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2 Brute

June 2, 2011

Dobrý den Señor I. P. Pavlov. On my way back from ICASSP, where I presented two papers, I read an interesting newspaper article about Groupon, a site that offers promotions and discounts. 

Google had secret algorithms that gave superior search results. Facebook provided a way to broadcast regular updates to friends and acquaintances that grew ever more compelling as more people signed up, which naturally caused more people to sign up. Twitter introduced a new tool to let people promote themselves.  Groupon has nothing so special. It offers discounts on products and services, something that Internet start-up companies have tried to develop as a business model many times before, with minimal success. Groupon’s breakthrough sprang not just from the deals but from an ingredient that was both unlikely and ephemeral: words.

At Groupon, humans write the words, the stories.  As I suggested, what if machines could take over the creative aspect and still produce copy that was engaging for consumers?  Groupon is itself innovative, but a machine-generated Groupon would be wild. 

Interestingly, the article connected Groupon back to another change in buying and selling.

Chicago has revolutionized retailing before. In 1872, a dry-goods salesman named Aaron Montgomery Ward wearied of visiting far-flung stores, so he mailed descriptions of goods directly to rural residents. The orders were sent by a new delivery system that wreaked havoc on traditional commerce: the railroad. Ward’s innovation was as much of a cultural achievement as a merchandising one — farmers read his catalogues for pleasure, dreaming of a better world. They were the foundation of a retail empire that lasted more than a century until the management failed one time too often to anticipate a shift in consumer tastes.

Some time ago,  Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West had resonated with you. What other lessons were there in that book?

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