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Weekly #10: Danke, YouTube!

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Although by Canadian time I am a month and change too late, I would like to give thanks to YouTube during this time of Thanksgiving. YouTube, you have become so integral to my everyday life over the past five years that I don’t remember a time before your birth. You’ve given me laughter, tears, laughter through tears and, most importantly, information of all sorts. You have done this with grace and wisdom, never charging me or making me break a sweat.

Sure, you didn’t make the billions of videos on your site, but you host them and let me find them in lightning speed. And you even let me watch them with minimal wait time. Sample me this, Batman, and feast on the harvest of videos that have made you glorious in my mind: kittens, David, the cutest laughing baby in history, Charlie’s finger biting, SFG, JK wedding dance, Antoine Dodson a.k.a. my love, and Justin Bieber. You also act as my one stop shop for movie trailers, clips, interviews, fan videos that turn me into a fan, and complete songs.

Perhaps I am most grateful to you, YouTube, because you put the power with the people. Anyone with an internet connection and camera (now already installed in laptops) can contribute to your site. You embody the central ideas that we have discussed in class this semester. You lower barriers for participation, welcome user feedback through comments, and celebrate and reward the long tail. You have become a main point of reference for all, and not a day goes by without someone saying, “Did you see that YouTube video?” This is true for videos of things as trivial as the double rainbow and as momentous as the protests of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. You hold them on equal ground, letting me find, watch, share, and discuss what I want.

In other words, YouTube is conversation. (Aw, the Cluetrain authors must be so proud!) You allow for greater connectivity and shared experiences, doing what television did for Americans in the 1950’s (and much more). Your links are ubiquitous and sharing them is a main way video gets passed along on the internet.

You may think you are just the medium, YouTube, but in your case the medium is the message. Being able to post a video of my talent, thoughts, or anything I see fit to record tells me that I’m worth just as much as footage of Princess Di’s fairytale wedding. In fact, you’ve ripped up Coase’s floorboards so much that my contribution may be worth more to the people than coverage of the People’s Princess.

The point is, YouTube, you are getting a hearty shout-out during the family prayer and share in two days. I imagine the conversation going something like this:

Mom: “I’m grateful for having my family all together in one place.” Translation: “Thank God you’re all here, I need help decorating the tree, and many of you owe me money.”

Dad: “I’m grateful for having a healthy family.” Translation: “You heard your mother. Start bringing down the ornaments.”

Brother A: “I’m grateful for the food we are about to eat.” Translation: “This is worse than torture. Just let me eat now. Tara’s about to say something stupid…”

Me: “I’m grateful for YouTube, which gives me plenty to laugh and cry at. Plus, I can learn, share, and connect on there.” Translation: “Look, family, look at what I’m teaching you!”

Brother B: “I’m grateful that Tara is leaving in three days.” Translation: None required.

Brothers C and D nod in agreement.


Weekly #6: Obama, You First

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I fell for Barack Obama on July 26, 2006. I was working as a congressional intern and had already seen Obama only weeks earlier as part of a speaker series put on for the interns. This much-hyped senator was a major attraction and he turned out the best numbers of any lawmaker that summer. I didn’t know much about him other than his star turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his promotion of unity over partisan politics. That first time I saw him up close and personal, I found myself let down. He was close enough, yet anything but personal. He came prepped with a message in mind and delivered it steadily enough. But there was no enthusiasm, no spark. I can barely even remember what he spoke about. In fact, the most memorable part of the whole thing was the faux bomb threat that almost emptied the place (what kind of self-respecting college student carries around a red, reusable lunch bag?). At the close of the Q&A, I sat in the back wondering, “What’s the big deal about this guy anyway?”

Soon enough, I was given another opportunity to see Obama. He was scheduled to have a live discussion with the late, great Tim Russert as part of the Partnership for Public Service Annual Intern Event. The goal was to talk about the importance of public service and encourage me and my peers to opt in. I wasn’t excited to join a throng of 2,000 other DC interns for another lackluster speech, but I did like Russert, and who doesn’t want a few hours out of the office? And how bad could he really be in comparison to then President Bush’s remarks at the NRCC’s President’s Dinner? (Yes, I worked for a Republican and, yes, half of the dinner guests – excuse me, patrons – were straight from Texas, cowboy hats and boots and all). So on July 26, I made the trip to Warner Theatre, and what I saw and heard was undoubtedly one of the best discussions about modern politics and government service to date.

Obama was intelligent, articulate, candid and, most importantly, genuine. Russert himself was quite impressive, and it was fascinating to see him do a Meet the Press session live. He too was enamored with Obama, clearly enjoying honest answers instead of the packaged ones he was so used to from seasoned politicians. Obama was a fresh voice who was confident in his message: America and Americans could lead this new, globalized world if we got over politics as usual and came together to make the necessary changes. The entire dialogue hinted at the “first campaign” that Obama would kick off in less than a year’s time. He then took questions from the audience, and I saw peers take part in a conversation with the man that would become the most powerful person in the world within 28 months. Needless to say, I was hooked. Obama was asking me, a lowly 19-year-old with zero life experience, to step up and take part in the governance of our nation. I left feeling energized and empowered, and like I had just seen a glimpse of the future of American politics in the 21st century.

Obama’s campaign would reflect much of what I saw on that day. If you ask anyone on the street, they’ll tell you that Obama stood out because he positioned himself as the candidate of “hope” and “change.” But as Graff noted, then-Governor Tom Vilsack was already touting a “readiness to change” and “hope of tomorrow” message in the fall of 2006 (pg. 5). “Hope” and “change” were just cherry-picked buzzwords that provided shortcuts for conceptualizing the Obama campaign. Obama would not have been successful armed only with these concepts. Instead, he succeeded because his campaign took on the tone and character of Obama himself on that fine day in July. It was open, honest, and enthusiastically welcomed discussion and participation from those on the lowest level. In Clay Shirky speak, Obama’s campaign offered the following three things:

Plausible Promise: A new kind of campaign and a new kind of presidency, one that encouraged and invited participatory democracy. Obama promised to govern with the people instead of politics at the forefront of his mind, to make tough decisions that were necessary and right, and to make America great again in a globalized world.

Effective Tool: The internet and mobile technology, specifically social networks, blogs, text messages, microtargeted emails, personalized phone calls, webcasts, online videos, and a campaign website that brought it all together. His campaign even personalized the experience through MyBO accounts (myObama.com), taking all of the tools and platforms and putting them together in one simple account.

Acceptable Bargain: If you support Obama, give a little money, and volunteer on his behalf, you will help usher in a new era of politics where transparency is the rule, authentic conversations are the norm, and the voices of many are heard over the voices of the few and powerful. You will be part of the change you seek, you will make a concrete difference. All Obama asks in return is that you give and do what you can (tiered ladders of engagement), and he will make America and Americans great and right once more.

The primary maxim of the Cluetrain Manifesto, “Markets are conversations,” is about a movement towards openness. The Obama campaign embraced this openness. His staff took the tools best suited for open conversations (social media like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) and made them the centerpiece of the campaign. They did more than that – they streamlined them, made them easy to use, and brought them under one roof with a crash-proof infrastructure. They met the millions of people that lived and played in these spaces, and used their raw energy to create a grassroots movement.

The Obama campaign was largely successful because as an nontraditional candidate, Obama recognized early on that he needed to use nontraditional means to build support. His campaign lowered the barrier to entry into presidential politics and made activism easier than ever before. It rejected public financing and put Obama’s success squarely in the hands of the people. It made a national election personal and local, encouraging house parties and providing neighborhood phone lists. The campaign also invested heavily in the layer of “super users” (from Mike’s class discussion on 9/22) that were able to manage various online communities as well as take the lead in offline events and volunteer efforts.

In short, Obama’s campaign was about the long tail. It wasn’t about the loudest few with the most money and power. It was about many groups and communities, most significantly ones that often went unheard in politics (e.g. the young and African Americans), each with their own set of primary concerns, each being empowered to join in the discussion and shape the future of our nation. As Cluetrain mentions, the internet allows conversations that simply were not possible in the era of mass media. The Obama campaign used the internet to foster authentic conversations that were not seen in short tail media outlets like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. Bloggers and Facebook commenters were just as important, if not more so, as Russert’s opinion on Meet the Press. In sum, the Obama campaign made good on the Cluetrain maxim, “We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal” – and it made all the difference.


So what about now? Has Obama the President followed through on his promise? In a word, no.

Before I level my criticisms, know that I had no great hopes for Obama even as tears streaked my face on the night of November 4, 2008. I was overjoyed at the significance of the occasion, and grateful that a Republican wasn’t taking the reigns for four more years. But I knew the challenges ahead would not be easily overcome. I knew that despite his message of post-partisanship and effective governance by the people and for the people, he would be greatly tempted to play by the same old rules of the Beltway to get his agenda through. Perhaps because I had worked on the Hill or perhaps because I lived in DC, I knew the presidency would be far from a joyride for Obama.

That being said, it appears that Obama’s presidency, just like Beltway politics in general, has become about the short tail. The loudest, most powerful voices of the few are the key influencers when it comes to governance. As Graff noted, “Unfortunately, the American political system responds too often only to intense stimuli” (pg. 284). That includes both major events and major players. That is how Washington works. It is an old game after all, and to win you have to play by the old rules. But Obama promised something different. He promised to throw out the old rules and create new ones. He promised a new kind of presidency, where participatory governance was the norm, where those in the long tail were empowered to make a difference. Unfortunately, we have yet to see this.

Just look at the tools that made the long tail so prominent during the campaign. For instance, check out the White House Blog. There you will find links leading mainly to the White House website, to other government websites, or to messaging that clearly is packaged by the communications team. You will not find links to conversations taking place in the long tail. (Even sadder, you will find zero to few comments on Community Blogs posts on the Organizing for America site). Why don’t the White House bloggers point to discussions on social networking sites that support the President’s agenda and progress so far? Why not link to an article that attacks Obama and use the blog as a platform to address the concerns presented, point-by-point? Or why not link to a right wing blogger who is making claims about the administration based out of bias and anger, and set that blogger straight? After all, links subvert authority…oh right, Obama is the authority now. And he has laws to pass. And the mid-terms to win. And his own re-election to win. He can’t afford to piss off anyone with substantive conversation, least of all the major players. No wonder these types of links aren’t seen.

The thing is, the millions that fell in love with Obama did so because of the open, human, authentic conversations that he inspired and encouraged during the campaign. Now, although his messaging is still technically designed to be taken up and spread by others (as Edelman’s report suggests), it fails to spread because it is no longer part of an open, multi-directional dialogue. People aren’t inspired by one-way messaging and hollow appeals for $15 donations. As a result, the long tail grows quieter as the loud and few (Tea Party Republicans) grow louder. I would champion Obama even with his huge missteps (Gitmo and DADT) if he kept up his end of the bargain and at least tried for the same grassroots authenticity that defined his campaign.

In Graff’s book, he cites Ray Scheppach’s observation about what makes a successful governor (pg. 288). If you replace “governor” with “president,” you get the following: “To be great…a president needs to provide the moral leadership necessary to change the game.” Is it realistic to ask this of a sitting president in this day and age, especially with fast approaching mid-terms? If it was anyone else, no, probably not. Running a country is completely different than running a campaign. And when a young, nontraditional player comes in by bucking the system, you better believe that the system won’t go easy on him.

But this is the man who based everything on the promise to change the game and bring about a more effective, open, and morally right administration, which we still have yet to see. Obama has lost his compelling narrative, and in the words of Amy Gardner, “‘Jed Bartlet: Not quite as mean-spirited as the other guy.’ Doesn’t really send me running to my polling place.” And now Obama asks those of us in the long tail daily for a grassroots movement to save the Democratic Congress, after having largely ignored us for the past two years.

It takes two for a bargain to work, and I say, “Mr. President, you first.”

Weekly #2: Bibbidi-BLOGGidi-Boo!

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For this week’s Social Media assignment, I drew inspiration from a CEO who became synonymous with his company – Walt Disney. Similar to Steve Jobs, Disney elicits a mix of feelings and descriptions, perhaps the most common being “visionary.” If this visionary had a blog, what would he say?

Of course, Disney did not have a blog, but what he did have was timeless advice. So, Mr. CEO, if you want to jump into the deep end of the blogosphere, take some hints from the man who became a mouse to become a legend:

When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity.

People connect to people. It’s as simple as that. If you want to put yourself out there and talk about your company, you need to speak with a human voice on your blog (see Cluetrain Manifesto). Distinguish yourself from the marketing jargon. People are smarter than ever before and can dig up information on you and your company without your help. Why not speak for yourself? Come out from behind the fog of “The Company” and be honest and transparent. That is what your customers want, what your employees want – hell, what all of your stakeholders want. Your corporate reputation is built on honest practices and transparency, and your blog should be one channel that demonstrates your commitment to these values.

I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known.

This famous Disney soundbite seems as if it came hot off of WordPress. It gets a laugh and shows the quirky side of Disney. Blogging offers the CEO an opportunity to show the humor and vulnerability – the human side – of a company. There is a caveat, however. Think about this quote for a bit longer. It is quite sad if taken at face value. It could be showing the cracks in the psyche of a man who, after all, built an empire around fantasy and escape. As noted in Say Everything, there’s a fine line between the “sincere” blogger and “authentic” blogger. Being honest and transparent doesn’t mean you have to reveal the inner demons within yourself and your company. Instead, be sincere, marrying your online persona as CEO with your offline one. You need to make sure that “life and blog are in harmony” (pg. 258).

Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.

It is important to view your multiple stakeholders as equal parts of a whole culture, especially since that is how opinion leaders now view them (2010 Edelman Trust Barometer). Employees can be your company’s strongest advocates. They also happen to be who your other primary stakeholders – customers – want to hear from (Cluetrain). You can lead by example with your blog and encourage your internal stakeholders to join by writing their own blogs. The goal should be clear: this is one way to engage our stakeholders and build relationships through sincere dialogue. You can even improve your blog cred by linking to your employees’ blogs. Respond to employees’ concerns, answer their questions, comment on their links. They want to know you care about them, too. Plus, this shows proof of the genuine conversation going on both internally and externally that is now expected by your stakeholders (Edelman Trust Barometer).

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

Cluetrain taught us that your customers want to know what your strategies and plans are. They want to be part of the conversation surrounding your new ideas and innovations. Including them via your blog will help build trust and provide you with feedback and insight that you may not have otherwise had access to. Allowing comments to your posts is not a must, but they do provide for a more open and honest dialogue with your stakeholders. You also can build credibility by inviting experts to comment on your posts and by linking to their blogs. According to Edelman, your company’s story needs to be told through multiple channels and multiple people, especially experts, academics and industry analysts. Involving experts shows that you are knowledgeable about your field and open to idea generation from outside of the company.

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.

The answer to the question dancing in your head is “Yes.” Yes, blogging comes with risks and may even result in some backlash for you and your company. That is the nature of the beast. This nature is never more apparent than when the economy is bad and companies are easy to blame. Right now trust in companies is fragile and people are mad – Howard Beale mad. However, you can take preventative measures to decrease negative reactions. First, create a communication plan that has clear goals and objectives and consistency across platforms. Second, realize that blogging is just one platform for you to reach out to your stakeholders. Do not neglect other forms of communication that are needed to build trust and relationships. Third, think before you post. You can still be genuine and have your assistant proofread your post. If something appears that you as CEO in real-time would not say, take it out. Remember, sincerity means life and blog are in harmony. Editing in this way is not only okay, it is necessary. After all, writing about a portion of your life does not warrant complete self-exposure (Say Anything, pg. 265). Of course, you will inevitably get some backlash, especially if you allow for comments. When this happens, don’t run and hide. If you or your company messed up, own up to it and make good with the disgruntled party. If you are in the right, use your blog as a forum to explain why. In either case, it may be the best thing for your company. You can learn from negative feedback and change for the better. You then signal to your stakeholders that they matter and are valued.

Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.

Images are shortcuts for the imagination, and people love shortcuts, so use them. More specifically, use ones that further your story. You know how you love watching behind-the-scenes clips from films? That’s because you get a glimpse of the real people and methods behind the creative process. You want the genuine story that made the film possible. The same holds true for your company. Your stakeholders want the insider’s view of your people, how they work and what they are working on. Pictures and short videos of your inner workings will enhance your blog. Once you are comfortable, invite your customers to contribute pictures and videos relating to the company. This is proof that they are internalizing your company’s story and making it their own.

I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.

It’s important to keep in mind your company’s history and how it influenced the culture today. No matter what technology or platform you use, remember that you are telling a story. Blogging is just one of the many ways to tell that story. But unlike your company website or marketing materials, you get to be the narrator. You get to invite others to participate and help modify and expand the story. You get to build relationships by using the human voice. It truly is an exciting gift.

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

Starting a blog isn’t as easy as bibbidi-bloggidi-boo. (Side note: It’s scary how similar-looking the Fairy Godmother is to the nun who taught me in fourth grade). It will take you a while to get used to the form, and it may feel like a chore at first. But you have to start somewhere. It may not be perfect, but like a fine wine, it will get better with time. Now that you armed with my sage advice, go forth and start blogging!

WEEKLY #1: And Then There Were Four

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Markets, markets, markets!

After careful analysis, I have concluded that the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto actually present four theses. I’m all for making grand allusions, but their rallying cry was 91 theses too long.

Here’s what it all boils down to:

  1. Markets are multi-directional conversations. These conversations are among real humans, are in real time and are about real issues. They create positive relationships and powerful networks.
  2. These networked conversations enable new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange. Networked markets are smarter than ever before, relying on each other for information instead of companies. These markets have made the formal hierarchy irrelevant.
  3. Despite their best efforts, companies are no longer in control. Networked markets are immune to robotic sales-speak and can find better alternatives. Companies need to stop fearing these markets and start building relationships with them. If companies do not engage in authentic conversations, they will perish.
  4. Earth to companies: You can engage in authentic conversations by using your most valuable asset – employees! Intranetworked employees are powerful because they know you and, more importantly, because they are us. Employees want to talk to us in the human voice. We want to talk back. We are building a community inclusive of markets and employees, and “The Company” is the only thing standing between the two. Relationship is the new currency, and if you want to survive in this economy, you’ll let your starters off the bench.

These main points all speak of the unique “community of discourse” that was blossoming on the internet 11 years ago. Social media, specifically the blogosphere, allowed consumers to take the reins and force companies to open up like never before. Companies had to focus less on the bottom line and more on relationship and community.

Nowadays we take these multi-directional, anti-hierarchical conversations for granted. We the consumers expect companies to blog and tweet. We expect them to respond to our comments and complaints. We expect the power that was then unprecedented for newly networked markets.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that today companies are embracing authentic conversations. It turns out history isn’t made simply by showing up. Sure, they’re on Twitter and Facebook, but many companies still don’t view conversations as worthwhile for the sake of building community. Instead, conversations are just another path to increased profits. Money drives their conversations, and it shows.

Rosenberg’s Say Everything speaks to the effects of money on a medium that was meant to be social, conversational, human. Yes, blogging can earn you money. But what happens when you blog purely for the sake of money? What happens when conversation becomes a job? I think it stifles the human voice. It makes you think twice. Censorship is sensible when money is at stake, and openness takes a backseat to a full bank account.

Written by taryou

September 22, 2010 at 1:41 am