Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Battle of the Brands: Borders vs. Whole Foods


It is one of those beautiful, lazy summer days.


The sky is so perfect it looks like a screensaver. Warm air. Slight breeze. Relaxed people walk up the little streets then back down again, always with something in hand. Some clutch mini-purses with loops for around the wrist.  Others, iced coffee. Huge strollers with tiny babies. Everybody talking idly about nothing.


Some of those happy people go into Borders. Not knowing that they’re about to be sucked into an airless tunnel. Where the experience rips the cheer out of all but the most resilient.


Open the door. Immediately there are neon circles flashing some amount of percent off of this or that. A haphazardly placed black plastic basket holds discs of some sort and says “50% off.” Shelf signs promise, “buy 2 get 1 free.” Everywhere you look, low-low- prices. When it’s retail anyway so it starts out all marked up.


If you stand still too long, you worry, they might put a price tag on you.


Move toward the magazine section, scanning for “People” or “Us” or “Star.” No warning: They’ve moved them since last week. Now the gossip magazines are sandwiched next to the music ones and the intellectual film journals.  No logic here since you can tell from the cover of each respective kind of publication that they are intended for completely unrelated audiences.


Onward through the confusion. Look for the book “The Help” and saleswoman herself can barely find it. Return five minutes later to get an unscarred copy and can’t remember where the hell it was. Was it before “Inspirational?” Or After “History?” Who knows? Who cares? One cannot tell what the point of the layout is at all.


Of course, there are those who come in just in search of the Wifi. Waiting miserably for a table and chair, or sharing out of desperation. Skulking around like thieves.


I always feel guilty about doing that. So I will buy something. But the coffee is terrible no matter what kind of syrup they put in it. Not to mention that the food looks completely stale. That the half-and-half is forever empty, and the counter around it is unkempt. That there seems to be no strategy behind what kind of food they sell.


Plus the people who work there – you can’t call them baristas because that would imply some level of enagement with coffee – seem like prisoners serving out a life sentence. Not that they should be jumping for joy, but why are the people at Starbucks so much happier?


I went to a Starbucks the other day and the person who was cleaning the trash can said to me, “I just love this place. I love it so much I should do a commercial.”


I mean, if there is a secret sauce then Starbucks has it.


But not Borders. The people there are visibly depressed. They try to be polite but wear the facial expressions of people being held hostage at a convenience store, trying to pass a “call 911” note to a hapless walk-in.


Once, walking away from the counter, I heard one food representative half-heartedly joke to another, “Do you call it ‘iced decaf’ or ‘decaf iced’?” In Starbucks the baristas say, “I hate that freakin’ song, turn it off!” Yeah!


A store full of morose people is a store in trouble.


It’s a fractured experience to be in Borders, actually. With most of the store for books and such and a separate portion for food and WiFi. They don’t relate. And you can see it visually: The color scheme doesn’t match (maroon walls and summer-hued posters) and the fonts in the signage don’t go together either – almost as if two or three different agencies had competed for the business of building the brand image, and Borders just walked away with carpet samples.


If you can get away from Borders and go across the street, you will enter a world that I am confident Borders executives have never seen. For if they had, they would be ashamed to admit where they work at all.


It’s called Whole Foods. You’ve heard of it. Well, they are ramping up their game. Based on a visit to the across-the-street store and another one not far away, here are just 20 noticeable applications of the Whole Foods “brand recipe” (the list could go on):


1.     Joy is in the signage. Peach cobbler, “Oh how sweet it is!” Every detail lovingly captured.


2.     Free community events – especially cooking classes for adults and kids, for free.


3.     Signs hung prominently from the ceiling that talk about the company’s commitment to ethical practices.


4.     Comment cards placed in front of the cash register that make it easy and inviting to rate how you were treated that day.


5.     Educational information placed prominently near the fruits, the vegetables, the ready-made food bar, everywhere.


6.     Beautiful displays of cut-up fruit, of soap, of coffee, of peanut butter, of trail mix, almost anything you can think of to display, they display. Even beans and dried mushrooms.


7.     Absolute abundance everywhere you look. Piles and piles of stuff.


8.     Sales are discreet and don’t look desperate.


9.     Fun machines that let you make your own combination peanut butters and pop your own multigrain wafers. Stations where you can assemble your own custom-made granola, and so on.


10.  Small but ample spaces where different cuisines and types of foods can be enjoyed – a cultural world tour.


11.  Everything is packaged as if it were premium.


12.  Aisles are wide.


13.  Checkout is fast.


14.  There are accommodations for people with disabilities, including free power scooters.


15.  There is a cafeteria where you can take the food from the carryout area and enjoy a restaurant-quality meal.


16.  Curb appeal – with flowers, watermelons, and all types of things displayed outside in an appealing way.


17.  Nice mini-shopping carts for those who don’t have a ton to buy.


18.  Excellent lighting – bright, designer-looking, but not harsh.


19.  A constantly changing array of products but a consistent supply of the staples you need.


20.  Attention paid to the cost factor that can be daunting – they give you educational booklets about how to buy grains and beans and such in bulk, and cook them well.


The most important difference between Whole Foods and Borders, though, isn’t any specific thing that either one of them does.  Rather, it’s the big picture. The pure joy of living the brand. Whole Foods really has it. It has passion. Starbucks, too.


Borders, on the other hand, does not. The whole operation has the feel of a family whose members are so unhappy they want to run away. But they are bound to each other  for reasons nobody else can understand.


You want to know what I would do with Borders?


I would change the name to Starbucks. Apply the green brand. Implement the Starbucks Way of training. And integrate books and chairs just like you mix together salt and pepper – inseparable because reading and coffee go together. (Seattle’s Best coffee is Starbucks’ anyway…and that brew can only get better with the Starbucks logo attached.)


When you have happy customers, you can trust them not to spill.


Have a good evening everyone, and I wish these two important businesses – brands that are an important part of my life and so many others – good luck!



Photo source here.



Remembering "Transparency College"

Really good teachers influence us long after the class is over.

My forthcoming book, a compilation of my best writings at the intersection of branding and social media, is called "Beyond Brand Transparency: How to Succeed In A Radically Different World."

I gave it that title at the last minute. I didn't know where it came from, but it just seemed right.

I registered it with the Copyright Office and then turned to update my list of publications. Wouldn't you know it. There on my list of books I had authored or edited was an online book called "Brand Transparency," written by Chris Macrae, a lead Advisory Board member at the Institute for Brand Leadership where I served as director from 2001-2003. (It's not online anymore...I am looking for it but haven't found it yet.) Here is the description from the created by another brand thinker,  Jack Yan, who participated in our branding discussions at that time:

<<Macrae: Brand Transparency. Washington: Institute of Brand Leadership 2002. 
Chris Macrae’s excellent collection of writings about brand transparency, edited by Dannielle Blumenthal, is one of the best in getting us to question dogma and convention, breaking through the business world’s conditioning and its use of falsehoods in the process. I appear in it once and am honoured to be amongst such illustrious company. Hop over to and learn more about Chris’s initiatives.>>

I recalled that when I edited the book I tried to make Macrae's thinking accessible to the average person. His basic thesis was that transparency is a way to unlock economic value by promoting trust, and thereby collaboration. But it's a little hard to get to that nugget through the dense thicket that is his website (worth a thorough review anyway...maybe the book is there somewhere? I don't know.).

Anyway, I just wanted to give credit where credit is due, as I consider Macrae along with the authors of this article in the Journal of Brand Management to be significant intellectual mentors in the field of branding. They wrote something called "The Brand Manifesto," and many contributed to a book called Beyond Branding as well. 

The thinking of this group was well ahead of its time and remains prescient today. I owe them an intellectual debt. If my book has any impact on anyone at all, I hope they will know that its ideas were inspired by others. To me this lends credence to the belief that progress is not about one lone thinker coming up with an idea-invention that changes the world. But rather that we take what others have done and mold it, like clay, into something hewn from wrestling with our own experiences and learning.

My way of saying, thank you to the Institute for Brand Leadership Advisory Board and all my teachers and mentors. Transparency College is forever.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Marketing government to an ambivalent public


Every Saturday night my dad would take orders for T.'s Pizza. 

No sooner would he make havdala (the Jewish ceremony ending Sabbath) when I would hear his voice wafting up the stairs: "Who wants pizza?"

Being a good dieting teenager I would always say, "No thank you."

"Are you sure?" I would hear.

"Yes, absolutely, I don't want to eat so late at night, especially after dinner."

What is it with him, I would think. I don't want the damn pizza, why does he always ask?

About an hour and a half later after attending the informal Jewish community meet-n-greet that was T.'s on a Saturday night, my dad would pop back in the back door with a humongous pizza in hand. Hu-mongous.

Usually he also had falafels too. 

The spicy hummus platter he would eat at T.'s, where he thought it was hilarious to continuously challenge the pizza shop owner to make it too hot to actually consume. "Ha-ha-ha," my dad would say, tears rolling down his face, "You can't make it too spicy for me!" 

The Israeli owner, who thought spicy hummus was a mild challenge at best compared to living under the constant threat of a terrorist attack, would look at him briefly, shake his head, smirk, and go back to flipping dough. (There were times when I witnessed this live.)

Anyway. The point is that my dad would walk in and I would be watching TV in the living room, waiting for Saturday Night Live to come on.

The smell of that pizza would knock me to the floor. And I would go to the kitchen just to be around it.

I would tiptoe to the fridge and pretend to get a Diet Coke. But really, I was leering at that pizza.

I would lift the lid.

It was soooooo cheesy.

Off I would go. "Just the crust," I would mutter as I savagely tore off a piece. "Well, maybe a bit of the cheese from on top."

Before you knew it I'd be gobbling away. And two slices and a half a falafel later, would go back to the living room absolutely unable to focus on the TV because I was in pizza heaven.

I recall this weekly routine after watching the movie "The Next Three Days." Generally, it's about Russell Crowe's attempt to break his wife out of jail (no spoilers there) after she is convicted for a crime she didn't commit.

Despite the gripping nature of the show I found myself ambivalent about its content. 

* On the one hand I sympathized with Crowe's character, his motives and beliefs. He tried to do what the law told him to do, but the system failed him. Did he have a choice?

* On the other I felt grateful that we have a law enforcement system where its members actually give a damn - let me be more precise, they are passionately committed - about public safety, order and the law. On top of that, how many movies and TV shows have I seen where law enforcement is portrayed as uncaring or incompetent at protecting the public?

This last part is what got me to thinking about law enforcement from a marketing perspective.

For it seems that the public is as ambivalent about government exerting social control as I was about getting pizza on a Saturday night.

* On the one hand, we expect to be protected. And we get mad when the government doesn't seem to do so.

* On the other, we expect to live our lives free of interference. And we get mad when anyone tries to tell us what to do.

(Note that I think about this especially because I work in public affairs for a federal law enforcement agency. However, all opinions are my own.)

I'm not writing this post to generate a list of 5 or 10 superficial answers to the problem because I don't think the problem is so simple.

It's important enough right now just to note that marketing depends on satisfying human need.

And in order for the customer to feel satisfied and even delighted, there has to be:

1) clarity about what the need is; 

2) a standard for how to satisfy it; and then 

3) evidence of that standard being met and hopefully surpassed.

To carry this train of logic to its conclusion, if law enforcement is to market itself to the public successfully - thereby establishing the positive relationships that boost both compliance by the public and accountability from the government - there can't be any ambivalence about what is expected. About how success is defined and achieved.

The question is how do we get there. 

Now I need a cup of coffee.

Have a good day everyone, and if you have any suggestions I'd love to hear them.

Good luck!


Photo source here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Facebook-ification of Government (Transparency Starts With Ourselves)


The other day I was walking to my car from Trader Joe's and saw a
woman loading their signature brown paper shopping bags into her car
trunk. (Fortunately for her the bags were not breaking in transit as
has happened to me, thus necessitating double-bagging every single
thing I buy there.)

Anyway, she was bald. But some bits of hair were growing back in rough
fuzzy patches.

She had gotten chemo. And unlike in years past, when women wore wigs
or scarves to cover up the telltale baldness, she just didn't bother.

I thought to myself, that woman is beautiful.


Time doesn't change who we are or what we're interested in. My
dissertation was about bringing emotion back to mainstream culture,
when it had long been relegated to the world of talk shows and (in my
study) soap operas.

I grew up watching Phil Donahue. Days of Our Lives. General Hospital.
Oprah Winfrey. And yes, I have to admit it, even the Jerry Springer

On the radio, Dr. Laura for sure, when I could catch her. Now if I'm
home I'll watch Dr. Phil.

I pay attention to people who take emotional issues that affect a lot
of people, and put them front and center.

And I am still fascinated by people who step up to be the guinea pigs
that talk about them.


This weekend I made the decision to crowdsource some feedback I had
received in my 360. It was tough for me to do that. After all who
wants to admit that they are flawed? But it felt important to me to do
that. I routinely give armchair advice from my blog, but I definitely
don't have all the answers.

My mom and dad disagreed on the relative wisdom of that post, even
though if you compare it to the sea of blogs, magazine articles and
books with much more dramatic self-revelatory content, it was
comparatively tame. (The best and most frightening example is where
the blogger talks about smashing a lamp over her own head in
frustration.) The reason such content is so "good," of course, is
because it's honest. But it's also risky to the writer because, as my
dad put it, "You want other people to think good of you."

There, for me, is the question. Do people think well of you because
you say good things about yourself? Or refrain from saying bad things?

Or do people think well of you because you are honest about yourself
to a level that's appropriate for the audience? (No way am I
advocating the "overshare.")

In today's communication environment, where there is deep mistrust of
business and government alike, as well as heightened expectations of
transparency (nothing is hushed up or stays in the closet for long
anymore), I have long said that organizations should aggressively
"own" their weaknesses - i.e. bring them up and deflate the criticism
balloon before others can level it at them.

But is this really good advice? After all, if talking about your
problems makes an individual look bad....then how is it different for
an organizational entity?

If you look at the tragic screwups of crisis communications we've seen
in just the past few years, the pervasive logic is still very much
what my dad believed was self-evident: Don't give people a reason to
put you down.

I say just the opposite. (Most public relations specialists would tell
you the same, really.) Say it, own it, put it on a plaque on the wall.
Everyone points to the Tylenol crisis many years ago. But you don't
have to reach that far. Look at David Letterman and how he surpassed a
scandal in his personal life merely by acknowledging it
matter-of-factly. Charlie Sheen, as ill as he is unfortunately, never
lied nor hid who he was - which is why he retains so much goodwill
even as he's made so many serious mistakes.

Look at where we are, OK? It used to be that when people got divorced
you had to acknowledge it in a quiet w-h-i-s-p-e-r. When they had
cancer. When they were gay or lesbian. When there was autism or ADHD
or other debilitating illnesses. Now Michaele Salahi gets her MRI for
multiple sclerosis done on reality TV. And discusses the results with
the doctor while we watch. And kids routinely write things on their
Facebook walls that you would have to sign a HIPAA agreement to see.

One kid said to my kid, "Everybody has something. What's wrong with YOU?"

We are living in the Facebook society. The can't-control-the-Wikileaks
society. The hackers-who-BitTorrent-merrily society. The
hidden-camera-in-a-plastic-clothes-hook society. We can't afford to be
so highfalutin. We actually are at the mercy of the crowd. So we have
no credibility UNLESS we are simply ourselves.

This was my experience with the blog. I toned it down, a bit, per both
mom and dad - the original was too much - but the essence is still
there. And I know this doesn't prove anything, but I not only received
support, but helpful advice and feedback to the effect that - maybe I
was being too hard on myself.

In social media land, the crowd is self-correcting. If you're too
self-flagellating they bring you back up. And if you're all full of
yourself, they will knock you down too.


I happened to be home the day that President Obama did a virtual town
hall with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. I was riveted. But do you know
what? Not to the part where the President talked about policy. No, I
thought it was fascinating when they both admitted that it was too hot
in the room and they needed to remove their jackets.

Similarly, the First Lady recently led an event in support of her
"Let's Move" campaign where she danced along with students, as she
sometimes does. She was so real, so down-to-earth, so smiling. I could
tell that her heart was in this. And I sang along with the Beyonce
tune that was playing.

I found myself wishing that all of government, business and society
could look as human as this. As real.

Why are organizations afraid to be transparent, in the end? In
government and outside of it?

In the end it comes down to "survival fear." In a dog-eat-dog world,
if we show ourselves weak, will we not be crushed by providing
evidence of our incapacity? Not everyone wishes us well - no matter
what we do - and enemies will use what they can to bring you down,
whether it's fair and accurate or just a fragment taken out of

Some people think that open government needs a champion. I do not. I
think we need a flash mob. One that instantly activates the second we
see a whiff of "gotcha culture."

As in, "Who made the mistake? You? Gotcha!"

We must insist on changing the tone of our civil discourse so that it
is normal to be kind and outside the norm to be vindictive,
self-serving, and soulless.

The way to do that, though, is not to look to others to change. That's
not in the average person's control.

If we are going to change our organizations to make them more open and
transparent, here is what the average person can do:

1) Redefine success on personal terms rather than materialistic ones.
There is a Jewish saying: "Who is strong? S/he who conquers the evil
instinct." That way you won't be the kind of person who uses others'
transparency in order to backstab them. Thus making it safer for
others to come forward and be themselves. And on a larger level, come
together in groups to populate like-minded organizations of tolerance
and peace.

2) Refuse to play the "gotcha" game. For one thing, give people the
benefit of the doubt until they're proven guilty. For another, don't
gleefully gossip about the latest leader accused of wrongdoing. If
they screwed up, they screwed up...let the system do its work to
remove them but don't be so happy about others' downfall. It creates
negative energy.

3) Remove "othering" language from your vocabulary. The world is not
divided up into "winners" and "losers." We are all simply humans
trying to get by and eke out a small bit of happiness on this
challenging earth.

While there is no escaping that we live in a competitive society, it
is also becoming more and more true that we can't advance further
unless we cooperate. You don't have to be an economist or a day trader
to see that we've run out of money, and yet that we have the potential
to create untold abundance, if only we would help each other and

When we take the first step of coming to terms with ourselves, this
will automatically lead us to (at the very least) to refrain from
harming others. Just imagine how much money, equipment, personnel, and
time we would save if we made a conscious decision to accept our
flawed humanity and work together to solve our mutual problems. So
that everyone can have a bigger piece of the pie.

My G-d, I think I just described a kibbutz.


Photo source here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Diagnosing the system, then using success as a surgical scalpel


In yesterday's blog I wrote about the dilemma of personal change. Specifically, not being sure what to do when a personality trait both helps you and gets in your way. Essentially, you want to retain the benefit of the trait, while mitigating the downside, and that's not easy to do.

In thinking about the "helps you" part I go back to this nice note a customer sent me. It was a thank you for "the professionalism, dedication and care that you and you staff have given to the marketing of (campaign). It has been and it is an honor and a privilege to work with you and the people in the Office of Public Affairs."

It occurred to me that although sometimes we have creative differences about method, customers universally have found our office to be immediately responsive to their needs and very well able to grasp the nature of the challenges they face. My part of the effort has long been to take on their cause as a kind of crusade, helping them bust through the bureaucratic barriers that can cause frustrating delays. Sometimes it literally feels like being a character in a TV show, huge hacking sword in hand, cutting away at the low-hanging tree limbs that impede progress.

So I guess you could say, as somebody said in a comment on the blog, "broaden the problem to include the customer" and they will value that you're a hard charger on their behalf.

Thinking more about that note, it reflected a campaign that everybody left feeling good about. The customer relationship was good, the communication content was good, and we even got to be innovative - incorporating branding, new media and social media:

1.  We created ONE simple but bold visual + tagline and used it across everything

2. We used QR codes for the first time (they let me program it using a free online tool!)

3. We wrote a public service announcement in-house, got approval almost immediately, recorded it pretty much the same day, and then made it easily available online, free

4.  We created downloadable print ads of varying sizes that any outlet could take and run with

5. All of this is easily shareable via Twitter, Facebook, etc.

How did we do that?

The answer has to do with culture, a factor that is routinely overlooked when it comes to designing better work processes. (I know that sociology degree would come in handy sometime.)

Very roughly, culture is "the way we do things around here." It is a set of behaviors that derive from shared values - beliefs about what is right and wrong.

* On one extreme, if the organization believes that "the role of a communicator is to make the customer happy," then the norms associated with those beliefs will tilt towards letting the customer dictate the content of the communication.

* On the other extreme, if the organization believes that "the role of a communicator is to create impactful communication," then the norms will have to do with producing work that is solid from an audience perspective, whether the customer likes it or not.

In the case of the project that worked well, the customer was made happy by seeing the communicators create impactful communication. He was joyful to be part of the communication process, but he also stepped back and said, in effect, "I am a subject matter expert but they know their craft." 

Similarly, we said, "we know communication but he knows the program itself and can tell us if we're not portraying it accurately." We discussed and collaborated but there was clear "role distinction" (to borrow a sociology term) and a division of labor. 

It also did not hurt that the customer and his supervisor were both native New Yorkers like myself. So apart from the organizational values that created shared norms for the project, we shared a direct, "take no offense" communication style geared only toward achieving results.

If I could replicate the processes that created success in this project in the future, here's what I would do:

1. At the initial meeting to kick off the project, spend sufficient time that the goals of the project are clarified and that the roles are clear.

2. Make sure that the project team is comfortable with one another - that there is a good working chemistry. Replace team members if necessary.

3. Hold separate internal meetings (apart from the customer) to discuss new ideas to be presented rather than presenting them at customer meetings first. (This is how advertising agencies operate.)

4. Create small successes to engage and delight the customer and create forward momentum for next steps - rather than delivering all products in one shot at the end.

5. Respond to all emails, phone calls, and inquiries from the customer immediately, even if it's just to say "we'll call you back by X time." And then do so. Follow up with them if there's been a lag. Quietude does not mean that nothing is happening.

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to look to the individuals who comprise a system when asking about its overall functioning. One thing I've learned over the years is that when there are challenges, it's likely that there is something going on in the system that needs course-correcting. And that the best way to actually make those changes is to look for examples of success in the context of that particular organization, and then copy that.

Have a great day everyone, and good luck!


Photo source here

Saturday, June 25, 2011

How do you change a personality trait that helps you?

So we're talking at work about potential new projects for me and the subject of feedback comes up. Oh how I hate this conversation.

Because on the one hand, you want to know what you're doing wrong, and on the other, you don't want to hear that you're doing anything wrong.

Because that would make you flawed. Which feels bad. :-(

Anyway, I am reflecting on the fact that my strengths are also my weaknesses. Which is so cliched that it's what you say in a job interview. Except for the fact that this is actually true. And it's like one of those computer loops where you want to fix a problem, but if you fix it you will ruin something else that is equally important.

In a nutshell here's what I got: On the good side, I am a "wonder" because I blaze through problems like a Mack Truck. On the bad side, I tend to be a bit inflexible about believing that my solution is the right one.

I couldn't really argue with any of it, although it hurts! Yes it does! to be told that you are not perfect.

I think it would be good to broaden my mind and be more flexible. But I am afraid that if I alter my personality I will lose my ability to size up a problem, decompose it into parts, adjust the parts, and come up with a plan to reassemble everything quickly and in better shape than it was before.

You can tell me that the client will feel good if I figuratively hold their hand but in my heart I believe that I owe them a solution that will work. Not nice words.

So here is the question. I throw it out to the wisdom of the crowd:

1) Can you change your personality without destroying the benefits it brings to you and your organization?

2) If the answer is yes, what is a general roadmap for doing that? Is there a step-by-step way of changing?

3) More specifically for the realm of communication, how do you balance the delivery of actual results, with the maintenance of the customers' self-esteem?

Have a great weekend everyone.


Photo source here

Friday, June 24, 2011

10 Social Media Safety Tips for Government Employees


This is just a quick post - my opinions only, based on my personal experience - to warn other government employees to be cautious online.

I recently received a tip that seems like it was intended to help law enforcement. I passed it on. And to that person, if you are reading this blog, THANK YOU for caring enough about public safety to send your tip forward. Next time though you may want to simply call 911 because I am not an official conduit for this stuff.

Despite that situation being seemingly good, it also gave me pause. I don't go out there talking about my job - in fact I keep a significant distance from it online and constantly use disclaimers.

Yet as we know from years of experience with social media, the audience controls the conversation and not the speaker.

So as a government employee, one can be targeted for positive things (helping law enforcement) or negative ones (shudder).

Here are some suggestions based on my own practices, thinking and reading to try and help others stay safer on social media. They're meant for government employees but anyone can probably use them.

1. Don't put photos of your family on your profile picture or in your Facebook account. Also on Facebook, lock down the part where other people can tag you in photos. 

2. Don't use social media services that track your location (Foursquare) or that announce when you're going on a trip (TripIt). Turn off geographical tracking on your smartphone device and on your Tweets. If you have a Google account, go into the settings and change the zip code of your location to something else. 

3. Don't click on unknown links, especially short links. Sometimes I get "thank you's" in response. Sometimes I'll get a message that says, "You may find this interesting: (short link)." I have no idea who this person is so I don't click on the link. Remember: Don't click on the link! 

4. Check regularly whether your personal account passwords have been compromised by hackers. (Gizmodo published an article with a search box to help people check on that last week. I'm not vouching for who is operating the search box, but I did use it.)

5. Check your Twitter account under "Applications" and remove any unauthorized settings that allow others to Tweet for you. Last week some Twitter service Tweeted a promotional item on my behalf; I must have clicked "OK" when I shared an article and they ended up with access. Be careful.

6. Lock down your LinkedIn and Facebook contact lists. The entire world doesn't have to see who you're friends with or connected to. On LinkedIn, it's "Hide My Connections" under Settings. On Facebook, this is controlled through Privacy settings.

7. Be cautious about what your family and friends post on your wall or their Facebook walls. Don't be tagged in their photos unless that's something you want. Be especially careful about appearing in photos with minor children.

8. Don't post things online on social media sites from a government computer. Aside from the fact that this violates usual social media policies, it's stupid because the person running the site can, if they wish, track down who visited the site and from what IP address. They will then connect you (or your pseudonym, which could be trackable if they can connect the dots) to your agency directly.

9. Let me say this ten times: Don't use public wifi without a VPN! I use a free one called ProXPN that I think is safe (tell me if it's not). Be careful because I tried another one that seems like it was spyware. Be especially careful because theoretically a so-called "free VPN" may actually be spies sucking up all your data on the other end of that cyber-tunnel.

10. Last but not least, be careful who you friend online. Don't assume that people are who they say they are. Anyone can grab a photo and make a social media profile; it doesn't remotely mean that they're for real.

If you have other suggestions please share them.

Thank you, stay safe, and have a great day everyone!


Image source here

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paying by the word is like a haircut at Shop-Rite


When I was little I got $5 haircuts at the grocery store.


My mom used to take me. Toodling along we would go to a decrepit mini-strip mall housed on the inside of the big shopping plaza.


The inside of the haircut place was painted aqua blue. Really cheap.


The hairdressers used to put you into the hairwash chair and crane your neck way back.


You’d stare up at the ceiling where they had falling-down taped pictures of the Bahamas or whatever.


The lady would ask my mom, “How short?”


And my mom would say, “Cut a few inches. I want to get my money’s worth.”


I didn’t know any better than that the haircut was, shall we say, “wash-n-wear.” (Stop shuddering.)


Other times I would get perms. It was the ‘80s. “The curlier the better.” (I have burned all those pictures.)


Obviously the value of a haircut has little to do with how much you cut it. Instead it’s about the quality of the styling as aligned with your particular face.


Just like you can pay $8.99 a pound for fresh grilled organic vegetables brushed with olive oil and sea salt and they’re worth every penny. Even though technically, yes, you can actually buy regular vegetables at said Shop-Rite for about half the price or less and "grill them all by yourself at home."


It’s a similar thing with corporate communications. Let’s talk about taglines because they pertain to the brand and set the stage for everything else.


When you consider that a tagline can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more, it’s easy to see that a client would want the line to be lengthy. As if ROI could be measured in cost per word.


Of course this is not the right way to measure value. But the perception is hard to fight.


Actually what you want is a one-word tagline like "Happiness" or "Joy" or "Refresh." Something that captures the essence of the brand perfectly, yet abstractly, so that it can be applied across a range of products and services.

We make the same mistake with all manner of corporate communications, turning writers into the equivalent of "Mechanical Turks." (Refer to "AOL Hell" for more on this.)


On a bigger level we have for what seems like forever paid people for their work by units of time. Why do we do that today, if we are interested in results? Knowledge workers aren’t working in a factory – we should be paying for the worth of output.


It’s a big change moving from “cost-per-unit” thinking to “compensation for value.” But imagine how much better we would produce as individuals, companies, and as a country if we thought more strategically about what we pay for things. Rather than so very mechanically.


Once again like so many other changes that need to happen, the reason why we don't go this route is fear. Because if it's all about producing and you can't produce, or you can't compete with the other guy to get a chance to do that, you're outta luck unless there's one heck of a safety net beneath you.

What if we confronted this issue directly instead of persisting with a way of thinking that doesn't fit with (post)modern times?

Thinking about it, no answers - only more questions as to how a future system would really work. But it seems like a pretty pressing question considering that so many young people are coming out of school without the promise of a job.

With that heavy thought in mind...enjoy the rest of the evening everyone, and good luck!



Photo source here






Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Old: "Fear of Failure" ---> New: "Managed Risk"

A friend of mine is completely clueless about my job.

"I'm so stressed out," I told her the other day, just around the time when my stomach starts growling for dinner. "It's unbelievable."

"You work for the government," she said matter-of-factly. "You sit around and shuffle papers all day. What could be so bad?"

Other "govies," of all ages and tenures, understand intuitively what the stress is.

In private industry, generally, you have too much to do. ("Employment at will.")

In government, from what I've seen, you actually want to do MORE.

Unfortunately, too often you can't because there are so many fears about 1) process 2) outcomes 3) blowback if something goes wrong.

So you get excited about an idea or initiative...only to watch it die on the vine. Strangled by task forces, committees, "vetting," "socializing," Powerpoint briefings, routing, and on and on until you wish you'd never suggested the thing in the first place.

Or you forget about it and suggest some other idea. And start the whole process again.

Don't get me wrong: Reasonable process is not a bad thing. Through it, problems are anticipated and ironed out before anything actually goes wrong. Along the way, the diversity and quantity of voices gets people engaged with the concept. 

Although with so much input, the original vision can get muddied or worse.

However, confronted with interminable delays, sometimes there is a decision to "just do it already," without enough forethought about the consequences down the road. Which is expensive to fix later. (Classic examples: Web design. Social media.)

Someone I spoke to expressed this frustration perfectly: "Every day I see opportunities to do so many great things, but the opportunities just seem to slip away."

It seems to me that the government would benefit from moving toward a "managed risk" approach.

Which says openly: "We can't guarantee this will work 100%. But we are REASONABLY sure. And we're going to try."

I only know things for sure from my own experience: 

* I have never done a job that I didn't learn on the job.

* I have rarely seen a teenager get a driving license who would qualify for NASCAR.

* I have never seen a kid start kindergarten without crying their eyes out.

Startups of any kind involve screwups. That's just life.

Let's get over our fear of being wrong and throw out a bit of rope in the knowledge that we will often be pretty close to the mark.

Have a good evening everybody, and good luck!


Photo source here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who are we writing for?

When I sit down in front of the computer, I imagine that I am telling a story to my mother.

When corporate or agency communicators write, who are they talking to?

It seems to me that everything we say and do ought to be geared toward the outside. Toward the public. Toward the generic "mom" who always could see the truth in plain terms.

If the intended audience wouldn't want to read past the first sentence, throw the whole thing out and start again.

It can be tough to negotiate with internal audiences, but an excellent end result is worth it.

Good luck!

Leverage Your Employees’ Personal Brands for Mutual Benefit

You haven't lived until you've had an argument over "brand versus reputation."

A long time ago when I started working as a brand consultant I had this very discussion with somebody else in the firm.

It was their espoused philosophy that functionally, brand and reputation were the same, and that the language was easier for clients to swallow. Nobody wants to be stamped with a brand like a can of Pepsi.

I was an impractical idealist who belonged in a university and not a consultancy, and so I insisted very Talmudically that branding connoted all aspects of image while reputation was limited to only a few. Further, that a brand could be "negative," in a way, and still succeed. (Though reputation always matters.)

For some reason the disagreement took on proportions way beyond the issue itself. Because within the firm, my point of view represented a different philosophy - a different point of view - and it wasn't clear what they could do with it.

In the end we came up with a way to box my personality off and put it a different corner - creating a standalone brand out of it. This was a smart move on the part of my employer. They recognized that I was different, and they used that in a way that benefited both of us. (Disclaimer: Separately, I write thought leadership posts for this firm that espouse their unique philosophy; no endorsement expressed or implied.)

What I did for the firm was useful. But it was still difficult for the small group to tolerate having such a different personality onboard. One of the partners tried to give me advice. "Bring them along," he said. "It's hard for them to deal with someone who is off on her own while they work as a team."

If I could go back and do it over again, I think we could have communicated more clearly the distinction between my role (brand) and the others'. Using supporting communication materials that looked different from what the rest of the group was doing. Using sophisticated internal communication to make sure that everyone was clear about who was doing what. To reinforce mutual respect and understanding.

But it was a small firm, we moved pretty fast, and words like "personal branding" were never even used. Heck, we had a hard time using the word "branding" to begin with (see above).

Go to the bookstore and you will see all these self-help books about change. Employer manuals, too, try to "orient" you to the company. But in the end, people are who they are. The traditional way to recruit them is to find people who are "just like" you. Like-minded folks. (Zappos pays people who don't fit in to leave.)

Another, perhaps more strategic thing to do is to purposefully seek out people who "think different." And have them contribute in a different way than those in the mainstream. Calling it something different. Leveraging their personal brand.

Somebody at work, seeing me program stuff on the computer, likened me to the character in NCIS who sits in a lab in the basement, experimenting away in her wacky lab environment. I had a good laugh over that, because it's pretty true. I'm not like the rest of the group - I never have been. Everyone is different, I know what I can do, and I put it to work for my employer.

If you are the employer, go beyond a "tolerance for diversity" to making it work for you through sub-branding and strategic brand architecture. What you should be doing is collecting a portfolio of personal brands, and making money from them.

Here are five things you can do:

1. Encourage employees to develop their individual skills on company time - and develop new products and services (Like Google)

2. Pay for them to go to school on their personal time. (My agency does this.)

3. Host a blog space where they are free to hold forth. Add a disclaimer that clearly outlines whose views they are representing. (Like Gartner)

4. Empower them to be mini-entrepreneurs on behalf of the company. Take a cut of the profits. (My former employer does this.)

5. Communicate back to the rest of the organization when an employee "mini-brand" has achieved success, and publicly congratulate them. (Common knowledge but often underutilized.)

I hope these tips are helpful to you. If you have others, please share.

Have a great day everyone, and good luck!


Image source here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Transparency is more expedient than lying

The biggest fear people have about transparency is obvious: they'll be "found out."

What they don't realize is that everybody around them can see the truth anyway.

Transparency is not really about whether you've done something wrong, although it can be.

Rather, and more importantly, it has to do with who you are as a person.

Here is why.

We live in an age where your identity is largely "constructed" (made up) rather than inherited like it used to be.

Today, as long as you declare yourself to be something, nobody has the right to tell you different.

Not to pass judgment - but to observe a significant social shift:

--A man can declare himself a woman because s/he feels like one on the inside.

--A person born into one religion can assume the identity of another, without converting.

--A college student can declare themselves a CEO.

--A homeschooled or online student can be awarded the same status as a student who attended a physical school.

--Non-married couples can declare themselves "committed."

And there is no contradicting this. Everything is seen as a matter of opinion.

Because there are no longer any really objective standards about things, opportunities for self-determination are greater.

But people also have a correspondingly higher level of anxiety about your authenticity when you declare yourself to "be" something.

Today when you want someone to "prove" their authenticity, you can't really go by physical evidence or credentials.

So where we have turned instead is what I would call "authenticity of personality."

Meaning, if the viewer sees your personality as integrated, healthy, consistent, and aligned with the identity you have assumed, then they accept you.

But in order to establish this level of psychological health requires an unprecedented, and unbelievably constant, level of honesty. And self-awareness.

That is why transparency is more expedient than lying.

Now we are the Facebook generation.

And being an upfront scoundrel is more credible than a "Mad Men"-like veneer of politeness.

Today, you can be honest and reviled and still come out on top.

But you absolutely cannot be a hypocrite or a liar.

Good luck!


Image source here.

10 Suggestions for More Efficient Government

It's a rainy Monday morning here in D.C. and for some reason I am having all these heavy thoughts about the state of things. 

Oh I know what it is...I spent too much time on the Fast Company "30 second MBA" page yesterday. Excellent.  

Anyway, here goes:

1. Run it like a business - with a focus on financial return on investment. 

2. Facilitate a healthy emotional environment through the expanded use of internal communication.

3. Use diversity as a strategic planning tool rather than just looking at it as a compliance exercise.

4. Incorporate training into work all the time.

5. Create programs to recruit members of the public who would not normally join government.

6. Bring advanced technology to bear on all jobs, and train people to use it.

7. Look at work in terms of projects rather than programs; train people in the art and science of project management.

8. Dismantle hierarchical organizational structures that impede innovation and change.

9. Reorganize along lines that make sense to the customer.

10. Make key performance metrics easily accessible to the public and employees. 

Please add your suggestions to the list.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

5 Drinks for Dieters Who Hate Water


10 Trends I'm Watching Now

#1 - Survivalism - products, TV shows, clothes

#2 - The word "badass," particularly applied to women

#3 - Hand-to-hand combat as a recreational activity

#4 - Monster-sized organic food stores

#5 - Self-help, crowdsourcing, etc.

#6 - Lunch trucks for office workers

#7 - Home-delivered meals

#8 - Parodies of the '00s

#9 - Social media as mainstream media

#10 - Entrepreneurship as a career path

Saturday, June 18, 2011

7 Smart Tricks Brands Use To Make Us Spend (Wired, July 2011)


OK, let's review. Because I've seen a few thoughts recently about branding that I wanted to comment about. The last one is the subject of this post.

I'll call the 5 things below "myths v. facts" even though the "facts" are really my opinion. If you disagree, tell me.

1. Myth: Companies have brands. Fact: Companies do not have brands. The companies are the brands. Those brands have other brands. The entire thing is called a brand portfolio.

2. Myth: Branding is about passion. Fact: The point of branding is not to stir passionate love or hatred. The point is to foster addiction to whatever it is you're pushing.

3. Myth: Branding is successful if you've built "buzz." Fact: Branding does not end with "buzz." It goes like this: 1) Awareness 2) Interest 3) Initial Purchase 4) Loyalty 5) Addiction

4. Myth: Brands compete with other brands. Fact: The competition is with yourself not others. The ideal compliment for a brand: "There's really nothing else out there like way to describe it even." PLATINUM words.

5. Myth: Branding is about creating beautiful exciting fantabulous art that shows how very brilliant and on-point you are. Fact: The point of branding is to make money. (Thank you for reminding us of this always, Al Ries.)

With #5 in mind, here are some neat tricks brands use to facilitate same, shared by Wired Magazine (Dan Ariely, "Gamed," July 2011). 

(By the way - I am a magazine freak and very harsh critic. But Wired's layout and writing is fantastic. Bonus tip: 5 magazines always worth the time and money - Wired, Vanity Fair, Fast Company, People, and Fortune.)

Keeping in mind that branding is about making money and not stroking your ego with a lot of hits to your website. So if you're a marketer, memorize. 

(If a consumer, beware. Maybe they're making it "convenient" for you, but they could also be fueling overspending on your part. Marketers are selling fantasy, they're not your parents - so by no stretch of the imagination should you assume that they really care about ethics.)

By the way - it is noteworthy how much of this information comes from academics. If you didn't care what "behavioral economics" was before, you'll be begging to take that class now.

The bottom line is, the decision to spend is mostly PSYCHOLOGICAL and only partially rational. 

Tactic #1. Be the default. (

"For many of us, functions as a default because it has all our credit cards and addresses on file." 

So intelligent. Nobody wants to spend time registering with another site when they have a trusted vendor who already has their information.

Tactic #2: Offer low-threshold free shipping (

"Super Saver Shipping, which sets a $25 threshold to qualify for free shipping....turns a lot of one-item purchases into two-item sprees."

I'm not sold on Amazon Prime, though, which Wired endorses as well. The $79 figure is daunting for me and I don't need most things in two days.

Tactic #3: Charge more upfront rather than tack on a fee later on (Netflix)

"Netflix built a billion-dollar business on one simple principle: People hate late fees." Versus regular video stores, where you always had to worry about getting the movie back on time.

This is the same issue people have with luggage fees. Better to build the price into the ticket than to nickel-and-dime the customer later on.

Also the problem with eating out. Just put the tip on the bill. I don't want to think about the fact that I'm paying a ridiculous amount of money for the same thing I could buy from takeout. Let alone the fact that I have to add 15% more to that amount.

Interesting sidebar: research cited in the article showing that if you force people to decide what they will want in the future, they will choose something "aspirational" rather than something real. Like with the DVDs, people chose "highbrow" movies rather than "lowbrow" ones because they actually had to think and plan.

Similarly, the article talks about a mistake people make with long-term scheduling. If you ask someone whether they'll be free to do something in a year (according to the article), they will tend to say "yes" even though they'll most likely be busy. In other words, they're aspirational about time. Rather, the suggestion was, imagine a year ahead as if it were two weeks ahead and assume that however busy you would be in two weeks, is how busy you'd be then. This turns your thinking more realistic.

Tactic #4: Make taboos acceptable by showing how the crowd buys into them (Groupon)

"The stigma of coupon use is real and broad-based."

The article cites research from the "Journal of Consumer Research" showing that if you are standing NEXT TO a coupon user, people tend to perceive you as "cheap or poor." Talk about branding by association! Groupon makes it OK to be a coupon user.

This reminds me of my Grandma who used to have the envelope thing with all the dividers for the different kinds of coupons that you clip from the Sunday paper. I used to think of them like trading cards or Monopoly real estate. Pretty and fun. But as an adult I have to admit, I really feel cheap when I use coupons so this research seems pretty accurate.

Similarly, other research (Noah Goldstein, UCLA) people were more likely to reuse towels in hotels if the hotel hung a sign saying that a specific percentage of other guests ("almost 75%") had complied. Versus if the hotel just asked them to help the environment by doing so, a smaller percentage went along with it.

Another thought about the taboo associated with coupons: Use a different name for them. Transform the perception of "cheap" into something different - like winning a prize, or being part of an exclusive club. For example, using "promo code" is good. Or saying, "mention code ____ for a 10% discount" works well.

Tactic #5: Get the customer to participate in an extended interaction (Farmville, Facebook)

I totally do not get Farmville. But I know a lot of people who do. And until now I never understood why.

First, it takes time to build the virtual "farm." And: "The more complex and difficult and time-consuming a process is, the more we fall in love with our creation and the more we become interested in the game."

Second, people give you virtual gifts, which makes you feel that you have to give things back to them.

In general the whole concept of "gifting" on Facebook is brilliant. "In the first 10 months of the program (the Gifts service, which is now dissolved), more than 24 million gifts were sent." (In my view, taking it away was only to figure out ways to capitalize on the concept more.)

Tactic #6: Bill later (Apple)

When you buy on iTunes, there's a lag between the purchase and the confirmation (vs. on Amazon, you see it right away.) 

Tactic #7: Offer random rewards, not predictable ones

This was discussed in the context of email but it can be applied more generally. People read email even though most of it is junk. Because once in awhile they get something really good, and they never know when that will be. 

The article cites research by Skinner & Ferster: "If a pigeon gets food every 100th time it presses a button, it will usually keep pressing. But if the reward comes randomly...the pigeon will press with much more vigor, even after the rewards are removed entirely."

All in all, from a marketer's perspective, it's good to be armed with this information so that you can use it to sell more things to more people. (Hopefully you'll be selling quality things that actually make their lives better.)

Have a good weekend everybody, and good luck! 


Image source here 

My new video on personal branding (30 sec.)

In which I have learned how to add a title and closing - in colors that match the blog. Admittedly, over-edited the last part slightly. But still pretty good. Watch here or sometime next week on Personal Branding TV.

"5 Signs You've Found Your Personal Brand"

Friday, June 17, 2011

Personal Branding: Advanced Shamelessness Required

Once we met a couple where the wife was Jewish and the husband Catholic. They looked, talked, and even gestured like identical twins.

I tried not to ask the impolite question of whether they were actually related. (As a child I had read every single book in the popular novel series "Flowers in the Attic." Major plotline: brother and sister imprisoned by evil grandparents together eventually marry.)

Of course I asked anyway. Not rudely but - well, OK - sort of.

The wife smiled and responded, "Everybody says that. It's just that Jews and Catholics are remarkably similar."

I threw my head back and laughed. She was right. Our two religions, two cultures, have one major thing in common: a pervasive sense of guilt.

So yesterday I was watching CNN's coverage of the Tweeting Congressman's resignation. There was Dana Bash, solemnly taking the "he did the right thing by resigning" side. (Recall the Congressman calling her fellow interviewer a "jacka**.") And somebody else taking the opposite side. Saying that others had gotten away with worse and stayed, and that sexual impropriety was not going to be a realistic standard for others.

I wondered. Why do some people get away with things while others don't? What's the secret of being Teflon-like?

The conventional wisdom (as espoused by Bash) is that it's about honesty. It was the lying that did the Congressman in.

I think it's about shamelessness.

People raised to feel guilty about everything have a very tough time saying, "I did it. So what?" It's like the sins are vines growing around their neck, strangling them. They don't lie very well at all. Thus the Congressman.

On the other hand, people raised in a different kind of environment - where happiness is prized as a right in and of itself and unhappiness is sort of a sin - just don't think that way. The moral laws are different. They don't believe in personal shame.

The classic illustration of this cultural conflict is the dynamic between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. He is the epitome of the neurotically guilty, eternally miserable Jewish New Yorker. Seeking refuge in a flighty, light, bubbly and accepting non-Jewish woman unburdened by guilt. Of course, he loses her to Paul Simon and the lure of "groovy" California.

When it comes to personal branding, like all branding, it's important to look at things objectively. You have to stand apart from yourself a bit in order to "own" your brand. That means - yes - forcing yourself to adopt a certain shamelessness. At the very least so that you don't freak out when you do something stupid and others learn about it.

But at the same time, you also need a moral compass. To know what causes other people shame and guilt. Because if you truly are a Machiavellian operator with no fear of hell, and you disrespect the ethical concerns of others, eventually you will be a source of shame to them. And like Hester Prynne in "The Scarlet Letter," they will brand you with an "A" on your forehead and cast you out.

Be careful - be balanced - and good luck!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Just Do Something

Some people are incessantly negative.

"I can't..."

"What a waste of time..."

"That will never work..."

And so on.

It's almost like they think that success is unattainable. Either that:

1. It must be very easy to achieve - or

2. Inordinate effort against huge impossible challenges is always required.

The absence of either one of these polar opposites (depending on the bias of the complainer) makes them snifflingly suspicious.

The truth is that success is right in front of us all the time.

It is only our own mental blocks that prevent us from seeing it, and seizing it.

I remember when I programmed a QR code for the first time, at work. Nobody could believe it.

"How the hell did you do that?" Like it was a magic trick.

No magic, I just Googled "create QR code" and found a tool that worked.

I showed a customer how it worked and he said, "You mean we're ALLOWED to do that?"

I said "Uh-huh."

He said, "Because I'm so used to an automatic 'no.'"

I stopped doing the treadmill for awhile. And physically paid a price for that. EVERY excuse in the book.

One day I just got on again. Now I "do the treadmill." And feel better, thank G-d.

Success is right in front of your face.

I saw someone looking defeated today. I said "Are you in hell?"

She nodded wordlessly. Then said: "But the good news is it won't be forever till retirement."

That sadness makes me want to cry. How do you know retirement will be any better? You could drop dead the day after you get the gold watch.

Success is in the mind. It is a choice and we choose to make it.

I read about a young woman who graduated college, no job. But she was always futzing around making jewelry "on the side." Now the jewelry is the main thing and it is totally irrelevant that there are no jobs for Millennials out there.

There is an elderly man who takes customers' money at the deli. He is completely blind. The cash register says aloud to him how much money he is getting, in bills and coins.

I said to him, "How do you do it?" (meaning psychologically) and he said, "I believe you have to do the best you can, and that's it." Then he added, "I was born this way so I guess I don't know any different."

The blind man was so happy, really happy. I envy this man his peace.

The next time you are stuck, sad, or stupendously miserable - really, why waste your time? Just get the hell up. Shake it out. Get out of your own way.

With strength, faith, resolve and G-d's blessing, there are NO LIMITS on what you can achieve.

Good luck!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

5 Signs You've Found Your Personal Brand

1. You are happy even when challenged, frustrated or broke

2. You can't believe people get paid to do this thing that you love

3. Your peers respect you

4. You feel empowered over your fate

5. You are endlessly interested in learning more

Monday, June 13, 2011

Social media as a social sickness


There was the cutest kid outside Starbucks the other day.

It was sunset on a warm night. The lights outside were twinkling. Inside it was cool and quiet and empty.

Wasn't on the computer, for once. Knapsack sat next to me on the floor. Collecting dust. I felt guilty.

Instead we were watching the kid outrun his mother.

The tiny toddler had huge blue eyes, bright curly blonde hair, and an infectious smile. He caught the audience's eye (those of us watching through the windowpane), looked at her, and took off running this way and that. The minute she swooped down to catch him, he would giggle and find some other escape route.

I leaned forward on the counter, head in hands, blankly staring. It looked like a viral YouTube video. Like "Dancing Baby."

"You're not going to work on the book? Or your teaching? Write a blog? You actually have five minutes to spare?"

The question was half-serious and I started laughing. Awww, boo-hoo, I'm a workaholic who is more of an observer of life than someone who actually lives it.

My daughter tried to get me near the pool this vacation. It was an enormous, beautiful collection of blue water, shimmering and clear. It was 90 degrees out. But I'm so uncomfortable in my own skin that I said, "No no no, I'm going to be cold."

Kicking and screaming I let her take me to the water. Sitting on the edge, on the steps, I said, "That's fine. Somebody has to watch the backpack." 

"You're kidding me. You're not even going to go in?"

"This IS in." Motioning to the backpack.

I wasn't looking for a second and she took a huge armful of water and splashed me in the face with it. "What the hell was that for?"
Laughing. I am a silly idiot.

It is ridiculous to live every minute as though it were a story, rather than real life.

Yet that is exactly what social media has done to all of us.

Last week my dad sent over pictures from a family luncheon. I got an invitation to see them in Picasa. There were literally 483 shots. What can you take 483 pictures of in two hours? 

Well I sure did find out. There is (name of person), eating corn on the cob. Wiping corn off chin. Smiling. There is corn in the teeth.

And do you know what? Like a treasure hunter looking for gold, I waded through all 483. 

When I was a kid we used to have little flip books where you flipped the little pages and you saw an animated feature.

This was sort of like that except on a wireless connection and with more of a "static" storyline.

I've mentioned before the mini-birthday party they had in FrozenYo. A teenage girl was all dressed up, her friends sang Happy Birthday, and they took cellphone pictures while she posed with the spoon before taking the first bite. 

And said, "Let's put this one on Facebook."

Sad to say, I am no better. I read books to find quotes to share on Twitter.

Once in the airport there was a huge family fight. It was so typical, and so bad, that it was funny, and the entire TSA line was cracking up. My only thought was: "Damn, it's too late to get that on video."

In the olden days we met people. Now, it's called "networking" to collect business cards so that we can send a bunch of LinkedIn invitations when we get home.

Bottom line is that nowadays, we're so busy sharing with the hive that we are not really bringing anything of ourselves to it anymore. 

Instead we are living our lives as if we were the Kardashians. Every little moment we are mugging for the cameras.

This reminds me of a book I had as a little girl. I loved that book, but it gave me nightmares.

It's about these two kids in the forest who discover a magical ball of yarn. When you pulled on the yarn, it made you get older. So you could grow up fast instead of having to be a kid. Which was so appealing to me I can't tell you.

In the book, the kids pulled on the yarn too much. Ending up old and gray and nearly dead before they realized that they should have just left the yarn alone.

It's like that in the social media world. We're fast forwarding through everything before the thing has a thingness-in-itself, just to make it social. 

The German sociologist Georg Simmel called this the transition from "subjective" to "objective" culture. Meaning that normally things have meaning for me, and then meaning for the collective, and that once the transformation has occurred, the subjective meaning is absorbed and gone. (In a sense, this is what a brand goes through as well on the way to becoming successful.)

Think about the word "friend."

In the past a "friend" was someone who had been through stuff with you. Over time. The word was a noun.

Now we use it as a verb. You "friend" people out of nowhere. It's like, "Hello, do you want to friend me?"

In New York we would say, "Who the hell are you?"

But in social media land we say, "Sure, whatever."

In a way, living in the mosh pit is liberating. Like in the video for the Avril Lavigne song "What the Hell." She jumps out and knows that the audience will catch her. 

But doing this all the time is disorienting. You stop knowing who your friends are. You stop seeing a boundary between real friends and social media ones. And you don't understand how badly you've screwed up until afterward.

It kept striking me that the politician currently the subject of a Twitter scandal used the words "dumb thing" when describing his activities on Twitter. I compared those words with the transcripts that the media reported. The number of relationships with strangers, the lengthy period of time, the things that were said on both sides - what an incredible disconnect. A married person doesn't do those things, should know better, should admit that this was really bad and not just dumb.

But if they're sick, they don't know. 

If they're part of a larger social disease, they are shielded from knowing.

Kids at a very young age nowadays are doing exactly the same thing as this politician did. Sending inappropriate pictures of themselves to each other, having very adult conversations, joining a realm that is so far from innocent childhood that it frightens me. And when you ask them about it, they honestly have no idea what is so wrong. "Everybody is doing it," they say, "that's just the way it goes."

You can confiscate all the cellphones in the world, but if kids already have their minds set this way, they will find another way to express it.

Of course it is so unfair to blame social media for all of society's ills. I am a huge proponent of same. I have seen it cure a lot more than harm. Bring openness, transparency to a society all-too-comfortable with leaving doors closed that cause people harm.

But at the same time, one does have to step back and look around every once in awhile. And ask ourselves if the mental illnesses associated with social media - and make no mistake, we are seeing a lot of pathology crop up - are the kind of outcomes we really want for ourselves and our children.

The world is praying for an individual to seek treatment. But isn't it just as important that we use this opportunity to diagnose ourselves, looking for a similar infection? As great as it is to "tweet for freedom," have we been pulled into a distorted world? One where the individual, personal experience and the capacity for intimacy has been destroyed and replaced by superficial connections that are normally meaningless in the end?

Definitely, with social media, let's take the good stuff and run with it. Let's fly. Especially when it comes to using our minds, and our connections with others, to crowd-source solutions to the world's most pressing problems. And of course to improve our opportunities in life.

But when it comes to our personal relationships, maybe it's time to slow down a bit. Take a breather once in a while. Splash around in the pool with our kids, disconnected.

So that we can live the lives we were meant to. Without the pressure of being a Kardashian.

Giving up our selves just isn't worth it.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Photo by OctopusHat, here