Sunday, December 11, 2011

Predictions for Social Media and Social Business in 2012

The year 2011 was an interesting one for social media. In some ways nothing changed, and in others, everything changed.

Here is what didn't: At the end of 2011, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn remain the top social networking sites, despite the entrance of Google+ into the fray. Geolocation tools moved sideways, neither faltering nor becoming mainstream; Foursquare may have tripled users in 2011, but only 5% of Americans use geolocation tools. And despite claims of social fatigue, privacy concerns and frustration over constant Facebook changes, no one abandoned social media--today 61% of those under 30 years of age use social media daily compared to 60% a year ago

What changed in 2011? The last nail was put in the coffin for those who believed social media was just for the young--use of social media among baby boomers is up 60% in one year. More important than demographics is how intertwined the digital social and real worlds have become for many; 58% of teens have had an experience in social media that made them feel closer to another person, one-third of employees use Facebook while at work and one British survey found that people would give up indoor plumbing or coffee before Facebook. And while last year at this time Google, Yahoo and Facebook earned almost equal shares of US online time, today Americans spend roughly 50% more time on Facebook then either Google or Yahoo

So, what will happen in 2012? Nothing will change and everything will change. Here are some of my expectations for the coming year:

Social Business gets serious

Of course, social media will remain a platform for communications, but 2012 will be the year when it becomes evident how much social media will transform business. To date, social commerce strategies have been about grafting Web 1.0 commerce into 2.0 platforms, but a "Shop" tab on Facebook is not a social business model. For example, it's interesting consumers can search for a flight within a tab on Delta's Facebook page, but there's nothing remotely social about the experience.

In 2012, true peer-to-peer commerce and social data models will begin to make headlines. Look for car sharing to get mainstream as OnStar, GM and RelayRides bring peer-to-peer car sharing at scale, and watch for mainstream media to pay attention as peer-to-peer lending in the US approaches $100 million per month by yearend. I also expect we'll see retailers and streaming media sites make a move in social cobrowsing; people thousands of miles apart will be able to shop together or watch a movie simultaneously and make these experiences almost as social online as they are in the real world.

Brands get more control in Facebook

Considering it is 2011's hottest platform for marketing, Facebook remains a frustrating place for many brands. For most of 2011, it seemed Facebook was not all that eager to work with brands other than to sell advertising, but in the past couple of months there have been signs Facebook is listening to the needs of social media marketers. In November, Facebook Insights improved the data available to administrators of brand pages, and just this week comes news Facebook is piloting private messages between brand pages and fans.

As more companies integrate Facebook into their core business processes and services, Facebook will be pressured to make the platform more hospitable for brands. Facebook will need to improve everything from spam protection to phishing prevention to secure user authentication. One new feature I expect (and hope) to see in 2012 is for Facebook to give brands control over the ads that appear on their Facebook pages (for a price, of course); it's asking a lot for brands to build mission-critical features and applications on the Facebook platform only to have these social business services adjacent to ads from competitors.

The fans/followers arms race ends

I'm surprised at how many marketing and communication professionals do not understand Facebook EdgeRank and still believe that every Facebook post made by a brand is posted on every fan's wall. That isn't remotely how Facebook works, which is why the race to buy fans with game freebies, contests, and sweeps will, I expect, be less prevalent next year than in 2011. In the same way Marketers learned that buying email lists was ineffective, they will learn the same thing about "buying" fans in social media.

In 2012, the brands that succeed in social media won't be the ones who add tens of thousands of fans in a single day with a promotion; instead, the winners this year will earn fans the old-fashioned way--with strong business relationships, great service and products, and social business applications that deliver true value in social media. I anticipate that in 2012 we'll see more case studies that validate strong brand and business results from smaller subsets of consumers rather than case studies that trumpet the accumulation of large numbers of meaningless fans. (I hope this turns out to be a true prediction and not merely a wish on my part.)

The slow-motion social media valuation bubble burst continues

The bubble is already bursting for social media valuations. LinkedIn is 40% off its post-IPO high and with a  PE ratio 7000% greater than Google's, LinkedIn will either need to post spectacular profits or face even more downward pressure. GroupOn's stock has been recovering in recent weeks but still remains 25% off its November high (and it has no PE ratio since it has no "E" yet.) And Zynga, possibly the most anticipated social IPO other than Facebook, has seen speculation of its valuation drop as much as 50% in recent weeks.

In 2012 we'll see this pattern repeat: great anticipation of sky-high valuations; then the launch of social IPOs at more reasonable prices; quickly, speculators bid up those shares; but eventually sanity takes hold and prices sink. Just as in the dot-com bubble and burst, we can expect social firms to take years to develop their business models and produce the stable streams of income necessary to support higher stock prices. Look no further than the experience of Web 1.0 success story, Amazon--its stock stood at $107 in December 1999 but did not surpass this price for almost another decade.

A new economic "privacy divide" begins to form along generational lines

It is no secret that young people have a different view of privacy than their older peers. Until now, the generational gap in privacy attitudes primarily affected the rates at which older and younger people adopted and used social networking, although some economic benefits are already accruing to those willing to embrace social media; for example, one recent survey revealed that 16% of employees found their current jobs in social media.

In 2012, the differences in privacy attitudes will create a wider economic divide along generational lines--a separation between social business haves and have-nots. As the Sharing Economy grows, those willing to engage and share more widely will gain access to a greater variety of peer-to-peer products and services compared to those unwilling to embrace transparency. Whether it is access to homes on Airbnb, loans on LendingClub or cars on RelayRides, the doors to new social business models will be most open to those who are most open.

Google+ Continues to Lag

Hitwise recently announced that Google+ had its third best week, but the headline hid a sobering fact about G+ traffic: whenever Google+ rolls out a new feature, traffic spikes as people visit to check it out but then traffic declines until the next G+ feature is launched. To date, G+ is not showing the sort of stickiness or growth curve that would cause one to think it will pull time or users away from Twitter and Facebook.

While some social media pros suggest Google+ will grow because it is friendlier to brands or essential to SEO efforts, it is not brands but consumers who will decide if Google+ is a winner. I predict Google+ will continue to grow slowly in fits and starts, may become important in certain niches, and will require large brands to maintain presence and monitoring in 2012. While it will not follow Google Wave into obsolescence, neither will Google+ battle Twitter or Facebook for share of time or traffic next year.

Welcomed and Damned:  More Social Media Filtering

When Facebook altered its news feed a few months ago, you might have thought the company deliberately severed users' personal friendships. The reaction to Facebook's new filtering methodology was so ferocious, some started predicting the beginning of the end for Facebook. (This prediction, like every other "Facebook is dying" prediction, quickly proved false.)

While users may not like the sound of it, the fact of the matter is that we are going to need our social tools to do more of the work for us. None of us has the time or capacity to consume and consider every tweet, post, checkin, and like from our ever-growing networks. In 2012, look for Facebook, Twitter and a host of startups (such as Bottlenose) to improve filtering, giving each of us a view of the things we most want to see while excluding the junk we'd otherwise ignore. (Twitter just made a big step in this direction with the launch of its #Discover feature.)

Some will scream about the automated filtering but in the end, the right personalized filtering tools only make our social media experiences better. As filtering improves, the losers won't be consumers but brands that lack relevance, because who really signs on to Facebook to find out what their favorite antiperspirant or gasoline brand is saying?

So, what are your predictions for 2012?  Think I am on the mark or off base?  Please share your thoughts and comments!

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Predictable Unpredictable Social Media Disaster

I was reading about the latest so-called "social media disaster"--this one from Qantas Airlines--when I was struck by a sentence in the Reuters article: "PR experts said the campaign was... a classic example of the dangers of unpredictable social media." I don't mean to be hard on Qantas--any company or human can inadvertently make mistakes--but this situation was about as unpredictable as the sun rising or Groupon's stock falling.

Qantas' social media campaign was intended to get travelers using the hashtag #QantasLuxury and describing their "dream luxury inflight experience." The timing was, at best, dubious, coming just a day after Qantas and its unions broke off contract negotiations and one month after Qantas stranded 70,000 travelers by grounding its fleet due to union woes. Furthermore, the prizes in this promotion weren't, as you might expect, trips to exotic locales but pajamas and toiletry kits. The effect was to spur many negative, sarcastic and angry responses about Qantas in social media channels.

So, are you shocked at the outcome? Do you find the social media backlash "unpredictable?"

How many instances of social media PR disasters are truly unpredictable? There are cases when a brand can be caught by surprise--such as when activists launch a critical social media campaign or a single consumers' complaint becomes a meme--but are most social media issues really fluky and unforeseeable? This isn't an inconsequential question; if social media is a flaky and erratic channel, then it is an inhospitable medium for business.

I believe social media is not a game of chance but more akin to the weather. Weather forecasters may frequently get tomorrow's forecast wrong, but that doesn't mean we consider sun, rain, snow or lightning unpredictable.

This year, lightning strikes will ignite around 24,600 fires to which US fire departments will respond. One lightning strike is unpredictable;  tens of thousands of them across the country is not. Because we know this, we prepare. We purchase insurance, install lightning rods, use surge protectors and tune into the National Weather Service to stay informed when weather turns severe.

Any brand can be struck by social media lightning at any time, so the smart ones prepare--they engage advocates, provide excellent products and services, amass fans and followers, deploy social business strategies, use listening platforms and employ community managers to respond with speed, empathy and care for the customer. These are the components that ensure if and when a brand is struck by social media lightning, brand damage is limited.

But while any brand can be struck, we also have to recognize there are actions our organizations may do that can make it a target.  Golfers know better than to stand in the middle of a fairway holding a metal club above their head in a thunderstorm, yet brands seem to do the social media equivalent quite frequently.

Many of the social media PR disasters that have occurred weren't unpredictable. Brands may not be able forecast the specific social media reaction, but we know risk increases when brands raise prices or fees, redesign products or logos without engaging loyal customers, fail to hear concerns about environmental policies, ignore consumer complaints, engage in dubious business practices, or--as in Qantas' case--deploy marketing or take other actions that fail to understand the brand's current relationship with consumers.

Social media is not unpredictable. I can predict that your organization, if it is any size at all, it will be struck with social media lightning this week. Your brand will receive critical posts on its Facebook wall, earn one-star ratings on review sites and get a handful of gripes on complaint sites like

There is no insurance for social media lightning--no one will compensate your brand should a misstep cause lost business or brand damage--but smart organizations can prepare and protect. They do so by understanding the social media climate, conducting business in ways consumers expect, setting their business and communication strategies appropriately and investing in social media to protect their brand from the inevitable.

Consumer storm clouds are brewing. There is a 60% chance of consumer complaints, some industries will face a hard sentiment freeze and companies may experience localized areas of brand flooding. Whether social media will be shelter from the storm or the storm itself has more to do with your enterprise than the "unpredictable" nature of social media.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What is Social Business?

Ask fifty people for a definition of "social business" and you will likely get 51 answers. At last year's SXSW, I shared a panel with a social media leader annoyed that every new startup promoted itself as a "social business," whether or not it was very social or had a reasonable business plan. Then last week I chatted with another well-known social media consultant, and he defined social business as anything organizations buy or acquire to participate in social media--listening platforms, community software, social media management apps, agency services, etc.

I'd like to share my own definition of social business:

A new form of commerce where consumers, empowered by new social technologies and behaviors, bypass traditional channels and acquire more information, goods and services directly from each other. 

We are at the beginning of a new era in social media, where the medium turns from being primarily about communication to become as much about knowledge and business.

Web 2.0 is evolving much as Web 1.0 did. The World Wide Web began as an interconnected network of static web pages that conveyed text information, but it matured into a tool of business, interactivity and rich media. The same is happening with Web 2.0, but there will be one enormous difference in how business develops in the Web 2.0 era: This time, the new tools won't be about replacing big companies with other big companies (Amazon replaced Borders, Apple iTunes replaced Tower Records, etc.) Instead, social business will be more about facilitating business from peer to peer rather than from corporation to consumer.

Tools like Facebook and Twitter have taught people the power of sharing more widely and altered attitudes about privacy. They have created the current environment that will enable the next big wave of change. But while Facebook and Twitter may participate or even lead us into the social business era, the coming five to ten years will not be about sharing pictures or posting status updates but rather how consumers can gain more economic power, make better decisions and save money.

This process has already begun, of course. Take, for example, information you use to make decisions about travel. When is the last time you purchased a Mobil Travel Guide? Once the indispensable travel bible for selecting hotels and attractions, the Mobil book series has been replaced by ratings and reviews provided by online travel agencies (such as Orbitz or Expedia) or ratings sites (such as TripAdvisor or Yelp). In 2011 Forbes Travel Guide, which licenses the Mobile Guide, published its last set of guidebooks and launched its own Yelp-like site,

Increasingly social business won't be about just the information you use to make purchase decisions but about the transactions themselves. The availability of other consumers' cars to rent in real time (from RelayRides and others) may begin to make a dent in Avis and Zipcar. The opportunity to lend or borrow money directly with other consumers (via LendingClub and Prosper) may challenge banking business models. And access to people's extra bedrooms or homes (via Airbnb and VRBO) could affect the hospitality industry.

It will not take much for social business to alter industries and challenge established players. For comparison, just look to ecommerce, which represents less than five percent of all retail in the US. That tiny slice of the retail pie was enough to rewrite the rules for entire industries and sink companies once among the powerful Fortune 500.

To me, the term "social business" is not about startups or social media budgets. Instead, I see social business as a wave of transformation that will alter fundamental business models and reset the relationships between consumers and suppliers.

In ten years, the idea of someone "liking" a brand may seem as quaint as non-functional brochureware sites seem to us today. Successful social business will not be determined by who has the biggest fan page but by who best rethinks their marketplace and empowers consumers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Death of Google: A Work of Speculative Fiction

The following is a work of speculative fiction, not a prediction; however, I believe this is one possible outcome of the decisions Google is making today. Do you agree? Read on and please criticize or comment.

Please note: all characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is most likely coincidental. And, as always, this and other posts on my blog are my opinion and do not reflect the opinions of others.


SXSW 2015 was amazing;  I can't believe another South by Southwest is here and gone so soon.

The hot new startups this year were Splork, Thlong and Yitchy--all wearable hardware concepts that auto-report your bodily functions to social networks. Facebook launched FBClassic, a version of the service based on its 2009 interface, to appease those people chronically unable to adapt to its regular upgrades. Also, Ford showed off the new Focus with a physical Like button built into the dashboard--drivers will be unable to start the car without first "liking" the brand.

Of course, the big buzz was about Google. The mighty and revered internet giant has fallen on hard times as of late. In February 2015, the once unimaginable happened; Google accounted for less than 50% of U.S. search volume for the first time in almost ten years. Google is still very profitable, of course, but the loss of over 3 billion search queries every month has sorely reduced advertising revenue, once Google's core cash cow. The news was merely the latest insult to injury for Google, which saw its ad revenues surpassed by Facebook's in 2013. The company founded on search now earns more from its mobile products than it does online operations.

So, what happened? How did the house that search built lose its firm foundation? Some would say that Google's inability to launch a successful social platform was the problem, and they'd be partially correct. After Orkut, Wave and Buzz crashed to earth, Google shot for the stars with Google+. As it turned out, G+ was more like a child's model rocket than an Atlas V--it had a terrific trajectory after opening to the public, but soon it lost traffic and active users. G+ continues to do well in certain circles (no pun intended), but it has not thrived as Google hoped.

The fact Google never found the right social recipe wasn't the real problem; instead, it was how the company reacted (some now say overreacted) to the fear of a Facebook planet. In early 2011, CEO Larry Page announced that 25% of employees' bonuses would be tied to how the company performed in the social space. With that incentive in place, it was off the races to succeed in social, no matter the cost. Cost it did--in ways Google never expected.

Google's first step was the "+1" button. It seemed a fine idea, but Google's search algorithm was already the gold standard for providing highly valued and trusted search results. When Google decided the "+1" button should affect search engine rankings, it opened Pandora's Box.

SEO experts questioned if +1 could be used to manipulate search results, and their answer seemed to come from an article posted on entitled, “Stick Google Plus Buttons On Your Pages, Or Your Search Traffic Dies.”  After meeting with Google's ad team, author Kashmir Hill came to the conclusion declared in the article's title--sites had better implement "+1" or suffer the Google consequences. Suspicions were aroused when that piece suddenly disappeared from the Forbes web site without explanation.

Fears that Google's "+1" button might spark a new wave of black hat SEO tactics were validated by Stephen Colbert, of all people. The Comedy Central star took a cue from his 2006 Wikipedia stunt and urged fans to click a "+1" button on his fake Web site announcing his candidacy for the 2012 GOP nomination. Within days, the Google search for "GOP 2012" featured Colbert's site in the top position.

Google's search and social problems did not stop with the "+1" button. The launch of Google+ raised more questions about how Google's search results would be affected by activity on Google's social network. Within months, people who signed up but never or rarely used Google+ noticed that their G+ profiles appeared on Google's first page when they searched for their name; people questioned why their lightly-trafficked G+ profiles appeared in front of far more relevant links to their blogs, articles and more active social profiles.

These issues came to a head in 2014 when the DOJ filed an antitrust suit against Google. The blogosphere erupted when a popular tech blogger was called to testify. He often spoke of his close relationships with Google engineers, and he was probed about the information and opinions he posted on G+ and his blog. In one such post he stated, "I hope everyone leaves Google+. Why? ... If everyone left Google+ that would leave the best SEO technology out there to just, well, me. Which means my videos, blogs, and photos would appear higher on search than yours."

Asked if he was aware whether a share on Twitter or a public post on Facebook was less influential in Google's search results than a G+ post, the blogger confirmed that was his understanding. When he was asked if it made sense that Google+ shares counted more than shares on social networks that are substantially larger and more active, the blogger's attorney objected.

That question was never answered, but the damage was done. Between Colbert, the DOJ lawsuit and a host of criticism on social networks, the impervious Google began to look mortal. Bing began to chip away more at Google's search share, and with the 2013 launch of its first true search engine, Facebook's search queries soared. More important than stealing search volume from Google, both Bing and Facebook also stole search ad revenue.

The moral of the story seems clear in retrospect--don't be evil. That old and unofficial Google motto seems more relevant than ever. Attempting to leverage its strength in search to close the considerable lead others had in social wasn't the right thing to do for Google or its many users. It undermined trust in Google--once the most respected brand in the world, Google let its social ambitions get in the way of its commitment to users.

Of course, no one should count Google out. It is still among the largest tech brands in the world, and its OS runs more than 60% of the smartphones in the US. Google's early and somewhat disappointing work in serendipitous search back in 2013 is developing into a truly robust and powerful tool in 2015. A new alpha version of Google Me was demoed at SXSW last week and caused jaws to drop--watch for it on your Android phone before 2016.

Google has an advantage in the serendipitous search space but it also has real competition, even on its own mobile platform. Competitors range from enormous (Microsoft's Sense) to a small but interesting new startup out of Ev Williams and Biz Stone's incubator, Obvious Corp.

I am anxious to see where Google, Microsoft, Facebook and the latest slew of startups find themselves this time next year at SXSW 2016. Maybe by next year, the Google buzz won't be about the decline of search but about its driverless, autonomous vehicles. Rumors were rampant in advance of SXSW that Google would launch their next-generation vehicles as a taxi service at this year's conference. They were a no show in 2015, but SXSW 2016 is just twelve short months away!

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Future of Social Media Data vs Information: Sharing More, Consuming Less

I recently mocked a friend because Spotify revealed on his Facebook page that he was listening to the 2010 Ibiza Party Workout. (I accused him of being a metrosexual several years too late.) Turns out that he, like many others, had no idea Spotify shared every single tune to which he was listening, and we discussed whether this much sharing made sense. The answer is no today but yes tomorrow, because the future of social media depends on smarter tools that permit us to share more but consume less.

How can more sharing become less consumption? Think of it this way: If you drive a newer auto, it is constantly collecting information about the status of the vehicle, but what do you see on your dashboard? Are you presented with the tire pressure in all four tires and the voltage running through each fuse? That is data you just don't need; however, your vehicle monitors that data and alerts you the moment your tire pressure is too low or a fuse is blown. Your car is always sharing, but your dashboard allows you to consume only the information you need in the moment--speed, fuel level and the like.

That's the difference between data and information--data is raw facts, while information informs, entertains, enlightens and alerts us. We rarely want raw data, and we crave information.

Social networking sites strive to be dashboards, but they're really fire hoses of data. That's not a criticism--we tend to forget how nascent social media still is today, and among the problems of this immature medium is that we have too much data and too little information. How many of you have missed essential tweets or posts about a friend's job change or pregnancy while being distracted by a barrage of noise about lunch selections, checkins at gas stations, gripes about jobs or FDAs (Facebook Displays of Affection)? My (safe) guess is that everyone reading this post has experienced this problem. 

Clearly, no one really needs to know every song their friends are hearing at every moment--that is simply too much data--but if Spotify, Facebook or other parties collect that data and convert it into useful information, we could learn: 
  • To what song have your different sets of friends listened most this week? The next time you hang with your work associates or school pals, you can be prepared to chat about the tune everyone has top of mind.
  • What new song is trending? Don't be the only one left out when your friends are in the know about a hot new single.
  • Who is listening to the same music I am? I may not care to be alerted to every song my friends hear, but it would be cool to know if we're listening to the same CD at the same time and chat about our opinions.
The social media data overload problem is hardly limited to Spotify. Checkins on Foursquare and Facebook are another excellent example. I really don't need to see every grocery store, gas station, gym, barber, doctor, dentist, bar or restaurant visited by my friends. But if Foursquare, Yelp or Facebook could take this data and turn it into relevant real-time information, I'd welcome the chance to know that:
  • My friends are eating at a place I've rated highly or poorly: "Man, that's a favorite of mine--what did you think?"
  • My friends are nearby: "Hey, you're a block away--want to catch a cup of coffee?"
  • My friends are at a restaurant at which I've dined a lot: "If you haven't ordered yet, avoid the lasagna and order the Risotto!"
  • My friends rated a business considerably different than I did: "I hated that barber shop, but maybe I just got the wrong barber; let me know who you had and I'll give it a second chance!"
Facebook and Twitter are dumb and they need to get smarter if they hope to retain users. When people get too much social data and not enough information, they experience "social media fatigue." The problem isn't with social media per se; after all, we're social creatures and spend most of our lives interacting with others. Instead, the problem is with our social tools furnishing too much noise and too little information.

Facebook is trying, at least. The latest round of changes caused many people to gripe that they were missing some posts they used to see, but that's exactly the point--Facebook must evolve to present you with things you want to know while filtering the stuff you wouldn't care about.

Perhaps you don't trust Facebook to decide what you should and shouldn't see, and I'd be the first to admit their algorithm needs work. Still, we must recognize that the last thing we want is to be presented with every one of our friends' posts, locations, songs heard, websites visited, articles read, (are you getting tired yet?) TV shows watched, books completed, magazines perused, shoes purchased, (seriously, isn't this tiring?) games played, documents created, videos viewed, (please make it stop!) products rated, concerts attended, celebrities liked--you get the idea. You may not know it yet, but you do NOT want to see everything your friends share; instead, you want all this data collected and turned into information you can use.

This point was made for me recently when my niece complained that Facebook's new interface was making it more difficult for her to see everything all of her friends posted. She has 675 Facebook friends (substantially more than the average of 103). I calculated that if each of her friends posted 15 items every 24 hours and it took my niece an average of five seconds to review each item, she'd need 14 hours every day to consume all of friends' social media. (That's okay--she's young and doesn't need much sleep.)

There are already excellent examples of services that turn social media data into usable information. For example, I'm fond of The Tweeted Times, which does the same thing within a browser that Zite and Flipboard do on the iPad--turning thousands of my peers' tweets into a personalized magazine of relevant news. Klout and PeerIndex turn individuals' social data into a measure of influence. And Twylah is the reverse of The Tweeted Times, turning your shared content into a personalized brand page.

In the future, we'll not only be sharing more but sharing more automatically rather than manually. That doesn't mean more social media fatigue; it means that our apps, sites and features must convert social media data into information. If there is a battle between Facebook and Google+ (and I'm not convinced there is, at least not yet) that is the key--not what games are available or how many video streams can be accommodated simultaneously on the competing platforms, but instead which social media service does a better job of surfacing the social media signals we want and filtering out the noise we don't.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Politics and Social Media: Is Your Company Prepared for 2012?

Following the 2008 presidential campaign, many were quick to dub it the "first social media election." There is no question that social media played a part in the 2008 contest--the Pew Research Center found it was the first time more than half of the voting-age population used the Internet to connect to the political process and many observers felt Obama succeeded by attracting a younger voter through his use of digital and social media.

Despite the headlines following the last presidential election, social media was still too nascent to be a significant part of most voters' election research and activities. Back in 2008, just 18% posted their thoughts, comments or questions about the campaign on a website, blog, social networking site or other online forum. Why such a small percentage? Because in November 2008, Facebook had barely 100 million users and Twitter was seeing 100 million tweets per quarter. Today, Facebook is eight times larger and Twitter hosts that same quantity of tweets every ten hours.

In 2012, it isn't just the political parties and campaign teams that must be prepared for social media challenges. Companies need to fasten their seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy ride!

Next year's election is shaping up to be a combative and dangerous one in social media. Battle lines are already drawn brightly over taxes, deficit reduction, unions, war, government bailouts, marriage equality, health care, education, social issues and the role and size of government. In addition, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling reversed many of the limitations that had been in place on corporate political spending. Add to this a potent combination of newfound social media influence and dramatically open social media communications, and 2012 is likely to see a number of high-profile campaign-related social media crises within the corporate world.

Companies may find themselves battling social media issues on three fronts:
  • Internal - Employees: Politics used to have no place in the workplace. They still don't, but consider how many places your employees can come into conflict in 2012. Work and politics were relatively easy to keep separate four years ago, but this year they'll be as obvious as your workers' latest posts on communities, Facebook, and Twitter. What happens when two coworkers lock horns over a political issue outside of work and it spills over into the workplace? Are you prepared when an employee complains about unfair treatment because he or she made a critical comment to a boss's Facebook post in support of a candidate?
  • External - Employees: Between checkins, LinkedIn and social media profiles, it isn't hard to know where virtually anyone works. That means the separation between employees' political opinions and your company's name is equal to the number of pixels between their tweet and their bio. What happens when a customer takes umbrage to political statements made by an employee? Must your workers' political beliefs match your brand's or your customers'? Of course not, but take note of the media storm that occurred when Whole Foods' CEO expressed a "personal opinion" that contradicted many shoppers' attitudes toward health care reform.
  • External - Corporate: Does your organization make campaign contributions? Does it support every single position of every single candidate it supports? Target, an employer with a track record of supporting same-sex employment policies, faced a vocal boycott when it donated to a group running ads to aid a candidate opposed to same-gender marriage. Target said it was donating to the group for its pro-business policies, not its social positions, but that mattered little to people who signed online petitions and cut up their Target charge cards. There are countless examples of companies forced to grapple with unwanted and unexpected transparency in social media, and this means companies must be prepared to deal with questions, criticism, anger and calls for consumer or shareholder intervention in reaction to every dollar spent during the upcoming election. Against this backdrop, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's call to boycott any and all campaign contributions seems as much a shrewd and cautious approach to protect his brand as it is a political statement.
You cannot dampen your employees' free speech in social channels. Nor is it likely many companies will follow Schultz's lead and simply cease all political activities--the business, regulatory and tax stakes are too high within most industries for business merely to sit on the sidelines. There is little your company can do to avoid the coming twin tsunamis of social media and politics, so preparation is the best course of action.

Do not get caught unprepared when the inevitable questions arise on your Facebook wall, on Twitter or in other social venues, and don't make the mistake of thinking you have the luxury of time to collaborate on a response and secure approvals from multiple executives and committees. The difference between a single irate customer and a wave of online boycotts, Facebook groups, email-writing campaigns and YouTube gripes may be measured in minutes rather than hours or days.

Activists are gearing up to put corporate actions under the microscope in the coming twelve months. You won't be able to appease all of the people all of the time, but you can be prepared to have an honest, candid discussion about your employees' rights to express their political beliefs and your company's reasons for supporting the political groups and candidates that it does. And social media professionals would be smart to make sure those making political decisions for their organizations consider the transparency social media will bring to those decisions.

Your enterprise will be writing checks this campaign season, and you better have your social media messaging prepared before the ink is dry on those checks!

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Failure of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney

There is an awful lot one can learn from the remarkable Steve Jobs, of course, but one thing stands out to me--one single thing that can get lost among the many lessons his story offers: Failure.

The people who change the world are not brighter than everyone else is; there are many bright people with great ideas. It isn't that Steve had vision; when I worked in the Bay Area, I found I couldn't take a dozen steps without running into someone with an exciting vision for the future. And it isn't that Steve better focused on the needs of humans; that is certainly an integral part of his success, but every organization is full of people capable of putting customers first.

No, the one thing that sets Steve Jobs apart from others is not success but failure. Reading his biographies and tributes this week reminded me of another hero of mine, Walt Disney. Their tales are remarkably similar in many ways.

We Americans have a terrible habit of distilling the stories of our great men and women into simplified and boring soundbites of success--Walt Disney invented Mickey Mouse! Steve Jobs invented the iPad!--while ignoring the long, crooked, difficult, brave roads they took to realize that success. We like to believe that success is what defines the American spirit, but the truth is the opposite: Failure is what defines the people who achieve greatness.

Steve Jobs and Walt Disney are American success stories--and they both failed in spectacular fashion. Steve Jobs produced the Apple III, a computer with so many hardware issues that one of the solutions (I'm not kidding) was to drop the computer two inches to reseat the chips on the motherboard. Walt Disney's first animation effort went bankrupt and he lost the rights to his first commercially successful character (the forgotten Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.)

For most, the story would have ended there. Steve Jobs, pushed out of the very company he founded, could have spent his life developing products that didn't push the envelope but delivered his family a very comfortable standard of living. Walt Disney could have given up animation--something he'd briefly attempted in the past--and sought work in the booming Hollywood movie business. But neither did--they learned from failure and eagerly dove back into the deep end of the risk pool. Said Steve Jobs, "It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me... Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.”

What is remarkable about both Steve Jobs and Walt Disney isn't merely that they persevered after failure; instead, the defining characteristic of these great men--the one thing we can and should learn from Jobs and Disney--is that they never stopped embracing risk even after they achieved success. It is difficult enough to make risky decisions after one is prosperous and comfortable, but imagine making those same risky decisions after having suffered the kind of confidence-shaking flameouts that Jobs and Disney experienced.

Disney achieved great success and recognition with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and The Three Pigs, yet he risked it all to push his company into the dangerous and untested waters of full-length animated movies. He was forced to release "Snow White" sooner than he wanted when the banks funding what had come to be known as  "Disney's Folly" refused to advance any more credit. Snow White earned Walt money and recognition, yet he risked it again and again on pet animation projects, live-action films and the riskiest bet of all--theme parks. Having tasted the bitter pill of failure, he nonetheless risked his reputation and wealth frequently.

Steve Jobs did the same. After being dumped from the company he founded, Jobs turned his attention to new risky endeavors. He launched a new software company called NeXT, Inc. and invested $50 million of his own money into Pixar. NeXT floundered, Pixar soared and Jobs was soon back at the helm at Apple. For most of us, the satisfaction and recognition of a triumphant return to the company that dumped us would be validation enough, yet Jobs took a salary of $1 a year and repeatedly placed risky bets on new business models and innovative technology. Jobs might have stopped at any point in his journey and retired with the kind of wealth and accolades most can only dream of, yet his risks and hits kept coming--iMac, Macbook Air, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and the iPad.

Most within corporate America work their entire careers avoiding risk. Some do it blatantly, taking pride in saying "no" to anything new that comes along, protecting the bottom line and corporate reputation from anything that feels a little dicey. Others avoid risk superstitiously, hiding behind focus groups, best practices and spreadsheets that promise (but rarely deliver) ROI.

In Human Resource departments, for example, the risk avoiders hire only candidates who present excellent education records; Steve Jobs dropped out of college and Walt Disney left high school after one year. In Marketing Departments, the risk avoiders spend big money on TV and print while moving cautiously into digital and social; Disney made huge bets before others on Technicolor in movies and on the nascent television medium, and Steve Jobs doubled down on mobile computing at a time when few expressed a desire for expensive mobile devices.

Avoiding risks doesn't get someone fired. No one is ever called into a senior executive's office to justify why he or she declined to invest the company's money in a bold but untested idea. The risk avoiders rise slowly and steadily in corporate ranks, producing modest results. They never risk their reputations or career achievement, and when they fail, they fail small and justifiably--"The creative tested well!" or "The candidate had a great GPA from a respected school!"

Most of the time, these people guide companies to outcomes within a safe and expected range, perhaps stealing a point of market share from the competition. Little is risked, lost or gained. But the road to failure is paved with a thousand tiny successes, and while risk avoiders don't fail spectacularly, their companies can. Risk avoiders cannot change quickly enough; they miss threats to their marketplace and are unable to rapidly steer a new course. Blockbuster, Borders, GM, and many other firms were full of risk avoiders who were constantly and modestly successful until they suddenly were not.

Of course, there are many in corporate America who embrace risk, but few do so like Jobs and Disney. If you are a risk taker, you probably do so only part way. You likely don't bet your job, your home and your family's future on your vision. Walt Disney would have lost Mickey Mouse and his home had Snow White failed, and he later borrowed against his own life insurance policy to fund the construction of Disneyland. You don't take that kind of risk, and neither do I.

How much are you willing to risk failure? After being promoted and earning a healthy income, are you inclined to put that at risk to pursue your vision and deliver exceptional results for your employer? Can you defend and support an employee's new idea when their last one failed thoroughly?

The lessons of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs aren't simple or easy. Very few of us have the power to achieve anything close to their level of greatness, but the way we choose to view failure and our willingness to risk what we have achieved is, in my opinion, the defining difference between those who are merely successful and those who bring vital change to their organizations.

Most of us desire success and fear failure. What the stories of Jobs and Disney tell me is that we ought to embrace failure and fear success. The more we succeed and achieve, the less likely we become to accept risks. Jobs and Disney remind me of a Steinbeck quote--one I learned from Epcot's American Adventure (Thanks, Walt!)  Steinbeck was speaking of our nation, but he may have well been speaking to every company and individual who has tasted success:

We now face the danger which in the past has been the most destructive to nations. Success, plenty, comfort and ever-increasing leisure: no dynamic people have ever survived these dangers.
Think Different, indeed!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Four Ways Corporate Social Media Professionals Undermine Their Authority

The Los Angeles Times today published an article, "Employers are Liking -- and Hiring -- Social Media Workers," that included a couple of comments from me. The gist of the article is that the demand for social media professionals is growing (shocking!), and along with it so are the demands of those jobs.

As I speak with peers online and at conferences, there can be a sense that our profession isn't taken seriously at every organization. For every Dell, IBM, PepsiCo, Best Buy and (my employer) USAA where social media is recognized as a compelling strategic advantage, there are a lot of companies where social media is treated as, well, fluffy.

It's easy to blame the lack of stature that social media has within some organizations on conservative (and typically older) senior leaders who may have little to no personal experience with social media, but is it too easy to lay the blame there? Might social media pros themselves be part of the problem? That question stuck in my head as I read this statement from the LA Times article, furnished by a person with the title executive director of search engine optimization and social media programming: "I have a hard time keeping a straight face when I tell people what I do for a living."

It is appalling to me that someone employed in the most significant evolution in business and communications since the advent of the web would utter those words. If he is embarrassed to tell his friends about his job, how must he fare promoting his ideas to the decision makers at his firm?

Social media is becoming too vital for companies to take lightly. If social media professionals contribute to this underestimation by subverting their own authority, they do harm not just to their careers but also to their employers' competitiveness, brand awareness, reputation and profitability.

Do you have any bad habits? Here are four ways corporate social media pros may damage their opportunities and influence:
  1. You have a cutesy job title: It seems gurus, wizards and ninjas are thankfully on the wane, but if you're still clinging to a job title more appropriate for a Dungeons and Dragons board than a boardroom, it's time to get new business cards--your job title isn't earning you respect among your serious peers. Unless the CFO in your firm is called the "Money Wizard" and the CIO is "the Ninja of Electronic Wonders," talk to your boss and claim a proper title that includes words such as "specialist," "manager," "director" or "vice president."
  2. You hype rather than educate: Are you guilty of eagerly regaling peers with how Dell Outlet earned $6.5 million selling products via its Twitter account? That old and tired case study is great if the company you work at sells refurbished consumer electronics, but it means absolutely nothing if you're in the travel, pharmaceutical, auto or financial service industry. Too many social media pros are quick to promote the latest social media case study without considering whether the industry or the strategy is pertinent to their firms. Your peers are likely hungry for news about what your competitors are doing in social media, but every irrelevant example shared becomes more noise and feeds a suspicion harbored by some of your associates that social isn't as pertinent in your industry as in others.
  3. You measure success by fans, friends and tweets: While metrics such as your Facebook fan count and number of retweets are useful for tracking your tactics, they are meaningless to most of your peers. The fact you have tens of thousands of fans on Facebook means little when the number of interactions on your posts (likes, comments and shares) number in the mere hundreds. Most organizations get tremendously more emails and phone calls than they do tweets and posts, which can reinforce the sense some have that social media hasn't yet scaled sufficiently to be vital. That perception is incorrect, of course, because it ignores the multiplier effect of public social communications and consumers' social graphs. Social media professionals must not rely only on measures of engagement but look for ways of tracking leads, inbound clicks, conversions, awareness, and other measures that communicate business results to decision makers.
  4. You focus only on the positive: It's easy to get excited about the opportunities in social media, but smart professionals also define risks, divulge them widely, and work to mitigate the potential costs. I've met social media workers who are hesitant to talk about the risks, afraid their bosses will find it easier to pull the plug rather than maintain a Facebook fan page where activists and detractors might shame the organization. Avoiding or minimizing the compliance, legal and reputation risks is precisely the wrong approach. Your peers may not know the specific risks in social media, but they know the risks are there; you earn trust by preparing and protecting your employer rather than dismissing those risks.

The LA Times article was difficult for me to read. I know too many bright and serious professionals in this space to read about people who "stumbled into" their social media careers and landed a job "because I'm young, and people assume you know what you're doing."

Social media is called Web 2.0, but I think it's time for Social media 2.0. Social media 1.0 was about marketing, promoting, tweeting, and posting; social media 2.0 is about driving business results and adapting to new social business models. It can be enough of an uphill battle getting traditionalists in your organization to understand the importance of social media--be cautious not to make that climb steeper with bad habits that undermine your own experience, authority and abilities.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Subscribe Feature Hints at Bold New Direction for Facebook

Applications and websites are like brands--each has its own particular reason for being. Build products and services around that singular reason, and consumers are more likely to understand, accept and adopt those new features. However, if a software package, site or brand attempts to expand in ways that violate their one essential purpose, consumers can become confused and reject the new (or even the core) offering.

Cosmopolitan Magazine Yogurt, Smith and Wesson Mountain Bikes, Walmart luxury goods, and Barbie clothing and accessories for adults--all of these brand extensions (must have) seemed like good ideas at one time but failed. Facebook is now embarking on its own brand and functional expansion, and it will be interesting to see what happens as the social network pushes beyond its traditional sandbox.

From the start, Mark Zuckerberg has had a clear vision of what Facebook is and is not. The social network is designed to be the online place for your existing, offline relationships. Zuckerberg once said, "we're not trying to build a community — we're not trying to make new connections."

This focus on facilitating real world relationships versus new connections is evident in everything Facebook does. Facebook's commitment to being a place for real friendships explains the social network's limits on the number of friends one can collect, the way groups were designed to degrade if they became too large and the way friends could add one another to groups without permission. It is also is why every Facebook relationship is required to be reciprocal--both parties must consent before a connection is made.

Facebook seemed content to let Twitter be the social tool for amassing influence and thousands of loose connections while Facebook focused on those dozens or few hundreds of firm and meaningful relationships we value in real life. But with the entrance of Google+ into the social networking world, Facebook seems to be innovating rapidly and, perhaps, giving up its commitment to real relationships.

Today, Facebook made a significant change to the way connections are created. People can still choose to "friend" you, which requires you to approve the connection in order to establish the relationship, but now users can also activate a new "Subscribe" button for their profiles. This Twitter-like feature allows people to subscribe to an individual's public posts while excluding their private posts. For the first time, you can follow a person's public Facebook posts without reciprocity.  (I've added the subscriber feature to my profile, and you can learn more and add this button to your profile on the Facebook Subscriptions page.)

Third parties have attempted to launch apps that push and pull Facebook away from its core mission of enhancing real world relationships. For example, in June Monster launched BeKnown, a professional networking application for Facebook. The application earns just 1.4 million active users, a fraction of the 82 million monthly users claimed by LinkedIn.  Perhaps the low participation is due to flaws with the application, but it's at least equally likely that people just don't wish to make professional connections with bosses, vendors, suppliers and peers within the same network where they post their kids' pictures and personal data. All that may change now that Facebook has deployed new tools furnishing you control over who sees your posts and for permitting others to subscribe and not just friend you.

Although others have tried to launch expansive networking tools on Facebook, today's news represents the first time I've noted Facebook itself taking a step away from its traditional foundation of firm, real, personal relationships. Is this a strategic move on their part to increase usage further? A reaction to Google+'s Circles? Or a mistake? Time will tell if this brand expansion will go the way of failed ideas like Bic Underwear (really!) or successful brand expansions like Arm & Hammer Toothpaste.

What do you think? Will Facebook be able to attract influencers who want to reach tens or hundreds of thousands with their public posts? Or will Facebook undermine its core mission?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Google+ and Social Media: The Future Is Not Anonymous

It is amazing to me that social media professionals, after years of delivering the message to organizations that transparency is a requirement, are suddenly shocked to find transparency is a two-way street. I've read dozens of blog posts by people gnashing their teeth at Google+'s policy of requiring real names, and a blogger I respect recently raged at Klout for having the audacity to use his public Twitter social graph to create a profile of his influence without his consent.

Did we really expect that the information walls surrounding corporations would crumble but that our individual cones of privacy would remain intact? Did we think we would use free and public tools to launch ourselves to greater levels of influence but that our reach and clout would remain protected and unquantified?

Social media is forcing greater transparency on our world, but we do not get to choose where and how this happens. Our new, open culture that is being created one post and tweet at a time does not play favorites. As with every change that occurs in society, the growth of transparency will come in ways that are both welcome and not.

Consumers may cheer every brand forced to defend their environmental footprint, outed for paying for product reviews or embarrassed into owning up to defective merchandise, but consumers will also face the very same forces. Individuals are likely to find it increasingly difficult to hide behind cartoon avatars and cutesy profile names, particularly in environments where serious networking and business are conducted. And perhaps in the future some things we believe today are sacrosanct--our debt payment history or our driving habits, for example--may be as freely available as are companies' Better Business Bureau files, balance sheets and employer reputations. (If that sounds ludicrous, remember that it was equally ludicrous just a few years ago that one might publicly share a complete list of friends and family members, current location or photos of a spouse and children.)

The metaphor some use when criticizing Google's real name policy is that of walking through a public space where no one knows your name. We don't, some point out, travel through life with a "Hi, I'm Augie" sticker our lapel.

True, but this is the wrong comparison because we can only remain anonymous in the real world until we begin to interact with others, at which point we often surrender the expectation of anonymity. Ask for directions to the bathroom and you remain John Doe, but request someone else's contact info, break the rules or attempt to conduct business, and you are very likely required to authenticate your identity. We cannot walk through a busy mall or airport wearing a mask without drawing suspicion, so why should be it be different in most online social venues?

Some feel that the reason Google and Facebook want our actual identity is to provide marketers with better data to permit more accurate targeting of advertising. That is the merest tip of the iceberg. The real reasons run much deeper than advertising.

The next wave of social behaviors won't merely be sharing jokes and insights; we will soon be conducting business in innovative social ways. While it's true that the Fortune 500 want to be able to deal with real people and not fake pseudonyms, it isn't just the big dogs who benefit when you are really you. Soon, it will be as important to individuals as it is to companies that you are a real, accountable, trustworthy, authenticated human being.

An evolution in our economy is underway, and a new "sharing economy" is on the rise. Increasingly, consumers will be turning to each other not just for news, product reviews and opinions; we'll also be renting cars, sharing homes and loaning money to each other. According to Fast Company, peer-to-peer financial-lending will reach $5 billion by 2013; car-sharing revenues will hit $3.3 billion by 2016, and the entire sharing economy sector could soon represent $110 billion.

When you rent your car to a stranger or let one sleep in your spare bedroom, do you want them to be CrazyPartyGal06 who loves Glee, Katy Perry and planking? Or do you want to rent to Susan Smith who's worked at P&G for 10 years, has 300 connections on LinkedIn and Facebook and has accumulated 20 recommendations from people who vouch she's a trustworthy and reliable soul? If you aren't certain how to answer that question, feel free to read the experience that one woman had renting her apartment via Airbnb to "Dj Pattrson." She asks, "Was it a guy? A girl? I still don't know," but she darn well wishes she had Dj's real identity after finding her entire home trashed by this anonymous person.

I'm not suggesting that every social network must require people to disclose their real identity; it's great to have places like Twitter where we can be FakeMicheleBachmann, CrazyPartyGal06 or an anonymous political activist operating in a country with little to no freedoms. But we shouldn't be surprised when social venues like Facebook and Google increasingly strive to ensure their networks are comprised of verifiable and authentic people. The future of trust, commerce, and business depends on us being real.

Danny Brown, the blogger who complained that Klout is opt-out rather than opt-in, perhaps said it best in a two-year-old blog post: "You know the old saying, 'Honesty is the best policy'? Take that with you into the social media arena and you’ll learn more and gain more than if you try being something you’re not... Be open, be clear, and be honest."  That's the kind of advice that social media consultants have been giving to brands for years now; it's time we begin to provide that same counsel to individuals, as well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Good and Evil: The Role of Social Media since 9/11 and in the Future

Today, social networks are full of posts declaring "we will never forget," as if washing the images and emotions of 9/11 from our collective memory was an option. On days like today, social media is a tool that brings us together, but in the decade since September 11, 2001, has social media been a force for good or evil?

The first decade after 9/11 coincides with the first decade of social media. In September 2001, social media was in its infancy--sites like Geocities and LiveJournal provided a place for people to share widely and, an ahead-of-its-time tool that demonstrated how connected we are, had recently shuttered. In the year following 9/11, Friendster would launch. The year after that, MySpace came into being and Mark Zuckerberg launched Facemash. Within another twelve months, Facebook, LinkedIn,, Hi5, Orkut, Dodgeball, and Flickr were online, and you know the story since then.

There are times social media appears to have been a force for "good," or at least a means to empower people to come together for positive change. Social media helped usher in "The Arab Spring," a wave of civil uprisings that toppled authoritative regimes and brought economic concessions in over a dozen Middle East countries. Social Media helped raise $5 million following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Social media reunites loved ones following natural disastersbrought positive political change to Columbia, is being used to prevent children from being recruited into begging and crime, has located kidnapped children and helps medical professionals track and react to flu outbreaks.

But social media has also been used for evil. Social media has made people vulnerable to kidnapping, enabled bullying that ends young lives, connects pedophiles and victims, facilitates the planning of criminal flashmobs, allows misinformation to disseminate rapidly and spreads malware.

More broadly, one cannot look at our country and suggest we are a more united and collaborative people a decade after 9/11 and into the social media revolution--political campaigns have gotten uglier and divisions in Washington have grown poisonous. On September 11, 2011, America is a deeply divided society. Where is the cooperation, commitment to greater good, shared values and openness to others' viewpoints promised by both the post-9/11 and social media period?

Is social media destined to merely reflect all that is wonderful and horrible in humanity? Or is social media a force for good?

Just as mass media changed our habits and beliefs, so too will Social media alter human nature, but it will take time. When humans are faced with change, they sometimes rebel because change can be scary--witness the painful journey through civil rights in the US or the violence in the Middle East and Europe this year.

Today, change is faster and more profound than ever. The growth of software and digital media is undermining traditional job security; social media is calling into question long-held beliefs about privacy; terrorism and tribalism have forever altered our sense of security and perceptions of geopolitical boundaries; environmental threats are forcing new considerations of growth and consumption; fluid international trade and migration are changing attitudes about multiculturalism and economic globalization; and governmental debt is causing many to reassess the role of government, taxes and social programs. Some welcome these changes but many are not sure what these changes mean for them and their children, and this concern is being expressed in ways both explicit and not in social media and the real world.

But we will adapt to the new realities--we always do!--and from this will come a new sense of our place in the world. Prior to mass media we only knew what happened in the tiny corner of the world in which we lived, and our actions were informed by the people and events within mere miles of us. In the mass media era, we saw the world more widely, but that view was fashioned for us by the entities that controlled the media.

Today, thanks to digital and social media, we have the means to understand the entire world as it is, only filtered by our own biases, perceptions and attitudes. If we get a stilted and incorrect view of the world, it is no longer the fault of politicians, media conglomerates and the powerful but ourselves. Some will willfully create a network of people and information sources that fit their world view, but whether we choose to be comforted or challenged is no one's decision but our own.

In the years to come, those who will be best prepared for the future won't be the ones with insular networks that tell them what they want to hear but will be the individuals who recognize and act based on how interconnected we have become. And therein lies the power of social media--transparency and the free dissemination of information may not make us different humans right now, but it will separate the people who see the future and lead others to it from those who choose to hide.

One painful and profound change that social media will force upon us is a new sense about what privacy is and is not. Just a few years ago, privacy was a right and we elected to hide virtually everything about ourselves; even today, some want to blur their homes in Google Street View and are annoyed Google+ won't permit anonymity.

Traditionally, people have been deeply suspicious about a loss of privacy because the collection, control and use of personal data has been undisclosed, occurred without permission and managed by opaque entities. But what will happen to attitudes about privacy when wider swathes of personal data are not owned by government agencies and market research firms but offered freely and made available to all?

A transition to a more transparent world will happen slowly and painfully and many will fight it, but consider how that list I shared of "evils" perpetrated within social media is altered in a transparent world. Bullying cannot happen when inappropriate and hateful behavior is immediately surfaced and parents and educators are alerted; pedophiles cannot harm others when they are not protected by false identities and anonymity; stalkers cannot hide in the shadows when their real world and digital whereabouts are known; and malware cannot so easily spread when the source is exposed for all to see.

We still need places like Twitter where anonymity is embraced, but our increasingly transparent and interconnected world cannot advance with outdated attitudes about privacy. Or, perhaps more accurately, our outdated attitudes about privacy cannot survive in our increasingly transparent and interconnected world.

I foresee a world where social media helps good thrive and forces evil out of the shadows and into the bright spotlight of public scrutiny. Do you agree? Please share your opinions below in the comments.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Email Message From the Past Captures My September 11 Experience

My experiences ten years ago this week were not terribly exceptional—I was not in New York, Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania and did not lose a loved one—but like all Americans and many in the world, the horrifying events of that day resonated deeply.

Caught 2,000 miles from home when the air travel system was shut down, it took me days to make my way to the warm embrace of home, friends and family. I captured the events of my strange road trip from San Francisco (where I would move eight years later) to home in Milwaukee in an email that I sent to friends on September 15th, 2001. I thought it might be of some interest to share that email.

In my message, I mention Lindsey, a young woman who sat next to me most of the way cross country. She was paying a last visit to her grandma in Madison, WI prior to reporting for duty in the Air Force. I've thought of Lindsey often in the years since. She's been a small reminder of the people who sacrifice and serve to keep us safe, and I hope wherever Lindsey is that she is well and happy.

Here is my message from the past:

What a week--what a sad, confusing, and strange week.  What follows is rather lengthy, so I don’t blame you if you don’t read it.  Either the long time out of touch, the peculiarity of my experiences, or just the emotion of this past week seemed to take over my fingers as I sat down at a computer for the first time in almost four days. I wanted to share some of my experiences.   

I know what I went through is nothing but a minor annoyance while so many are dealing with so much more. Still, my experience makes me wonder how many millions of Americans have been "inconvenienced" in the sort of way I was. In the past week, I was stuck 2,000 miles from family and friends, unable to comfort or be comforted, at the moment of the most tragic event our nation has had to face on its own soil perhaps since Pearl Harbor or the Civil War. 

I was awakened Tuesday morning by a panicked call from Geri. Her first words were, "Are you all right?"  I responded with some annoyance, "I'm sleeping."  She told me to turn on the TV and I saw the smoke pouring from the World Trade Center. For a day and a half I was glued to the television and computer in my hotel room, alone as I watched the sad and frightening coverage and searched for options to get me home as soon as possible. 

My only break from the non-stop coverage came the evening of September 11th. An uncle and aunt in San Francisco picked me up and we went to Fisherman's Wharf. It was a surreal and forced experience to be a tourist that evening.  Many of the restaurants were closed and the mood was somber, despite the fact the evening was quite beautiful.  We heard servers talking about their fear of losing their jobs or income because tourism might be harmed, and we left a very generous tip. 

At one point the following day, I had reservations for three separate means to get home:  My original air tickets (on a flight that was, in fact, canceled yesterday), Amtrak tickets (which would've cost almost as much as my round-trip air fare and would not have gotten me home until Monday after routing me through Portland), and my bus tickets (which I eventually used.) That doesn't even count the three-day, $1,300 rental car I briefly considered reserving to make a solo drive home. 

The trip home was strange. Fifty-three hours on the road, interrupted only by brief stops throughout the day and night in disgusting bus stations or the more appreciated and cleaner fast food restaurants. I spent the better part of three days crammed into a space smaller than any airline seat, not showering, hardly sleeping, and eating virtually nothing except food that was pre-prepared, sealed in plastic, and warmed in the dirtiest microwave ovens on earth. (The food was so bad that a Wendy's in a truck stop in Iowa was a welcome and appreciated stop!)

Certain experiences added to the strangeness of the trip: 

In Sacramento, special agents with badges (no one caught what agency they were from) boarded our bus, briefly interviewed everyone, and searched several pieces of luggage. Several of us later wondered if the woman who boarded and sat next to me at that stop was hiding something. She seemed nervous as she loudly announced that she had to have extra carry-ons because she had forgotten to get address tags for some of her bags, a requirement to check the luggage in the cargo area of the bus. Later, after we were on our way, she announced equally loudly that the reason the agents had searched her bags (and almost no one else’s) was because she had an Arab friend.  She also noisily said that she felt safer that the agents had searched the bus, but it ironically left the rest of us, who had previously felt safe, wondering if there was cause for worry.  We were all glad when she exited the bus without incident the next morning in Salt Lake City. (She took her pillow with her every time she left the bus, leaving us conspiracy theorists to wonder if she was hiding drugs; and of course, the agents never searched her pillow.)  

In the middle of the Utah salt flats we passed within 200 yards of a train wreck that had occurred just hours earlier. The accident involved two trains—one hauling passenger cars—and looked bad. Several cars were derailed, still smoldering and surrounded by dozens of fire trucks and ambulances (not to mention TV trucks), and we all worried about the injuries or fatalities. We were relieved to learn a day later by newspaper that no one was killed.  

While we were in Salt Lake City, one passenger heard a rumor about an American Airlines plane leaving for Chicago that still had seats available. She abruptly abandoned our bus, leaving behind the pillows she said she no longer needed, and left for the airport. (Her pillows were a lifesaver--on the second night I got my first minutes of sleep against one of the pillows she abandoned.)  We all wondered as we arrived home Friday night if she had gotten home ahead of us, although we agreed it was likely she was still camped in the airport, wishing she had stayed on the bus or at least kept her pillows.  

Greyhound bus stations are the butt of many jokes, and I now understand them. Perhaps the worst station I saw was the Omaha bus station. Having arrived in the morning, we were anxious to get to the bathrooms to freshen up. I took one step into the mens’ room and almost left in disgust--a half-inch pool of dirty water covered the floor and every surface was grimy.  I was so desperate to brush my teeth and shave that I rolled up my pants legs and managed to do my morning routine while holding my travel bag and never setting a single item down on any surface. That bathroom was so bad that a man who had gotten on the bus in San Francisco looking much like a vagrant (and smelling like one), stepped into the bathroom, looked around, and immediately turned and left. 

(I know Greyhound was sagging under the burden placed on our transportation systems, but wild horses couldn't drag me onto a long-distance Greyhound bus after seeing the neglected bathrooms, inedible food, derelict bus stations, and indifferent and untrained employees we all endured on the trip. If you are thinking of buying stock in Greyhound with the idea that millions of Americans are being exposed to the joys of Greyhound, don’t. Around a third of the newbies started the trip by saying they’d never fly again after seeing the scary scenes on television but by the end, 100% of these same people agreed they’d hop on a plane tomorrow rather than set foot in a Greyhound for a second time.) 

Of course, none of us knew what was going on in the outside world.  It made me marvel at how connected we’ve all become—television and the Internet seem like necessities and not luxuries here in the 21st century. I was thrilled when, at the very first stop after boarding, I found an Internet terminal in the Sacramento bus station, and I was disappointed when scouring every other bus station along the route failed to reveal a similar one. (I suppose the average Greyhound rider isn’t quite as connected as I am.)  Along the route, we picked up rumors in bus stations and tidbits of news from family by phone, and we debated if the US would be at war and retaliating by the time we arrived home. 

On the bright side--and there are bright sides to these sorts of experiences, after all--there were nice people to be met on the bus and several of us became fast friends: Joyce, a nurse from Iowa; Jeanie, a banker from Minneapolis; and Lindsey, a teen from Reno about to join the Air Force. None of us were “regular Greyhounders,” which made us a part of the majority on the bus who had never set foot in a long-distance bus. My small group of new friends looked out for each other, held places in line, and shared stories, family photos, information, newspapers, and snacks. In short, we kept each other sane in the face of conditions and at a time when sanity was stretched just a bit. Another bright spot, I suppose, is that I did get to see parts of the country that were new to me, although driving through Utah and Wyoming at 75 miles an hour and stopping at truck stops seems a pretty poor way to see these states for the very first time.

I got home last night and enjoyed my first night back—my wife, my cat, my bed, and my own bathroom seemed like luxuries, and for a while anyways it felt like life was back to normal.  It isn’t, of course, and as my focus changed from the petty problems of my own uncomfortable journey to the world at large, it struck me harder than I had imagined.  

I had cried during the initial coverage on Tuesday, and I find myself crying again.  Geri compared her emotions to when my mother died—the way the tears sneak up you at unexpected times—and I find this is the case today.  These are sad and scary times. 

Obviously, this week will be remembered for a long, long time. In the future, historians will assess how the rest of our lives were shaped by one Tuesday morning in September of the first full year of the new millennia.  In the future, composers will write songs and moviemakers will create films about this week. (Those movies, perhaps sadly but definitely suitably, will not feature Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger, saving the day single-handedly.)  In the future, much will be said about the lives lost, the heroism demonstrated, the actions of presidents, kings, and common people, and the way our world was changed on one horrible day. All of that is in the future, however, and right now I am trying to sort it all out.  For days, my attention has been focused primarily on my own trip home. Now, I am catching up with the rest of you who have been watching 24-hour coverage and dealing with this tragedy since it occurred. 

I am mourning the life lost and the pain this is causing to so many people. Today, 100,000 people are grieving the loss of a wife, husband, son, daughter, sister, brother, father, or mother.  Perhaps another million are mourning the loss of a friend, acquaintance, or coworker. But all of us, in the US and the rest of the world, are mourning with them. 

I also search for things I can do—something that can help my country, my family, and myself. I know everyone’s already been bombarded with ways to donate, so I won’t belabor the point, but it has helped Geri and I to feel as if we’ve somehow contributed to the cause by donating cash to several organizations.

I hope you don’t mind this lengthy message. I’ve had a lot of time to think (and do just about nothing but think) over the past week. I appreciate your friendship and the messages you sent while I was stuck half a continent away.  These are dark times, but those we keep around us make them lighter.