Cafe Witness

Monday, October 29, 2007


Thanks to everyone who helped make PodCamp Boston 2 a success this year. I had a good time, met some great new people and caught up with a bunch of old friends -- several of whom I hadn't seen since last year's event.

Locobone and I also greatly enjoyed watching the closing innings of Game 3 of the World Series in a bar off Quincy Market, surrounded by energetic, passionate (and remarkably knowledgeable) baseball fans -- several of whom happened to be dressed up for Halloween. Now THERE'S a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a tourist...

I need a little time to let the specifics of this weekend's experience marinate before I make any further observations. I also have a Halloween episode of Something to Be Desired to finish editing, so off I go...

(Meanwhile, Locobone is STILL driving home... 12 hours later...)

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Friday, October 26, 2007

On the Road to PodCamp Boston

Zipping along to PodCamp Boston, in the car with Locobone and Tommy Vallier of TalkShoe. Trying to explain to the Canadian border guards the rationale for driving 13 hours from Erie, PA to Boston by way of Kingston, ON, is not an easy task...

Our first (and thus far only) near-death experience came when a woman decided we didn't exist and tried to merge into our car at 85 mph. Thanks to Locobone's swift reflexes ("Um, Tom..." *ssssswerve*), we're still in one piece and none the worse for the wear. To her credit, the woman did the honorable thing and fled.

Now we're at a rest stop near Syracuse, NY, at which point Locobone will nap in his own backseat while I drive his car across New York with a Canadian co-pilot. Social media is all about putting yourself in other people's shoes / nations / cars, so I guess we're right on schedule. Should be in Boston around 10 PM.

(If anyone wants to meet up in Boston tonight, Twitter one of the gents linked above -- my phone is not Twitter enabled.)

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Social Media Gatekeeping (Or, Why I Won't Be Invited to San Francisco Anytime Soon)

Brace yourselves, folks: I'm about to depict, with an awkwardly high amount of geekery, exactly why there's a glass fence around the "social media" hierarchy, and why it's so tough to scale it.

In a nutshell, Eric Rice and I stumbled into a conversation last night on Twitter. The subject? Eric was musing about the seeming hypocrisy of every 'must-attend' social media event, in which people who aren't making any money in the medium still feel obliged to fly to an event to be part of some fictitious scene.

At one point, I mentioned that, since the web is built upon the democratized promise that physical location no longer matters, I shouldn't feel hamstrung by living in Pittsburgh as opposed to NYC / LA / SF. However, it's undeniable that "the action" still takes place in the major media centers -- which, if that's the case, essentially means that the liberating power of the web is a lie.

Meanwhile, Eric was Twittering with several other conversants, including Robert Scoble. Roundly recognized as an "A"-List blogger (a title he even affords himself on occasion), he and Rice are in roughly the same media sphere; I'm at least 2 to 3 layers out from there. Thus, they'll twitter back and forth freely, while I'm rarely involved in that echelon of discussion.

Scoble mentioned that he couldn't conduct his work anywhere else than San Francisco, because there aren't that many tech CEOs anywhere else. He also referred to the much-maligned "flyover states" quite genially, although he admitted there weren't many geeks in them; at least, not compared to SF.

However, when it came to Eric's point about "regional isolation" affecting social media, Scoble wasn't buying it:
@spin: you're full of it tonight. If someone wants to get "unisolated" just put "@scobleizer" in your Twitter message.

Hmm. So that's it? All these discussions I've had about the path to web success and here it was all along. (Who knew?)

It was equally interesting to see the following exchange betwixt them, first from Rice:
@scobleizer btw, none of this has anything to do with me, I'm raising hell on behalf of those with unheard voices. So we're clear on that

And Scoble's response:
@spin: I find it interesting that you are raising hell on behalf of people who REFUSE to join the conversation. Why won't they?


Not sure who's REFUSING to join the conversation here. In fact, I'd wager more that Scoble (and the other powers-that-be) see so much of the social media seascape, it's just hard for them to notice any ripples that aren't emanating from their own buoys.

Or, as I said in slightly less apologetic language:
*shrug* Being asked to "join the conversation" presumes there's a gatekeeper. Thanks, Emperor, but I have my own clothes.

Later, while surfing to Chris Brogan's blog, I saw his most recent post. It's a link to a video about Glenda Hyatt-Watson, known as the "left-thumb blogger" because... well, just watch the video. It's an inspiring story all its own -- and exactly why I felt the need to re-tweet it.

Which I did, thusly:
I'm sure this was widely twittered 12 hours ago, but @chrisbrogan 's post about @GlendaWH is truly mindblowing:

This post went out, like all others, into my twitstream, and I went back to work.

Moments later, Robert Scoble twittered the following:
@chrisbrogan's latest video rocks.

Anyone notice anything amusing in that tweet?

The TinyURL link is mine, created moments earlier, and copied and pasted by Scoble into his own post. Which, innocently enough, looks like he decided to post it out of the goodness of his own heart.

Which, to be honest, he may have.

And Lord knows I'm not due any back-patting for pointing Chris's post out. Odds are, Scoble would have discovered it anyway, sooner or later.

I just find it ironic that, after earlier wondering aloud about the poor, innocent people Eric Rice was coming to bat for -- those who "REFUSED" to join the conversation -- Scoble would have a golden opportunity to credit the messenger in this particular case, and instead choose to clip out the TinyURL and send it off as his own missive.

Full disclosure: I've blogged previously about the pitfalls of social media, including the lunacy of "fishbowl"-driven buzzwords involving use of the term "Scoble___," as in, "Scobleized." It's quite possible that such discussions have raised the hackles of the powers-that-be.

I also have a feeling Scoble's tweet probably brought 100x the attention to Chris's post as my tweet did, since Scoble's followed by far more people on Twitter than I am -- so, in the end, the message was served, and that's the important part.

(And no, I'm actually not upset about it; just highly entertained. Irony is its own best raison d'etre.

I'm also not delusional enough to believe I require credit in this situation. I didn't make the video, I'm not the subject of the video, and I'm not Chris Brogan.

I'm just a guy, smirking away, isolated in a flyover state.)

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

When Do You Say "No"?

Here's a near-universal question we can all relate to:

Have you ever been employed by a company that took great pains to convince you how fortunate you were to be employed by them? So fortunate, in fact, that you should be happy with the following perks:

* A substandard salary

* Being overworked and underappreciated

* A general inability to produce quality work due to inferior working conditions, and

* A dedicated team effort to NOT improving those existing conditions?

On paper, most people would walk away from a job like that at the earliest possible opportunity. Some might even go out of their way to CREATE an opportunity to leave.

And yet... SO MANY PEOPLE remain in jobs they despise (or relationships that make them miserable, or servicing clients they can't stand) because they don't know how much they, themselves, are worth.

Do you?

The "No" Factor

When was the last time you said "no" when someone asked you for a favor?

We're trained to believe that friends, family, coworkers and employees -- aka "nice" people who want to live peacefully within an existing system -- don't say "no." Instead, they say "yes," and then they find creative ways to juggle the extra work / errands / obligations.


Because saying "no" would create strife.

It would force the person who was relying on you to then handle that problem himself. And, worse, it might mean YOU were unreliable, or not well-organized enough to shift your workload at a moment's notice, or -- worst of all -- that you said "no" because you didn't LIKE someone else.

No one wants to rock the boat like that. So we say "yes" endlessly.

That's because we have no idea what we -- and, therefore, what our time -- is actually worth.

Snapshots of Impending Disaster

Your boss walks into your office and says, whoops, he forgot to inform production that a certain project was promised to the client by Thursday. Sorry, you'll have to work late.

A coworker stops by on his lunch break and says, hey, he forgot he had something else planned after work -- could you cover him at a company event?

Your brother calls and asks, please, would you mind babysitting tomorrow night because they just got tickets to a concert?

Before you reflexively agree (or disagree) in each of these situations, you first need to understand what your answer says about you, and how you present yourself to the world.

The Problem With "Yes"

Admitting that you can rearrange your schedule at the whim of another means that you don't consider your own plans to be particularly important -- especially when compared to the plans of someone else.

Adding additional tasks into your existing workflow means that you're either SO competent at your current job that you don't mind the extra work (which begs the question, "So what DO you do all day?") or it means the work you're doing is so unimportant that it can wait an extra day or two while you do someone else's (in which case, why ARE they employing you in the first place?).

And consenting to work late, especially when the reason involves someone else's mistake or mismanagement of their own time and resources, implies that you're willing to subvert and sacrifice your own health, happiness and peace of mind for "the good of the company."

Would you ever say any of those things out loud? No!

And yet, when you chronically say "yes," that's exactly what you're admitting.

The Power of "Yes, But..."

Inevitably, there will be situations in which you'll have to work late, you'll have to cover for someone else and, yes, you'll have to drop everything to help a friend.

Those are exceptions, not rules. And the way in which you ensure that those are exceptions is to not answer "yes," but,"yes, but..."

Yes, you'll work late this week -- but you're taking next Friday off.

Yes, you can cover for your coworker -- but only if he gets you tomorrow's reports today.

Yes, you can babysit tomorrow night -- but you need to borrow your brother's camping gear next weekend.

Why "But" Matters

Saying "yes" invariably means you're sacrificing something of yours for the good of someone else, and you think that's okay.

Saying "yes, but" means you're open to helping out, but not at the expense of your own well-being.

If you're losing time, you expect that time to be made up.

If you're disrupting your workflow, you'll do so in conjunction with someone else.

If you're losing freedom, you expect to exercise that freedom elsewhere.

What you're NOT doing is subverting your own independence and autonomy for the sake of another, because that sets a precedent that invites your job / coworkers / friends / family to continually take advantage of you -- subconsciously or not.

Aren't you worth more than that?

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

What Good Is Criticism?

I have a larger point to make, but first, a specific window into the situation:

This is the closing weekend for In Service, a powerful multimedia production that presents the stories of actual Pittsburgh soldiers who've returned from service in Iraq. The show is purposely absent of any slanted political context because it's meant to provide a rare glimpse of the soldiers themselves, not the ideologies behind the war they've fought (and continue to fight).

Ted Hoover, the stage critic for Pittsburgh's City Paper, issued a lukewarm review of the piece. Instead of basing his judgment on what the piece was, he bemoaned what it wasn't -- specifically taking the creators to task for NOT speaking out against the war itself.

To raise that complaint misses the point of the piece entirely, but it also betrays a complicated paradox in the world of art criticism (and critical thinking in general):

What IS the Role of the Critic?

Before you think this question doesn't apply to you, consider this: when was the last time you recommended an album/ movie / TV show / book to someone else?

Did you recommend it because you thought it was legitimately good and worth their time, or because the creation in question was closely aligned with what YOU, personally, enjoy?

Now consider the last time you told someone a book / movie / TV show / song was horrible.

WHY was it horrible?

Was it because the execution was terrible? Because the artist was a fraud? Because the communication was unclear, or the artistic choices were false?

Or, did you simply not like it? (Or, worse, did you not understand it, and therefore you presumed no one else would either?)

The Thin Line Between Criticism and Control

Critics are cynical enough to realize they can't support something their readers won't like. Stray too far from your audience's tastes and they'll forsake you. Thus, to remain relevant, a critic must review all art AS THOUGH HE ALREADY KNOWS WHAT HIS AUDIENCE WILL ACCEPT.

For example, in the case of Pittsburgh theatre, the target audience tends to be adults over the age of 50. Therefore, any play that doesn't speak directly to that demographic is likely to be panned, or commended with caution.

As you can imagine, this creates a stifling atmosphere for artists attempting to create new work, because they have two uphill battles to fight: the one to get an audience to take them seriously, and the one to convince the powers-that-be (who shape the choices of the populace) to convince the masses to take them seriously.

Personal Anecdote Time

Before I ventured into social media, I spent 2+ years as a music critic for the nearly-major music website Splendid (now defunct), out of Chicago. In that time, I reviewed hundreds of CDs, averaging a minimum of 3 per week.

Considering this was an unpaid, "free time" gig, it was in my best interests to plow through the CDs as quickly as possible. Most reviews were written after one or two listens, with only the ones that caught my attention garnering additional quality time.

I know from artist feedback that my reviews validated the burgeoning musical careers of several underground indie artists, who drew strength from my support of their work. I also know (from scathingly-worded emails) that my negative reviews cut the musicians deeply. If I helped keep some artists active, I don't think it's unreasonable to presume I may have also driven others out of their musical dreams altogether.

Looking back, it's ironic that a review written in haste might have caused a potentially talented musician -- who happened to not yet be "up to par" with others of his / her ilk -- to throw in the towel prematurely.

And yet, that's the power (fair or not) that every critic has with each word he commits to paper and page.

So, the Real Question Is...

... should a critic support the work of an artist who has the potential to become great, even if that work isn't yet fully commendable, because the risk of smiting that dream too early might mean the absence of new work that could someday change the world?

Or, should a critic be exceedingly harsh and unrelenting, fostering an environment where only the strongest survive?

Is a critic's primary function to be a guide for the audience or the artist?

How each critic answers those questions determines the role he seeks to fill: cheerleader or executioner?

Then again, EVERYONE'S a critic -- so what do YOU think?

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Google + Jaiku = The Shrug Heard Round the Web

I just typed two separate posts about how Google's buying Jaiku may or may not impact the future of Twitter, but I kept rewriting them because I... I don't care.

Not in the slightest.

I'm on Twitter. If the conversation migrates to Jaiku, I may follow. Or I may not. There was life before Twitter, and MySpace, and AIM, and there will be life again after.

In the end, I really couldn't care less, and watching everyone race to proclaim the future, or cash in their chips on the Twitter deathwatch, reminds me why I have better things to do in the first place than to be ON a social network in the middle of the workday.

You guys go be the geniuses. I'm going to go do some work.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Pittsburghers: Three Cool Art Events!

For everyone who laments that Pittsburgh is a city with no artistic culture, I offer you three (3!) reasons that your statement is a filthy lie. Ready?

(By the way: I make no commission off these recommendations; I just like to see the arts in Pittsburgh succeed.)


Did you know that Lawrenceville comes alive every First Friday with new art shows in every gallery, live music, free food and drink, and an all-night party?

Don't worry - few people do.

Tonight is the first Friday in October, which means UnBlurred kicks off after work. Go check it out -- unless you'd rather see one of the following shows (which are both incredible).

Key to the Field (Final Weekend)

I wrote previously about what an amazingly cool play Key to the Field is. This reality-skewing tale about family, suburbia and a dicey episode involving a garbage disposal is its last weekend, and if you have 90 minutes and $15, I strongly, strongly suggest you go see it. The play has received great reviews, but that still hasn't helped it draw the kind of audience we'd like to see for energetic, envelope-pushing new work in Pittsburgh.

Or, put another way: wouldn't you like to be able to say you saw the world premiere of a potentially major new work, in Pittsburgh, before it goes on to become a national classic that you pay $50 to see when it returns to town in 30 years?

For information and tickets, click here.

In Service

Bear with me for a second, because the initial explanation doesn't do this experience justice:

Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Bricolage Theatre group co-present this vital multimedia piece that gives voice to the veterans of the Iraq war.

Why does this matter? Why is this different than your daily news coverage of the war(or, if you're cynical, the lack thereof)? Because In Service presents documentary AND live testimonials from local veterans who've returned from Iraq. Instead of hearing the story the corporate-controlled mainstream media sell us, you have a rare opportunity to see life from the soldiers' point of view.

I saw the show's opening last night, and it was compelling. The servicemen and women featured are diverse, representing no specific political ideology. Some are obviously anti-war, and some wouldn't hesitate to return to Iraq if called. Some have experienced horrific effects of life in the theater of war, and some will never be the same.

But, as the show makes very clear, all of them deserve our support, as Americans, because -- regardless of their own ideals -- they went to Iraq to serve our country. The least we can do is hear their side of the story.

For more information and tickets, click here.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Are You a Person or a Brand?

An hour ago, Chris Brogan made the following comment, via Twitter:

Clarity of message is worth more than you know. One topic. Go deep. One topic.

When I debated that point, Chris clarified his reasoning:

[S]imple branding. If you come to me and tell me 41 things, I'll remember 3, if any.

Fair enough. The web is an information orgy, after all.

But I think these statements raise a major issue regarding how we conduct ourselves online, what we expect of each other and what exactly we are.

The Problem of Complexity

With so much information (and so many people) sprawling across the web, there's a temptation to force people to summarize their very essence into 15 second pitches.

The upside? The web becomes more easily navigable.

The downside? Each of us becomes far more limited and replaceable.

If you read this blog because you're interested in my opinions, or because you know me personally, then you view me as a person.

If you read this blog strictly because you're interested in social media, then you see me as a brand --- one of many within your realm of information consumption.

I believe I can be both, depending upon my audience. But Chris's comments seem to question whether we can truly have it both ways, especially when we need to make snap decisions about whom to listen to or what actions to take.

So, to be blunt: Are we individuals or are we brands?

The difference (as I see it):

A person...

* Is multifaceted in interests and abilities
* Is frequently scattered and unable to focus
* Stretches limited resources across multiple channels
* Can be contradictory
* Can make mistakes
* Isn't easily summarized
* Has opinions
* Offends 50% of the populace with those opinions
* Requires a steeper learning curve
* Can evolve without needing permission

A brand...

* Is instantly recognizable
* Is best served when narrowly focused
* Can conquer small markets, then expand
* Often weakens as it expands
* Cares fiercely about "message" and "image"
* Must chart a course and follow through
* Changes slowly and uniformly
* Sees the world in black and white
* Can transcend self-defined borders
* Powers an agenda

Why Does It Matter?

Under these conditions, we have two options when "living" online:

* We can be individuals -- free to dabble, experiment, make mistakes and allow for complexities and contradictions...

* Or we can be brands -- restricted in breadth but limitless in depth, iconic, reductive, and easily replaceable.

Each has their pros and cons, but neither is perfect:

* One seems fickle, the other finite.

* One is unclear and prone to failure due to diffusion of message and purpose...

* The other is constricted and struggles to maintain relevance against faster competitors.

What Should YOU Do?

Obviously, that's up to you. Perhaps you even feel you have the freedom to switch between "personhood" and "brandhood," depending upon your audience. (Google might beg to differ...)

However, this differentiation has consequences. It can help you decide things as complicated or mundane as:

* Your screen-name
* Your signature
* What information you decide to make public
* What outside information is "important" to you
* WHO is "important" to you
* WHY you use the web
* When to speak and when to remain silent
* If you use email, or Twitter, or a blog
* If you need a MySpace or Facebook account

Etc., etc., etc.

On one hand, I worry that a web filled with people is too complex to amount to anything more than a headache of contradictions.

On the other, I suspect a web filled with brands would be a soulless and disposable sphere devoid of meaningful interaction.

And yet... to move forward, don't we need some of each?

What are YOU?

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Has the Social Network Exodus Begun?

** UPDATES to this post at the bottom **

It's official: Michael Bailey is off MySpace and Facebook.

If you don't know Michael personally, you've probably never been to a social media function. I've known Michael to pop up at PodCamps from Boston to Pittsburgh, and at VON in San Jose and PME in SoCal -- all from his homebase in Missouri. For quite awhile, Michael has been one of the few active cross-coast socializers originating from the Midwest.

And he just admitted today that it's mostly bullshit.

Now, granted, Michael has been known to ruffle feathers. Michael is a pot-stirrer, like myself, and is often just as interested in seeing HOW people react as he is in WHAT they actually have to say.

But he brings up a great point, via Twitter:
When you lower the bar of what really matters and what is important, things like social networks crop up like weeds... You all know how to get ahold of me, you have my email address, my cell #, my address. If it matters, reach out, attach yourself.
Let's ignore, for the moment, the fact that not EVERY interaction requires a phone call or an email. (Michael himself would admit that.) The bigger question is:

What PURPOSE Do Social Networks Serve in our Daily Lives?

I myself never use MySpace for personal communication anymore. When I started blogging and Twittering, MySpace lost out in the time sink.

I've also not bothered to join Facebook. Surprisingly, I'm still alive, healthy and getting work.

LinkedIN? The most it's done for me is pepper my inbox with arbitrary questions from people I barely know, about job openings or tech issues. No real traction there.

Pownce? Never bothered.

Delicious? Haven't used it in years.

What Michael (and I) seems to be saying is: the signal-to-noise ratio (god, I love Web 2.0 buzzwords; perhaps they'll someday have a Smithsonian display all their own) is reaching the point of pointlessness.

I've heard many people, myself included, muse about the possibility of deleting their MySpace accounts, now that they've essentially become spam boxes. Perhaps there's a temptation to migrate to Facebook, or whatever else comes next.

But, for people like Michael, perhaps Seth Porges is right -- perhaps social networking is a trend that's about to end.

Do YOU still need YOUR MySpace account?

(Side note: In the earlier days of Twitter, when the system was even buggier [if that's possible], there was a massive one-day defection to Jaiku. It was led by Chris Brogan and Robert Scoble, two of the most influential social media voices. And, of course, when Twitter came back, so did everyone else.

Had they stayed gone, what would have happened to Twitter?

Michael Bailey isn't as much of an inciter as Scoble or Brogan, but his point is much more valid. I'm interested to see if there's a tipping point here, and how close Michael comes to it.)

** UPDATE (8:27 PM Oct 3rd): I just canceled my MySpace account as well. Odd, how a service I once spent so much time on is now something I avoid at all costs. Granted, when I started on MySpace (in 2004), I was single and the service was new -- two great hooks to occupy my time. But now, I have so many other ways to keep up with people, I just don't NEED MySpace.

I still have an STBD account there, though. Why? Because that's the only way some people watch our show, so as long as there's an STBD, there might as well be an STBD MySpace...

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Social Media Twist: Big Brothers Big Sisters Is Blogging

Last weekend's post about the danger of confusing the APPEARANCE of activity with activity itself affords me an opportunity to point out some folks who ARE taking action through social media: the Big Blog, created by the folks at Pittsburgh's chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

In a recent email, BBBS's Communications Director, Ian DeJesus, said:
The purpose of the blog is to give the public a glimpse of what it is like to volunteer as a mentor. With any luck, these stories and testimonials will serve as an inspiration for others to become a Big Brother or Big Sister.
The optimist in me sees this as a great opportunity for BBBS to connect with new people. The power of stories from actual volunteers or mentored kids will be more effective than simple statistics or altruism at hooking potential volunteers on a relatable, human level. Plus, these kinds of one-on-one stories are what social media, at its roots, is really all about.

The cynic in me worries that this approach could easily slide into a thinly-guised marketing ploy, using potentially electric channels to service an un-engaging, top-down message about one's obligation to give back to the community.

Either way, the realist in me is heartened to see that social media tools continue to carry the conversation beyond the fishbowl of us, the evangelists and pot-stirrers. If even one child's life is improved by a volunteer who stumbles across Big Brothers Big Sisters on their blog, is that not a success?

Your standards may vary, but in this case, I'd say it certainly would be.

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