The Trouble with “Smart”

Tell me if this resonates with you.

I’ve been called ‘smart’ my whole life.

I hate it.

“You’re so smart” discounts any effort I make about educating myself, learning things, questioning assumptions.  It narrows it down to merely a trait, over which we have very little conscious control.

“You have brown hair” … “You’re so smart”.

It can be intended as a compliment, or a communication of disappointment.  “You’re so smart, why did you do this dumb thing?”

It raises expectations and makes failure a lot more perilous, because its becomes less about trying something lightly and moving on if it doesn’t work and more about (say it with me now, those of you who’ve ever had a report card) “Not living up their potential”

Great. So if I try something and I’m not good at it right off the bat, I disappoint those who care about me, who have high expectations of me (including myself)? Well then, I’d better not do things that I don’t already know that I’d be good at.

And the world becomes small.

It turns out this is an actual thing amongst kids praised for their smarts rather than their effort, and not just me being crazy.

But I think there’s a secret to this whole “smart” thing.

The thing I’ve noticed about others who are perceived as smart is this: It’s not about knowing stuff.  It’s about being able to connect seemingly unrelated things at speed.

“Smart” is all about pattern matching.

And the best way to learn how to see the connections between otherwise unrelated parts of the world is to be curious.

But I’ve done plenty of writing about curiosity already.

So maybe I’m not Smart.

Maybe I’ve trained myself to see connections.

Thats a much more interesting thing to be, and do, and a conscious choice.

It gives one credit for their own brain.


On integrity, and the corrupting influence of business.

[for @jasonmoriber]

Cover of
Cover of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s brilliant “You Are Not a Gadget“, in which a large section is devoted to pointing out the many dangers of Web 2.0, mainly the fact that we are engineering, coding, and socializing ourselves to be generic ‘worker ants’ in service to an imagined ‘cloud of information’, rather than using new technologies for true individual, weird, unique expression of our humanity.

You ever read a book that scratches an itch you didn’t know you had?   I’ve long had beef with the “Social Media Community”s appropriation (and necessary corruption) of communication to achieve business goals (no matter how much ‘business wants to be more human!’ crowing happens), but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to articulate my fear, squickiness and discomfort with the industry that has cropped up, and the discussion that is happening around ‘what should business do with the internet’.

Jaron has managed to hit on many of the points I have in my head but have not committed to text.  Facebook, Twitter, et al remove all of our individual expression and we cheerfully attempt to self-define through a pre-selected collection of ‘what do you like’ drop downs  and ‘about me’ text boxes.  We happily accept that the entity with all the control, power, and agency are in fact advertisers, the very ‘big business’ we all claim to demand have less influence over what goes on in our world, the same places we get outraged by when we find out they pay 0 taxes and screw workers.

Something that he doesn’t touch on (more because its outside the purview of the overall point he’s making) is that business as a construct has no particular adherence to integrity.  We anthropomorphize companies in our minds, via Twitter avatars, via our laws.  Internally, however, although they may be staffed by many ‘good people’ who only have the best intentions, business as a construct arcs toward profitability and specifically routes around integrity the closer it gets to profit as a motivating factor.

One need look no further than the recent (yes, this is one of the few times on the blog I will set something in time) case where Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to smear Google on blogs.  I do not wish to go into the reasons behind Facebook choosing to make this happen, as they’re getting enough flack.  I want to look at Burson’s contemptuous, condescending, business-style response. (brilliantly parodied by the mystery folks behind Heishman-Flillard)

They could have said “we should have turned down this task when we were asked to do it. It’s good for business but bad karma, and we are better than that.  We are reviewing the process that lead to us thinking this would be okay.”

Instead they wrote the following:

The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.

It is a total abdication of any responsibility for their actions, a justification of a slimy practice that many PR folks have condemned, and makes no attempt to claim that their work, decision-making process and vetting have any integrity whatsoever.  This from a company that is the poster child for a lack of integrity.  (seriously, Rachel Maddow did an expose about them that concluded with “When evil needs PR work done, Evil has Burson-Marstellar on speed dial”.  You can watch more examples via this Maddow clip.)

This is why I cannot get excited about business on social channels.  Business presence on social channels is by nature a corrupting influence, because business has no integrity.  People may, but the nature of business is to override personal integrity with capitalist interest under the guise of self-sustainment as it grows too large for human compassion to remain the core value.

Are there exceptions? I would argue that there are, but they are rare, generally quiet about it, and the ones that are talked about (Zappos, etc) are talked about mostly in the ‘…and they’re profitable!’ way.

The quietly virtuous ones are the kinds of companies I’ve been spending the last 6 months of unemployment trying to find and be a part of.  I work with integrity, to the best of my ability.

So, anyway… Read “You are not a Gadget”. (for the sake of the article, this is not an affiliate link).

And don’t be surprised that I’m not on fucking Empire Avenue.

Social Media isn’t the game changer. Acting like humans is the game changer.

I’m SO sick of the phrase “Social Media”  It ghettoizes what is essentially human-to-human interaction into some kind of line item on a marketing plan.

Using Twitter isn’t about 140 characters.  It’s about companies saying “We’re here to help, what can we do” and putting someone in charge of helping.

A Facebook page isn’t about having a convenient place to push the RSS feed of your press releases.  It’s about saying “Here’s a place where we can all come together, share our experiences” and connect with other people who are into the same thing.”

A blog isn’t a place to show how smart your people are and how awesome your company is.  It’s about “Here’s what we’re thinking, tell us what you think.”

“How can we best strategize our tactical efforts to maximize ROI” is a damned copout.  Forget all you know about how you think you need to talk to people at your job, and start talking to the public like you talk to people you like. Everyone who would be interested in what you have to say online is already your friend.  If you can’t do it, you’d better hire someone who can.  Then talk to me about ROI.

Selling stuff isn’t your goal.  Connecting with people is your goal.  Selling stuff is a result of connecting to the point where people would feel bad for NOT buying your stuff.

The information age is about crumbling the pillars of faceless corporate messaging and revealing the people inside who want to talk.

Let’s not reduce an idea as transformational, uniquely of our time and essential to the future as this to the meaningless bland corporate speak of “Social Media” any more.

Just stop.


Rant over.

Social Media People need to STFU and GBTW too.

Note: the “too” in the headline is a reference connecting this post to a previous one about media companies needing to STFU and, well, you know.

I’ve really had it up to here with Social Media Experts (including, and sometimes especially, those who go on rants about social media experts as if they aren’t ones themselves) going on and on and on about how twitter is a fundamental paradigm shift and how important it is that everyone learn how to do it the “right” way by listening to them.

Here are some things that really piss me off (not just me, either)

  • If you’re at a conference that you paid to get into?  Be at the conference.  Don’t spend 90% of your time tweeting what the people on stage are saying.  You’re not a participant, you’re a court reporter.  And it annoys the HELL out of people who follow you because you’re making an assumption that they’re interested in whats going on at this conference enough to eat up some significant portion of their real estate.
  • Here are some topics that you can just shut up about right now.
  • I’m interesting, so everyone must be interested in how I use twitter. (also known as ‘hey I joined a site,I must be an expert! syndrome).
  • Number of followers don’t matter even though I have thousands and that’s why I’m here attending/speaking at this conference
  • The shifting business paradigm making it so much easier to get paid to chat all day.
  • Listening is the new talking even though I’m talking about listening without actually listening
  • Posts entitled “What _____ can teach us about social media”? Shut up. Not everything is about Social Media. The world is bigger than that. Filtering everything through the SM lens narrows the ability of people to take larger messages, lessons and tools from the things going on around.  And isn’t that the point?
  • Just because a company has a PR mishap or doesn’t do something according to your own arbitrary rules of how companies should be run (whether or not you’ve ever worked in the industry in question, at a company of that size, or at a company at all), doesn’t mean they FAIL or that it’s a CATASTROPHE or and they’re OBVIOUSLY OUT OF TOUCH. Shut up. Nobody wants to read your blog posts about it except other people like you.

We get it. That’s why we’re using the site.

Also: DO something. If you can’t cite specific examples of ways you’ve used stuff you’re talking about to help a company you work for? Shut up.  You know what helps people to learn? Show, don’t tell.

It is your job to provide the maximum value per-interaction as possible, right? That’s what it says on your linkedin profiles? If your value proposition (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little) to people who pay attention to you (be it online or in person) is spouting confucian words of wisdom about marketing and being a stenographer in rooms full of people also being stenographers (especially if you complain about people getting information for free that you paid for), then maybe you shouldn’t be a Social Media rockstar in the first place.

How did a group of people that are supposed to be all about effective communication of ideas and authentic interpersonal relationships devolve into such self-congratulatory ego-fed bullshit?  As @davewiner has taken to saying: “Dude! No One Cares!”

STFU and GBTW.  And no, your job isn’t building your personal brand.

Rant over.

What do you mean, I actually have to do my job?: Why the media industries need to STFU and GBTW.

This post is inspired by the MediaHacks podcast, where Hugh McGuire relayed the story/opinion that Encyclopaedia companies were up in arms over Wikipedia, by claiming that Wikipedia was going to kill the business for Britannica, etc.  Hugh, rightly so, called them out on this being a load of crap.  What it DOES do, however, is force Britannica to up their game and really put some thought into what their core value is (is it books? is it making people look smart to their friends by having encyclopaedia in their house?  Is it as an heirloom? is it actually the information) and adjust their business model accordingly.

Media companies by and large have become complacent and lazy, believing their own hype, and (most importantly) believing that they are the only ones who can affect the market for what they’re selling and how.

This particular combination of traits, combined with a healthy disinterest and sometimes even contempt for their customer base (“look what we made them buy AGAIN”) has lead to panic and frequent legal action when the paradigm has shifted via external means.  For example (and this will be the only time I pick on the music industry specifically):

Home taping is killing music
Home taping is killing music

Similarly, when the VCR was starting to become widely available, then head of the MPAA Jack Valenti gave this testimony before Congress ((via Mark Reeder and Slashdot))

“‘I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.’ Jack Valenti said this in 1982 in testimony to the House of Representatives on why the VCR should be illegal. He also called the VCR an “avalanche” and a “tidal wave”, and said it would make the film industry “bleed and bleed and hemorrhage”.

..and of course by 1999, the $16 billion home video industry represented 55% of studios’ domestic revenues, while box office revenues were 22% ((via Video Software Dealers Association via

What we’ve seen time and time again is that every time there’s a disruption, media companies first response is to scream bloody murder, try to “unring the bell” of whatever new disruption has caught them off guard (whether it’s Napster, the Kindle, Twitter, BitTorrent, Bloggers covering political events), send lawyers after them and basically do everything an autistic child does when confronted with change they don’t like..

I’m here to say here and now:  Shut the %^#& up and Get Back To Work.

Each of the examples mentioned above were opportunities for each industry to take a close look at themselves and see what their core value was, identify and address consumer needs, and use 21st (and late 20th) century tools to work both harder AND smarter.   Each sector could’ve reinvented itself in the mold of JetBlue, who defines itself repeatedly as “a customer-service company that happens to fly airplanes” ((via WSJ Classroom)).  Instead what has happened in the last 10 years is basically “We know best.  Trust us.” and a lot of head-in-the-sand nonsense.

What’s sad is that companies lack of willingness to take ideas from outside themselves, inability to adjust in a meaningful way to the flattening of the information/access/publishing/sharing curve, and continued hubris in the face of ever-declining revenues has failed to register at the upper echelons of these companies in any meaningful way, and instead has lead to arguments like the one posed by The Authors Guild in opposition to Kindle 2’s new text-to-speech renderer, which allows Kindle owners to hear a mechanized voice ‘reading’ Kindle-purchased books.

“Bundling e-books and audio books has been discussed for a long time in the industry. It’s a good idea, but it shouldn’t be accomplished by fiat by an e-book distributor,”. “They don’t have the right to read a book out loud,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.” ((via WSJ and

…as if the market for Patrick Stewart reading Dickens would suddenly shrivel and die because a speech algorithm could also pronounce ‘Bob Cratchit’.  As if the publishing industry has done anything to futher the audiobook side of things (free podcasts of the first chapters of classic works and upcoming titles? no.  Including download cards in hardcover editions? no.).  In fact, the only thing book publishers have done in the audio space is to give control over and license all their content to…guess what, a third-party distributor,!

This all goes back to my original point about companies being LAZY (note that I do not mean that the people within them do not work hard).  The same tired interruption-based campaigns that used to work due to lack of alternate options are retreaded over and over for the same tired variations on products, with encouragement to “think outside the box” …but not too far outside, not if it conflicts with the business model.  Metrics are hard-won and not truly analyzed.  Scapegoating abounds.

Discovering, encouraging and empowering an audience is hard work.  The tools for doing this are just beginning to realize themselves.  Now is the time for bold experimentation, not for complaining when the old ways of gaining an audience cease to be effective.  Seth Godin priced the eBook for his “Tribes” book at 99 cents, and now it’s the most downloaded eBook in the history of eBooks.  This isn’t rocket science.

It’s unfortunate that so many skilled, forward-thinking people have been laid off due to the inability of industries to change course.

So, I say unto thee:  Shut The F$%^ Up and Get Back To Work .  Hire a person, heck hire a team of people who can implement a system to figure out what the scary people out there (you know, the people that pay your salaries with their disposable income) expect from you, what they want, what would make them happy.  Listen to the results.  Change the course of your industry’s future.  Your whole reason for existing is to make customers happy.  Your whole reason for existing is to make customers happy. And it’s really not that hard!  If you have lots of VPs who sit around in meetings, fire some of them.  Take the money from their salaries and hire smart people who know how to mine the internet world for actionable information.  Start from the very beginning, see what pisses people off about your company, and fix it.  See what people like about what you do, expand upon it. Time is running out.

You say people are stealing your content, that new technologies will ruin your business, that they must be stopped or DRMed or lobbied against or sued or region-locked or put in jail (seriously?).  I say “figure out a way to listen and get relevant again” or, more succinctly… STFU and GBTW.