Study: Students Less Empathic Than 10 Years Ago (pause from news feed to feel surprise)

Hey, if you want some news that shouldn’t really surprise anyone, head over to Scientific American and download their 60-second podcast proving that today’s college students are less empathic than past generations.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone because today’s students — of any age — spend so much of their time online, at arm’s length, where it’s perilously easy to judge.

I’ve been pretty clear how I feel about anonymous comments: they bring out people’s inner stupid.  And meanness. But it’s become more than that.

There’s a reflexive judgment that occurs when you can view someone’s life from afar.   You have no context, you have no consequences; no intimacy or extenuating circumstances.  It’s sooo easy to judge: simplest thing ever.  What’s more, it’s forgotten in a second.  You’re on to the next post.  Your timeline/newsfeed has updated!

Living shallowly amongst many, with few consequences, will fundamentally change who you are.  Sometimes that can be fine; and sometimes not.

Take Formspring.  And I thought TruthBox was bad?  (Oh — and you’re right, is better).

At least Facebook is a “walled garden.”  Formspring  is more like the vacant lot that everybody cuts across.  Once you set up a profile, anyone can see it and ask you anything — anonymously if they so choose.  In theory, you must answer.

Here’s how open it is:  when I was trying to explain it to my colleagues, I told them they could look up my son — though they’re not friends with him in any social media sense.  They were incredulous:  “We can really look up some teenage kid we hardly know?”

Creepers.  But I replied, “oh, yes.  That is the Formspring way.”

As it happened, that day some idjit chose to inquire about my son’s anatomy.  Well, about one part.  That‘s what my colleagues read.  And, that‘s why their eyebrows were somewhere up beyond their hairlines.  Thankfully he had thus far declined any specifics.

(Note, I did suggest to son that since it’s well-nigh university visit time, he might want to delete those sorts of questions, otherwise he’d never really know what the admissions counselor was thinking during that all-important interview…)

You wonder why he sticks with it?  Because he also gets the “I think you’re cute/hot/funny” genre of posts.

But beyond the idiotic, it can get serious.  Stories are accumulating about cyberbullying, to the point of two suicides with alleged ties to Formspring in recent months.  It’s something to have on your radar.  And I can attest that this is not just media hype.    There are even business models springing up around this — ReputationDefender will monitor your online presence and clean up nasty postings and photos for a nominal fee.

True, there are other reasons to lose empathy.  We are more divided than we’ve ever been — you don’t even have to share news with people you don’t like; you can only listen to/read/watch sources you already agree with.  So there’s no uniting around one human cause, forget that.  Well not much.

And in America at least, though the recession has gutted many lives and lifestyles, we are still more comfortable and self-obsessed than in many places where teamwork is required to thrive.

Back to empathy.  Do you agree that digital communications and social media are contributing to this lack of empathy?  Why or why not?


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Filed under Ethics, Science, Social Media, Teenagers, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

On Social Media (PR) Douchebags Who Don’t Actually Do PR

It’s terrible to come out of blog hibernation with a post about not just social media, but social media PR of all things.  Jeebus, as my friend Sue would say.

But there are still waves of hype crashing around us, and riding those waves apparently are some people who call themselves Social Media PR Douchebags — I mean, Specialists.

Nothing wrong with social media PR, as long as there’s, you know — strategy and thoughtfulness driving the program.  But lately I’ve had more calls that go something like this:

“I’m hoping you and your Agency can help me.  You see, we thought we needed PR, and ________________ told us s/he could help, and that we didn’t really need PR at all, what we needed was SOCIAL MEDIA PR, and it sounded smart and kinda cool so …”

(At which point I nod or murmur sympathetically; like a bobby on a BBC detective show, I know where this is headed.)

“But what _______ mostly did is introduce us at some parties; and you know, it wasn’t all bad.  We were a TC50 finalist!  But afterwards?  We realized s/he didn’t know anyone else — any writers or editors outside that particular crowd.  And then it turned out there was no follow-up strategy at all.”

How did your launch go?  I ask.

“S/he told us not to bother with news, that it’s all relationships so we didn’t  need to do releases or launches except for a party.  But here’s the thing:  we are dead in the water.  No one really knows who we are anymore.  We need other influencers, and funding, and like three other audiences that we’re not reaching.  Can you help?”

I resist the urge to say, “Tsk tsk tsk.”   Instead I say, “Sure.”

(Note to haters:  There’s nothing wrong with “social PR.”  There’s a lot wrong with “social” that doesn’t have really smart PR thinking behind it; or that occurs in a vacuum, as if all you ever needed was Yelp, FB and Twitter to educate the world).

Lest you think this is a new phenomenon fueled by Twitter or Facebook?   This has been going on for a while.

In 2006, one of my clients was lured by a Personality (who very much recalls Eminem’s “It feels so empty without me!”)  The Personality convinced my client to fork over a chunk of our budget — even though we’d been doing really well for them.  He promised to Move the Needle for them in the New Field of Social Media, Which A Traditional Agency Couldn’t Hope to Understand.  (Except that, up til that point, he had been marketing himself as a traditional agency…)

But actually, it worked the other way around.  They helped move the needle for him.  He hadn’t had many clients, and they had new media and cloud computing cred.  He leveraged their coolness to get invited to parties, share buzzwords, state casually that old media was dead (very endearing in some circles), and formulate a bunch of tips and aphorisms, sharable and linkable in 140 characters or less.  Not bad, really.

They got… well, I don’t know what they got, but after a bit they asked us to take them back and they reinstated all our budget.  We still landed them in RWW and TC; but also in those weird little pubs that they needed to reach IT buyers; and the Merc.  And the Times.  And the Journal.

The Personality is still Going Strong.   If I were him, I’d think I was on the right track:  He has a new book out.  He goes to parties and speak at panels, he makes pronouncements which are widely re-tweeted without question.  It’s working for him, why wouldn’t it work for everyone else?

But then there are the people that are calling me and my Agency; burned, if not by him, by someone who wants to be him.

So here’s the thing, people:

If you want to launch a company or a service, call me.    We will talk about who your audience really is, and which media  or tribes– old, new, pubescent — you should be talking with to get to them.  Maybe it’s AdAge.  Maybe it’s TechCrunch or Mashable or TIME, or BusyMom or GreebleMonkey.  Or Parents.   Or AARP (hey, don’t snicker; that is one powerful publication).

We will help you figure out what mediums to use to reach them.  Yes, you probably need short video.  Yes, a social media press release is a good idea.   Yes, we’ll figure out a viral plan, and help you put in place a community with a platform like if you don’t already have one, or something more sophisticated if that’s what you need.

And maybe you should go to a party.  Maybe you should launch at an Event — sometimes there’s a perfect critical mass of the people you need to talk with attending.   But sometimes events just generate noise, and we have to figure out realistically whether that’s your best chance to be heard.  We can do that.  Together.

But parties alone?  That’s just for Social Media (PR) douchebags.  And most likely, the only person who’ll make money is … well, you know.

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Filed under Media, Media Relations, Social Media, Social Media PR, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

Be Who You Are… if not now, when?

A few of you know I’m writing (when I have *&@! time) a book about the unexpected gifts of cancer.  More on that another time.

A few of you also know I’ve lost more than my share of people to that ridiculous disease.  And I have my own little condition to deal with, too.

Couple that with a few near misses with my own kids, and I’ve been ruminating on the temporal nature of our little lives (that would be, “how frickin’ short our lives are”  for those who prefer words under$5) more than usual.

Originally this post was going to be about staying true to your own voice in social media, and not getting lost trying to fit in with some neo-cool Tribe.

I had attended the Chicks Who Click conference in Denver, and three of the speakers — Erika Napoletano, Shelly Kramer, and Tara Anderson— all came back to more or less the same point:  beeeeee yourself.  It reminded me that though I initially created this blog related to my work, without my voice, it’s just a bunch of links.  I needed to be brave and show more of who I am; and if you don’t want to work with me because of that, well… that’s probably for the best.

(You don’t like Disney references?  Sorry; when my kids were little I saw this movie at least 200 times.  Ask me about the deep revelations in Lion King sometime.)

But things change.  Over the Winter I lost another friend to cancer — this would be like, the 27th or something; and I came across a video where half the people were alive just a bit ago.  And well, you should still stay true to your own voice in social media.  But now this post is about something more than that.

So, that video?  It’s Pink Floyd and The Beatles.   Together.  (It’s probably pretend/digital magic, since I’m pretty sure The Wall was made after the Fab Four broke up, but hey — it works).

Three of those guys aren’t here anymore.  John Lennon w as sharing really wonderful parts of life just before he died, and George Harrison and Richard Wright spent more time writing and singing about what was important to them than they did the cancer that would eventually kill them.  Which is fine — the video in a way is more a musing about what might have been.

But I was really struck by how they seemed to be enjoying themselves.  We’ve all heard about the drama with both those bands.  But those moments on the stage looked like power and looked like comfort, and pleasure, all at once.   I like that as much as the wacky mashup.

They found a way to express themselves.   It sounds cliche, but it’s powerful.  That’s why people blog, right?  Or find themselves sharing weird little thoughts on Twitter and Facebook?

They reached both back to themselves and out to us.

What will ultimately express who you are? Do you know?  Can you take a shot?

Hey, I’m not saying that you should go around blurting anything that comes to mind, unfiltered. I’m saying, express your best self.   The one you’re comfortable with.  Secretly proud of.  Respect.    Why wait?

One last video.  This one’s really personal.  This one’s my daughter, a few years back.  I’ll spare you the details, but it was not a happy time.  And yet… since  was little, she has been singing.  It’s who she is.  She used to climb the apple tree outside our house and sing to strangers as they walked by.

That particular night she was in some pain;  it wasn’t easy for her; she was a pretty brave girl.  But you see that little smile she flashes at the end?  It’s a reminder to me always, that being your truest self gives you a road back from wherever you are.  And lets others find you, too.

Why wait?

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Filed under Parenting, Random Weirdness, Teenagers, Uncategorized

Well, see, I was TRYING to upgrade my blog, and…

… I sort of lost the guy who was doing it. Or he lost me. And the thought of migrating more posts, by myself? Made me quail.

But fear not, I am back writing. Tonight.

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Filed under Uncategorized

Old/New Media: Bring Out Your Dead!

Every week, I come across another blog comment where someone says they wish that old media would just hurry up and die already.

It’s not just that they know it should be dead.  It’s that often they seem to have limited vision of what would replace it.  It will be… social media!  New media! Unfiltered access to press releases, each with their own take on the news!  A thousand points of light!

That “old media is dead” is often intoned by someone who is surfing around, reading content that someone took time to link to — blogs, news sites, possibly even the online arm of some terrible dead old media — like BusinessWeek or the New York Times or WIRED or Rolling Stone — allows me to — well, write them off.  Or at least roll my eyes.

So this week, when I read that comment from another self-satisfied, snarky, there can-be-only-one-true-Ring/media/blog/whatever Clay or HeWhoMustNotBeNamedsays — but in this case, it was from a journalism student — it at least got my attention. *

In theory, J-school students are paying good money — as I once did — to learn the ethics, and laws, and standards, and tactics…

… of a dying profession.

Someone in J-school should be thinking about how to morph this field they’re entering.  How to do what they love, as the saying goes, so that the money — some money, at least — will follow. So having a J-School student eager to pronounce “old media” dead reminded me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

“Look ‘ere, ‘e says he’s not dead!”

“He will be soon.  He’s very ill.”

(man) “I’m getting better!  I don’t want to go on the cart!”

“Don’t be such a baby!… Look, isn’t there something you can do?”

(at which point the cart driver clocks the older man on the head, and he’s laid — now presumably dead — on the cart)

This student pointed out that in the age of Twitter, we no longer need “old media.”  By the time they get to the news, he pointed out, it’s old already.

Wow, he’s going to be some reporter, eh?  Can’t get anything by him.

I don’t want to sound all naggy, but there are some things the New York Times does better than nearly any organization on the planet.  And many other “old media” that do really damn good reporting.  Including broadcast.

Just because they need to figure out a new way to make money, doesn’t mean the reporting is dead or even wrong — just the vehicle.  Suppose every time a car died, we shot its owner?  Yeah, that’s stupid too.

Every day, I read fantastic blogs doing great reporting as well.  And by reporting, I don’t mean tweeting that there was an earthquake.  I’m on Twitter.  I know there was an earthquake.

I mean making me aware of aspects of the news I hadn’t thought of, because I don’t have access to it.  The New York Times and its ilk can open doors that you and I can’t open — and that should be opened.  Westword, my local “alternative newsweekly,” has been doing great reporting for 30 years.

On a completely different level, a local newspaper (or blog, if everyone in the community has a computer) unites a community in a way that niche  blogs or multi-media cannot.

So put away the Harry Potter books, okay?  This is not a situation where one kind of media must die  in order for the other to survive.   (See: he’s dead Jim!)

Old media does have to figure out something new.  Not just “let’s make them pay for content,” though that’s a start.  The first step in innovation is usually incremental; and the next step will be more radical.

* * *

Gordon Crovitz, Steven Brill and Leo Hindery aligned last week behind a pay-wall.  Don’t know whether you’d pay for Gordon Crovitz?  Maybe you’d pay for others.  I probably would.  And the AP building its own aggregator?  They’re totally onto something: stop AP content and, in this magical world of downsizing that is contemporary journalism, you have just choked off 1/3 of most American news — papers and sites– at least.

Whatever we come up with, we’ll need the old media, new media, social media — and probably something that hasn’t even been labeled yet — plus  our brand new J-school peeps to deliver this excellent new model.

Something hopefully more imaginative than clonking old media over the head and throwing it on the cart.


Filed under Media, saving newspapers, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

FREE (from consequence) — or, Truth Box, My *!%?!

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. ”  Oscar Wilde

That’s the idea behind the Truth Box on MySpace. With anonymity, comes truth:  members can post to your “Truth Box” anonymously.  In theory, they can say they have a crush on you; or that they like your taste in music.

In practice, it’s more like the coward’s box.

In the same way that radio first gave away music without penalty to lure listeners and buyers, and that search engines and outlets gave away premium content without penalty to lure readers, we gave away the consequences of standing behind one’s opinion… without penalty.

Or in other words, in hopes of keeping readers glued — and returning — to web pages, we gave people the gift of saying things they would never ever have the cojones to say in person.

I bring it up because in one week I saw anonymous comments posted in a Truth Box that were made to wound, Iag0-like, without consequence; and anonymous comments posted on a news story about Detroit Public Schools that, had they been uttered in public would have possibly gotten the poster fired, put in jail or at the very least charged with racist hate speech.

Then I saw a review of a great little restaurant on Yelp; the review was so bad, I wondered: could it have been put there by a competitor?  But there was no way to know.

Oh sure, anonymity and the Dark Side of the Web are old discussions.  I tell my kids:  “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.”  Right.  (In the case of the “Truth Box,” it wasn’t that hard to figure out it was put there by a girl who was mad at my daughter.  Confronted with it, she admitted it; but she looked like an idjit in the process.)

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if anonymity is the same gambit as “free music” or “free content” — with a similar tangle coming down the road.  Even though we sense there are inherent issues (um, child stalkers, hate speech, short sellers, just to name a few of the more tangible ones), it’s a trade someone is willing to make — because someone will make money from it.

Print newspapers and magazines have discovered to their peril that giving away content without penalty for using it backfired — content was expensive to produce, cheap and easy to take.   Musicians, writers and artists are still figuring out how to manage content on the Internet, with many of the same issues.

And in the meantime, We the People expect to take what we want, listen to what we want, and say what we want, when we feel like it — without penalty.  In fact, a recent case just protected anonymous comments from libel charges (it’s under appeal).

Websites like Fairshare track your content across the Internet and can tell who’s taking and using it without your permission.  And, a new startup, won’t let you review anonymously.  They say non-anonymous postings add credibility.

I’m NO advocate of BigBrother type following.  Stephen Baker’s well-written book and articles on the subject make me physically ill (if you haven’t seen them, go here and here).  But as it becomes easier to see who has been on your blog with tools like Lijit (not available yet for, or commented, or Yelped… maybe we should dispense with anonymous comments completely.

Yeah, it would take the fun from visiting some sites.  We comment now because we want to be heard: but do we want the world to know we said it?  We might not, if we knew someone was listening.

But here’s the thing: they are listening, anyway.    There’s not much privacy on the Web (see: Bank Intern and Facebook).  And there is content that is free and easy to share — legally.

So just to strike a blow against cowardice (and, heaven forbid, in favor of that vague term people call “personal branding” — of course, it’s tricky if your “personal brand” is a closet racist) maybe it’s time to go back to:

  • paying for something we really want, if it cost a lot to make
  • saying what we mean and standing behind it.


Filed under Ethics, Tech and hype, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

Why Smart People Are Still Pondering This Old/New Media Thing

You already realize I’m a bit of a science geek.  But you may not know I’m also a history geek — not insufferably so, but I’m looking beyond what I thought I knew to find new insights.    On my bedside table, along with my fiction books and books on how to not be a crappy parent, there usually sits something by Joseph Ellis or someone equally readable.

I tell you this as context for when I say that, even for me, the piece in the January 26th issue of the New Yorker, Back Issues: The Day the Newspaper Died, is a bit of a slog (See: Does Google Make Us Stupid? Let Me Count the Ways).  But it’s worth at least zooming through for the parallels between newspapers as our founders envisioned them in the First Amendment — as opposed to our new vs. old media whinging today.

The piece essentially begs the question:  what’s the value of having an organized free press, with reach and access, to really go after our government?

Some of the value can be seen in the lengths a government would go to avoid that free press.  In the New Yorker story, we’re reminded that President John Adams tried to have his critics arrested for treason with the Alien and Sedition Acts — which he also helped create and pass.  I doubt he would have outlawed a TechCrunch, or a small paper writing about the local 4H results — both evolving and thriving aspects of our current media landscape, I’d venture.  But a John Adams, today — would he outlaw the New York Times or Washington Post for breaking the story of Guantanamo, or the White House emails?  To quote one potential White House resident, you betcha.

I bring this up because every five minutes on Techmeme, some blogger hits bigtime clickthroughs by proclaiming the imminent death of old media.  But we need newspapers.  And blogs (see: Twitter, the New York Times and the Guantanamo Video).  What is this ridiculous psychodrama where someone has to be dead?
It gets a little bit Social-Media-Echo-Chamber-y.   For example,  I’m normally an avid reader of Clay Shirky’s blogs. I just like literally how he thinks.  But last month he got picked up in BoingBoing and ReTweeted umpty galillion times for throwing the Guardian-UK this tired old bone:  that the New York Times is on its last legs, and that’s a harbinger for the category: “I think that’s it for newspapers.  Why pay for it at all?”  After awhile, Erick Schonfeld (whose work I also follow and  respect) and TechCrunch (and all their commenters and fans who want to be liked by TechCrunch) chimed in, and it got absurd.
Has it occurred to anyone that the economy could also play a tiny role in these “decaying fortunes?”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and reading everything I can on the subject — from the kinda-wacky-kinda-brilliant game(r) theory of Jeff Bercovici at

Here’s how it would work: As you browse, you have a small status bar at the bottom of your screen, akin to the “life bar” in first-person shooter games that shows you how healthy or injured your character is. In this case, the status bar shows you how many free page views you have left.

Now here’s the fun part: If you want to exceed your quota but you don’t want to pay, there are other ways. In video games, you can usually replenish your life bar by collecting floating gold coins or stars or mushrooms or what have you; why not do the same on a newspaper site?

to the practically reactionary suggestion of  former Washington Post editor  Peter Osnos — who outright suggests that Google save newspapers, and argues that it’s in the company’s best interests.  An excerpt:
If the past is a guide, there will come a time when these behemoths essentially are monopolies, and society will rise up in protest, to the relief and, usually, the benefit of everyone except them…
There are a lot of ideas circulating for saving the news business…but getting Google (and its smaller competitors) to share revenue with creators of content would be a money stream that essentially does not now exist.
to the altogether different take by The Long Tail (and Wired EIC) author Chris Anderson, who wrote in a recent piece that “free”  may not be sustainable as a business model in a recession.

Media isn’t broken, to paraphrase a comment I recently saw on Chris Brogan’s blog — it’s just not fixed yet.  Just because we haven’t imagined the next form it’s going to take, doesn’t mean it’s “dead,” or that new or old journalists must prostitute themselves with “content marketing” in some form  (not that there’s anything evil about that, but blurry lines don’t help anyone).

What do you think? 
Do you have ideas?  Share them in the comments!
P.S. — for more excellent ideas, see the comments on Matthew Ingram’s post, “Google Is Not Your Sugar Daddy.” (link in comments below)


Filed under Media, saving newspapers, Uncategorized