Category Archives: social

Comedy and self-promotion

We headed out for taco salads and soup at the Easy Restaurant on King Street after our last class of improv comedy. My three classmates and the teacher were all deeply into the Toronto improv and sketch comedy scene. I was the lone non-comedian, and I got a fascinating glimpse into that world.

They talked about the awkwardness of telling non-comedians about your interests. When the conversation turns to what people do, they feel that people who are outside the comedy scene just don’t get it, saying: “Oh, you’re a comedian? Tell me a joke.” One of my classmates said that this was probably why practically all her friends are also in the comedy scene. I wonder if they also have problems with the echo chamber effect that we see online, when people end up talking only to people like them.

They talked about the challenges facing the Toronto comedy scene. There are lots of stand-up rooms in Toronto where people can practise their material, but attendance is hit-or-miss. If you liked a specific comedian, it was hard to find out when and where they’d perform next. Shows were better publicized, but individuals were hard to track. I asked them if it was a matter of marketing. To me, it seemed obvious: if you were starting out as a stand-up comedian or an improv comedy performer, why not make it easier for people to find out when you’d be performing next, and share your adventures along the way?

They reacted strongly against the idea of self-promotion. To them, the idea of an amateur having business cards, a website, or a Facebook fanpage smacked of pretentiousness. It was okay if you’d done a number of well-received shows, or had some kind of national profile. If you were just starting out, you needed to know your place.

I found that really interesting because we run into the same social norms against self-promotion in different business cultures, and it can get in the way of connecting.

I think people do want to keep an eye out for teams and people they like. Facebook’s use of “Fan” might turn people off, so they’d need a more neutral space that can keep track of teams, individuals, shows, and locations. It would be a natural fit for Facebook integration, calendar exports, RSS feeds, and mailing lists. You could probably build the whole thing using out-of-the-box Drupal and the Content Creation Kit. Data entry would have to be done manually for a while (listings from Now Toronto and from the major venues?), but it might eventually grow into something that people can update on their own.

I don’t see people paying to use a service like this, but it might be supported by advertising (and perhaps a share of ticket sales, if you have an e-commerce system tied into venues’ ticketing).

In terms of marketing, you’d probably approach venues that don’t have event lists, as well as teams and individuals. Teams and individuals would be your primary channel for marketing. You could also offer a badge for venues, teams, and individuals in order to advertise upcoming shows, and pre-designed flyers (like what Meetup now does), and provide webpages for people who don’t have their personal sites set up yet. Posters near established comedy venues would be good, too, and hand-outs given to people in line. Business cards might be interesting too.

A business idea for someone who’s really interested in the comedy scene, perhaps! =)

Social media changes real-life conversations

Memnon Anon sent me a link to Matt Zimmerman’s post “Social media has made me boring“, which got me thinking because I have almost the complete opposite experience.

My parents’ Facebook updates and forum posts provide fodder for weekly chats and let me keep up to date across timezones. I feel much more in touch with my friends who use social media, and we have plenty of things to talk about because I get a better picture of their interests. When we talk, we can jump past the “What did you do?” to “How did you feel about that?” I can find out when they’re having a bad day, what they care about, what they enjoy. And this works for people in the same city, too. Blogs, tweets, and other updates give me deeper insights into people than I could find out in five minutes or even an hour.

Social media lets us take conversational shortcuts. I might start telling a story that I’ve told on my blog, and the person I’m talking to says, “yeah, I’ve read that”–so then I skip past the introduction and go to the parts I hadn’t gotten around to writing down, or that I’m still figuring out. Sometimes I might tell a story in response to a question a friend asks, and then realize that was worth blogging about. There are always too many stories to write down, and conversation and interaction brings out even more.

I still organize get-togethers over tea, dinner, or Skype because I like seeing the interaction between my friends. But social media is what lets me develop good relationships with people I might not otherwise be able to keep in touch with as often, and I really like it.

So here’s what I think the trick is:

Get over that hitch. You know how you might feel disappointed/interrupted when someone says, “I’ve read that on your blog”? Practice your happy-do until your first reaction is “Awww, thanks for reading!” and then go on with asking people what they thought, or jumping to the part you really wanted to talk about. Make your conversations less about “What did you do this summer?” and more about “What did you like about it? What did you learn? How did that change you?” and other deeper questions. Even if you’ve already posted a long, thoughtful reflection on your blog, you’ll learn even more through the conversation, and through connecting it with other people’s experiences.

If you blog, there are a number of mental mind-shifts that are useful. That’s one of them. Another one is to get used to the idea that people may know more about you than you know about them, which is really weird at the beginning. People feel uncomfortable when other people have the edge in terms of knowledge. But you can flip that around, be flattered that someone’s taken the time to learn about you and keep up to date with you, and then use the conversation time to get to know about them.

Social media changes conversations, and I think that’s awesome.

LifeCampTO social graph

After LifeCampTO, I asked people to give me the list of people they wanted to talk to (or, well, those people’s primary keys ;) ). I’m still figuring out how to do a great little mail merge that reminds people of the keywords, but along the way, I thought I might I’d learn more about network visualization.

Here’s the resulting graph: (click on it for a larger version)

LifeCampTO social graph

So, what does this graph say?

You can see that most people have quite a lot of follow-up conversations ahead. It wasn’t the kind of event where most people walked away with only two or three conversations, although they might have smaller follow-up conversations with different groups of people. It might be interesting to do some cluster analysis around topics, and maybe someday I’ll figure out how to encode the data in order to make that analysis easier. ;) Based on this, our on-the-fly decision to have three big conversations turned out to have made sense, although it would also be interesting to try having small conversations about both popular and niche topics, and then having people come together at the end (or on a wiki).

Getting to this graph (and to the individualized graphs I’ve just figured out how to produce – it highlights each person’s connections) involved a lot of bubblegum and string.

  1. I typed in the data people had written down, using OpenOffice.org to form the upper triangle of an adjacency matrix. Two people’s sheets were missing, and one person didn’t have any connections incoming or outgoing. =( Thank you, programming competitions, for all those lovely data structures.
  2. I copied the adjacency matrix and pasted it onto itself using OOo’s Paste Special – Transpose, Skip Empty Cells. This gave me a full adjacency matrix.
  3. I used a really long and hairy OOo formula to concatenate the cells into Emacs Lisp code as an associative list, with extra information and an edge list.
  4. I copied that into Emacs and processed the associative list’s edges. I needed to do that anyway in order to be able to e-mail people personalized e-mail with all of their introductions, instead of sending one e-mail per edge. Along the way, I got the idea of visualizing the network diagram, so I spun off some code to output a full edge list in DOT format for visualization with circo.
  5. I used a command like
    circo -Gsplines=true < lifecampto.dot -Tpng > lifecampto.png

    to generate the graph shown.

  6. Then I thought it would be cool to personalize the graphs, too, so I wrote some more Emacs Lisp to generate personalized DOT files that highlighted the recipient in green and the recipient’s requested links/nodes in green, too. I used a Bash for loop to turn all those personalized DOT files into PNG files.

Example of a personalized image:

Tomorrow, I’ll work on the mail merge. =)

A little computer science is a dangerous, dangerous thing.

When I grow up, I will have friends and strangers over for dinner

Every week for the past 30 years, I’ve hosted a Sunday dinner in my home in Paris. People, including total strangers, call or e-mail to book a spot. I hold the salon in my atelier, which used to be a sculpture studio. The first 50 or 60 people who call may come, and twice that many when the weather is nice and we can overflow into the garden.

People from all corners of the world come to break bread together, to meet, to talk, connect and often become friends. All ages, nationalities, races, professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn’t be better. I love the randomness.

Jim Haynes, NPR

Someday, when I am my bestest self, I will host regular lunches or dinners, and I will bring interesting people together for conversation. In preparation for this, I’m learning how to organize events around themes, and I occasionally practice with dinner parties. I’d like to learn how to scale beyond the eight people who can comfortably fit around the dinner table. I’d also like to learn how to host these events without disrupting home too much, respecting the need for privacy and time. I’m still not comfortable holding regular restaurant-based events because restaurants are too noisy and not set up for good conversation, but I haven’t been to enough of these events to figure out how to set up a home for conversation salons. (We don’t have cocktail tables or endless stacks of saucers. ;) )

Someday…

Has anyone figured this out? Can anyone help me learn?

Hat tip to Keith Ferrazzi for the link.

Unfinished Business: Design and New Media in the Obama campaign

Last night’s Unfinished Business lecture was about design and new media in the Obama campaign, with insights from Scott Thomas (a designer) and Rahaf Harfoush (a social media strategist). The event was held in the auditorium of the Ontario College of Art and Design, and roughly 300 people attended.

My key take-away from the talk was that a strong and persistent design team, backed by analytics to support decision-making, can make such a difference in the overall experience.

Scott showed us what the campaign webpage looked like before he came on board. It was not a horribly designed webpage (no blinking text, no marquees), but there were numerous typefaces and colors, and every department in the campaign office seemed to want a presence on the first screen of the page.

With some strong-arming, they settled on one palette and focused on the user experience, streamlining it to make it easier for people to get to where they want to go. That meant moving links down or into the site. It wasn’t easy for people to accept the necessary changes. Many groups were worried that if their advertisement or link wasn’t “above the fold”–visible in the first screen without scrolling–then their content might not get viewed. By testing different versions of the site with randomly-selected users (A/B testing), the design team got the hard numbers they needed to make these changes.

The different themes they used in their campaign were also interesting. Scott showed examples of the campaign theme, the “instant vintage” theme, the timeless theme, and the supporters, and each set had a visually distinguishable character. The campaign theme used a blue gradients extensively, and Scott explained the reasoning behind some of the design choices. The “instant vintage” theme drew inspiration from classic photos and posters in order to give people the feeling of being part of something historical, larger than life. The timeless theme drew from classic typesetting and ornamentation (very elegant!), but was dropped because of the backlash about the official-looking campaign seal. The supporters were very creative in coming up with all sorts of designs for campaign posters, too, giving the campaign a vibrant community feel.

Some of the details Scott shared with us were about specific design decisions made during the campaign. For example, the campaign placards used to read “HOPE”. Scott showed this great photo of a bunch of campaign signs that read “HOPE” with a real rainbow in the background. He told us that hope is an emotive word that you can communicate through images, while change is more abstract and more difficult to show visually. That’s one of the reasons why they changed the campaign signs to read “CHANGE” instead.

I was also fascinated by the evolution of the campaign logo through different typefaces, from mixed-case to small-caps, and from a linear layout to a triangular one. Seeing the different logos together, I found it easier to understand the different reactions I had to each of them, and from there, learn a little bit more about design.

Rahaf Harfoush’s talk was on social media. It was similar to the last talk I’d heard her give. I think she felt nervous about fitting it into a shorter timeslot, and it felt a lot more rushed than last time. She did tell a couple of new stories, though.

One story was about a man who had expressed incredible anger on the forums–because the presidential candidate had been televised walking down stairs with his hands in his pockets, and this man was not about to invest all of those hours in calling people and knocking on doors and attending or organizing events just so that his candidate could fall and hurt himself. What a great example of getting people personally invested.

Another story was about a campaign supporter who wanted to show his support through action instead of words. He and a group of other supporters dressed up in lots of Obama gear and went out to quietly perform civic actions, like helping elderly people cross the street. They didn’t talk about politics; they just acted according to what they believed in. I thought that was pretty cool.

The questions from the audience were also insightful and thought-provoking.

One person asked about whether the speakers could see this kind of energy and change happen in Canadian politics. Rahaf answered that one of the energizing things about the Obama campaign was that the candidate was not someone you’d typically see running for office. She found it difficult to imagine any of the prominent Canadian politicians engaging and exciting people like that, but she was open to the possibility of someone new coming along and surprising people.

Another person asked how the speakers convinced the campaign that they were the right people for the job. Scott shared that he’s never really been good at marketing himself, but that his passion for his work helps people decide whether or not he’s the right fit for the job. He said that people can tell by how wide his eyes get when he talks about his work that he’s really passionate about it. He got applause for that one.

Many people were concerned about the potential nefarious use of what we’ve learned about social media. Scott was of the opinion that the genuine enthusiasm expressed by the campaign supporters couldn’t be manipulated or created. Stephen Perelgut (one of my mentors) told me that he still remained skeptical, though, as many horrible things have been perpetrated by equally enthusiastic people. (Nazi Germany comes to mind.)

I learned a lot during the lecture and in the question-and-answer portion. The next Unfinished Business lecture is on February 11 (same day as Techsoup). From their e-mail notice:

… on 11 Feb we will host Larry Keeley, President of Doblin in Chicago, who will talk about open innovation, platform innovation and what it means to work from a disciplined approach to innovation.

Unfinished Business, Torch Partnership

Good stuff. It’ll probably sell out as quickly as this one did. Thanks to Jeff Muzzerall and Stephen Perelgut for making sure I heard about this!

My Enterprise 2.0 blogroll

A few weeks ago, Jeff Widman asked me what I do to learn more about Enterprise 2.0. I told him that there aren’t that many bloggers looking at how companies can use Web 2.0 internally, and that much of what I learn comes from my day-to-day interactions within IBM and the consulting I do for our clients. There are a number of blogs I read, though. Here’s the list from my Google Reader:


To read them on a neatly aggregated page, check out my Enterprise 2.0 page on Google Reader.

I just stumbled across that feature by checking out the Manage Subscriptions page, clicking on Folders and Tabs, and changing the sharing. Interesting…