newly created pages, half of which, she said, end up being good candidates for deletion. Many are "nonsense pages created by kids, like 'Michael is a big dork,' " she said.
Ms. Walsh also serves on the 14-member arbitration committee, which she describes as "the last resort" for disputes on Wikipedia.
Like so many Web-based successes, Wikipedia started more or less by accident.
Six years ago, Mr. Wales, who built up a comfortable nest egg in a brief career as an options trader, started an online encyclopedia called Nupedia.com, with content to be written by experts. But after attracting only a few dozen articles, Mr. Wales started Wikipedia on the side. It grew exponentially.
For the first year or so, Mr. Wales paid the expenses out of his own pocket. Now the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports Wikipedia, is financed primarily through donations, most in the $50 to $100 range.
As the donations have risen, so have the costs. The foundation's annual budget doubled in the last year, to $1.5 million, and traffic has grown sharply. Search engines like Google, which often turn up Wikipedia entries at the top of their results, are a big contributor to the site's traffic, but it is increasingly a first stop for knowledge seekers.
Mr. Wales shares the work of running Wikipedia with the administrators and four paid employees of the foundation. Although many decisions are made by consensus within the community, Mr. Wales steps in when an issue is especially contentious. "It's not always obvious when something becomes policy," he said. "One way is when I say it is."
Mr. Wales is a true believer in the power of wiki page-editing technology, which predates Wikipedia. In late 2004, Mr. Wales started Wikia, a commercial start-up financed by venture capital that lets people build Web sites based around a community of interest. Wiki 24, for instance, is an unofficial encyclopedia for the television show "24." Unlike Wikipedia, the site carries advertising.
Mr. Wales, 39, lives with his wife and daughter in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the foundation is based. But Mr. Wales's main habitat these days, he said, is the inside of airplanes. He travels constantly, giving speeches to reverential audiences and visiting Wikipedians around the world.
Wikipedia has inspired its share of imitators. A group of scientists has started the peer-reviewed Encyclopedia of Earth, and Congresspedia is a new encyclopedia with an article about each member of Congress.
But beyond the world of reference works, Wikipedia has become a symbol of the potential of the Web.
"It can tell us a lot about the future of knowledge creation, which will depend much less on individual heroism and more on collaboration," said Mitchell Kapor, a computer industry pioneer who is president of the Open Source Applications Foundation.
Zephyr Teachout, a lawyer in Burlington, Vt., who is involved with Congresspedia, said Wikipedia was reminiscent of old-fashioned civic groups like the Grange, whose members took individual responsibility for the organization's livelihood.
"It blows open what's possible," said Ms. Teachout. "What I hope is that these kinds of things lead to thousands of other experiments like this encyclopedia, which we never imagined could be produced in this way."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Camera. Action. Edit. Now, Await Reviews.
By SCOTT KIRSNER
The music video for the surreal folk song "I Got a Bunny," written and performed by Juanito Moore, is not something you will see on VH1.
But the video, shot on a rainy sidewalk in front of Mr. Moore's home in Grand Rapids, Mich., has another distinction: it was assembled, not in a traditional cutting room or with PC-based editing software, but entirely on the Web, using an online service called Jumpcut.
The minute-and-a-half video was shot with a digital still camera, which Mr. Moore occasionally swings around by its tripod as he lists the bizarre animals in his imaginary menagerie.
While sites like YouTube and Veoh have lately become popular for allowing users to share their self-produced videos, Jumpcut (www.jumpcut.com) is part of a new class of sites that also offer simple tools for stringing together video clips and then adding soundtracks, titles, transitions and unusual visual effects.
All of the sites, which include Jumpcut, Eyespot, Grouper and VideoEgg, have been introduced within the last year. This summer, they will be joined by another site, Motionbox, based in New York.
Their shared objective, the founders of the sites say, is to reduce the complexity of video editing and to reduce the cost to zero.
"We wanted to make video editing over the Internet faster than desktop editing," said Jim Kaskade, co-founder and chief executive of Eyespot, based in San Diego. "We think it will broaden the base of people who are creative, but may not have thought they were, by creating this tool kit for them. Editing video is eventually going to be as simple as sending e-mail."
See the remainder of the article at the NYTimes.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Bruce Allen is an artist and art prof at Centenary College.
The Parthenon Marbles, often called the Elgin Marbles, is a large collection of marble sculptures brought to Britain in 1806 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799-1803. Taking advantange of Ottoman suzerainty over what is now Greece, he obtained a firman for their removal from the Parthenon from the Ottoman Sultan. The sculptures were deposited in the British Museum, London in 1816.
Today the Greeks want all of it back, understandably.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
In the ruins of a prehistoric village near Jericho, in the West Bank, scientists have found remains of figs that they say appear to be the earliest known cultivated fruit crop, perhaps the first evidence anywhere of domesticated food production at the dawn of agriculture. The figs were grown some 11,400 years ago.
Presumably that was well after Adam and Eve tried on the new look in fig leaves, in which case the fig must have grown wild in Eden.
Two botanists and an archaeologist, who describe the discovery in today's issue of the journal Science, said the figs came from cultivated trees that grew about 1,000 years before such staples as wheat, barley and chickpeas were widely domesticated in the Middle East. These grain and legume crops had been considered the first steps in agriculture.
The researchers uncovered nine small figs in the ruins of a burned building. The fire left the figs charred, preserving them in a condition for detailed analysis. The researchers established the age of the cache by dating the fire's remains.
A comparison with modern wild and domesticated varieties, the scientists said, led them to conclude that the ancient figs had undergone a mutation in the wild that produced a sweet fruit but no fertile seeds.
Because these trees were a reproductive dead end, the botanists reasoned, they could have been propagated only by people planting shoots of the variant strain again and again. A piece of stem stuck in the ground will sprout roots and grow into a tree, which could explain why figs were domesticated much earlier than grapes, olives and other fruit plants.
The archaeobotanists who conducted the study were Mordechai Kislev and Anat Hartman of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Their co-author of the journal report was Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at the Peabody Museum of Harvard.
In an interview by telephone from Israel, Dr. Bar-Yosef said that he was "confident about the identification of the figs as being of a domesticated variety" and that they were probably the earliest known domesticated crop. The cultivation technique, he said, seemed to be well enough advanced to suggest that people had thus been intervening in nature for several centuries.
NY Times June 2, 06