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2 posts from August 2009

August 26, 2009

Twitter = LEGOs?

TwitterBirdLegoBricks

Twitter bird made of LEGO bricks that I commissioned from New York artist Nathan Sawaya

Some History

On January 28, 1958, Godtfried Kirk Christiansen (a carpenter who built a humble toy factory during the Great Depression) submitted a patent for the LEGO brick building system in Copenhagen, Denmark. Fifty years later, the core building block of the brick is virtually unchanged, as is the fundamental philosophy of the company – that there should be unlimited opportunities in play with the ability to build virtually anything from LEGO bricks (elements).

Almost 50 years later, in March 2006, Twitter emerged out of the company Odeo as a side project (when the first tweet came from Jack Dorsey).  In the three years since the first tweet and then its explosive growth in 2009, Twitter’s small fundamental building block – “the 140 character tweet” has remained unchanged, and an ecosystem of other “elements” (called applications) is growing around it.  Now that may not enable the building of “virtually anything” as in the claim of LEGOs, but what is evolving is much more than just 140 characters of random text.

A large part of the enduring appeal of LEGO bricks is that they are so simple and satisfying to use, and there is no age or geographic boundary to the appeal.  Anyone anywhere can take a bunch of bricks and build something with only their imagination and two hands.  In digital space, one might say something similar about Twitter.

So does Twitter = LEGOs?

Seven Similarities

1. Size doesn’t matter.
Both a LEGO brick and a Twitter “tweet” are simple and small, and yet have become iconic in their own rights. A LEGO brick is a small rectangular piece of plastic with 8 studs on the top (4 each in 2 rows) and a pattern of 3 tubes underneath.  A tweet is up to 140 characters in length, period. The simple and logical nature of both may be part of their power.  In the case of Twitter, the length limitation may actually spur use and the creative process, being less daunting than writing a blog post or creating a video.

2. The value of the sum of the parts is more than that of the individual pieces.
On a per unit basis, a brick and a tweet are both simple, but they are part of a bigger, more complex ecosystem. Some people might look at a box of LEGO bricks as a pile of plastic rubble, while others see the house, palace, ancient pyramid, or spaceship they dream of, and can finally build.  Looking at the scrolling screen of a Twitter client, the same conclusion might be drawn about a tumultuous narcissistic din, or about serendipitous discoveries and linked conversational threads. According to a 1972 LEGO catalog, LEGO was/is “as simple or as complicated as children wish.”  This is a very Web/”Blogish” philosophy that is in alignment with Twitter, and certainly isn’t limited to the kids.

3. It’s more than child’s play. Everyone’s invited.
There is not one psychodemographic group that “owns” LEGOs or Twitter. What starts in one place moves to another.  Bricks began with children and spread to the “other” adult population, including scientists and artists.  Twitter started with the geeks and professional tech insiders, moved to SXSW attendees and the enthusiastic amateurs, and now into the broader population.  Both products could be defined as having “it’s what you make it” and “who you are” kinds of experiences that differ between user groups.

4. If you build it, they will come (and make it more).
The didactic nature of the LEGO brick is similar to that of Twitter.  Each has an individualistic approach to problem solving and communicating. There is no one right way.  With Twitter, you can write a novel 140 characters at a time, tell a joke, share a photo or an important article, or organize an impromptu TweetUp. As a 1992 LEGO catalog said: “We’ve got the bricks, you’ve got the ideas.”

Similarly, neither is a fixed model, despite their simplicity. A LEGO construction set does not consist of one outcome, but of many possible combinations, even though each comes from the same basic element – the brick.  There are innumerable ways that Twitter “outcomes” have been expanded – 2500 and counting to be more specific using the Twitter API.  New applications and their outcomes enable people to directly donate money to charity, take real-time opinion polls, play games, share breaking news photos, and spread the truth despite the efforts of a repressive regime … in addition to talking about lunch and sharing puppy photo links.

5. Nothing that lasts forever stands still.
LEGO started as wooden toys and then moved to the plastic shape we know today, and that still remains as the brand and product foundation. New additions to the core brick throughout the years have included tires for vehicles (1961), human figures (1974), software (1997), robots with MIT Media Lab (1998) and a Spielberg endorsed movie-making set (2000).  Similarly Twitter remains the 140 character communication, and yet is changing from its origins both from the ideas and imaginations of its users, and also through technology improvements and new business practices and models in the near future (e.g. paid professional accounts).

6. “I am the only guinea pig I have.”
So said architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller in talking about personal experimentation and creativity. The brick is a creative material, an enabling catalyst for kids or adults to influence the world around them in some small, but powerfully personal way by making things once only imagined - real (and with their own hands).  Twitter, like blogging or video production, serves a similar purpose, although with the possibility of far greater influence, collaboration and  conversation.

7. Turn up the volume.
In terms of pure raw numbers, both LEGO and Twitter have some impressive ones to offer.

For LEGO:

  • 5 billion hours a year are spent by adults and kids playing with LEGO bricks (elements).
  • 36,000 bricks (elements) are produced every minute.
  • 19 billion bricks (elements) are produced every year.
  • There are 62 bricks (elements) for every person in the world today.
  • More than 915 million different possible combinations are possible from 6 bricks of the same color with 8 studs each.

For Twitter:

  • More than 23 million unique visitors and 153 million visits to Twitter.com in July 2009 (Compete.com).
  • 1,400% growth in Twitter users February 2008 to February 2009.
  • Estimated 1.5 million Twitter accounts added in “3 days of Oprah” (April 17-19 2009).
  • More than 3.5 billion total tweets sent to date.
  • About 20 million tweets/day by the end of August 2009. (That means in less than 178 days there will be double the number of tweets sent in the first 3+ years).

The LEGO List

Can an attributes list for a “kid’s toy” from 1963 provide inspiration for a Silicon Valley company and a technology entering the second decade of the 21st Century? The following is a list of the 10 characteristics of LEGO written by the inventor more than 45 years ago. What might this list look like for Twitter, now and in the near future?

  1. Unlimited play possibilities
  2. For girls, for boys
  3. Enthusiasm to all ages
  4. Play all year round
  5. Healthy and quiet play
  6. Endless hours of play
  7. Imagination, creativity, development
  8. More LEGO multiplied play value
  9. Always topical
  10. Safety and quality

Trans-Generational Longevity

Only a few products outlive generations, and the LEGO brand is one of them. Maybe in the digital age the definition for “generation” needs to change and be more like Moore’s Law (generation = 18 months)? In any case, can Twitter or any digital technology have the chronological longevity of LEGOs?  Or does the analogy, no matter how fun for fans of both, end there? Egv_tiny_blogicon


(Note: Sometimes posts are inspired by the oddest random and personal desires.  In the case of this one, I wanted to have the Twitter bird “logo” made out of LEGO bricks, in 3D.  So to justify that, I felt that I needed to come up with an idea in which to use that piece of art.  That’s the genesis of “Twitter = LEGOs?” which led to deeper thinking about the particular analogies shared above. If you love LEGOs or just design in general, there is an excellent book that was published in 2008 for the 50th anniversary of the esteemed brick, “50 Years of the LEGO Brick” by Christian Humberg.  The book itself is quite a piece of art with LEGO bricks and copies of the patent and early promotional materials - helpful research for this post - from 1963 to present included.)

   

August 18, 2009

Inspiration - Some Of The Best Ideas Come From Unexpected Sources

InspirationCompositeBorder

The items in the images on the left inspired the products and brands on the right.

In his 2005 book, "A Whole New Mind,"  Daniel Pink proposed that we have entered an era in which creative conceptual thinking has become increasingly important. Right-brain thinking that is emotionally and observationally based needs to take its rightful and valued place next to the left-brain thinking of logical analytical and theoretical thought. Both science and business often say that the result of creative thoughts need to contain both originality and appropriateness. To get to that final stage, there is a process (the 4I's) that takes inspiration into idea into invention and later into continuing innovation.

So with creative thought a valued process, where does the "first I of Inspiration" come from?  Some examples follow that demonstrate that some of the best ideas and solutions come from truly unexpected sources that are about as far removed from the "industry of record" as possible.  A humble kitchen. A walk with a dog. Street art in some dicey alleys.

1940’s - Velcro

The inventor of Velcro (Swiss engineer George de Mestral) was inspired by the burrs stuck in his dog’s coat.  Returning home from a hunting trip in the Alps, he noticed all the burrs, specifically burdock seeds, stuck fast to the coat of his dog. Examining this scenario under a microscope, he saw that the burrs had hundreds of "hooks" that caught on anything with a loop, dog fur for example.  Thus was revealed the seed of the idea for a new and simple way of binding two materials together if he could figure out how to duplicate the hooks and loops that he had found in nature (burrs and fur). Ten years after that walk with his dog, he submitted the patent for Velcro that was later granted in 1955.

1970’s - Nike

A waffle iron led to a revolutionary athletic shoe sole design and the birth of a global mega brand.  Track coach Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon was experimenting with ideas for shoe outsoles that would better grip the newly resurfaced track at the university. One Sunday morning, he poured liquid urethane into his wife’s waffle iron.  This evolved into the famed Nike “waffle sole” which was first mass manufactured and distributed in the iconic Nike Waffle Trainer in 1974. In 2008, Nike’s revenues were nearly $19B. That’s a lot of waffles.

1980’s - MTV logo

On August 1, 1981 MTV launched on a small New Jersey cable system with a theme song in the form of a crunching guitar riff playing over a montage of images of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The MTV logo on the astronaut’s flag is the iconic symbol of the company that was inspired by the graffiti and street art that Creative Director Fred Seibert and his team would see walking the streets of NYC. Contrary to the “industry standard practice” of never touching a corporate logo/icon, the MTV logotype, true to its street art origins, is constantly changing and simultaneously existing in many different creative manifestations.

  

InspirationTwitterNYC

21st Century - Twitter

I'm not sure what the real story of the initial inspiration for Twitter is.  Maybe it's as "mundane" as some form of evolution of SMS.  But I am intrigued by a recent tweet from Twitter co-founder and chairman Jack Dorsey that read:

DorseyBloombergTweet


Lesson?  In the creative idea economy, you never know what the source and timing of initial inspiration is going to be.  More often than not, inspiration springs from unexpected sources far removed from the confines of the particular business or problem at hand, which says something about the value of an "informed naivete" in the approach to the creative process ...well that, and taking a lot of walks and spending time in the kitchen. Egv_tiny_blogicon


    Or

Liz Gebhardt


  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.