Wednesday, August 28

Does Social Justice Fit Somewhere Between Silly Cat Videos?

Sometimes the hardest thing to reconcile about social networks is how serious they can be. You know what I mean. We've all seen friendships and family members splinter over political and social issues on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. People lose jobs. Companies get embarrassed. Bullies are outed.

Yes, social media can be serious. In fact, it was the seriousness of it that inspired one recent discussion about how labels can trap and condemn us if we aren't careful. They really do. Every day. 

In direct contrast, social networks don't always seem serious. It's the silliness and steady stream of absurdity that can prove bothersome. And this seems especially true when it detracts from social justice.

This is why Amy Tobin was inspired to write Social Justice: Have The Social Networks Failed Us, Or Have We Failed Them?, a column that captures how something silly like Ben Affleck as Batman can trump something serious like chemical weapons in Syria. The effect is always profound. Any time someone draws a contrast between soft news and hard news, someone else will feel petty for talking about superheroes while people die in the streets of Syria. It's us who fiddles while Rome burns.

If you want to change the world, don't blow against the wind. Fan the flame that's waiting.

I know how Amy feels. A few years ago, Tony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog, asked the same thing in a different way. He wanted to know what bloggers would talk about if they weren't talking about then headline stealers Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. So we all sat down and decided to find out. 

The question was especially relevant to me. A couple of years prior, celebrity was the cause for why one of our best practice short-term public relations campaigns became a best practice media kit. The kit was a winner but the campaign missed when we were scooped by celebrity.

Specifically, a celebrity trumped a media event that centered around education in Nevada. So there you go. When a "Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?" contestant files for divorce, news stations don't stand by to cover the governor and a virtual who's who list in state education at the opening of a new private school. 

So naturally, when Berkman asked his question about bloggers, I was primed to participate as one of the founders of an initiative called BloggersUnite. It was the first series of social media awareness campaigns that coordinated bloggers (and later social network participants) to change the world by setting a conversational agenda online.

In the months and years that followed, I developed and executed campaigns for DonorsChoose.org, Amnesty International, AIDS.gov, Heifer International, and March Of Dimes (among others). All of my work was contributed as an in-kind effort to change the world. All of the campaigns were successful, with the most visitable delivering 1.2 million posts on one day, reaching 250 million. 

The volume of the campaign was so loud that it was covered by several dozen media outlets, including CNN. And despite some pushback from social media enthusiasts who prematurely concluded that it was all buzz and no bite, this early awareness campaign eventually changed American policy in Darfur. Right. We changed the world. And we didn't change it once. We changed it a few dozen times.

The prospect that people were willing step up was especially inspiring for Berkman. So he eventually spun the initiative into a standalone, do-it-yourself platform called BloggersUnite. It still exists, but as a silent giant.

Why? It's silent for the same reason I warned him against crowd-sourced solutions, hoping that social would be its own steward for good. Most people don't know how to plan campaigns and most people are too easily distracted to lead. At the same time, if there was ever a time I wanted to be wrong, it was about this observation. 

The spontaneity of social media and social networks is unpredictable at best and overrated at worst. In other words, it takes more than people to drive meaningful conversations like the campaigns we managed before the platform. It takes someone to give it shape and fan the flame once it gets started.

Even then, it takes considerable patience and planning to get anything off the ground, no matter how good the cause might be. You also have to be empathic, not only for the people you are trying to help, but also for those who offer up no sign of support. Why? Because you don't know them.

The hardest lesson in the world is finding empathy for those who laugh while we cry.

Developing these campaigns was hard work. But what is even harder was knowing when not to launch one. As Berkman eventually learned, you can only ask a community to promote worthwhile causes a few times year. Ask too much and you'll burn them out. Ask them to plan it too and most will pass.

And it's on this point that I want to come full circle. When we see society as opposed to people, we all tend to think that all these people — the person sitting across the table, reading our post, passing us on the street — is somehow isolated or inoculated or apathetic against the world. They're not.

Not only are most of them active with their own causes, but they also have their own private battles to fight too. This one just survived cancer. That one just lost their wife to it. This one isn't sure how they'll pay the rent next month. That one found out their spouse is having an affair. This one is wondering where their education took a wrong turn. That one is in need of the services someone else is promoting. And the list goes on. And on. And on.

So if any of those people want to laugh at the prospect of Ben Affleck being Batman, it's okay. They've earned it. Maybe tomorrow they can fret over the international crisis in Syria instead. Or maybe they won't.

As I mentioned to one of my friends while discussing this subject, something needs to be done in Syria but when you attempt to prioritize it against something like a cure for cancer, then there is no contest. But even without prioritizing an endless list of heartbreak in the world, we might remember that even Shakespeare saw a need to insert comedy into his tragedies. Life is heavy enough. It takes considerable effort to lighten it.

Applied to causes, the concept comes from the man who inspired the last BloggersUnite campaign that I was able to step up for and play a major role in developing as a last minute campaign. Patch Adams was among the first in the medical community to defy the dourness of cause marketing and shaping public opinion. He epitomizes the life lesson that angels have wings because they take themselves lightly.

At least that's the way I see it. What do you think? What does Tony Berkman, Simon Mainwaring, or Kate Olsen think? What does anything think? Are social networks too serious, too silly, or does that old rule apply — social is whatever you make of it?

The comments are yours. Feel free to fiddle with this subject or suggest something else. I would love nothing better than every topic to come from you. Let's talk for a change.

Wednesday, August 21

Will Automation Steal The Soul From Social?

There have been several interesting side discussions sparked by my Bob Fass post about his largely unrecognized precursor contributions to social media. Some of them are still simmering, with the most common thread related to where marketing and public relations intend to take social.

Right. If you work in the field, they are talking about you.

And what they have to say might not be taken kindly. There are a growing number of people who are weary of social networks not because they don't like to connect but because conversations are being recorded, even jacked. Some marketers feel they must. Numbers are the measure counted.

"Why spend time counting tweets and retweets when I could actually, you know, connect with other people?" asked David Flores, reflecting on the internal struggle he and other marketers and communicators feel.

Why count indeed? For all the talk about social freeing people from the trappings of unearned authority, some of the liberators have worked diligently to erect new ones. Never mind that the scoring is stacked.

As the New York Times recently cited, some researchers think that only 35 percent of Twitter followers are real people. The balance is made up of bots and semi-automated accounts. That means an account boasting 10,000 might only reach 3,500. But if you ask me, I think it is generous in some cases. Bots attract bots, giving accounts the aura of popularity while never reaching a real human being.

Geoff Livingston recently touched on this too, writing Pop Created The Twitter Link Farm. He focused in on the increasing number of links, with one of the most interesting comments chalking it up to a platform shift. While that might make sense because Twitter never considered itself a social network, the platform shift from conversation to broadcast is a symptom of what marketers measure.

They measure actions (tweets, retweets, link clicks), which discourages dialogue. It discourages it because conversations are not valued on the action scale. It discourages it because the more organic conversations take place, the more marketers have to drown them out with frequency. And it discourages it because scalable actions require automation, which means the marketer isn't participating.

The crux of it reminds me of an Internet infancy story. 

Once upon a time there was a company called America Online (now Aol). No, it wasn't the oddly popular but not so relevant multinational mass media giant we know today. It was a pay-based online service that was the precursor to some of the services people rave about today.

It was also, for many people, the only real option to access the Internet. Sure, there were other choices like the defunct Prodigy or eWorld but not really. Much like they do now, people (and companies) tended to gravitate to where the most people were and that was America Online.

In more ways than one, Twitter is almost akin to the America Online chat room, except it hosts unlimited people as opposed to 23 people at a time. And, in more ways than one, Facebook is akin to America Online communities (with the advent of streaming over threading), right down to its aspiration to be your total and complete online experience. Sure, other networks have borrowed ideas too. Most aren't so new.

For the era, this service worked remarkably well. Most people couldn't even conceive of an Internet without it. It felt like America Online was relatively immortal. And perhaps that is why in addition to charging people $2.95 per hour for usage, the company decided to allow marketers to post links and program bots to run some conversations.

That generated some extra revenue for the company until something unexpected happened. Since marketers knew that the only way to increase their exposure was to increase their frequency, they literally drowned out all human conversations until no one was left except chat rooms of bots, churning away at their pre-programmed content.

How long before marketers reach critical mass again? It's anybody's guess. 

There are only two outcomes for abused message delivery systems. En masse, marketers will either push messages to the point where they become irrelevant (direct mail and pitch lists) or the platform will eventually elevate the rates until it is inaccessible (television) to anyone except those with deep pockets (television and radio). When that happens, people will migrate away to other networks instead.

From my perspective, longevity will favor those marketers that avoid the temptation of the short-term gain because people drive networks, not numbers. After all, as soon as you start thinking about people in terms of numbers, whether how many followers they have or some secret sauce social score, there is a good chance you have already lost them (unless you gamed social to get them in the first place).

At least, that is what I think. What does Brian Solis or Guy Kawasaki or Scott Stratten think? What do you think? Will automation steal the soul from social? Is there something on the horizon that might replace it? Or maybe you would like to strike up some other conversation? The choice belongs to you. The comments are yours. I'll read them too.

Wednesday, August 14

Lions And Labels And Agendas, Oh My. They Made Me Blind.

Agendas
"How we can get people to actually solve problems instead of pushing agendas?" — Amy Vernon 

This is a question that has been rolling around in my head since Amy Vernon asked it in response to an open call for conversation last week. My short answer coached the problem in politics, but the problem is much more hardwired into human beings than we might think. If it wasn't political labels that drive the diatribe and prevent problem solving, it would be something else.

It might be religious labels. It might be ethnic labels. It might be occupational labels. Or it might be the books we read. The music we like. The clothes we wear. The activities we pursue. The experiences we've had. The places we live. The places where we were born. The people we know.

We wake up every day with several thousand labels around our necks. We let them shape us and allow them to shape our perception of other people. We make ourselves slaves to them. And there is no end to how many we might make up. It's why we have nice things. And it's why we can't have nice things.

We've been indoctrinated into addiction. It took our entire childhood.

The truth is we spend most of our childhoods being indoctrinated into labels that make life easier and harder because every label carries an agenda. That's the point. Someone invented them to give life directions, expectations, and excuses. And then our parents and guardians conspire to pass them along just as most of us will when we have children too.

They aren't the only ones. Every peer and role model you ever had did the same thing, for better and worse. Many labels are moving targets, falling in and out of popularity with minorities and majorities.

It doesn't really matter what those labels might be. They blind us by casting bigger shadows than the people who wear them, they bind us to limitations and opportunities, and they consciously and subconsciously tint the lens that we wear when we try to solve problems as individuals and groups.

The only people not overtaken by them have to make a conscious effort to recognize them for what they are, strive to be objective even when it feels impossible, and struggle to retain their sense of self-esteem while not subscribing to stereotypes that the greater society values. It's one of the most difficult things anyone can do in life because people are genuinely afraid that all they can be are their labels.

Who would you be if labels didn't define you? Besides happy, I mean. 

Motherhood
I once had a friend who was struggling with motherhood. She insisted that she wasn't a good mother. The idea was pretty absurd to me because my perception of her abilities vastly eclipsed her own self-perception. So I gave it my best shot. She needed to free herself from the shackles of a "good mom."

After I asked her to write down the definition of everything she considered to be a "good mother," we both took a breath to admire the sheer weight of expectations. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that the label she had placed on a pedestal was unreachable and unachievable.

Mostly, her list included everything she thought her mom did right, the opposite of everything her mom did wrong, several dozen expectations that are currently popular in society, several dozens values dedicated by faith (even though she was agnostic at the time), and so on and so forth. Once she took it all in and could laugh at how grandiose her job description was, I offered an alternative concept.

"Just like your husband married you and not the idea of a 'good wife,' your son wants to be raised by you and not the idea of a 'good mother,'" I said. "If you are you and do everything from a perspective of unconditional love, then you will be better than a 'good mother' because no one can be you better."

You would be surprised how great people can be when they aren't paralyzed by labels. She did fine.

So what does that have to do with solving problems? Almost everything. 

Have you ever noticed that some of the most explosive companies in history have come out of nowhere? There is a reason for that. They are generally started by entrepreneurs solving a specific problem or changing the status quo.

Why can't big companies do the same? Some of them can, but the advantage belongs to the startup in that they haven't saddled themselves with labels, policies and office politics. People focus on the objective at hand, without any other distractions. Their teams aren't always proven as much as they are ready to prove themselves. And whatever idea they've been turning over is all that really matters.

So let's say the problem is more altruistic, like thirsty children. How do we solve it? Charity: Water says the best way to solve it is to build water projects that put clean, drinkable water closer to the source.

All that stands in their way to deliver it is labels. Some people don't like their business model. Some people don't like that the founder is Christian. Some people don't like their partner organizations. Some people don't like that the program helps people abroad as opposed to at home. Some people worry about project sustainability. Some people want to support another charity. And the list goes on.

Water
We add in additional angst if we make a political issue, where political labels complicate the process. Instead of dealing with the problem. Suddenly, who solves how much of the problem under what criteria and conditions as well as how do they go about it all become subject to the agenda purview of this party or that party and all those special interests, with little concern for actual outcome. The net result becomes a thousand-fold document that costs one hundred times more to accomplish significantly less than what is required.

Nobody is exempt and the test is self-evident. Think of an agency that solves our water problem. Now impart different labels on it, one at a time inserting the label ahead of the word agency. Like this: "_______" agency for water.

Christian. Islamic. Jewish. Satanic. Democrat. Republican. Libertarian. Jeffersonian. Secretive. Communist. Domestic. Conservative. Liberal. International. African. Jamaican. Japanese. Home-Based. Government. And so on and so forth. Which one would you give to?

If you're being honest, certain descriptions might have elicited a positive or negative emotional reaction. It might have been slight, but your prejudices exist, possibly based on your proximity or positive and negative experiences with people who have claimed to represent those things or what you have been told to expect from such people. In swapping the labels, you may even forget the problem.

How do you overcome prejudices and agendas to solve problems?

My oversimplified definition of public relations applies here. While I have more academic definitions, I often say that public relations is the art and science of making "we" out of "us and them." If you want to solve problems without being plagued by agendas, the only possibility is to ask people to temporarily check their labels (not their values) at the door.

It's a tall order to be sure, especially because most people don't even know they exist. They do. They exist on a grand scale, such as those who judge us by the color of our skin. And they exist on a small scale such as how much we might weigh or the shine of our shoes. So if you find someone to set those things aside, even for a little while, then hold onto them tight. They are rare individuals.

At least, that is what I think. I would love to know what you think. I'd also love to know what Dr. Steve Nguyen thinks, and Roger Dooley, and Sandeep Gauntam, or anyone who makes psychology a primary interest as opposed to me, about two classes short of that degree (it was my minor).

Of course, we need not stop with psychologists or people with a bent for the human condition. Anyone can chime in, especially Amy Vernon, who opened the box on this relevant topic. And if this topic is too far removed, that's fine too. What would you like to talk about? The comments are open. Let's talk.

Wednesday, August 7

Bob Fass Beats Everyone In Social Media. Good Morning, 1963.

Ask any social media expert what he or she knows about Bob Fass and most will stare at you blankly, head bobbing but without recognition. They never heard the name before. He isn't "known" in social. He doesn't have a klout score.

And yet, he ought to be known in social media. His ground-breaking work in social media using radio as his medium started long before many social media experts were born. And frankly, he did it better than most people do today.

"But wait," you say. "Radio doesn't count. It's broadcast."

While that might be true for some shows and stations, it was never the case for Fass. Beginning in 1963, he became a pioneer of free form radio. Anyone who called in was given an opportunity to speak about any subject under the sun. There was no plan. There was no format. There was no automation. He didn't fake it.

He didn't even concern himself with a niche. He never worried about his identity. He never once thought of himself as an influencer. He never did anything to chase down listenership. He was merely human, looking to elevate the unsung heroes of New York City from midnight until the break of dawn.

As a result, anybody and everybody was allowed on his show, especially counterculture figures like Paul Krassner, Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Arlo Guthrie, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg (to name a few). Listeners were allowed to call in and talk to any of them. One even suggested Dylan sing better, a comment that gave everyone a good laugh. Nobody was hurt by it or needed counseling.

It was a scene where the freedom to think and hash things out made sense. And most of the time, people just called in because they wanted to have a good time. For a few hours every night, they weren't alone.


The scene mostly played out much the same beyond the station too. The so-called virtual community that Fass had created eventually spilled into the streets. He hosted a Fly-In at JFK airport. He organized a Sweep In to clean up city streets. He had a hand in Yip In at Grand Central Station. His listeners marched on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968. His measured results made history.

But even as they did, Fass never let it go to his head. He wanted to connect with real people. He invited two-way communication. He wanted people to experience life in real time. And he still broke convention at every opportunity. If he liked a song, he might play it once or all night long. His call.

Social media wants to be Radio Unnameable but can't reconcile the business side. 

There is a certain level of inauthenticity in most social media programs because, well, they are programs. At the end of the day, most want you to do something because they are commercial enterprises. There is nothing wrong with that, but sometimes people seen as leaders forget that.

What makes almost all of them fundamentally different from pre-social media mavericks like Fass is that Fass didn't necessarily have an agenda (certainly not a commercial agenda). Social media experts, whether purists or public relations practitioners, don't have the luxury anymore. Most can only pretend to be authentic as they are serving an agenda to capture more leads, listeners, exposure.

This isn't a criticism. It's an observation. Many social media enthusiasts that started five or ten years ago had to abandon their hands-on approaches in favor of scalability. So, almost without fail (there are exceptions), the solutions they turned to came from the same media they had once ridiculed — a mass media model built on number of messages, listeners, clicks, and shares — while rewriting history just to say they thought it up first.

So what is the alternative? And if there is an alternative, just short of open mic night, does encouraging it make any sense from a professional or commercial standpoint? My guess is probably not because the answer lies somewhere in the balance of those two opposing ideas. But what do you think? And by that, what you do you think about anything?

If this space was more like Radio Unnameable, what would we talk about? What you would like to talk about? I'm curious so feel free to suggest anything at all. I'm listening and I'm not alone. The comments are yours.
 

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