Had a chat with a coworker of mine the other day. He had run across a book–or I should say had run across a blog post about a book. The book was about how the Internet (and some other present-trends) was leading us to become less intelligent. The book-to-blog summary described how people could glean a few surface details about a subject, digest them quickly and move on, thinking they knew enough about a subject.
Not unlike this blog–or blogging in general, I suppose.
And it got me thinking. At first, of course, as a champion of all things current and now, I grew a little defensive. I cited the arrival of the 24-hour news cycle and the obsession with the 7-second soundbite in our political spheres as equal measures of evidence toward such a shallowing of the pool of human thought. But I suppose the Internet and social media had its share of the blame for things. So I relented in my stance that finger-pointing should continue. Blogs vs. lazy journalism vs. business, etc.
Then yesterday I had the chance to meet with a veteran newsman–an Air Force public affairs chief master sergeant. Veteran in terms that he had pre-dated the official arrival of social network in our professional spheres–a feat most of us qualify for, as it’s only been less than a decade since journalism was more like the Fourth Estate of centuries past and not like the Bieber-entranced drool machines of late. Not “veteran” in terms of being old or any veiled insult that readers may imply while scanning over these words.
Veteran in that I respected his experience, and he, mine. We talked a bit about how the Web has made a lazy bunch out of many military journalists. How, apart from any undue shaking of fists at the arrival of the present, the past’s reliance on newspapers–replete with deadlines and gruff editors, forced writers to produce. And what’s more, to produce works people would wish to read. And in timely manners, no less.
This editor friend of mine talked in examples about how, when in times past, covering sports or certain VIP visits to bases, he would have to rush back and spend some evening hours to hammer out stories. And since these stories often HAD to appear in that week’s paper, there was often not time to parade versions and opinions around. The slightly-olden journalist had to get it right the first time. Thinking to now, some five-10 years later, he described how his staffs leisurely get around to posting stories occasionally. Since the Web is always there, things lose a sense of urgency. Also, since it was so easy to change content, my editor friend described what I’ve heard from a dozen other journalists as story “coordination”. In this lovely phenomenon, stories are emailed around to a small army of would-be critics, who quibble and gripe about every noun, phrase and piece of jargon–a kitchen full of chefs, cooking stew.
So many journalists, because of the time-intensive nature of coordination in military journalism, get around to maybe posting a story every week or so.
The point is, apart from the numbers, where people can argue and say they are better because they post more…
…the point is, the web may have cheapened our ability to produce and or think to the level we ought.
Military journalists often don’t have to think through their work because they realize a half-dozen writers are going to weigh in on their words anyway. So why try? Digital cameras let people “spray and pray” that a good photo comes out of a batch of 1,000, rather than carefully choosing when to let loose an exposure on a painfully short roll of film.
And the pundits, bloggers, writers…we can spout out a billion entries across a billion blogs every day, but to what end, eh? The person with the best 7-second soundbite wins anyway, because who has time to actually get to the meat of a thing? Who has time to think about the impact of words and sentiment?
I might end up buying that book. Seems to be worth looking into, rather than just spouting off a few ‘graphs and moving on.
Couple of things I noticed after three days of bloggerific seminar sessions.
One, I need an iPad. Yes, I did have one for a couple of weeks before I got the cease-and-desist from work—not cool to invest in productivity tools, it seems. It’s a security risk, they say. But seriously, I’m going to need one. I’ll ask the bosses.
While we, the human race, have gotten along swimmingly for centuries using paper and ink, I have drawn the line in the sand and declared scribbling notes during seminars is no longer adequate. Hear that, nature? Josh says the cool kids on the planet need to move on.
For me, the sexy advantage to an iPad-like device is how one person can simultaneously and easily hop-scotch from listening, browsing and note-taking with just a few flicks of his/her type-y fingers. Hear a mention, look up the website, type out a note, send a tweet. Boom. Done.
I was able to keep up with my notepad, sure, but now I have 40-50 pages of notes to work through. Ugh! With something like an iPad, I could have taken notes on the cloud, parceled out bits for tweets and moved on to cocktail hour. Priorities, people!
The other bitingly sweet feature about iPad is the portability. Macbooks and the MBAir used to be the bizomb. But nowadays, any clamshell is cumbersome. I need something I can ninja flip around in mid conversation once I admit the person talking is worth remembering. I don’t want to have to balance my coffee, disposition and laptop in mid hallway.
The second thing I noticed during BlogWorld was how much I still dislike self promotion. Maybe I should say shameless self promotion. Everybody has to self promote, sure. It’s as basic as birds puffing themselves up for potential mates and all that crap.
What I really dislike, though, is session hijacking. It’s like thread hijacking, but in person. You know…topic is one thing, panel is discussing it…the floor is open for “questions” and people start giving GD soliloquies about their business.
It’s ridiculous. I’ll say to those out there who do this sort of thing what my commanders told me: if you’re not at the adult table, you don’t get to talk. In the service, as a lowly-ranked peon, if I wasn’t spoken to about a specific topic, I shut my mouth. This includes topic shifts…like “Do you have a question?” “No, but let me show you a cool thing I learned in Boy Scouts.”
Yes, no, we’re good. Thanks.
Teaching soldiers that they aren’t the center of the universe is standard practice pretty early on in military careers. Maybe I take that for granted. I’m of the persuasion that people sometimes need a kick in the shins to remind them the whole world doesn’t bend to their will. Things will go on if they don’t scratch that itch, gawk at that passing cute something-something, or indulge in any of the 1,000 impulses that come to them every second. It’s why we military guys stand guard over buckets of water on “fire guard” or do any of the other asinine things that siphon hours of life—the whole of the group is bolstered by each of us denying ourselves now and then for the benefit of others.
This includes shutting mouths when others are talking and NOT hijacking panel discussions.
I have no illusions, I’m not THAT special. If I’m doing something that is astronomically awesome, stuff has a tendency to get noticed as I go about my NORMAL ROUTINES. I call it God’s grace.
But what are those normal routines?:
1) Don’t be a dick.
3) Encourage others.
Growing up in church pews, some kids would have questions or ideas concerning religion. We were usually told to pipe down, lest we might get something wrong. The whole system seemed built on the idea that it was better to be safe and within the bounds of legalism, where everything was in neat little boxes, than to be away from the herd. People were frankly terrified every time a young mind tried to break free. There would be all sorts of hellfire stories sent around to scare everybody into compliance.
The fear of the unknown—of being possibly incorrect in some small way—the fear of not being 100 percent absolutely sure about the stability of every step in life. It was suffocating.
In 2000, when I worked with some friends to start up a film business, pushing out in new territory, we were told to pipe down. We might get something wrong, they said. They were afraid for us all. They were looking out for us. We, being young and stupid, needed to learn the fear, they said through their attitudes. The fear would tell us when something wasn’t right, like how deer perk up and freeze in terror at every sound.
And it was this fear, programmed into us at instinctual and social levels, induced by the threat of something unknown, which kept us in line. By dragging each other down, we could stay together. Anyone who tried to leave was branded as some sort of traitor, putting the safety of the herd at risk. It is this fear that kills innovation.
In the mid-2000s, when many in the military advocated blogging as a way to communicate more freely with families while deployed, we were told to pipe down. We may have been out too far. People were afraid of being wrong—that someone somewhere might get called into an office. They would have to “appear before the man” or be called out “on the carpet.” In that office was a predator, usually wearing stars or the rank of a bird of prey. They said we should learn the fear—stay safe, not rock the boat.
In 2007, when advocating for curriculum changes at the Defense Information School, I ran across the same thing. In 2008, when pushing NATO SHAPE, same thing. In 2009 at various government agency meetings or workgroups, same thing. People were paralyzed with the fear. It was this fear that kept everyone safely munching on the meadow grass.
And even now in the new job, there are people advocating caution—not to try that change thing. There was an order to things after all, they say. I still had to learn how this place had rules and quaint little boxes of how and why things are done.
There is this fear that if someone strays outside of the self-imposed thought boundaries, he/she will immediately be snatched up and devoured by an angry boss.
This is BS too, by the way. More on that in a sec.
What’s with the skittishness? What opposition, clad in armor, pointy sticks or things that shoot, has ever been subdued by someone cowering in the shadows? What obstacle has ever been conquered through fear?
When I say, “Let’s try this,” it’s not out of recklessness. It’s not out of some effort to throw others to the wolves. There are no wolves, actually. And if there are, we too are wolves if we choose to be. I mean, I don’t see how the secret of success at my job—how those around me “in the know,” can be right by running and hiding whenever there’s a snag. Does that work in other areas of business? Hell no. Does that work in relationships?
So, why do people think it works in innovation? I don’t get this fear I’m supposed to learn.
I’ve been in trouble before. I’ve had my ass chewed by every rank from E-1 to O-6 (parents of high school athletes are a journalist’s bane). I’ve been in big trouble before, and guess what, the boss didn’t shoot me. He/she didn’t disembowel me.
At worst, in cases where I was wrong, I learned from my mistake and grew. At best, in cases where I was honestly trying to improve something, I was told to watch it. But, see? The thing was my bosses in those situations knew I was trying something new. They would applaud me for attempting to be innovative, believe it or not.
Hell, in some cases when working through government policy and best practices, my bosses told me and others that they would rather us swing for the fences and miss than constantly go for the bunt. I was personally told this by my assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the Army chief of staff, and my chief of public affairs.
And I take those episodes to heart, those times when faced with that supposed ravenous, potentially angry boss, I didn’t get devoured. I’ve never been fired for attempting process improvement. I’ve never been fired for trying to improve the organization.
But what “if,” some say? I have people here too scared to read a blog at work. “They” are watching, these people say. “They” will crack down on anyone who goes to websites, even if it’s directly tied to work. “They” will get you fired.
“I know of a person who was let go because he was on a social media site at work,” someone told me the other day.
“Really?” I asked. “No other extenuating circumstances?”
“No! That’s why we can’t use social media at work. It’s a policy.”
“I’ve looked for this policy. I don’t see it.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Saying it’s true doesn’t make it true.”
I had an instructor back in my Army training days who told a story, straight out of a forwarded email/chain letter. It was the one about the banana/cactus that had spider eggs inside it, which exploded and shot baby spiders everywhere. It’s bogus, look it up on an urban legend site. Yet, this instructor said it happened to her grandmother. As if saying so made it true.
It was supposed to be funny, but highlights an interesting phenomenon. We enable fear. We try to spread it to others. Not about spiders (scary, though!), but about questioning things.
Don’t do it! I know someone who went outside of the meadow and they were eaten!
YES! I knew the person. It’s true! Swear to X!
Ah, since you swear, I’ll cease all thought on the subject. Since you’re sure we’re still herbivores, stuck in some meadow prison, I’ll never try to leave.
Now, I’m not trying to re-start some stupid “Be the ball, Danny!” or “I am a wolfpack” saying, but I sure as hell am tired of people trying to keep me as some frightened Bambi in the woods. Screw that. I’m also tired of people saying “no,” not because of any sort of reason, but because of The Fear! Yup. Screw that too.
I’ll make everybody a deal. If I ever get fired for diligently striving for process improvement or sincerely advocating for change to improve an organization, I’ll shut up and munch on some grass. Until then, I’ll keep howling at the moon or whatever pithy saying we can roll this post up with and get going.
Yesterday I was in a meeting (surprise). It involved a group of people on the opposite end of the corporate campus. They were scheduled to support a big upcoming event and needed to be brought up to speed. In fact, some of them were defensive and put out, having been volunteered to provide content, personnel, etc., for an event they had little to no knowledge of.
There was nothing to fear, however, the right people were in the room and quickly alleviated the fears of those not up to speed on what was scheduled. While very beneficial, a full hour was needed to bring yet another group into the fold.
So I started thinking about all of the new workflow augmentation and internal collaboration tools beginning to gather steam. We all have email, but that doesn’t do the job. We all have some sort of document-tracking system, but that’s usually very lackluster. There are, however, better ways to collaborate. There are niftier tools that share notes and side conversations, capture questions, provide achievable and searchable video sessions. As we, society or whatever, move toward more robust and more comprehensive content management systems, we will become not just connected, but beyond that…probably into the realm of assimilation.
Assimilation being merging streams of thought into each other, collaborating and correcting points of view way before they even get to an email or a curt comment said to a coworker under his or her breath. I’m talking about the end game of collaboration, the fusing of intent and talent into the natural mechanics of one corporate entity. This is super connectivity, hyper connectivity, more than just cooler email.
Now I’m not saying we’ll go Borg from the onset, but I think we will have augmented reality screens, speech-to-text transcribers, eye-driven GUI glasses and a lot of the sorts of cool building tools seen in “Ironman” or “Star Trek.” It just makes sense to me.
Because, I mean, we’re already pretty immersed in connectivity. How much MORE “connection” can we have? We all have work cell phones, work email, and the ability to call a coworker or subordinate in the dead of night and get some information about such-and-such document. It may be frowned upon (for now), but the possibility of this sort of normal life disruption is there.
Let’s look at the inherent inefficiency of modern communication, “connected” though it may be.
Person A, let’s say Sarah, has an idea. Sarah has to use her communication skills to take her thoughts, select words to those thoughts and form sentences and paragraphs. Then, like some complicated origami project, Sarah has to fold and build her proposal into a series of lines of symbols on paper or a screen.
Sarah then sends off this idea. Others see her words and paragraphs and decrypt it into their own thoughts and feelings. People routinely misread, skim over too quickly, or perhaps vaguely understand the author’s intent. They then react to this new information in their own ways, internalize it, build judgments and responses.
If collaboration is required, these independent agents, each with their own views and opinions, must be brought together over the course of multiple meetings and briefings, to air their specific interpretations of Sarah’s idea. Unfortunately, each response now starts the process again; and the probability for misunderstanding and gap of intent increases exponentially.
We usually muddle through the ineffectiveness of group thought by having multiple meetings, using humor or charisma to persuade or perhaps brushing aside objections through rank structure and hierarchy.
But all of those steps, and there are more, sure, I believe lead to so much of our life drama and inefficiency as an organization. We can look at the alien nature of an ant hive and scoff, sure, but we can’t argue with the results, can we? Now, I’m not talking about slaving of one to the will of many here, but don’t we think there will be a move toward this direction? I mean, as an evolution of the corporate body?
No? What happens when Google or some whiz-bang company develops some basic assimilative tools, where Sarah, from our example, can virtually be standing over the shoulders of everyone who interacts with her information, to correct or at least better explain her intents in word choice or sequence of ideas? Wouldn’t this be more efficient communication? Isn’t that the end goal of all the email programs, scheduling apps and meetings we hold every day?
What if a company was able to connect the relevant people to the relevant projects and share information to minimize misunderstandings or personal differences? What if managers knew of the obstacles as they emerged, without having to interfere or ask to be “back briefed” on situations? I think of all the video games out there, where the human player assumes the role of some omnipresent commander, able to see the workings of each part of his or her army, training and production, with just a few clicks of a button. It’s the way to be an efficient leader, isn’t it?
So, as a man who understands one can only rage against progress for so long before drowning in the rising tides, I wonder if we’ll look back on ourselves in 20-30 years and think how silly we were to think and feel in isolation. There will probably be a good chunk of us who would welcome this assimilation. It would lead to vastly superior profits and performance, wouldn’t it? Just sayin’.
About two or three times a month, I meet someone who wishes to leverage my contacts to sell something. I know this is far fewer than many in the social media government circles and that it comes with the territory as a person reaches certain milestones in his or her career.
At first, people would come up to me during conferences. I was a target of opportunity. They would see that I was in attendance. They would see the uniform. They would hand me a card and that would be that. Later, when I began presenting at conferences, the vendors and hawkers would suddenly become more interested. I wasn’t just someone to flirt with, I was worthy of a date. They would hang around after a presentation and, amid those asking questions and wanting to learn more about social media (the reason why I attend conferences), they would also strike up conversations, then lead into their pitches. Many of them were pretty good at this. I wouldn’t catch on that I was being pitched to right away, until the point in the conversation emerged where I was asked to either commit to purchasing their product, or giving them the name and number of someone who could.
Some vendors were graceful with this transition from rapport building to selling, many were not. Some were outright rude or insistent, like an online dating stalker.
Still later, when I became a fixture at several conferences, I would get cold calls from vendors who had heard my name mentioned by others. Some would mask their pitch by inviting me to a seminar or offering to meet somewhere for drinks, some would just start reading from their scripts. While it was flattering in a way to be seen as a gateway to riches and sales, I was always up front about my position: that I was a mere staff sergeant—a man of humble rank and position, who had simply been at the right place at the right time. My charisma, for what it is, had been shaped by my training and my proclivity for stage theater. My disposition had been shaped by my spirituality. Most of the time, I was a pretty easy guy to get along with, always eager to teach others and engage in conversations that would teach me something as well.
But I’ve begun to wear thin on the vendors and hawkers who don’t even try to ease me into a conversation. And it’s too bad. As a journalist, I always look forward to new conversations and new people. It’s the one area that we don’t normally grow cynical toward. Now, however, when someone comes up to me, calls or emails, I have to eye that with a level of suspicion. Am I being played? What is it they want? It’s an attitude I’d hoped to avoid, but a lesson probably better learned now than later.
Some vendors are so bad that they call, flatly asking me to solicit government employees for them. Some ask me for my contacts just a few seconds into the conversation—as if I have the friends and colleagues I do because I flood their inboxes with spam. Some ask how I would run their marketing if I were them.
And while I might be willing to give such data to even them, were they to not just brazenly demand it; I’m also taken aback by how little they engage me, as a person. During these conversations, I wait for my turn to speak, and routinely get little more than a chance to say “yes” or “that’s good” while they run down their bullet points of reasons why I should make them money.
There are exceptions. I have met a few start-up ventures that I do believe in. Those who man these businesses are a lot more mature in their approaches, even if ultimately they need the same thing from me. They offer to make me a part of the team. They ask for my input. And while there is the ever-present sense of urgency, it’s not a hard sell. I don’t feel guilty for taking lunch that day and going to bed that night without shoving their product down my friends’ throats.
In the end, maybe it’s all in the pitch. And maybe that’s a lesson for all of us “selling” social media to our coworkers and counterparts. Running across the vendors and hawkers at these conferences reminds me that, even with a product I believe in, I cannot neglect the community and rapport that is needed to transfer enthusiasm from me to another. While it may take time to engage the influencers in my life, I can either put in the work to listen to their needs and work with them to overcome obstacles, or I can be like these vendors and just shotgun blast everyone I see like the stereotypical car salesman.
This week was the Open Government and Innovations conference in D.C. I’ve attended as many as I’ve been able since moving to the area in 2007. The thing is, it’s been the same conference every year.
And it’s not a problem with OGI, the organizers, or the speakers; I would say it’s a problem with the open government community.
It’s a problem I’ve heard, re-heard and said again in the echo chambers: that we hang out in echo chambers.
Same objections, same cautions, same fears, same possible solutions—the topics that come up during OGI are varied, but similar, in a year-to-year basis.
This isn’t a hit on the people attending either. It’s not a plea for more elitism in open government. It’s not a chance for me, Josh Salmons, to beat his chest and be considered someone who “gets it” a certain percentage faster than someone else.
I say it because I’m afraid the echo chambers and constant need to train newcomers are bogging down the revolution.
We need to define skills that lead to open government. We need to stratify experience levels. We need to develop 101, 201, 301 levels for efficient, productive government. Even this has been said before, but it’s important.
Because we love newcomers! A couple of years ago, I was one too. I attended my first series of seminars, voiced my concerns about adoption rates and access to sites and had my fears assuaged, just like the more experienced social media advocates did this year. Having new blood in the mix shows the health of the ongoing culture shift. That’s not the issue at all. I’m eternally thankful there are people who admit to being “clueless” at every conference. I appreciate their honesty and their willingness to learn.
My problem is we are doing both the new and the seasoned social media advocates a disservice by keeping things as they are. I believe we should be more formal in our evaluations of our skill sets. Asking “Who here is on Twitter? Who here blogs? Who here is on Facebook?” was cute three years ago, but why are we still at that level now?
Maybe it involves an accreditation system like 6 Sigma—green belts, black belts; that sort of thing. Maybe there is a comprehensive wiki-like exam that we can develop and, based on your score, you can fall in to certain strata of social media advocate.
Again, not to establish some sort of class system, but as a triage sort of approach. Since there are only so many minutes, slots and sessions during seminars, wouldn’t it be more productive if we can identify who needs what treatment? Who is just there for a yearly checkup? Who needs help, stat!?
I’ve been honored to receive a lot of invites to seminars over the last couple of years. I’ve met some really awesome people. But it’s getting to the point where I don’t want to show up for the whole conference. I start to dread the same questions from the same levels of experience. It might sound a bit selfish, sure, but I spend most of my time training. I don’t have a problem giving back. But I would also like to know I could get some targeted content as well.
A few people turned me on to a few existing places where others are trying to do just this. Awesome! Let’s keep things moving forward. I don’t think we need to have college degrees about this stuff just yet, but we need something.
Wow, no posts since Feb? Whoops! So much for being the social media guy, right?
To my defense, I’ve been a little busier than usual. Those in my normal circles have known, but the world at large may have been left out of the loop. I am leaving the Army.
It has been about seven and a half years since I raised my hand and processed into the service. It was a whirlwind romance. I stepped into the recruiter’s office the day after New Year’s 2003 and was at basic training three weeks later.
It’s how I roll, though. I have a tendency to completely reinvent myself every couple of years. Being in the military has been life changing in more than the usual ways since it has forced me to stick with one thing for nearly a decade. Still, time is time.
I’ve had wonderful opportunities in the last couple of years. In January 2009 I started my tenure as the official DINFOS emerging media coordinator. I’d been working the social media scene since I arrived here in June 2007, but it was more of a hobby and personal quest for revolution, rather than any official capacity.
Since my christening, I’ve worked with dozens of awesome peeps at the DOD, major command and service level. I had the chance to go to SHAPE, the military arm of NATO, and contributed to their first strategic communication directive working with social media. I’ve been on the DOD’s all-services social media council and threw my $0.02 in on DTM 09-026, the DOD’s first social media policy(ish).
My time at DINFOS was winding down, though, and I had a choice. I could stay in the Army and go on to do the normal E7 stuff, or I could let my enlistment expire and continue with the social media fight in DOD. Although I was surprised to make the E7 list with just six years in, I wouldn’t be able to keep working in my social media circles while in uniform. There are no positions like mine at DINFOS in the regular military. There will be in a few years, but for now, I have to get out of uniform to keep working for those in uniform.
Strange huh? I think so also, but that’s the way of things.
My former chief of public affairs, Maj. Gen. Bergner, had been tremendously supportive and offered to give me whatever assignment in the Army I wished to keep me in, but I’m hardly close to retirement. Fourteen years is a long time.
Even if I stayed around for one more tour, eventually, a couple of years from now, I would have to return to “normal” military assignments: checking humvees, planning field problems and deployments—which is no problem, but I’d miss out on influencing the DOD social media discussion. If I could just do more years in the desert and still come back to what I’m doing now, that might suffice.
But I might as well just get out, get paid a lot more, do what I want and NOT have to get shot at anymore. It becomes a pro/con thing.
So, good luck to my uniformed sisters and brothers, and the DOD civvies that keep things rocking. I’ll be around more than you might think. I’m not done yet 🙂
Hey there! I'm a former Army print journalist and DoD social media zealot. I spend my days in the public relations and marketing worlds, chatting about technology and working on fun side projects.
I write, dance and do most things.
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