Living Beyond Our Expectations

To my father-in-law, the Internet is a big black box that he doesn’t understand, but inside of which, all is possible. This became clear to me after the following conversation:

F-I-L: Gord?

Me: Yes?

F-I-L: Can you go on your computer and find the combination for my safe?

Me: Huh?

F-I-L: I have an old safe that I locked years ago and I can’t remember the combination. I thought you could probably find it on your computer.

Of course, by “computer”, he meant the Internet. To him, the Internet is the sum collection of all information, and in that, he’s not far wrong. Chances are, in some archive of manufacturer’s data somewhere, the lost combination probably exists. If it does, it’s just one database call away from being public. One would hope that this information would always remain private, but my point is, as naïve as my father-in-law’s question seems to be, it’s probably not that far removed from reality.

Technology and our expectations of what’s possible also seem to play a game of cat and mouse. No matter what we dream up, it seems that it becomes reality in the blink of an eye. In fact, I suspect that technology now regularly outpaces our wildest dreams. Almost anything is possible, at least in theory. If it doesn’t exist, it’s probably just that it’s not practical. Nobody has bothered to put in the effort to make it happen.

Consider marketing intelligence, for instance. Remember the first time you encountered what John Battelle dubbed the “database of intentions?” It was Google’s query data, and Battelle had what he called a “Holy Sh*t” moment when he realized:

This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind – a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion.

For marketers, Google had provided us with the biggest source of marketing intelligence ever compiled. It was the crystallization of consumer intent, in searchable form. We collectively salivated over it.

But that was a decade ago. Now, as marketers, we routinely curse the gaps in and shortcomings of Google’s query data. As powerful as it once seemed, our expectations have leapfrogged ahead of it.

Battelle has recently updated his definition of the database of intent, adding four new “fields” to it. Originally there was the search “query”, signaling “what I want.” Now, the “social graph” indicates “who I am” and “who I know.” The “status update” signals “what I’m doing” and “what’s happening.” The “check-in” signals “where I am.” And the “purchase” signals “what I’m buying.”

For a marketer, this is mind-blowing stuff. The trick, of course, is to bring this all together in a meaningful way, and to do so; there are multiple technology, intellectual property and privacy hurdles to get over. But it’s all very doable. It’s administration, not technology, that’s holding us back. A big part of Facebook’s IPO valuation was based on successfully pulling this off.

Again, technology has dangled a possibility at the leading edge of our expectations. But it will happen. And when it does, it will suddenly seem ho-hum to us. Our expectations will rocket forward to another possibility.

But even as fast as our expectations move, I guarantee, somewhere, someone is already working on something that lies beyond anything we ever dreamed of. Thank goodness our expectations are as elastic as they seem to be.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider May 24, 2012

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