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Contextualised Relevance

I agree with Alisa Leonard-Hansen that the future is all about context. In this rather presient RWW piece, Alisa talks about how our online experiences become more meaningful and relevant to us when they are layered with the contextual social data that surrounds our online identity – what she calls the pragmatic web. And how, if our online identity is defined by a combination of who we say we are, what we do and say, and who we connect to (and who connects to us), then it is equally defined by three types of data:

  • Explicit data (the stuff we input about ourselves)
  • Activity or behavioral data
  • Relationship data (our social graphs, and what they say about us)

The impact of this, says Alisa, is on two levels. At the individual level, in enabling a highly relevant and indiviualised web experience. And for businesses, in understanding the value inherent in services that leverage such different types of data:

"Consider this: as media companies scramble to identify new and innovative ways to advertise to the sea of nameless, pixeled users who graze through their content each day, a rich supply of highly valuable identity data lies just beneath the surface, left unmeasured and unmonetized."

A couple of months ago, Clive Thompson wrote a piece in Wired about some research conducted by Andrea Lunsford (Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University) that studied over 14,000 pieces of student literature over five years with the objective of determining whether increased use of technology (notably short-form text content such as texting and instant messaging) was ushering in a new age of illiteracy. Her conclusions were quite the opposite:

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization."

Rather than killing our ability to write, she says, technology is reviving it and pushing it in new directions. Effectuated by the socialising that takes place online, much of which involves text, people now write far more than any generation before them (38 percent of her student's writing was not related to study). Interestingly Lunsford found that they were more engaged when they knew that their writing had a audience larger than just one person (like their tutor) and that their views on good writing focused on aspects of debate, persuasion and coordination. Even more interesting, she found that the students were remarkably adept at understanding the nuances of social contexts – understanding their audience and adapting tone and expression to get their point across.

Thompson uses an interesting word in his piece: Kairos – an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment). One of the Holy Grails of advertising and media has always been to deliver the most relevant information, to the right person, at the right time. Kairos.

Google (who else) are announcing some interesting moves in this area. Back in February 2007, they began personalizing search results based on search history, but you had to be logged in to Google for it to work (and let's face it nobody does that). Now, they have announced that they are switching the default to personalise search for everyone. That was swiftly followed by the announcement of their real-time search functionality, which they refer to as the point where "relevance meets the real-time web". And you can now use pictures to search the web using Google Goggles on your android mobile. Search, they say, is still "an unsolved problem". And it won't be solved no doubt until it is serving us with perfect information in a perfect context of time and geography.

The interest thing is that at the same time that you have a growing audience that is supremely good at understanding and using nuanced social contexts online, Facebook is sat on the biggest database of social data on the planet, and with Facebook Connect has the potential to open up social contexts using an unprecedented level of both data which is explicitly user generated and that which we leave behind us in our digital vapour trails. There are issues (of-course there are) but for how long?

If advertising is ever to get more useful, then it will surely be through an entirely exceptional level of contextualised relevance. Social, location-based, real-time. But is that advertising? Or is that just a service?

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