Category Archives: Tech and hype

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

O..M..G… They can’t be in our Social Media Club! Gosh!

A few weeks ago, I attended an event where Kara Swisher referred to the whole social media scene as the “social media self-reflecting echo chamber” and some of its stars as “assclowns.”

There was some uneasy chuckling at this — it was, after all, a panel called “Is Social Media Killing PR?”  But mostly people knew exactly what she meant.    There has been much, much sucking up and self-referencing going on lately.

I could have left it at that, until I read a post on an otherwise usually very thoughtful marketing/buzz blog.  It warned all you unsuspecting innocents out there how to tell if your Social Media Consultant is really a carpetbagger.

It carried a breezy video comment with a young pup smilingly declaiming that there are actually people who don’t know what the Cluetrain Manifesto is, and knowing what it is should be a test (I am actually quite fond of the Cluetrain Manifesto, in the nostalgic way some people might be of, say, Goodnight Moon or their first love; but some of my more acerbic peers refer to it as the Common Sense Manifesto).

You know, it was harmless.  Maybe they just were trying to be cute. He was contributing.  And yet the combined effect reminded me of an endless string of cliche movie scenes: the stepsisters make fun of Cinderella:

The Socs make fun of Ponyboy:

The Mean Girls… well, you get the idea.

Some of the insights were fine.  You should be wary of someone who doesn’t listen.  Or whose first suggestion is a Facebook group.

But as one Twitterer told me privately, “the tone [of that post] made me cringe.  It was so smug.”

Yah.  We’re smug — because we broke the code, and we got here first.  Or more first-ier, anyway.  We know things these noobs don’t know.   (insert comment calculated to suck up to Michael Arrington).

I have nothing against Michael Arrington.  He’s great at what he does.  In fact, leave him out of this.  It’s the whole wink-wink say-no-more, you can’t be in my club thing that has sprung up lately.

Sidebar-With-A-Point: You know who got me into Twitter?  @micah (Micah Baldwin) and the late @mochant (Marc Orchant).  Two incredibly different men; two very different approaches.  About a year ago, at deFrag.   Marc started telling me excitedly about Twitter after Gnomedex; it was a “breakthrough” for him.  Micah laid out his arguments for Twitter completely differently.  But clearly, simply.  Not once did he say, “you’re too old,” or, “you’re too new.”

Both guys were amazing that way.  Brilliant, kind, open — natural teachers who had been at the social media game for a while.  They were and are symbolic to me of what makes the open web succeed: you give people the information, explain why it’s useful, and see how they connect with it.

Micah could have given me, you know, that half-smile that kids reserve for people over 40 when they see them dance, when they’re embarrassed for them.

But instead he was just straight-up.  “No, Twitter’s really cool.  You should do it.  Here’s the value for me:….”   He laid it out, and he made sense.    I was on Twitter that afternoon.

Yeah, several months after he and others were on it.

Maybe it’s the economic downturn — in a recession, some people want to make just that much more sure that someone knows that we know what we’re doing and knew it FIRST before those  new people came in and started LIKING social media and trying to USE IT and making it all, you know, social and useful.

And yes, the blog post had a point — because there’s money to be made in brandishing phrases like “personal brand” and “social media consultant,”  it helps to have some insights.

But part of why I didn’t get on Twitter earlier was because of a guy who was in some ways the opposite of Micah and Marc.  A blogger/social media personality who trails little odorless puffs of hype behind him like the low-carbon Highlander Hybrid he started driving after he saw it on Project Runway.   He is smart, he gets ironically and mildly underexcited about everything, he blogs about everything, people love to say they know him, he claims to know everyone.

I suspected that for him Twitter was the solution to that old Eminem song:  “It feels so empty without me.”  That was how I saw it — microblogging a tech raven’s life as it flew from one shiny object to the next.  So since he was excited about Twitter two years ago, I felt forced to hate it, even though he didn’t know and wouldn’t care.

I was wrong about Twitter.  I avoided this cool thing, just because he was annoying.  (But haven’t you done that?   Maybe it was a book, like The Tipping Point or Tuesdays with Morrie, that you avoided just because people flocked to it in droves and formed well, Facebook Groups about it.   Or a movie that could not have possibly lived up to the hype.  Or even Ron Paul, or Barack Obama.

But you give in –  read the book or see the movie, or listen to Barack Obama talk.  You  concede that though the hype is annoying — well, there’s something there.)

The whole social media self-referencing echo chamber is getting annoying.  But there’s still something there of value for people that are willing to walk past the posted insults of the  Socs, or the whispered taunts of the Mean Girls, and make their own way towards the amazing resources to be found.

My husband works only tangentially with the tech world.  He’s starting to find the value in Twitter as a tool for conversations with customers he didn’t know he had — just the way the Cluetrain Manifesto would want him to — and he wouldn’t know how to find the manifesto if it bit him in the …a**clown.

So please let’s stop the code words, do our jobs, follow our curiousity and trust that it will sort itself out, for the most part without having to act like Closed Web Snobs.


Filed under Ethics, Tech and hype, Technology and PR, Web 2.0

Cancer, Social Media, and the Meaning of Small Things

On a crisp September day in 1995 — long before there was such a term as “Social Media” — I sat at my computer with my 28K modem, sobbing as quietly as I could, trying not to wake up my 3 month-old son. And I typed this question:

“I need to know how to help a young Mom with cancer. She’s only 30, she has three young daughters and not much time. Please, can anyone help me?”

In 1995 I had no MySpace, no TechCrunch, no Twitter; no Cluetrain Manifesto. @Scobleizer was probably just a mensch working at Microsoft. Bill Gates was a minor celebrity; people shook their heads about Apple’s tiny market share. AOL and Netscape were king, and when you loaded a website, you had to watch a blue bar while it loaded — long enough to grow a whole new hairstyle sometimes.

In short, I didn’t have the power tools we have today — the myriad complicated ways we celebrate of connecting to each other – our widgets, our followers, our networks.

What I had in 1995 was an amazing friend named Sabine with a buoyant smile, three young daughters… and terminal cancer.

What I also had in 1995 was access to AOL‘s chat rooms. Yep: chat rooms.

I had found the one that said, “AOLMoms.” I entered, waited for it to load, and typed my question.

I typed that question again and again as the chat scrolled down in front of me. And then suddenly:

“I can help. I am a Mom who has had cancer. I have survived it three times. What do you want to know?”

It felt like a miracle. Her screen name was MS_Tylee, and I’ve never forgotten her.

“Anything,” I typed back. “What would help?”

MS_Tylee asked me what stage cancer my friend had; told me about what kinds of foods would upset her stomach given the type of treatment she was getting; what kind of help would actually be helpful — laundry, little errands, child care and maybe meals on days around her chemo treatments.

I was so grateful. What she did was small for her — a few moments’ typing at her desk — but it was huge for me.

I printed off everything she said. Then I helped organize people who were glad to do anything they could. If you’ve ever dealt with cancer first- or second-hand, you know: you feel helpless. There’s this war going on at the cellular level, and you’re not really even allowed in the ring (even if you are the ring). So every day you figure out something you can do.

It turned out I’d need that knowledge: that same month, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. And then another friend — Dale, also a mother — a month later.

Sabine died the following June. She was one of the first people in my circle to have three kids; I learned so much from her about how to handle it. She was also one of the first people in my circle to have cancer, and I guess, to leave those children so young. As I grieved her, I just determined that I would take something from this loss; that I would help people the way that MS_Tylee had helped me.

I totally got it — long before there was Community Building software — about the Internet’s power to pluck just the right help, seemingly out of the air.

I also got that small gestures — things that don’t take much time or money — can make a humongous difference to a person who needs them. Offering to fold laundry or cook a meal. Or just taking a moment to call, even when you’re scared of what you might hear.

I learned to do what I could: sometimes it would be a lot, other times it would be small.

But it would be something. Because with cancer — or AIDS, or a sudden death, or a disaster — there are, often, no mulligans. No road back if you regret your inaction.

It’s what you can live with, you’ll pardon the expression. Or not.

A few years later, a friend and children’s author was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer – with no health insurance. She fought hard, and eventually lost — but not before she and her family saw tremendous love and support, quite a bit from people they’d never met.

I bring this up because I have read and heard lately, several clarion calls – some, like Jeremy Pepper’s, really eloquent — for Social Media to quit its navel-gazing, its fascination with hearing itself talk, and actually do something besides vid-cast itself on Qik for a change.

See, it is pointed out, what you could do in the service of good — you with your thousands of followers; or you, who has made millions talking about the Web’s ability to connect. Or you — take a break from your videocast to shill for someone who needs help.

So true. But I’m not waiting for the Social Media stars or anyone else to make huge gestures – though it would be nice.

Instead we could do what the Web has always done best: a bunch of small gestures that people can live with.

The Web makes it easy for us to be outward, to have those moments when we shine outside of ourselves and afford someone else the benefit of grace — whether it’s of not feeling alone, or sending the equivalent of an overpriced cup of coffee via PayPal –because we can. Because both literally and figuratively, it adds up to more than it could possibly mean to us to put that actual cup of coffee in a cupholder and drive somewhere.

It’s your call. Maybe you click away from this page, shudder and never come back. Or maybe you click through to a link — read a story, send a good wish or small contribution, or put someone’s story up on your blog.

Or maybe you do nothing to help the people here, but instead take a minute to call someone who would just appreciate being remembered.

That’s all I’m sayin’. Just find the courage. Or the compassion. But it doesn’t have to be huge.

For me, I do this for Sabine. For my mother. For MS_Tylee. For all the many people we have lost to cancer and other illnesses, and for those who are still fighting. For Marc Orchant. For my friend Steve Koloskus (and believe me, he is a whole ‘nother story, and merits his own post sometime). For anyone who’s ever shown me kindness when they didn’t have to, through the Internet or otherwise.

Everyone has someone whom they know, in whose memory they are their best selves — cancer or no cancer.

And I will create a separate page to link to people who are waging these battles. You can decide whether to help. I’m starting with Lisa and Tricia.  And, though it’s not about cancer — eMOM.

The Internet was about connection long before it was about Friends lists. Or maybe I should say it was about Friends before it was about lists.

But either way, it was always about 1s and 0s adding up to something much bigger.


Filed under Media Relations, Tech and hype, Uncategorized, Web 2.0

OMG It’s TGI(3G)F — or, The iPhone 3G/Life of Brian Mashup

John Dvorak, the irascible critic/reviewer, once said that when his click counts were getting a little low, he needed only to say something critical of Apple — and watch the clicks add up. Because, well, they defend their kingdom fiercely. And it’s such an in club — if you join, man, you’re in. But if you’re out? Well, let’s just say you could get blamed for a lot of things.

As it happens, I worked on a Mac for years and loved it. But when I left the nominally more creative side of my business, I left the Mac as well and switched back to PC-dom.

Perhaps it wasn’t as elegant or fun. Then again, the world didn’t end when I switched.

So it was with some bemusement that I watched the grownup equivalent of “OMG! The iPhone3G!!!!” frenzy this (now past) week.  Even though the reviews were mostly positive, a few pointed out that amidst its “functionality and beauty” there were still some glitches and hidden costs. But no fear, the data points are ready, any criticisms (however mild) can be argued with zeal.

Don’t get me wrong. The iPhone 3G is way cool, and in general Apple products are elegant, thoughtful, well-marketed, and smart. But watching the frenzy … the lines… the “Countdowns” over the iPhone 3G kept reminding me of the scene in Life of Brian where the hero, Brian, mistaken for the Savior, has accidentally lost one of his shoes. His followers have fervently taken off one of their shoes “so we can be like YOU, Master!”

The willingness to proclaim everything Brian does or mentions as “a miracle!” is very Apple-esque (or -esque of nearly anything in tech where the hype just gets breathless. Google. Web services, once upon a time. Heaven forbid, blade servers. Chips.) As for the declaiming around him that “only the true messiah would deny his divinity” — well, I’m not sayin’ it reminds me of the fans of the guy in the black turtleneck. But hang out on certain discussion boards for a while and connect your own dots.

As Allen Stern of CenterNetworks (a great Web 2.0 news and analysis blog, by the way) said on Twitter: “Anybody want to get 100 people to line up outside of the Sprint Store, just for the hell of it?”

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Filed under Tech and hype, Technology and PR, Uncategorized