Collective mind probes

If you hang out in the blog-twitter-sphere you’ve doubtless seen recent mention of brand tags, Noah Brier’s “collective experiment in brand perception”. The site shows you brand logos and asks you to tag them with the first word or phrase that comes to mind. Then it shows you how others tagged those brands.

It’s addictive. Here, for example, are the top tags for Jet Blue and United Airlines:

Jet Blue: cheap, plane, airline, fly, blue, airplane, tv, cool, fun

United Airlines: airlines, airline, airplane, fly, plane, air, old, bankrupt

These slices of collective perception are remarkable indicators. Whose perceptions do they indicate, though? Not only, as I guessed, denizens of the blog-twitter-sphere. Look at what the brand tags crowd says about Twitter, TechCrunch, and ReadWriteWeb:

twitter: useless, annoying, stupid, web 2.0, fun, bird, blog, ?, tweet, internet, pointless

techcrunch: ?, blog, tech, technology, nothing, no idea, geek, computer, boring

readwriteweb: ?, nothing, huh?, no idea, rww, internet, what?, unknown, boring

Evidently the site is tapping into a broader population that doesn’t know about Twitter, TechCrunch, and ReadWriteWeb. From that perspective, it’s interesting to see which emerging tech brands have crossed over. Flickr, for example:

flickr: photos, pictures, photo, cool, picture, pics, fun, awesome

What’s a good result for your brand? Here are two tests:

  1. Does the list begin with a question mark? That’s bad.
  2. Do the words “fun” and/or “cool” and/or “awesome” and/or “amazing” occur near the top of the list? That’s good.

You won’t be shocked to discover that Microsoft passes test #1, but test #2 not so much, though I predict that will change, and I intend to be part of that change.

Likewise, you won’t be surprised to learn that Google and Apple pass both tests with flying colors. Less predictably, though, the tag sets for Google and Apple reflect a fascinating ambivalence. The seventh and eighth tags for Google, for example, are “god” and “evil”.

The brand tags experiment itself is fun and cool and amazing. Also disturbing. See the Oprah entry, for example. I’m not sure how long the fun will last without spam controls.

Such controls could be implemented. But if an experiment like this lasts long enough to be gamed, and then to evolve countermeasures, it may have outlived its usefulness. Perhaps the most effective ways of probing the collective mind will be short-lived, non-replicable hacks that yield brief flashes of insight.

The New Yorker, by the way, recently reported on another fascinating probe. In Obama’s In-box, Charles Bethea tells the story of Guru Raj who, on a lark, registered the email address barackobama@gmail.com back in 2004 when Gmail was new. Raj never replies to any of the mail received at that address, but he used to read it, and still does from time to time. Here’s how he describes the experience:

“It just became an interesting portal into Americana.”

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