Monthly Archives: June 2011

How Social Media Is Making Us All Better Storytellers

The web sitcom I produce, The Baristas, is having a story contest this month.  The contest ends today.  And you should enter it.

Yes, you.  No matter who you are.

Now, you may not think you know how to tell a good story, but you’re wrong.  Because if you’re reading this blog, then no matter who you are, you’re part of a generation that’s being trained every day to get better and better at telling stories.

Here’s how it’s happening, and why it’s a good thing.

The Death of Boring

Penelope Trunk is a business blogger who blogs about everything but business, which is why she’s such a good business blogger: she forces her readers to connect the dots.

I read her blog not because I need career advice but because she tells great stories.  And actually, she doesn’t even do that; what she really does is tell stories well.

There’s a difference.

A great story works no matter who’s telling it, because it’s all about the hook.  If CNN tells you a meteor is hurtling toward Las Vegas, you’re going to want to know how that story ends regardless of who the field reporter is.

But a story about nothing, or about something you have no interest in subject-wise, can become interesting if it’s told in a compelling way.  This is why Grantland is an addictive blog even if you’re not a sports fan, or why The Rumpus and Marginal Revolution are must-reads even if you couldn’t care less about publishing or economics.  For great storytellers, the subject matter is the MacGuffin around which the best stories are built.

What makes Penelope Trunk such an effective writer is that she takes seemingly mundane incidents from everyday life and weaves them, Raymond Carver-like, into blog posts that are about so much more than their amazingly sticky titles.  (Sometimes they’re barely about their titles at all.)

James Altucher does this too, often brilliantly.  And by “brilliant,” what I really mean is “blunt.”  Penelope is one of his disciples, in writerly spirit at least.  When they write, even if you disagree with them, it’s never easy to click away.

The bluntness of Altucher, Trunk and other purposely confrontational bloggers (Julien comes to mind) works because so much of the rest of the web’s writing doesn’t.  Either it’s all unfocused or it’s misleading or it’s desperate or it’s redundant or it’s petty.  We spend so much time cutting through the bullshit of the web and the world that we’ve reached a stage where gut punches are welcome changes of pace.

But that bluntness is only part of why their blogs work.  Another aspect is their defiance of purpose.  Penelope’s blog is about business, but it isn’t.  James writes about investing, except he doesn’t.  Julien intends to make you a better person, but he refuses to hold your hand while he’s doing it.

None of them get trapped by the sameness of their genre.

So while the vast majority of blogs, TV shows, novels and films continue to follow a formula, and panic when that formula is rewritten — or completely drop the ball when they try to rewrite it themselves — the best storytellers are the ones who disregard those formulas altogether, and use genres as a slipcover for whatever they really want to write about.  Which is always themselves.

And that’s why we’re all becoming incredible storytellers: because the Internet rewards us when we’re most like ourselves, and least like everyone else.

So go ahead.  Tell me a story.

And then keep telling more and more stories to everyone else, until no one knows what genre you’re supposed to fit into anymore, but they all know who you are.  Not in a “personal branding” kind of way, but in a truly personal kind of way.

Because the stories we tell, and the ways we tell them, are how we remember who we are.

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The Real Reason I Tweet So Much

As a fairly compulsive user of Twitter and Facebook, I’m very aware that these distractions are eroding my productivity.  I also know that there are solutions to this problem, ranging from the obvious to the draconian.  But none of these hacks addresses the real issue:

It doesn’t matter which distractions I’m indulging in; what matters is what I’m avoiding.

Am I tweeting instead of… doing paying work?

Am I tweeting instead of… writing The Baristas?

Am I tweeting instead of… taking steps toward reaching any of my clearly-defined goals?

Probably.

(And if I’m not tweeting, then I’m checking Facebook, or answering email, or reading Grantland, or surfing The Awl, or scouring the archives of Chainsawsuit, or XKCD, or Hark, a Vagrant, or…)

But I digress.  (Because that’s what I do.)

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand why it’s so easy for me to diverge from my own best laid plans.  Why is it so common for me to start the day with a completely reasonable to-do list, only to spend the next hour devouring links from MediaBistro?  And I think I’ve figured out a few of the reasons why I willfully neglect my own better judgment.

Social media interaction is a quick, cheap win.

Yes, I could spend hours writing well-researched blog posts, or months creating original videos, or years building self-sufficient startups, or… I could tweet something and see if someone else retweets it.  And sure, the emotional spike I receive from seeing that retweet is microscopic compared to the charge I would get from landing a new client or launching a new business… but that tiny buzz is also immediate.

And if I feel it enough in a day, I can almost convince myself I accomplished something.

The less human contact I have, the more vital my online interaction becomes.

Since I normally work from home, or from coffee shops where I’m purposely trying to fly under the small talk radar, Twitter and Facebook become my primary social lifelines.  They’re the online equivalent of the water cooler conversations I’d be having with my peers if we were all in the same physical location.

And yet, because being online means I can constantly be talking, it means I’m also forever discussing what other people have said and done, rather than investing all that time and effort in accomplishing something that would be worth talking about.  Or, to put it another way, if Alexander the Great had Twitter, our modern maps would look very different.

I like what procrastination says about me.

Actually, that’s not true.  What I really like is the illusion that I can waste large chunks of my workday and still somehow be successful in the end.  Allowing myself to get distracted is my subconscious way of pretending I’m immortal, and convincing myself that spending today ___ is completely fine because I’ll have a whole new day to make up for it tomorrow… and the next day… and the next day…

What’s sobering for me to realize is that, by this rationale, I’m actually more interested in always having a second chance than I am in getting something done right the first time.  I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’m pretty sure I don’t like the implications.  (And I’m the one implying them.)

So maybe I should get to work on that.

And now you probably expect me to type something cutesy, like, “right after I [insert link to something distracting here].”

But no, really.

I should go do some work.

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Business Insider Fumbles Their Facebook Chart of the Day

On Friday, The Business Insider‘s latest Chart of the Day portrayed Facebook’s unbelievable effect on the rest of the web.  Unfortunately, the key word here is “unbelievable,” but not in the way The Business Insider intended.

But why is this report so unbelievable, and why do we keep falling for all these not-so-thinly-veiled advertisements that masquerade as news?

Let’s take a closer look.

Business Insider Chart of the Day: Facebook Growth vs. the Web

Business Insider‘s main takeaway from the original AllThingsD article by the chart’s primary author, Ben Elowitz of Wetpaint, was this:

He says the rest of the web is quickly becoming “irrelevant,” and argues that in the future companies will need to spend less time on SEO, and more time on optimizing for Facebook.

Uh oh.

So now the web is “irrelevant”?  There goes your entire business model, right?  “Screw our website! We need to invest all our money on Facebook!  Business Insider said so!!!

Well… not really.  For a number of reasons.

First, if you read Elowitz’s original article, he repeatedly cites mobile usage (which is primarily app-driven, as opposed to web-driven) as another big reason why web usage is down.  WIRED made this same argument last year.  This isn’t new.

But crediting the web’s shrinkage entirely to Facebook is.

And while that’s not what Elowitz did, per se, it is what’s implied in his graphic.  And when Business Insider highlighted his graphic, their mini-summary of his article shrunk the focus to the implication made by his graphic.

Maybe they did this while hoping that people would glance at their infographic, form an opinion and retweet it frequently without bothering to examine the bigger picture.  And, apparently, that’s exactly what happened.

Chart of the Day Tweet

And that’s the real problem.

Because this isn’t really a news story at all.  This is just data and opinion from a biased source.

Why biased?

Because Ben Elowitz the is CEO of Wetpaint, a self-declared “next-generation media company that uses its proprietary state-of-the-art technologies and expertise in social media to drive and monetize audiences.”

And, interestingly (unless you’re The Business Insider), “Wetpaint is backed by Accel Partners, the investors behind Facebook and Groupon.”

So, to recap, The Business Insider chose to present a pro-Facebook infographic made by the CEO of a company which specializes in monetizing social media audiences — and which is backed by the same investors as Facebook itself — as news.

This really shouldn’t be surprising, since the Twitter bio of Chart of the Day producer Jay Yarow proclaims, “I write the words that make the Internet go blog.”  In that context, should Yarow’s charts be seen less as information and more as provocative conversation-starters?

Unfortunately, this kind of faux-journalism, in which clearly biased “research” is passed off as news, is something we can’t avoid.  From drug research funded by the drug companies to Facebook research funded by companies that profit from Facebook, news outlets have always been desperate to publish content that gets people talking (and reading, watching, subscribing, and generating ad revenue).

So, let’s step back and remind ourselves of two basic truths:

Correlation is not causation. Just because people are using Facebook more and the rest of the web less, that doesn’t mean people are choosing Facebook instead of the web in an either-or comparison.  It just means one site is growing while the majority of sites are diminishing.  Why?  That requires actual research, not biased presumptions.

Just because I stayed at a hotel, that doesn’t mean I slept there. Sure, Facebook usage may be up 69% over a single year-to-year window.  But what were those users spending all their time doing on Facebook?  Maybe they were playing Farmville, or commenting on photos, or changing their privacy settings (again).  But a usage increase in no way indicates that any of that usage involves brands or ecommerce.

The chart above fails to empirically support the presumption that brands should spend more time and money on Facebook, except to imply that because your potential customers are spending more time on Facebook, you should too.  (And if your potential customers all jumped off a bridge, what would a chart for that look like?)

And, of course, here’s the rub:

Elowitz might be right.  I’m not even saying he isn’t.  I’m just saying we can’t know whether or not he’s right based on one chart, and we shouldn’t be creating headlines and infographics that oversell one part of the story without reporting on the story in full.

Or, to put it another way: if the people who live in one city were outliving the people who live in every other city, would you really drop everything and move to that city tomorrow without stopping to ask… why?

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10 Ways to Never Not Be Marketing

I dig Chris Brogan’s post on what to do when you don’t want to market.

Personally, I hardly ever want to be marketing.  I’d rather be creating something awesome than trying to convince people how awesome it is.

But if I never marketed, I’d just be making awesome stuff in a room all by myself, for an audience of “whomever stumbles across it.”  And while that’s beautifully zen, it’s horrible business.

To me, the key is to find a balance between making and marketing.  That balance isn’t a strict 50/50.  It’s more like, “How much marketing can I willingly do before I want to punch myself in the face?”  Your bullshit threshold may be higher or lower than mine.  Proceed accordingly.

And if you’re the kind of person who’s immune to self-loathing, consider these 10 tips for ensuring that you never aren’t selling yourself.

1. Give Your Business Card to Every Human Being You Meet. Convince yourself that delivering your elevator pitch to complete strangers on the bus is just good practice.  You never know if that guy trying to sleep with his headphones on is just a lazy venture capitalist.

2. Find an excuse to promote each of your business ventures across all of your other business ventures. Do you run a blog about fly-fishing and a custom solar panel consulting firm?  There’s no guarantee that those audience don’t overlap.  And you’ll never know unless you jam each venture down each audience’s throat.  (Repeatedly.)

3. Overload your email signature with links, links and more links. Anyone who’s ever emailed you for any reason should know everything about you from your email signature.  You have 20 blogs?  Link them all!  You never know which one(s) your recipient will find useful.

4. Every blog post you write is really an advertisement for the blog posts you’ve already written. Self-link endlessly.  If your latest blog post isn’t a bottomless hole to your entire blog archive, you’re doing it wrong.

5. You’re Never Too Unimportant to Have a Facebook Fan Page. Even if you don’t do anything that should in any way cause you to have fans, have a fan page anyway.  It just might trick you into thinking you’re running an actual business.

6. Issue Press Releases About Mundane Things You’ve Done. Anything can be worth writing a press release about, including the fact that you’ve just written a press release.

7. Create Multiple Twitter Accounts to Retweet Your Own Tweets. If no one else is tweeting about you, shouldn’t you be?

8. Create an Email List to Promote Everything You’ve Ever Done, Ever. Sure, you can pretend that you have news worth sharing, but what you really have are links to things you’ve done, and which you want other people to care about.  And if you mail that exact same list of links every month with a new subject line, it will seem like you have news, which means people will open that list again.  That same damn list.  Every month.

9. Write an eBook of Your Own Quotes. The only reason people aren’t quoting you more is because all of your best insights came at 2 AM when you were tweeting into the void.  Collect your own wisdom into a single volume, so others have no excuse.

10. Host a Webinar That’s Basically a Step-by-Step Guide to Being Yourself. Not “yourself,” as in “you, the audience,” but “yourself” as in “I, your webinar host.”  Because people can’t aspire to be just like you unless they know how.  And who better to teach them than you?

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He Who Throws the Most Candy Wins

When I was a high school sophomore, I took a class called “Election ’92 and You.”  Among the weekly exercises was a pretty massive spectacle: a schoolwide mock debate of the presidential candidates.  Three of my classmates were selected to portray the trio of politicians — the incumbent George H. W. Bush, the challenger Bill Clinton, and the underdog H. Ross Perot — and they were expected to deliver orations to the entire school, based on speeches written by their classmates.

I was drafted as the scriptwriter for Bush.  (Because, in high school, I was a Republican.)

And in our class at least, art imitated life, because we got our asses handed to us in the debate.  And it was all my fault.

I wrote a speech that was so dense with facts about Bush’s policies and accomplishments that it was inscrutable, even to the guy who delivered it.  He actually stumbled over it so much that he apologized to the audience — not for his own gaffes but, as he said, “I’m sorry.  My speechwriter sucks.”

So we lost.  Big.  But not to the guy who played Clinton.

We both lost to the guy who played Perot.

Because when Perot walked out on stage, he threw candy into the audience.

And that was the truest lesson I ever learned about politics, business and life in general: the guy who throws the most candy wins.

Don’t Worry — You, Too, Can Throw Candy

You may never be president, but that’s okay.  You can still be an effective influencer.  You just need to give people a reason to love you unconditionally.

For example, take LeBron James.  If you actually understand how the NBA works, you know that LeBron James is at best an underachiever and at worst a problem — for his team, maybe even for the whole league.

And yet, there’s a large subset of people who do love LeBron James, and who do think he’s a great player.  They believe all his media criticism is unwarranted.  And not only don’t they want to hear it, but they don’t even believe it has merit.

Or, as one woman on Twitter told me:

are you crazy lebron james will never be a problem your just a hater

To paraphrase, what she means is, no criticism I could possibly raise about LeBron James would be valid in her eyes because to criticize him means I hate him, which automatically invalidates my entire argument.

In other words, any criticism is a personal attack.

And, to clarify, she sent that response to my tweet of the “criticism” link within seconds of my tweet, which means she didn’t read the article.  She just responded from instinct.  There’s no room for debate in her mind.  She’s busy, and she believes in LeBron’s brand.

LeBron James throws candy.

Presidential candidates throw candy.

Anyone who would rather not be judged by their merits throws candy.

How much candy will you need?

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