Monthly Archives: March 2010

Are You Personal or Practical?

In response to my blog post about popularity vs. relevance, Gradon Tripp mentioned his own quandary: he’s not sure if “being himself” is costing him money.

This is a doubt we all suffer on a regular basis.  Social media is supposed to be freeing and profitable, so we do our best to split the difference.  This means we’re forever studying our own public behavior to ensure that we’re being “professional enough” and “personal enough” at the same time.

But what if the real dichotomy isn’t “personal vs. professional”?

What if it’s “personal vs. practical”?

The Truth Is Only Half of the Story

You don’t get far in life without solving problems — first your own, then someone else’s.

The more problems you can solve, the more relevant you are, and therefore the more popular you become.

But not all problems are created equal.  Some are a problem of function, and some are a problem of perception.

When I recently tweeted my take on the vicious cycle of how Baltimore’s crime rate drives affluent workers (and their tax revenue) to the suburbs, resulting in budget shortfalls that force the city to cut police jobs, Dave Troy insisted that my view was inaccurate.

But whether or not my view is flawed, that’s only half the story.

The full story is Baltimore’s economic issues + people’s perception of Baltimore’s economic issues.

You can fix one and still have a problem with the other.  But you can’t fix both simultaneously.

So which would you choose to fix?

That depends on your personality.

Plumbers vs. Jugglers

Some people are plumbers.  They fix tangible problems.

Some people are jugglers.  They fix aesthetic problems.

You wouldn’t hire a plumber to entertain you, and you wouldn’t hire a juggler to fix your pipes.  One is good at improving function, and one is good at altering perception.

The problem with social media is that we’re led to believe we can do both.

I’m not so sure that’s a wise plan.

Let’s Be Reductive.

What’s the primary reason someone should pay attention to you?

What’s the secondary reason someone should pay attention to you?

Break your work down to an adjective and a noun, and you’ll get your answers.

Are you a “witty instructor”?

A “perverse artist”?

An “opinionated guru”?

The noun is what you do; the adjective is who you are.  Combined, they’re what you bring to the table.  Make sure they can coexist.  (Does anybody buy from an “opinionated salesman,” or hire a “slacker photographer”?)

You can be great at what you do, or you can be great at who you are.  Figure out which half of the equation you choose to define yourself by, and proceed accordingly.

You Can’t Be All Things to All People

If Baltimore has economic problems and perceptual problems, they need a plumber and a juggler.

Maybe Dave Troy is a plumber, and he’s focused on fixing Baltimore’s tangible problems.

Maybe someone else is the juggler who can teach people to see Baltimore differently.

But expecting one person to do both is asking too much.

What do you offer that someone needs?

Why should people care about you?

Because that’s what you should do.

And nobody needs a juggling plumber.

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What If You Could Program Someone Else’s Blog from Scratch?

Do you know Bryon Sheffield?

Probably not.  He has a blog, but it doesn’t exist yet.

But you can help.

See, Bryon’s a smart guy.  He knows the web is full of white noise, and he doesn’t want to add to it.

But he does want to blog.  He has interests, and he has expertise, but he’s not yet sure where his voice fits into the big picture.

So he’s looking for a reason.

And if you have ideas, he’s encouraging you to leave him a comment on his site.

In a way, this is the equivalent of walking into a magazine while the staff is still being hired and having a say in the direction of the publication.  Anything could happen.  Your suggestions might be ignored, or they might trigger the idea that creates something never seen before.

Bryon Sheffield.  A blank slate, with ideas.  Help him put one foot in front of the other and who knows where he might end up?

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What Kinds of People Do You REALLY Want to Meet?

When you’re surrounded by strangers, it can be hard to strike up a conversation.  Presumably, things would be easier if you already knew something about some of those people.

But what if that knowledge actually made you more reluctant to start a conversation?

That’s what I’m wondering about Meet Gatsby, a Foursquare-related program that connects you with fellow users in your proximity who share the same interests you’ve divulged to the program.  It’s basically an icebreaker service for complete strangers sitting in the same room who happen to share a common interest.

For example, if you tell Gatsby that you like comic books, and someone else who also likes comic books checks into your location on Foursquare, Gatsby will introduce you.  You’re under no obligation to speak to each other, but you now have that opportunity.

In theory, this should help us all leapfrog over our fears of meeting strangers.

In reality, I can already think of several potentially awkward scenarios — including:

  • What if one person is an expert in a field, but the other’s just casually interested?
  • What if someone’s trying to work, but they’re accosted by a bad conversation?
  • What if someone’s already in a conversation with someone else?

But while those examples might be disappointing, annoying or uncomfortable, they’re also beside the point.

The real power of Gatsby is in the way it makes you re-evaluate a central question:

What kinds of people do you really want to meet?

Hi, My Name Is ________.

In order to meet a wide array of people, your instincts might lead you to supply Gatsby with lists of incredibly obvious interests.  “Music.” “Movies.” “Sports.” “Blogs.”

But this presumes you’d be happy to meet anybody.  If that were the case, you wouldn’t need Gatsby; you’d just ask the nearest stranger if they’ve seen any good movies lately.  Supplying Gatsby with ultra-common criteria is like supplying it with no criteria at all.

You could also program Gatsby with all sorts of hyper-specific interests that are extremely personal to you… except they’re immediately obvious to anyone looking at you.  Trust me, if your interests are Skinny Puppy, Joy Division, The Cure, and The Crow, I can probably figure that out without consulting Gatsby.

So what does that leave us with?

The future.

I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On… Mentally

To me, the real hook for using Gatsby is the opportunity to meet people I’d want to talk to because:

  • they know a lot about something I want to learn more about
  • they’re experts in something I know nothing about
  • our shared interests are likely to yield new discoveries for each of us

For example, if I said I liked “movies,” that would be nearly useless.

But if I said I was a fan of Whit Stillman or Atom Egoyan, two lesser-known indie directors with very unique storytelling styles, I’d be less likely to find people who matched that interest but more likely to have fruitful conversations with anyone who did.  Because if we both like Egoyan, we can probably each suggest half a dozen amazing films that the other’s never seen.

To accomplish this, we need to rethink the words we use to identify our interests, like…

  • Would the people we meet differ if we were fans of “movies” versus “films”?
  • Are your interests “politics,” or are they “liberal politics,” or “Libertarian”?
  • Do you like “blogs,” or do you like “blogging”?

This isn’t just semantics; this is SEO for your personality.  The more specific you (and others) are, you the more likely you are to find conversationalists who matter.

But this still leaves one loose end: how do we bridge the gap between “students” and “teachers”?

Single White Male, in Search of Enlightenment

Meet Gatsby is still in its earliest stages of development.  (As I type this, their Twitter account only has 61 followers.)

And since they’re currently accepting suggestions from users, I have two:

  • Subdivide interests into Things We Know About and Things We’d Like to Learn About
  • Allow users to rate their own expertise, and the expertise of others

Why would this matter?  Context.

Let’s say two people with interests in social media happen to meet up through Gatsby.

If Person A knows enough about social media to rate himself a 7 out of 10, he can probably offer advice to someone who’s only rated her own expertise a 4.  But if she disagrees with his suggestions (or thinks he’s making it all up), she should have the same opportunity to affect his credibility rating as buyers and sellers do on eBay.

Ultimately, Gatsby is positioning itself as a marketplace for human interaction.  And people will always want to interact with others who offer them the most value for their time.

The more ways we have to find the people who matter to us, the more valuable every Foursquare check-in will be — and the more relevant our own accumulated knowledge becomes.

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Are You Waiting Until You’re Popular Before You Start Being Relevant?

A few years back, I read a story that’s stuck with with me ever since.

It was in one of the many “how to write better” resources (possibly The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, although that one’s still worth recommending regardless).  In it, the author reminisced about something one of her university professors asked the class, which was:

“Are you waiting until your grandparents die before you write what you really want to say?”

It’s the kernel of truth in that statement that’s stayed with me — mainly because I can identify with it.

If you’re like me, your grandparents (and other family) have always taken a keen but passing interest in what you do for a living.  And as much as you enjoy their support, you’d also be mortified if they knew what you really thought about anything.

So you auto-censor yourself.

Not just in terms of language or sentiment, but even your choices of topics and your stated beliefs.

You’d rather be interesting than honest.

The thought of your dear sweet grandmother suddenly discovering that you’re really a left-wing atheist who digs bondage (or whatever your personality may actually happen to be) is so debilitating, you’d prefer to table your truest beliefs and most darkly-held secrets until everyone who could possibly be embarrassed about your choices is safely dead.

Social media is a lot like that.  Except here, everybody’s your grandmother, and you only feel comfortable offending them when you’re popular.

“If I were Seth Godin, I could say that…”

“If I were Chris Brogan, I could get away with that…”

“If I were iJustine, I could act like that…”

But you’ll never be any of them, because you’re you.


And so you type out your life of quiet desperation, waiting for all of your grandmothers to die — or to suddenly become exceedingly popular and, therefore, insulated from the arrows of ridicule and disagreement.

But here’s the funny part: Seth, Chris, Justine, etc., are still who they’ve always been.

What they know may have changed over time.  Who they have access to has obviously expanded.  And what they believe about the world may have evolved in conjunction with their own experiences.

But Seth didn’t become a marketing genius after he was popular; he’s always known what he’s talking about (unless you disagree with him, in which case, he’s always been a liar).

Chris didn’t become a nice guy who enjoys connecting people after he met a bunch of people; he met a bunch of people because he likes connecting them.

And Justine was a quirky exhibitionist long before the whole Internet was watching.*

The problem is not that you don’t yet have the clout to say what you really mean, or that you’re afraid of offending those who think better of you.

It’s that you have no idea what you really believe, or what you have to say.

Because if you did, you’d be speaking, acting and living the same way the idealized version of you would be doing.

So what’s stopping you?

At the risk of sounding self help-ish, here’s a fact: popularity — and grandmothers — come and go, but there’s only one you.  Matter to someone, and you’ll end up mattering to everyone.

* Disclosure: I’ve known Chris and Justine since before they became who you think they are now, so I can vouch for their public evolution.  I have yet to meet Seth in person, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.  However, if I’m wrong and he really did get smart after he became more popular, I owe somebody a Coke.

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LinkedIn Actually Listens to Their Users

Several weeks ago, Baltimore-based users of LinkedIn had a problem: LinkedIn insisted that Baltimore didn’t exist.

More specifically, LinkedIn classified anybody living in Baltimore as living in the “Washington D.C. Metro Area.”

Considering Baltimore is constantly trying to remind the world that it’s a separate city from D.C., some local Baltimoreans understandably perceived this LinkedIn hiccup as a minor identity crisis.

So they formed a (seemingly informal, as far as I could tell) group called “We’re From Baltimore, Hon!”  [If you've never been to Baltimore, "Hon" is their local variation of "Dear."]  The group’s long-term goal was to create a separation between Baltimore and D.C. in the LinkedIn database.

Evidently, it worked.

This week, I received an email from the group’s manager…

… explaining that all I had to do was re-enter my exact same zip code and LinkedIn would now recognize me as a Baltimorean, rather than a D.C. citizen.

Suddenly, Baltimore’s back on the map — literally.  Not bad for a ragtag group of motivated LinkedIn users.

And kudos to LinkedIn for actually listening.  For all the complaining we social media types tend to do about companies and services mistreating its customers or ignoring their suggestions, it’s nice to know that change really can happen when people commit themselves to doing the smart thing.