Cafe Witness

Friday, November 21, 2008

PittGirl and the Trouble With Being Anonymous

As most Pittsburgh bloggers have already noted, veteran 'burgh blogger PittGirl has closed up shop (although she's still Twittering). Easily the most popular blogger in the area, she was also a mystery of sorts, due to her strident anonymity. And, in the end, it appears that a potential compromise of her anonymity is what led to her decision to commit blogging seppuku.

As much as PittGirl's anonymity was the "hook" of her self-created brand, it was her writing style that kept her core fans coming back for more. (After all, a mystery is interesting, but a comedy is eternal.) So it's ironic that her anonymity -- aka the packaging that surrounded her REAL product, her writing -- would be what ends up robbing her fans of the opportunity to enjoy more of what they've come to enjoy.

It's a bit like Reese Cups going off the market because someone told them they had to change their wrappers to green instead of orange; I sincerely doubt the Reese Cup fans would stop eating their favorite candy due to a packaging change any more than PittGirl's readers would have unbookmarked her if they knew her name.

But PittGirl's decision to walk away is less about the foibles of packaging than it is about the cultural problem that led to the packaging conundrum in the first place: the need to be anonymous.

Who... ARE You?

In her case, PittGirl genuinely believed that blogging under her real name might get her fired (or, to speak the parlance, Dooced.) Whether that concern was real or perceived, it was a risk she wasn't willing to take. But why did it have to be a risk in the first place?

Why is society so uptight about what its citizens say?

Why should what YOU, the employee, say or do in public directly affect anyone's perception of your company?

Because everyone is afraid. Of what? Of everyone else? Despite the fact that we no longer have to fight one another for food and shelter, we still live in a constant subconscious fear of what everyone else THINKS of us -- and we all believe that ANY OTHER PERSON could squash our lives just by blinking.

That has to stop.

Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?

Are we still operating in the perceptual Dark Ages, where we believe that everyone else is as perfect as they claim to be? Does showing a glimpse of humanity, a personal flaw or a whiff of disagreement with the party line automatically brand a person as "dangerous," worthy of being shunned or shown the door?

Why do we give companies the benefit of the doubt, but not the people who WORK in those companies? (And your instincts might lead you to believe that we actually do just the opposite, but if we did, why would people be afraid to post photographs of themselves at a party on their Facebook account for fear that an HR troll would find a reason to fire them as a result?)

Something tells me that PittGirl would have been ENCOURAGED to blog on behalf of her company if all she had to say was glowing and positive. So why does society only want to reward the people who DON'T encourage us to improve upon the status quo? What good is a coal mine without a canary?

And, in the extreme, what is it that any one person could possibly say or do that's SO MUCH WORSE than what any of the rest of us could say or do?

Look around. I guarantee you that everyone sitting near you right now is hiding a secret that they think would make you shun them for life, IF YOU ONLY KNEW.

Guess what, people: if we shunned everyone who had a secret, we'd all be eating alone forever.

So let's each grow some backbone and admit to a very unpleasant truth: that not everyone will like us ALL the time -- including (for various reasons) our employees, friends and families. Get over it. The ones who tell you how wrong you are from time to time are the ones you can trust when they actually tell you you're right.

And as for the anonymous folks out there, whether you're noble or trolls, here's a thought: whatever you have to say is far more resonant when you believe it enough to say it with a straight face -- preferably your own.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

How Bad Typography Can Help You Solve Problems

Typography Friday

Last night, I attended my first Refresh Pittsburgh meet-up, held at the local tech startup incubator, AlphaLab. Refresh Pittsburgh is an informal group of designers and programmers, looking both to network and to learn from one another (and their occasional guest speakers). Although I'm not a designer, per se, I *am* a creative type (or so I like to claim), so I enjoy hearing how other creative types solve their problems.

Yesterday's guest speaker was Samantha Warren of Viget, a design firm in Washington DC. (She also blogs here. She gave a kick-ass presentation on bad typography, and how (and why) it can kill your web experience. And then she showed how she would have redesigned one horrible site in particular, taking us step-by-step through both her technical AND her theoretical processes.

What I appreciated most was seeing her decision-making process, and learning HOW and WHY she arrived at the conclusions she did. Sometimes, she realized her initial presumptions or goals were incorrect midway through her process, so she backtracked to redesign her end product. Fellow speakers and presenters of the world, take note: knowing that a speaker can admit to being wrong, and then seeing the steps she took to fix things, made me trust her (and her process) even more.

In the end, the two lessons that stuck in my head most clearly were:

* (Samantha's intentional lesson): Don't let the details (like typography, design or even functionality) drive the project; let the PURPOSE drive the project, and the details will fall into place.

* (Samantha's unintentional lesson): When presenting, always make sure to include the URLs of any interesting sites / services you might mention. If you catch the audience's attention, they'll want to know how to learn more.

Other cool tips and tidbits you may know (but I didn't):

* Ms. Warren considers the 3 pillars of web typography to be: Legibility, Hierarchy and Expression.

* A gent named Jakob Nielsen developed a design concept called the F-Pattern, which (counter-intuitively, if you ask me) seems to make sense.

* Ms. Warren suggests designers evaluate all information on a webpage in terms of order of importance, and then allocate the proper typographical weight and direction of attention as required.

* Use phark or siffr for image replacement -- which, as a non-designer, I can barely even understand, but I suspect some of you know what she's talking about (and it seemed important).

* Texture, texture, texture.

If any of this sounds interesting to you -- or if you suspect you would have learned more by actually attending the meet-up (rather than reading my shoddy secondhand journalism), perhaps I'll see you at the next Refresh Pittsburgh event?

Image by ErokCom.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

10 Ways to Become a Thought Leader

When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and become an artist, a chef or (in one bout of misplaced humanism) a farmer. Today, kids grow up wanting to be social media rockstars and thought leaders. (And by "kids," I mean "thirty-five year-old desk jockeys," but I digress...)

Why the newfound passion for "thought leadership"? Because in uncertain economies, one thing still counts: influence. You may not have two dimes to rub together, but if you can convince the guy next to you that You Have Ideas, he'll probably buy you a cup of coffee just to hear you out. And that's how people without real jobs can stay alive when the depression comes.

So, without further ado, here are 10 Ways YOU Can Become a Thought Leader:

1. Get It Out There. History is littered with the corpses of people who put off sharing their big ideas because they "weren't ready yet." Do you have an idea? Share it. If it sucks, people will tell you. If it's good, people will steal it. And if it's great, people will tell you it sucks and THEN steal it. (Watch for this; it means you're on to something...)

2. Be Controversial. No one quotes the moderate, and even when they do, no one remembers what he said. If you want to be remembered, be extreme. If you want to be influential, be extreme AND easy to read. No one likes long-winded crackpots.

3. Make It All About You. Human beings have a natural tendency to cast the spotlight off themselves and onto other people, especially when they ask things like "How are you?" and "What do you think?" Be resilient. That spotlight was made for you, and the longer it's cast across your luminescent talents, the longer an opportunity the world will have to bask in the shadow of your genius. Thus, never miss an opportunity to turn any conversation into a time-worn anecdote about A Lesson You Learned (Preferably In Three Acts).

4. Start a Religion. Hey, it worked for L. Ron Hubbard and Jesus.

5. Influence the Influencers. Remember Basquiat? He was forever surrounded by low-level starmakers, but it wasn't until he literally threw himself at Andy Warhol that he got "discovered." Who's the Andy Warhol of your field? Get on that person's radar, and then don't leave -- at least not until you're bigger then he is. (Then run, because he'll probably want something.)

6. Repeat Things. This is a fast-paced world. People often completely ignore the best advice, even when it's right in front of them, because they're distracted. Or skimming. Or both. Don't let them miss out on your gems of wisdom.

7. Be Vague. If you give people a 10-step plan to upright the economy, you're a policy wank. If you tell people that "Savers Are Losers", you're a thought leader. Go with that.

8. Repeat Things. This is a fast-paced world. People often completely ignore the best advice, even when it's right in front of them, because they're distracted. Or skimming. Or both. Don't let them miss out on your gems of wisdom.

9. Be Prolific. It's not enough to have one good idea. Have dozens. Because if you're capable of being a genius once, people will expect you to be a genius in all cases. DO NOT DISAPPOINT THEM.

10. Preach Common Sense. Because life isn't all that hard, when you stop and think about it. In fact, it can be summed up pretty easily: say, think and do the things that make your life, and the lives of those around you, as fulfilling and rewarding as possible. But these days, no one actually has the time to stop and think; they need YOU to do that for them.

And they'll pay you for it.

(Photo by farlyj)

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

NeighborhoodWalk: Greenfield (Rufus + Trash)

Today is the date for Neighborhood Walk, an idea that sprouted at PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 by the Rust Belt Bloggers group.

In a nutshell, city dwellers are encouraged to roam their own neighborhoods today and make note of anything interesting. What do people need to know about your neighborhood? What's good? What's bad? What resources, architecture or quirky highlights might the world (or at least Pittsburgh in general) benefit from knowing about?

Having just moved to Greenfield a few months ago, I'm still finding cool new houses all the time as I walk Rufus numerous times each day. But owning a dog has also made me hyper-aware of all the edibles people leave laying around on the sidewalks. So today Rufus and I decided to document our afternoon stroll.

Included in the above photostream: over a dozen candy and fast food wrappers, a shirt, a sock, the box that a child's school ruler came in, flattened packs of cigarettes, and a vandalized mail supply box (just for kicks), all in a 2 block radius. Also: Rufus managed to eat at least 3 sticks and half of a Wendy's wrapper during the taking of these photos.

See other Neighborhood Walks here.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Won't Get You Laid

Now that the afterglow of an Obama election victory has worn off (because in these days of 24-hour news cycles, no emotion lasts for long), the question is this:

"Now what?"

While most of the world waits breathlessly to see whom Obama appoints to his cabinet, what kind of dog his kids will choose for a new pet and which brand of toilet paper he prefers in his executive suite, I'd like to turn your gaze away from the nonstop media roar and toward your nearest reflective surface and ask, again:

"Now what?"

Barack Obama will do some great things while he's in office. He'll also do some incredibly stupid things. He'll make choices that will endear him to some and piss off others, and he'll be involved in matters and actions both great and small.

But one thing he won't do is get you laid.

Because electing Barack Obama is no longer anyone's passion -- he's already elected. Now what do you do with all of the energy and effort that was catalyzed to help this moment occur? What do you do with all of your passion, your newfound interest in politics and your increased awareness of the needs and wants of the world?

What do YOU do?

Because Barack Obama's a busy man. Sure, he's appreciative of all the work you did on his behalf, and he'll do his best to reward you by governing as fairly as his conscience dictates. But he doesn't have much time to return the favor directly, by helping YOU achieve YOUR next goal -- you know, that one on your to-do list, right below the now-scratched-out entry that says "Get My Free Starbucks."


What do you WANT to do?

What do you NEED to do?

Go do it.

Because history will judge Barack Obama, but history's a long way off. In the meantime, you have bills to pay, relationships to tend to, and your own goals to achieve.

And now, after 2 years of wondering, waiting, hoping and working your ass off to help your candidate get elected, it's time to turn that energy back on your own life and solve your own problems. Overcome your own challenges. Move your own mountains.

Because America's first black president is an amazing story, but you've got a story of your own.

Start living it.

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