Category: Uncategorized

Better worlds need new ideas.

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” – John Cage

I know I’m not “normal”. I know I’m not like most people. Ok, fine, but I live amongst “normal” people, and some days I even talk to them. (I gotta say, I love my freak enclave social group.)

But I don’t understand the pervasive aversion to change that grips our culture. And I don’t accept the hand-waving dismissal that it’s “human nature”.

Whenever people discus radical ideas, there’s usually a chorus that rises up in indignation, decrying the ideas as “unrealistic” or “good in theory, but not practical” or “a pipe dream” or “a threat to the status quo” or fill in the blank. If the objection isn’t a specific material criticism about the particulars of the idea’s application or ethics or utility, then it’s almost invariably couched in an assumptions that the status quo is either A: inevitable, or B: desirable. I reject both.

The first is easy. I had a friend in University that, when I started to wax idealistic, would cut me off with a “that’s a nice idea, but things will never change.” Probably he just wanted me to stop moaning about politics. But that attitude is pervasive – don’t bother doing anything about things we don’t like, because that’s the way things are and there’s nothing we can do about it. Things will always be this way, save your breath.

Now, please tell me I don’t have to explain how absurd this is. Ignore the Zen implications – every moment is transient, and we can never step into the same river twice. Ignore the physics – entropy ensures that no system can stay static. Ignore technological innovation. My rebuttal is more visceral. The amount of social change we’ve seen even in my lifetime puts the lie to the cynical defeatism that discourages any form of activism. Gay marriage is legal in Canada, and in more American States every year. Transgendered people are getting more and more protections under the law. Hell, Roe v. Wade and Morgentaler alone represent enough change over the decades to keep the fire in my belly stoked. Who could even imagine that the defining issue of the 2012 Presidential election would be unequal distribution of wealth? There are still deep and seemingly insoluble social injustices in our society, and I would be the last to gloss them over. But human rights are more protected and more respected every year – despite high-profile examples to the contrary – and to deny that is to deliberately choose to live in a worse world than we actually have.

The second is a little stickier. Is the status quo desirable? I don’t think so. Remember those deep and seemingly insoluble social injustices? Not my kind of world. In Permaculture, we often get resistance when we talk about simpler, lower energy ways of life. We talk about living closer to natural cycles, and the response is “what, we should all move out to the woods and live in caves? That’s hardly sustainable.” The only possibilities open to too many people are demonstrated realities – if the status quo is better than any previous alternatives (and I’d more or less agree that it is), then surely any threat to the status quo promises a regression.

Surely not.

The first step to building better futures is to believe they’re possible. Dream about them. Write about them. Read books about them. Talk about them with your friends. What kind of a world do you want to live in? What would you do if you assumed it’s possible and that acting toward it would make it real?

Think up some new ideas (which, typically, are ideas old enough to feel new again), and let your freak flag fly.

Procrastination gets a bum rap.

Ok, I’ve been procrastinating. Or that’s what I’ve learned to call it. Y’know, you should be doing something “more important”, right? Oh, I’m sorry. You, being an organized and focus person with their life in order, are doing the important things. Right? I, however, “should” be doing “more important things”. I’m not doing them, however, because they’re boring. Or annoying. Or maybe they’re perfectly ordinary tasks, but something powerfully more compelling is calling to me. And I, being weak and disorganized and forgetful, am pissing away my time doing trivial stuff, like reading the ENTIRE INTERNET and replying to EVERY TWEET, preferably with something clever so I feel good if someone retweets it.

I actually am doing all those things, or was up until five minute ago when I opened a fresh post. That’s what I do when I should be doing more important things. I suck up information about things I find interesting, I find or invent all kinds of cool connections, and then I pass them on to other people. (Frankly, social media’s a godsend. I don’t have to chew my fiancee’s ear off with every bit of trivia I stumble across.)

What a waste of time, right? When I could be doing something productive like aimlessly chasing sentence fragments around a Word document, hoping they’ll spontaneously arrange themselves into a resume that make me look like a money pipeline and doesn’t make me spontaneously vomit on my keyboard. Hell, I could do that all day! 8 solid hours of productive work. And I could point to words at the end of the day and say I accomplished something! I could print it! Ink on paper! That makes it a thing, right?

But I’d rather procrastinate, being weak and unfocused. I’d rather spend an hour reading blogs about transgendered politics (can politics be transgendered?) or listening in on webinars about branding for social enterprise or reading early German history on wikipedia. Y’know. Research.

Or maybe I’m wasting my time on Twitter. Reading articles passed on by political writers, joking around with fellow WordCamp geeks, or mentally critiquing the messaging of a local business. Y’know. Communication.

Throughout it all, I’m cluttering up my mind with a running tally of everything I’ve taken in today, drawing connections, finding parallells and analogies, making up stories involving the different characters. When I could be thinking about important things, like income tax, and making sure I have socks on. Instead, I waste my precious mind of trivia and little stories.

Y’know. Synthesis.

(I’m not even proofreading this, like a responsible adult. Wikipedia beckons.)

Be who you are.

“The topic of my blog is me and my life. I happen to think I’m very interesting.” - Raul Pacheco

Last weekend, at WordCamp Victoria, I had the pleasure of attending Beth Cougler Blom‘s talk on genuine blogging. She promised us the least technical talk of the day (she delivered). We talked about the personal side of blogging – it was very much a conversation. She raised the messy realities of blogging, the decisions that have to be made continually. How much do you divulge? Do you talk about your personal life? Do you use your real name? The stickiest question – do you hold back if what you say will cause problems with your family? – provoked the richest conversation. Consensus, to the extent we reached one, was that these are all questions that everyone can answer only for themselves. When the decisions are ours to make – we’re not violating someone else’s privacy, or appropriating their story – we choose to hold back, or to go all out and accept the consequences.

There’s a part of me that would argue in favour of total openness (again, to the extent that it’s your openness – it’s not for you to tell the stories or make privacy decisions for others), on the grounds that it’s the way to be true to yourself. But I know there are all kinds of very good reasons to hold back, not the least of which is personal safety, and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from taking precautions for their own safety or peace of mind. In a deeper sense, though, I think holding back can be a way of being true to yourself. Holding back is something we do. There are words for people who never hold back, and one of them is “asshole”. We hold back when we think we may hurt someone else, or when divulging is too big and scary, and that’s fine. We don’t have to be big and fearless at all times, and there’s no shame in little omissions to help someone save face. Why, then, it is shameful to do so online?

Of course, it isn’t. All I’m saying is that it’s a purely personal decision, not to scare yourself into holding back what you don’t have to, and not to bluff yourself into divulging more than you feel safe divulging.

But when you tune it just right, to the point that you’re sharing all you have to share, and keeping the grace to hold back what isn’t yours to share, things get pretty cool. I’m not talking about blogging, I’m talking about life.

Craig Spence is a writer. Like most Canadian writers, he’s spent most of his life doing other things. But he’s a writer.

He also speaks. He spoke at WordCamp, promising to show the virtues of WordPress as tool for Dynamic Creative Writing. I had no idea what that meant, but I had to find out.

Craig is writing a novel, The Cosmic Chicken, on WordPress. He writes, he posts, readers comment, and writer and reader enter into a dialogue that propels the work beyond what it would have been with a writer-alone-in-locked-room-with-typewriter-and-crates-of-cheap-scotch approach. Or at least in theory.

There were a lot of important things Craig taught, some of them (despite his disclaimer) technical. But the most important thing Craig taught us wasn’t in his notes. Craig modeled a raw honesty about his work that electrified the room. He didn’t hold back his disappointment that the project hasn’t been adopted by a reader/co-creators to give him the support and creative jolt he’d hoped for. Craig was ok with his disappointment, and not only were we ok with it, but it set us on fire. (That seems a bit poetic and hyperbolic, but that’s really how it felt.) Craig had NO pretenses, he didn’t try to puff up his results, and he didn’t try to explain himself. He opened up his process to us, showed us what was cool and what wasn’t as cool, and trusted us with it.

I think what I mean is that Craig treated us like equals, like the co-creators he’s looking for. And I felt like I was that co-creator. He was radically being who he is, and we fell in love with him. (Ok, well, I did at least. But I guarantee I wasn’t the only one.)

The greatest gift I took from Craig was the permission to try crazy things. Craig’s novel involves interdimensional travel and chicken societies. I felt in good company. My story is an alternate/future-history fake-biography of a founder of a country that doesn’t exist yet. Let your freak flag fly, Craig, and I’ll fly mine.

Beth and Craig both modeled the kind of life-honesty I aspire to. They were in it for us, not for ego-strokings or resume-padding. That was true of all the speakers, but Beth and Craig brought an immediacy that I found inspiring.

I say honesty that “I aspire to”, but I take that back. Beth and Craig are being who they are. When we aspire we’re not fully being who we are today. So I correct myself. They modeled the kind of life-honesty that comes from not aspiring to be anyone else.

Why I’m uncomfortable with “social media strategies.”

Ok, I get it. You’re a business, or a community group, or a government agency, or a person with a website, or whatever. You believe in what you’re doing, in fact it may be your passion. You want to get in on the social media thing — and quite probably you’re already doing some of it. But it’s not working the way you’d like, you’re real serious, and you wanna step it up.

So you develop a Social Media Strategy! (In big portentous capitals.)

You freshen up your online profiles, sign up for Klout, automate your tweets to hit at peak readership times, take a 90-day Twitter challenge, and live and die by the metrics.

And you hate it. (Or you don’t! But your followers do.)

Ok, ok. Disclaimer time. I’m not actually arguing against a strategic approach to social media (I’m ALL FOR strategic approaches to just about everything). I think it’s great to use everything you can to save time and communicate more effectively. I’m a recent HootSuite convert. All kidding aside, I sincerely recommend Chris Burge‘s 90-day Twitter challenge to develop your Twitter habit. And by all means, use whatever tools you need to measure your results. (Except Klout. Alexandra Samuel is adamant on that.)

My point is to remember the point of communication, and who you’re actually communicating with. Y’know…. People.

Your purpose isn’t to drive sales, or gain Twitter followers, or maximize click-throughs. That might be the result, and that’s might be how you’re keeping score. But it’s secondary to building a network of people who genuinely believe in what you’re doing, and genuinely feel a connection to you. They don’t love you for your Klout score. They love you for the way you make them feel about themselves, their world, and their community.

Take a page from Raul Pacheco‘s book. Raul knows all about metrics – check out slide 7 of this slideshow. But read carefully. Raul’s metrics aren’t strictly numbers that can be crunched into success or failure. There’s a qualitative element to it. It’s all about the experience of the people visiting his blog, and interacting with him through it. He outs himself as all-heart when you reach slide 12 – his tips for building online communities. 100% people focused, just as it damn well should be.

And remember his final bit of advice.

Stop worrying about your stats.