Sunday, December 27, 2009

Is it time to panic yet? Five reality checks on social media

Today, we got a new reason to panic about social media. According to sources, the snake oil salesmen are swarming like locusts. As Mashable reported, there are now a whopping 15,740 people on Twitter calling themselves a social media expert, guru, consultant, or other such title. The post cites broadstuff, which claims to have calculated that Twitter will be made up almost entirely of social media experts by 2012. The number is derived from a growth rate of 3.5x every six months--thus, 30 million in the next three years. Attention getting stuff, and I have no doubt this post will be retweeted hundreds of times.

OK, enough of that. Let's get real.

Reality check #1: The geometrical progression model is not the proper one to use in this case. Any statistician worth her or his salt will tell you that. This is because we're in a particularly intense time in which social media is spreading like wildfire. As I've pointed out in an earlier post, we are in the center of what Gartner calls the "hype cycle." The hype will die down well before we get to 30 million, believe me.

Reality check #2: There is a real demand, and need for social media expertise. Altimeter Group's Jeremiah Owyang writes in Forbes that companies tightening their belts in the recession began to recognize the power of social media. "Social marketing promises lower costs and bigger returns." 

As social media observer and consultant Louis Gray points out in his recent look-back post on 2009: "In 2009, the majority of businesses woke up to social media. While there are no doubt many holdouts, and even a bigger number doing a poor job, 2009 was the year that companies realized you could get business done on Facebook, Twitter and other networks." (Italics added for emphasis.)

Another way of looking at this--social media will be integrated into overall marketing and PR strategies in the coming year for a number of businesses. This is simply the new reality we're in, and some companies are legitimately concerned their approach may not be working. They are possibly getting slammed by customer complaints that spread out of control across the web. Or, they may not able to rise above the noise due to a lack of understanding of how to get noticed in the socially-networked community. This is a radical departure from traditional, "push" marketing, and many are realizing they could use an insider to show them the ropes for some period of time.

Reality check #3: Most companies aren't going to find their social media consultants by searching Twitter. Those consultants who have a real and valuable service to offer will (for the most part) float to the top--in fact, this is already happening. Their reputations will precede them; satisfied clients will refer them. Those who are all hot air will soon flutter off into the distance, in search of the next big thing. It was like this during the dot com boom in the late 1990s. Every company knew it needed a web site, and so for a period of time, everyone was calling themselves a web designer--even those whose "skills" consisted of an afternoon of training in MS FrontPage. This too shall pass.

Reality check #4: We're just getting started with this social media thing. In that sense, no one is an expert... yet. And as you might notice, those who have the most to offer are usually the ones who shy away from titles like "expert" and "guru." After all, it's only been in the past year that its true power and potential has become apparent. How could anyone have gained true expertise in such a short period of time?

Twitter became a part of mainstream conversation really just in the last year, with celebs like Oprah and Ellen jumping on the bandwagon, and major news sources setting up accounts. And as Louis Gray points out in the above-referenced post, "real-time ended up being the word of the year in 2009." Google and Bing are now offering real-time search, and for the most part, it's improving the quality of the results. But it's really just the beginning--and anyone who claims to know for certain what's next is NOT the person you want to hire as your consultant.

Reality check #5: Because we're all learning, there is fun and adventure to be had. Rapid change can be unsettling. Frightening, even. But the truth is that there is immense potential in social media--for making more money, doing more creative work, and (best of all) being oneself in a way that was never possible. Social media is a place where dreams really can come true. No need to worship a guru--false or not. Find your own path.

OK folks, back to your regularly scheduled fear-mongering programming...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar - A Review

This blog is mainly focused on social media. In that sense, a movie review is something of a departure. Then again, the new James Cameron filmstravanganza Avatar is by far the most talked-about flick on social networks. Proof of this: just about every one of my Twitter friends had already seen it by the time I checked in on Gowalla at the Metreon IMAX theater in downtown San Francisco Christmas Day. It could be argued, however, that this movie would be a hit no matter what. It was that spectacular.

Having said that, I came away from the movie with mixed feelings. What was right about it: it was Hollywood entertainment in the best sense of the word. I was carried away by the special effects, which, on the giant IMAX screen in 3-D were so masterful that there were times I forgot myself entirely. I can't recall being so absorbed in a movie since I saw Star Wars as a ten-year-old. The flying scenes were particularly wondrous.  

Avatar presents us with a complete world--a feat that few if any moviemakers can claim. Or really, two different worlds within the same planet. The aptly-named planet of Pandora is a treasure trove of natural wonders--a box that once opened, continues to marvel and entrance. Nature thrums with animal and plant life, shining a light on the often ignored beauty that surrounds us here on earth. It also contains secrets and danger that explode onto the screen in terrifying ways--monstrous animals with claws and teeth, plants that spiral down into nothingness. My suspension of disbelief held even when I encountered a few cliches, such as the flying, saurian beasts that were reminiscent of many a Hollywood blockbuster--a combo of Potterian Hippogriff and a pterodactyl.

The army base inhabited by the earthlings is so familiar and realistic I could smell the dust that rose up in the heat. The technology the humans use for daily life--from the tanks of fluid where the avatars are grown to the computer screens to the walking robots and warships--is just far enough ahead of our own time to feel futuristic, but not enough to feel alien or overly fanciful.

Here's the irony: the movie itself is clearly a triumph of 21st Century movie-making. Cameron has taken 3-D CGI effects to the next level, and truly the rest of the industry had better figure out how to keep up with him. A mind bending 11 special effects studios were employed to make this movie. However, the story itself paints technology in an intensely negative light. The people of earth have devolved, in this scenario, into war-mongering capitalists who have so completely destroyed their own planet that they must plunder others in order to keep going. As the main character clearly states, they have nothing to offer the Pandorans. They can only take.

This desolate view made me depressed and not a little frustrated.  Boiled down to its essence, the message of the movie is that there's absolutely nothing in our culture worth salvaging. This is what Cameron has to say to our children? All of our progress is for naught--and our only hope is to somehow recapture a lost Eden such as the indigenous people have? This isn't just a downer--it seems an odd point of view from someone who has so successfully used high technology in order to further his own creative vision.

As I watched the action unfold, I found myself wishing someone would walk onstage and offer the two opposing cultures a third, and sane middle option. Someone to point out that they really don't need to set at each other with all the weapons in their respective arsenals. Having watched quite a lot of "Doctor Who" recently, I began to fervently wish for David Tennant to land his TARDIS in the sacred tree and come stumbling out, pushing up his glasses and offering a completely different vision than the one being served up by the folks on the screen.

"What all of you need," I can hear him say in his sweet, reasonable voice, "Is to realize that in fact you do have quite a lot to offer one another. If you lay down your weapons, you'll start to see what that could look like. Pandorans, these earth people need you, because their planet is dying. And you need them to help you learn how to fly out into the stars and come into contact with other people--to expand your world and your vision."

Why not? There's something patronizing about the idea that there is nothing--absolutely nothing--that the Pandorans might want to know, see, do or have that's different from what they have now. There's also something bizarrely oversimplistic to say that the people of earth have not created anything worthwhile with their technology. They can create avatars of other beings, for chrissakes. Imagine the possiblities for medicine, for diplomacy, not to mention fun and adventure.

The Doctor always gives us earth folks due respect for our endless optimism and curiosity--even when it's clear that these qualities are getting us into trouble. The earthlings in Avatar are nothing if not survivors. Their planet has been laid to waste, but they don't give up. They get out there and try to find something that will work. You can call them colonial plunderers, and clearly they have a lot to learn from others about how to act humanely and fairly. But they're also doing their darndest to take care of those back on earth who are in trouble. Why paint them in such a terrible light?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Podcast Rising

My three panelists:

What would drive a woman blogger to pretend to be a man? Do men in tech make better mentors than women? These and many other questions were hashed out in the first ever TechnoGirlTalk podcast, which is now posted for your listening enjoyment.

What blew me away--not one of my guests said anything predictable. I kept waiting for the stereotypical responses to come out--the bitching and complaining about sexism in the workplace, the disgust at the concept of booth babes at shows... in short, the litany of gripes that many of my male  friends assume must be on every woman in tech's list. But it never came.

I even tried prodding them into it. For example, the latest Motorola Droid "princess" ad, which quite frankly offended me with its macho imagery and suggestion that technology is a man's game and that anything feminine in a phone should be crushed like so many tiny worms under the feet of a Cyberman. But my guests weren't willing to go where I was pointing them. Instead, they raised much more interesting questions. In true girl geek style, the discussion morphed into a debate about what makes a robot beautiful--or even date-able.

But lest I give too much away, I leave it to you to decide what you think of the discussion. Here's hoping you enjoy the podcast. We want to hear your responses. And if you have suggestions for guests for upcoming shows, please do not hesitate to let me know in the comments field here, or via Twitter, @TechnoGirlTalk. And please do follow us there! We promise to follow you back if you're not a pornspambot or other such offensive Twitter leech.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Louis Gray Video - Part 2

The more social media becomes a buzz phrase, the more overwhelming and confusing it can become--particularly for businesses. Should they set up a Facebook fan page? Go on Twitter? Blog? All of the above? And what about communities?

In this video, social media consultant Louis Gray breaks it down to a simple, three-stage process for rising above the noise and reaching customers through social media. He offers an antidote to the panic-mongering and hype that some so-called social media experts are peddling--instead offering clear, down-to-earth advice for real businesses in the real world.

Louis Gray on Participating in Social Media from Sunshine Mugrabi on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Louis Gray Interview, Part 1

If you're interested in Macs, RSS, or really anything to do with the social Web, you should know and read Louis Gray. He blogs daily at his site, offering a continual drip of commentary and information on all the latest and greatest tools of our social media age. What intrigued me about Louis is that he isn't a typical social media star. He has none of the brashness of a Scoble or an Arrington, nor is he a smooth operator like Kevin Rose or Pete Cashmore. Instead, he's a good-natured, even-tempered, shy and retiring type. He is as well known for his reliable takes on the latest Twitter app as he for his warm, friendly interactions on FriendFeed and his videos of his twins.

Louis is also a geek, in the best sense of the word. He never tires of testing out the tools and apps that litter the online/smartphone landscape these days--which means the rest of us don't have to. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Louis and ask him about what has made him so successful in social media. I also wanted to know what's up with his own "stealth" startup, Paladin Advisors Group, and some of the clients he serves--such as My6Sense, Emulex, and Kosmix.

Here are is the first of the two videos I made of our interview. Watching it, I was amazed at the amount of insight he packed into our relatively short conversation. I hope you enjoy it too.

Louis Gray on Advertising from Sunshine Mugrabi on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Media - Is it an industry, or a sinkhole?

Last night I went to a party sponsored by Media Bistro at 111 Minna St. in downtown San Francisco. The experience reminded me of that old joke series, that always started with the following question, "What's the definition of confusion?"

In this case, the punchline would be, "Going to a media party and asking people 'what do you do?'"

A few brave souls actually wrote "unemployed" on their name tags. Most did not. When I talked to them, they said things like, "I used to be at (name of major news organization or magazine), but now I'm freelancing." For whom? "Well, I have a blog..."

Some have found a (temporary) safe haven in corporate America. I met a woman who used to be at a leading business magazine located in Silicon Valley. As we know, most of those titles are gone. Replaced by the Gigaoms and Mashables and Techcrunches of the world we now inhabit.

She now contracts for ... get this... Walmart doing packaging. She has been scooping up friends and bringing them on board. These folks had all been top editors at other magazines. I admit it. This chilled me to the bone. The former editors of major mags are now working at, of all places, Walmart? And not even as staffers, but just on a contract basis. What could be more of a sign that the industry is headed for the discount bin?

Interesting side note -- she seemed happy.

"Walmart's a good employer," she confided.

And of course there were plenty of party goers who had taken the obvious route. That old safety zone, PR. For now, there are jobs in that realm that are reasonably easy to get. But how safe is it, really? How long will that last as a haven from the storm? This morning, I put the following tweet out:

This was retweeted by several, and a good discussion ensued. Most of us who are already on Twitter are aware that we need to get on the clue train and start manifesting some new business models. So I'm not surprised at the level of dialogue we created around this.

But I wonder about the rest. Many of the folks I met at the party were nervous about giving out their Twitter name so I could tweet about meeting them there. "I prefer Facebook," said one. "Twitter seems too techy to me."

"You want to put my picture on Twitter? Like, right now?"

"Oh, Twitter. I don't have an account. Do you think I need one?" Well, no, not unless you want people to find your blog...

Folks, we need to stop clinging to small pieces of the wreckage of the media world. Let's just admit it. The ship isn't going to come bobbing back up to the surface. It is going down.

And just like the guys in the movie Time Bandits, I would urge one and all to let go of that little scrap of wood that seems to be keeping you afloat. Give in to reality. We're headed somewhere new. Somewhere that might be quite magical and exciting, but not the same place we were before.

If we can't turn back, where are we going? And what are you doing to join the ride?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Twitter and Facebook - How Scared Should You Be?

Here's a frightening thought: for many companies and people, social media is no longer optional. It's a requirement of business and everyday life.

Meanwhile, there's more and more scary stuff out there about what will happen if you make a mistake on Twitter, Facebook, or some other social media platform. It's no coincidence that the most popular post on my blog has been the one that lists Ten Twitter mistakes you don't want to make. We're all terrified of making a move that will plummet us to the bottom of the social networking heap.

Fine, you say. I'll get help. I'll hire a consultant or advisor who will offer me a path through the social media wilderness. But wait! Fire up Twitter and you'll be sure to find yourself clicking on articles offering dire warnings about "snake oil salesmen"--so-called social media "gurus" who do nothing but send you into social media FAIL hell. Who wants to go there? What if you're involved in the social media strategy for your company? You've got customers, board members, VCs and--even more spine chillingly awful--stockholders to please!

Take a deep breath. Yes, there are horror stories. But they aren't anywhere near as common as the success stories. Something to keep in mind: we're descending into the so-called "trough of disillusionment" in the Gartner "hype cycle" for the newer social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. What this means is that we're all, as a group heading into a state of anxiety. We fear demons lurking around every corner. Social media hucksters. Blood suckers. Sharks, circling around looking for fresh meat... But how realistic is all this fear-mongering?

My basic assumption when I work with companies is that they have not taken leave of their senses. In my experience, social media does not turn otherwise smart marketing and PR people into raving lunatics. Sure, there are stupid ideas, or ideas that seemed good at the time but in retrospect were unwise. But this kind of thing predates social media by decades. So Toyota laid an egg when it sent (ahem) harrassing emails to a customer recently. But don't forget that in 2007, a very low-tech attempt at publicity by the Cartoon Network led to a city-wide bomb scare in Boston. And does anyone remember the nightmare that was New Coke?

Even those who have been pilloried for their Twit-faux-pas, like former Ketchum consultant James Andrews, are finding that notoriety is working in their favor rather than against it. Andrews recently told Businessweek, "'It helps me today ... I use it as a case study. It creates authenticity.'" I agree. The more mistakes you make, the bolder you become--the more willing to stretch out and risk falling on your face. This is the only way to get better at anything.

I would much rather work with companies that have an open, curious, creative outlook than those who are hiring me because they are seeking ways to run for cover. One reason is that it's a lot more interesting for me. But another reason is that a proactive attitude leads to better results overall. Social media is just one part of a larger marketing and PR strategy, after all. So relax. Take heart. You'll probably live longer, and therefore live to see the day when someone tries to scare us about the next big thing.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Girls Gone Tech Wild

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend the Girls in Tech holiday party. Held at the bar at 5A5 Steak Lounge (yes, that's what it's called, a "steak lounge") in downtown San Fran, the event was packed with folks who were there to flog their latest projects, see and be seen, and generally shmooz as only the SF tech crowd can.

Not to be left out, I was there talking up my latest venture, TechnoGirlTalk. Seemed like the perfect party to find potential interviewees for the podcast, which will feature women movers and shakers in high tech.

It was, and it wasn't. I did meet some women who had all manner of new and potentially successful startups. For example, I snapped this rather badly lit pic of Eileen Conway, co-founder of a new site, GroopSwoop, which offers coupons and special offers to local Bay Area merchant offerings such as massages, mani-pedis, and today's special, cupcakes. Yumm!

As is becoming increasingly common, this was an occasion for an offline meeting with someone I already felt I knew. I'd previously connected with Anna Anisin on Twitter, where we had chats about my new haircut and other such topics. We were also now Facebook friends. Sadly, when we met face to face, it quickly became clear that she had no idea who I was. But she was friendly enough, telling me all about her startup Baseball Beauties, which merges girly-girl stuff like fashion with a love of baseball. A novel concept and one that apparently pays her bills, as she told me that she is doing this full-time. Wow. I'm impressed. I also met a woman named Krystyl, who is known for her tech events calendar at and her frequently re-dyed blonde and purple locks. Here's the even blurrier and more badly lit pic I took of her:

Sadly, the folks I was hoping to meet--the developers and IT admininstrators and other hard-core geek girls who would make the best subjects for my podcast--were rather thin on the ground at the party. Understandable, of course, and the crowd was still a rockin' one. And overall, I was impressed by Girls in Tech as an organization. In addition to its own series of talks, it has its arms around a number of related events. For example, they're a sponsor of She's Geeky, a tech "unconference" that I am seriously looking forward to attending when it arrives in the Bay Area in late January 2010. Also, they were very helpful when I told them my hopes and dreams for the TechnoGirlTalk podcast. Especially Cass Phillipps, who gave me lots of advice about who I should talk to, and who even got in touch with me today to follow up with more thoughts and ideas!

Okay that's your tech gossip download for the day. Be good, provision or dev well as is your wont, and remember, whatever they dish out to you, rock on, dudettes.