Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Learnings at Supernova

I attended the Supernova conference at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The conference is designed to bring forward thinking ideas and issues to the forefront. A number of these issues were addressed including:

Spectrum needs and bandwidth speeds:

A prevalent topic was the need for additional wireless spectrum. The FCC who was in attendance is in the process of releasing 500 MHz of spectrum through various means over the next 10 years. There was also the expectation from the panel that wireless data traffic is to grow to 30 to 40 times what it is now. The additional spectrum and the way it is used by large carriers may not be the complete long term solution. The panel did agree that unlicensed spectrum was going to play a role in satisfying customer needs.

Some in the panel discussions stated the there was not enough 100 MB access in homes and that the lack of competition was limiting this. Others in the panel argued that the customer was satisfied with the speeds they were getting. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but the fact remains if the bandwidth is available it will be used in some capacity and it will likely be disruptive to some existing economic construct. An example: What instantaneous high quality video conferencing can do to certain industries like travel? A common theme for the decision makers in the audience and on the panels was unforeseen circumstances. Of course, no one can completely know the future but it does behoove businesses to know their core business and look at the impact technology is going to have on them.

Customer and user interaction with web sites and social networks:

The other major topic that was brought up was consumer and user interaction on the web with company web sites. In addition there was a need for better user understanding of filters on Facebook. The general theme being that technology needs to interact more symbiotically with our reactions, thoughts, expectations and feelings. Apple is a company that does this in terms of providing a technology that matches the way we think and organize our thoughts. Company web sites in general leave it up to the user to navigate. In addition, there are people in an organization that can help the customer but technology puts up a barrier to direct interaction via a web site or an IVR system. Technology does not do a great job of introducing these people to customers. For social networks the problem also exists as most people on Facebook do not have a good idea of what people can see or not see about them.

This type of reasoning brought up an impromptu session at the conference called tummeling. A tummeler is a host which knows everyone and can be someone who teaches you about the systems or situation you are in, and introduces you to people who you should meet. Essentially a tummeler is a guide to the inter-workings of the organization. The basic premise of the session was that web sites need a tummeler to guide people through web site, and understand and organize the social network web site for your needs and feelings. The general consensus is that this will be a hard undertaking because the people who design social web sites are technology focused rather than customer focused and that there is a conflict in interest between the social network user and the social network site due to advertising. Competition can change this but right now Facebook is on the top of the hill. Still this type of advancement is required to get more usability and trust out of the web experience. A group that supports the tummeler idea and delivers podcasts on the topic can be found on

Computer enthusiasts meet and unite:

Another interesting topic around making the Internet more personal was This is a bit of a misnomer because of the negative connotations of the word “hacker”, but these are essentially clubs which have work spaces that computer enthusiasts and programmers can come together to build projects and business ideas together, and tryout security ideas on an offline network. Different clubs have different specialties in terms of computer programming. Universities are looking at these types of clubs where computer talent can learn more than in a traditional academic setting. To learn more about these groups go to, and an example of a hackerspace web site is

Companies using social media:

Another interesting panel was around companies that had taken advantage of social media to draw customer interest and help the customer experience. For example:

Vitaminwater and Mountain Dew were discussed for their on line crowd sourcing campaign to design an ideal drink. Mountain Dew used a number of online methods to allow users to cast a vote and share thoughts including Facebook, video submissions and Twitter. is a web site that allows local merchants to create discounts for goods and services for a group of interested buyers. The website puts up a special discount and web site visitors click on the deal if they are interested. Once the deal reaches a trigger point or pre-determined number of clicks then the deal is offered to everyone that clicked. It is a good way for local businesses to create excitement around a deal and give the vendor a way to get people to try and purchase a product.

Publishers who transformed or created themselves as aggregators of information in order to deliver a publication that is profitable. Weis Healthy Bites Magazine was highlighted as an example of this. Gourmet Magazine has also downsized to serve this type of role for interested readers.

A couple of companies were highlighted for using twitter to reach their audience. Jet Blue was cited for using Twitter to advertise bargains. Comcast was cited for improving customer service via its @comcastcares twitter feed. The service has a reputation of cutting through red tape to find a customer solution. The founder of this service Frank Eliason is an example of a tummeler. He allows outsiders or visitors to navigate the Comcast care system and gets them to the right people.

The company Clickable,, is a one stop shop for small business to advertise on the web via traditional methods as well as social networks. They are working with American Express’ small business unit. One of the underlying themes of the conference was how local businesses can take advantage of social networking.

Ending with education

The conference ended with a panel on changes that are going to happen due to the digital world. We have seen this in music and publishing, where revenues have declined and new business models have been needed to take place. The panelist brought up the sense of entitlement that the American workforce has and that it is conflicting with the current economy. One example of this was given by the Director of the Science Leadership Academy, Chris Lehmann where the cost of college and higher education had outstripped the financial viability of families thus possibly denying America of technology talent in the future. But there is always a way around problems and people starting new ideas to make forward progress. Hacker spaces are one of the ways around this educational dilemma.

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