The followers game

Western Bluebirds by Julio Mulero. Creative Commons license.

“How to get more followers fast!” is the 21st Century equivalent of “How to make money in real estate with no money down.”  In social media, we measure success not by dollars earned, but by reach – by the size of our audience.  Given that the vast majority of those who use social media are looking for bigger numbers, it’s unsurprising that the vultures would swoop in and begin releasing endless volumes of “how-to” schemes.  Though widespread, the advice is more or less the same – use some variety of app to follow large numbers, unfollow people who don’t follow you back, rinse and repeat.  Presto, tens of thousands of strangers hanging on your every word, a massive untapped market ready to lap up whatever variation of widget you want to push on them.

Or is it?

What these “get followers fast” folks won’t tell you is how many of these new people are truly engaged with you – if they care about what you have to say, or if they just followed you because they have a similar app building a following for them.  I’ve posted before about what I look for in people I choose to follow, and when I see someone new following me who has almost identical following/follower numbers, my red flag is raised (especially if their feed is nothing but requests/pleas/desperate cries to buy their book).  Often I won’t follow back, and a few days later I will react with not a shred of surprise when that person disappears from my followers list.  Sayonara, nice to know ya, sorta.  The question I would ask is, what is ultimately more worthwhile:  100 engaged Twitter friends or 100,000 “followers” who never retweet you, never click on your links and never reply to anything you put out there?  100 people who like and care about you or 100,000 who consider you nothing more than a digit?

By any measure advanced by every social media “guru” or “ninja” (aside, isn’t being a ninja antithetical to the concept of social media?  I mean, you want people to know you’re there, right?), my Twitter presence is a failure.  I have been on Twitter for over two years and I have just over 400 followers.  Not exactly Lady Gaga numbers (she probably garners that many every twenty minutes).  Yeah, we love the electric charge we feel when we open it up one morning and see an uptick, and we loathe the disappointment of watching the counter tick down.  I can point to three incidences when I’ve seen a surge in new people coming on board – two of them involve being retweeted by famous people (Justin Trudeau and Russell Crowe respectively), while the third was tied to a Huffington Post article of mine about airline travel that was featured as a headline.  Other than that, it stays pretty steady.  One wonders from time to time if there’s something one is doing or not doing that is keeping the digits immobile.  Am I not funny/irreverent/profound/snarky enough?  What do I have to do to mimic the example of Megan Amram who started from nothing and parlayed a massive Twitter following into a professional TV writing career?

The truth is, nothing.  You can’t be anyone but who you are, as people will be able to smell phoniness ten miles away.  And pretending to be something you’re not is exhausting.  It will suck you dry, because you’ll be forcing yourself to live up to an unnatural standard, and you’ll begin resenting having to fake it day in and day out.  Twitter shouldn’t be a duty, it should be entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun.  Because Twitter has no societal strata barring entry, you can jump right in and chat with whomever you please (of course, customary manners still apply, or you’ll find yourself on a lot of “blocked” lists really darn fast).  Thus you get a chance to befriend and talk with people you might otherwise never meet.  I look back on my Twitter experience and I think of some of the amazing, generous people I’ve encountered, some of the stimulating conversations I’ve had, some of the fantastic writing I’ve discovered, and above all, the quality, not the quantity, of these interactions.  The enrichment of one’s life through being able to communicate with kindred spirits far and wide.  That is Twitter to me, not a race to ratchet up a follower count.

I cringe every time I see one of these automatic updates about someone’s day on Twitter that consist of nothing other than an accounting of their new followers and unfollowers (in the past, I have unfollowed otherwise interesting people who’ve overdone it with these waste-of-Tweets).  It’s plain old boasting, and the height of narcissism to assume that anyone else cares about your self-applied sense of awesomeness.  What I would consider to be a successful day on Twitter consists of more intangible statistics.  If I’ve made someone laugh, if I’ve moved someone to tears, if I’ve helped someone to think differently about a difficult situation, if I’ve provided a little bit of inspiration, or I’ve motivated someone to make a positive change in their life, that means more than numbers ever will.  So the gurus will cluck their tongues, the ninjas will fling throwing stars at me and tell me I’m Doing It Wrong, but truly, just as everyone is meant to find and follow their own path in life, so too is everyone’s social media experience whatever they choose to make of it.  Mine works for me.  How’s yours going?

Twitter bios: Who are you, really?

@MobyDick.  Whale.  Love eating krill and plankton.  Not fond of one-legged captains.  #GetOverItAhab
@MobyDick. Whale. Love eating krill and plankton. Not fond of one-legged captains. #GetOverItAhab

On Twitter, we are what we say.  We have the opportunity to craft a complete online identity through what we talk about, who we talk with and what we share.  I have met some amazing people through Twitter and had some engaging, thought-provoking and downright hilarious conversations, with folks I might otherwise be terrified to approach were I to see them out on the street (Russell Crowe, looking in your direction, mate).

Disappointing on occasion though are the Twitter bios people write for themselves.  A mere 160 characters to sit on your Twitter account permanently and try to encapsulate who you are and why people should be interested in you.  Folks who are using Twitter strictly as a marketing tool are the worst, describing themselves as flatly and as soullessly as the plastic widgets they’re attempting to push on you.  And some traits are dropped in so commonly and so lazily as to lose all meaning – “coffee drinker,” for example, which is about as distinguishing as saying you’re an “oxygen breather.”

I’m also puzzled as to why some Tweeps waste characters with “Tweets are my own,” “Retweets are not endorsements” and “I follow back!”  I understand that if you want to mouth off about how badly last night’s Stanley Cup playoff game went, you don’t want anyone to possibly infer that your profane criticism of the refereeing reflects the official views and positions of the ABC Company.  I think most people are smart enough to understand that although we all work, we all have private lives as well.  My Twitter life is entirely disengaged from my work life, even though there are people I work with who follow me (and I follow them).  But I don’t talk about work.  EVER.  I don’t say where I work and I don’t bitch about work.  Look, I’m at work all day, every day, and I have enough of it on my mind without it spilling into my social media life too.  Saying “Tweets are my own” is just dumb though.  Of course they’re your own.  They’re not Phil’s, and they’re not Uncle Frank’s, and people get that.

“Retweets are not endorsements” is another one that to me, is a waste of space.  I mean, I suppose there’s the fear that you might retweet somebody’s joke about airline travel only to find out a few weeks later that he once got arrested for masturbating in a park, and suddenly you’re a supporter of public self-pleasure by association or some such nonsense.  Look, I can think Braveheart is a great movie and no one would ever accuse me of sympathizing with some of the reprehensible views that Mel Gibson has espoused publicly.  When you retweet something, it’s because you thought that particular statement was worth sharing again.  You’re not suddenly a staunch enthusiast of everything that person has ever said.  I think this is one we just need to agree on collectively and then, just as collectively, remove it from every single Twitter bio on earth.

Finally, announcing “I follow back” or using the hashtag #TeamFollowBack is, as Ricky Gervais has said, a little bit sad.  It pretty much guarantees that people will only follow you to bump up their own numbers, and not because they are truly interested in hearing what you have to say.  I know I’m going against the advice of every single Internet marketing specialist here, but I think of Twitter as what the cable companies will never offer:  an opportunity to pick your own channels, a la carte, without having to pay for or suffer through programs you don’t want.  You can very easily build up a massive following by just following everyone you can and unfollowing those who don’t follow back, but what does that get you in the end?  An awful lot of noise.  I follow people who will add value to my day, and that’s my sole criterion.

So, what should you put in your Twitter bio?  Well, I’m not saying mine is the epitome of awesome, but I think it’s pretty good, and here’s why.  When you click on my profile, this is what you’ll see:

Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster, Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile, happy liberal, lover of martinis, women and song, preferably all at once.

1. Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster:  Chuck Wendig has a great line about how you’re either a writer or you aren’t, the word “aspiring” sucks, and that you shouldn’t differentiate just because you may not necessarily get paid for your words.  Right now, I don’t make money for anything I write.  I hope that will change soon, but it doesn’t stop me from writing.  Ergo, I am a writer.  I say “novelist-in-waiting” because I do have one finished novel, but to me, “novelist” suggests that you have more than one.  I don’t yet.  When I do, the “in-waiting” will fall off.  And again, just because I haven’t published it and no one’s paid to read it doesn’t mean a thing.  It’s a novel, I wrote it, it exists.  Finally, I should think it’s fairly obvious why “HuffPoster” is there.  23 articles and counting, so yeah, that one I can back up with solid evidence and the hateful comments that go with it.

2. Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile:  A small sampling of my popular culture interests.  I have been enamored with all things English since probably the first time I heard someone speak in an English accent, which, given the second item in the list, was probably in watching a James Bond movie.  It also covers Monty Python, the Beatles and the majority of my taste in music, movies, books, the lot.  And I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan because his writing helped me find my own writing voice.  (Which reminds me, I must get to that in another post sometime as I believe I did promise it a while back.)

3. Happy liberal:  I don’t talk about politics on Twitter (or here) as much as I used to because the anger and hate that it stirs up on occasion (read: constantly) is becoming a bit stomach-churning in my old age.  But in a way, this is a shorthand message to politically inclined folks who might like to follow me that this is where I start from.  If you’re a worshipper of all things Ronald Reagan, free market libertarianism and neo-conservative warmongering, I don’t think you’ll find me very interesting; in fact, I may make your blood boil.  I certainly won’t be seeking you out so I can crap all over your home feed with bleeding heart, namby-pamby communism.  Let’s just agree to disagree and leave each other alone then.  On the other hand, if you think we should base decisions on science, ensure that the rich pay their fair share, stop paving planet Earth indiscriminately and live in a society where we look after each other and help boost each other up, if you believe that government can be a force for good when the best people are involved in it, if you believe that a small group of committed citizens can change the world because it’s the only thing that ever has, then sign on up, glad to have you, I might even follow back.

4. Lover of martinis, women and song:  Yes, I do love me a martini.  All kinds – dry, fruity, decorated with chocolate shavings or plastic parasols, doesn’t matter.  It’s a drink of sophistication that makes a man feel comfortable in a jacket and tie – a throwback to the era when class and erudition was the real swag.  I’m old-fashioned that way, I suppose, but in a time when being a man seems to be a race to the bottom of a beer and nacho-cheese soaked barrel, I’m proud to be an anachronism.  A lover of women?  Yes, dear goddess yes, in all facets.  Not a day goes by where I don’t ponder a particular woman or women in general with awe and admiration.  I love them for their indomitable strength, their ability to take every setback life throws at them because of their gender and say, “is that all you’ve got, little man?”  I love their minds, I love their senses of humor, I love their ability to see right through us, to strip away our phoniness and our pretend selves and force us to figure out who we really are.  I love the music in their laughter, the poetry in their tears.  I love their connection with who they are and the world they live in.  I love the scent of their hair, the softness of their skin, the tone of their legs, the elegance of their hands.  I love that I’m married to the most incredible woman on the planet, that I’m the brother of the second most incredible woman on the planet and that I’m privileged to know so many of their sisters.  And I love to celebrate women in the words I write – which, I suppose, is the meaning of the “song” here.

5. Preferably all at once:  Because a perfect evening is listening to my wife croon Ella Fitzgerald while I sip a Vesper.

There you have it – not saying that it’s perfect or that it won’t ever change.  But if you want to get to know me, it’s a good place to start.  Then you have to let my words do the rest.

Putting it out there then:  How do you describe yourself on Twitter?

Fishing for the little pellets of love

water

Some depressing Graham’s Crackers statistics to start off with.  Total posts, March 2012:  26.  Total posts, March 2013:  2 (including this one, 3 if you include the piece I did for HuffPo about International Women’s Day).  And the frogurt is also cursed.

Yes, I know, oh mighty gurus of blog, you’re not supposed to post about how you haven’t posted in a while.  But this is my sandbox and my rules and prithee, I shall beg indulgence while I raise a kerchief to my brow and lament in plaintive tone the lack of productivity shown these past fortnights.  It isn’t as though there’s nothing to write about, after all.  Nay, verily, my literary cup runneth somewhat over.  I do admire though, those who can juggle the heavy spheres of work and family and simply keeping up with the pace of life and still churn out a few thousand words each day.  Something one should aspire to as well, if one were not such a piss poor scheduler of one’s time (guilty, Your Honors).

To that end I am raising a metaphorical glass to my friend Tele Aadsen of Hooked for her much-deserved accomplishment of landing a publisher for her memoir.  Now, Tele and I have never met or spoken to one another and our interaction has been entirely in reading each other’s writing and exchanging comments and tweets.  But ours, I think, is a kinship of letters, of recognizing and appreciating the power of the written word and how we can use it to connect across otherwise impassable chasms of time and distance.  Would I, a dude of a somewhat insular urban upbringing in the Greater Toronto Area, have ever assumed that I would have the slightest thing in common with an Alaskan fisher poet?  Yet I do, and I’m grateful, and my life is the better for it.  Anyway, there was a Twitter hashtag that was trending a few days about people you’d most like to meet, and predictably, the most common answers were celebrity names (Bieber again?  REALLY?)  Tele’s at the top of my list.  Someday soon, I hope – that is, if I haven’t now come off sounding like Creepy Stalker Guy™.  If for nothing else than just the chance to say thank you.  And get a personalized, autographed copy.  It’s not for me, it’s for my friend of the same name.

Onwards and upwards then.  Amongst my pursuits I am occasionally fortunate enough to attend digital media conferences.  Toronto held its second annual Digital Media Summit last week, gathering a roster of experts and thought leaders from across the industry of ye olde cyberspace – names like Don Tapscott, Erik Qualman, Cindy Gallop, Amber Mac and Neil Shankman among dozens of other luminaries delivering informative addresses to hundreds of lanyard-wearing, smartphone-tapping digital worker bees.  I was there on behalf of my employer, of course, but I still view things through the filter of writing and how what they were all saying could be used to further a writer’s reach (who are we kidding – my reach) in this rapidly advancing age.  You know, sometimes one can get a bit cynical as one carefully strings his words together and hits “publish” and… nothing much happens.  Admit it; on the surface, we’re all happy for the blogger who rejoices “I got Freshly Pressed on my very first post!” while inside we seethe that our own 189 pearls of literate wisdom usually go unnoticed by all but a select (if wonderful) few.  If you can take your ego out of the equation, it’s not difficult to understand.  Time is precious, an individual’s time is even more precious, and in order for them to grant you even a few seconds of theirs in between bathing the dog and walking the baby, you have to touch them with something that inspires real passion.  There was an interesting statistic revealed at DMS that on Facebook, even posts by the most famous, highly-liked brands only reach about 15% of their followers.  (That’s why, even though in between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, G+ or whatever else you’re linking your blog posts to you may have a thousand connections, hits on your latest and greatest might not top a hundred.  At least, that’s how it works for me.)  And just because you get them, it doesn’t mean you’ll keep them.  I’ve received a couple of (relatively) huge traffic spikes that have come from famous people tweeting links to my blog.  But they don’t last – after a few days the hits drop to their usual, more stable level.  Maybe you retain one or two, but the vast majority treat you like a cheap motel along I-75, moving on once the new day has dawned and the open road beckons.  And that’s cool.  I mean, how many blogs have I looked at once because they posted something I wanted to learn more about only to forget about them thirty seconds after hitting the red X?  It’s life, and if you want to be loved, adopt a golden retriever.

Those moments when you do tap into something and really connect with people, well, I suspect there are few varieties of crack cocaine that can measure to the high.  Someone at the DMS called them “little pellets of love”; you know, the tiny charge that you get when you open your Facebook and see the little red number in your notification section.  “People are interested in me!  Yay!”  Same goes on Twitter when we get a retweet, or a new follow, or a reply from a celebrity we really admire, or on WordPress when we get the notification that somebody liked, commented or shared our work.  When one finally does cross that fabled Rubicon from giving it away for free to receiving the first cheque for something we penned, does that vindication truly compare to the spiritual fulfillment of knowing that someone, even a stranger, really digs us?  I suppose in those cases by contrast when we’ve written something that really pisses people off, the money compensates for the death threats.

What then, is the lesson for today?  It’s karma, sports fans.  Ya gotta put it out to get it back.  And as my learned better half is wont to tell me when I sink into the occasional bout of self-pity, you need to write to touch people, not to prove how smart you are about things no one cares about.  You’ll see, I’m sure, when Hooked is released, how Tele does it.  Hopefully as I continue along here I’ll get better at it.  And we’ll see where the ocean takes us.

Don’t “Like” this post

Marvin Hamlisch, one of the most successful and most honored composers of our time, passed away unexpectedly yesterday.  My better half posted a lovely tribute for him in her Facebook status update, acknowledging his decades-long career and some of the amazing songs he had a hand in creating, like “Nobody Does it Better,” arguably the best James Bond theme song ever recorded.  Hamlisch was Barbra Streisand’s go-to music guy and had a reputation as one of the most creative and nicest people in the industry, writing hundreds of tunes that have gotten stuck in your head at one point in your life or another – and I’m eulogizing him by clicking a little thumbs-up icon.  The Facebook Like is one of the most dehumanizing tools in social media:  wildly misleading, grossly inaccurate and ultimately, utterly useless.  The contradiction nags at me; by clicking Like am I saying that I’m happy that Marvin Hamlisch is dead?  When someone posts a status update about some horrible situation unfolding on the other side of the world, is me Liking it announcing I’m positively chuffed silly that people I don’t know are being oppressed and murdered?  Siskel and Ebert pretty well defined for all time the meaning of the thumbs up versus the thumbs down, and I can’t believe that saying I like something is anything less than a full endorsement of it (which is why I tend to be very reserved in doling out my Likes).  I can understand why Facebook doesn’t include a “thumbs down” or a “Dislike” button; such functions would only be opening up avenues to trolls.  But I suspect that the original intention of the Like has been corrupted leagues from its original purpose – to demonstrate acknowledgement and interest.  (Of course, an “I Acknowledge and Express Interest In This” button would be a bit unwieldy.)

Facebook users can get carried away with the idea of Likes.  Status updates are often posted as little more than Like Bait (I’m copyrighting that term if no one else has already), with shameless emotional bromides such as “Like if you wish cancer never existed.”  As someone who lost his mother to cancer I find these more than a bit pedantic and insulting, particularly since my click will do less than nothing to contribute to the cause of ending of cancer as a life-threatening illness – it certainly won’t bring my mother back.  “It’s about awareness,” comes the rejoinder.  First of all, I’m pretty sure that apart from those unfortunate souls so disadvantaged they do not possess the mental faculties required for basic comprehension, most people on the planet know what cancer is and why it is bad.  Rich, poor, cancer doesn’t discriminate.  It’s an evil f***ing disease and because there is more money in giving men erections we have fifteen different varieties of hard-on pills and we’re still decades away from a workable cancer cure.  The only thing clicking on these sad pictures will accomplish is rack up meaningless numbers on a Facebook server and give the person who posted it in the first place a transitory feeling of accomplishment.  People will still die from cancer every day.  Worse in the category of Like Bait© are those pushy status updates which not only play to your sympathies but then brazenly challenge readers to copy and repost them, sneering through the screen with remarks like “I know 90% of you won’t repost this, but I know the ones who aren’t selfish, uncaring, contemptible slime-sucking chunks of weasel vomit will.”  Which makes me wish Facebook had a “Drop Dead You Condescending Prat And Don’t Tell Me What I Should And Shouldn’t Post” button.

What is most ironic about “clicktivism,” as it is called, is that any social media expert worth their weight in pixels will tell you that Likes are meaningless.  Marketers, who as Gary Vaynerchuk reminds us eventually ruin everything, have conspired diabolically to pervert Likes into a bludgeon to try and sell you stuff.  It comes in so innocent a form:  “Like our page to help save kittens!  Once we get 6000 Likes everybody gets a popsicle!”  Your reward for Liking that one ad that made you chuckle last Thursday, of course, is to have your news feed clogged from now until the apocalypse with special offers for every crappy piece of kitsch that company’s marketing guys feel inclined to spam you with.  The majority are no different than the jerks who sold your home phone number from the application you don’t remember filling out to the window & door replacement and duct cleaning services who consider it good business practice to bombard you during dinner, and we know how much we love those folks.  Regardless, believing that a high number of Likes means you’re winning in the social media stream would be like a stand-up comedian thinking that as long as every seat in his audience is filled, he doesn’t actually have to say anything to them.  Likes are a snapshot of a fragment of time when for a moment you captured someone else’s fleeting notice.

Methinks therein lies the rub of the Like.  It is fleeting.  It’s saying “I don’t have time to contribute anything worthwhile to the discussion, but I don’t want to seem rude by not saying anything at all.”  For all the capacity of social networks like Facebook to present increased opportunities for human connection, our lazy first world brains have still found a way to spare it the barest minimum of our attention.  When someone wrote you a letter back in the day, the only way to let them know you’d received it was to write back – imagine the impropriety of returning the letter to sender with “LIKE” scrawled across the envelope.  No doubt the people of that era felt as busy and stressed out as anyone does today (everything is relative after all), but they made the time to respond.  It was the human touch, and a factor that is utterly beyond the capacity of the Like button.  When our friends take the time to upload photos of their family, their latest vacation, their amazing cake creations or a simple piece of wisdom that they want to share, clicking Like is quite literally the least anyone can do in response.  With this amazing tool at our disposal, it seems a colossal waste of resources.

I know 90% of you won’t agree with me, but… forget it, I’m not going down that road.  Like, don’t like, it’s entirely up to you.  Just pause to think about what you are actually saying when you click that little thumb – and wonder if there’s a way you could say it better.

The importance of being human: Social Mix 2012

Canadian Internet media company Jugnoo (Sanskrit for “firefly,” or light from within) hosted Social Mix at Toronto’s Royal York hotel yesterday, gathering social media notables such as Amber Mac and Gary Vaynerchuk to impart their observations on how things are evolving in cyberspace circa end of July 2012.  One of the best-received speakers was someone who at first glance wouldn’t appear to be a go-to social media guru:  Sgt. Tim Burrows of the Toronto Police Service.  While the talks of the other speakers and panellists focused largely on how to approach social media from the perspective of private business establishing a digital image for itself, Burrows’ challenge was somewhat unique – using social media to attempt to manage the image of an institution that from day one has been defined almost exclusively by others.  In the West, our perceptions of the police have evolved, as Burrows’ presentation illustrated, from the idyllic image of Officer Friendly sharing a soda with a wide-eyed kid at the malt shop, through the steroid, napalm and inexhaustible ammunition-fueled antics of Dirty Harry and his cinematic descendants, to what was singled out as the worst offender in terms of creating unrealistic expectations, TV “reality” shows like Cops and procedurals like CSI.  In his role with TPS, Burrows confronts attitudes forged by hyped-up media reports, Public Enemy songs and overactive imaginations and tries to reassure the community that behind the often contradictory mythology that has grown up around the blue is a group of human beings trying to do their jobs – human beings as prone to failure as the rest of us but expected at all times to be unflappable paragons of virtue – and looking to change the conversation to that level.  It’s an important lesson for any public body looking to take the plunge into the digital space, particularly as the cost of ignoring that space means that it will be filled with exactly what you don’t want out there influencing people’s opinions of you.

Simon Sinek talks about how companies like Apple, even in the era that preceded the digital media wave we are riding now, crafted their brand loyalty not through the selling of a product, but the sharing of ideas and values that could be identified with by the consumer regardless of what product was being offered – why they do what they do.  In his keynote, Gary Vaynerchuk expanded on this to boil success in social media down to a single concept – storytelling.  In one of his many insightful anecdotes, Vaynerchuk described how every first-time customer of his wine business always received a personal follow-up thank you call.  Frequently, he observed, the customer on the other end of the phone would wait awkwardly for the other shoe to drop – for an expected additional sales pitch, which never came.  It was a money-loser and literally nothing more than a personal touch, with no sneaky attempt to generate revenue or leads or any other marketing shenanigans (as an aside, Vaynerchuk remarks with resignation that ultimately marketers ruin everything, as they will eventually ruin social media).  For Vaynerchuk, the idea was to hearken back to the story of the old country general store where the clerk knew your name and could fill your order before you walked in – in essence, crafting a more human experience.  It’s remarkable, although not totally surprising, that as the volume of information flow expands exponentially with each nanosecond and our attention span becomes more and more fractured, we crave that connection even more.  Why else do we post pictures of our children on Facebook and share details of where we go and what we’re doing at every opportunity?  Because it makes us feel human.  And there is nothing so uniquely human as the story.  Nothing else can move, engage or inspire us in quite the same way.  In an era where almost everything is available by download, people still go out to the movies to share the experience of the story in the company of their peers.  Sgt. Burrows is attempting to craft a story for the Toronto Police that establishes them as partners in peace, rather than jack-booted, fear-inducing authority figures; in other words, humanizing them.

What then, is the lesson for public entities looking to create a strong digital profile?  The irony for organizations such as governments is that in a democracy people tend to treat their government like they do their appendix – ignore it unless it’s acting up.  Using social media simply as an additional channel for press releases and official statements is certainly doomed to failure.  The key question is how to create a story – and as any professional storyteller will advise, a great story starts with great characters, that is, the human beings at its heart.  Public servants, like the police, have long been the collective whipping boy for everything that is wrong with government – the archetype of Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister, striving constantly to maintain the status quo and do as little as possible while reaping tax-funded pensions and keeping the people they ostensibly serve baffled by the process.  (The news of former prime ministerial advisor Bruce Carson’s arrest for influence peddling today doesn’t help.)  There is still, however, plenty of opportunity to try to start rewriting that narrative, emphasizing the responsibility and indeed the nobility of service.  Government is uniquely positioned beyond any brand to be able to use social media to help craft a sense of community; for all the ballyhoo that private corporations do everything better, one is hard-pressed to find examples of corporations uniting neighbourhoods and instilling a sense of civic pride in the people who walk those streets. If government can become more personable, if it is able to let its humanity shine through, then the compelling story will write itself.  People will become engaged in their government as everyday partners, not once-in-a-blue-moon voters, because they will care about where the story is going – and want to write themselves in as part of it.  The ROI isn’t clicks and shares, but something far more precious:  a healthier democracy and ultimately a more human place to live.

Putting your best click forward

The quote kind of says it all, doesn’t it?  There are days when the sheer mass of dumb zipping gap-mouthed through cyberspace makes one long for the days when the reach of a person’s stupidity could be contained to his immediate family and circle of friends (or, if he was a politician, to his discouraged constituency).  For a sobering majority, Internet access has emboldened us to act like the digital equivalent of a chimpanzee flinging his diaper against the wall.  I suppose certain individuals can be so incredibly lonely and frustrated that negative attention can provide a temporary relief from the emptiness – that someone acknowledged their existence, even if it was solely with four-letter words.  Trying to picture oneself in that position, one tends to wonder why it wouldn’t be more productive and ultimately satisfying to seek positive reinforcement?  Wiccans believe in the principle that whatever you put out into the world you get back threefold – accepting that as a starting point, does the aforementioned chimpanzee relish the prospect of three times the volume of excrement flying back at him?

It’s been observed that in the 21st Century we are all living two lives:  our “real” life and our digital one.  Employers are keen to evaluate the online activity of potential hires as an equal measure of a person’s character (if a promising, experienced and brilliantly-credentialed candidate interviews well but spends his nights harassing celebrities on Twitter, is that someone you want as a representative of your company?)  I don’t see the distinction in how we should act in one or the other.  We are both – why do we want to be a jackass in one of them?  The digital life gives you the chance to create a strong identity for yourself, particularly since we are all much wittier when we have the chance to think about what we’re typing before we post it.  The digital life must be lived consciously, and as a result lets you simply be, free of the hesitations, embarrassments, second-guessing and split-second gaffes that can accompany real-life interactions.  You can be clearer, more erudite, more thoughtful and more engaging.  You have a clean slate, especially when you choose to be anonymous.  My blogging friend East Bay Writer doesn’t post her name or any details of who she is, and tales of her workplace are related with clever pseudonyms.  You’d think that without the burden of identity, she has license to be as brutally snarky as she wants, cutting enemies down left and right and railing against the world with little fear of consequence.  But she doesn’t.  She still crafts a thoughtful, engaging and positive persona, and readers respond to this positivity in kind.  Blogging pals Tele, Samir, Pat and Evan use their real names like I do but still, like EBW, remain true to the goal of creating a positive online identity.  Contrast this approach to that of any number of anonymous Internet trolls who opt for the darker path and then think about who you’d rather spend time with – I guarantee it won’t take longer than a second to decide.

Our society has come to measure success in decibels, resulting in a level of discourse that makes Beavis and Butt-head look like Rhodes scholars in comparison.  The example being set by many of those in the spotlight is that you need not be correct, learned or even particularly interesting, so long as you can yell insults at just the right moment.  Naturally, people who don’t have nationally syndicated television shows want a piece of this action too, even if it’s as “trollguy69” on an obscure message board devoted to the third season of Stargate: Atlantis.  The trouble is, a flurry of “LOL” responses are the most fleeting of acclaim, forgotten the instant they are posted, and certainly not anything you can build on.  Ideas resonate and linger; background noise is just that.  Given the option I’d rather try to put something out there that raises the bar, even if it’s to a limited audience, and even if I’m occasionally just wrong.  If people are going to hate my guts for what I have to say, I’d rather they hate me for a reasonable point I articulated with intelligence instead of being able to dismiss me because my grammar was all over the map or I mistook a basic fact of existence (otherwise known as the “OMG Lord of the Rings is a total rip-off of Harry Potter!!!” fail).

The world simply would not function if the level of idiocy represented in the digital space was an accurate measure of the intellectual capacity of our entire species.  Somehow the trains still manage to run on time and people still live healthy, productive lives.  The only conclusion one can draw is that what we see online is certain people acting out of character, indulging their id for some unfathomable sense of gratification.  What is somewhat reassuring is that in the grand scheme the Internet is still a technological baby, and accordingly, we tend to act like babies on it.  Eventually what amused us as babies is embarrassing to us as teens and positively unthinkable as adults.  We will grow, and graduate, and get better at using it to advance our collective humanity.  Isn’t it preferable to be one of the ones leading the way?  Nothing to LMAO about that.

What’s the matter with Belarus?

Greenland is still not that big.

Like many of my fellow WordPressians, I find the country view statistics page fascinating.  It’s a bit surreal to see how wide your “reach” truly is (and a good reminder to not put anything on the web that you wouldn’t be comfortable carving in cement on your front doorstep).  Again, I’m not under any illusion that a lot of these hits are anything but accidental, as search engine terms meet in the conflux of wilderness that is the Internet.  But like any good geek, I’m a completist, and there’s an indescribably giddy sensation that results whenever I check this map and see a new country colored in.  The sad reality of the world, however, means that barring radical change, none of us will likely ever be able to complete the set.

Glaring exceptions like the over 1 billion people locked behind the Great Firewall of China continue to stand out. North Korea, where despots would rather build useless rockets than let their people watch cats dance on YouTube.  Closed internet systems like the ones operating in Cuba and Burma. Iran’s Supreme Council of Virtual Space (ironic given that there are, according to Wikipedia, over 700,000 Iranian blogs.)  The big annoying exception there in Eastern Europe, Belarus, where no website is allowed in country unless it has registered with their Ministry of Information first (can’t believe I forgot to send the form in again!)  Afghanistan, or huge portions of Africa that are too poor to feed themselves or too consumed by tribal hatred to live in peace, let alone gain anything as First World-privileged as regular web access, are a reminder that this freedom that I and millions like me have to share our words is so very precious, and so terrifyingly fleeting – we need to guard it with our lives and celebrate it at every opportunity.  And not only that, we owe it to the rest of humanity that what we are sharing is something worthwhile – worth whatever amount of time we’ve so humbly asked for your attention.  Squandering a post on a mindless, misspelled profanity-laced rant about some band you’ve never liked is not only a waste of your own intellect and time, but it’s a virtual slap in the face to millions of people who would love to be able to read what’s out there and can’t because of poverty, oppression or a hundred other reasons that would never even occur to us.  We owe it to them to always try to raise our game, to elevate the conversation and push things forward.

There is nothing as singularly powerful or resilient in the universe as an idea, and those ideas can spring from the humblest beginnings; an idle thought on a spring morning can one day come to change the world.  On a blog, we don’t have to answer to an editor or fit a predetermined viewpoint based on an advertiser’s demands.  We are ideas in their purest form, and participants in a grand tradition dating back to the first time one homo habilis showed another how to use a bone to smash open a piece of fruit (or, depending on your beliefs, to when Eve suggested to Adam that he take a bite of that fruit).  So let’s make our ideas good ones.

Rob Ford and political chicken

I’m no fan of Rob Ford.  I find him to be a regressive, rude, bullying, half-witted right-wing douchebag I wouldn’t trust to have my back in a bar fight, let alone as the mayor of one of the most progressive cities in the world.  Yet this uproar over his recent purchase of some fried chicken at a local KFC, dutifully recorded and uploaded to the Internet for the digital world’s derision, is a step too far.  I recall a conversation with a guy I used to work with, when we were talking about Ford and I was relating my less than favourable opinion of him.  This fellow said to me, “I appreciate that you don’t ever talk about his weight.”  My response was, why should I?  He could be a 98-pound beanpole and still advance policies that make my stomach turn.  Ford’s physical condition has absolutely nothing to do with how he conducts himself or how he performs as a public official, which are the only things we should be judging him on.

The counter-argument is that Ford made his weight an issue ripe for public scrutiny by politicizing his “Cut the Waist” challenge.  Contrast this with the response to Vic Toews and his infamous “child pornographers” comment.  There were two major initiatives on Twitter:  the @vikileaks feed, which posted publicly available records of Toews’ divorce, and the spontaneous #TellVicEverything campaign, in which users overwhelmed Toews’ Twitter feed with the mundane details of their lives – what they ate for breakfast, what was playing on their iPod, how many pigeons there were in the park and so on.  The former was disgraceful, because it made political hay of Toews’ family problems.  The latter was hysterically funny, because it mocked Toews’ boneheaded political stance.  It made the policy a laughingstock, without belittling the man’s private life.  That’s what the other guys do.

Imagine if Rob Ford were a liberal titan, boldly advancing green initiatives and progressive social policies and vowing to make Toronto car-free and overgrown with trees by 2020 – would we on the left side of the spectrum be so inclined to laugh about a lapse in his diet?  Anyone who’s ever dieted knows how hard it is, how bad the cravings can get, even when you’re not under the 24-hour stress of leading a city of millions.  We’ve all had our weak moments where we reach for the ice cream.  That’s not a criticism of Rob Ford; if nothing else, it humanizes the guy a little, and reminds you that under all the bloviating and bluster there is in fact a very vulnerable soul.  Which I would still never vote for.

The past few elections in Canada, and the upcoming American presidential contest, have brought to the forefront of the public consciousness a hideous scorched earth form of political campaign where nothing is off limits.  Effective government leadership demands that the best people step forward, and how will we encourage those folks to step out into the spotlight when the mere public rumination of a run for office can spark the filthiest invective from the opposition in response?  The silent demographic who do not vote because they cannot abide the cynicism of politics are not silent without cause.  They have been systematically alienated from a public debate that operates on the intellectual level of a high school cat fight.  It’s all too tempting for liberals to want to get down into the mud and fight just as dirty as their conservative counterparts, but doing that only accomplishes two things – it accepts with resignation the premise that government and public service is the realm of savages, and often engenders sympathy for the opponent (and by accidental consequence, the opponent’s argument).  It takes more courage to stand up to a bully with words instead of fists.  But sometimes, a victory won with words – the right words – can be all the more decisive.  Canadian and American progressives may dream of a day when right-wing parties are a nausea-inducing anathema to the voting public, but we won’t get there by calling Conservatives and Republicans fatty-Mcfat-fats.

A comedian whose name I can’t recall once opined that it was stupid to be a racist, because if you got to know the person really well you could find a much better reason to hate their guts.  Likewise, it’s ridiculous to go after Rob Ford because of his weight.  He could be the most drool-worthy, sculpted embodiment of Adonis on the planet and still be a lousy mayor.  Call him misguided, call his policies ludicrous, call his approach to governing positively inept, but if the guy wants a bucket of extra crispy chicken for dinner after a bad day, leave him the frack alone.

This is your brain on digital media

Arianna Huffington addresses the Toronto Digital Media Summit, photo by yours truly sitting four rows back.

Johnny Mnemonic features a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as a “futuristic” (I put the quotes around futuristic because many of the movie’s concepts have grown quite out-of-date) courier whose packages of data are uploaded directly into his brain.  Eager to take on a high-paying job, Reeves’ character agrees to carry more information than his brain can handle.  I find myself in a similar situation after two days at Toronto’s 2012 Digital Media Summit, having assimilated the insights of dozens of expert speakers and panellists, including representatives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft, on what this whole concept means and where they think it might be going.  The key word there is “think,” because digital media is progressing too fast for the majority of us to simply keep up, let alone predict.  Today’s phenomenon is tomorrow’s relic, and what seems like a ludicrous concept this morning might be a smash success this afternoon.  The statistics are cosmic in their scope:  2 billion people on the planet access the Internet as part of their daily lives.  52 billion pages indexed on Google, 1.3 million articles on Wikipedia, 100,000 years’ worth of YouTube video shared on Facebook in 2011 alone.  Futurist Michael Tchong, one of the featured speakers this past weekend, refers to it as an ubertrend, which he defines as “a major movement, pattern or wave emerging in the American lifestyle that ripples through society leaving many subtrends in its wake.”  Although opinions on how to harness these ripples are numerous, one fact that seems to be shared is the idea that all of this is fuelled by the human need for connection – and kinship.

Associated with that need for connection is the humorous acronym FOMO, that Tchong suggests is behind much of the social media explosion – Fear Of Missing Out.  When so much flies by at lightspeed, billions of times every nanosecond, we are terrified that we might not see all of it, whether it be the latest updates from our friends and family, infinite funny cat videos or actual breaking news.  Texting and driving, Tchong says, happens because some of us have decided that being in touch is more important than being alive.  Perhaps, if one can venture down the garden path of existentialism, for many people being in touch is being alive; this idea of ambient awareness that I have discussed before.  But it is far more than simply wanting to know what’s going on – it’s wanting to know.  Arianna Huffington, who gave the closing keynote address yesterday, referred to her early book The Fourth Instinct, which suggests that beyond the usual human needs for survival, sex and power, there is a hunger for spiritual fulfillment and meaning; to answer that fundamental question of Life, The Universe and Everything (yes, Douglas Adams fans, I know it’s 42, but stick with me here).  Digital media is a sublime leap towards the realization of this answer, because it brings people together in a grand unified search.  This is why I put no stock in the philosophy of every man for himself; the mere existence of the ubertrend under examination here suggests that we are inclined towards a sense of community, of belonging, and that the reason why the technology of information has been the fastest to progress (instead of jetpacks) is because it reflects what we want most as a species gifted with intellectual curiosity.

And as expected, many fear the undiscovered country it is leading us towards.  Misguided approaches to regulate digital media, such as SOPA, ACTA or the Vic Toews nonsense going on in Canada, are the last refuge of an old guard longing for the simplicity of the era when everything could be explained as God’s will.  Ironically, that fear comes from the very same place as the curiosity that drives the democratic exchange of ideas as exemplified by digital media.  When information rested only in the hands of a few, those few were respected and admired as learned leaders.  The more the truth spreads, the less those people are needed – the influence they have built for themselves, out of this same, basic longing for community, diminishes as others cease to listen to them, until they are finally left alone, and forgotten.

So what then, in a nutshell, could you say is the biggest takeaway from my massive data intake of the last two days?  Certainly enough thought to chew on for the conceivable future (and more than a few blog posts I’m sure), but above all else, reinforcement of the notion that a global community, a global family, is not just a pipe dream of a few starry-eyed prognosticators, it is a place we are going whether we like it or not.  Our existence as individuals in a population of 7 billion mirrors our tiny earth adrift in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and just as each of us longs to find meaning as part of a family, our entire race hungers for meaning within the endless dark.  Why are we here?  Maybe Cousin Phil has an idea – check his status update.  Connection, knowing that we are not alone, is tremendously liberating – it reassures and emboldens us to take the next step.  Host Rob Braide of Galaxie Radio kicked off the conference by invoking the analogy of a drunk who drops his keys on a dark street and wanders to the safety of a street light instead of looking for them straight away.  The connection provided by digital media is that light.  And the more light the better.

A kind of hush all over the world

WordPress just added this incredible feature whereby you can track hits on your blog by country of origin.  Admittedly a lot if not the majority of these hits aren’t people looking specifically for my writings, they’re stumbling upon it because search engine tags of a post I’ve written happen to coincide with something they’re looking for.  But any writer would like to hope that a few are sticking around because they like what they’ve discovered.  One thing is for sure, it sort of puts to bed the idea that you need a massive marketing machine to find yourself a global audience – it also reinforces the theory that the Internet is one of the greatest tools of democracy ever invented, and why its freedom needs to be protected wherever the Ministry of Information dares to try to rein it in.  So without further ado, here is where you’ve all come from.  And as always, thanks for visiting.

I am humbled.  Truly.  Saudi Arabia even???  Yowza.  The only thing I have to add is, come on Japan and New Zealand, get with the program here.  And Greenland is not that big.