Saturday, September 26, 2009

How I Flunked Blogging 101

My first foray into social media was about as inauspicious as you can get. It still amazes me that I went from there to making it the basis of my livelihood. The year was 2005, and I was one of a small handful of Columbia journalism students who sat in on a 3-hour session about "new media" with Dean Sree Sreenivasan. (That seminar is now a full-on, semester-long course.) Dean Sree covered a number of topics, but none caught my attention so much as the one about how to start your own blog.

He showed us the Blogger template on his laptop, going over the features and then pointing with his mouse at the rather conspicuous, orange button that read "PUBLISH POST."

"You see, it's really easy. You write your post, then press the 'Preview' button to look it over," he said, his brown eyes twinkling with upbeat humor. "After that, you hit 'Publish' and there it is, live on the Internet. It's that simple. The real trick with blogging is to stop thinking in the old way, with a long cycle of edits and fact-checking. Just jump right in."

That's the trick? Write something and publish it, just like that? No editors? No copy desk? No... deadlines? It made my mouth go dry just thinking about it. Yet a little voice in my head whispered that this could be something akin to freedom.

Later that afternoon my classmate Adrienne and I made a bold plan. We would start a blog together about life in J school. The thought of doing it all by myself was too terrifying to contemplate. But with her joining me I sensed I could handle it.

She and I had heard that some bloggers -- in their crusade against the "MSM" (mainstream media) -- had dubbed Columbia Journalism School "the cathedral." This meant that it was the central training ground "priests" of the media who went out and pronounced mightily on the goings-on of the world. We decided to name our blog "Inside the Cathedral" as a way of thumbing our noses at this whole thing. But the sarcastic retorts I imagined I'd be putting up on this blog of ours never happened. In fact, nothing at all happened. I was unable to bring myself to write a single word.

I did try. On several evenings I sat in my tiny dorm room, sweating over the possible posts I could write. I was housed in the Theological Seminary building--a giant stone behemoth which while majestic from the outside, was a maze of tiny winding corridors and parapet-like windows on the inside. The interior courtyard and hallways were used frequently by the show "Law and Order." The atmosphere clearly lent itself to a sense of mystery and death. My room was the size and character of a monk's cell. The room was so small that if I lay down on the floor, my feet would hit the bed and my head, the door.

There I'd sit at my fake wood desk, which was covered in scratches and ballpoint ink stains left by previous grad students. I'd fire up my HP laptop and logon to the page. For several minutes, I'd sit in a state of intense concentration, staring at the screen in the hopes it would give me some idea as to what I was supposed to write. But it uncooperatively stared right back at me. The ridiculous irony of this is that I was writing upwards of 1,200 words a week for various freelance projects and grad school papers. Yet the idea of plunking out 150 for this little blog made me freeze up like nothing else.

I asked Adrienne to contribute. At first, she agreed, saying she would "get us started" by putting up a few posts when she "had a few spare minutes." I secretly wished I had her confidence and resolve. Time went by and no posts every appeared. We were both busy, I told myself. Still, it seemed to me that between the two of us, one of us should be able to clear out 20 minutes to write a few lines.

Pretty soon, she wasn't even trying to pretend she was still interested. "Yeah, well, if I do find the time I'll let you know," she'd say, and then vanish into the crowd of backpack-laden students who were heading for the monthly wine and cheese hour in the lobby.

The semester came and went. Then winter break. Still the blog sat, postless, unfindable on Google or anywhere else. By the time of graduation, I took one last stab. I opened the screen, looking at the now familiar orange and blue interface. I knew a little HTML and so told myself it might be more amusing and challenging to work from that screen. Perhaps I would get the  nerve and gumption to write one long post that summarized all I'd done and learned at my year at Columbia Journalism School.

I began to type.

Well, it's been quite a ...

That's as far as I got. I never did hit the "PUBLISH POST" button.

Monday, September 21, 2009

How To Blog Without Fear

In my last post, "The Top Five Ways to Succeed in Social Media," I addressed the members of the population who are hungry for more ways to make social media work to their best advantage. These are the folks who are already "out there." You know who you are. The phrase "Weekend Update" makes you think of Facebook (not television), and you have two different Twitter apps on your iPhone--one that's not too CPU intensive and one that enables retweets and twitpic uploads. 

Today I'd like to talk to the rest of you, who might put on a brave face at times, but deep down are still pretty spooked by this whole trend. Sure, you're a fan of a couple of the more ironic Facebook pages, and technically you have a Twitter account--though you're pretty sure that one follower of yours isn't pretty as her picture (and you're even starting to suspect that "Peaches" might not be her real name). You may have even been known to put an (anonymous) comment on a particularly vexing TechCrunch Zune review. But there's a part of you that wants to run and hide at the mere mention of a coordinated social media plan, especially if it relates to your career or business.

In my work, I meet people like this all the time. They are certainly smart and savvy enough to make a social media program work. But something in them isn't allowing them to take full advantage of it. In short, they're suffering from a new syndrome that I will now dub social media phobia. There may need to be a new scientific term for this: something along the lines of "blogotweetoupdateophobia" perhaps? (Not as good as my personal all-time favorite, coulrophobia, but I digress...)

So you've dipped a toe into social media, but something stops you from diving into the deep end and splashing around.
Maybe you're afraid of making a mistake, and so hide in the shadows. Or maybe you're so overwhelmed by all of the possibilities that you find yourself paralyzed. Or hey, perhaps you're remembering that time in the seventh grade when Dougie Marcus told everyone to aim their spitballs at the back of your head, and all you want to do is duck out of the way.

Whatever the reason, your response is to play it safe. You keep your involvement to a minimum. And, what's wrong with that? You ask. There's no rule that says I've got to be some kind of web 2.0 maven. True, but the sad thing is that you're missing out on a rare opportunity at a remarkable time in history. Whatever you are trying to achieve in this life--meet new friends, get a better job, promote your home jewelry making business--chances are social media can help make it easier.

And I'm here to tell you that you can make it into a game that you can enjoy playing. Step one is to take a step. Lean out into the unknown. Start a blog. That's right, just go ahead and start one. You'll be surprised at how much it motivates you once you see the traffic start to build. Before you know it, your devious mind will start to wonder, how can I get more people interested in reading this brilliant, witty, wonderful blog of mine?

At which point, you'll suddenly remember Twitter. You laughed at it before--maybe even made a few "it's all about what people had for breakfast" quips. But now you're seeing it in a new light. You're noticing that a lot of people use it as a way to talk about blog posts they've read that they've enjoyed. That means they might talk about your blog post. But first you have to get to know these people--get into the flow of conversation. As you take each of the next steps that naturally lead from one to the other, you'll see results.

But wait, you say. I'm a busy person. How much time and energy will I really have to expend in order to have an effective presence online? Isn't this for slackers or people who blog for a living? (And what's really the difference?) Actually, you can put in as little as two hours a week and still see rewards for your social media efforts. Part of how to do this is to learn how to get people's attention, find a niche or target audience, and a few other tricks of the trade that I'll save for a later post.

The main thing is to break through your resistance and start experimenting. Let go of your need to do it perfectly the first time. Take note of the fact that everyone around you is also figuring this out as they go along. You may even enjoy yourself. And if nothing else, you finally got back at that Dougie Marcus guy--you've got 200 more Twitter followers than he does!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Top Five Ways to Succeed in Social Media

There have been so many posts that claim to teach you how to be a social media "star," gaining thousands of Twitter followers, becoming the next Scoble overnight, and so on and so forth. I prefer to think of Twitter followers the way I think of any other aspect of my business. I don't want 10,000 clients. I want a handful that I feel a real connection with, and who I can serve in meaningful ways.

With that, here are the top 5 ways of approaching social media that I believe will lead to success in it. By success, I mean that you are able to enrich your business and personal life, getting a greater sense of meaning and purpose, having interesting new experiences, and meeting folks you might never have been able to before the advent of social media. The icing on the cake--you'll probably end up making more money and expanding your career options.

1. Approach social media as a way of being of service. I've discovered something interesting about how to be a savvy social media user. You need to take yourself out of the equation, and put your focus on others. In an odd way, more of your personality will come through if you stop trying to have one. Thus, I find that I want to read the tweets from those who use it as a way to promote others (not themselves), to provide useful information, and to ask for and/or provide advice.

2. Interact. The joy of platforms like Twitter is that they provide a unique opportunity to have multiple conversations with others. Why have only a small percentage of the people who use these tools (particularly Twitter) learned this? Connecting involves more than just you--that's the whole "social" part of the equation. All of this is obvious, of course, but it's strange how difficult it seems to be for so many. Try this exercise: after typing a tweet, read it out loud, all the while imagining that you're at a cocktail party surrounded by a bunch of people you'd really like to get to know better. Still want to hit the "update" button?

3. Cultivate an attitude of curiosity. You're learning as you go through life, and now you have a whole crowd that's sourcing information on your behalf. Isn't that exciting and amazing? It is to me. I can hardly believe that all I have to do is turn on my iPhone or open my laptop and I'm sure to learn something new about business, technology ... and of course the latest celebrity gossip. This is one of the greatest secrets of success: treat everything in life as a learning experience.

4. Don't be boring. Before hitting the publish button on a blog post (or comment on FriendFeed/Facebook), ask yourself these questions,"Why would anyone care about this?" "What's the point?" "Does this add to (or detract from) the sum of human knowledge?" These are questions I've learned from editors over the years, and they have served me in all kinds of ways. It also doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor.

5. Stick with it. Those who are really successful in the realm of blogging, tagging, Tweeting and the like are the ones who fire up their machines and dive into the conversation all day, every day. I recently got a tweet from one of the people I follow that said "off for 3 days, see you all when I get back." Think about the level of engagement this represents. And I honestly would've noticed he was gone if he hadn't sent that out. While this may be too much of a time commitment for the average person, it's something to aim for. And of course this is someone who lives by all the rules above.

Friday, September 4, 2009

VMWorld Wrap-Up

I don't know who I thought I was kidding when I wrote in my last post that I'd be blogging live from VMWorld. It was a nonstop experience. And while there's been much talk about the number of "booth babes" in nurses' uniforms, catsuits, and the like (and debates as to whether they were cute or scary), in fact there was plenty to be excited about on a purely technological level.

As I wrote on my client blog, Online Storage Optimization, one thing that struck me about the conference was that this wasn't just for industry heavyweights like EMC. There were a number of start-ups there, and walking the expo floor was an amazing way to get to know many of these niche players.

Many--indeed I'd even go so far as to say most-- of the offerings could be described as a clean-up crew running along behind the giant VMWare garbage truck. For all its immense power, one obvious effect of virtualization is that it has made IT immensely more complicated. Many companies and consultancies have sprung up to deal with this--offering myriad ways to "simplify" what has become a nightmare of "server sprawl."

Storage companies have also benefited from virtualization in a number of ways, as Marc Farley's cartoon so astutely summarizes on his StorageRap blog.

The fact remains that no matter how many virtual servers you have in place, there's still gotta be some spinning rust to hold the actual data that's there. Although players like my client Ocarina greatly reduce the amount of space needed to store that data, data growth remains a real and pressing issue.

The other key problem is that virtualization creates complexity on an as yet unheard of scale. The so-called server sprawl that many companies discussed is no small issue. Combine that with the fact that all these virtual servers need to talk to the storage--understanding how best to allocate space and so on--and you can imagine the tangle this can create. Indeed, there was a lot of buzz at this year's show at the launch party for EvoStor, which is storage designed from the ground up to integrate with VMWare. Paul Maritz even made an appearance--a sign they're taking this seriously and recognize the need for software that integrates.

So, this is my very top level, birds-eye view of the thing. I'll leave it to others to get down in the trenches and start sorting out the exact wheat kernals from the particular chaff that each company is providing.