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Things that go Boing Boing in the night

Things that go Boing Boing in the night Jodi Harris

A recent survey of the topics covered by co-editor David Pescovitz on BoingBoing.net reveals a pretty wide and varying field of interests: neuromarketing, strippers who are protesting a church, macrophotography, and... hot beef sundaes. For a man whose job connects him with people who share his views on the world, even he would likely admit that his lens is pretty skewed.

Pescovitz, who splits his time between Boing Boing and his researcher role at the Institute for the Future, seems to thrive on puzzling out the meaning of and uses for innovation and emerging technology. He has written for Scientific American, Wired, The New York Times, and Salon, among others, so iMedia decided to turn the tables and direct a few questions at the man himself.

iMedia Connection: You'll be delivering the opening keynote at the iMedia Breakthrough Summit in Rancho Mirage, Calif., this October. What can attendees expect to hear you talk about?

David Pescovitz: I'm interested in new technologies of persuasion. There's an arms race between advertisers and the rest of us, and it's escalating. Advertisers will increasingly use new tools for data mining and geolocation, and even research gleaned from neuroscience, to take precise aim at their target markets. But who wants to be a "target"? So today's young people, whose first language is media creation, will almost instantly develop resistances to new methods of persuasion and control. And that will push marketers even further.

David Pescovitz is co-editor of BoingBoing.net and a research director with the Institute for the Future. He is also editor-at-large for MAKE.

iMedia: As one of Boing Boing's resident experts on art, science, fringe culture, and general weirdness, what do you think it takes to carve out a unique presence for a brand online?

Pescovitz: I think it's all about authenticity. And not the "feeling" of authenticity, but true authenticity. I think that Boing Boing has done well because for the entire life of the brand so far -- 20 years -- the only thing that has driven us is our own curiosity. The only filter we use to determine whether to post about something is whether it's personally interesting to us. So our excitement and passion for what we write about is very real. I think our community can feel that and enjoys getting turned on with us.

iMedia: What social platform have you gotten the most leverage from for Boing Boing?

Pescovitz: I think Twitter and Facebook really do well for us because both of those platforms make it easy to deal in the real currency of the web, which is the permalink.

iMedia: Is creating a community a big concern at Boing Boing? What components does your site feature to foster this type of audience relationship?

Pescovitz: Timothy Leary has been one of Boing Boing's patron saints ever since we were a photocopied print 'zine in the late 1980s. A journalist once asked Tim what people should do after they "turn on." Tim said, "Find the others." Every day, I feel incredibly fortunate that Boing Boing helps me do that -- to connect with people who enjoy looking at the world through the same lens that we do.

To help us connect with each other, we have discussion threads after each post. Years ago, we shut off comments entirely because the noise became louder than the signal, and reading the comments just wasn't fun anymore. I don't mind at all if people disagree with me, but I'd rather people not insult me in my own living room. Two years ago, we relaunched comments but with several moderators. They help keep the conversations on track and the debate productive. And I love it when folks share what they know with me about whatever strange thing has piqued my interest enough to post about it. We've also recently launched the Submitterator, which is a channel on Boing Boing to share your submissions to the site with everyone else. We were receiving hundreds of submissions every day, and only a handful made it onto the site. But this way, if there's something you're excited about, you can link to it from the Submitterator and discuss it with the rest of the community. And of course, it's a terrific source of great stuff for Boing Boing's front door too!

iMedia: BoingBoing is pretty irreverent. Have you ever encountered a brand that is just too scared to work with you?

Pescovitz: I think the best campaigns can happen when a brand is willing to support something we'd like to do to enhance the site and reader experience; for example, a new feature or enhanced navigation or to underwrite our coverage of a particular theme or topic area that relates to their marketing message in some way. Of course, they also need to recognize that our integrity and success is based on total editorial independence and transparency wherever a marketer is involved. All of us at Boing Boing are career journalists, and while we're open to nontraditional kinds of partnerships, we never allow a marketer to influence our editorial in any way. And fortunately, many large brands are now realizing that the first rule of conversational marketing is that you can't control the conversation.

We have had many successful programs with marketers that we've developed with our ad partners at Federated Media and on our own. Fortunately, the number of those successes far outweighs any stumbles. If brands are scared to work with us, they don't reach out to us, or FM (smartly) doesn't try to push them into a situation that might make them uncomfortable. That said, we frequently turn down campaigns from brands whose products or ethics we disagree with or feel wouldn't be a good fit on our site.

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iMedia: In addition to your many years of experience as a journalist, you are a research director at an organization called the Institute of the Future. What are the institute's aims, and how did you become involved?

Pescovitz:The Institute for the Future is a 42-year-old not-for-profit research group that helps companies, governments, other organizations, and the public think systematically about long-term future trends to make better decisions in the present. The only way you can possibly make the future that you want is to be part of the conversation.

In the early days of Wired magazine, I wrote a futurist column called Reality Check. So IFTF and I have been in similar orbits since the early 1990s. After participating in several of their expert workshops on mobility, social media, and context-aware computing, I became a research affiliate and then eventually a research director. What I do at IFTF is not entirely removed from my training and career as a science and technology journalist. I look for signals, unusual or interesting events, technologies, or applications, that on their own just might raise your eyebrows. But considered in a complex ecology, these signals can often indicate a larger story or direction of change. Also, one of the methodologies we use is to identify experts in a field and ask them to think about how their research might someday transform society or culture. My work at IFTF and Boing Boing definitely is symbiotic. At both places, my approach is really just to follow my quest for wonder, novelty, and societal-scale transformations.

iMedia: What are some of the projects you are currently working on for the Institute? Are there any interesting trends or concepts that marketers should be aware of?

Pescovitz: Recently, my colleagues and I were exploring what a world might look like if "everything is programmable." We have access to more data about ourselves and our environment than ever before. Sensor networks, bio-monitors, pervasive computers, and, of course, the social graph have given us unprecedented insight into the chaos and patterns underlying our world. Once we understand what the data means, we can act on it. We live in a control system and are developing new techniques -- from social software to gene therapies to geoengineering -- to tweak the dials and see the results in real-time. And that raises interesting questions. How do you make sure it's not just an elite group that knows how to do the programming? What unintended consequences might emerge when you start fiddling with the knobs of our body, mind, and environments?

iMedia: Speaking of fiddling with knobs, what gadget or marketing technology innovation are you the most excited about right now?

Pescovitz: I'm excited about the potential for augmented reality to bring information to the place where it's most useful. William Gibson coined the word "cyberspace" almost 25 years ago. But it's played out and increasingly irrelevant. We don't just "go to" cyberspace through the screen on our laptop or desktop computer anymore. The wireless web, sensors, context-aware environments, location-enabled services are converging to transform cyberspace into a layer on top of our entire existing reality. Combine that with the programmable world metaphor I just talked about, and you really can start to hack reality.

Jodi Harris is senior editor at iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow Jodi at @Joderama. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Jodi Harris is the Director of Editorial Content & Curation at Content Marketing Institute. As an independent consultant, Jodi develops strategic content programs and projects for brand, media, and agency clients in the marketing, entertainment,...

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