Archive | External Writing

Gossip Girl to Geek: Transitioning From Quarterlife Crisis to CEO

This post was originally published on Huffington Post Small Business, August 6, 2012. The editor at YoungEntrepreneur.com wanted to take out all the “good stuff.”

I noticed her immediately.

The line I was in was moving at the speed of molasses, and I was looking for a distraction. I found one in a beautiful post-collegiate girl enjoying her Saturday in the hip Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.

“Hi boys!” this darkly-tanned brunette exclaimed, upon encountering two young men she knew, also waiting in line. And to her friend on the other end of her iPhone, an immediate: “Let me call you back.”

I have to admit, I couldn’t help myself — I eavesdropped on their small talk, holding my bag of French Roast beans and pretending to consider buying a croissant.

My temporary distraction used to live near this particular coffee shop, but had since moved to Chicago and in with her parents. This “boomerang” maneuver can be a terrific way for parents to ensure their children hit the ground running in the early stages of their careers, according to a recent Washington Post op-ed by Columbia professor Steven Mintz.

Hitting the ground running sometimes looks more like hitting the ground walking, though. When one of the fellas inevitably asked about what this young lady was doing in Chicago, she casually and immediately replied, “You know, unemployed, so I have nothing to do.”

Exhibit A: Generation Y, subspecies gossip girl.

Obsessed with the latest smartphones, cameras, and apps, constantly plugged into networks of people and information through social media, perpetually wired with caffeinated products, and yet can’t find anything productive to do with any urgency.

While thousands of young athletes descend on London to compete in the Olympics, cities across America are currently hosting a different cohort of young people in their early 20’s. They discuss their unemployment on iPhones at Starbucks, send out countless resumes to anonymous HR people, and email unfocused requests like “I will honestly work anywhere” to folks above them on the food chain they encounter.

And — for the fortunate who have landed coveted internships at Goldman Sachs or on Capitol Hill — many complain about their bosses and colleagues while doing late-night shots and then exhaustingly chronicle these outings on websites like (what else?) LateNightShots.com.

Less than a mile from my eavesdropping, something else is happening. On the 5th floor of a nondescript office building, a startup accelerator is hosting a dozen fledgling consumer tech companies they’ve invested money and mentorship in. Many of the founders are a bit older than 25 — some are as old as 40 — and most have experience working traditional jobs in technology, public relations, government, and other fields.

Hang around this particular incubator long enough, however, and you may overhear a mention of “the kids” — a group of seven young folks (six boys, one girl) tucked safely in the back of this huge open space, diligently working on their new project.

The project — which I’ve promised them I won’t disclose for another month or so — is revolutionary. It’s meaningful for society. And most importantly, it’s really cool. You can’t help but be taken in by the “CEO,” a freckle-faced boy with shaggy red hair, or the “director of marketing,” an Asian girl with matching pink blouse and laptop.

Exhibit B: Generation Y, subspecies geek.

These high school students — yes, high school — have a full-fledged tech startup company. According to one of their mentors, they frequently work from 8am to midnight. Instead of picking up girls, they are picking up computer languages. They have attracted angel investors. And most importantly for the future of creativity, innovation, and commerce in America: They are making something.

In her book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins discusses the “cafeteria fringe” of high school — the outsiders who are not part of a school’s inner circle, society crowd. These tend to be the leaders of the next generation. And by extension, these are also the people who are personally successful (i.e., they make money), and create jobs for other people.

What to do if you’re a Serena van der Woodsen who doesn’t know how to transition into something like a real-life Danica McKellar?

I once taught a college class about how social media was disrupting journalism. We only had the opportunity to scratch the surface, so I bought every student a book that could help them take things to the next level without me.

The book is called Crush It. Its author, Gary Vaynerchuk, is an immigrant turned retail store owner turned online wine expert turned social media marketing expert turned keynote speaker and author. His book delivers the “101″ about how to launch something new and take advantage of exciting emerging technologies. Crush It should be on Serena van der Woodsen’s summer reading list.

The great news is that “being a geek” isn’t as hard as it was when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were building Microsoft and Apple. The computers they built were 10000+ times less powerful than the smartphone or computer you’re reading this on. And if you’re more business-minded than geeky, that’s okay — it’s easier than ever to find a “technical cofounder” to help you start building your vision.

Don’t be intimidated. You don’t have to build computers, robots, or genomic sequencers if you don’t want to. But everyone needs to be a little geeky these days. It’s increasingly hard to imagine new ventures that don’t take advantage of new, disruptive technologies.

What might such a new venture started look like? Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg recently quit their producer jobs at NBC News in New York to launch The Skimm, a daily newsletter that essentially skims the news and events of the world for you, with a decidedly young-professional-women’s tone. (It’s even a little controversial, warranting a defense in Slate.) I subscribe to it, and so far it’s fun to read every morning (it’s only about a month old).

More established companies following basically the same playbook include Daily Candy and Gilt Groupe.

The Skimm has a ways to go to prove it’s a successful business. But if you’re a “gossip girl” hanging out in Starbucks, underemployed, wondering what to do with your life, the story of Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg might be an inspirational tale (full disclosure: I know Carly a bit from when she lived in DC, and based on my chats with her, I’m not surprised she’s upped her game). They are “crushing it,” as Gary Vaynerchuk would say.

So, do you consider yourself underemployed and helpless and in a quarter-life crisis, or self-starting, empowered, and ready to start something new?

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Hacking the federal workweek

This post was originally published on FedScoop on July 24, 2012.

In 1998, renowned science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson wrote an essay called “Why I am a Bad Correspondent,” in which he describes why he spends as little time as possible directly interacting with readers.

“Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the ‘recluse’ label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers…

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all…

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent..If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”

Creative workers like artists, writers and software developers need unbroken periods of time in order to make their products. For many, it’s mandatory. Four one-hour blocks interspersed with four one-hour conference calls is very different than a solo creative period from 8 a.m.- 12 p.m and a team brainstorming session from 12 p.m.- 4 p.m.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame called these two styles of work — unbroken slabs of time vs. numerous shorter meetings — the “maker schedule” and the “manager schedule” in a classic 2009 blog post.

Graham describes how most of the people who make a tech startup run — programmers — operate on maker time, but how their bosses and the venture capitalists can screw everything up by scheduling a meeting on manager time.

In my experience, startups, large companies, and government agencies are not so different in this respect. People who run things tend to be managers operating on a manager schedule with manager metrics of success, and some of the people who work for them are creatives who wish to operate on a maker schedule but have a hard time doing so (because of the managers).

As a maker within a bureaucracy, you may discover tricks for hacking the managers. At Microsoft, I have discovered that with planning I can block off entire mornings in my calendar for 2-3 days in a row, in order to write things like what you’re reading now or simply relax and think about a tough challenge, feeling comfortable that the nearest meeting on my calendar is hours and hours away.

Another hack I’ve learned is using Sunday for creative work and then taking Friday “off.” I feel perfectly fine about taking the occasional six-hour lunch with friends because I was smart enough to find an unbroken six-hour block of time to actually get something done.

Any creative will tell you that this stuff works. Relaxing your mind and focusing on something is often when you become free to discover insights that really matter and can set you apart as an employee.

“But wait,” you may be saying to yourself, “Mark Drapeau has some kind of special arrangement.” Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have flexibility built into my job, but I have to deal with countless meetings and conference calls just like anyone else working in a bureaucracy. The flexibility to hack your schedule lies along a spectrum.

Earlier this month, July 4th fell on a Wednesday, thus many Federal employees worked Monday and Tuesday, had Wednesday off, and then returned to work Thursday and Friday before another weekend. You may call this a Federal holiday; I call this a “natural experiment” involuntarily hacking Federal employees’ calendars from a manager schedule to a maker schedule.

On Twitter, my Microsoft colleague Alfred Thompson tweeted, “2 days of work followed by a single day of holiday and going back for 2 more days of work is just weird.”

In reply, his acquaintance Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, who works on education reform, said, “What if it was the norm? What if we took the mid week day to do deep personal learning each week? Think of what we could [accomplish].”

If you’re an enlightened federal manager, here’s a hack for you: What if you made the first Wednesday of every month “independence day” for your team — a 100% unscheduled day on maker time?

Maybe some people would abuse such a privilege and accomplish nothing. But in the vein of Google’s famous “20% time” where employees can pursue projects they’re personally interested in, I wonder what innovations might come out of a monthly “independence day” during which people could learn a new skill like Python programming or mastering Pinterest, attend an interesting luncheon event outside the office, or just read that strategy book they bought months ago?

Working as I do for the company that actually makes Outlook, you can imagine that Microsoft employees are pretty good at using it to schedule meetings with each other. It’s deceptively easy to get caught up in a series of meetings and conference calls and feel like you had a full day. But the real question is, did you “make” anything interesting today?

Everything I’ve done that I’m proud of, or that people have noticed, has been done on a maker schedule. But working within a manager schedule, I’ve had to hack my life to find the time to make things happen.

What are some of your federal workweek hacks for getting creative things done?

In 1998, renowned science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson wrote an essay called “Why I am a Bad Correspondent,” in which he describes why he spends as little time as possible directly interacting with readers.

“Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the ‘recluse’ label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers…

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all…

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent..If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”

Creative workers like artists, writers and software developers need unbroken periods of time in order to make their products. For many, it’s mandatory. Four one-hour blocks interspersed with four one-hour conference calls is very different than a solo creative period from 8 a.m.- 12 p.m and a team brainstorming session from 12 p.m.- 4 p.m.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame called these two styles of work — unbroken slabs of time vs. numerous shorter meetings — the “maker schedule” and the “manager schedule” in a classic 2009 blog post.

Graham describes how most of the people who make a tech startup run — programmers — operate on maker time, but how their bosses and the venture capitalists can screw everything up by scheduling a meeting on manager time.

In my experience, startups, large companies, and government agencies are not so different in this respect. People who run things tend to be managers operating on a manager schedule with manager metrics of success, and some of the people who work for them are creatives who wish to operate on a maker schedule but have a hard time doing so (because of the managers).

As a maker within a bureaucracy, you may discover tricks for hacking the managers. At Microsoft, I have discovered that with planning I can block off entire mornings in my calendar for 2-3 days in a row, in order to write things like what you’re reading now or simply relax and think about a tough challenge, feeling comfortable that the nearest meeting on my calendar is hours and hours away.

Another hack I’ve learned is using Sunday for creative work and then taking Friday “off.” I feel perfectly fine about taking the occasional six-hour lunch with friends because I was smart enough to find an unbroken six-hour block of time to actually get something done.

Any creative will tell you that this stuff works. Relaxing your mind and focusing on something is often when you become free to discover insights that really matter and can set you apart as an employee.

“But wait,” you may be saying to yourself, “Mark Drapeau has some kind of special arrangement.” Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have flexibility built into my job, but I have to deal with countless meetings and conference calls just like anyone else working in a bureaucracy. The flexibility to hack your schedule lies along a spectrum.

Earlier this month, July 4th fell on a Wednesday, thus many Federal employees worked Monday and Tuesday, had Wednesday off, and then returned to work Thursday and Friday before another weekend. You may call this a Federal holiday; I call this a “natural experiment” involuntarily hacking Federal employees’ calendars from a manager schedule to a maker schedule.

On Twitter, my Microsoft colleague Alfred Thompson tweeted, “2 days of work followed by a single day of holiday and going back for 2 more days of work is just weird.”

In reply, his acquaintance Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, who works on education reform, said, “What if it was the norm? What if we took the mid week day to do deep personal learning each week? Think of what we could [accomplish].”

If you’re an enlightened federal manager, here’s a hack for you: What if you made the first Wednesday of every month “independence day” for your team — a 100% unscheduled day on maker time?

Maybe some people would abuse such a privilege and accomplish nothing. But in the vein of Google’s famous “20% time” where employees can pursue projects they’re personally interested in, I wonder what innovations might come out of a monthly “independence day” during which people could learn a new skill like Python programming or mastering Pinterest, attend an interesting luncheon event outside the office, or just read that strategy book they bought months ago?

Working as I do for the company that actually makes Outlook, you can imagine that Microsoft employees are pretty good at using it to schedule meetings with each other. It’s deceptively easy to get caught up in a series of meetings and conference calls and feel like you had a full day. But the real question is, did you “make” anything interesting today?

Everything I’ve done that I’m proud of, or that people have noticed, has been done on a maker schedule. But working within a manager schedule, I’ve had to hack my life to find the time to make things happen.

What are some of your federal workweek hacks for getting creative things done?

- See more at: http://fedscoop.com/hacking-the-federal-workweek/#sthash.wby4B0N1.dpuf

In 1998, renowned science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson wrote an essay called “Why I am a Bad Correspondent,” in which he describes why he spends as little time as possible directly interacting with readers.

“Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the ‘recluse’ label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers…

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all…

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent..If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”

Creative workers like artists, writers and software developers need unbroken periods of time in order to make their products. For many, it’s mandatory. Four one-hour blocks interspersed with four one-hour conference calls is very different than a solo creative period from 8 a.m.- 12 p.m and a team brainstorming session from 12 p.m.- 4 p.m.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame called these two styles of work — unbroken slabs of time vs. numerous shorter meetings — the “maker schedule” and the “manager schedule” in a classic 2009 blog post.

Graham describes how most of the people who make a tech startup run — programmers — operate on maker time, but how their bosses and the venture capitalists can screw everything up by scheduling a meeting on manager time.

In my experience, startups, large companies, and government agencies are not so different in this respect. People who run things tend to be managers operating on a manager schedule with manager metrics of success, and some of the people who work for them are creatives who wish to operate on a maker schedule but have a hard time doing so (because of the managers).

As a maker within a bureaucracy, you may discover tricks for hacking the managers. At Microsoft, I have discovered that with planning I can block off entire mornings in my calendar for 2-3 days in a row, in order to write things like what you’re reading now or simply relax and think about a tough challenge, feeling comfortable that the nearest meeting on my calendar is hours and hours away.

Another hack I’ve learned is using Sunday for creative work and then taking Friday “off.” I feel perfectly fine about taking the occasional six-hour lunch with friends because I was smart enough to find an unbroken six-hour block of time to actually get something done.

Any creative will tell you that this stuff works. Relaxing your mind and focusing on something is often when you become free to discover insights that really matter and can set you apart as an employee.

“But wait,” you may be saying to yourself, “Mark Drapeau has some kind of special arrangement.” Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have flexibility built into my job, but I have to deal with countless meetings and conference calls just like anyone else working in a bureaucracy. The flexibility to hack your schedule lies along a spectrum.

Earlier this month, July 4th fell on a Wednesday, thus many Federal employees worked Monday and Tuesday, had Wednesday off, and then returned to work Thursday and Friday before another weekend. You may call this a Federal holiday; I call this a “natural experiment” involuntarily hacking Federal employees’ calendars from a manager schedule to a maker schedule.

On Twitter, my Microsoft colleague Alfred Thompson tweeted, “2 days of work followed by a single day of holiday and going back for 2 more days of work is just weird.”

In reply, his acquaintance Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, who works on education reform, said, “What if it was the norm? What if we took the mid week day to do deep personal learning each week? Think of what we could [accomplish].”

If you’re an enlightened federal manager, here’s a hack for you: What if you made the first Wednesday of every month “independence day” for your team — a 100% unscheduled day on maker time?

Maybe some people would abuse such a privilege and accomplish nothing. But in the vein of Google’s famous “20% time” where employees can pursue projects they’re personally interested in, I wonder what innovations might come out of a monthly “independence day” during which people could learn a new skill like Python programming or mastering Pinterest, attend an interesting luncheon event outside the office, or just read that strategy book they bought months ago?

Working as I do for the company that actually makes Outlook, you can imagine that Microsoft employees are pretty good at using it to schedule meetings with each other. It’s deceptively easy to get caught up in a series of meetings and conference calls and feel like you had a full day. But the real question is, did you “make” anything interesting today?

Everything I’ve done that I’m proud of, or that people have noticed, has been done on a maker schedule. But working within a manager schedule, I’ve had to hack my life to find the time to make things happen.

What are some of your federal workweek hacks for getting creative things done?

- See more at: http://fedscoop.com/hacking-the-federal-workweek/#sthash.wby4B0N1.dpuf

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The Five Features I Wish Twitter Would Give Me

This post was originally published on Huffington Post Tech on July 19, 2012. Two years later, Twitter has gone public, but I’m still waiting for most of these features.

After six years or so, Twitter hasn’t changed much.

The core user experience of Twitter was, and is, the following: Put cursor in box, type 140 characters or less, push send. It’s a brief way of expressing yourself.

Sure, there have been some innovations. But the really great stuff everyone commonly knows about was invented by users, not by the company:

  1. The origin of replies using the format @[username] came about through experimentation by users working for Yahoo in the UK during late 2006.
  2. Hashtags on Twitter were invented by Chris Messina in late 2007.
  3. URL shortening (which was necessary to stay within 140 character limits) actually predates Twitter by a few years, and got a huge boost because of it (think: TinyURL and Bit.ly).

It’s true that one can do more sophisticated things with Twitter, but for most users, this is what they use and see, whether they fill in the Twitter box on a desktop, a tablet, or a phone. You can even tweet via text messages.

This simplicity is a blessing and a curse. Typing @[username] might make sense to some people, but it’s kinda nerdy. The concept of hashtagging your comment about a TV show with metadata may or may not go completely mainstream. It works, but it’s kind of like using DOS. It was great when it came out, but the desktop platform evolved. Where’s the “Windows” evolution of my real-time information platform?

Twitter is in the process of defining themselves as a company. It seems to the outside world that they want to monetize themselves mainly through advertising, a choice that may run counter to providing the best features for users and incentives for a robust developer ecosystem. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Unlike Facebook, which seemingly launches a new feature or tweak every week or so, and Tumblr and Pinterest, which are extremely simple, visual, and user-friendly, Twitter’s changes over the years have not made me feel more powerful, reach more people, understand more information, and get more done. And I say this as a huge fan of Twitter who’s tweeted about 10 times a day consistently for the last four years or so.

I’d like some new features. They’re not even that complicated. But they are user-centric and along the lines of what a more “open” Twitter information ecosystem would look like.

As a long-time, frequent “customer” of Twitter, here are the five features I wish Twitter would give me:

1. Make 100% of my tweets, dating back to my first one regardless of when I started, easily available, searchable, and exportable in multiple formats. (This is too geeky.)

2. Give me a simple but powerful analytics tool so I can better understand things like day of week I tweet most, who retweets me the most, who my influential followers are, click through rates on my links, and so on. I would be happy to pay a monthly fee for this. (Seems like this is coming someday, but I have no idea when.)

3. Allow me to do anything I want with accounts I’m following or who follow me: mass unfollowing, sorting, exporting, and other things to understand my personal Twitter community. (It shouldn’t be this hard.)

4. Provide me with a consistent, fully functional user experience across all form factors and operating systems. It’s not uncommon for someone to use, say, a Windows 7 PC, an iPad, and a Blackberry in the same day. (The experience is currently inconsistent.)

5. I would like to see more speed and more visual options to help me look at real-time streams, follow multiple hashtags or people at once, set tweets in different layouts, and other things. (TweetGrid has been doing a lot of this for years, for free; I use it all the time.)

I have one final request.

It isn’t a feature, but in some ways it’s more important than anything I wrote above. As a regular, consistent Twitter user for years, I’d like a clear mission statement from the company, and technology that reflects it. According to their website, Twitter is:

a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting. Simply find the accounts you find most compelling and follow the conversations.

I think that’s great. Help me do it better, Twitter.

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How Kate Upton Would Sell Snow to an Eskimo: An Analysis

This was originally published on Huffington Post Celebrity on May 10, 2012, roughly the time of “Peak Kate Upton.” Her people got in touch with me after this. We met for coffee in New York.

Kate Upton’s rise from unknown young model to Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue rookie to authentic social media rockstar to SI cover girl to advertising and product endorsement mogul didn’t occur by accident, and it did not occur undeservedly; It occurred because she leveraged a unique array of qualities in order for it to happen. Here are six things Kate Upton did, and does, to authentically engage audiences and promote whatever messages she wants to:

1. Have the right personality for the job. Not everyone is cut out for marketing, whether it’s in the written word, on television, or in social media. Kate Upton is. She has a bubbly, friendly personality that shows through in her interviews, candid videos taken of her, and her tweets. She has the right personality to be matched up with promoting a magazine, a new product, or a hobby or cause of hers. And her vibrant personality stands out very far from most or all of her peers — it is in fact difficult to think of the personality of most of her peers (and thus, they effectively have none).

2. Let your personality shine through authenticity. It’s one thing to have the right personality for the job. The next step though, equally necessary, is to let it show by being more transparent about your life, and expressing yourself authentically. Kate Upton has been increasingly transparent in interviews, and using social media to for example tweet behind-the-scenes photos like this one from events and jobs. She doesn’t reveal everything about herself of course — she famously denied Ellen an answer about who/if she is romantically involved with — but nobody cares. People are just curious enough to want more. And for the most part, she is controlling the message through her own channels and appearances.

3. Master one thing really well. Having a great personality and a willingness to be authentic are certainly not enough to make loads of people care about you. You have to have a core activity that you do very well. As it happens, Kate Upton is a really great swimsuit model with a unique look that people really, really want to see. The bottom line is that without this particular skill, barely anyone would care about her tweets or product endorsements or want to interview her about anything. When you ask, What does Kate Upton do? there is a simple answer: “swimsuit model.” If you don’t have a similarly simple phrase following someone asking this about you, your outreach is a little lost.

4. Diversify your engagement. Once you’ve established a “core” activity which you’re excellent at (in Kate Upton’s case, swimsuit modeling), people may notice this and encourage your personal or organizational brand engagement in other activities and realms and topics, or want your comments on more strategic ideas or the topic-of-the-day. In Kate Upton’s case, this has largely manifested itself as a series of product endorsements with television advertisements featuring her prominently. Smartly, they are not too different from her core, particularly with regard to the core audience (men, and especially younger men), yet clearly these actvities broaden her appeal and her audience; they include being a face of Guess, a bikini appearance in the Three Stooges mainstream movie, endorsements for Carl’s Jr. burgers, Skullcandy headphones, and a sports videogame by 2KSports, and a comedic guest appearance on the geek-savvy show Tosh.0.

5. Make appearances in person. It’s easy to count pageviews and retweets from the safety of your home office and rest satisfied that your social media marketing is working. In my experience, this trap is especially easy for tech-savvy marketers to fall into, and especially easy for the non-socially-adept to get trapped in. But the reality is that in-person meetings, lunches, events, and so forth have two very important qualities that tweets, videos, and the like lack: intimacy and strength. They are intimate because sitting right next to someone is a very emotional act, and they are strong because the power of in-person word-of-mouth is much greater than that of online, or hearing something in a radio or TV interview. Say what you want about “small talk” — it’s really big talk, actually. Kate Upton recently attended the high-profile White House Correspondents Dinner (guest of Bloomberg News) and the Met’s Costume Institute Gala (guest of Michael Kors). (It goes without saying that Kate Upton is visually appealing and that people like to see her in person, as well.)

6. Repeat. All of the above steps need to be repeated, constantly. They also need to be recombinated. For example, if Kate Upton begins filming a commercial for a new endorsement, she can tweet a slightly revealing behind-the-scenes photo about it. Then she can upload a YouTube video with a commercial teaser. Later, she makes an appearance at an event promoting the brand she’s endorsing, and so forth. The more cross-promotion, cross-platform, and synergistic one can get, the better (within limits).

There are other good examples of people who have shot to fame through multi-platform engagement. One is the rise of Jimmy Fallon from average comedian on SNL to below average talk show host to multimedia talk show host god over the past few years. Another, more intellectual example, is space and exploration evangelist Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium.

Lauren Weisberger, famously the author of The Devil Wears Prada, also wrote a book called Everyone Worth Knowing. In it, she describes the evolution of a young woman from being a virtual “nobody” to being a PR professional being mentioned on Page Six and dating a heartthrob. These things don’t happen accidentally, just as Kate Upton didn’t accidentally end up on the SI Swimsuit Issue cover at 19 years old.

There is a formula.

And differently applied, it can help you find and engage an audience for a TV show like Jimmy Fallon (or, as I’ve previously written, as HBO’s Girls could be doing), or promote government funding of space exploration like Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Or promote clean energy reform. Or swine flu awareness. Or raise awareness of a worthy cause.

It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you.

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Animosity 2.0: The Open Government Insurgency vs. The White House Correspondents Dinner Establishment

This post was originally published in Huffington Post Media on May 9, 2012.

Recently, the White House Correspondents Dinner (a.k.a. “Nerd Prom”) and its bevy of pre-parties, after-parties, and brunches hit Washington, D.C. by storm as it does every spring. But across the Potomac in Arlington, Va., a simultaneous gathering of government enthusiasts known as “Transparency Camp” occurred, sequestered from networking with influential media, political, and business titans. But why?

Transparency Camp is “an ‘unconference’ for open government: an event where, each year, journalists, developers, technologists, policy-makers, government officials, students, academics, wonks, and everyone in between gather to share their knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make our government really work for the people — and to help our people work smarter with our government,” according to the Transparency Camp 2012 website. It’s backed by the Sunlight Foundation, and it’s a great event. The topic matter is important. Microsoft even sponsors it, and other unconferences with similar topic matter in the U.S. and around the world.

Towards the end of Transparency Camp (and WHCD weekend), Alex Howard, a prominent D.C.-based reporter and blogger with O’Reilly Media, made this comment via his popular @digiphile Twitter account: “Shame that the objects of adulation & celebrity culture on display at the #WHCD aren’t watching & learning from #Tcamp12. #opengov #nerdprom”.

Perhaps it is. But whose fault is that?

The timing of Transparency Camp is curious. Here we have a gathering of intelligent, passionate people discussing how to change democracy and government and make it more open and accountable to citizens. Across the way, we have a gathering of virtually every influential journalist, media executive, and member of Congress who might potentially be an advocate of or storytelling vehicle for such change. What did the Transparency Camp organizers do to reach out to this audience? Not very much if anything, beyond double-hashtagging some cheap shots.

But it’s worse. When I casually made a couple comments to that effect via Twitter — and I won’t quote every single tweet I sent, and the replied tweets, and the side conversations here — I was surprised to see a lot of animosity toward Nerd Prom from at least some of the Transparency Camp crew. And when I publicized an earlier version of this article written on Publicyte.com, the well-trafficked D.C. Tech Facebook group went wild with the same strain of comments.

Why?

A lot of the comments were about celebrities. Paraphrasing, people commented that WHCD was just a bunch of celebrities, was just about partying, was simply about getting your photo taken.

Well, sure it was. But those celebrities like Kate Upton, Bradley Cooper, and Sofia Vergara are just an attractant. You see, the people behind Nerd Prom and its ecosystem of events know that people want to watch it on CSPAN and fight for tickets into certain parties because of celebrity attendance. They’re the bait, the party is the hook, and we’re the fish. Easy, right? Perhaps the Transparency Camp organizers could learn a thing or two about celebrity promotion of their events and goals.

Why all the hating on celebrities? I don’t really understand it. Nowadays, celebrities are tech angel investors, they’re building websites like Funny or Die, they’re increasingly reliant on platforms like YouTube and Twitter, and they’re creating mainstream content for companies like Hulu. Twitter blew up because of three people: Oprah, Obama, and Ashton. let’s face it — tech can’t live without celebrities. Ashton Kutcher takes his passion for tech even further, working specific real-life gadgets and social media platforms into the fictional show he stars in, Two and a Half Men. I don’t particularly see the vast chasm between the values of open government and transparency and things that celebrities care about.

Transparency Campers, have you ever actually asked Kate Upton what she thinks about the open data movement in America? I didn’t think so. But you could have when she was in town last weekend.

More seriously, when someone of the intelligentsia uses the word “celebrity” in a derogatory tone, it usually implies a swimsuit cover model or a handsome leading man. But what about slightly less famous celebrities like Kerry Washington or Tim Daly? Surely, they are both “celebrities” and also capable of understanding complex issues affecting society.

But forget celebrities. The reality is that most people attending most of the Nerd Prom events are about as famous as I am. They are the up-and-comers, the workhorses. They are the assistant producers, the local reporters, the guys with a face for radio, the Congressional press secretaries, and the people who were more powerful 10 years ago but still attend these shindigs. Unless you’re a blogger or photographer, most of one’s time at these events is not spent stalking Chase Crawford or Claire Danes; rather, it is spent talking to friends, acquaintances, and potential business partners.

If you’ve ever wanted to talk about the importance of open government, the concept of an unconference, or the future of technology and democracy with an ambitious national TV news producer, a local on-air reporter, or a key Congressional staff member, Nerd Prom is the place to do it. Can you think of a better single event to do so during? You almost can’t not meet someone like that if you attend a couple of the parties. It’s unclear why the Transparency Camp attendees wouldn’t see this as useful.

You might object and say that while such people are physically present, they’re unlikely to care about the issues discussed at Transparency Camp. Wrong there, too. For example, I talked to my friend Angie Goff, a news anchor at NBC Washington, a long-time blogger and tweeter, and well-liked member of the media community, if she had ever heard of something called Transparency Camp. The answer was no. But she’s always interested in geeky tech stories and in the community at large — she’s interviewed me, Evan Burfield (chairman of Startup DC), Peter Corbett (director of DC Tech Meetup) and other “geeks” on NBC, and she emceed Microsoft’s recent Geek 2 Chic: DC charity event.

Angie Goff was interested in Transparency Camp. The problem was that she didn’t know it existed.

Not all geeks hate Nerd Prom. It’s not like the tech industry completely boycotted it. One of the biggest and by all accounts most fun parties this year was hosted by Google at the W hotel. Last year, Capitol File and Bing co-sponsored one of the larger afterparties at the Reagan International Trade Center. Why would Google or Bing sponsor a Nerd Prom party? I suspect for the reasons stated above, not to mention larger branding issues. This year a new tech company entered the WHCD activity fray when Tumblr hosted a private brunch for about 50 people in a speakeasy restaurant a few blocks from the White House.

New York-based media writer Rachel Sklar — herself no stranger to Nerd Prom nor being geeky — wrote two nice pieces on the new intersection of tech and WHCD for Mashable and Politico. Geek overlords like Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo and Zynga CEO Mark Pincus are increasingly attending WHCD and even hosting entire tables to, in part, evangelize their brands and goals to influentials, and probably even gather unique feedback. In some cases, after all, their social media platforms are being used to hide secret communications, influence elections, and overthrow governments. Opening such lines of communication is wise. Rachel writes,

It’s no surprise that the tech community does not typically revere anything preceded by the word “old.” In many ways, that point of view is one of tech’s biggest weaknesses, because with age comes wisdom, experience, and a larger sense of context, essential for dealing with the world beyond an early-stage startup. If you doubt, look no further than Eric Schmidt at Google, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, and John Maloney at Tumblr. There’s no shame in hearing from the grownups. Quite the opposite.

Rachel also makes the point that media, politics, and government have a tremendous amount to learn from the employees (and users!) of innovative companies like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Intstagram, not to mention more established ’startup’ companies like Facebook and Twitter. She writes in part,

If you want to figure out how, you should ask Liba Rubenstein, Tumblr’s newly-minted director of outreach for causes and politics. She just started — and she’s looking to “facilitate and package content around elections and governance.” Even if you’re not interested in her 500-million pageview help, at least approach the issue defensively. Remember: While Team Obama’s tumblr has been trucking along since October (example: 12,690 notes on the clip of the president slow-jamming the news), Team Romney apparently did not jump on MittRomney.tumblr.com fast enough, seeing as it currently features this quiz: “Who Said It? Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Or Wonka Contest Winner Charlie Bucket?”

There is little barrier to entry into the Nerd Prom world. Of course, you always have to work to drive attendees. But one can design an event surrounding the WHCD to meet one’s own goals. The aforementioned Tumblr event was a private Sunday morning brunch, where they rented out a “speakeasy” restaurant a few blocks from the White House, set up a buffet, and had about 50 people enjoy mimosas and coffee and food while they networked. About the most “famous” person there was Dennis Crowley of Foursquare. It wasn’t about celebrity; it was about leveraging a pre-existing rally of influentials to get something done; in this case, “launch” Liba Rubenstein and her new position that Rachel Sklar wrote about above.

There’s no reason that Transparency Camp’s organizers couldn’t have done a similar event — a brunch, a happy hour, a pre-event invite-only dinner — to promote their people, event, and mission, and answer Alex Howard’s original query about why the “objects of adulation and celebrity culture” aren’t watching and learning from their unconference. They aren’t watching and learning, frankly, because they don’t know you exist.

But perhaps the reason Transparency Camp didn’t want to reach out to the influential attendees of Nerd Prom is because there’s internal value in not widening the conversation and publicizing their movement. Mainstream media, politicians, and celebrities are easy scapegoats for a relatively small open government community that is in reality quite insular. And while unconferences are, in principle, open to all attendees and voices, in actuality the unique subculture and norms of behavior of such events make them difficult for newcomers to comprehend and thus discourage outsiders from participating.

My suggestion for Transparency Campers, and more broadly for other leaders of tribes who have interesting missions and stories to tell, and changes they want to make, is to get on Nerd Prom turf and make some connections that can broaden the conversation about your issues. It’s easy to not do it. To quote one of America’s favorite celebrities, Chad Kroeger: The first step you take is the longest stride.

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How HBO’s ‘Girls’ Missed the Social Media Marketing Boat

This post was originally published on Huffington Post TV on May 7, 2012. It caused quite a bit of discussion amongst ‘Girls’ fans.

Despite all the hype about social media, apps, and other technologies that are changing the world around us, the media and entertainment industries are still fairly traditional.

Take HBO’s new and controversial show Girls. Yes, I watch it. I’ll leave it to others to decide if it’s “good” or “biased” or “realistic” — but I think it’s significant.

For background, the show follows four young 20-something girls as they struggle with their lives in New York City. They deal with jobs, boys, their weight, and other issues in a very frank manner.

In the show, the lead character Hannah Horvath (played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham) tweets raw thoughts about what’s happening in her life and what she’s feeling. On screen, you can see her previous tweets — they’re intriguing. She’s baring her soul.

Those tweets appear to be confined to the 30 minutes of camera time the show gets every week. The first thing I did when I saw her “Twitter account” on the show was look up the character on Twitter. Unfortunately, she doesn’t exist.

There is a dormant Hannah Horvath account. (If HBO is smart, they control it.) There’s also a nonaffiliated Hannah account, which mainly repeats stuff from the show; most likely it’s controlled by a fan.

When there are so many young women talking about how realistically Girls depicts their lives (Emily Note has a wonderful blog about this here), what a shame that HBO and Lena Dunham — with her apparent insight into young women’s lives — didn’t take advantage of this and expand the Girls universe beyond the show and into the digital space.

Here’s what I would have done if I was planning marketing for Girls. I would have had an official Hannah Horvath account, tweeting in character. First, her tweets would appear in real time with any tweets in the show — In other words, during the show, the character would tweet about what’s happening to her. This extends the experience of watching the show live with friends. Fans could even tweet back to the character with support, criticism, or other comments.

Then, in the 10,050 minutes per week that Girls is not on television, Hannah would continue to tweet in character. Not as a marketing campaign (”Are you ready to tune into Girls tonight? Live tweet us your thoughts at @GirlsHBO!”), but as the character. Is she having a good day today? Did she have another bad job interview? What does she think of a fellow character, like her repugnant mother who cut off her financial support? Did she finish a chapter in the book she’s writing? This would extend the character beyond the actual show.

Sound weird? Not really. Star Wars, for example, has done this for years with innumerable paperback books which are all controlled and internally consistent, but which extend the universe far beyond the six films that were made. For example, someone might write an entire book about how the Millennium Falcon was constructed; another book might be about Princess Leia’s home and what she’s doing post-Return of the Jedi.

But we can take this further still. There surely are millions of 20-something girls who have questions about their lives. This includes girls who don’t even watch the show. Why can’t Hannah, in character on Twitter, have a hashtag like #BrooklynGirlProbs and reply to girls with their questions? Why couldn’t HBO build a private discussion board or social network to convene girls around the issues on the show and allow them to support each other?

Finally, in the offseason (Girls will be renewed, so there will be time between seasons one and two), the character could still be active. Everything’s controlled by the show, so nothing that shouldn’t be given away would be, but why couldn’t Lena Dunham and her team write light material which keeps you engaged in the Hannah character while you anticipate the next season? The answer is, they easily could.

This isn’t just true of Hannah of course — I’d love to see something similar with, say, Barney from How I Met Your Mother. But this really works well for Girls because of its realism; young people probably identify more with Hannah and her friends and their problems than say, Blair Waldorf and hers or Barney and his.

There are of course other ways for HBO and Lena Dunham to leverage social media to expand the Girls universe. I’m curious to know what kind of phones the characters use. If they all have iPhones for example, why couldn’t the girls have a private Path network among just the four of them (which only 146 fans can also join at any one time)? Do you realize what a FRENZY that would create? What a great contest to run through their Facebook page.

I’d also love to see a Pinterest account for each of the girls, reflecting what they’re thinking about, fantasizing about, and so forth. Maybe Allison Williams’ character is fantasizing about that sexy older artist she met, for example. Would she pin photos of him, or examples of his art, or quotes about how he makes her feel inside? I don’t know, but I have to admit I’m curious, and I’m just some 30-something guy drinking a cup of coffee and blogging in my pajamas.

Presently, there’s a gigantic gap between the cutting edge possibilities for leveraging social media for storytelling and the professionals actually in charge of telling the bulk of mainstream stories — Hollywood and the entertainment industry. It’s a conservative place. But I see great opportunity for those who want to disrupt their status quo.

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Should Governments Crowdsource Science Research Funding?

This post was originally published on Huffington Post Science on March 14, 2012.

Recently, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of social networks focused on scientific researchers. I painted a fairly dim picture. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are those in the scientific community who are interested in disruptive innovation within a somewhat traditional and reclusive community.

Here’s another example of such innovation happening. Petridish.org is a new Web platform that empowers users to explore the world around them by participating in funding scientific research projects. Not unlike the well-known Kickstarter, the project owners set a minimum amount of dollars that need to be pledged for the project to happen, and a deadline to achieve that goal. Pledges can go above that goal, but if they fall below the goal by the deadline the entire project basically doesn’t happen.

Not unlike what you may be used to seeing during a public television station pledge drive, there are different incentives offered by the researchers for different levels of pledges, too.

Let’s explain how this works by way of an example. I’m a former insect biologist myself, so I have a certain weakness for things like flies, bees, and ants. Here’s a project from Petridish.org all about ants: New Species of Ants in Madagascar, submitted by Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences with an “infectious passion for ants.” There’s a video in the previous weblink, and here’s part of the project description:

Deep in the tropical forests of Madagascar, a France-sized island teeming with strange creatures, ants glue together the richest of ecosystems. The tiny insects are armed to protect their homes with bites, stings, acid sprays and even strangling. Yet their real war against human encroachment is failing — only 10 percent of Madagascar’s natural habitat remains.
To save Madagascar’s forests, researchers need to know what’s in them.

I’m Brian Fisher, a conservationist with the California Academy of Sciences, and I’m ready to hop in a raft, navigate a wild uncharted river and scale treacherous cliffs with a team of extreme sports professionals as guides.

It’s not about bragging rights, however — it’s a race against time.

Very dramatic! This sounds like a pretty decent movie description. In all seriousness though, in my experience a lot of researchers are not able to describe what they do to average people very well, never mind enhance their factual descriptions with colorful language. Granted, hunting for ants in a tropical forest is a little more exotic than your average research project, but that’s besides the point.

Where will my money go?

Without discovering what Kasijy harbors it’s tough to convince locals — and the rest of the world — that it and other Madagascar wilderness is worth preserving. For now it’s a forest begging to be turned into firewood and grassland.
My expedition aims to:

Inventory Kasijy’s untold new species and document their roles in a pristine natural ecosystem.
Understand the biodiversity patterns of Madagascar and resolve our “bioilliteracy” of the Kasijy forest.
Set up more robust conservation plans for the island.
Raise awareness of Madagascar’s natural wonders and its ongoing plight.

But the logistics of five inflatable rafts, provisions, a small team of scientists and professional guides won’t pay for itself. To enable the whirlwind expedition, I’ll need $10,000. Another $10,000 would help support laboratory work, including the identification, description and publication of new species, and the training of local Malagasy scientists to do such work and become local stewards of their wilderness.

But hey — what do I get out of my donation?? Here’s some incentives:

  • At the 1-20 level, you’re just helping the project and expect nothing.
  • At the 20-100 level, you get updates from the research team in the field.
  • At the 100-250 level, you get a small stone souvenir taken from the highest point in Madagascar, plus all of the above.
  • At the 250-500 level, you get an original signed photo from the field, plus all of the above.
  • At the 500-1000 level, you get recognition in scientific journals where the work is published, plus all of the above.
  • At the 1000-5000 level, you get a behind the scene tour of the CA Academy of Sciences, plus all of the above.
  • At the 5000+ level, the research team will name a novel species of ant after you or a loved one, plus all of the above.

Pretty cool stuff, and reasonable for the research team to provide as well. Imagine this as potential birthday or holiday gifts for sons or daughters or nieces or nephews interested in science. And this is just one project on Petridish.

What’s the current status of Brian Fisher’s project? They have $7,901 out of $10,000 needed with about 24 days to go at time of writing.

In the U.S, the federal government — mainly via the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Energy and Defense — is the largest funding resource for academic science research like what’s described above with ants in Madagascar. Despite the relatively specialized nature of such research, there are nevertheless thousands and thousands of such projects just within the U.S., dreamed up by undergrads, grad students, postdocs, part-time and teaching faculty, and more senior full-time research professors and senior research scientists. Most of them do not get funded, because of the relative limits of government funds and the stiff competition.

And a lot of the research (like the ants of Madagascar) will not be funded by corporations because the work isn’t applied enough. Sure, sure, the research could turn out something akin to Sean Connery’s work in Medicine Man — but more than likely not. Drug companies and similar organizations gamble, but usually at a more applied stage, not for the more basic levels of academic research.

What we have in America is a system by which many graduate students achieve their Ph.D.’s and often can secure a postdoctoral fellowship, but then are not able to then move to the next level with a tenured professorship and federal grant money. The reason? There are quite a few reasons. Some are practical — obviously, a given university has limited office and lab space so they can’t hire indefinite numbers of professors, no matter how good they are. Another practical reason is that some people, despite having a doctoral degree and some experience, are simply not cut out for being a tenured professor. But another huge reason is that significant research universities largely rely on professors to “pay their own way” via grants that fund research and from which schools can take a percentage for “indirect costs” like infrastructure (mail, lights, heat, electricity…).

Fair enough. There is a place for this system. But for the B+ and A- researchers (if you will) who have great ideas but for whatever disadvantages are not in the top tier of people who are getting large grants and landing top professorships, is there no alternative?

Companies like Fundageek and Petridish seem to have come up with one. Now anyone — a smart high school student, a part-time high school science teacher, an overly ambitious grad student at Harvard, anyone — can write some convincing text, have some amazing photo and video collateral, and pitch an idea and make their project come to life through a great crowdsourcing platform.

But why are private companies like Petridish and Fundageek providing platforms for this, while agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation aren’t? Promoting and funding innovative projects which help America in some way seems like something the scientific and technically oriented arms of the U.S. government should be involved with. Perhaps there are some legal or other reasons why say the NIH can’t run a crowdsourcing platform on a .gov website; I’d be curious to hear those facts/arguments. But perhaps government agencies should approach Petridish and Fundageek and others and find a way to build a public-private partnership which helps everyone — government, private sector, and academia — involved?

About seven years ago or so, the NIH started requiring two abstracts for submitted research grants — one technical and one that could be understood by general audiences. At the time, I thought this was a great thing. Maybe something like what Petridish is doing with an array of videos, photos, text, and a way for citizens to participate is the next step for government support of scientific research. Of course, there will always be a role for direct government funding via grants; but might crowdsourcing not be a way to supplement the funding of great ideas, or alternatively fund “honorable mention” projects which show promise but don’t make the cut for full government funding yet?

This week, a group of Senators introduced the CROWD FUND act, which would allow small companies and individual entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million a year by making their case directly to investors via “crowdsourcing” — perhaps this is the wave of the future?

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Pinterest for Politics

This post was originally published on Huffington Post Tech on February 13, 2012. I ended up getting a call from CNN and appearing on The Situation Room to discuss the topic.

If you were living in a cave during the last quarter of 2011, you may have missed out on hearing about Pinterest — the hottest new social platform to hit the tech scene in some time. Judged by leading tech blog TechCrunch as the best startup of 2011, Pinterest is smoking hot and gaining momentum. This is all the more amazing since it is still an invite-only “beta” platform, which by definition restricts its growth.

What is Pinterest? Basically, it’s a social networking platform with a highly visual “virtual pinboard” interface. Users post photos (and sometimes rarely, videos) and link to related websites on their pinboards. Users can also follow the pinboards of other people.

But Pinterest is far from universally loved. It has some quirks. One is that because by its visually-pleasing nature, it has appealed heavily to people and businesses in visual industries like fashion and industrial design. Another is that the platform is highly biased towards female users; by one estimate, up to 97% of Pinterest users are women.

Nevertheless, many people in the tech, business, marketing, and social media industries are falling head over heels to figure out how to leverage Pinterest for fun and profit. A lot of these ideas are pretty standard — integrating Pinterest content with your Facebook wall, using links to drive retail sales. But I strongly suspect that as more and more vertical industries get interested in Pinterest, we’ll see more specific tactics being used in each to some degree.

Very recently, some parts of the U.S. military have taken a liking to Pinterest. Fedscoop reported that U.S. Army, Navy and National Guard have all established official profiles at the online sharing platform.

I suspect that over time Pinterest will become increasingly popular in the public sector as people find unique (i.e., different than Twitter, Facebook, etc.) ways to apply it to public communications. Heck, the President himself (as his 2012 re-election campaign) is already using the popular iPhone app Instagram; if a new social platform has real value, adoption even by the most conservative groups is only a matter of time (whether they use it well is another topic entirely).

Speaking of the President, we’re obviously in the middle of a fiercely contested Republican primary season at the national level, to be followed by a fiercely contested battle between that eventual winner and President Obama. The U.S. will also see hundreds of Members of Congress and their challengers running for office, not to mention many governors and thousands of state and local government officials.

If you’re a campaign consultant or in a related profession (fundraising bundler, television commercial director, soulless pundit), you’re probably asking yourself: Is Pinterest relevant for my candidate?

It may very well be. Here are six ways that Pinterest might be helpful in political campaigns during the 2012 election cycle.

1. Behaving more real-time and mobile. The bar is set fairly low for the average political candidate to be perceived as hip and real-time and transparent with constituents or voters. The mere use of some cutting edge technology to make a campaign more transparent and open about communicating in semi-controlled ways could be great for the image of a candidate looking to be seen as younger/hipper/more tech savvy, etc. Plus, who knows, maybe some of that new openness and conversation will lead to some valuable feedback about what the voters think and want and need.

2. Creating issue-specific boards. When candidates speak in stump speeches, debates, or interviews, you often hear a laundry list of issues, as in, “We need to tackle the real problems, like jobs, the economy, education, the environment…” — but then it can be hard for the casual listener to find the follow up. And if there is some follow up, who wants to read a long, unemotional policy statement on the candidate’s website? Pinterest could be a more visual, emotional way to communicate about issues. Why not have a board all about, say, what the environment looks and feels like in the state you’re campaigning in?

3. Exclusive behind-the-scenes content. Whether it’s the media or the average voter, lots of people enjoy peeking at exclusive content (just witness the success of TMZ). If you’re running the campaign, you have access to all of it. Why not systematically ‘leak’ some out? If you’re a national candidate you could have a board for each state. If you’re more local, one for each city or region or neighborhood. You can publicize whatever you think is missing — behind the scenes at policy meetings, humor with staff, candidate with the family. Just like with Twitter pics, the press will eventually start running photos from Pinterest on the news when they’re worthy.

4. Reaching female voters. Some candidates might be naturally attractive (in the broad sense) to female voters; some may not. Maybe it’s looks, maybe it’s their stand on certain issues. Regardless, data from Google suggests that Pinterest is largely popular with females aged 18-34, with an income of $25-75k. Even a modest effort to use an emerging social platform with a large female user base could help; a great Pinterest board that women really engage with could potentially go a long way.

5. Fundraising. One trait that people have noticed about Pinterest is that it is referring more traffic to other websites than nearly anything else out there (except Facebook, Google, StumbleUpon, and Twitter) — really, quite a phenomenal feat. And because the links associated with Pinterest photos can be pointed anywhere, they can certainly be pointed to not only more information about an issue or about the candidate, but also to specific sites where people are asked for donations. Ideally in most cases, the Pinterest photo would be related to the pitch for the donation (i.e., a photo of an eroding California coast would point to a donation site which says, “Do you care about saving the Santa Barbara coast? Donate here to make Mark Drapeau your next Governor.”). Technically, however, the link doesn’t have to have anything to do with the original photo, if that’s useful (i.e., a pinned photo of Mitt Romney leads to a donation site for Newt Gingrich.)

6. Identity control. Even if the previous five ideas didn’t whet your whistle, there is the issue of identity control. Early on with Twitter, famous people would be impersonated and lead to a lot of confusion. In other cases, there may be, say, two Steve Hendersons who each have claim to a particular name, and one ended up being @SteveHenderson and the other @RealSteveHenderson or something. Now that Pinterest has 10 million users and quickly growing, the same is true. There is already a phony Mitt Romney account, and Newsweek is running a Rick Santorum “sweater vest” Pinterest board. If nothing else, lock down your candidate’s name and likeness so no one else gets it, and in case it becomes useful in the future.

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Social Networks for Scientists Won’t Work

This post was originally published on Huffington Post Science on February 8, 2012.

A “Facebook for Scientists”? It may sound silly, or redundant, but it’s becoming more of a reality. Maybe.

A new startup based in Germany named ResearchGate has already convinced roughly 1.4 million researchers to become members and begin sharing. On it, you can search your email accounts to find people you know, read PDF documents of research papers, and chat with others about why a particular lab technique isn’t working for you. Reportedly, the service is appealing to young researchers in their 20’s.

None of this is particularly original. There have long been scientists on Facebook and LinkedIn and connecting via other websites like Scienceblogs. There have long been stores of PDF documents online, and searchable databases of them (particularly if you work at a university). There have long been job boards where you might find your next gig. And there have long been discussion boards or similar places where you could ask questions about lab techniques or which conference to attend this year.

The Economist writes about ResearchGate as if it’s the only social network for scientists out there, but that’s far from the case. Others have come before, and some are already gone. One that sounds somewhat similar was called Labmeeting; here, it’s highlighted in a June 2008 post in TechCrunch, with a vast vision (co-founder Mark Kaganovich: “What we are trying to do is change the way information in biomedical research and the medical community is distributed and retrieved.”) and a $500,000 seed round of funding from Peter Thiel and others. But Labmeeting.com no longer directs anywhere, and Crunchbase lists the fledgling company as in the “deadpool” as of 1/1/11.

It’s not really clear what ResearchGate is doing that’s fundamentally different than Labmeeting.

But the ecosystem seems even worse, because many others have tried and failed, or tried and not necessarily caught on, or tried and are much more like “science publication management software” than a social network where people openly share. They have names like Academia.edu, Laboratree, Mendeley, myExperiment, and Epernicus. Scitable.com was launched by the Nature Publishing Group in 2009 as “a social network for scientists and scholars” but it currently looks like… a very nice website, or extremely fancy blog — which is fine in itself, but it’s not a social network, not really. The National Institutes of Health was reportedly funding yet another social network for scientists; I’m not sure if it ever happened.

It’s easy to measure total users or total PDF’s uploaded or other metrics and claim some success. And we’re not really picking on any particular social network effort here. But why haven’t any of these platforms truly caught on in the scientific community? Fundamentally, it’s because they are add-ons to “the way things get done” and not replacements for the way scientists work day-to-day or how their careers are judged (i.e., you don’t get promoted for great science tweeting).

This story about Science 2.0 reminds me of a slightly older debate about Intelligence 2.0, whereby the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) built Intellipedia and other social tools with which analysts could collaborate in real time around information, data, breaking news across agencies and job descriptions. It sounds great, and there were users, mainly younger ones passionate about innovative tools and approaches. Here’s a great video about “Living Intelligence,” also known as Purple Intelligence (i.e., mixing red and blue) — It’s a great video, a vision of how intelligence analysis could be.

But at the end of the day, living intelligence is not the vision by which the IC operates, for the most part. The way that analysts are measured is not by how many edits they made on the wiki page for a town in Iraq, but rather by writing old-fashioned reports for their agency or other traditional tasks. The problem is that Intellipedia was an add-on to what their job was; not the way they did their primary job. That negative feedback loop is enough to ensure that the innovation of Intellipedia never really makes it past the “chasm of death.”

The same is true of science, which I have some firsthand experience with (I have a Ph.D. in animal behavior genetics and did academic biology research for about a decade). The scientific community fundamentally operates under the notion that a peer-reviewed research paper published in a traditional research journal is the discrete end-product of a series of experiments aimed at testing one or more hypotheses. Anyone who has actually been a laboratory scientist knows that this is a complete farse; I need not even elaborate on why. Nevertheless, publishing such papers is the primary yardstick by which you are judged as a grad student, postdoctoral fellow, and professor, even at the more senior levels. On top of that, the same exact research published in a “good” journal vs. an “okay” journal is somehow emotionally different to the reader. The only reason why is perceived prestige of some publications vs. others regardless of actual long-term value of the research.

Social networks for scientists will face precisely the same challenges as those within the IC. These are two-fold. One, a culture of secrecy whereby the more “secret” information (vs. community / shared information) is perceived as more valuable. Two, a culture of discrete publications (vs. living knowledge and data sets) whereby people are primarily judged by traditional processes dating back, in the case of science, a couple hundred years. And while there are some well-intentioned, smart people discussing Science 2.0 and what it would take for that to happen, it is in my opinion extremely unlikely that the entire system of how academic science operates in the U.S. will change within the venture capital-backed funding cycle of one of the science social networking companies like ResearchGate.

From what people tell me, the IC is slowly changing. Certain individuals over a period of years have fought the good fight to change the workflow of intelligence analysts, leveraging new social technologies and making the work and the products more agile and indeed, “living.” The full story is for another time, but the point is that it can happen. I know some of the individuals involved in the IC story, and their road has not been easy. The roadblocks thrown in their path have been significant. They traveled a very long, complicated path because they believed in a vision, a better way of doing things. But most importantly, they didn’t just talk amongst themselves, but rather took the fight to the middle management of intelligence agencies, and to the senior leadership.

There are some voices like this in science, to some degree or another. Will they persevere against the system?

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7 lessons worth learning from the Navy Social Media Handbook

This post was originally published in Federal Computer Week on November 29, 2010, and it was written with Kristin Bockius of Microsoft.

Kristin Bockius is relationship and social media marketing manager at Microsoft’s U.S. state and local government business. Mark Drapeau is director of public-sector social engagement at Microsoft. The opinions expressed in this article are their own and do not reflect the official position of Microsoft.

The Navy’s recently published Social Media Handbook has some good lessons for everyone.

Geared toward Navy commanders, the handbook is intended to encourage the use of social media and provide some guidance on matters of online etiquette, privacy, security and related issues. However, although the handbook is Navy-centric, many of its ideas and best practices apply across the government.

Here are some of the takeaways we found, along with insights we gathered in developing a similar guide for Microsoft’s public-sector customers.

Get guidance from the top. Rear Adm. Dennis Moynihan, the Navy’s chief of information, clearly supports the Navy’s use of social media. Such senior-level support is necessary for any corporation, agency or institution that plans to engage in social media conversations. Employees should not be confused and wondering if they may or may not use social media or how they may use it. Now more than ever, they need some structure and guidance.

Keep an ear to the ground. The handbook points out that social media provides a great way to learn about your employees’ thoughts and concerns. That is incredibly insightful. Social media can indeed be a great indicator of things going right or wrong at your organization.

Protect your brand. The Navy’s handbook points out that service members and employees who use social media are always brand ambassadors and should act accordingly. We take it one step further: Your actions and reactions online affect not only your reputation but also your professional affiliation. Thus you must act in a way that is proper for yourself and your employer.

Keep the brands simple. For our work in state and local government, we use two big brands — @Microsoft_Gov and Bright Side of Government — rather than breaking up our content by solutions, such as e-mail or cloud computing, or audience, such as states, cities and counties. In many cases, we feel that such divisions unnecessarily dilute a brand and make it harder to engage in consistent online conversations.

Centralize brand management. The manual reminds people that anyone who is establishing a social media presence must register that outlet with the Defense Department’s public affairs office. That makes it possible to roll up all the activity into a master online directory. Our own company could do a better job of this, considering the many brands and social media accounts that we have.

Have a response plan ready. For an organization such as the Navy, having a crisis communications plan is somewhat of a no-brainer. But that is true of all kinds of organizations. Your public relations team should have a crisis plan in place — for before, during and after conversations — so you can manage any crisis or rumor that arises. All brands are increasingly at risk for public criticism. Acknowledge that and plan accordingly.

Save your work. The Navy’s handbook suggests that people should selectively choose what to archive and even use screen shots to do it. But these days, you can find cheap or free tools to help you archive everything automatically. For example, many government agencies already use SharePoint to share enterprise content. You can now get a free, open-source SharePoint plug-in that can help you manage archiving.

Overall, we think the Navy’s social media guide — like the Air Force’s flowchart for online rules of engagement that preceded it — will provide valuable information about social media not only for the military services but also for agencies across the federal government and beyond.

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