A lot has changed since I last posted. I think the most relevant thing to report is that I have been living in Medellin, Colombia, for over a year now. I also should mention that I am now starting a business with a partner here, providing web content strategy for both U.S. and Colomian clients. Our website is Chess & Coffee, here.
This post is not about the recent death of Robin Williams, though that certainly sparked it. Personally, I was saddened, but also distant. Much as I enjoyed Robin Williams as an entertainer, and empathized with his struggles (some of which I share), he is still a person I know only through media.
What happened after his death is what I want to talk about. Some time ago, researchers discovered that there was often a measurable increase in the rate of suicides, especially among teens, after the suicide of a celebrity. The link is so well established that American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides recommendations for reporting on the about how the media should cover these events.
Most of the recommendations come from the CDC’s national workshop report, here. Notably, this is from 1994. The findings of the report, which identifies the issue as “suicide contagion” include:
Factors that might INCREASE the likelihood of suicide contagion:
- Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide.
- Engaging in repetitive, ongoing, or excessive reporting of suicide in the news.
- Providing sensational coverage of suicide.
- Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide.
- Focusing on the suicide completer’s positive characteristics.
Empathy for family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting the positive aspects of a suicide completer’s life. For example, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person “was a great kid” or “had a bright future,” and they avoid mentioning the troubles and problems that the deceased person experienced. As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if the suicide completer’s problems are not acknowledged in the presence of these laudatory statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to other at-risk persons — especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors.
While the media (generally) has done a fairly good job of adopting these guidelines, social media is now the place where most of us get our news about any celebrity suicide. The result is that we are all exposed to the kind of debating and reporting that has been shown to be a problem in the past. This is exacerbated because it goes back and forth. One person provides a simplified, possibly insulting explanation, then another provides an defense the glorifies the person. It’s what we do, how we communicate. But as we, as social media participants, take over more and more the role of traditional media in passing on and commenting on events such as this, we should also be aware of the guidelines.
For years journalists (or at least headline writers) have been complaining that Search Engine Optimization was forcing them to write bad headlines. The typical complaint was that “We are writing headlines for the search engines instead of the readers.”
In truth, though, a properly optimized headline is very user friendly. It helps the reader quickly understand what the article is about. The primary rule for an SEO friendly headline is that it accurately reflect the content of the article. Sure, this tends to rule out snarky or mis-leading headlines, but there are usually other ways to put that material in front of the readers.
Now we have, apparently, freed ourselves from this domination of SEO-friendly headlines. Many websites get more traffic from social media referrals than from search engines, so they abandon good SEO and try to make their headlines into click-bait.
What is the result of all this “freedom?” Now our social media is filled up with headlines like:
- You’ll Never Believe What Some Of These Old Photos Reveal About The Past
- Kids In Chicago Want White People To Play In Their Parks For One Heartbreaking Reason
- 8 Reasons Children of the 1970s Should All Be Dead
- These Women Hated Smiling At Strangers. You Will Totally Believe What Happens Next
- The Creepy Reason People Never Used To Say, ‘I’m Feeling Kinda Down Today’
- These Artists Are Cleaning Up The Streets, But You Won’t Believe How.
- 22 Things Only People Who Hate Noise Will Understand
This headline at least tells us that the whole article is just stolen from Reddit:
- Sean Bean’s Reddit AMA Was Everything You Could Hope For
The truth is that we are getting content that looks less and less like news, and headlines that are less and less helpful. Optimizing headlines for search engines at least provided a certain amount of discipline and focus on communicating to the user instead of teasing them.
Today I’m walking into the Metro and the Washington Express guy hands me the paper. I’ve been picking it up for crossword-related reasons lately. I start reading the front as part of my commute; standing in train with people crowding in.
Imagine my surprise at seeing the complete trashing of Muriel Bowser. I’m not particularly a fan, but I did think she was a legitimate candidate. Why would the Express devote their front page to saying she was not ready to be mayor? I read down the page and finally get to the small text at the bottom: “paid for by Vince Gray 2014.”
Once before I stopped reading the Express because they sold the front cover from time to time. But at least they normally did so in a way that you could tell it was an ad. Today’s issue starts with the Express masthead, a teaser to a sports story, then flows down to the large picture of Muriel along with the text. If you are extremely attentive, there is a small word “advertisment” about the rest of the cover. I doubt many people noticed. So it seems that Vince Gray bought more than a prominent ad, he essentially purchased the front page and the reputation of the Washington Post Express. Which is sad.
Small businesses, start-ups, and entrepreneurial projects are launched on a vision. Depending on your religious preferences, that vision might come from God, or from so deep inside your own soul that it makes little difference.
In case you missed the Amy’s Baking Company debacle that started on Kitchen Nightmare’s and spread across the Internet, here are a couple ways to catch up. Here’s the original episode. This article provides a pretty good overview, as does this one. Wikipedia has a page on it here.
Most articles and commentators seem to take the view that Amy and Samy are completely psychotic, and the reason they are so popular is that we all like watching a trainwreck. Another explanation for the resonance this episode created online was the tip issue, and the outrage over the treatment of the servers.
All of that is true, but I don’t think it explains why this debacle hit home. What’s telling is the heavy involvement of communities like Reddit, places that are overlap significantly with the start-up/entrepreneurial community. I think we are fascinated because many of the lessons are specific to our world.
Amy had a vision, she felt it was from God. Others doubted her vision, but she had one person who celebrated it, supported it, and defended it against the critics. Between them, the created this solipsistic world in which God’s vision for baked goods manifested, while on the outside haters, bloggers, and bad Yelp reviewers circled the impenetrable wall, spraying it with graffiti.
But either God lost control, or the Amy/Samy continuum forgot an important ingredient.
I talked to some start-up people who have experienced success about their visions.
Sean Perkins of Mobility Labs explained that he started his business because he wanted to help small business find a roadmap through the tangle of technology possibilities. He envisioned mobile platforms as the most important emerging field, and it was also one that he found fascinating.
Ben Cohen, of TheDailyBanter, was eating a bowl of cornflakes when he thought being the next American media mogul sounded sweet. Why not him, he thought. His vision was to build a network of like-minded sites.
Jason Connell, of Ignited Leadership had a vision that he could really help people by training them to lead.
All three have found their way to success, but each had to pivot along the way. Pivoting is the act of realizing your vision and reality don’t match up, but instead of giving up, you change your vision. It requires a measure of humility.
Sean reports that: “Mobile technology fascinated me, but clients wanted me to do web development. I could keep selling something that people weren’t necessarily buying, or transition to something, I didn’t know as much about, but that was definitely a need. The new field still met my main criteria, I was helping small businesses make sense of technology.”
Ben found that, instead of creating a loose network of like-minded websites, he needed to control the brand and platform himself. But this still led him to the core of his vision, “It’s all about conversation, interactivity, opening up platforms to regular people.”
Jason explained that the reality was 100% different than his vision. He had to fight for every client, and it took him a lot longer than he expected.
Humility allows us to understand that reality is different than our vision, no matter how divinely inspired the vision may be. But entrepreneurs are sometimes afraid of humility because we need spend so much time finding confidence.
We are often told about Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs, it is said, had the confidence to stick to his vision without reference to what people said they wanted. His great innovations were devices that we didn’t know we wanted, until he showed us. He is an example of confidence in a vision without much feedback.
But Steve Jobs did know how to pivot. In fact, he was famous for it. This Fast Company article covers it pretty well. The essence is that Steve Jobs, after being forced out of Apple, started his own company NeXt, which completely failed. But Jobs figured out how to find something of value in the ruins, and changed his emphasis.
For over a year now, I have been running my business out of the Affinity Lab, a collaborative workspace on U Street in DC. During this time, I’ve come to believe that collaborative work environments are the future.
For some perspective, I came to Affinity after leaving one of the most toxic work environments I’ve ever experienced. Bad management promoted mediocrity with little opportunity for true excellence or advancement. But much as I despise what that place was becoming, I realized that there are much healthier companies out there that would still drive me crazy.
The truth is that the structure of the large organization, with heavy-handed HR departments and territorial knowledge silos, is a dinosaur. Evolution has moved on, providing us with much better, easily accessed tools for collaboration, information gathering, and self-administration. Some people will prefer the structured environment and predictability of the older, larger organizations, but the other advantages that these huge groups once had: access to related skill-sets, mentoring, information, and just the pure social element that goes with working in an office, are all now found somewhere else.
Recently I have been kind of inactive here, as well as on some of my other blogs. The issue has been how I define myself personally and professionally. It’s somewhat blurred, because what I do professionally springs from my personal fascination with information, communications, and how that happens online.
In the past, I’ve posted a lot of material on this website about professional topics, such as SEO, web content strategy, and Gov2.0. While I may continue to post general articles on those topics here, the more specific, how-to articles will be over on my business website: boltdigitalstrategies.com. On the other hand, particularly philosophical/political pieces will be found over on thesnarkhunter.com. Everything in the middle will, or should end up here.
I looked at some websites that have recently run stories about the issue to see if they were aware of the problem. For instance Business Insider ran an article titled: “This Is How Facebook Is Tracking Your Internet Activity” and MSNBC reported on “Who’s watching you online? FTC pushes ‘Do Not Track’ plan.”
There is a browser extension tool you can use to see who is getting information from particular websites you visit, called Collusion. You can look in your Chrome or Firefox extension store and find it. Naturally, before you plug it in, you have to give IT permission to access your data:
After installing it, the number of sites asking for information quickly grew from:
After only a few stops.
Going back to the two articles mentioned, the BusinessInsider graph looks like:
While the MSNBC article page, as it warns you about people tracking, is sending information to all of these places:
Wayne LaPierre said that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He suggests that if guns are used to protect the President, we should use them to protect our children.
Skipping over the obvious–that there is only one President and we spend a huge amount of money protecting him–here is the actual record of what protects our head of state.
When Andrew Jackson was assaulted by a man with two pistols, he beat they guy down with his cane. Teddy Roosevelt was saved from a bullet by his 50 page campaign speech. The attacker was disarmed and captured. The gunmen who shot at Gerald Ford (twice), Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton were all subdued physically–not by gunfire. The one case where guns were used to protect a President was when two men attacked Harry Truman. Two police returned fire. One policeman was killed, the other wounded.
Then there are the many threats that did not get to the point of shots being fired at the President that were foiled by investigations and arrests.
I’m not saying we should disarm the Secret Service. I’m just saying their guns are only a small part of what they do to protect the President. They are very highly trained and there are a lot of them.
This write-up is part of the latest BDS Notes newsletter. You can subscribe here, and get the full issue, as well as future issues.
October 1989 Earthquake in San Francisco. I was at the UCSB student newspaper. Many UCSB students, including many on our staff, were from the bay area. All night we worked the phones—frequently down and pulled news off the wires. We put together an edition for that morning that covered the event, won awards, and was a primary source of information.
August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, and I had in-laws living in the country. CNN was now the center-point, and we stared at it while calling over and over for that one time when we could actually get a phone line into the country, or at least into Jordan.
September 2001 Living in DC, the first news I got was a call to my cell phone to check up on my. Information was scarce The news stations were stunned–playing the same images over and over. Many news websites went down under the heavy traffic load.Email lists that normally discussed Internet marketing, emerging technology, and online copyright, were the best source of connection and information.
October 2007 Southern California was overrun with wildfires. I helped people I knew in the affected search for information. User-generated resources, including quickly updated maps proved to be the best sources.
August 2011 The DC earthquake shook the building I was in for over a minute. As it shook, I was on the phone, sending email, and checking both Twitter and Facebook. Within minutes we knew where it was centered, how big it was, and had some idea of the damage. Then we evacuated the building to find that cell service was out—and we were suddenly in the dark.
November 2012 Hurricane Sandy was all over social media before it hit. Facebook was where I found out how people I knew were faring, both in DC and in the more heavily hit areas during the storm and during the recovery.