The Year the Year-in-Review Clip Show Died

by Cosmo Catalano

I find myself hoping 2014 is the swan song of algorithmically generated year-in-review mini-films on the various social networks. We’ve all seen Mad Men. We’ve all seen the Carousel/Facebook Timeline mashup. Nostalgia is powerful. Bond with the product. Etc. Yadda. But beyond the logo, these clip shows haven’t got a damn thing to do with the services they promote, and more often than not, they’re pretty lousy products in themselves.

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If you look at enough data you’re going to see something, but there’s no guarantee that whatever comes out of those algorithms is what you want to present. Take the two Instagram clips (above) from my Strava year in review. One is a psychotic squirrel trying to get into my kitchen, the other is me walking out of Hartford City Hall. Neither have anything to do with motivation or self-improvement or whatever other aspirational jingo Strava wants to transfer to their brand—they were synced almost by accident because I Strava my commutes.

But even when they do surface what they’re supposed to, these clip shows are inherently impersonal. The formulaic churn is obvious once you’ve seen more than one (an example from my Twitter feed today). And between the dozen or so networks most people are on, believe me—it’s not a new trick.

That Harry Crane is moved to tears by slides that have nothing to do with him in the original Mad Men Carousel pitch isn’t a testament to the power of such a delivery—it’s a clue that the emotional impact stems from a bug exploit. And from Eisenstein to the meta-presentation in A Clockwork Orange, it’s a well that’s been drawn from far too many times.

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Not only that, but in Strava’s case, it was a poor representation of their service (also above). First, they gave me “biggest climb” climb size in meters when I’m set to Imperial units, and then only sifted through data from cycling activities, meaning both that climb and highest suffer score the montage presented were well shy of my 2014 best

I mean, it could be worse—I could have had memories of my dead six-year-old daughter or other tragedies thrown back at me by Facebook. But to me, it’s emblematic of a shift away from product awesomeness in an attempt to gin up a halo of warm fuzzies around the already vaporous notion of brand.

It’s not that I don’t understand how this shift makes business sense. The dudes (and they do tend to be male) whining about elevations stripped from file uploads and temperature data not showing up are few, and people seeking aspirational reinforcement are legion. Whether you traffic in eyeballs or paying customers, more is better. I’m not the guy ranting in the forum about how I’m gonna cancel my premium subscription because of this one bug that only applies to me.

But I am the guy saying the best thing you can do for your brand is establish a bulletproof product. Whatever the next focus group says, and whatever buzzy brand trend comes along, it’ll be easier to fit to a service that puts user experience front and center. A strong marketing hook will bring people in the door, but nothing torpedoes on-boarding like a missing or wobbly feature.

(I also published this article on Tumblr)