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.

Off the (Business) Books

In the interest of saving time and money in terms of trying to keep up with current business and technology books, I subscribe to several book summary services. In recent days, I've been impressed by several such summaries -- and the ideas they (as well as the books they're about) contain. Here are some highlights:

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is Dean's Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts, and if that's not a cool academic title, I don't know what is. I'm sure the 400-page book is well worth reading, but GetAbstract's five-page summary turned me on to several fascinating concepts. They include the Ludic fallacy, confirmation bias, and the risks of Gaussian curves. This was my first exposure to GetAbstract, and I was pretty impressed. We'll see if every five pager is as jam packed with ideas!

Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities That Could Make or Break Your Business (via Soundview Executive Book Summaries)
Soundview's summaries are a tad longer, but at eight pages, this is still a quick read, and you're able to get the main ideas behind the book in pretty short order -- I read this one last night in bed before falling asleep. Key topics addressed in this summary include the paradox of public goods, how economists view IP as inexhaustible while businesses view them as scalable, and the current state of patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret law. Several cool examples were briefly considered, like the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, landmark cases in patenting plants and vertebrates, and McDonald's v. Quality Inns (which is touched on in Language Log). A useful primer.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (via Audio-tech)
I've had a copy of Chip and Dan Heath's book on my reading pile since it came out, and I've even exchanged emails with them. But I've yet to read the thing. So it's high time I checked out this 16-page summary. While Audio-tech tends to summarize on the long side, this is still a relatively quick read and stays a little more true to the original text. Among the highlights in this summary were the debunking of the dangers of Halloween candy, the Curse of Knowledge, the commander's intent statement (something I plan to start using when appropriate), forced prioritization, the gap theory of curiosity (discussed in Trusted.MD), and the origin of the phrase "sour grapes." I'll have to make a note to go through the book in more detail when I hit it in the old reading pile.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

An Open Letter to Vladimir Putin

Inspired by a recent screening of Sicko, an Amnesty International campaign, and today's Garry Kasparov op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, I wrote the president of Russia a letter.

President of the Russian Federation
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
Rossiiskaia Federatsia
103132 g. Moskva
4 Staraya Ploshchad
Prezidentu Rossiiskoi Federatsii

RE: Reopen the investigation into student Artur Akhmatkhanov's disappearance

Dear President Putin,

While I've yet to pick up the current issue of Time magazine, which lauds you as the 2007 Person of the Year for helping create a new Russia, I can't help but think about the ironies involved in this announcement. If you are one of the more progressive and successful world leaders, how can instances like Artur Akhmatkhanov's disappearance -- and Yury Chervochkin's death -- continue to happen under your authority?

I call on you to explain why the investigation into the enforced disappearance of Akhmatkhanov was suspended in mid-2007. This is especially concerning given that the Chair of the Chechen Parliament’s commission for the search for abducted and missing persons pledged that they would try to discover the fate of all missing persons by the end of this year.

Please reopen the investigation immediately and ensure it is conducted in a thorough, independent, and effective manner. The findings should be made public, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. Additionally, Akhmatkhanov’s family should be kept fully informed of all developments in the investigation.

I further call on you to conduct an official inquiry into the effectiveness of the investigations into enforced disappearances. Numerous judgements of the European Court of Human Rights have found the Russian authorities guilty of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and of failing to investigate them effectively and to take steps to end violations committed by Russian security forces and to ensure that law enforcement agencies operate in full accordance with Russian and international law.

Garry Kasparov's recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22, 2007) also concerns me. If you are indeed worthy of Time magazine's mantle, if you are indeed dedicated to being a respectable and progressive leader for Russia, if you are an ethical and moral human being, please end the attacks on those trying to bring a true democracy to your country. Don't fall prey to the allure of being a bully and a dictator. Because if you do, the new Russia won't be much different than the old Russia, and the country's newfound political strength will be a sign of your moral weakness.

Heath Row

Cc: U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer

If you ever get the urge to write or otherwise contact a political leader, I encourage you to do so. The best way to celebrate the rights you have is to use them.

Return to Sender

I sold a book via Amazon Marketplace, and the buyer requested that I send it to someone housed in the Federal Correctional Institution in Bastrop, Texas. I did, and the prison sent the book back to me. I received it today with the following note:

Hardcover books cannot be properly inspected without damaging the publicatoon. As a security concern, policy only allows for hardcover publications if they are received directly from a book store, publisher, or book club.

The correspondence inclosed with your mailing has been forwarded to inmate.

The following material was returned to the sender: 1 hardcover book

Kudos to the jail for sending the book back to me. Curious, however: What kind of criminal wants a copy of Christian Mikunda's Brand Lands, Hot Spots & Cool Spaces?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Quote of the Day

"I don't like 'graphic novel.' It's a word that publishers created for the bourgeois to read comics without feeling bad." -- Marjane Satrapi, "Just Asking," Wall Street Journal, Dec. 15, 2007.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

From the Reading Pile XXXIV

Another batch for Zine World:

Dance of the Skeletons #4: This excellent zine about class struggle and labor issues focuses on the realities of unionism from an IWW and anarchist perspective in this issue. There are three pieces: A story about unionizing student film projectionists at Carleton University in Ottawa, an email interview with organizer Floyd Peterson, and the details of a direct action at Carlingwood Mall. The writing touches on the challenges of organizing, the need to connect with workers, ongoing union activity, and other topics. I'd pick up this zine again, if it's this good consistently. Johnny Aztec/Braden Cannon, 6020 Cherry St., Halifax, NS, B3H 2K3 Canada; Web; email [$2 or trade 52XS :11]

Dinotaur: In the summer of 2005, Lindsey and Virgil set out on a three-month search for dinosaurs. Inspired by the Nova Scotia Anti-Tourism project, they hitchhiked, snuck into museums and zoos, and otherwise tried to learn as much as they could for as little as possible. This zine collects writing, correspondence, and photocopy collages inspired by their travels. While I would have liked more of a trip diary -- Where did they go? What did they do? -- this is still a fun read. I particularly enjoyed the ideas behind the project, the love letter to paleontologist Dr. Philip J. Currie, and the literary email exchange. Makes me want to organize a trip of my own. Dinosaurs are where you find them. Lindsey and Virgil, 3-3627 Notre Dame O., Montreal, Quebec, Canada H4C 1P6 [$1 32S :11]

Small Press Review Vol. 38, Nos. 7-8 (Issues 402-403)/Small Magazine Review Issues 154-155 (July/August 2006): Before the Internet and Web, with its infinite cacophany of blogs, online journals, and discussion forums, there was the small press. Zinemaking and being a small-press writer are labors of love, and every issue, the Small Press Review and its sister publication the Small Magazine Review hold that fact up to the cold light of day. So it's somewhat ironic that contributing editor Bob Grumman writes in this issue, "If (serious) poetry is to be saved, it will be computers that save it." True, the Web and print-on-demand publishing houses can help writers find their audiences more easily, but it is the writers who will save writing. The reviews and commentary in this long-running publication are celebrations of the people who make the chapbooks and little magazines -- who write the words -- we love to read. Thank you. Special thanks to Kaye Bache-Snyder for her accounting of money spent on participating in the small press. It's a worthwhile investment! Dustbooks, P.O. Box 100, Paradise, CA 95967; Web [$25/year 24M :20]

Smiling Disease: A Guide to Public Stickering: While it might seem silly to write a how to on stickering, Scott's friendly little pamphlet is actually quite useful. After discussing the logistics of making stickers, he offers some pretty decent advice: large stickers tend to be removed faster, don't patronize a printer who might be offended to see stickers they've made all over the place if you want to do business with them again, stickers put on straight can look like they're supposed to be there, don't sticker a mom-and-pop shop or people's private property, and clean the surface first. A quick and practical read. Scott, P.O. Box 18233, Portland, OR 97218; Web [$? 16S+five stickers :07]

Zine Show: In June 2006, this was the Irish zine event to participate in! Anto, who started the Early Irish Fanzines project, helped organize an evening of zine readings and performances at Anthology Books, which also hosted an exhibition. This exhibition catalog of sorts is a who's who of Irish zinemaking, dating back to the '70s. Several notable zines and related projects are described, including the Forgotten Zine Archive maintained by Ciaran. A wonderful introduction to the world of Irish zines. Anto, 3 Crestfield, Youghal, County Cork, Ireland; email [Free 8S :05]

From the Reading Pile XXXIII

I just submitted these reviews to Zine World, to which I haven't contributed for awhile. Lest they be too old to publish, I'm also posting them here.

5 Speed: Klyd Watkins, proprietor of the poetry Web site the Time Garden, has lived near Radnor Lake and Nashville for many years. His poetry, compared by Stephen Thomas to the work of A.R. Ammons and Charles Potts, touches on two primary themes in this collection of 24 poems: the fleeting glimpses of truth witnessed in the natural environs of Radnor Lake and the passing of time shared by people. I appreciate Watkins's inclusion of references to comments from his Web site in his work, particularly the pieces "Poam" and "I Asked for It." To quote "Chelsea's Softball Game at Whitfield Park -- 6/16/01," "As surely as civilization is neurally transmitted in little packets, there's no place right now I'd rather be." A poet to return to. The Temple Bookstore, 40 S. Colville, P.O. Box 1773, Walla Walla, WA 99362; Web [$5 56S :27]

Batteries Not Included Vol. 8 #9 (September 2006): Other than the slightly more political EIDOS, there are few sex zines as smart and intriguing as Batteries Not Included. In this issue, editor Richard Freeman jams more content in its teensy-typefaced pages than an average issue of Adult Video News. Richard Pacheco remembers his long career while watching a talk show featuring aging starlets he worked with; Cindi Loftus interviews porntrepreneur Kelly Madison; Freeman collects a number of news items about breast ironing, abuse in Liberia, and; Kate Keene reviews a new (at the time) Jonathan Morgan movie; and Jean Roberta reviews a book by Jalaja Bonheim. There's a lot here. Bring your own batteries. 513 N. Central Ave., Fairborn, OH 45324; email [$3 12M :25]

First Class #26 (February 2006): Like most small-press litzines, First Class is a mixed bag. There's no unifying theme, and it's difficult to get a sense of what editor Christopher M. is going for in terms of tone and content. But there are highlights worth mentioning. Ed Galing's poem "Day Care" sheds some light on the internal monologues possible to an Alzheimer's patient. Richard Harvell's short story "Headhunter" is an intriguing consideration of the costs of fighting crime. And spiel's story "Soda Crackers," while not fully satisfying, makes for a good companion read to Galing's piece. Lastly, I was impressed by Larry Rapant's poem "A Matter of Faith," although I was disappointed by how quickly it ended -- and how. I'm not sure First Class is a need to read, but it has potential. Keep up the good work! Four-Sep Publications, P.O. Box 86, Friendship, IN 47021; Web; email [$6 56S :43]

The F-Word (Spring 2006): I don't always like feminist zines -- too strident, too exclusive, too stereotypical -- but I absolutely adore the F-Word. It's smart, wide-ranging, and very well written. Melody seems to be in New York City now, but when this issue went to press she was going to move to California and intern at Bitch magazine. The layout is slightly haphazard -- what's up with all the house ads? -- but the writing is lively. There's a profile of sex education activist Shelby Knox; interviews with poet Alix Olson, comedian Margaret Cho, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, musician Pamela Means, and journalist Maria Raha; and other articles worth reading. Gwendolyn Beetham's piece on "gender mainstreaming" in global politics is especially interesting. Melody Berger, Web; email [$3 52M :36]

The Mystery & Adventure Book Series Review #39 (Summer 2006): Even if you're not interested in children's series books, this zine is a wonderful read for anyone interested in self-publishing and the small press. Fred Woodworth has been publishing this for more than 25 years, and over time, he's really honed his skills as an editor and printer. This issue includes features about trying to track down the person who inspired a character in John Blaine's "100 Fathoms Under," the series book artist E.H. Kuhlhoff, the history of justified text, Norvin Pallas's Ted Wilford Books, and the burial of a time capsule containing 25 zines. The letter column shows there's an active community of other series book readers, and their discussions are in depth and insightful. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this wonderful zine. It's a piece of art. Fred Woodworth, P.O. Box 3012, Tucson, AZ 85702 [Free 52M :58]