“You Cannot Make Friends with the Rock Stars”

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-4-13-09-pmIn Almost Famous, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs said something I’ve always loved. “You have to make your reputation as a journalist on being honest and unmerciful”.

I’m going to expand on that. If you want to be a real thinker, you must have unmerciful observations. 

Read the NYT with the same unmerciful eye as you would the rantings of a conspiracy theorist. Listen to Fox News with the same skepticism as you have for NPR–and vice versa. Watch CNN with the same critical eye you put to The Enquirer. Treat a White House press release with suspicion equal to  your three-year-old’s explanation of why the cat is inside the piano. Look not for what is right with the messages you see everyday across social media. Look for what is wrong with them. Listen without mercy.

We think today’s media is so ruthless and unmerciful. But the opposite is true. All you and I are hearing in the media are the voices of those who have made friends with the rock stars. The sooner we observe, rather than adulate, the closer we will get to truth.

This clip is not short (2:25), but it’s a wonderful treatise on the subject of bias. You can check it out here.

Added funny tip: Each time Hoffman says “rock ‘n roll”, substitute it with “politics” in your head.

 

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America’s Love Affair with Being Dialed-in

pony_expressLess than 100 years after Paul Revere’s famous ride, cementing the American capacity for—and success with—the power of the network, the nation’s eastern half had swelled to the outskirts of Missouri—St. Joseph, Missouri to be exact—then considered the very outpost of civilization.

Between the hinterlands of St. Joseph and the booming economy of San Francisco lay a vast dead zone, thousands of miles of nothing but wilderness and hostile forces. Any communication at all would take an arduous, indeed perilous journey of 20 days or more to get through. Can we even imagine waiting 20 days for the results of a presidential election or news of the Civil War?

Indeed not!

Such was our interest in cutting down on the communication time between San Francisco and St. Joseph Missouri that for a few years in the early 1860s, too impatient for telegraph wires to be strung, we could hire the Pony Express to cut the time in half, riding non-stop at full speed for 10 full days and nights.

Bankers and merchants were among the first customers, happily handing over the then exorbitant rate of $5 US for one letter. The Pony Express was perhaps America’s first flash-in-the-pan startup, going from zero to 300 employees back to zero again from 1860 to 1862.

The wireless did it—killed the Pony Express. Then the telephone killed the wireless, and the cell phone killed the telephone (how many of us use or even have land lines anymore?). Each new device designed not just to communicate, but to make communication ever more immediate. Don’t have to walk down to Western Union anymore, you can have the message come right into your house with the telephone. Don’t have to be in your house to get a call any more, you can have the message sent right to your very person.

Waxing cynical for a moment, we can envision a future of cranial-implants, chips that put a Facebook crawl right into our awareness, bypassing our senses completely.

Ok, that’s silly.

CB radios, walk-talkies, cell phones, texting and instant messaging. Americans have only ever demonstrated an insatiable appetite for more and faster ways to communicate. There’s no telling where our insatiable appetite for networking may lead us.

Social Media: The Death Knell of Elite Opinion?

buzzards2The New York Times recently asks, do elite thinkers matter anymore? Big commentator analyses of current events today drown in a sea of collective voices blogging and tweeting real-time thoughts, as they occur. By the time Obama’s first White House address was over, public opinion was already formed. No need for a week or so of fallout, reviews or media analysis to tell us what we should think. We already think.

The rise of social media has undeniably diluted influence, changed the way conventional wisdom is formed and freed culture from reliance upon the elite few for getting things done. That Obama won the white house by going straight to the masses online while Hilary cozied-up to the Democratic establishment to no avail is testament to the dramatic dilution and decentralization of our political system.

Our current president is the first in history not to have risen through the ranks of partisan politics over a couple of decades before even thinking about a white house bid. No, this man believed he could better influence public opinion by going straight to the public. Social media technology allowed him to do so.

Although big commentators have come down hard on Obama since the oil spill, public opinion polls say his approval ratings remain largely unchanged at around 50 percent.

But the final word is by no means in. The Times article speculates that because there was an unusual consensus among pundits both left and right that the Gulf speech was flat, American opinion will eventually sway that way. We’ll see.

Paul Revere: The Original Key Influencer

paul_revereI caught an interesting documentary the other day suggesting that one of the key factors of success for the American Revolution was our networking ability. One thing the British hadn’t counted on: America’s ability to move information through the colonies at astonishing speed.

America, it seems, has been deeply networked since day one. Even with our colonial wings of communal will radically clipped living under British law, Americans consistently, methodically, routinely organize in groups. Powerless groups, really, who have little authority over anything—not British law, not taxes. Yet convene they do. To discuss “the concerns of the day”. To communicate, to network.

Since the first Representative Assembly in 1619 Jamestown to the first Committee of Safety in 1774 Massachusetts, America grew in tight networks—local committees who elect regional representatives who attend colonial assemblies. Veritably powerless under British law, but here, there and everywhere. Hugely connected.

Also importantly, colonial literacy was very high—the north especially enjoying nearly full literacy. Even in the less literate South, oratory and word of mouth communication was alive and fast. News of the Boston Tea party was printed, dispatched and common knowledge in every one of the thirteen colonies within days.

Contrary to popular folklore, when the British finally did arrive, what Paul Revere didn’t do was ride about shouting incessantly, “The British are coming!” What he did do was act as a key influencer. He used an existing network to tell the right people the right thing at the right time and very importantly, asked them them to tell more people. And, thanks to the Sons of Liberty, the network was already in place before the message was pushed through—a key ingredient of successful viral marketing. By the early morning, 40 or more riders were scattered across Middlesex County carrying news of the British invasion. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Future Workplace

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Very interesting podcast on the Future of Work from PRI as a follow up to a recent Time Magazine cover story exploring among other things, generational shifts in the needs and demands of labor.

Apparently Alvin Toffler was on the right track as far back as 1971 when in Future Shock he predicted a future workplace not of bureaucracies, but ad-hocracies. Of loose, impermanent associations between highly specialized individual contributors.

When I first read the book, I remember assuming that it would be the corporations that would lead the evolution toward increasingly complex, specialized networks of human resources. It seemed such an efficient, attractive prospect to the managerial mind. I don’t remember imagining that labor would be the catalyst for dissolving hierarchical institutions into interconnected resource networks. What would be in it for them? No retirement, no paid vacation, no management training, no career path.

But it turns out to be the preferred avenue for labor exchange among the young. Gen Ys are less interested in perks like health care and paid vacation and less interested in the long-term security of corporate ladder climbing – all the things corporate bureaucracies have traditionally provided. Looks like tomorrow’s work force will be negotiating mostly for increased flexibility, which smart employers will learn to use to their advantage.

Of course, a networked labor force only works if each individual contributor is strongly accountable. The good news is, lack of accountability has no place to hide in a management-labor relationship that is entirely pure. No perks. Just work.

That we can look forward to a more entrepreneurial workforce willing to take on more risk in ad-hoc relationships with employers is good. That we can look forward to a workforce who assumes personal responsibility by paying for their own health care, vacations and retirement is good. And that, by it’s very nature, this evolved workforce is more accountable – marvelous!

May the Best Community Manager Win

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In The Vanishing Establishment, Nicholas Confessore cites decentralized organization and fundraising as one of the major assets of the Obama campaign. Hillary, he observes, has been left vulnerable by her old-style, establishment-cozy program of reliance upon an elite few for the core of her support. While she has tapped the relatively small number of heavy-weights in her corner for all they can legally provide, he can continue to collect a little bit from everyone in a widely distributed base of everyday folk.

Razor-sharp focus on high points of leverage was once standard practice for business, government, the media – you name it. Sharply hierarchical organization has long been the vehicle of choice in wealth and power creation from the Roman army to feudalism to the corporation of today.

But these times, they are a-changing. Something to note about what the influential of today seem to have in common: They all pay heed to the self-organized and highly distributed. From Wikipedia to terrorist activity we’re discovering at warp speed that self-organization can work much more effectively than strict hierarchy, and especially so in the production of information goods. And what is politics but the information goods business? Obama, with his highly distributed, self-organized power base, seems the more successful purveyor of information goods to my eye. We shall soon see.

As marketers, we are also in the information goods business. We are also finding out that distributed networks of input drive better and faster product and marketing innovation. Witness Dell’s Idea Storm, a forum for Dell users to share ideas for product improvement. Dell launched Idea Storm after it discovered that a self-organized community of Dell customers and prospects already existed and they were already connected. They were sharing their (sadly, upleasant) Dell experiences on YouTube, blogging about the brand and influencing purchase behavior by a disturbingly large degree. Dell responded to the crisis by harnessing the power of the already connected community and facilitating its growth with Idea Storm.

As she chips away at Obama, it’s becoming ever more clear that Hillary can’t seem to find purchase. Where Obama deftly harnesses the power of the already connected community, Hillary re-tools her message. Where Obama delivers a resonant brand experience to voters, Hillary lodges a “features war”, attacking his product attributes. Where Obama gains momentum, Hillary plays catch up.

As marketers, as business people, we are wise to take a lesson in community management from this increasingly interesting voting season and that is this:

This way of communicating with your community doesn’t work any more: “Listen to me – I’m (better, smarter, faster, more experienced).”

This one does: “Listen to me. I am one of you.”