Blogging, St. Louis style

On Monday (24 September), the Social Media Club St. Louis (@SMCSTL) hosted a panel of bloggers to discuss, what else, blogging. It has been many years since I first started blogging and the reasons and results of blogging, not to mention the tools, have evolved quite a bit. The panel shared some great insights into what motivates them to blog, and what they get out of blogging.   Continue reading

All this machinery making modern music

To make music these days, musicians need to know just a bit more than how to play their instrument. A guitar player, for example, needs to be able to play the guitar (a given), but also must have an understanding of how the guitar is built, what accessories provide what features, how to mic the amps. Likewise a drummer, bass player, or other band member. Then comes the process of recording music to produce a song and, hopefully, all the work that goes into putting on a live performance. There are a seemingly endless supply of options available to these musicians that must be overwhelming at times.

Kind of like the seemingly endless onslaught of new collaboration tools and ways to communicate with others.

A little over 5 years ago, I wrote the following:

I’ve been messing around with blogs (with varying success) for over 5 years now, have set up and contributed to my fair share of other online sources like wikis and as a commenter to other blogs. But I’ve only recently really understood the value and, yes, appeal of text messaging and the ability to send photos and videos from anywhere on my phone. And, though I’ve recently signed up and started experimenting with Facebook, I’m still not quite sure exactly what to do with it. And don’t get me started with things like Twitter – as much as friends and others praise it, I just don’t get it.

Of course, it has only gotten worse (better?) since then.

List of feed options for the Lifestream plugin
All this, plus a way to add any that aren’t already included

I have spent the better part of the past year or so exploring and trying out new tools, seeing where they add value or don’t. I still don’t use Facebook much, but have found my groove with Twitter. I see the value and potential of Google+ but just can’t quite get into it. On the other hand, I have come to love and rely on Jive in our “behind the firewall” social/business network. I’ve signed up for many of the niche services that have come out: I really like InstagramUntappd is a cool idea, and I don’t get Pinterest (at all). A quick look at the feed selection list for the Lifestream plugin for WordPress gives an idea of what’s out there. I have no idea what most of them are, and this isn’t even all of them! (Lifestream provides a way for you to add “generic” feeds for all those that they’ve missed.)

Speaking of WordPress… Although I haven’t been blogging publicly for a while (16 months or so, yikes!), spending a lot of time writing and making things happen behind the firewall, I have kept up with the evolution of WordPress and the great tools available in the system, not to mention the evolution of its positioning in the market from “just another … blog” to “just another … site”. I’ve read a couple of good WordPress books through my Safari Books Online subscription, and played around a bit under the hood.

Wordcamp St. Louis 2012

And in a couple of weeks I’m attending WordCamp St. Louis 2012 to learn and share even more.

I could say that all this goodness was part of why it has taken me so long to actually get back up and running. (I told @tomcatalini back in April that I was “very close” to a return to blogging, not sure 4 months counts as “very close”.) And though it sounds like an excuse it is, at least partly, true. Part of my absence has been directly related to my trying to figure out what direction I wanted this blog to take, to build on my previous blogs or to try something new. But part has been trying to understand what is possible with regards to how I do it.

A perfect example of this interplay was my discovery of different post formats, along with the Showcase page template in the Twenty Eleven theme, and how I could use it to capture and present both my own extended thoughts on things (an ounce of perception) and a log of my more random thoughts and observations (a pound of obscure).

I don’t need to worry about all those sites and services in the list above that I don’t know about, or know how to use, nor do I need to worry about all the bells and whistles in WordPress. Perhaps they will be of value to me some day, and if so I expect that I will find them if and when I need them. What I care about is what I can do with them. 

Like the musicians I mentioned earlier, my purpose is not to “play an instrument” or to set up a bunch of gear. My purpose is to make music, and all this machinery is just a way to do that.

Now, let’s see what kind of music I can make….

Share a Chair – There should be an app for that

When I got to the airport restaurant, there was a short line of people waiting to be seated. Everyone waiting in this line was a party of one. Frustrating, since as I looked around the restaurant there were plenty of empty seats and table space. But not very many empty tables. As you can probably guess, many of those that were seated were also parties of one.

If I had been in Europe I would have just gone up and asked someone if I could join them (something Julie and I learned to do when we lived in Germany). But that really isn’t something that most Americans take too kindly to. When I was finally shown to my table – a spacious 4-seater – I told the hostess that I was willing to share the chairs that were going unused at my table. She thanked me, and even mentioned it to the first few people standing in line. I was not really surprised that no one took the offer; not surprised, but disappointed.

Here we were, all in essentially the same boat: business travelers on our way to work some magic far away from home, or on our way back home after working said magic. And instead of taking the opportunity to meet someone new, to maybe have an interesting conversation we would probably never have otherwise, we chose to eat alone. Keith Ferrazzi – author of Never Eat Alone – would be rolling over in his grave if he weren’t still alive and kicking.

I announced my available chairs on Twitter and on Foursquare, knowing that it was very unlikely anyone would notice and be able to take me up on the offer. (@Your_Shirt_Guy noticed, but was sadly not at the airport at the time.) As I sit typing this on the airplane, having been reading Jane McGonigal’s (aka @avantgame) Reality is Broken while electronics were verboten, it occurs to me that this could make for an excellent location-based app/game. OK, maybe just a great app.

You’re traveling alone, and stop in at one of the airport restaurants for lunch (or dinner or maybe just a beer). You check in to Share-a-Chair to let other travelers at that airport know that you have a spare chair that you want to share. You get a +1 for posting the available chair(s). When others sit down with you and check in, you get another +1 when someone takes the first chair, with a multiplier for each new person that takes one of the chairs you offered. The players who accept your offer of a shared chair each get a +1.

Or something like that.

As much as I would love to play an app/game like this, I don’t have the coding skills – or the time to devote – to make it happen. If you happen to build something like this – or if you already have – I’d love to hear about it and join in the fun. And maybe have dinner with you one day at IAH (or STL or …).

In the meantime, I will be using #ChairShare on Twitter and Foursquare whenever I find myself eating alone.

Social savvy, yes – tech savvy, not so much

It is easy to look at ‘the younger generation’ and think, “Wow, these kids really know computers and networking.” I used to think along the same lines. I mean, how could they use such cool tools and not want to know how they work, not take the time to figure out what makes them tick.

But when you talk to these kids, you quickly realize that most of them don’t have a clue about how it all works. I had this epiphany a few years ago when I was talking to a couple of teenagers about some piece of tech, probably video game tech, and realized that if something went wrong they would be out of luck.

Disc drive not working? No sound? Internet connection is down? Bummer, dude.

Bruce Schneier puts it very well in a recent discussion about privacy and the individual (which I found thanks to @jmcgee at McGee’s Musings):

The younger generation is very fluent about how to use the internet, but completely clueless about how it works technically. Socially very savvy, technically very unsavvy.

Of course, this isn’t really anything new and I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Just looking back to my own teen years gives me all the insight I really need. Back then the main way to communicate was the telephone. I can count on one hand the other kids my age that knew – or cared – how the telephones worked; you should have seen the looks on their face when I tried to engage them in discussions about DTMF replacing pulse-dialing.

The reason the iPhone is so popular, and services like Facebook, Twitter, etc have so many users is because you don’t really have to understand how they work in order to use them. And that was fine when all you had was the telephone. But, as Schneier points out, today’s online social exchanges are different. All of our interactions on these digital services create an incredible amount of data; data about us, about our interests, and about our connections.

Understanding how the systems that own – and yes, they do own – this data about you work is critical. And not just for the kids, either.

William Gibson on…

This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting author William Gibson when he came through St. Louis promoting his latest book, Zero History. He started off  by reading a bit from the book and then opened it up for questions from the standing room only crowd.

Here are some notes from the conversations that ensued:

…dystopia

When asked if he saw the world as bleak as the dystopias he depicts in his books, Gibson made the comment to the effect, “Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder”. From the perspective of the affluent, who have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, his worlds may be dystopic, but there are plenty of people in the world who would see those worlds as a big step up.

…brands and marketing in his writing

Gibson references many real brands as part of his stories, and when asked said that you can’t really write a book about current times, especially in a big city like London, without branding and marketing being brightly on display. That is the world we live in, to not include it would make the whole story feel a bit false. This ties into his overall philosophy of naturalism in his writing.

…his career

When asked if his career turned out how expected, or hoped, it would, Gibson glibly commented that he never thought he’d have a writing career at all. His first novel, the best-selling Neuromancer, was written on commission and he fully expected that the first small printing would also be the last. All in all, I think he’s very happy with how it turned out.

…didactism

Asked about whether his writing reflects his own ideas that he is trying to spread, Gibson quickly said no. Didactism is a legitimate approach to writing, but he’s found that if you do that it is at the expense of the story and the characters. On the subject of characters and character development, he went on to say that if you – as an author – know what your characters are going to do before they do it, then you are also shortchanging the story. “I never know what my characters are going to do, and sometimes they do things that I wish they hadn’t.”

…freelancers vs. salaried workers

Gibson noted that his stories tend to have freelancers as the good guys and “salaried workers” as the bad guys, and said that this wasn’t really intentional (see comments on didactism above). He did note that not everyone that “works for the man” is bad, and in fact one of the key good guys of the current book is one of those salaried workers.

…twitter

When I asked him how he came up with his own Twitter handle, Gibson explained that a friend had told him about it so he figured he’d check it out, fully expecting to think it stupid and not worth keeping up with. When prompted for a user name, he looked up on his shelf and saw a book about The Great Dismal Swamp; hence, @GreatDismal. After about 5 minutes with Twitter, he found that he loved it. For the first time, he said, authors could get the same direct feedback – good and bad – from their fans that those in sports, film, etc did.

Gibson also made some comments about cultural history and cultural memory, noting that today’s generation of young adults have no idea what it was like to live in constant  fear of nuclear annihilation.  Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I  have a few other notes, but unfortunately even I am unable to read the scribble that I hurriedly wrote down.

(Just one more reason, as if I need one, that I want an iPad.)

A special thanks to Left Bank Books and the Schlafly Branch of St. Louis Public library for hosting this stop on Gibson’s book tour, and to Dennis Kennedy for making me aware of it. And, of course, to William Gibson for coming to town.

Social Media + Family

I’ve blogged for many years, shared photos on Flickr and video on YouTube, and more recently joined Twitter and Facebook. Finding the line for any parent is challenging, but as the parent of an autistic son the question of how much – and what – to share about my family in public (the blog, twitter) and even in “private” (facebook) takes on a whole different dimension.

Later this week, Chris Heuer from Social Media Club is bringing their Fall Tour 2010, Social Media + Family, to St. Louis to talk about these questions and more.  To get an idea of how the conversation may go, take a look at Amani’s recap of the Atlanta event. To get ready, St. Louisan Todd Jordan (aka @tojosan), a parent and speaker at this week’s event, has posted his “bio of an online Dad“.

I don’t know how much, if at all, the discussion will go towards families of kids with disabilities, but even if it doesn’t go there at all  I have a feeling it is going to be a great evening of conversation and a great excuse to get out and socialize in person (as if an excuse is ever really needed).

An abundance of opportunity (some initial thoughts on “Cognitive Surplus”)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeCognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky covers some of the same ground as several other authors I’ve read this year. But even though some of the starting material may be the same – such as the Israeli day care story – Shirky tells a very different story, with a very different moral and outcome than those other books. (In case you’re wondering, the two that come immediately to mind are Dan Pink’s Drive and Seth Godin’s Linchpin.)

The upshot of the book is that in the last half of twentieth century people found themselves, in general, with a higher level of education and a larger amount of free time than at most any other time in history, while at the same time “accidents” of technology and policy created an environment of increased social isolation (think interstates, suburbs, and TV). On top of this physical isolation, there was technological isolation; the means simply did not exist for individuals to easily share their knowledge or their interests, and the ability to organize large groups around an interest was reserved for the well financed. This was the purview of the “professionals”.

As a result, we – especially in the US – became a nation of consumers. Even as the technology has developed over the past decade or so to allow for broad sharing and easy organizing, Shirky says, we are only now coming to understand the implications and actually be ready to take advantage of the opportunities this technology presents. We are only now coming to appreciate what the “amateurs” can bring.

And this, in the end, is the point of the book: We have an abundance of opportunities available to us as a result of the technologies of social media (and all that entails), and it is our responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of thoughts rattling around my brain about this great book, more to come. In the mean time, check out Shirky talking about his ideas in this TEDx talk.