Contested Boundaries and Saturated Selves

In her book The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Judith Donath outlines designs for living online. Echoing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), she writes, “We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience” (p. 9). One needn’t look any further that a computer’s desktop to see this in action. “Immersion” was once a strong notion in computer-mediated communication studies, online communities, and virtual reality. Now we are not so much immersed in media as we are saturated by it.

The Social MachineDonath points out that these are boundary issues. Walls, fences, locked doors, online moderators—“the doormen of discussions” (p. 159), spam filters, and other gate-keeping contrivances protect the private from the public and vice versa. Even with such boundaries in place, our embodiedness is still at risk. We are as sieves, filtering news from noise, or as sponges, soaking up information and influence of all kinds. The latter evokes Psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self”:

Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become a part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self (1991, p. 6).

Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) pontificated on the fading boundaries of the “post-information age,” writing,

In the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in specific place at specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an “address” now takes on new meaning (p. 163).

The history of the internet is largely a story of broken-down boundaries (see Grodin & Lindolof, 1996; Jenkins, 2006; van Dijck, 2013). Its architecture “rests upon principles of convergence, which enable multiple and overlapping connections between varieties of distinct social spheres” (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). The inherent irony of Negroponte’s observation is that since physical location no longer matters in the digital, post-geographic workday, it makes it matter even more. If you can work from anywhere, where you live means more than ever. You can live wherever you want regardless of where your work is. The old boundaries are gone.

The End of AbsenceThe overwhelming irony now is that where we are matters less than the digital wares with which we saturate our selves. On the commute, at school, at work, at home, on a trip, visiting friends—the smartphone usurps all of these with a persistent and precise hold on our attention. In William Gibson‘s term, the online world has “everted” itself into physical space. The fact that it is now inescapable is what writer Michael Harris calls “the end of absence.” His is an example of what I have called the Advent Horizon. We feel a sense of loss when we cross one of these lines. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable—differently on an individual and collective level—in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. It takes 30 years for a full, generational change and with that a full shift in advent horizons. Harris notes, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After” (p. 15).

Reaching across one of these divides, Thomas de Zengotita (2005) writes of digitally zombified youth,

… It was if they were somnambulating, hypnotized, into some newborn zone of being where hallowed custom and bizarre context were so surreally fused that the whole tableau seemed poised to shimmer off into the ether at any moment (p. 155).

Ours is a chronic presence in a chronic present. Donath (2014), writes of our online personal presences, “The stranger, as we think of him now, may cease to exist” (p. 336). But Harris (2014) adds, “Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something…?” (p. 8).

Well, was there?

References:

de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Donath, Judith. (2014). The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Grodin, Debra & Lindlof, Thomas R. (1996). Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. Thosand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harros, Michael. (2014). The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. New York: Current.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lakoff, George, & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995). Being Digital.  New York: Knopf.

Papacharissi, Zizi. (2011). A Networked Self. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-317). New York: Routledge.

van Dijck, José. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

How Soon is Now? The Perpetual Present

When I was growing up, the year 2000 was the temporal touchstone everyone used to mark the advances of modern life. Oh, by then we’d be doing so many technologically enabled things: Cars would fly and run on garbage, computers would run everything, school wouldn’t exist. We were all looking forward, and Y2K gave us a point on the horizon to measure it all by. When it came and went without incident, we were left with what we had in the present. In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current, 2013), Douglas Rushkoff argues that the flipping of the calendar to the new millennium turned our focus from the future to the never-ending now. “We spent the latter part of the 20th Century leaning towards the year 2000, almost obsessed with the future, the dot-com boom, the long boom, and all that,” he tells David Pescovitz, “It was a century of movements with grand goals, wars to end wars, and relentless expansionism. Then we arrived at the 21st, and it was as if we had arrived.”

“We spent centuries thinking of hours and seconds as portions of the day,” he continues, “But a digital second is less a part of greater minute, and more an absolute duration, hanging there like the number flap on an old digital clock.” A digital clock is good at accurately displaying the time right now, but an analog clock is better at showing you how long it’s been since you last looked. Needing, wanting, or having only the former is what present shock is all about. It’s what Ruskoff calls elsewhere “a diminishment of everything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” As the song goes, when you say it’s gonna happen “now,” well, when exactly do you mean?

Michael Leyton (1992) calls us all “prisoners of the present” ( p. 1), like runners on a temporal treadmill. He argues that “all cognitive activity proceeds via the recovery of the past through objects in the present” (p. 2), and those objects often linger longer than they once did thanks to recording technologies. In 1986 Iain Chambers described the persistence of the present through such media, writing,

With electronic reproduction offering the spectacle of gestures, images, styles, and cultures in a perpetual collage of disintegration and reintegration, the ‘new’ disappears into a permanent present. And with the end of the ‘new’ – a concept connected to linearity, to the serial prospects of ‘progress’, to ‘modernism’ – we move into a perpetual recycling of quotations, styles, and fashions: an uninterrupted montage of the ‘now’ (p. 190).

Present ShockNeedless to say that the situation has only been exacerbated by the onset of the digital. In one form or another, Rushkoff has been working on Present Shock his whole career. In it he continues the critical approach he’s sharpened over his last several books. Where Life, Inc. (Random House, 2009) tackled the corporate takeover of culture and Program or Be Programmed (OR Books, 2010) took on technology head-on, Present Shock deals with the digital demands of the now. A lot of the dilemma is due to the update culture of social media. No one reads two-week old Tweets or month-old blog posts. If it wasn’t posted today, in the last few hours, it disappears into irrelevance. And if it’s too long, it doesn’t get read at all. These are not rivers or streams, they’re puddles. All comments, references, and messages, and no story. The personal narrative is lost. It’s the age of “tl; dr.” The 24-hour news, a present made up of the past, and advertising interrupting everything are also all about right now, but our senses of self maybe the biggest victims.

“Even though we may be able to be in only one place at a time,” Rushkoff writes, “our digital selves are distributed across every device, platform, and network onto which we have cloned our virtual identities” (p. 72). Our online profiles give us an atemporal agency whereon we are there but not actually present. On the other side, our technologies mediate our identities by anticipating or projecting a user. As Brian Rotman (2008) writes, “This projected virtual user is a ghost effect: and abstract agency distinct from any particular embodied user, a variable capable of accommodating any particular user within the medium” (p. xiii). Truncated and clipped, we shrink to fit the roles the media allow.

Mindfulness is an important idea cum buzzword in the midst of all this digital doom. Distraction may be just attention to something else, but what if we’re stuck in permanently distracted present with no sense of the past and no time for the future? If you’ve ever known anyone who truly lives in the moment, nothing matters except that moment. It’s the opposite of The Long Now, what Rushkoff calls the “Short Forever.” Things only have value over time. Citing the time binding of Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, Rushkoff illustrates how we bind the histories of past generations into words and symbols. The beauty is that we can leverage the knowledge of that history without going through it again. The problem is that without a clear picture of the labor involved, we risk mistaking the map for the territory.

James Gleick summed it up nicely when he told me in 1999,”We know we’re surrounding ourselves with time-saving technologies and strategies, and we don’t quite understand how it is that we feel so rushed. We worry that we gain speed and sacrifice depth and quality. We worry that our time horizons are foreshortened — our sense of the past, our sense of the future, our ability to plan, our ability to remember.” Well, here we are. What now?

The existence of this book proves we can still choose. In the last chapter of Present Shock, Rushkoff writes,

…taking the time to write or read a whole book on the phenomenon does draw a line in the sand. It means we can stop the onslaught of demands on our attention; we can create a safe space for uninterrupted contemplation; we can give each moment the value it deserves and no more; we can tolerate uncertainty and resist the temptation to draw connections and conclusions before we are ready; and we can slow or even ignore the seemingly inexorable pull from the strange attractor at the end of human history (p. 265-266).

We don’t have to stop or run, we can pause and slow down. Instant access to every little thing doesn’t mean we have to forsake attended access to a few big things. Take some time, read this book.

References:

Chambers, Iain. (1986). Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience. New York: Routledge.

Leyton, Michael. (1992). Symmetry, Causality, Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Morrissey, Steven & Marr, Johnny (1984). How Soon is Now? [Recorded by The Smiths]. On Hatful of Hollow [LP]. London: Rough Trade.

Rotman, Brian. (2008). Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rushkoff, Douglas. (2013). Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Current.

Mindfulness and the Medium

Over forty years ago, media philosopher Walter Ong wrote that the “advent of newer media alters the meaning and relevance of the older. Media overlap, or, as Marshall McLuhan has put it, move through one another as do galaxies of stars, each maintaining its own basic integrity but also bearing the marks of the encounter ever after” (1971, p. 25). That is, a new technology rarely supplants its forebears outright but instead changes the relationships between existing technologies. During a visit to Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Demo Day, Professor Janet Murray told me that there are two schools of thought about the onset of digital media. One is that the computer is an entirely new medium that changes everything; the other is that it is a medium that remediates all previous media. It’s difficult to resist the knee-jerk theory that it is both an entirely new medium and remediates all previous media thereby changing everything, but none of it is quite that simple. As Ted Nelson would say, “everything is deeply intertwingled” (1987, passim).

Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2012), Murray’s first book since 1997’s essential Hamlet on the Holodeck (MIT Press), is a wellspring of knowledge for designers and practitioners alike. Unifying digital media under a topology of “representational affordances” (i.e., computational procedures, user participation, navigable space, and encyclopedic capacity), Murray provides applicable principles for digital design of all kinds — from databases (encyclopedic capacity) to games (the other three) and all points in between. There’s also an extensive glossary of terms in the back (a nice bonus). Drawing on the lineage of Vennevar Bush, Joseph Weizenbaum, Ted Nelson, Seymour Papert, and Donald Norman, as well as Murray’s own decades of teaching, research, and design, Inventing the Medium is as comprehensive a book as one is likely to find on digital design and use. I know I’ll be referring to it for years to come.

“Mindfulness” illustration by Anthony Weeks.

Designers can’t go far without grappling with the way a new medium not only changes but also reinforces our uses and understandings of the current ones. For example, the onset of digital media extended the reach of literacy by reinforcing the use of writing and print media. No one medium or technology stands alone. They must be considered in concert. Moreover, to be literate in the all-at-once world of digital media is to understand its systemic nature, the inherent interrelationship and interconnectedness of all technology and media. As Ong put it, “Today, it appears, we live in a culture or in cultures very much drawn to openness and in particular to open-system models for conceptual representations. This openness can be connected with our new kind of orality, the secondary orality of our electronic age…” (1977, p. 305). “Secondary orality” reminds one of the original names of certain technologies (e.g., “horseless carriage,” “cordless phone,” “wireless” technology, etc.), as if the real name for the thing is yet to come along.

These changes deserve an updated and much more nuanced consideration given how far they’ve proliferated since Ong’s time. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012) collects Howard Rheingold‘s thoughts about using, learning, and teaching via networks from the decades since Ong and McLuhan theorized technology’s epochal shift. Rheingold’s account is as personal as it is pragmatic. He was at Xerox PARC when Bob Taylor, Douglas Englebart, and Alan Kay were inventing the medium (see his 1985 book, Tools for Thought), and he was an integral part of the community of visionaries who helped create the networked world in which we live (he coined the term “virtual community” in 1987). In Net Smart, his decades of firsthand experience are distilled into five, easy-to-grasp literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection (critical consumption), and network smarts — all playfully illustrated by Anthony Weeks (see above). Since 1985, Rheingold has been calling our networked, digital technologies “mind amplifiers,” and it is through that lens that he shows us how to learn, live, and thrive together.

These two books are not only thoughtful, they are mindful. The deep passion of the authors for their subjects is evident in the words on every page. A bit ahead of their time, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan gave us a vocabulary to talk about our new media. With these two books, Janet Murray and Howard Rheingold have given us more than words: They’ve given us useful practices.

References:

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Murray, Janet. (2012). Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nelson, Ted. (1987). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Redmond, WA: Tempus Books.

Ong, Walter J. (1971). Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.

Rheingold, Howard. (1985). Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rheingold, Howard. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Temporary Eponymous Zone: SXSW 2012

SXSW can always be considered an extreme example of the platitude “when it rains, it pours,” but this year, it was a bit too literal. SXSW Interactive weekend was a rainy, sloppy affair like I haven’t seen in my few years in Austin. Someone — nay many ones — downtown likely made a killing on rain boots and umbrellas because they were everywhere, and I know nobody packed those for the trip. Once Interactive was over and the guard changed for Music, the rain had subsided and the sun shone again. The outdoor shows that would have been a drenched disaster went on without weather-induced incident.

I started off my own, soggy SXSW Interactive with a quiet breakfast with Howard Rheingold. He was here to talk about his new book, Net Smart (MIT Press, 2012), and it was his first time at SXSW since he was the keynote speaker for Interactive ten years ago. His book Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002) was just out then. Lots has changed around the conference since, but the ideas in that book were prescient (as proven by its echoes in Amber Case’s SXSWi keynote this year). Net Smart will definitely send out the same temporal ripples. Other than books, Howard and I talked about everything from the weather and breakfast to life and careers. It was so nice to sit down with one of my mentors for a face-to-face interaction after over ten years of virtual ones.

Next on the list of rain-limited events was a trip to Red 7 to see my friends Jake Flores, Ryan Cownie, Seth Cockfield, Brook Van Poppelen, Lucas Molandes, Nick Mullen, Blake Midgette, Kath Barbadoro, and others put on some free funny. Now, a show like this is a fairly typical night for me here in Austin, but this line-up is like three really good versions of those nights all put together. We had to go through a wormhole to find the back door to Red 7, and once inside we found our friends in the dark, damp, abandoned-warehouse feel of Red 7’s backside (there was some other event hogging up the inside space). Assorted badges followed us in, but most quickly left. The venue was perfect for the material in play though: dirty, dark, wet, hilarious. For those outside the community, the Austin stand-up comedy scene is one of its best kept secrets. It boasts not only open mics nearly every night of the week, but damn funny line-ups on a regular. Jake’s show was no exception. Against all the SXSW rules, we left early to catch Ume at Stubb’s.

Ume played on the big, outdoor stage at Stubb’s, which left us happily skanking in the mud. Eric Larson was out of town, but Mark Turk filled in nicely on bass, even after only two rehearsals. He and Rachel held down the rhythm and rumble while Lauren brought the flash. Fresh off of a Left Coast tour with Cursive, Lauren kept up her supernova energy (this was also only the second of no less than eleven shows Ume played during SXSW). The last couple of times I’ve seen them, they’ve ended with a new song that sounds like Lauren is singing for Kyuss. The track is thick, heavy and huge. According the Eric, the working title is “Black Stone.” I’m anxious to play it very loud on my headphones. We saw them again on Tuesday at Bat Bar with Eric happily reinstalled. Even with sound issues, they never disappoint.

Ume's Lauren Larson rocking Stubb's. (photo by Lily Brewer)

Monday found me getting my Music badge, which I’d tried to get the previous Friday, but was denied. Credentialed up, I met Alex Burns for lunch. Alex and I have worked in tandem on at least two versions of 21C Magazine as well as several years together on the Disinformation website. Alex is another great mind with whom I’ve been in touch and exchanged ideas for over a decade and finally met IRL at SXSW. People say it every year, but it cannot be overstated: The sidebar conversations that an event like SXSW affords are very often its true value.

Dave Allen, Hank Shocklee, and I hamming it up in the green room. (photo by David Ewald)

While meeting in the green room preparing for our panel “What Happened to the Big Idea in Music Technology?,” Hank Shocklee stopped by to say hello. As one of the sonic architects behind the sound of Public Enemy, Hank has had a profound influence on the way music sounds in the twenty-first century, as well as my appreciation thereof. It felt more than appropriate to run into him before we took the stage. Dave Allen (North), David Ewald (Uncorked Studios), Jesse von Doom (CASH Music), and I had done a version of this talk in San Francisco last September at SF MusicTech Summit. At SXSW Music, we were joined by Anthony Batt (BUZZnet, Katalyst, etc.) and novelist and music critic Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm, On Celestial Music, and many others). This gathering of minds represented every aspect of the issues we were addressing: From artists to fans and from technologists to journalists, we used everyone’s expertise and experience to express our opinions about the direction music is headed as an industry, a cultural practice, and as a commercial enterprise. Ours is a discussion that will continue as long as people love making and hearing music and other people try to capitalize on that love.

Speaking of music technology, the Vinylrecorder T-560 was on display at the trade show. This device allows one to cut a vinyl record from recordings on a computer. It’s like burning a CD, except it offers the “warmth” of vinyl playback. As many times as events at festivals like this prompt me to question what year they think it is (e.g., Bruce Springsteen? Counting Crows? Billy Corgan? We’re only doomed to repeat history if our elders keep force-feeding it to us.), I have to admit that the idea of pressing my own records looked like the kind of useless fun I often enjoy most. Home recording fun notwithstanding, the back-to-the-future approach of the Vinylrecorder is a great metaphor for many of the attitudes represented in music technology: “How do we use what we have now to get back to the way things were?” they seem to be asking.

This is part of the reason we gathered to talk about these issues. There’s no going back. Technology has lowered the barriers to entry, but you still have to be good at what you do. The internet has made fame much easier and fortune nearly impossible. You have to learn the technology. It’s easier now than ever to get heard, yet harder to stand out. Events like SXSW emphasize just how noisy and cluttered the current music milieu is. How do you cut through it all? If you want engagement, be engaging. Show us something. Doug Stanhope has a joke about how you never see ads for drugs. “If you have a good product,” he says, “people will find it. You don’t need to advertise.” No one owes you a living just because you make music (or Doug as a comedian, or me as a writer, etc.), but if you do something people want, they will find you. Rain or shine.

————

Many, many thanks to Dave Allen, David Ewald, Anthony Batt, Jesse von Doom, and Rick Moody for the great discussions both on and off the stage; to Hank Shocklee for the chat; to Rebecca Gates for coming by; to Howard Rheingold and Alex Burns for sharing meals and beers; to Andy Flynn for hooking it all up; to Ume for rocking everything as usual; to Tarryn Lambert and friends for the lively debate; to Brooke Pankey for braving the city streets on a bicycle with us; to Luke and Abby Brewer for walking nine miles even though we couldn’t get their young selves into a show; and special, special thanks to Lily for enduring the whole week with me.

SF MusicTech Summit 2011: Discovery is Disruptive

In 1986, Tony James’ post-Generation X outfit Sigue Sigue Sputnik released a record that included advertisements between its songs (If you haven’t heard it, you probably should. It’s called Flaunt It). James explained the move saying, “Commercialism is rampant in society. Maybe we’re a little more honest than some groups I could mention… Our records sound like adverts anyway.” Though it was taken with the appropriate amount of irony twenty-five years ago, the idea was disruptive. Well, my good friend Dave Allen invited me to join him on a panel at SF MusicTech Summit this year where I heard someone propose — nay they had a business based on — the same idea as the Sigue Sigue Sputnik farce, designed for streaming online… The topic of our panel? The Lack of Disruption in Music Technology.

The "Lack of Disruption" Panel (l to r): Dave Allen, Roy Christopher, Corey Denis, David Ewald, Alex Ljung, and Jesse von Doom.

Audio streaming sites and services seem to be all the rage this year, and whenever he starts a new project with a client as Digital Strategist at NORTH, Dave always asks “What does it solve?” In our panel meetings we added “Who does it serve?” to that. Streaming services have become what Dave calls “the mechanics of consensus.” That is, they all use the same outmoded model (i.e., draw up business plan, acquire venture capital, launch service, place advertising on the free part, charge for premium service without advertising, etc.) as if it’s the only way to do things. This model follows and barely updates the broadcast radio model of the 1920s. As Dave says, “There’s nothing new in digital!” In his pre-talk post, “What happened to the Big Idea in music technology?” he points out that

…when FM radio became homogenized and the US radio stations formed into conglomerates such as Clear Channel, they neutered the DJ. When Wolfman Jack was programming his own rock shows in the USA, and across the Atlantic in London John Peel was exposing young people’s ears to music they’d never heard, they were just two examples of the extraordinary power DJs had on the music business. They were tastemakers, influencers, and filters of music culture. When the conglomerates did away with the role of the DJ in favor of automated playlists they ruined everything. The DJ was the voice of the station and he or she was considered dangerous to the bottom line if they were to offend their advertisers – they had to play nice, or go. The music streaming companies didn’t see the problem that needed solving – the lack of authentic DJs who programmed their own shows – because they thought “interactivity” was the answer.

The streams on these services are controlled by algorithms, and they’re similar on every service. If you like one Norwegian Black Metal band, you’re soon to be recommended every Norwegian Black Metal band. Discovery comes from difference, and these algorithms are based on similarities. They all serve up sameness. How about some Swedish Black Metal for a change? The DJs at KEXP (or whomever), as well as Wolfman Jack, or John Peel might keep you in a stable groove, but they also know when to yank you out of a rut. Dave says that getting up from his desk to flip over a record on the turntable is about as interactive an experience as he can imagine while at home listening to music. Either way: The human element cannot be replaced with playlists.

Dave wondering why he invited me.

RT @rebeccagates: read a comment from #sfmusictech about “need to make music more participatory”. uhhh…how about going to a live show?

It’s not all about interactivity though. There is also a mounting wave of social-media fatigue — on both sides. TAG Strategic’s Corey Denis pointed out that some artists don’t want or like to engage with their fans. We often say that a 21st-century art inherently involves multimedia, and while that might be true more often than not, it doesn’t mean every artist wants or needs to tweet. There are as many kinds of artists, performers, and entertainers as there are arts, performances, and entertainment. Some of them don’t require status updates. Social media killed the video star. Where companies and consultants are still pursuing interactivity and engagement, Dave often pushes for more passivity. People are tired of engaging with you, and sometimes there’s just no reason for you to “be social.” From the other side of the fourth wall, my man Tim Baker just posted this piece at SYFFAL about how social media kills fandom. He writes,

As for artists, I can’t tell you how many have destroyed their legacies and turned me off to their works completely based soley on their Twitter accounts. Artists and Twitter should be a match made in heaven but time and time again it is used as a sounding off board for the most idiotic, self absorbed and generally dickish thoughts, or recaps of the minutiae that only someone on the autism spectrum would need to share. Additionally most artists are not smart in the sort of way that translates into short form quick bursts. It comes off much more as indulgent at best, and idiotic at worst. Gone are the days of artists being interesting because they were mysterious and unobtainable and here are the days where modern artists are overexposed and not even remotely interesting. It is sad really that the tool that when used sparringly is so effective, is abused to such a level.

David Ewald calls this phenomenon the “erosion of trust,” and it happens at every intersection: artists to labels, labels to radio, labels to technology, everyone to “social media experts,” fans to everyone, artists to everyone, etc. Why should they trust you with something they can do themselves? But also, why should they trust you with something that don’t want to do and don’t necessarily care about in the first place? Artists should concentrate on their art. As fans, we’ve bought and replaced every format out just trying to hear the artists we love. If the music is good, we will find it and support it. We don’t need your help. As a lifelong music fan and someone who doesn’t use any of the online services, I can honestly say that my experience with music is better right now than it ever has been. Anyway, by design our panel asked more questions than it answered — and definitely more than we could answer sufficiently in an hour. Here are my thoughts from SF MusicTech Summit, collected in web-ready, low-bandwidth blurbs:

  • Solve real problems and serve real people. Artists and fans are real people. We don’t care where your money comes from.
  • Discovery is disruptive. Discovery comes from difference. Stop seeking and serving sameness.
  • The human element cannot be replaced with playlists. Just because technology can curate doesn’t mean that it should or that it does it well.
  • Social media killed the video star. Be social when it makes sense. Shut up when it doesn’t.
  • Music will take care of itself. Stop acting like music needs you to save it. It doesn’t.

—————-

Many thanks to Dave for inviting me, Lily for going with me, my fellow panelists for the great talk, and to Brian and Shoshana Zisk, Cass Philipps, and all at SF MusicTech Summit for putting this thing together. Also, props to Luke Williams for getting us stoked on this idea in the first place. Onward.

[photos by Lily Brewer]

Don’t Deprive the World of Your Ideas: Four Books

It’s difficult for me to even think about marketing or branding without thinking about Scott Belsky. His Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, 2010) and the whole 99%/Bēhance/Action Method is as close to a working system for this stuff as I’ve seen. Belsky says to identify your differentiating attributes and emphasize them. Doug Rushkoff once told me to give people something they can’t get anywhere else, and Howard Bloom once said that if you’re not actively marketing yourself, then you’re depriving the world of your ideas. This is how you stand out without a doubt.

Besides Belsky’s, I have come across four other recent books on the topic of self-promotion and breaking through the cluttered airwaves. Even the airwaves specific to this topic are noisy, so if my reviews seem cavalier, it’s because I only want to give you a general sense of each of these books. If one piques your interest, I highly recommend checking it out.

On the very first page of his book Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business (FT Press, 2010), Luke Williams cosigns the statements above, but makes strong qualifications thereof. “Novelty for novelty’s sake” is a resource killer, and customers seek the familiar. Differentiating yourself is one thing, being different is entirely another. It’s not about differentiating, it’s about disrupting. “Differentiate all you want,” Williams writes, “but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die” (p. 2). The full “Disruptive Thinking” plan is more complex than that, of course, but that’s its most basic premise. Williams is a Fellow at frog design and an Adjunct Professor of Innovation at NYU Stern School of Business, so this stuff is his stuff. His book deserves to be at the top of this list.

I’m trying to change the world before I change my mind.
Pete Miser

The subtitle of The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith with Carlye Adler (Jossey-Bass, 2010) reads “Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” but before you scroll to the next book, hear me out. Aaker, Smith, and Adler have put together a crash course in achieving the ever-elusive just noticeable difference for your big ideas.

A dragonfly has four wings, and the dragonfly effect has four skills: focus, grab attention, engage, take action. Their first case study (Team Sameer and Team Vinay) yields the following list. Some of these should sound familiar (these are from How to Do Something Seismic–and Create a Movement by Robert Chatwani):

  1. Stay focused; develop a single goal.
  2. Tell your story.
  3. Act, then think.
  4. Design for collaboration.
  5. Employ empowerment marketing.
  6. Measure one metric.
  7. Try, fail, try again, succeed.
  8. Don’t ask for help; require it.

I love these, and that last one, seemingly counterintuitive, is quite brilliant. And there are hundereds more in here. The Dragonfly Effect is a solid system for success in our media-saturated times.

If you’re more interested in starting a movement, a campaign that focuses more on people and passion than products and projects, then Brains on Fire by Robbin Phillips, Greg Cordell, Geno Church, and Spike Jones (J. Wiley, 2010) is the book for you. These authors aren’t writing about product launches and opting-in. They’re writing about conversations and engagement. The clutetrain might be still making the rounds, but these folks are taking it to new stations. And now that the technology has caught up with the ideas, so can you.

“Markets are conversations,” stated The Cluetrain Manifesto (Perseus Books, 1999), and conversations are where movements start. Participation does not equal engagement, but Brains on Fire employs eleven lessons in getting from the former to the latter. From “Movements Start with the First Conversation” (Lesson 2) and “Movements Empower People with Knowledge” (Lesson 5), to “Movements Have Shared Ownership” (Lesson 6) and “Movements get Results” (Lesson 10), this book is as fun as it is fearless.

I found out about Brains on Fire from Scott Stratten, fellow Geekend 2010 speaker and author of Unmarketing: Stop Marketing. Start Engaging (J. Wiley, 2009). Unlike some of the authors above, Stratten tackles more traditional marketing tactics (e.g., cold calling) in less traditional ways (e.g., giving things away). He also often tries too hard to be funny. That, along with the traditional marketing buzzwords found throughout the book, make it difficult to take some of this stuff seriously. Reading this, I often got the feeling he wasn’t talking to me.

With that said, Stratten’s ideas are good. If you’re looking for a quick guide (the chapters herein are very short, easy to read one or two in just a few minutes) on how it’s done now, Unmarketing is a damn good start.

Getting focused, truly differentiating yourself or your campaign not just for differentiation’s sake, involving and engaging your audience, and being as open and transparent as possible are not just suggestions for success, they are how it’s done now. These four books (along with Scott Belsky’s Making Ideas Happen and the ever-relevant Cluetrain Manifesto) are a crash curriculum in current marketing and spreading ideas. Don’t deprive the world of yours. Get them out there.

Daylight Savings Tribe: SXSW 2011

Sometimes our Earth’s orbit brings us closer to other heavenly entities. Last Saturday for instance, our own Moon was closer than it has been in twenty years. Well, annually in mid-March, we collide headlong into another planet, a clusterfuck (as Buckminster Fuller would say) of talky panels, film screenings, and live shows that is known as South by Southwest, or more commonly by its planetary initials SXSW. This was only my second visit and the first at which I have spoken. The daylight saving’s time wormhole swallowed up a few key things and possibly a few people on Sunday morning, but I’m pretty sure everything I said about last year still holds. The panels are good, but the side conversations are the goods.

Our tribe for SXSW Day #4: L to R: Dave Allen, Merrick, Shivvy, Roy Christopher, and Michael McSunas.

My favorite locations on panel planet this year, included “Indie Success: Caching in on Collaboration,” a discussion of creativity and collaboration with Kenyatta Cheese, Heather Gold, Allee Willis, and Mary Jo Pehl. I met Kenyatta at SXSW last year because he was on a panel with my friend Alice Marwick, and I met the awesomely multi-talented and hyper-driven Heather at Geekend 2010 after my talk there. This is how the tribe grows.

Kenyatta is a beacon of positivity. He is just a benevolently inspiring presence. His words are strong yet playful at the same time. I ran into him and Tricia Wang (these two) serendipitously one afternoon on 6th Street, and my day was just completely made. “I am Kenyatta Cheese, and I am of the web,” he opened at this panel, and when the legitimacy of his last name was questioned, he said, “I didn’t choose my name, but I’ve chosen everything since.” Believe that.

The web allows us to create and distribute the most mundane of our thoughts, but getting them to the point of getting them out there is often a large part of the struggle. Heather insists that we need to give ourselves permission to create, and Mary Jo Pehl put it, “it’s so freeing to let go of the idea of quality.” Songwriter and artist Allee Willis posts her creations as they happen. She said that being a happy artist means knowing your comfort zone and getting out of it. She keeps every iteration of everything she does, 42,000 terabytes’ worth. It’s more about the process than the product (This was a common thread this year, as even 4chan founder Christopher Poole said in his keynote, “It’s the process at which you arrive at the product that is fascinating.“) Find the balance to corrupt the balance. You can’t learn from perfection. Let it go, work with others, and release your darlings. This is good.

I also caught a great talk on Gamestorming by the authors of the book of the same name, Dave Gray, Sunni Brown — whom I’d met in the registration line — and James Macanufo. As you know from my previous posts about notebooks, I love attempting to represent ideas visually — with pens and paper. Well, the Gamestorming crew is all about that. They encourage us to think of meetings or projects as games and to pursue them accordingly. James also encouraged creating artifacts, that is, writing things down. “If paper didn’t exist,” he said, “we’d have to invent it again.” I cannot be more supportive of these ideas. I love this stuff.

One of the main themes from last year — context (or lack thereof) — popped up time and again in discussions this year. Much to the chagrin of several reviewers of Follow for Now, and when the web started inflating and people were getting hired as “content creators,” I toyed with the idea of being a context creator. I still think it’s a viable task (I may put it down as my occupation on my 1040 this year), and so does my good friend, fellow traveler, and SXSW partner-in-crime Dave Allen. It seems like the core of what Dave and I — and our mutual friend Jeff Newelt — do is make connections and provide context for them. I see it like this: at its most basic, human interaction consists of three things: 1) contact, 2) content, and 3) context. They can occur in any order or simultaneously, but all three all have to exist in order for meaning to shine through. Leave one out, and meaning leaks.

Historical context is especially important and the most neglected, and that’s the main point of Dave’s post on SXSW this year. Our digital archives are so vast that we have access to much of the past, but no way to contextualize it in time. I am digressing, but this is a problem Dave and I talked about regularly this week and will be exploring further in the future. The idea is also deeply embedded in Tricia Wang‘s work (and subsequent panel, “Sleeping at Internet Cafes: The Next 300 Million Chinese Users“) in on the next internet community in China. As Geert Lovink once put it, “The New does not emerge. It erupts, then fades away.” We have to keep it in context.

Thanks to Jeff Newelt, Dave Allen, and Ume, I managed to see screen-scramblers Eclectic Method three times during SXSW. They do a multimedia remix show that’s like they’re flying a plane, driving a car, and conducting a train all at once: It moves in every direction, and they somehow keep it controlled. Their show on Sunday at the Seaholm Power Plant was huge. Just HUGE. They played the much smaller Pepsi Max event on Wednesday (just before the legend Pharoahe Monch), and a short set at the Austin Music Hall the next night (pictured).

The line-up that night was bananas: local favorites Ume, ‘Bama trunk-popper Yelawolf, Texas representative Trae the Truth, a DJ set by Erika Badu, Eclectic Method with Childish Gambino AKA Donald Glover, and the legendary Wu-Tang Clan. I saw The People’s Champ Paul Wall on his way there and Bam Margera backstage. Bananas…

Ume filled the cavernous venue with their joyous noise sounding the best they’ve ever sounded. No offense to their old drummer Jeff, but the addition of new drummer Rachel really steps up their sound. They’re bound to finally smash the next level now… I was bugging out so hard during Yelawolf’s set that it prompted Eric from Ume to tweet, “It is fun watching @RoyChristopher have fun.” (Favorite. Tweet. Evers.). Yelawolf killed it, and I certainly enjoyed myself.

After several discussions with folks at the show, we concurred that in order to legitimately claim the the Wu-Tang Clan was in the building, there had to be at least five of the extant members present. Well, We got U-God, Cappadonna, Inspektah Deck, GZA, and Ghostface Killah — just enough for the city. They were plagued with sound system problems, mainly screeching mics, but the energy was at a feverpitch. The five of them eased out on stage one by one, exchanging verses, and when Ghostface finally emerged, I thought the Austin Music Hall was done for.

Rob Sonic reppin' the Well-Red Bear

Somehow since last time I’d seen him, Rob Sonic had become convinced that I didn’t love him anymore. Fortunately he came back to town with Aesop Rock and DJ Big Wiz (collectively known as Hail Mary Mallon), and I was able to profess my love to him anew. The boys were in town to rock the back patio at Home Slice Pizza. They brought their friend Kimya Dawson (see the clip embedded below), who made me weep like a baby every time she took the stage. Aesop Rock, Rob, and Wiz did a quick but thorough mix of old and new material, all of which was the toppest of notches. Cannot wait to hear all of  their new records (several in the works from these folks).

Somehow, my man Merrick (of Music Impacts — more on this project on the site later) got us into the VIP at Perez Hilton’s party at The Moody Theatre, where we drank free drinks and watched Liz Phair freaking own the place. No small feat considering the size of that monstrosity. We stumbled off into the night not long after her stellar set (which included classics like “SuperNova,” “6’1″,” “Flower,” and closed with “Fuck and Run”).

Not Liz Phair.

A ten-day orbit of fun and stimuli like this makes saying “thank you” seem ridiculous, but I must try anyway. Many thanks to old friends Dave Allen, Jeff Newelt, Kenyatta Cheese, Heather Gold, Kerrisa Bearce, Travis McCutcheon, Miriam and Jake Hodesh from Geekend, Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and Big Wiz, as well as Lauren Larson, Eric Larson, and Rachel of Ume (and mutual friends Andrea, Jessica, Ronnie, and Chad), for getting me into stuff, buying me drinks, and just for simply being my friends.

High-grade humans I met this year whom I must thank include Donna Coxon-McCory, Merrick and Shivvy of Music Impacts, artist Gary Baseman, Ian and Johnny of Eclectic Method, their manager Justin Bolognino, Char Zvolanek, Michael McSunas, Shadamation, Mark E. Johnson from The University of Georgia, Brady Forest from O’Reilly, Sunni Brown, Zadi Diaz, Steve Woolf of Blip TV and Epic Fu, Tricia Wang, Kelly Khun, Cecy Correa, Stephanie Spear, Lauren Rae Bertolini, Amy Allcock, Dang Nguyen, Miriam Shoemaker, Kim Stezzi, and Brian Scipione of Sonic Living: You all made this year what it was, mind-twistingly awesome. And to those I missed: Michelle Rae Anderson, Zachary Dominitz, Chris Grayson, Sloane Kelley, Doug Stanhope, Brendon Walsh, Mark Budgell, Mark O’Sullivan, and Paul Iannacchino, Jr: Next time.

I walked out of my place at midnight on Day Number Nine, and I could hear the distant drone of a million bands still playing downtown. You can’t worry about missing something on Planet SXSW, because no matter what you’re doing, you’re always missing something.

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Here’s Kimya Dawson and Aesop Rock (a.k.a. Poltergasm!) doing “Delicate Cycle” at Home Slice Pizza on March 19, 2011 [runtime: 4:33]:

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