Monday, December 31, 2007

On the Age of Conversation

When The Age of Conversation first came out in July, I was intrigued enough by the Advertising Age review that I bought a copy of the PDF.

As the founder of Fast Company magazine's readers network, the Company of Friends, which is going through a transition these days, and as a contributor to Seth Godin's book The Big Moo, I saw several promising ideas in the project. "100 voices. 1 conversation." All proceeds going to charity. And I knew several participants: Valeria Maltoni, David Armano, Susan Bird, Thomas Clifford, and others. Seems like it should be right up my alley!

In any event, I bought the e-book, I read it almost immediately, and I didn't really like it. I've wanted to write about some of my impressions and reactions for some time but didn't necessarily want to actively criticize what I think is a positive, community-oriented, collective publishing project -- that I think fell flat. Regardless, I want to share some of my feelings before I recycle the printout as printer paper in order to reach some sort of closure. On what, I'm not exactly sure. So please take this post with a grain of salt, some sour grapes, and a crumbling cookie.

First of all, I was kind of put off by the assertion that this project was a first. Sure, this could be the first self-published book to involve 100 contributors. But the project pretty clearly may have been inspired by Godin's The Big Moo, which involved 33 contributors and donated its proceeds to three charities. I'm not really concerned about the editors giving credit for inspiration to Seth's project, but because he's certainly someone who'd be on their radar -- he's mentioned by a couple of contributors, including the author of the very first piece -- it's a little odd that the parallels would go unmentioned. Not every inspiration needs to be credited, but the similarities between the projects are too strong for there to be no connection.

Secondly, unless you're going to actively edit and organize a book like this, the whole approach of 100 contributors serving up one page -- 400 words -- on a similar topic can lead to repetition and echo chamber-like self-reference. Reading this was somewhat frustrating because most of the pieces were pretty similar, and the consistencies meant that I couldn't really tell one piece or one contributor from another. That leads to a couple of challenges: One, no strong voices really stood out, and two, any major subthemes or threads were lost in the cacophony of like-minded voices. This was particularly frustrating because the book was organized alphabetically by contributor's last name. Some thought was given to how it'd flow. My guess is that the alphabetical structure was intended to democratize the level of attention paid to the multiple voices. But in the end, it just struck me as lazy.

Thirdly, even as a long-active online communitarian, I got really tired of all the references to community, conversation, listening, and relationships. Yes, all three things are important. Very much so. But when you're reading an anthology like this -- a project that in many ways is preaching to the choir -- the very building blocks and common parlance of the discussion can come across as cliches and trite expressions of half-baked ideas. We need to move beyond warm fuzzies and touchy feelies and onto more solid ground if we're going to reach the people we need to reach and accomplish what we want to do.

Additionally, one of the possibilities offered by a conversational and collective publishing project like this is the opportunity for dialogue and some kind of iterative improvement or progress on the ideas and topics. I assume that no one but the editors read any of the entries en masse before going to print because there are no intertextual references or connection between the selections. Rather than a 100-person discussion, the book is more like 100 soap box speakers set up in the same public plaza. 100 one-way diatribes versus a conversation among 100 participants. If I wanted to, I could read these 100 people individually -- most have their own blogs and projects. The benefit of the book is getting them all in one place to see what kind of sense can be made collectively. That wasn't really explored.

And finally, because I don't want to fall prey to the very things I'm criticizing any more than I have already, I would have liked to have seen more reliance on primary sources rather than secondary sources. Chances are, we all have many of the same touchstones -- Godin, Martin Seligman, Guy Kawasaki, etc. Chances also are that quoting or citing them will have less impact than uncovering and sharing something new -- and a little closer to the bone and the source. Similarly, I was struck by how many people involved in the project were consultants and communicators rather than individual contributors or practitioners. I could totally be wrong, but other than the occasional mention of a blog, there was very little material explicitly drawing on experience in a project, organization, or company. Being a social media consultant is meaningful work, but I'd like to know more about people's projects and products.

What did I like? Lots of things, believe it or not. Almost every contributor has a blog or Web site that they work on or contribute to, and if you turn all of the bylines into bookmarks, your online reading list will be well set into the foreseeable future.

Several contributions also really rang my bell. Peter Corbett's insight on his firm Blattner Brunner's use of social media optimization was interesting. Phil Gerbyshak's exhortation to follow up with handwritten notes as well as online communication was well received. (I sent a friend a thank-you card today.) Kristin Gorski's comment on the value of commenting on other people's blogs made me wonder whether one could blog solely through comments -- and how to aggregate that aspect of online conversation. Jessica Hagy's entry was sheer poetry. Sean Howard's neo-flowchart was a hoot and a half. AJ James, Emily Reed, and Sacrum B. Rown each offered bits of visual punctuation that provided welcome breathers in what was otherwise a text-heavy endeavor. John La Grou showed how social media can impact one particular practice -- that of religion. (The term "microclesia" is wonderful.) And Joe Raasch provides a useful model for discussion with his "no limit conversation."

Last but not least, despite any criticisms or concerns that I might have, it's awesome that this book exists. Kudos to Gavin Heaton and Drew McLellan for spearheading the project. And congratulations to all of the contributors for being included -- you're in great company.

In the end, I think I was hoping for less many-to-one communication and more many-to-many-to-one communication in this project. That might not have been the point.


Phil Gerbyshak said...

Heath - thanks for sharing your honest feedback about this book. While it wasn't the first of its kind, I still enjoyed reading it (and of course being part of it). Glad you were able to glean some value from this project. I'm proud to be part of the group, and am better for having gone through the process.

Valeria Maltoni said...

Good insights, Heath. Thank you. As you know from our years of dialogue with CoF, it is often quite difficult to 'herd cats' when speaking about a large number of people. I would have liked more involvement with the project besides the one page contribution.

We have not yet figured out how to work and think in groups. Having a better handle on editorial and the organization of material would have been more productive for everyone. It would have certainly enabled greater conversation. I for one prefer to facilitate and build with others than work in a vacuum.

I chose to delve into conversation @ work because it is still a sort of myth. One I am working to dispel as I move along in my career. In the end, it is quite difficult to admit to falling for "not invented here" even outside the confines of an organization...

Happy New Year to you and your loved ones. Let's have coffee next time I am in the City.

Cam Beck said...

Thank you for your honest appraisal.

I actually put the bylines to use by creating an OPML file that can be imported into a reader. If you're interested, give me a shout and I'd be glad to send it to you.

Participating in this project has helped me expand my reading list tremendously.

Mario Vellandi said...

As a fellow contributor, I've found many of your points as valid. It would have been helpful to see the topics organized by some sort of genres or categories. Much of the writing after a while seems to flow into one big mass of fuzzy and warm 'community' and 'conversation'.

When giving the book to friends, I told many that they'd find some of th material interesting, some 'okay', and some great.

Again, thanks for the feedback.