Sunday, January 31, 2010

A New World

This past week I attended two events that stretched and twisted by my idea of what makes a "conference" beyond any previous imagining. First, I was a featured speaker on Social Media at The BD Event, a storage industry gathering in Palo Alto. The name of the event was cause for snickering in some circles--the letters didn't stand, as some suggested, for "bondage and domination" but rather "business development." So get your minds out of the dungeon.

The second event, She's Geeky, was an "unconference" for women in tech and other geeky pursuits. I recorded two podcasts for my weekly women in tech series, TechnoGirlTalk while on site at the event and got to know a whole lot of really interesting women. The podcast was also a proud "community sponsor" of the event.

Both events were a departure from the traditional. The BD Event was, as my copanelist Stephen Foskett put it, a deconstruction of the trade show concept. It kept all of the good stuff, which involves meeting and talking with others with whom one might do business, while dispensing with the clutter--booths, vendors hawking new products, and so on. There's a nice video of Stephen explaining this on analyst David Vellante's Wikibon blog.

Here is the video:

As Stephen says in this video clip, this is what the future of what we're currently calling "social media." It's about "democratizing and personalizing communication." And as I learned later this past week, She's Geeky is part of a larger "unconference" movement, in which folks are thinking about how to tap into human ways of relating that yield new and energizing results. This is related to the way that neurons are interconnected in the brain, and all kinds of other exciting research areas. Man, is this my kind of thinking!

At She's Geeky, there were no preplanned panels or talks--the participants themselves determined this at the start of each day. The organizer, Kaliya, who is known across the interwebs as IdentityWoman described the structure to me as "more organized than a cocktail party but less than a panel of talking heads."

What struck me about this was how similar this "offline" event was to the way that my online life now functions. I went to a meeting or panel, and then if I met someone with whom I clicked in some way, we took our conversation over to a table, sat down and chatted further. Then we stood up and joined the larger stream. It worked beautifully, and it made me wonder if our culture's obsession with structure, leadership, and climbing the ladder may be crumbling in the face of these more natural and creative ways of connecting with others.

So, with all this in mind, I have to admit that I was less impressed by another gathering that took place this past week. This was one in which a charismatic leader stood up and pronounced from on high that there would be a new product sent down to the masses, and that it would be good. And speaking of snickering, this one had a name that caused much mirth among the female population. According to Gizmodo, the #2 trending topic on Twitter is not the actual "iPad," but the parody word "iTampon" -- ahead of "Apple," "Steve Jobs" and other relevant words.

Perhaps even the famously social-media-paranoid Apple might want to consider some sort of crowdsourcing before making another mega high profile gaffe like this one. Or, barring that, they could at least remember to include a woman or two on their product naming committee.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Next Steve Jobs ... a Sarah?

Thomas Friedman, the moustachioed New York Times columnist has a piece out this week that's making the rounds of the tweetosphere. And no wonder--it's all about a subject near and dear to the hearts of techy crowd that make up the Twitterati. Tom's headline tells it all, "More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs." Considering that this week the entire tech world is slavering like a pack of hungry hounds about the forthcoming announcement of the Apple Tablet-- which TechCrunch hears Steve Jobs is calling "the most important thing I've ever done"--this was a well-timed headline.

But Tom doesn't so much talk about Steve Jobs as evoke him. He offers some pointed advice to President Obama: "What the country needs most now is not more government stimulus, but more stimulation. We need to get millions of American kids, not just the geniuses, excited about innovation and entrepreneurship again."

He cites two programs for youth, and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship--and instructs the President to show the documentary about NFTE, in every classroom in America.  All well and good, but I notice that neither of these programs is focused on something that might well be the key to America's success in the coming decades: encouraging young women to learn more about careers in high tech.

This is on my mind, as I'm on the committee for a conference for young women to be held next month in Los Altos, Dare2BDigital. The one-day event is sponsored by an A List of tech companies, including IBM, SAP, HP, Microsoft, Cisco and Symantec. It offers young women aged 13-16 a chance to learn more about the exciting and creative careers that await them in engineering and computer science. If I'd gone to something like this when I was a teenager, my life might well have gone very differently. The workshops demonstrate just how much fun and creativity there is in a career in tech these days--from virtual worlds to art and animation to tech journalism. I myself will work with a select group of five participants to chronicle the event in pictures and sounds, which will go live on my podcasting site, TechnoGirlTalk.

At a time when everyone's concerned about the lessons that adolescent young women are learning from movies like the Twilight series, this event seems like a breath of fresh air. This generation has unique opportunities. They are entering a world in which women are not only allowed to pursue careers of their own--but expected to. They're also living at a time when technology is offering previously undreamt of ways to communicate and change the world. I can't help but wonder if, as my headline suggests, the next big thing--the Apple of the 2020s--will be led by one of these young women. Tom and other watchers, take note.

Friday, January 15, 2010

How do I get more followers? Step one: forget about it!

Seems that lately, everyone I meet wants to know the secret to getting more followers. Some of the most commonly clicked links are those that offer the top ten tips to getting more Twitter followers, readers or blog subscribers. There's a vague sense that somehow all of this will lead to fame, riches, and a book deal. Hey, if it worked for "Shit My Dad Says," it should work for you and me, right?

Well... hmm. Let's take a step back and think about this for a moment. True, there are some tricks you can use to drive more traffic to your blog or to garner more Twitter followers. I'm happy to share some of these, and I certainly don't see the harm in trying them. (For example, write a blog post offering ten tips on how to get more Twitter followers, and then tweet about it!) But this whole thing can be a huge trap. Page metrics aren't the be all and end all. Think about it -- if you have 1500 porn spammers following you on Twitter, what is this doing for you or your reputation?

Look, if your main reason for seeking out more followers is because you're still wishing you had been elected class president in the seventh grade--and figure getting 10,000 followers on Twitter will redeem you, then you're probably wasting your own and a lot of other people's time. Or, perhaps you're trying to raise money for charity, and have made it your goal to beat Ashton Kutcher at his own game? No? Well, then what is your reasoning?

Most people, when I press them on this question, don't really have much of an answer. They just know that they're supposed to "drive traffic" to their blog or "expand their social media footprint." They've heard this, or perhaps assumed it based on the fact that there are so many posts out there about how to do it. But when we get talking, it soon becomes apparent than they're unclear why, or how this is going to benefit them.

Usually the best way to get to the bottom of things is to find out what their overall goal was in starting a blog. A new job? Meeting new people? Finding a mate? Getting a book deal? Once in awhile, the answer is something like, "I had a passion for goldfish mating habits/World War II history/spelunking equipment and decided I had to blog about it." But that's rare--and those folks tend to be the ones who aren't so concerned about analytics. They're doing what they love, and don't much care whether anyone else is going to join them on the ride.

In fact, all the social media experts and consultants I know are wary of putting too much emphasis on metrics. Louis Gray says so--just watch this video of him on this blog. He says, "Often people get excited because they started a controversy." They rush to their analytics and count the hits. But that, he warns, is not necessarily going to have the long-term effect you're looking for. He also says that the number of Twitter followers isn't important to him -- "I just need the right people, whoever they are."

Meanwhile, Francine Hardaway, another of my video guests says that she herself doesn't even look at her Google Analytics to find out how much traffic her blog is garnering. It's not important to her. She also warns against the so-called "TechCrunch 50 buzz." That is, the huge spike in traffic you get if you're one of those chosen by TechCrunch. As she says, "After that if you don't know what to do with it, or if it's the wrong kind of traffic it goes away."

I know a company that got a whopping half million hits when a project they did went viral--it hit all the front pages many people can only dream about, Techmeme, Digg, and so on. Did this change everything for them? No. The hits dropped back to normal soon enough, and they had to go on with the difficult task of building a startup. That doesn't mean it was necessarily a negative thing, but it wasn't going to be the determining factor in their success either.

But what about "Shit My Dad Says?" with its million + Twitter followers, TV and book deal? That's gotta be a sign that getting followers has a purpose. No, not really. In fact to me this is an example of the reverse. That is, this is a funny Twitter feed, and therefore people are going to follow it. It's a great platform for these folks and their twisted sense of humor, but it's just that. If you have something that funny to say, you won't be asking anyone how to get more followers--you'll be getting them.

All this is to say that rather than focusing on how many (clicks, followers, subscribers) you have, why not look at the quality of the following? Are these the potential employers, customers, mates, friends and so on that you were hoping to attract when you planted a flag on some piece of social media terrain? If so, great. Keep doing whatever you're doing. If not, well, then you may need to do some strategic thinking in order to get there. But forget the numbers. And while you're at it, forget that scheme you had for writing down everything your grandma says.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Francine Hardaway Video

If you want to hang around blogger and businessperson Francine Hardaway, you better be on your toes. Part teacher, part tech evangelist and zero BS, she has a presence that draws attention whether she's holding court at the coastside Tech Tuesday event she organized--where folks like her friend Robert Scoble and his buddy Jesse Stay might show up--or just relaxing in her second home near Half Moon Bay, Calif.

While you might not have heard of Francine or her Phoenix, Ariz.-based business incubator Stealthmode Partners, you've probably read or heard about opinions she's expressed on her own blog, or on her blogs on the Huffington Post or Fast Company. I'm guessing you also know some of the Silicon Valley personalities she knows and interacts with regularly on Twitter and other social networks. Follow her and you'll see what I mean.

I had the privilege of interviewing Francine on video. I wanted to know her secret--how has she been so successful at social media? She seems to know--and very naturally interact--with a veritable who's who of social media, from Seesmic's Loic Le Meur to Altimeter Group's Jeremiah Owyang--who put her on his "thought-leaders" list on Twitter along with Chris Brogan, Louis Gray and other big names. When I asked her how she does it, she claimed no special knowledge of social media, except that she herself is a social person, and an early tech adopter. Her approach is one that seems more about service than about her own ego. Apparently she doesn't even track her own analytics or followers.

So without further ado, here's the video--I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

10 Trends I Hope Won't Continue in 2010

So many things went wrong in 2009 that it's difficult to boil them down to such a short list. As one of my Facebook friends put it -- "Bye-bye '09, happy to scrape your dust off my shoes." But such is the format we all use, and so here for your viewing pleasure are the ten trends I sincerely wish would just dry up and blow away as we enter a new decade.

10. Facebook privacy alert rumors. Facebook already took our privacy away, back in 2006. What are you so alarmed about? At least read Snopes before putting out an all-caps update that Mark Zuckerberg will be selling your children's photos to white slavers. Just sayin...

9. Celebrities jumping on, and then abruptly off, Twitter. You've already got more money than God. Is it so difficult to pretend to be offering us a window into your private life by paying someone to ghost-tweet on your behalf? It's good for the global economy, and it's good for you. Plus, it makes you look dweebie to be so half-assed about it. (Chris and Miley, you know who you are...) And I for one don't want to be there when Oprah's fans lose their minds and start stampeding America's malls in search of her lost tweets.

8. Somali pirate attacks. Not only are these stories terrifying to read while eating my corn flakes, but they've taken all of the humor value out of the word "pirate." How can we laugh along with "talk like a pirate" day anymore? We can't. It's all too sick and real now.

7. Handing out $1 million bonuses to the very people who took down the global economy. First you bleed us all dry with those mortgage-backed-subprime-derivative-manipulations you dreamed up. Then you stand around with your hands out demanding cash. You know what? You folks actually belong in category number 8 above. Pirates, blackmailers, whatever you want to call yourselves... My wish for 2010 is that you all must take minimum wage jobs calculating exactly how much retirement, savings and investments you lost the rest of us.

6. Replacing beloved sci fi TV characters with actors who are barely old enough to drive a car, much less a TARDIS. It's just so unfair. And wrong. Especially for those of us who were thrilled and delighted to find a good-looking, mature hero for whom the answer to every problem--no matter how cosmically huge or dangerous--is to put on his glasses and start tinkering around with a computer. And think about it. If this trend isn't reversed, by 2020 we'll be tuning in to watch the Doctor take his first steps.

5. Pulitzer-winning journalists getting the sack. I understand that the media must change--in fact, in many ways I welcome the seismic shifts that are shaking up that industry. Check out Dan Gillmor's Mediactive book-in-progress for views that I wholeheartedly support. But this story of Pulitzer winners being laid off made me woozy with anger. The news surfaced in April, right after the year's winners had been announced, among them my fellow Red Herring alum Ali Berzon, who gutsily delved into a story of fatalities on Las Vegas construction sites. This is the kind of journalism we actually need. Meanwhile, we still have to put up with David Pogue calling these things the best tech ideas of 2009. Life, it seems, is not fair.

4. Silicon Valley panic/pullback. This trend began in Fall 2008 when Sequoia Capital announced "RIP Good Times." The venture firm known for its savvy and prescient bets on YouTube, Google, and other megahits was suddenly running for cover--demanding that startups cut costs and get cash flow positive or be cut off. The much-discussed PowerPoint, which TechCrunch dubbed the "Slide Presentation of Doom" featured such images as a gravestone, and a piece of very dead meat with a knife stuck in it to illustrate the new economic reality. (No, I'm not exaggerating. I wish I were.) As a result of this kind of thing, some say VCs are in danger of getting a "Dubya" level approval rating.The Sequoia folks weren't entirely wrong to predict that this recession could be deep and painful, but let's hope they and other backers wake up in 2010 to a new attitude--one that recognizes our Valley's special energy and innovation as our best hope for the long-term. Some VCs are already moving in that direction, seeing the potential in clean tech, green IT/storage, virtualization, social media tools and other hot segments. (And if you need help guys, see above, number 6, a geek "hero" for some guidance.)

3. Underwear bombers. Or, really any bombers carrying explosives in any of their intimate or not-so-intimate clothing. Let's hope this trend does not continue. For obvious reasons.

2. Freaking out about technology. The sky is falling ... I mean the cloud is failing! Someone might follow my movements on Gowalla and rob me. Help, I'm addicted to Twitter. Social media snake oil salesmen are out to get me. Help, I'm addicted to Facebook ... For 2010, I would love to see these and other such sentiments become like quaint fears of the past--not unlike the fears some once had that the telephone would lead to the breakdown of civility and that widespread use of electricity would encourage immoral behavior. And, dare I dream, we'll recognize the difference between reacting and overreacting. Hey, I'm an optimist.

1. And the number one trend I hope won't continue in 2010... Drunk tagging on Facebook. And with that, I raise my glass and wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.