Monthly Archives: January 2010

We’re All Trolls: 11 Ways We Can Stop Being So Damn Divisive!

Lately, I’ve been arguing against the perpetual “us vs. them” method of storytelling because I think it’s ruining our ability (and desire) to understand each other.  Opposing groups have always been quick to condemn “the other,” but the degree to (and zest with) which we do it these days borders on alarming.

A few days ago, Michael Hasko tweeted something that sums up our increasingly polarized world:

Apparently any sort of dissenting comment on a message board is trolling. -sigh-

And he’s right.  While you might think “social” media should involve an exchange of mutually-respected POVs, that’s rarely the case.  Instead, like-minded tribes flock together and hurl stones at one another with such zeal that anyone offering even a mildly disagreeable opinion is immediately branded as The Enemy.  With “discourse” like this, is it any wonder we all cling so desperately to our own fishbowls and echo chambers?

Since when did we become so convinced of our own infallibility that we’re now completely unwilling to consider the opinions of others?  Shouldn’t global access to information make us more skeptical of absolutes, and therefore more accommodating of our individual differences?  Or maybe it’s just the opposite: when we’re presented with so many opposing viewpoints, perhaps we cling to our own ever more fiercely because admitting we might be wrong would undermine one of the only “truisms” we don’t feel compelled to question on a daily basis.

Whatever the reason for our social decay, things have gotten out of hand.  From the Senate to the cubicles, we’ve lost our willingness to listen to, learn from and discuss any assertions other than our own.  And as this erosion of civility continues across all walks of life, we run the risk of handing future generations tracts of dogma instead of the ability to reason.

But it doesn’t have to go on like this.  We just need to take incremental steps away from our own intellectual isolation.  As such, here are 11 ways you can stop perpetuating the cycle of exclusion.

1. Stop preaching to the choir.

Everyone loves being told how smart they are — or, more importantly, how right they are.  The assurance of being correct is a drug like no other.  And the “connectivity” of the Internet provides you with an endless supply of listeners who’ll fall all over themselves to agree with you, no matter what you believe.

Avoid that.

If you really believe something, try selling it to someone who thinks you’re wrong.  If you’ve ever tried pitching social media to a hostile boardroom, debated the existence of God with an atheist or argued with a child who refused to buy into your set of rules, you quickly realized that “just because” is never the right answer.  Defending your beliefs helps remind you why you do believe them in the first place — and, occasionally, it reveals the gaps in your own logic that might lead you to question your own certainty.

2. Stop letting yourself be preached to.

If you only consume streams of information that reinforce your own presumptions, two things happen: you’ll never learn anything you didn’t already suspect was true, and you’ll never be surprised.  The people who sell you the information you’re imbibing already know that you’re naturally opposed to philosophical conflict, so they have no reason to rock your mental boat.  And the more candy they feed you, the less likely you are to stray.

You wouldn’t consent to eat the same three meals every day for the rest of your life, so why sign up for the informational equivalent?  Start sampling.

3. I agree with you, but…

A good friend of mine once noticed that I always got extremely aggravated whenever I’d argue with a certain ideologically opposed family friend.  His point of view made as little sense to me as mine did to him, and each of us refused to concede any points because we were both dead sure we were correct on all counts.

After hearing us debate our polarized philosophies on several occasions, my friend suggested I employ the concession above.  By doing so, he explained that two things would happen:

  • I’d establish a common ground, thereby dissolving the brutal tone of the debate, and
  • I’d clarify the specifics of what we were actually disagreeing about, rather than allowing the discussion to roam unbounded.

So I tried it.  And it worked.  And no, even today that family friend and I still don’t see eye to eye on the vast majority of the world’s problems.  But we can also drink a beer and talk about football without every conversation dissolving into an indictment of our belief systems.  Sometimes a truce is a two-sided victory.

4. Ignore national politics.

As someone who’s spent the past decade getting irate over American politics, only to look back and realize I could have been doing something useful with all that energy, I say this with all sincerity: we care way too much about what Washington is doing.

Thanks to our jingoistic American news cycle, people are more aware of what the President is doing on a daily basis than what their neighbors across the street or around the globe are ever doing.  Our priorities and sense of scope are broken, with our own government being portrayed as having a disproportionately large impact on our daily lives and well-being, compared with the larger and smaller influences that actually mean more to us in the long and short term.

Yes, we elected them.  And yes, they’re going to rape and pillage us as their way of saying thank you.  But obsessing over lofty claims, party rhetoric and things that may or may not happen only distracts us from the real news that we could have an impact on, if we only knew it was happening.

5. Focus on what matters directly.

You have bills to pay.  You have mouths to feed.  You have love to find, and some to give.  You have goals, hobbies, passions and concerns.  And you have a nagging sense that things could be better in your life, “if only I could ___.”

So does everyone else.  Get those basics squared away and you’ll have time to spend on filling in that blank, rather than alleviating your frustrations by obstructing someone else’s attempts to do the same.

6. Focus on what matters globally.

Every time I watch the TV news from another country, I find myself quietly astounded that there is another country besides America.  In the US, we only talk about world news when there’s a war, a disaster or a missing blond girl in a hard-to-spell place.  But if you venture beyond our borders, you’ll find there’s a swath of other people with other cultures, values, beliefs and problems that need to be solved.

You don’t need to solve them yourself, although that is a pretty American thing to want to do.  But just being aware of those problems so you can not contribute toward making them worse would certainly be a good start toward making things better.

And, as a bonus, you might not be so afraid of people with different skin colors, wardrobes or last names.

7. Take direct action in your locality.

Hating either national political party doesn’t get you very far.  Neither does making sweeping generalizations about systemic national problems like failing education, absent health care, abused ecology or a corrupt economy, and ending with a proclamation that these problems are “too big to change,” or that “someone should do something about it,” is just an excuse to keep whinging.

Surprise: you’re someone.  And no, you can’t wake up tomorrow and fix nationwide problems with a wink and a smile.  But you can probably make a difference in your neighborhood.  You can probably call your city council representative and ask for help.  And you can probably conduct yourself the way you wish your elected officials and other people of influence would, and lead others by your example.

It’s not as folksy as bitching about Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow over wing night with your buds.  But it might make everyone’s life a bit more palatable.

8. Hold people accountable.

When your friend, lover, coworker or boss doesn’t do something he said he would, point it out.  Don’t be a dick about it, but don’t let it go uncorrected either.  Because the more lax you are in your accounting of others, the more lax everyone — including you — allows themselves to become.  We’re only ever good people when there’s a reward for it, or when there’s a penalty for being bad.  Don’t wait for someone else to enforce acceptable standards; that’s how mediocrity takes control in a lazy culture.

Oh, and when it comes to politics, forget party affiliations: if your elected official didn’t do what he said he’d do, or if she did things you find reprehensible, vote ‘em out.  Fear that “the other party would only be worse” is irrational; focus less on how bad it could get and focus more on holding your representatives accountable for doing the job you paid them to do with your tax dollars.

9. Be unafraid of change.

As mentioned above, fear of change is irrational.  We’re always petrified of “how bad it could get,” but we forget two things:

  • Whatever “it” is, it’s probably already pretty bad now, and
  • No matter how bad “it” gets, we’ll live through it.

Look at the vast amounts of shit people have lived through for centuries.  For every enlightenment, there’s a dark age.  For every scientific advance, there’s a worldwide cataclysm.  Your parents always had it better and had it worse, depending on the topic of conversation.  And the past always looks more romantic than the future, because the past is something we’ve proven we could get through while the future just might involve that one insurmountable challenge we just can’t overcome.

Don’t bet on it.  We’ve come this far without destroying the planet, so one more bad piece of legislation or ill-timed hurricane won’t do us in either.  Worry less about the unknown obstacles and fear more the possibility that if we don’t move toward change, this might be as good as it gets.

10. Refuse stereotypes.

The problem with stereotypes is that they’re usually accurate.  Clichés don’t happen based on once-in-a-lifetime irregularities; they happen because the same kinds of people repeatedly do the same kinds of things, and those things tend to be irredeemably stupid.

But instead of seeing those aggravations as uncorrectable offenses, ask the larger question: why does this happen? What cultural, sociological, geographic or political influences cause certain people to act in certain ways, or to believe certain things?  How do those habits get started, and why do they perpetuate despite their impractical disadvantages?  Are they even considered disadvantages by the people who do them?

Once you understand that everything has a root cause (or multiple causes), you can understand our differences rather than writing them off as cultural deficiencies.  And that brings us one degree closer to not hating each other.

11. Question certainties.

If you do nothing else, doubt everything.  Doubt what you’ve always believed.  Doubt what everyone else believes, too.  Refuse to say with certainty that any one thing is irrevocably true.  See the world as a massive grey area, rather than pillars of black and white.

The world is full of conflicts and riddles, and we have the capacity to quell some of them and solve others.  And yes, by doing so, we just might create more problems in the process.  Such is life.  But whatever worldviews we form, and whatever actions we take, we should be making our decisions based on data, not ideologies.

And if that means you spend a little less time watching TV news, a little more time talking to those neighbors you’ve never actually introduced yourself to, and a lot less time posting anonymous hate screed to your social network of choice, then maybe 2011 won’t seem like the festering shithole 2010 seems poised to become.

And that’s a start.

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What’s the ROI of Everything?

Lately, there’s been a growing insistence that social media (and marketing in general) be measured solely by the end result: sales.

Despite plenty of lucid arguments to the contrary, many smart (and opinionated) people believe that “community building,” “brand management,” “increased awareness” and other intangible benefits of marketing are useless, or at least that they’re incidental byproducts of marketing’s real purpose: sales, sales, sales.  If something can’t be measured in ROI, it’s a waste of time, and since so much of what we now call “social media” is ethereal, the validity of the entire field must be called into question.

And I agree.

But where I think people lose track of their own argument is at the root.  Because marketing is sales.  And so is shipping.  And so is packaging.  And so is customer service.  And so is employee retention.  And so is public relations.  And so is dress code, color scheme, the ecological impact of your parking lot and the flower arrangement in your lobby.

Every part of your business impacts sales. That’s because sales is the end goal behind every decision your business makes, from the market you target to the name on the door.  And if we’re going to wail in the streets about all the ways people are missing the point about marketing, then I need to see some more hard numbers of my own.

For example:

  • Are your conversion rates affected by the screen brightness of the buyer’s monitor?
  • Which muzak was playing in the elevator immediately prior to peak sale hours?
  • How do sales rise and fall during each employee’s lunch break?
  • Which verb tense generates the most e-blast click-throughs?
  • Do stores lit by CFLs outsell the ones lit by incandescents?
  • Does your shopping cart’s border thickness matter?
  • Is your delivery van’s tire pressure affecting the integrity of the packages, resulting in the possibility of lost business due to customer disappointment with the surface scuffs on the product’s overwrap?

The variables are infinite.  And they ALL affect sales.  Just because marketing is an easily-measurable target, and one that’s popular to publicly dissect, that doesn’t mean it’s the only aspect that should come into question.

HR, tech support, cleaning ladies, spouses — I’m looking at you.

What’s the ROI on everything?

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The Two Kinds of Confidence

Confidence by EstheraseWhether employers are hiring employees, clients are choosing contractors or potential mates are sizing each other up for compatibility, everything boils down to confidence.

Employers want to know that they can trust the person they’re paying to get the job done.  Ditto for clients, who need to know they’re in good hands before they relinquish their future to someone they can’t control.

And regardless of your preference for certain body types and personality quirks, nothing gets one person’s pheromones crackling like sensing another person’s confidence.

I’m not talking about hubris, ego, showing off, commanding attention, “owning the room” or any other displays of wannabe alpha-domination meant to convince other people that you’re The Man.  (Or, depending on your chromosomes, The Woman.)

I’m talking about the two actual kinds of confidence.

There’s the confidence that comes from knowing what you’re talking about, and there’s the confidence that comes from being able to admit you have no idea what you’re talking about.  In theory, it’s important to be able to tell these two types apart, so employers, clients and mates don’t get hoodwinked by fast-talking charlatans.

But it isn’t.

Do You Know What I Know?

If you don’t know what you’re talking about but you’re trying to convince someone you do, you’re not going to appear confident in the first place.  You’re going to appear bombastic.  You’ll be overly jovial or subtly hostile.  You’ll act and speak in ways that obscure your lack of knowledge, and betray your own lack of faith in your ability to get the job done.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about but you do know how to learn, you’ll be confident in your ability to deliver an end result that will please your client even if you’re entering uncharted waters.  Because confidence doesn’t come from knowing the waters; it comes from knowing where to find a boat and a map.

You may not be an expert in a field, but you’re an expert at becoming an expert in a field.  Your confidence stems not from your ability to execute, but your ability to adapt and apply previous experience to new obstacles.

Either way, the client wins.  And the client knows it.  Which is why the client doesn’t need to know if you know what you’re talking about.

They just need to know if you can row.

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Photo by estherase, via Flickr.

The Sudden Sexiness of Walled Gardens

For the past decade, we’ve all felt increasing pressure to “join the conversation.”  Companies and communicators alike have been advised to bring their messaging to the people and service them “where they are,” rather than the now-passé tradition of expecting the people to come to you.

This approach has resulted in a cacophony of competing messages, as everyone strives valiantly to be heard above the din.  Instead of “joining the conversation,” it now feels like everyone’s joined the fray, and only the most relevant or rewarding messages manage to break through the squall of white noise.

This development has also altered our valuation of people’s time.  Instead of presuming a person’s shop or services are so remarkable as to be worth someone else’s time and effort to come find them, the provider’s time and effort is now worth less than that of her audience or her customers.  It’s now her responsibility to make time for them.

But with everyone competing for the same 24 hours of attention, is it any wonder that some people are starting to question the merit of this new technique and instead casting a wistful eye toward the more easily-managed construct of walled gardens?

Grant Me a Brief Respite in Your Branded Eco-Lounge

Information overload helps no one.  If we want to process information, we need a break from absorbing more information.

Enter (literally): the walled garden.

In info-speak, a walled garden is a self-contained info-system.  People come in, they see what you want them to see, they have conversations and ask questions about a narrow range of relevant topics, and they’re presented with action items and takeaways designed to keep your message and branding top of mind as they head back out into the unpredictable static of the info-storm.

Previously, companies were derided for expecting web surfers to linger in their walled gardens.  With so much information “out there,” how could companies be presumptuous enough to require that people spend their precious time in the company’s space?  But once the sum total of information available “out there” surpassed our ability to process it meaningfully, those structured storehouses of information started to seem less like oppression and more like relief.

Even sources who “should know better” are calling for a return to prior simplicity.  A stellar post from BBH Labs about stimuli and mental computation floats the following justification:

“For now at least, there’s room for brands to be marketed as tools to help Neo-Luddites swim against the tech tide.  Guinness, Magners, KitKat – ought to be creating virtual & real walled gardens for when you want to kick back and relax, away from the torrent of data.”

Suddenly, what once seemed like a sure sign that a company “didn’t get it” is now being touted as a wise move for companies who want to position themselves as “counter-culture.”  Evidently, what we now consider “culture” involves a massive continual onslaught of stimuli and low expectations for long-term retention.

Who knew outdated communication techniques would so swiftly experience a romantic resurgence?

The Upside to Enclosure

These days, the breadth of available information is obvious.  But those seeking depth or context require more than an endless barrage of stimuli; they require some mental (or digital, or physical) space to sort it out.  A chance to dig a little deeper.  Some time to consider the bigger picture.

Walled gardens provide the structural, thematic and operational constraints that let us evaluate smaller bits of information over a longer (or at least less disruptive) stretch of time.  When you’re in Facebook, you may see a torrent of data, but it’s all contextualized according to whom you’ve opted to follow (and how).  When you’re on the Dos Equis website, you’re free to learn more about their beer at your own speed, rather than relying on a chance encounter with a serendipitously-timed tweet or a randomly-generated ad.

Granted, there are impractical ways to do this.  And in an age of respect for “open” communications, limiting your customer’s options isn’t always a blueprint for success or goodwill.  But the companies that strike the best balance between constriction and collaboration under the guise of providing users with improved functionality will likely see the greatest end results.

It could even be possible that companies and sites who restrict information flow will be rewarded for their stewardship, as long as the ultimate control of that flow is in the hands of the user.  And the better attuned a site is to the cognitive needs of its users, the more value those users will ascribe to the information provided, even if it’s the same information they could find elsewhere by chance.

The worldwide flow of information won’t be slowed; that genie has left the bottle.  But there’s certainly an opportunity for companies and curators who can provide rest stops along our ever-widening Information Superhighway.  (And if those rest stops do come with Kit Kats, so much the better.)

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The Relevance Economy

First, let’s all agree that money is dead.

When the very same banks we so recently “bailed out” with our hard-earned tax dollars are suddenly announcing record bonuses even as Americans report underemployment in record numbers, it’s impossible to take our financial system seriously.  Actual currency has become so ethereal as to be downright irrelevant.  You might as well pay for dinner with POGs.

As a result, there’s a newfound interest in commoditizing the one resource we all share equally: time.

Thousands of blogs and articles have been written about concepts like the attention economy, the influence economy, and how changes in perception affect the “market value” of your influence.  And, naturally, people are logically devising ways for you to monetize your influence.

But if we can temporarily agree that cash is dead, then monetizing your influence is pointless because money itself is pointless.

Instead, let’s invest our time and measure our influence according to a more dynamic metric: relevance.

Why > What

A TV might cost $500.  That’s a concrete price for a concrete item.  That price may fluctuate due to supply and demand, but the price on the tag is the same for everybody, regardless of how much money they actually have.

But the relevance of that TV is different for every human being who might purchase it.

If you’ve never owned a TV before, that $500 pricetag is your gateway to a lifestyle milestone.  But to a person who already has a TV in every room, that $500 TV is almost worthless.  The pricetag itself doesn’t change, but its context does.  And how much you need (or want) that TV determines how relevant it is in your life, and therefore how much time and effort you should reasonably allocate toward obtaining it.

Now, pretend that TV is a college education.  Or a healthy relationship.  Or a healthy child.  Now how much is that goal worth, and how much of your time is worth investing in order to achieve it?

Why Mattering Matters

Too often, we spend the bulk of our time in pursuit of money, for the specific sake of possessing money.  We’re not necessarily sure what we need it for, but we know that we do need it.  Therefore, as long as we spend our time making money, we can excuse ourselves for not spending that time on anything else more relevant — mostly because we never ask ourselves what is relevant in the long term.

Once we identify our greater goals, and we relegate money to a means rather than an end, we’re left with a very different problem than “how do I make more money?”  Because we can always make more money, but we can never make more time.  And there’s no shortage of information and spectacle competing for our universal 24 hours every day, which makes productively investing those precious minutes increasingly difficult.

So if we can never gain time, why not invest in methods to maximize the time we do have?

All of which brings me to one simple suggestion that could make a giant difference:

Now Hiring: Consolidators

Our days are endless swarms of information.  By the time we’ve made sense of all that information, we’re out of time and energy to do anything about it.  And until now, the smart money has been on “cultural curators” as the likely solution, empowering people to act as informational gatekeepers on a personalized level.  (“Panning the dreck for gold you’ll find relevant,” as it were.)

But we don’t need curators; we need consolidators.

A curator can find 20 diamonds in the rough, saving me the trouble of seeking them out myself.  But the more curators I follow, the more [good] information I’m overloaded with.  It’s still the same problem, except now there’s even less irrelevant information to excise; I’m overwhelmed by relevance.

This is when a consolidator would curate the best information, contextualize it into a summarized format that’s easily digestible, and then provide actionable recommendations on what to do with the information once a person has processed it.  Doing so not only saves time for a consolidator’s clientele, but it would solve the overarching problem of propulsion.  Because a jumping-off point is pointless unless you know where you’re jumping to, or how to get there.  Consolidators are the ones who can build those roads the rest of us don’t have the time for.

We’re Going Nowhere Without a Plan

I understand that curation is sexy.  People still love to be kingmakers, and in an age when anyone can create media, someone has to find the good stuff.  But someone else needs to correlate the best of that information into a format that we humans can actually benefit from without squandering our most precious resource in the process.  (If titles are a concern, just hire someone as your Chief Context Officer.)

Money is dead.  Relevance is king.  We can’t succeed without resources, and chief among those resources is time.  Which is why your time should never be auctioned off to the highest bidder, because your highest bidder should always be you.

How’s that for context?

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