Cafe Witness

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who Do You Know?

Yesterday I mentioned that the new media landscape is filled with uncertainty. The main reason most people delve into it is not because of the promise of untold riches or eventual stability, but simply because it's an unexplored territory. With no rules, expect those which we make on our own and agree to follow, it feels more like the Old West than it does a modern media evolution.

In the Old West, the number one goal was survival. Prosperity is great if you can find it, but you can't build your empire unless you have food, water and shelter first. How did the early settlers make their mark on the new territories? They formed small, close-knit communities that provided for one another.

In short, they formed a lifeline.

Last Night's Lifeline

Yesterday evening, I attended the latest monthly PodCamp Pittsburgh Meet-Up. These gatherings of anywhere from a dozen to 40 people are the miniature versions of what we celebrated at PodCamp back in November: an opportunity to have a large conversation and share our individual bits of information with the larger audience.

It's a community-building effort that allows us to form a bond in this new media frontier, so we don't have to walk through the dark alone.

Among the attendees last night were some new faces. Some folks heard about the meet-ups and decided they wanted to take part, ask questions, make connections.

They wanted to shore up their lifeline.

Everyone at the meet-up has an area of expertise. Everyone there knows something -- maybe 2%, maybe 50% -- about what it takes to succeed in this new arena. And everyone there wants to know what everyone else knows, so they can add that experience to their own repertoire.

But, more importantly, they all want to know they have someone they can ask for help.

Cold-Blogging and the Accidental Creation of a Movement

Last year, I started cold-contacting any blog I could find that was talking, even remotely, about web video. As the creator of Something to Be Desired, a web series that's now in its fourth year of existence, I felt I knew something about the medium. What I didn't know was how to get that knowledge out to a larger audience.

The logical thing to do, it seemed, was to contact the people who were already talking about it and ask them if they'd be interested in talking about us.

Some of these cold-contacts worked out. Most didn't. There's no harm in trying, just like there's no harm in being told that someone's not interested in what you have to say -- all you lose is the stamp, or, in this case, the time it took to send the email.

But of the ones that DID work out, one turned into a much larger conversation.

I stumbled across a blog post from someone named Chris Brogan, who was working in the technology field somewhere in Massachusetts. He'd mentioned an idea or two he'd had while exploring YouTube, in a post I found while searching Technorati. I commented on his post and referred him back to STBD, which he then watched and enjoyed enough to write about on his blog.

Instead of one obligatory post, Chris decided to continue the conversation. He had other questions about new media, and some ideas of his own, and he wanted to know what I thought about them. Over time, what started out as a request for media coverage turned into an actual friendship, with each of us bouncing creative ideas off one another and wondering where this all would lead.

During that time, I observed Chris grow from interested outsider to someone who wanted to take action and learn as much about new media as he could. Why? So he could do... something. He didn't know what it would be, and neither did I, but we each new it was different that what he'd been doing. For all we knew, what he wanted to do hadn't even been invented yet.

In order to find out what it was, he'd need to ask questions. He'd need to acquire information.

He'd need to meet people.

Flash forward to September of 2006. By this time, Chris had befriended a number of mediamakers in Boston and beyond, had begun his own podcasts to better understand the medium, and had taught himself as much of the existing infrastructure in this emerging field as he could. Inspired by the communal energy of the experience, and well aware that he needed more information to expand the conversation, he and his fellow Bostonians decided to launch an informal get-together known as PodCamp -- a grassroots meet-up for bloggers, podcasters and other new media creators to share ideas, opinions and connections.

In essence, one gigantic lifeline.

Now an Armada

Over 300 participants arrived in Boston last Septemer to take part in PodCamp. People came from as far away as Florida and California, Canada and England. All of them wanted one specific thing: to talk to other people who "got it."

When you work in any medium, whether you're a bricklayer or a computer programmer, you understand the kindred spirit and ease of dialogue you find when you discover another person who shares your passion. For new media folks, finding a way to talk, face-to-face, with a large group of like-minded individuals was tricky because everything was (and still is) so new. So when the opportunity to shore up their lifelines tenfold appeared in the form of PodCamp, the un-conference was literally flooded with people hungry for that connection.

Based upon the overwhelming success of the first PodCamp, a number of dominos began to fall. (Not least among them was Chris Brogan's newfound job as Community Developer for Network2, a new creation from Jeff Pulver's Pulvermedia group.) Suddenly, that original blog comment I'd made half a year earlier was starting to have major ramifications.

Since September, there have been two other PodCamps, one in Pittsburgh and one in San Francisco. There's another one scheduled this weekend in Toronto, and yet another in New York City in April, with even more to come later in the year (including the second go-rounds from Boston and Pittsburgh). And what happens at each of these events, regardless of the locale and the logistics, is this:

People meet people.

People make connections.

People establish lifelines.

PodCamp for Housewives

What works at PodCamp works in all walks of life, for one simple reason: it's all about communication.

Every one of us has lifelines. Each of us has a tiny mental Rolodex of friends we know we can call on when the going gets tough, or when we need help moving, or when the fuse in the basement blows at 2 AM and suddenly there's no heat.

Others have massive roll calls of people in their life whom they can call on for any question under the sun: doctors, lawyers, mechanics, repairmen, engineers, babysitters, chefs. There's not one pothole on the road of their lives that they can't negotiate with a little help from a friend.

These differences are merely cosmetic. Neither approach is demonstrably more useful than the other. That's because there are three ways to build your lifelines.

Have a LARGE lifeline

Know as many people as possible. Ask questions. Make friends. BE OF VALUE to as many people as possible. MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE to as many people as possible. Like the PodCampers, this will enable you to create a multilayered lifeline. And this way, whenever a problem pops up, you have a giant mental Rolodex to refer to. I call this BEING A HUB.

Have a LONG lifeline

If you don't have the time or the inclination to know everyone, GET TO KNOW PEOPLE WHO KNOW PEOPLE. Everyone knows someone. The more everyones you know, the more someones you have access to. It's a degrees-of-separation thing. You don't need to know everyone yourself, but the people you know may know other people you may someday need to know. MAINTAIN YOUR IMMEDIATE CONNECTIONS, and when a problem pops up, you'll be able to ask those immediate friends for referrals down their own lifelines. This is what makes sites like LinkedIn so useful, especially for the people who can't be (or don't want to be) hubs. I call these people THE CONDUITS.

Have a STRONG lifeline

Just as a lengthy lifeline can come in handy when something far outside your comfort zone becomes an issue, so too can a strong connection to your immediate support group. Sometimes it's not about knowing a guy who knows a guy, nor is it about knowing everybody. Sometimes it's just about knowing THE RIGHT PEOPLE. You may not be the center of attention or the person who makes things happen, but if you PROVIDE REAL VALUE in the lives of others, the bonds you form will enable you to weather more storms than the tenuous connections of a long lifeline, and will draw your central connections closer together. BECOME A SPOKE THAT CONNECTS TO A FEW VALUABLE HUBS OR CONDUITS.

Moving Past Survival

The Old West and the image of a lifeline seems apt when dealing with a new territory, whether it's the wild world of web media or the daunting prospect of college in another city. But eventually your needs change. Eventually the border towns are established, and the class schedules have been mastered, and you no longer need to worry about mere survival.

Eventually, you want to prosper.

This is when your lifeline becomes electric.

Now, you no longer need the bare basics. Now you no longer need the food and shelter and security, because those elements -- even if only crudely and impermanently -- have been established. Now you're ready to take action.

But it's impossible to take action alone.

Just like I never would have created something larger than my own portfolio in college without the connections I made to like-minded, motivated friends, and just like PodCamp never would have occurred without a few curious experimenters wondering what they DIDN'T know, the next steps in whatever venture you intend to embark upon -- whether it's repairing your garage or starting a new business -- won't be taken alone.

You need a team.

If your lifeline is large, you'll have dozens of potential teammates to call on from your hub.

If your lifeline is long, you'll have access to all the answers somewhere along the conduit.

If your lifeine is strong, you'll have a select group of dedicated friends to help you tackle the next task.

What you won't have is the worry that you're about to be overwhelmed, or that you're setting off unprepared, or that you won't be able to accomplish what you're intending. Because even if all of those fears turn out to be true, you know you'll be able to make the adjustments, change course or even retreat to dry land and try again later, with more experience and a different point of view.

That's why they call it a lifeline.

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  • Justin:

    I assume you've read Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. There is a good summary here:

    In it he talks about the different types of connections - he calls them Connectors, Mavens, and salesmen.

    Podcasting hasn't hit a tipping point, yet, but it's an interesting view of what could be done to make it happen.

    Podcasting's lifeline, if you will....


    By Anonymous Scott, at 7:36 PM  

  • I really enjoyed this post. It's amazing how Podcamp has changed the equation. It's about more than who can afford to (or not to) go to the PME- but there are more regional, local lifelines. Through podcamp and even just the registration lists, I'm finding even more local people than I thought existed.

    Podcasting and creativity can be isolating and lonely in some ways- creative acts fostered in the "lab" and released onto the world. But when you get a whole group of these creatives, each with their own lens in a room together- watch out! It's an explosively great time. The chemistry is immediate, and my "podcasting" friends, even though we come from all over, are my extended group of co-workers I can't wait to have a drink with on Saturday night.
    See You At Podcamp! Can't wait!

    By Blogger wsh1266, at 8:44 PM  

  • Check out CC Chapman's experiences with the power of new media lifelines.

    Those lifelines can pay off BIG.

    By Blogger Christopher, at 10:41 PM  

  • Wow! Well done! I am going to link this on my blog and make everyone I know, who doesn't understand what we are doing, read it.

    Justin, I owe you a call.

    By Blogger theclipshow, at 12:02 AM  

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