Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Category: Personal Reflection (page 2 of 2)

There Are No Social Media Gods

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with several talented folks involved in the field of social communications. At an in-house digital communications event in Dallas last week, I enjoyed excellent conversations with Barbra Rozgonyi of WiredPRWorks and Deidre Walsh of Jive Software. Today, at a meeting of the Social Media Club of Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of connecting with SMC Philly organizer Gloria Bell, blogger Cecily Kellogg of Uppercase Woman, and author and co-founder of Zoetica, Geoff Livingston, among others. The presentations and sidebar discussions with each of these good folks were informative and inspirational for me. All of them were warm and willing to talk.

This post isn’t about name dropping, however. Each of these individuals helped to cement a new perspective for me: there are no social media gods. There are only people.

I’ve been involved in social communications for almost two years now, and I continue to feel like a relative newcomer when interfacing with folks in this circle. There are a bevy of brilliant luminaries from every industry and skillset, and it can become daunting when you see a rapid-fire set of ideas, concepts, and opinions in your social streams each day. I confess to being a bit over-enthusiastic at times (“geeking out”) when talking to these folks, but, more so, I’ve unconsciously treated some as though there were deities: masters of their domain, untouchable. I see the same patterns in others and have heard stories of backlash when expressing differing opinions to the social gods.

For us folks invested in the social space, we have to remember that we are dealing with human beings, all the time. Not just the individuals who we’re reaching out to (and helping others do the same), but each other.  That’s the “social” in social media, of course, but I get the feeling the “human” aspect is lost from time to time. Respect and professionalism are prerequisites, but we can’t be afraid to share stories, offer contrasting opinions or constructive criticism, and give praise where deserved. We each have strengths, weaknesses, and our own unique personalities, but turning social communications into a “cult of personality” is not where we need to go.

My recent interactions were positive precisely because we all treated each other like people, not figures, metrics, or influencers to be courted. I hope to see more of this as my knowledge and network grows and fewer instances of “false idols.”

So, what’s the moral? Be warm, be generous, be fair, but, most of all, be human. I will.

Taking Aim at the Cloud of Doubt

It seems that ever since I dove into the realm of social media, specifically Twitter, I get this nagging, flagging feeling of doubt every six weeks or so. It’s like some miniature existential crisis, but on a recurring basis. I wonder: how can my works matter in the presence of other great thinkers? Why didn’t I think of that concept, that idea, that perspective?

When you’re part of a swift-moving current of constant thoughts, adamant opinions, and vibrant conversations, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sudden awareness that talent is all around you, and you’re the least of it all. It can be a crushing weight, that sensation of mediocrity. But really, if you think about it, the new challenger who’s arrived is that awareness. Never before have we been able to tap into so many creative minds at once. Industry leaders and luminaries have always been generating ideas, writing books, keynoting conferences, etc. It’s that level playing field tools like Twitter offer that make it seem like you’re in direct competition with the heavyweights.

So, what can both you and I do about all this?

Get over it, shake it off, and don’t get sucked into an imaginary popularity contest.

Did you make a mistake? Learn from it and grow. Do you admire another’s work? Absorb their teachings and add to your knowledge and skills. Are you questioning your own professional self-worth? Take both the good and bad from your colleagues and connections for a balanced viewpoint; learn not only what ideals you want to obtain, but which to avoid.

We’re each our own worst critics. I firmly believe a hallmark of the creative thinker is the constant criticism of our own works coupled with the incessant drive to simply do better. It’s the motive power that keeps us questing and questioning the world, ourselves, and our place within it. The key, I think, is to continuously remind ourselves of that, accept the times of uncertainty alongside the great works we do produce, and realize that this too shall pass. You’re not in a race to win with these folks; you’re out there to do the very best with your life and your talents.

I’m taking aim at the cloud of doubt, and I hope you are, too. Let’s wish ourselves great victory!

Related goodness: Here’s two outstanding posts related to my train of thought that I discovered in this morning’s blog reading:

Suck It, eBooks; I’m Keeping It Real

I’ll be the first to admit it: I have a love affair with books. Not the next iteration of their evolution, ebooks, but the real deal; the true printed word.

I’ve consumed books with a great zeal ever since I learned to read. Yes, I was the odd child in the gifted and talented classes who was reading at the collegiate level in the seventh grade. Engrossed in thick, thousand-page fantasy and sci-fi novels is how I’ve enjoyed spending my free time for nearly three decades now.

I love the tactile experience of books. The thump of your hands when you clasp a hardcover. The jagged, offset page edges some publishers use to embellish their titles. The clean smell of the paper. The colored threads at the base of hardback’s spine. The subtleties of the fonts and typefaces; a bonus if the publisher gives you a short soliloquy about the ones they chose after the author information at the back.

The entire process of picking up a book, thumbing to either the very first page or wherever you left off, and paying homage to your collection when you’re through is a wonderful experience to me. I continue to entertain the fantasy of someday owning a true library, all decked out with hardwood shelves, a leather chair, thick rugs, and those wheeled ladders to reach the taller stacks.

While I’m a full-fledged convert to digital music and have never looked back since the arrival of the MP3, I find I have great hesitation when it comes to ebooks and their ilk. There’s just something distant and cold in the act of “paging” through a text on a Kindle, and the crystalline, candy-like display on the iPad is just ripe for distraction (“Call me Ishmael…”; say, what’s happening on Twitter?). There’s no satisfaction to me in lending, returning to, or passing down a treasured text in digital format. These stories, treatises, and essays are art forms that deserve the sanctity of physical dimensions.

Rest assured, I’m no literature luddite; I’m fully enthralled with Twitter and the information streams in social media, and I do see the promises and opportunities inherit in the ebook format. I’m certainly not one to advocate against an ebook format simply because I won’t use it; you have to give the users what they want.

Nonetheless, I have no fear saying today that, as far as I’m concerned, ebooks can suck it. When it comes to settling down with a riveting dungeon crawl, an essay on astronomy, or Norse mythology, I prefer to keep it real.

Photo: The gorgeous stack of texts I received on Christmas 2010: two treatises on psychology, four sci-fi novels (three of which I’ve finished as of this post), one essay on the demotion of Pluto to dwarf planet status, and a Dungeons & Dragons strategy guide. Oh, and some polyhedral dice, just for good measure.

The Conundrum of Critical Mass

How much noise must you tolerate in a social network to attain a reliable set of responses to your posts? Would the content and value of those responses be sufficient to balance the “wheat vs. chaff” formula in your network? What’s that magic number or ratio that marks the “critical mass” of your network to essentially guarantee feedback? Should such an objective even matter to you? What about privacy concerns?

This is a philosophical thought exercise I’ve been bouncing back and forth in my head for a while now. I call it the conundrum of critical mass.

You can keep a smaller, more meticulously pruned network to have stronger control over whom can view and comment on your content, but you suffer a larger chance of being lost in the crowd. Or, you can expand the network to whoever’s willing to join, but risk having to wade through the waterfall of content coming your way and deal with folks commenting randomly on any piece of content you post. Sure, you can tweak your settings to view only the specific folks whose content you’d like to read and interact with (which helps with the input on your end), but it can be more labor-intensive to adjust which members of your network can read and interact with your content.

The risk of the tighter network model is that any of your given posts have a higher risk of missing the mark. You have a smaller audience, which could result in either 1) the post wasn’t interesting or relevant to them, or 2) they weren’t online when it was posted and it’s lost in the stream of posts from their other friends.

Or, you can play the indifferent or uninhibited cards and simply not bother to care. There are plenty of folks on Twitter, for example, that will just ignore the vast majority of mentions and direct messages from their followers, even if they’ve made the effort to follow them back.

Yep, I realize this post is self-examination. I don’t claim to be a brilliant, witty, or inspirational person (despite what you may have been told), but it’s the interactions between individuals in social networks that really interest me. I’m always curious to know what content gets people interested and engaged without coming across as chatty or self-serving. At the same time, I’m constantly conscious of the privacy implications in social networks: basically, avoiding whatever content would be sharing too much.

Eat More Dog Food

In the information age, specifically its latest iteration, social media, it’s easier than ever to slip the rails and get off track. I’m not talking specifically about poor online behavior or being a bad social neighbor, but practicing what you preach and taking responsibility for your actions. To use a well-worn adage, you need to “eat your own dog food”.

Here’s two very basic points I want to express, both for all the netizens and twitternauts out there, as well as myself:

  • Follow your own advice. Sounds simple, right? I’ve found myself in many situations where I fail to follow my own advice, and I tend to prove myself right when things don’t work out. Be consistent with your convictions, but don’t be unwilling to shift or change them should you find a better way or gain an better perspective. This is doubly and triply important if your words are captured in the printed word, blogs, podcasts, videos, or other media. People will notice and call you out if you get off track.
  • Own up to your mistakes. Again, a simple concept, but one I fail to see more often than I’d like. Your words and actions are your creations and therefore your responsibility. If you make an error in perception or judgment, admit it, learn from the experience, and move on. I’ve found that people can be far more understanding and forgiving if you accept and own up to your faults. If it’s an argument or dispute that you’re involved in, and you’re in the wrong, be the better person and swallow your pride.

So, bust out the can opener, grab a spoon, and get ready to chow down. Eat more dog food. You’ll be glad you did.

Crafting Your Project’s “Vision Quest”: Thoughts on Jared Spool’s “Turning Back to the Future” Presentation

The closing presentation at this month’s UIE Web App Masters Tour in Philadelphia was “Turning Back to the Future” by Jared Spool. In this session, Jared shared how “successful teams learn about what they should design from their future” by having a shared vision. He laid out several guidelines for crafting this vision: identify who’s involved (the “design agents”), conduct your research, craft your personas and scenarios, script and produce how the final product should appear and/or function, and, finally, impress upon the team the vision of the project itself.

One key point Jared made was that the true goal is not the product itself, which he calls the envisionment, but the overall vision of your product: a shared story and a unified perspective. You should be able to ask every member of your team about your project and have them give the same details of your project’s story: its purposes, aspirations, and triumphs. They should be able to describe the current experience of how your product or service is used, the “aspriational experience” (its next stage of evolution), and understand the research that supports both.

This concept of a shared vision, what I’ve been thinking of as a “vision quest” of sorts, has resonated with me the most since the Tour.  I’ve collected some thoughts, based both on my professional experiences and aspects of Jared’s presentation, on what a “vision quest” needs to succeed.

First, you need a knowledgeable and passionate leader. It could be a C-suite executive who serves as the sponsor of the project or the project team lead, but they must have both attributes. They have to be knowledgeable to indicate the overall direction the team needs to travel in, which milestones need to be achieved, and how to motivate the team to reach their destiny effectively and within a reasonable project schedule. They have to be passionate, so that when they rally, guide, instruct, approve, direct, or correct, they are doing so in a way that inspires the team to attack their work with gusto, learn from the challenges they experience along the way, and feel the surge of delight that accompanies a successful project launch. Oh, and they need to be honest; no buzzwords or business speak. Leaders who speak from the heart and are transparent about their efforts are far more compelling to me.

Second, you need a motivated and inspired team. As a team member for my own projects, I am far more compelled to complete a task with flair when it’s something I enjoy, believe in, and feel holds a higher purpose for the users (whoever they may be). Of course, not every facet of a project is going to be candy canes and sunbeams, but that’s where the aforementioned leader can lend their knowledge and passion to motivate and inspire. Keep rallying the team. Keep them informed of their goals. Congratulate them when they’ve achieved their milestones and counsel them through their inevitable challenges. Give each of them the opportunity to research and develop their own innovations by channeling their individual passions and strengths. Think Google and its policy of allowing their developers to pursue their own interests. By giving them the space to explore and expand their own skillsets, it gives them the ability to bring these feats back to the core project and apply their knowledge to the overall vision. Plus, it keeps them happy, which is always key.

Third, you need a clear and ambitious vision. I’m fully aware that most folks don’t think of the words “inspiration” or “destiny” when working on quarterly strategic objectives and their ilk. But they can and should. This is where the concept of a vision can be stilted or stunted. You hear about corporations issuing mission or vision statements that are supposed to outline their direction and their goals. They’re more fluff than fervor. You can say you want to a “leader” in your line of business, but that’s way too obvious. Of course you want to lead; that’s why you’re here in the first place, isn’t it? To me, it doesn’t serve any purpose to state what’s assumed; we should all strive for excellence. Think about it: you wouldn’t say, “Our mission is to never be mediocre, second-rate, or ordinary.” That’s assumed, too, but you don’t trumpet it to the world. Jared fully acknowledged this in his presentation by citing how specific, measureable goals in a vision stand a far higher chance of succeeding and inspiring the team to action than vague or generic ones. This is where the secret recipe of knowledge and passion come together to make the perfect menu. The specific goals cited in your vision should be crafted in equal parts knowledge (research, personas, etc.) and passion (the user’s experience and your envisionment). Be ambitious. Get it done, and do it right.

Jared had many other key pieces of advice and several clever examples in his presentation, but the “vision quest” is where I wanted to focus my attention with this entry. So, here’s my closing question: have you had a “vision quest” with any of your projects? What led you down the path of inspiration and brought you to victory? When have you seen just the opposite occur? Let’s share and discuss.

Update (6-20-10): Made a correction to one of my opening paragraphs to fix my paraphrasing of Jared’s vision/envisionment, which I had gotten backwards. See the comments for an excellent follow-up by Jared on how team visions can flourish and succeed at lower levels of management and in smaller chunks of an overall project lifecycle.

Confessions of an Occasional Introvert

For 95% of my daily existence, I consider myself to be a fairly chatty, reasonably extroverted type of person. Those who know me well always comment on “how quiet” things are when I’m not around. It never seems to border on the excessive or annoying (at least, I hope), save when I’ve had “too much of a good thing” with regards to coffee.

Every now and again, though, I prefer not to talk at all. Consider me an “occasional introvert”.

This is hard for folks to understand. I’m not mad (as in “angry” vs. “insane”). I’m not ignoring anyone. I’m perfectly content to communicate from behind the electronic walls of e-mail, Twitter, etc.; I’d just prefer we’d leave it at that for the time being, thanks. Sometimes the back-and-forth rituals of conversation are not how I want to be that day.

If we must bring psychology into play, I suppose it’s some leftover remnant from being an only child. You get used to being a “lone wolf”, and that sticks with you, no matter how old or seemingly well-adjusted you’ve become.

So, bear with me, folks. No offense intended, and you did nothing wrong. I just need a little quiet time.

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