15 October 2018

A Solid Insight 

Yifei Chai, UNIT9's innovation architect, on what Sir Tim Berners-Lee's new venture, Solid, could mean for marketers

Tim Berners-Lee has watched his creation, the World Wide Web, morph from a beacon of democratic knowledge to a tool of corporate greed and political propaganda. 

To take power back from social and tech behemoths, Sir Tim is launching Solid – a new system that gives users control and value over their own data. How? Through a plug-in ‘POD’, akin to a cloud-based USB stick, that stores personal data and grants access to third party apps through the user’s personal API. The marketing industry’s reaction so far has been a collective shrug: “Nice idea, Tim, but will anybody really bother?” 

Maybe they’re right. But if they’re wrong, they’d better listen up. And not just because some of their favourite marketing platforms might disappear.

When or if Solid – or its future contemporaries – reach critical mass, Google, Facebook et al will no longer be a one-stop-shop of data. Marketers will have to re-structure themselves around this new model of data ownership. But that’s fine. They can adapt over time. What may not be quite as fine, or as easy to adapt to, is the fact that brands will need serious tech chops to interpret and use data in the new era of personal ownership.

Contrary to conventional marketing wisdom, the data that we can glean from today’s social behemoths is rudimentary. Why? Because it offers only a one-dimensional picture based on a single user state. Google is a gold mine of data, but it only offers insights based on a user’s search patterns. Similarly, although the advertising industry fawns over Facebook for knowing more about its users than their mothers, all we truly know about people from their Facebook profiles is how they like to present themselves on Facebook. It’s useful, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s the full picture. 

The Solid model, however, means that data will become more holistic. How? By encompassing multiple platforms and, therefore, multiple user states. Think along the lines of Google + Facebook + Amazon + Twitter + LinkedIn. It’s a powerful combination. But it’s also an incredibly complex combination. Possibly so complex that it becomes unintelligible. Unless, that is, you throw AI into the equation. With data this dense, the only feasible way to untangle it is with highly sophisticated AI. 

Then we have to think about Blockchain. Why would people go through the painful inconvenience of switching to Solid if there’s nothing in it for them? They’d do it because they want to claw back control and monitise their data. But they can’t control or monitise their data unless they can track where and how it’s being used. Cue Blockchain. This marvellous system gives people’s data a unique track-able code and assigns a value to it. So, without Blockchain, Sir Tim’s dream of re-democratising the World Wide Web becomes meaningless. 

Solid or no Solid, data is already being duplicated and multiplying exponentially into an unwieldy mass that desperately needs AI and Blockchain to save the day. And yet, most brands are still cowering from things like AI. Sure, they know what it is. But they haven’t got a clue how to really use it. There’s an AI and Blockchain-shaped 10-tonne truck heading their way and most have no crash barrier. But if they grasp the nettle and gen-up properly,they can be part of a very ethical and Solid solution to today’s rampant data issues.

Yifei Chai is the innovation architect at UNIT9, creators of tech-led brand experiences like Royal Caribbean’s SoundSeeker AI app, Gatorade’s raindrop human sculpture, Amazon Echo’s escape room and Nike’s treadmill-powered video game.

If you want to learn more about machine vision and other marketing trends, book a ticket to Most Contagious. The event on 6 December crams a year's worth of insights, trends and technology into a single day to help brands and agencies create work that's fit for the future. If you're looking for the inspiration to help you steal a competitive advantage, click here.