A Book is a Beautiful Thing

By , 01/11/2012

A lovely little video on books:

Small tidbit: One summer in college, I worked at the now-defunct Borders bookstore in downtown Seattle. My assigned section was the computer science section, and I can remember many days spent shelving and reorganizing books (although certainly not to the degree of this video). Many lamented the bankruptcy and closing of all Borders stores last year, and it’s interesting to see that Barnes & Noble has taken over its Internet and social media accounts, including Borders’ former Twitter and Facebook accounts. (The Borders.com website leads you to a Barnes & Noble store locator.) I hadn’t noticed it at the time, but it turns out that Borders sold its intellectual property to B&N as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.

While the book industry has seen many of the major shifts and challenges that also face the music industry, especially with the rise of electronic books and ebook readers, I think much like the music industry, there’s a place for the physical product alongside the electronic one. I still haven’t made the jump to ebooks myself, still too much attached to the tactility, the smell, the feel of words on a physical page.


Personal Finance Uses of Foursquare

By , 06/14/2011

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Note: I’ll dispense with the usual preamble in this situation, i.e. “How is it possible it’s been so long since my last blog post?” and go straight to the meat of this post.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how Foursquare can serve as a personal finance tool.

Why has personal finance and Foursquare been on my mind? In part it’s because of the passing comments on Twitter and blog posts about “badge fatigue” that we’ve seen more and more of in the last year.

In part it’s also because using Foursquare as a personal finance tool is one important way I’ve used the service this past year.

There are clearly many ways that businesses and individuals use Foursquare for other purposes, but I think it can also serve as a helpful personal finance tool in three ways:

  1. Budgeting. Say you want to estimate or budget for how much you spend on coffee each month. By checking in to each coffee shop (or any other type of venue or activity you want to track), you can review your check-in history and more accurately compile spending and budgeting figures for those activities.
  2. Health care reimbursement. Many health care plans have begun (or increased) offering partial financial reimbursement for gyms or other kinds of exercise programs, as long as a certain number of visits are completed within a set time period. I’m terrible at tracking how many times I’ve visited the gym each month, but by checking in to Foursquare each time, I can look at my history online, and potentially increase visits to make sure I meet the reimbursement threshold.
  3. Prioritization. What if businesses or users could share average prices and that information was available in the general check-in information? I could see people evaluating that info to prioritize visits based on personal budgets.

All of these potential uses assume that we check in on each visit, which may not be realistic for all Foursquare users. And not everyone wants to share these types of check-ins with their networks. For example, I don’t share my check-ins at the gym with my network (really, I like to be a bit anonymous at my gym when I’m working out at 6 am), but I still check in for my own tracking purposes. Yes, this means I show up as “off the grid” to my network, but it’s still useful for my personal reasons.

None of these check-in behaviors are centered around incentives from businesses, but are driven by internal, personal motivations. As Foursquare grows, I wonder if there will be additional ways that the company could add functionality for these types of uses. For example, imagine if you could check in at a restaurant and link or note your spending amount to your online personal finance tool like Mint. You might be more likely to check in if it allowed you to easily track your personal spending, the business might have additional opportunities to offer incentives or other loyalty rewards to you, and Foursquare could potentially expand its base of appeal. (With the major caveat that all of that finance info would need to have strict privacy/security controls.)

What do you think – have you used Foursquare for any of these types of reasons? Could this be a place of growth? Or will this be “The Year the Check-In Died?


The Power of Stories: It Gets Better Project

By , 09/30/2010

Have you seen the “It Gets Better Project” on YouTube? No? You might start with the video from the project’s creator, “It Gets Better: Dan and Terry.”

Dan is Dan Savage of “Savage Love,” a long-running column in Seattle’s The Stranger newspaper. He started the project after the tragic suicide of a gay teenager in rural Indiana led him to act. The project invites people to submit their own videos to tell and show LGBT teenagers that “it gets better,” that there’s hope beyond the pain and difficulties they may be experiencing in school.

In an interview in the New York Times, Savage said that he created the project because he “realized that with things like YouTube and social media, we can talk directly to these kids.” He also talked about the importance of hearing stories from gay adults who aren’t celebrities, because what “kids have a hard time picturing is a rewarding, good, average life for themselves.”

This project is such a moving and powerful example of using social media in times of crisis, and the growing number of suicides by gay teenagers is a crisis on more than a personal scale. There’s power if just one of these stories reaches just one teenager who’s struggling to hold onto hope. And I have hope it will reach many, many more.


Fall Means School

By , 09/08/2010

Even though I have a day job, this summer felt a bit like a summer break of sorts because of my break between teaching in the spring and fall semesters. The class I teach at NYU begins again this evening, and I’m looking forward to meeting a whole new group of students.

MN State Fair Butter Sculptures

So in between my regular work, including client activities and work travel, what did I do this summer?

  • I read a number of books for fun. In fact, more than I have in quite some time, thanks in large part to Karen Russell’s How Mysterious! project. I’ve always loved mysteries (my mom is a voracious reader, mostly of mysteries), but between work and teaching, and the large number of things I read online, I hadn’t been reading many fiction books. How Mysterious! served as both inspiration and recommendation source. I’m happy I did read so much this summer – it really helped clear my brain.
  • I took a lot of weekend trips. Between friends’ weddings (quite a few!) and family gatherings, I managed trips to Santa Barbara, CA; Chattanooga, TN; Mykonos, Greece (ok, that was more than a weekend); Cape Cod; a rural lake in upstate Maine; and my hometown of St. Paul, MN. All wonderful, and hard to pick a favorite. Although the butter sculptures of Princess Kay of the Milky Way at the Minnesota State Fair this past Labor Day weekend were pretty amazing.
  • And of course, all the usual summer things: friends, food, music, sun… It was a scorcher of a summer in NYC, but still summer.

Coming into work this morning, it definitely felt like fall was here. New York City public schools started today, and I passed a long line of families taking their kids to the first day of school at my local P.S. (primary school). Subways were packed like they haven’t been in months. Daylight’s getting shorter on both ends. Welcome back, fall.


Two New(ish) Social Travel Tools: Everlater and Atlas Obscura

By , 06/11/2010


I just got back last week from a week-long vacation in Greece, where I went for a dear friend’s wedding on the island of Mykonos (with a couple of days in Athens as well). Since much of my time there was built around wedding-related activities, I was pretty last-minute in my planning and research on what to do once we actually got there.

I used Lonely Planet guidebooks for much of our sightseeing, but I also tried out two new(ish) travel tools with social media elements before, during and after the trip. I first heard about both at SXSW Interactive this year.

Everlater is a free online travel journal/travel blog site that allows you to post updates online or via a free iPhone app (which can be used offline or synced using wifi). I’m still working on completing my notes and uploading photos from my trip, but it’s a pretty robust service that was helpful in keeping track of what we’d done each day as we went along. It’s been many years since I’ve been able to keep a proper travel journal, but because I always had my phone with me and could enter notes offline, I found the Everlater app to be really easy to integrate into my day.

From the iPhone app, there are options to add notes about food, lodging, activities, etc., and to write longer stories or add photos. You can share your journal with others either before your leave (so they could follow along) or after you’ve completed your trip.  I think the service has an advantage over just posting your updates to an existing blog because of the way it allows you to organize and navigate the information you share and how you share it. Also, you may have a sub-group of people or close friends who are interested in hearing more details about your trip than the general readers of your blog (and your trip can be public or password-protected).

Atlas Obscura, a “compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities and esoterica,” is an interesting look at all things a little off the beaten track. I looked up Greece before I left, and among the items saw this one on the Syntagma Square Metro Station. My friend and I went through that station a few times, and I made sure we stopped to look at the artifacts and layers behind the glass walls. Had I not read about it in advance, it probably would have gone by in a blur of subway commuter efficiency. Atlas Obscura functions in part by reader submissions and in part by editorial oversight, so I think this is one that will also get better – and bigger – over time.

Both services were helpful in different ways, and given my love for travel, I imagine I’ll be using these again.


What I Learned: A Spring Semester of Student Blogs

By , 04/29/2010

Multitasking by foreverdigital

Yesterday was the last class of my first semester teaching Social Media: Objectives, Strategies, Tactics at NYU. I’ve heard from many that the first time teaching any new class is always the most challenging, and while time will tell if that’ll be true for me, it was an interesting and rewarding challenge along the way.

In addition to examining the theoretical and practical application of social media, students were required to maintain individual blogs, comment on other blogs, use Twitter, and keep abreast of ongoing developments in social media, PR and communications. (Our class wiki, Google Reader and other tools were optional.)

There were 29 students in the class, and the students had about as diverse a range of experience with social media as you could get going into the course. The NYU program is a Master’s in PR and Corporate Communications, and because it’s a professional master’s program in New York City, students have a particularly diverse range of backgrounds in general. Some work full-time and go to school part-time, while some are full-time students (particularly many of our international students); some students have worked in professional communication jobs for many years, some are fairly fresh out of college, and some are relatively older students working on career transitions; and then some students had experience using social media not just for personal use but also professionally, while some were opening Twitter accounts for the first time at the start of the semester.

Into that mix came the individual blogs. The students could write about any topic they wished, as long as they made some connection between the topic and social media, PR or communication. (Some took more advantage of this freedom than others, but I think it did allow those who wanted the option the ability to blog about something they were really passionate about.) Some weeks were open topic weeks, and some weeks had a general assigned theme, like nonprofits and social media.

The blogs were a significant part of their ongoing semester assignments, and this past week I asked that they use their last post to evaluate their semester of blogging. These emerged as the common themes from their reviews:

  • Blogging well takes time. I think many thought initially that a blog post could be dashed out in 15 minutes before the start of class, but they quickly realized how much time was needed to write thoughtful, well-written and clearly organized posts.
  • Blogging’s harder than it looks. Again, with many coming at the assignment from a more personal perspective, many students went into it thinking that you could just jot down anything you’d like that came to mind. In practice, many talked about learning to capture ideas along the way, as well as how they learned to overcome writer’s block when they didn’t know what they wanted to say.
  • Blogging publicly can be scary. Many commented on their initial reluctance to post their thoughts for all the world to see, but almost all said that in the end the assignment helped them become more confident in writing online.

And what did I learn from their blogs? These may not be earth-shattering conclusions to some who’ve been assigning blogs to students for years, but it was interesting for me to see this in person:

  • Doing it trumped reading about it. I don’t think they would have come away with the same experience by reading about or being told how to blog. Getting their hands dirty made the learning much more sticky.
  • What they learned isn’t blogging specific. In the end, the blogs were a means to an end. To become more comfortable with a slightly different style of writing, to become more confident sharing their work and opinions online, to habituate to the social norms of different online environments and groups, and to begin to adapt to more real-time feedback and communication loops.
  • Their experience will help them be better professional communicators. I truly believe this. Many of the class don’t plan to continue their blogs, and I told them I’m agnostic about whether they do or not. On a personal level, not everyone’s going to want to blog. (Social technographics, and many other things, tell us this.) But what I wanted them to get out of it, and I think they did, is a better professional sense of the dynamics at play and the questions to ask. Not just about blogs, but about social media in general. So when their boss or client says, “We should have a blog (or a Twitter account, or…),” they can say, “Why? What are we trying to accomplish? How will we manage the time needed? Who’s accountable?,” etc. And they can have a sense of why those kinds of questions are important in the first place, and why the answers matter too.

So that’s my review of their semester of blogging. What do you think?


SXSWi Speakers Wrap-Up: Clay Shirky

By , 03/23/2010

Clay Shirky by Joi

Clay Shirky, NYU professor and author of Here Comes Everybody, was another highlight of my time in Austin. His talk, “Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data,” touched on a number of themes and was grouped in three parts:

  1. Buses and Bibles
  2. Monkeys and Balloons
  3. Lingerie and Garbage

Part One: Buses and Bibles

Shirky began with a discussion of the inefficiencies of modern cities, and how many of the solutions people present to address the inefficiencies are engineering solutions, but that a new approach treating inefficiencies with information solutions may provide a better alternative.  For example, in Canada an approach to congested roads is a ride share network – sharing information about who’s going where when. This approach is better for almost everyone BUT bus companies, who filed suit against the company offering the service.

Key point 1: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Shirky calls that kind of sharing “jackhammer sharing — sharing that’s powerful enough that it actually destroys existing things in the environment.” That kind of sharing “doesn’t happen very often, but it sometimes does around media revolutions.” He connected this idea to Gutenberg and the printing press.

Key point 2: “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity. When things become really abundant, the price goes away. The things that were previously thought of as scarce that are now available to everyone change the world. [E.g. Scribes vs. printing press.] We generally know how to manage scarcity, we don’t know how to manage abundance.”

Part Two: Monkeys and Balloons

This section began with a background on Napster, and Shirky argued that Napster changed the motivation around sharing, which wasn’t a new motivation, more of a bringing back of an old one. Shirky discussed three modes of sharing from the book Why We Cooperate.

Key point 3: There are three different types of sharing: 1. Sharing goods; 2. Sharing services; and 3. Sharing information. Sharing goods is the hardest, sharing services a little easier and sharing information is the easiest of all. “Napster took the world of music, where music was always shared as goods or services, and made it possible to share as information.” We’re programmed to share information – it gives us a positive feeling.

Part Three: Lingerie and Garbage

Here, Shirky gave a number of examples of institutions, groups or initiatives that centered around sharing information that creates a kind of civic value (e.g. Ushahidi, PatientsLikeMe). We now have tools that swing the way we share information with each other.

Key point 4: “Intrinsic motivation and private action was just an accident. Now we can do big things for love, not just private things for love. We’re moving from doing little things for love and big things for money, to doing big things for love.”

On Presenting

Shirky is a master presenter. No tools, no technology, no (visible) notes. Just a man in a three wolf man t-shirt, a well-crafted story and an astute sense of his audience. (I haven’t yet been able to find good video of his talk at SXSW this year, but you can see one of his TED talks here.)

[Note: This post is cross-posted on the Logos blog.]


SXSWi Speakers Wrap-Up: danah boyd

By , 03/18/2010

I’m back from Austin, slowly catching up in the office and working on synthesizing my thoughts from SXSW Interactive 2010. This was my second time attending, and there were a few things that I did differently and that were different in terms of the conference than in 2009. The SXSW experience contains many different parts, so I thought I’d break them down into more manageable bits versus one big overview post. I’m planning to break the pieces into the following parts, and if meaty enough a particular speaker or discussion might have its own post:

  • Part One: Solo Speakers
  • Part Two: Panel Discussions
  • Part Three: Technology
  • Part Four: Fun, Friends, Food

Part One: Solo Speakers

From my experience last year, I found that I get a lot from the best solo speakers as SXSW, and that panel discussions can be a bit more hit or miss. There were both keynote speakers each day and multiple sessions daily of what they called “featured speakers.” I arrived a bit later than anticipated Friday afternoon and stayed till Tuesday morning, but was able to fit in a lot of content between Saturday — Monday.

danah boyd

Danah Boyd theme chart by jdlasica

danah boyd delivered the Opening Remarks for the conference, and she was someone I was really looking forward to hear speak. She’s with the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Microsoft Research New England, and her research into social media (and youth & teens in particular) is something I’ve shared in both my consulting and teaching work. Her talk at SXSW, “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity,” centered on a few themes, and what I think she did particularly well was to shed light on the nuance of the debate around privacy online, which too often devolves into two extremes.

I took five pages of notes, but I’ll try to paraphrase what I saw as the main points from her talk:

  • Privacy is about control of information flows. When people feel like they don’t have control of their information they feel like their privacy has been violated. This includes the opt-out versus opt-in debate.
  • Technologists assume that the most optimized system is the best one, but forget about social values and social rituals. (e.g. discussion of Google Buzz launch)
  • Merging worlds. Just because someone puts something online doesn’t mean they want it to be publicized (difference between public and publicity). There’s a security in obscurity – most people online have very few followers. Making something that’s public more public can be a violation of privacy.
  • By continuing to argue that privacy is dead, technologists work to make data more public and things public that were never meant to be. We’re seeing a switch to public by default, private through effort.
  • With privilege, it’s easy to take for granted things that not everyone gets to experience, and with privilege comes a different value proposition – what one person may gain from publicness, another person may lose. This affects not only groups sometimes thought of as marginalized (immigrants, victims of abuse, LGBT community), but also groups like teachers – they have more to lose by public information online. Public by default isn’t always a democratizer.

Her full unedited talk is available on her site here. I urge you to spend the time reading it, as I’ve captured only a small sliver of a very wise discussion.

[Note: this post is cross-posted on the Logos blog.]


To Austin and Beyond!

By , 03/11/2010

SXSW Interactive '09 Tote Bag Design- Flat by Mike Rohde

I’m not quite sure how the first half of my class at NYU flew by so quickly. I’ve heard from many that the first time teaching a class is always the hardest, and I already have some ideas about a few things I’ll do a little differently next time around. But it’s been interesting and rewarding, and I’m really proud of how far everyone has come. We’ve covered a lot in the relatively short period of time we’ve had together, but overall I think most of the class is finding it engaging and useful.

Now that the midterm is over, I can turn my attention to Austin and SXSW Interactive for the next five days. I went last year, and I’ll be interested to see how things compare between the two years. I’ve tried to connect with some people I met last year before I arrive, but I’m also looking forward to making new connections.

One of my goals for SXSWi this year is to try to distill my thoughts and impressions from the various daytime sessions as the event progresses, and I hope to share more here as I go along.


Back to School

By , 01/21/2010

Bobst Library at NYU

Last night was the first night of the new course I’m teaching at NYU this spring semester. The course is Social Media: Objectives, Strategies, Tactics, in the Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communications program. I first started working with the directors of the program on developing the course almost a year ago, and after it went through the NYU and New York State approval process, it’s exciting for me to see the class come to fruition.

I have about 30 students in the Wednesday night section I’m teaching, and the students are really a cross-section of our program as a whole. Some students are fairly soon out of school, some are professionals who have worked in PR or communications for many years; there is an interesting variety of international students; a few students changing careers; and a majority of women but some men too.

I’m teaching in exactly the same room where I started in the program almost five years ago as a student, in the fall of 2005. You really can’t escape your past, can you.


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