The elephant in the room: The war between art and commerce

We’re not talking about it directly, but  let’s not kid ourselves, theres a war going on.

On one side, there are those of us who see the potential for interacting as one community (from producer to consumer) as a core value to be cherished and nurtured and as a linchpin to worthwhile, world-changing (and yes, wildly profitable) work.

On the other side, there are those for whom connection that is not in service to a marketing goal is an expendable luxury, for whom sitting back with arms folded and a “prove it” stance is preferable to opening up and saying “what if”, for whom asking about ROI is not actually meant as anything other than a conversation stopper and a muzzler of progress in the name of inertia.

You can probably tell by my descriptions which side I put myself on.

Underneath every “What is the ROI of caring?” argument and “Can’t we get an intern to run our Facebook page?” email is a silent “fuck you and what you stand for,” whether the sender is consciously aware of it or not.

The most valuable warriors in this battle are the ones in parts of the gray area between extremes, who have a better view of the common ground, and “speaking each others language” without compromising the core values of “their side” (i.e. without getting too close to the fence).  Do the creative people need to partner with the business people to figure out a way to get creativity done through the lens of business?  Yes.


The self-styled “Guru” or “Expert” complex.

As we get older (and wiser), certain truths seem to reveal themselves.  I’ve talked about some that have smacked me over the head (the “What I’ve Learned” post from 2009, my hubristic “Jeremy’s Rules for a Better Life“, the recent “What matters in life: Connection and Giving“) here before.

Looking back on them, there is nothing that earth shattering that hasn’t been talked about for thousands of years (from the Tao Te Ching, to The Art of Living, to parts of the Bible, to “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals).  The recognition that we are all fundamentally connected and similar, with hopes and fears and isolating behaviors and connecting behaviors that serve us and don’t serve us and that we ultimately can learn how to address these challenges can be heady stuff.

When the world comes into focus around some core truths, I understand the impulse to tell the world “I get it!”   I really do.  There’s an excitement that builds around “I know what your problem is, and I can help” that is intoxicating.

The problem starts when the ego starts getting involved.  We go from “I can help!” to “I’m an expert. I’m better than other people.”  Which is toxic to a relationship.

The truth is, expertise has a shelf life.  We think we’ve “arrived” at the answer to all the problems, and if only people would listen to us everything would be better.

And then the world changes.

And then we grow.

And we get wiser.

And we realize we don’t have all the answers.

And we learn to stop chasing tomorrow.

And gradually wisdom replaces expertise.

True expertise is being vulnerable enough to say “I don’t know.”

So, be wary of those who call themselves “Experts” and “Gurus” and “Mavens” and “Connectors”.

They too are on a journey.

Show them kindness, and remember that they came pre-installed with the same buggy self-replicating hardware we did.

Or maybe I’m wrong.


* Photo Credit: Raster via Flickr

The one question you must ask when interacting

All the ROI, strategy, tactics, RFPs, business plans, dating sites, communication workshops, social media blogs, all this stuff we talk about, it all rolls up to one sentiment for me.

Is what you’re doing making life more awesome for those around you.

This comes from your gut.  It’s not something that can be measured in Excel. Forget about Excel for now.  Can someone take this tweet, this campaign, this conversation, this date, this blog post, this smile, and grow from it?  Not every interaction need be earth shattering, but every one should come from the intention of generosity and empowerment.

You can tell when someone isn’t coming from this place.  It’s not their fault, they may not know any better.  You see them create videos that talk about how awesome the new version of their product or service is, have conversations with the “enough about me, what do you think about my situation” attitude, and so on.  Too much of this, and it can actually be viscerally distasteful to interact.

Of course, trying to do this every single time is very difficult.  But I think if more people, more companies, more interactions were built on this premise, even just 1% more, the world would be a much richer place.

To illustrate, here’s a picture of a cat bathing its kitten. Happy Friday!

Be a person-sized learning atom within your own community.

[This post inspired by a post that Rich Millington wrote about Why Most Companies Shouldn’t Try To Create an Online Community]

Most organizations really want a big following, not a community.

A following is an audience that interacts with you. A community is an audience that interacts with each other.

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about in my capacity as a digital strategist is the choices companies make with regard to how they position themselves within the communities they enable.  I think as an industry we may be doing a disservice to the overall success of these communities by not stressing the following point:

Even though you are the creators of the ecosystem, that does not mean you are the most essential part of the discussion.

In fact, taking a stance “above” or “apart” from the rest of the community will only detract from people’s willingness to engage. Nobody likes to feel like ‘big brother’ is there, or that they’re being talked down to.  This is another example of ‘us vs them’ thinking.


Sheridan classroom

Whether people choose to start conversations or not is a function of how you position yourself within the community.  If you are the ‘voice of God’ and ‘the one with all the cool stuff, tips and tricks, and information,’ of coursepeople aren’t going to chat. You’ve made it clear with your tone that you don’t need their help, you can handle it all yourself.  People respond to that by going elsewhere.


Instead, consider become a person-sized atom of your community.  Answer questions, yes.  But also respond to unrelated comments, ask people for advice, take your cues from what people are talking about.

Pretend you’re not the administrator, just be a fellow user who happens to have access to some of your companies resources.  The only special power bestowed upon you as an administrator is control over the technical parameters of the community.  Your voice in the conversation is exactly the same as anyone else.

You will be much more valued as a humble human presence that is there to learn and grow and be inspired by those who choose to spend their time with you than anything you could say as ‘the authoritative voice of your product with all the answers’.

Or you could continue to build a “following” of people who don’t really care all that much.

Up to you.

Why do we value strategy so much?

We have a strategic plan, it's called Doing ThingsMy job, technically, is developing social media strategy on behalf of our clients.  I write a lot of ‘this is why social media is important for your business’-type documents.  I work with some brilliant strategic thinkers.

Sometimes, though, I wonder: why are we, as digitally focused communicators all so obsessed with strategy? Why are we all so impressed with ourselves when we come up with a cool strategy for a campaign, for a candidate, for a cause.  Why do we have conferences, organizations, entire channels dedicated to strategic thought?

All I can come up with at this very moment is the following: Strategy is easy. Execution is not.

Talk is cheap, actions are not.

I had two very different experiences at conferences these last two weeks.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to go to the Clinton Foundation’s “Clinton Global Initiative University” conference in Miami.  CGIU is an organization where college-age folks can make ‘commitments’ to amke a difference in the world in one of several different areas, and are empowered by the Clinton name, and get together once a year to network, build resources,  and present.  A coworker and I went around with a Flip Camera and interviewed students about what they’re doing.   The answers were truly inspiring.

These 20-22 year olds were working to get schools built in starving nations, developing bike-share programs to cut down on greenhouse gasses, to getting legislation passed to address homeless needs.  These millennials, who we are so quick to dismiss or try to box into our own limited ideals, are out there doing something that has a tangible positive affect on the health of the world. They aren’t spending their precious resources talking about engagement strategies, which video site to use to share the story, or ‘what facebook’s open platform means for oauth’. They’re just out there, looking at things that need fixing and fixing them.

In contrast (and I will keep the abuse to a minimum here), I went to the first day of Jeff Pulver‘s #140conf this past week. Now, Jeff has done a lot for the development of the web, and certainly has his heart in the right place with this conference, but the sheer amount of self-congratulatory “isn’t Twitter great, folks?” nonsense that permeated the tone of the panels and discussions was overwhelming enough that I could not bring myself to go back for day 2. Of course there were some great, inspiring conversations, but they were just that. Conversations.

The difference between these two experiences? One focused on strategy, and strategic discussions of tactics, and one was a demonstration of people doing the work.

In the end, all the ‘social media is important’ decks in the world won’t fix the problems in our society, even the ones we’re so intent on saying that communication and open dialogue will address.

So with all our hours of conversations about conversation, all our debates about where online communities are going, all our Tweets and Facebook status updates and blog posts, all our strategy and strategizing our action, what have we really done but talk.  What have you done to change the world? Who would you place your bets on making a real sustainable difference in the health of the world?

Personally, my money’s on the doers.