Things to Do Before You Get Famous


Last year, internationally celebrated violinist Joshua Bell tried an experiment. He took his violin (a Stradivarius built in 1713, worth about $3.5 million) into the Washington, D.C. Metro and played for about 45 minutes.

If you want to get cheap seats to hear Joshua Bell perform, expect to pay at least $100.

So who stopped to listen to him play Bach and Schubert? Nearly no one. Thousands of people marched past, avoiding Bell’s eye so they wouldn’t feel guilty about failing to throw a quarter or two into his case. (He made a little over $32 for the day.)

Music did not soothe the savage breast. Music failed to even register in the savage breast.

(I was fascinated to read about exceptions, like a three-year-old named Evan. Evan knew there was something special going on, and tried to dawdle so he could check it out. But Evan’s mom was in a hurry to get him to daycare and herself on to work and hustled his curious little butt right on past. I don’t blame her, we’ve all been there. As the Washington Post story reported, “The behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”)

Evidence, if we needed it, that kids are smarter than grown-ups about some things.

Context matters more than ability

So what can we learn from this slightly depressing little story?

For one thing, it’s a stark illustration that talent and ability are not enough. The moral of the story is probably not that Joshua Bell is a mediocre violinist.

Remember the famous coffee commercial, where they substituted crummy supermarket instant coffee for the coffee in great restaurants? Of course people loved the crummy coffee. When they ordered it, they expected to pay $5 a cup for it. It was delivered in a delicate china cup. It came after a great meal. It was brought by a snooty waiter.

It’s not that talent and ability don’t matter. They do. But no one can begin to see talent or ability until they’re put into the right frame.

Some people never see past any frame. Not much we can do for them. But for you, we can make sure you’re choosing the frame that sets you off.

Success is a brand

You don’t need mass appeal or millions of customers to be a success. But your definition of success needs to be a keystone of your brand.

You decide what success is, then show the world how magnificently successful you are by that light.

No one is going to notice your amazing talent and elevate you to fame and fortune. You’ve got to create the fame and fortune in your own outlook first. Claim your position.

This stuff takes time to gel. You might have to be patient. But keep your vision of yourself as a success clearly in your mind. Pretend you’re deposed royalty from some forgotten (but elegant) country. Don’t let your crummy apartment or 20-year-old car make you think of yourself in small terms.

Be your own fan club. Other fans will catch up to you eventually.

You can make your own context

Joshua Bell’s story is also a great lesson in the art of finding what you look for. If you expect to hear not-very-good musicians in the subway, even the world’s greatest violinist will sound like nothing special.

Could anything like that be happening in your life now?

We could try to be a little more aware as we move through our days–leave a little room open for the possibility that something extraordinary could happen. Let’s face it, when human beings are involved, there’s always room for the extraordinary.

But beyond that, we could try to expect better out of our lives. We could expect greatness from our work. We could expect passionate fanaticism from our customers. We could expect personal lives and professional lives that nourished and enriched one another, and brought us joy.

Hell, we could start by expecting to get paid what we’re worth. Baby steps.

Choosing a new frame for Remarkable Communication

I’ve decided that, comfortable though this cozy little joint has been for the past year, it’s time for me to move my voice to a frame that’s better suited to it.

Remarkable Communication is going to change some things–to a new domain name and a spiffy new theme. (My profound thanks to Men with Pens for helping me out with this.)

I am very happy and grateful to have found so many readers on this little homegrown blog. I did everything you’re not supposed to do–I used an uncustomized template, didn’t use my own domain name, was too cheap even to spring for the Typepad plan that would have let me use custom style sheets.

It’s always been about the words for me. But I think it’s time for me to get those words into the right frame. Not every reader is as perceptive as you are. I’d like more people to be able to see this blog clearly.

There might be a few bumps and lumps as we get moving, so I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ll keep this Web address going for a few months so my occasional visitors will know where to find me.

And I’ll let you know what I learn along the way, so you can benefit from the boneheaded mistakes I am sure to make.

Read the original Washington Post article about Joshua Bell’s stunt

If you found this post useful, subscribe to my free email class on creating better content!

The Complete Flake’s Guide to Getting Things Done

Flaky_ape Are you smart and motivated and passionate, and have lots of cool things you’d like to get done, but somehow when it comes to doing them, you just . . . don’t?

Are you great at ideas but lousy at execution? Talk a good game but don’t get any results? Spend a lot of time thinking about where you want to go, but not much time actually moving your ass down the road that would take you there?

You, my friend, are a flake. Congratulations. We are a worldwide force. If we could all get ourselves moving in the same direction, we would change the world. However, that will never happen.

Most of us are creative and smart. We’re often very funny and really pretty charming. We get things quicker than a lot of people do.

What we lack is focus. Everything looks good to us. We want dinner in Paris and a dive trip to Fiji. Most of us care more about experiences than about stuff. But because we don’t take care of the “stuff” aspect of life, we don’t have the experiences we really want to have.

That, and we lack this “drive” thing. We have desire, but we don’t know how to engage drive. The wheels are turning, but the car ain’t going forward.

If you are a flake, you need to learn how to get things done. Getting things done (meeting goals, completing projects, all that irritating junk productive people do) will let you have better experiences.

We live in a world made of stuff, so it gets pretty painful when we blow stuff off. You actually can learn how to get things done. Here’s how.

What Do You Want Out of It?

You’re not going to get a damned thing done until you actually know what you want to get out of it.

I know this is making your eyes roll into the back of your head. You know all about this visualizing your goals business. You may have even forced yourself to write down exactly where you want to be in 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years, with all the little details that will make it real to you.

That’s a good thing to do, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about something much more general. (Much flakier, in fact.)

Just know what you want to get out of the thing you’re thinking about doing.

Do you want to do it to make some money? OK, why do you want money? What does that get you?

Sit down with a pen and paper (or a keyboard if you must, but pen and paper do something interesting to your brain’s deep wiring) and answer the question: “What do I want out of this thing?”

You can describe a scenario, or visualize images, or focus on how you’ll feel or what the material facts will be. If you adopt too much of someone else’s formula, it won’t feel real to you. Just answer the question in a way that makes you say, “Oh, yeah. That’s it. That’s actually exactly it.”

Getting Real

Now it’s time for something that the self-helpers don’t usually talk about. I got this from Robert Fritz’s Path of Least Resistance and I have found it to absolutely rock. Fritz calls it the “Pivotal Technique,” which I think is an apt label. If you need to turn yourself around in a major way, this is how you can do it.

Step 1. Get nice and clear about what you want.

Step 2. Get completely, impeccably, bullshit-free clear about where you are now, with respect to that.

That’s it, just those two. Simple but not easy.

Put another way:

Understand exactly what you want. Understand exactly where you are. Notice the difference.

Please note that there is not a follow-up step called “beat yourself to a bloody stump about not being where you want to be.”

If you’re in New York and you want to go to San Francisco, how much good does it do to beat yourself up about what a lame-ass you are not to be in San Francisco? How far west does that actually move you?

Not one millimeter? Hmm, interesting.

Figuring Out What’s Next

All those annoying productivity people will tell you that the next step is to make a map that goes from here to there.

The map has all the steps you’ll need to take. Those steps are probably broken into sub-steps. Along the way, you’ll identify the resources you’ll need to develop and the avenues that are most likely to get you to your goal.

Get real. You are a flake. You are not going to do all that. In fact, just the thought makes you want to go grab an ice cream, doesn’t it?

And here’s another thing. You don’t know the whole map. You’ve probably never been to this place you want to go. So what makes you think you can map it out? You can’t.

The best you can do from where you are now is to get a sense of where “kinda-sorta the right direction” is.

Flakes are flaky because the map seems impossible. Productive people are productive because the map seems real. The flakes are actually right, but fat lot of good that does us. The productivity people follow their imaginary map, and because they’re doing something, they get somewhere.

But there’s a way out.

All you have to do is figure out what’s next. This comes from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is a terrific system if you’re mentally ill enough to do all the ritual. (I am, and I love it, but most people aren’t.) But the ritual is mostly optional.

Just get an idea of what one action you should take next that will take you kinda sorta in the right direction.

If you’re going to San Francisco from New York, your next action might be “get on Mapquest to figure out what roads go west out of town.” Or it could be “call Greyhound and see what a ticket will cost me.” Or it might even be “wait until the sun goes down to see where west is.”

Those are all legit. They all set you up to start moving in the right direction.

Your brain might start blaring like a smoke alarm with 2,000 things you need to do next. You can’t do 2,000 things right now. Write down the things you think are at least somewhat important. Then pick just one to do next.

Allen is very smart about this. It has to be the single next thing to take action on. Not “get $900 for an airline ticket,” but “check Craigs List tomorrow morning for temp job” or “send mom a birthday card so I can hit her up for money next week.”

If you can’t do it in 20 minutes, it’s probably not the next action. Find the next action.

Do What You Feel Like

The flake’s superpower is that we are very good at doing what we feel like.

If you figure out your next action to take, and you don’t just get up and do it right away, do the Pivotal Technique again.

Understand what you want, and why you want it. Understand where you are now. Notice the difference.

Then do what you feel like.

Just keep cycling through that. As a flake, your unconscious is very good at protecting you from things you don’t want. If you don’t feel like moving kinda-sorta in the direction of your thing, there’s something about it you don’t want.

A great flake technique is to say something to yourself along the line of:

OK, unconscious mind, gigantic pain in the ass that you are, thanks for keeping me from doing something I don’t want to do. Could you do me one more favor and let me know what about it I don’t like? Thanks.

Ask yourself that question out loud before you go to bed. Maybe write it down on a piece of paper as well. Then forget about it and see what pops into your head the next day.

Once you can see what you don’t like, you’ll figure out a way around it. Flakes are excellent at figuring out ways around things.

Don’t Misplace Your Brilliant Insights

Because, as a flake, you’re more-than-average ruled by your unconscious mind, I can promise you will get useful answers to your questions. Your unconscious mind is actually a lot smarter than your conscious mind is. So you’ve got that going for you.

But, again because you’re a flake, you’ll probably lose track of those answers.

In fact, you’ve come up with terrific answers and lost them again many times already. It’s just how we flakes work.

So set up a flake-friendly way to keep everything. I call mine the compost pile. All the notes and ramblings and scribbles go in there, and eventually some of it composts into something I can use.

Flakes throughout history have used notebooks for this, and they’re not bad, but they’re hard to go back into. It might take hours to find that genius insight you had two years ago that will absolutely solve the nasty problem you’re facing right now.

So I like software. At the moment, I am addicted to the 37 Signals product Backpack. I keep blog post ideas, gardening plans, backups of eBooks I’ve bought, plans for world domination, etc. in there. On my Backpack home page are notes about the very next actions to take on various things I want to get done, and a few bullet points about what I want to focus on right now.

(I try not to focus on any more than four general areas at any one time, or everything immediately grinds to a halt. When I get ideas for projects outside my three or four focus points, I throw ‘em into the compost pile.)

The Plan in 7 Reasonably Painless Steps

  1. When you’ve got something to do, figure out what you really want to get out of it.
  2. Do the pivotal technique. Think about what you want, then get clear about where you are right this minute. Notice the difference.
  3. Figure out the next action.
  4. Do what you feel like.
  5. Rinse, lather, repeat.
  6. Start a compost pile for ideas, notes, plans and insights.
  7. Stick to three or four primary areas of focus.

That’s it. Fellow flakes, what kind of things are you trying to get done now? Making any progress? Let us know in the comments.

Related Reading

  • Rock Your Day. Dave Navarro is not a flake, but he has good ideas about getting past the mental blocks that keep us from being productive.
  • The Alternative Productivity Manifesto. Clay Collins’ take on whether we should be pursuing productivity in the first place, and how we might define that in a healthy way.

If you found this post useful, subscribe to my free email class on creating better content!

Email Marketing: How Not to Be a Dirty Rotten Spammer


Do you remember when you were a kid and crossed the street without looking? Remember how mad your mom got? Even if you were within your legal rights and crossing in a crosswalk, it just takes one oncoming car that doesn’t see you and you’re flatter than Wile E. Coyote.

The “official” definition of spam is unsolicited bulk email with a commercial and/or malicious intent. The U.S. 2004 CAN-SPAM law makes it illegal to send commercial email with a misleading header, without a postal address, without a way to unsubscribe, or if the addresses were harvested in various nefarious ways.

The definitions vary somewhat. But theoretically, if you’re sending email marketing to someone who asked for it and you’re not defrauding them, it’s not spam.

The Aunt Frances guide to spam

Now go ask your Aunt Frances what spam is. “Oh good lord, those annoying messages they send me from . . . . ”

You can finish that sentence with any one of a hundred companies. Amazon, eBay, GoDaddy, the Thanksgiving turkey farm, the list goes on and on. Companies that may have legal permission to send her email, because she agreed to it once upon a time, or because she’s already a customer.

Aunt Frances might be hip enough to have registered with GoDaddy, but she doesn’t know or care about official definitions. If it’s getting on her nerves, it’s spam.

She won’t unsubscribe (because someone told her she’ll get more spam if she does), but she will triumphantly mark it as spam. Email providers will start to look darkly on the sender. If a high enough percentage of subscribers mark messages as spam, messages start to go automatically to junk folders even when there are raving fans waiting breathlessly for the latest message.

And some email providers will just throw your messages away.

Sure, the senders are following the letter of the law, but they’re still road kill.

If you’re GoDaddy, this is a manageable problem. If you’re a small business and you just want to send nice stuff to your customers, it is not.

You’ve got to keep Aunt Frances happy

There are two definitions of “spam.” One involves a complex set of legal regulations and loopholes that apply to email marketing. The other is “crappy email I don’t want.”

If you want to send out email to more than a handful of customers, you need to live up to both standards. Not only do you have to follow the letter of the law (if you don’t and you’re emailing from the U.S., the fine is $11,000), you have to be better than the law. Just like white hat SEO, there are best practices for white hat email marketing.

Here are a couple of tips for being the Gary Cooper of email.

Make yourself useful

You’re already working toward this in all of your communication, right? If everything you send out benefits your readers, they’re a lot less likely to get pissed at you and click the dreaded spam button.

Every email you send needs to have something valuable for readers. Otherwise, why are you sending it? Just to pitch your stuff and benefit yourself? That’s not going to work, now is it?

(On the other hand, you don’t have to be afraid to sell. Unless you’re running a list that has a purely philanthropic intent, if you want readers to buy, go ahead and ask them to. Just don’t be an ass about it.)

Honor what you were originally given permission to do

Email marketing is permission marketing. The idea is, you convince someone to say, “yes, please market to me.” Then you go ahead and do that.

You don’t ask permission to send information about auto maintenance, then use that permission to send marketing messages about escort services. Uncool.

And if you promise useful tips and tricks, you’ve got to make about 80% of your content tips and tricks. Yes, you can sell, but there have to be enough goodies to make the sales message palatable.

Make sure they remember you exist

Just this week I had three promotional emails sent to my Gmail account. If I was a normal customer, I would just have marked them as spam, because I can’t for the life of me remember signing up for this list.

The first antidote to this is to mail your list often enough so that they won’t forget about you. You must email new subscribers immediately after they sign up, and make enough of an impression that they’ll still remember who you are two months from now.

Use your emailer’s autoresponder function to get a prompt string of useful messages into every email box on your list. I’d suggest a sequence of at least four or five useful messages to make a real impression. I’m partial to a ten-message sequence, myself.

(This happens to be why I prefer HTML to plain text email–you can use colors and a simple but distinct graphic style to help fix your identity in your readers’ consciousness. You can also include your photo, which helps an awful lot. These don’t take the place of useful content, but they do help people remember you later.)

If you’re still getting marked as a spammer

If you’re still having trouble with folks mistakenly marking you as a spammer, go ahead and jog their memory about when and why they signed up for your list in the first place. The king of bulk email providers, Aweber, has a great tip. Create an automatic signature that reminds the person when they signed up, what the list is about, and what to do if they don’t want to get it any more. It would look something like this:

You’re getting this email because you subscribed on June 17, 2007 to Sonia Simone’s free content class. If you don’t want to get these messages any more, just click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the page and you’ll be immediately removed from my list.

Aweber has an automatic field with that sign-up date, which makes it simple. If your email provider doesn’t, the technique still works fine without the date.

If you’re getting a lot of false spam clicks, put that at the top of each message. If you’re just getting a few, put it at the bottom under your signature.

That little reminder is often enough to jog Aunt Frances’s memory that she did, at one time, want to receive your 101 Meatball Recipes newsletter. And it helps her feel reassured that gangs of email marauders will not come down on her if she goes ahead and unsubscribes.

Lots more free info on email marketing

Yep, you guessed it. If you want some more tips and advice, I’ve got a ten-part free email class on creating great content for e-newsletters. (Virtually every lesson applies to blog content as well, so even if email marketing isn’t your thing, feel free to sign up.)

I won’t clog your email box up with crap, and of course I will never rent or sell your information to anyone. (And neither should you. It’s a terrible business practice.)

Get the free class

(Important note: You’ll have to confirm that you want to get the email class or you won’t receive it. Once you submit your information, you’ll get an email very quickly asking you to confirm.)

Flickr Creative Commons image by uberculture

Are You Ready for Your Audition?

When I was about 20, through a series of complete flukes, I got a job working as a costume assistant for the U.S. tour of a small Russian ballet company. This was before Glasnost, Russians were exotic creatures in those days. We had the FBI come and ask us questions, it was all very interesting.
I didn’t know anything about dealing with costumes, but my friend K who got me the job did. We were traveling with the ballet company across 21 U.S. cities in 10 weeks. As it turned out, we didn’t have any of the union waivers we needed to actually work on costumes, so mostly we screwed around and chased boys and drank too much.
We did occasionally get a task to do, mostly photocopying or selling t-shirts. Finally, about 17 weeks in, we got the chance to work on a costume.
A red twill tutu needed new hooks and eyes sewn on it. The union wardrobe master ceremoniously gave this task to K, whose chief aim in life was to work on costumes professionally. But K had a pretty hot date, so she foisted it off on me.
“Er,” I said.
I’m actually fairly handy with a needle, if you’re talking about a little light hemming or even some embroidery. But this was a different animal altogether.
“Do it,” said K with a little pissed-off growl.
I figured what the hell. Since I didn’t have a hot date, I did it.

A few things to understand

First of all, there is nothing smellier than a pre-Glasnost ballerina. From the audience you see an ethereal smiling stick insect floating around like gravity didn’t apply to her. From backstage, you realize she’s sweating like a racehorse–and these costumes get cleaned maybe once a quarter.
Plus, these were burly, deodorant-disdaining Soviet ballerinas. It was bad.
Second, those costumes are made out of buckram, which as near as I can tell is canvas stiffened with concrete. I just about needed pliers to get a needle in and out of this thing. There was clearly a smart way to do this–but I didn’t know what that was.
I can still remember what it was like, eight sets of hooks and eyes, and me trying to line these stupid pieces of metal up properly, jamming the needle into my thumb trying to get it to go through the buckram.

I did manage to get all eight attached in a roughly straight line to this stinky red costume, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t do a very pretty job of it.

The punchline

Weeks passed, not much happened. K and I continued to chase boys and drink too much. One of the dancers actually defected, which, looking back on it, was a complete non-event, although we all thought it was very serious and important at the time.
As we were wrapping the tour up, I had a drink with the union wardrobe master, a sweet and funny guy who I liked a lot. We started talking about K’s burning desire to work on costumes professionally.
The wardrobe master snorted. “I don’t think so. I gave her a simple job to do to see how she handled it. She’s a total incompetent. She has no idea what she’s doing.”
I had no idea if it was worse to say nothing or to admit that she’d ditched the job and let me do it. I didn’t say anything, which was probably wrong. But there wasn’t much I could do for her at that point.

The person who could have opened many, many doors to the profession she wanted had given her an audition. Which she failed, because she didn’t show up.

When’s your next audition?

You’re getting more chances than you realize to strut your stuff for someone who could help you.
(I’m convinced that this is how the “Law of Attraction” really works. Great stuff doesn’t show up because you focus on it. You’re just able to suddenly perceive all the great stuff that’s always been right in front of you, because you focus on it. )
You’re distracted by trivia. You’re working on what’s easy because you’re scared to work on what matters.
Maybe you’re afraid of looking dumb, so you don’t show up at all. Maybe you’re watching performers audition on reality TV, instead of getting ready for your own audition.
You have an audition coming. It might be tomorrow. It might be this afternoon. What do you need in order to ace it? More courage? More stubbornness? Just more practice?
What could you do today to get ready?
Flickr Creative Commons image by Andrew_Baron

How to Get Your Employees to Sink Your Business


A certain business guru has written a book about how to terrorize your employees. He’s promoting it with glee, chortling about the idiocy of “nice” bosses and the importance of bullying employees into following your orders without question.

I’ve worked for some variation on this guy a couple of times. Any effort at conversation about alternatives is seen as naivete or, worst of all sins, wimpiness. What these guys did before Tim Allen invented that annoying whuffing caveman sound, I don’t know.

(Not that they’re always guys. This is an equal opportunity for stupidity.)

These are the bosses who see the workplace as a war. The only thing that works is to beat, brutalize, and belittle the enemy (their employees) until the dumb bastards actually get something done. Employees are an opposing force to be crushed by any means necessary. Employees are a colossal impediment to actually getting any work done or making any money.

Employers who subscribe to this model are right. Their employees are, in fact, a colossal impediment to getting any work done or making any money.

Avoid communicating with people you hate and fear

It should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention that hatred and fear are anathema to success. They make it impossible to see real problems because you’re so busy battling fake ones.

They clench your thinking until you’re too mentally constipated to come up with anything that makes sense, much less something remarkable.

There are two important reasons the employment-is-war model doesn’t work. The first is that anyone worth hiring will promptly leave, leaving you with a bunch of malingerers who are too lazy to find a decent job. The second is that you remove any possibility that someone could teach you something. Which means you start getting stupider.

Very few of us are in a business environment so devoid of competition that we can afford to get stupider.

The fatal mistake of willful stupidity

I once worked for a CEO who refused to use because he claimed to have read a Wall Street Journal article that said their algorithms weren’t good. Mind you, this is someone whose secretary printed all of his email. He didn’t know an algorithm from a peanut butter sandwich. And the odds that he actually interpreted the article correctly are, um, not high.

Attempts to diplomatically point this out to him (at that time, it was really hard to make a decent hire in IT without Monster) were worse than futile. They branded us as troublemakers. We still gave a damn, and that made us dangerous.

We were employees; thus, we were the enemy. It was inconceivable that we could give this CEO any advice that would get work done and make the company some money.

Are you surprised to hear that it took him less than a year to run the company into the ground? It didn’t surprise any of us either. Some of us were fortunate enough to watch it burst into flames from a safe distance.

Of course they spit in your food

When you define your employees as the enemy, the ones with any spark of life at all will take you up on it.

If you’re lucky they’ll call you bad words and quit. If you’re not lucky, they’ll be rude to your customers, cheat on their time cards, and spend their entire waking hours figuring out how to screw your company. 40 hours a week is a lot of time to think. Enough time to come up with some pretty effective strategies.

If you honestly think you can come up with enough police state measures–enough recording phone calls and hidden cameras and secret shoppers–to confound your employees’ creativity, you are the one who is woefully naive.

If you’re trying to create remarkable relationships with your organization’s customers and you don’t create them first with your employees, your gig doesn’t stand a chance. Shut it down now and save everyone the trouble.

Some of you might be thinking, Why bother with this message now? Companies don’t work that way any more. This is the 21st century, everyone knows now how important employees are.

If you believe that, ask your friends who are still stuck in veal-pen cubicles. Office Space was not a parody. It was hardly even an exaggeration.

If you’re employed in an organization that subscribes to this kind of bully boy nonsense, find another job as quickly as you can. (You’re probably looking–look harder.)

And if you’re in the boss’s seat and find yourself tempted to let a guru talk you out of being a “wimp” and into being an overseer, ask yourself, Would getting a lot dumber help this organization grow more quickly?

Then find another guru.

If you want to read about doing it right, the classic management book Peopleware is a fine place to start. You can probably end there as well, actually.

(Hopefully unnecessary disclaimer, this post in no way describes anyone I currently work with!)

Social Media Workshop: The Imaginary Friends Who Live in Your Typewriter

anonymous internet protest

“Imaginary friends who live in my typewriter” is my friend Gavin‘s term for people he knows from online. I met Gavin on The WELL and he’s a classic example of the friends I’ve made in online communities–smart, accomplished, and interesting.

The WELL has a long tradition of supplementing online community with offline get-togethers. That might be why it’s known for the amazing depth of connections that were made there.

Yes, there were exceptions, but for the most part, people who were delightful online like Mr. Jalopy and Howard Rheingold were also delightful offline. Each realm showed you stuff you wouldn’t have seen from the other. Online community was a way to get to know someone in a different way. It didn’t replace face-to-face relationship, it deepened it.

If you didn’t have that kind of introduction to online community, it’s easy to imagine that it’s all a giant computer game. You sit at your keyboard and type in different things to find out how the game works. This lies at the heart of trolling, or (by my definition), shaking up the ant farm purely for the pleasure of watching the little buggers swarm.

The complicated fuel behind social media

Although there’s a strong human tendency to anthropomorphize technology, there’s also a countering tendency to view human beings–if you know them only through their technological shell–as data.

If you’re going to enter the world of online community and social media for some reason–maybe to build a larger customer base or get something big done–you need to remember an important complicating factor.

Behind all those blinking cursors and strings of text are confusing, troublesome and resourceful human beings.

They will do stuff. They will almost certainly do stuff you wish they would not do. And if you’re lucky, and smart about how online community works, they might take action in a massive way that moves (sort of) in the direction you were hoping.

The inverted Matrix

The addictive game World of Warcraft added a social component and became ten times more addictive. Millions of teenaged boys became scarcer and scarcer at dinnertime as they burned tens of millions of hours playing “Warcrack.”

On the other half of the world from suburban kids in the States, young men in China are making a living playing Warcraft for 18 hours a day as “gold farmers.” Earning real money to buy real food to support real families in the real world.

This is the other side of The Matrix. Strings of computer code are powered by real people doing real stuff that has real effects.

The Church of Scientology is learning this to its dismay, as a collection of people under the rubric “anonymous” has been organizing systematic protests against them.

This is a pretty good description of what Internet-based collective action tends to look like.

  • It protects itself by masking its identity.
  • It’s heavy on the inside jokes.
  • Mockery is a given–sometimes witty and sometimes not.
  • It’s peaceful but also potentially pretty intimidating.
  • It tends toward the ridiculous and the profane, but it is not cynical.

If you think you want to mobilize social media for your business, your nonprofit, or your cause, you need to get comfortable with what that might look like. Whether it’s monks in Burma, music fans in Myspace, Diggers, Sphinners, Stumblers, “anonymous,” or any one of a thousand other online communities that mobilize for collective action, you’ll find some common traits.

Your group will be messy. They will be chaotic. And they will never do quite what you wish they would do.

Make peace with that and get good at influencing the direction it takes, and you can move the world.

Related Reading