Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Social Media Tactics and Strategy: What We Can Learn from Chess and Nonprofit Association Social Media Data

by Steven S. Vrooman

When I spoke on social media at the IAEE #expoexpo, I tried to emphasize strategy. My thinking on this was informed by my love of chess and by the sayings of one of my all-time favorite players:

The problem with an Analytics approach to social media is that it is tactical and reactive. You spew content into the world, measure what works, and then try to make more of it. That's okay, I guess, but it speaks to a lack of vision or mission and a lack of understanding of your audience. 

To put it another way, there is a price to pay for outsourcing our social media strategy to your followers. When you use them as live guinea pigs for user testing, by the time you've figured out your message, they've moved on. How can you be sure they will bother coming back if you are not a celebrity? You can't.

In Tartakower's version of things, what he is talking about really is responsive versus generative thinking. If you hang a knight in a chess game or the other player hangs a knight, well, you respond to that. That's the baseline of chess competence. You respond to the needs of the position. There is something to do.

Strategy is what do do when there is nothing obvious. You need to push the position, to create imbalances you can take advantage of, to set the stage for some later tactical fireworks. You plan. You generate vision. Purpose. Meaning.

Social media to me often feels like chess in this way. And there are other similarities. It feels, occasionally, like a competition for eyeballs. You are responding to the shifting nature of the communication landscape and hoping to move first into an opportunity, maybe even to create a new opportunity.

So I am interested in strategy. I will outline some of that thinking in my next blog post, but you can also get a taste of it in my podcast episode of my talk at INBOUND 17:

I'm tired of the blog posts and conference breakout sessions devoted to tactical-only considerations, as if that is the only way to deal with social media. So we run from meeting to meeting or reading to reading, desperately trying to outcompete Facebook's feed algorithms, perhaps hoping to be lone wolf Bobby Fisher against the collective Cold War era Soviet chess machine?

Still, tactics can't be ignored. And I spent some time in some tactical analysis of 10 social media presences of associations attending the IAEE Expo (which is like an association of associations). They remain nameless in this analysis, save for a few examples below of good practice. I figured they'd be okay if someone saw what they were doing right. 

The rest of this post will take you through a lot of that tactical material. But you will find sneaky bits of strategy in here, as well. 

To start with, here's the coding system I worked out to help you interpret what will be a set of heat tables:

I developed this coding scheme iteratively, and some of it is very idiosyncratic to this particular data set. For example, pdfs are not commonly tweeted, but they were in this selection. There are many other bad practices that would go into the red category, and a few more good practices that would go in the green, but this is a start. I have been developing this general structure of analysis of good and bad social media work over the past few years as I present on social media and develop custom analyses for the groups I speak to. New things come up and surprise, but the things that work generally remain constant, and that is what this chart is based upon.

Let's move through a few key lessons learned from this data.

Should I Post the Same Content Across Platforms? Yes (Sorta).

Here's the overall picture of the 10 associations on the right. All have Facebook and Twitter presences. 6 also have Instagram, as well. 

Just looking at this image, which has been coded according to the scheme noted above, you can see at least one thing very clearly: no one is using a consistent strategy across all the platforms. This is interesting for a variety of reasons, but primarily, I get the sense that this was not done strategically or even tactically. The 3rd through 5th associations on the left have a vague pattern of similarity between Facebook and Twitter, but then Instagram is a totally different animal. This is a reflection of how easy it is to automate dual postings on Twitter and Facebook with services like Buffer, but how hard it is to do that on Instagram.

After my IAEE talk, one of the questions in the mass of people who came up to talk afterwards was this question of whether or not they should repeat content across platforms. It's a good question, as we've all probably seen those moments on Facebook when people asked each other to stop cross-posting tweets and then later, Instagrams, onto Facebook, since we all are connected with each other on all platforms and are tired of redundancy.

I had two responses to that. First, looking at the pattern of response when the same content is used across platforms in the sample above reveals no clear difference in terms of effectiveness, which is especially important given the data above, where it looks like the Instagram accounts above are filled with more personal pictures and memes than the other platforms. In the following example, which was par for the course across this data set, you can see that the patterns of interaction are similar across platforms. It looks like the pictures get more traction on Instagram, but in comparing these two posts with the platform averages (the numbers below) for this association's posts, you can see that it is not THAT much better on that platform.

In fact, the pattern of responses here is really quite similar. The dark green bar is a contest put on by the association which was advertised by a child's crayon drawing. The lighter green bar is a picture with a minor celebrity at one of the association's events. Although I coded the child's drawing as more effective with the dark green, in general, in this case the celeb won the day to about the same degree across the platforms.

Thus, my second response to the repetition question, if response structures are the same across platforms, is about that redundancy and fatigue issue. I suggested that if they are posting, say, a picture of the association staff looking at the eclipse outside their headquarters (I saw a lot of these, and I generally like that idea), that a) they should repeat that across the platforms, but b) they should use a slightly different shot for each platform, and c) they should cross advertise platforms in the post contents or comments. For example, "Here's Maria and Kim using their eclipse glasses for safety. We put a picture of Steve on Twitter doing the same thing, but his glasses are upside-down. Shh. Don't tell anyone." This gives value in seeking out the full story across platforms, and it reduces redundancy exhaustion. Let's face it -- if you are taking events pictures, you have more than you will use. You already have the resources to do this, perhaps even at this exact minute on your phone.

Should Our Content Always Be "Professional"? No. (Sorta).

This was a key issue. In fact, a lot of people came up afterwards and told me they agreed with what I was arguing but that they'd never convince the C-suite to go along with it. The people in charge wanted it "professional" and no cat pictures. 

I hear this a lot.

This is a false dichotomy. I know I wear cat suspenders to these events, but that doesn't mean everything has to be GIFs of cats jumping in boxes or conference schedule PDFs. There is an in-between.

I showed this example in the presentation. I was doing a webinar on game design and play in the classroom and did this Facebook live bit. I also did one later, showing the camera setup and other things in the studio. I told some jokes and had some fun.

Doubled my audience.

Have fun. But have "serious fun"? Don't waste people's time, but, on the other hand, your social media stream should not look like copy from the back of the brochures you have sitting on the endtables in your waiting room, either. This is advertising people are opting into. Reward them for opting in.

Here's how that works. This post crushed it for the IAAPA:

They took a popular meme image, memed it up and then dropped their logo onto it. Here's how the likes (red), shares (orange) and replies (yellow) fared in comparison to their typical results:

Big bars. I think the shape of the graphs for Facebook and Twitter are also interestingly congruent. Yet another piece of evidence that there is less of a magic formula of certain content for certain media than we tend to think.

Another way of thinking about this question of "the professional" vibe is demonstrated below on this table of Instagram likes and replies for another association:

You might think the polished (posed, poised) celebrity pictures (highlighted in purple for this moment of analysis) or the professional looking finished booth on the trade show floor (You know how this post goes, on the conference hashtag: "Come visit us in booth ### today!"), which is the yellow line, would do better. 


People would rather see pictures of regular people from the conference or backstage images (the one dark green line), in the aggregate, than the more polished ones. These conference pics, by the way, for this account, were very very casual. These were not pics of speakers on stage. These were clusters of people talking around the coffee service, etc. Those are the things we want to see. 

I want you to put the social back in the social media.

Should I Draw a Line Between My Professional and Personal Accounts? No. (Sorta).

This is hard. If I am right about all of this, it puts a lot of pressure on work-life balance issues. Well, it can, but only with a certain set of assumptions in mind.

If you assume you need to post frequently and at regular intervals because some other social media guru told you that was best practice, well, the idea that you need to arrange some sort of funny but relevant personal and quasi-behind-the-scenes peek at the organization sounds like a bit of a nightmare to do, especially when you are the one person on marketing/advertising/public relations/social media in your small nonprofit.

But do you really need to post so often?


I know, you can throw a zillion blog posts at me by people who will tell you otherwise. You know . . . . I think the likelihood that someone who is telling you that's how to do social media ALSO happens to have a financial stake in your doing just that is high. They have a subscription/consulting service or an app or a template or a book or a keynote to sell. Look, I get it, so do I. There is no way in an all-marketing world to avoid this kind of problem, but I am skeptical of an approach that tells us best practice is beyond our reach to do it alone. I think we should use extra scrutiny in such cases.

What if, instead, we built social media content for a different, and more durable and strategic purpose? If you weren't desperately trying to push quantity out of a vaguely understood sense of how this puts you into people's feeds, how much would you post? A lot less. If you only posted when you had something good to share, well, how often does that happen? 


Below I will explain why that is okay. For now, if you ultimately believe it is okay to do less to get better results, isn't that relaxing on its face? And doesn't that take some of the sting out of time stresses of getting more personal?

I am telling you you can do it alone. In much less time. I know lots of social media professionals that do. Here's what that looks like:

Let's take these in order. 

Notice? Look, you can't beat the algorithms. I always get versions of this meme looking back at me when I say this to a room of professionals who have been trying to do just that for years (and who may have had some moments of viral success):

Everyone I know whose job it has been these past 8 or 9 years to beat the system has crashed into diminishing returns. Facebook is a rich FAANG company because it hires lots of people to beat you at this game. They profit when you fail to program your content to show up on a lot of screens without resorting to paid ads. So they will beat you. Now they own Instagram. They will beat you there, too. Too many hashtags to do what used to work to get views? Shadow banned. Twitter is a bit more wild west, but in the firehose of Twitter data, do you really think the old Guy Kawasaki tip to repeat each of your posts 9 times is really going to make that big a difference in getting new eyeballs before it alienates your quality followers, your "whales" (thanks, Seth Godin), who put you into a curated list and will lose patience with your shenanigans? I just dropped 8 people from my own main Twitter list for just such behavior, even though I usually liked their stuff. It crowded everything else out.

I had this conversation with about a dozen people at the IAEE Expo and asked how long their patience extends for such things. The first thing to know is that they needed no explanation here. They knew EXACTLY what this kind of posting looked like. The second thing to know is that, although I suggested my patience wore thin and I unfollowed in a few weeks, not one of these dozen gave me more than an hour or two before they unfollowed. 

Back to basics, eh? Do no harm! Don't alienate people.

Thus, make "destination pages." Make your social media stream "sticky," to use the words of web designers. When I finally get to it, I will stick with it. Don't make social media posts which advertise themselves. Make posts which drive people back to your collected stream of posts. A scroll-by liker doesn't do you much good. You want someone to go and find your Instagram and look at all of your stuff. And stay. And comment. And tell someone else. Quality of interaction over quantity of epiphenomenal browsing is what we want. Here are some examples of social media feeds that are destinations: this and this and this and check out the San Antonio Museum of Art on Snapchat.

Engage? That's what we've already done. We've done some simple analytics designed to show us patterns of what people engage with and what people don't. The other thing I spend time on in these keynotes is that there is no such thing as quality content. We have shifting needs and are generally bad at processing information. We want to build a relationship on social media so that we don't feel like total waste-of-time failures when we are scrolling through our feeds on our phones. So there is no way to know whether you've made "good stuff" until you find out, tactically, and then build a strategy for deepening those connections with your followers. 

Of course, maybe you always had a vision, a strategy, and you just kept working away at building an organic following. So now, when you do analytics, you are not surprised. You know them well enough to know what will work. There's a good metric for you: The quality of social media strategy is inversely related to the number of surprises in your analytics data.

Share? Here's the key to this whole section. 

Make every post shareable and ad-worthy. In other words, make each post awesome enough (based on what you found out above) that people will want to share it. Maybe you strike viral gold and you feel good about your views and connections. Maybe not. But then, once you have some social proof (likes and shares are not sad 0s staring at us, telling us the content is not worth our attention), you can then make that content into a paid ad. Most platforms, including LinkedIn, push you to build ads based on posts you promote. You don't want to promote content with a small number of likes and hope people will add likes via their exposure to the ad. Yeah, right.

If you can't beat the algorithms you will need to turn to ads. Your ad strategy should be built out of what works organically with your fans in this way. 

In case your eyes are blurring with this longish blog post, here's the general set of of things years of analysis in various audience and industry contexts has shown tend to work. You can hold onto this at the end of this post and feel like a winner even if you spaced out a bit at the end there. In my next post I will detail this list with examples of what this looks like and by connecting it to a larger strategy discussion. 

Good luck out there!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Puzzle Boxes at the IAEE Expo! -- "At First It Was Hard, Then It Was Easy"

by Steven S. Vrooman

Does a blog still exist when you don't write a post for months? This, my friends, has been the busiest semester I've had in almost twenty years. Things seemed like they would balance when I agreed to speak at INBOUND17 and the IAEE ExpoExpo! Then we fast-tracked the Data Analytics Master's Program at TLU. That meant I had to overload with an additional class, a new prep at the graduate level, Data Visualization. Then some staffing shuffles meant I needed to step in as Interim Student Media Advisor at TLU, in which role I am in the process of leading the students in a strategic planning process for the future of their student media. All good projects, but when I started sinking in the swamp, I put my podcast and this blog on hiatus to catch up with my grading.

Well, I am finally writing a small post, mostly in service to the people who come to my "Can You Escape This Session?" program at ExpoExpo!

I ran the puzzle boxes workshop for the biggest group yet, and I did so in order to teach the participants how to do this themselves. For background on this project, which I do for education and professional settings, see my other posts here

The session was great, as you can see above in the video segment IAEE TV did on the session! Awesome participation and some really interesting decompression discussion afterwards. I asked groups what was easy and what was hard, and that's where the title quote came from. One participant said "At first it was hard, then it was easy." Isn't that perfect? That's what ALL education feels like. That's what all group communication things feel like, from small groups and teams up to whole conferences!

In response to their comments, I am developing ideas for a conference-wide escape/puzzle experience as well as either exhibit room wide or individual exhibitor experiences that would bridge the gap and enable more fun conversations in those spaces, which often live in between "Hey, don't take my pens/candy/logo merch without talking to me; I'm sitting right here!" and "Seriously, I can't do this right now; stop pressuring me to give you my email for a pencil." A few more ideas are percolating as a result of those conversations, so stay tuned.

Below you will find two things of use. First is the takeaway document I made for them. While you read it, how about taking my quiz on it, which would give you a combination code output for correct answers you can use to open the next lock. Second is a set of two templates for how to construct the boxes. These are real live versions of boxes I have in use, so, you know, SPOILER ALERT!!! To build your own, you need to keep track of everything and be able to answer questions from the floor. This is how I do that.

IAEE’s Annual Meeting Take-A-Way

Topic: Can You Escape from this Session?

Presenter(s) Information: Dr. Steven Vrooman, Professor of Communication, Texas Lutheran University

Date: 11/28/17

Time: 9:00am-10:00am

This session will show you how to make modular, portable puzzle rooms in the form of puzzle boxes, while you solve a box in a small group yourself. What you learn here could be scaled up to a full-on escape room at your next conference, but a locked box on a table provides quite a bit of fun, as well.

First, the spine of the thing:

  1. Have a clear learning objective. Tactile, puzzle-based learning is some of the best learning we have. Use these opportunities to get participants involved in interesting ideas.
  2. Create a takeaway text. Well, just like this one, really. They should have a bit of something to read and explore.
  3. Build a quiz or two online. Using Google Forms or some other service, make them use their knowledge of the takeaway text to finish a quiz which gives them a clue.

Second, the construction of the boxes:

  1. Think Russian dolls. Nest layers inside each other. Each layer is locked, but it should take some thinking to get through it.
  2. Delay gratification. Key locks have keys hidden in the outer layers of the box structure that you can only use later. Combination locks work the same, with clues hidden in plain sight (like cards, books or thematic artifacts), as outputs from your quizzes, or with tricks (code, invisible ink they get a blacklight for later, etc.)
  3. Map it out! Have one structure for all of the boxes, even if the theme of each (carry-on, briefcase, tackle box) changes, so you can help them when they get stuck. Put that map on paper or spreadsheet so you know what opens what lock. Because they will get stuck and text you. And you want to be confident about your answer.
Finally, the results! Association meetings and conferences and expos can be exhausting. So many slidedecks, so many business cards and pitches and logoed pens. Your schedule needs more fun. This is fun, with a hard-to-forget Tootsie Roll center of learning inside. I’ve never met a person who regretted attending a session like this.

And now for the templates. The idea is that a column is a level of the box, a sense of what is accessible at any given time in the experience. A row delves into subsequent levels and what is inside. Although these are small boxes, if you've ever done a big escape room, you will see the similarity in structure in the levels of puzzle. So this should provide a reasonable guide to scaling this kind of project [or, you know, hint, hint, you can always hire me to do it for you :) ]. Good luck, and please send me any questions you might have if you are ready to try this yourself.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Puzzle Boxes in a Professional Workshop Context, An Update

by Steven S. Vrooman

A month ago, I wrote about creating escape room style puzzle boxes to teach communication skillsI recently adapted this method to work with adults in a professional training context as part of my One-Day Communication Reset Workshop. I wondered, as I was building the experience for college students, whether or not it would work with non-students. 

It did.

That's good, because I am going to be rolling out a bigger version of this experience at the IAEE ExpoExpo! this fall, and it's nice to know that I have a fighting chance of getting some people who might enjoy this activity at my session.

They were *super* intense about it and were in it to win it. I thought there was a chance they would disengage, especially when they got to the hard parts, like reading and taking online quizzes, but they all really wanted to get those locks open.

Graphic created by Patricia Stelter

Of course, it was time for revision.

I improved on the method from the last time, generating a spreadsheet to keep track of the boxes and lock levels. No more confusion!

I also created some Google Forms quizzes that gave lock code outputs for successful completion. This shorter quiz worked well, but the longer one was a problem. I set it up so they had to retake the quiz instead of individual questions, which led to a frustrating time for some during that part. I will work on that. But the online quizzes meant they didn't have to report to me to get clues. 

That was good, because it changed our relationship during the activity. I was the hint-giver only, not a necessary interactant. Obviously I created the puzzles, so they might have directed frustration with them toward me, but I had primed them with the idea that I would give each group a limited number of hints. They couldn't know the number, so at a certain point they couldn't know, their hints would be exhausted. They had some discussions, when faced with difficulty, about whether or not to use me as a "phone-a-friend." It displaced some of the negativity they might have had about the process in a way that improved my interactions with them during the activity.

Here's a few of the things I saw:


They had two quizzes they had to complete to get codes for locks. One was on material that we had already gone over together. The other was new material they had to read and work through for the first time. Although they told me that they only learned the new material in small pieces to ace the quiz, this wasn't true. We applied those skills, on group facilitation, immediately after a break, and they definitely knew what to do. Do we under-report our learning when an activity is interesting and engaging?


They continued to show the kinds of groupthink barriers I saw the first time around. It was SOOOOOOO helpful to have them experience that, as it is groupthink that actually makes a physical barrier to success in this case! It is visceral, and we usually like to deny that we suffer from groupthink! One example of this is with the code to a text-based combination lock. One group got this combination on some tiles and had to figure out the order of the letters on the lock. They could NOT got any combination of M, D or I to work. I had to come and flip that M over to make a W. Two of them literally facepalmed.

"Win Conditions":

Groups began creating fictional "win conditions," very assertively, after a group finished first and crowed that they were in first place. One group suggested that they were the first group to have finished the longer quiz, etc. This proved an exceptionally interesting finding for our session on negotiation that would come after lunch.


I utilized this activity to prime them with failure. Games like this provide a fun experience of failure that gets subsumed into eventual success. We used some ideas from a recent Atlantic Monthly research review, "Power Causes Brain Damage,"  to talk about asymmetrical negotiation sessions. The article, by Jerry Useem, reports that merely priming people by asking them to remember a success, makes people less effective at things like accurately reading other people. So we practiced a bit with priming our failures. I'm not sure we did it systematically enough to draw conclusions from, as we had many other goals for the day, but it is interesting!

I'm still processing some of what I saw. (I still have boxes of open locks to sort through!). But I think this is a positive experience in the development of this method.

Stay tuned for more reports, especially after I use these boxes in a session at #EXPOEXPO in the fall. I have done it with pre-existing groups only thus far, students and now a team at a nonprofit. In my upcoming session, there will be a lot of strangers coming together to experience this. Should be interesting!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Can We Start Treating Social Media Professionals Like, Well, PROFESSIONALS, Please????

We treat our social media professionals extremely poorly, as a whole. Underpaid, overworked, and often *just* under full time. I know a lot of people work under those conditions, not just social media folks, but I only know a BARE HANDFUL of people who work in social media who are fairly compensated. 

We all pay the price for having our collective social media environment compiled by the angry, overworked and disrespected. Can you not feel it sometimes when you scroll? Do you think the inhuman spew of repeated and recycled content just shows up there because of strategy? Because Guy Kawasaki said to repeat things nine times? Or is it because we refuse to pay social media workers a living wage yet still demand the magic of increasing metrics?

Below is a Facebook post from a few days ago on this subject, with the names of people and businesses redacted. It struck quite a nerve. I hope it will strike a nerve with you. If it does, please share this. We need to shift this conversation and our expectations.


The ______ people should be ashamed of themselves! Read this job ad and tell me how you do all this as a part-time only position? And then you are gonna ask applicants to apply by revealing their current salary? These are the kinds of jobs my students and graduates want, so you know how low that number is working the school mailroom or at Sonic. I am appalled by how poorly social media workers are treated in this part of Texas.

As a department chair, I get calls all year from people who want a student to come do this for free. They actually pitch it to me as something like "They love social media, so this will be a fun environment for them." Yeah. Totes. Surrounded by old people who won't pay you and think what you do is crap, but, unfortunately, needed. Sounds super fun.

Here's a tip local employers: your social media person could very quickly have more work to do in a week than your manager. And for a smaller business, they are sometimes your entire communication/marketing/PR/advertising/customer service department. In other words, in many instances they are the hardest working and most important person in your company. But, yeah. Being stuck to your phone at 1am to up your Facebook response metric while you figure out how to meet your performance goals while not, once again, working too many hours this week, yep. That's the life, right there. It's great to know you work harder than everyone but get the least respect or compensation.

As Mr. Knightly says to Emma, "Badly done."


Here are a few of the responses I got to this, all within a half hour of posting:

“Finally, someone who isn't a millennial gets it.” ➖ Fernando Rover

“I have this conversation all the time with fellow marketing/comm/PR colleagues. We really think it's because people don't value creative work or see these types of jobs as actual work. It's the same reason people don't want to pay $5 to listen to a band or are under the impression design work is free. For some reason, everyone thinks they're creative or a writer. It's very frustrating.”  Ashlie Ford

“This is all too familiar, all too close to home for me😐 And, this type of job is NOT a recent grad grunge job - as it clearly states, this person is responsible for the brand of the company, they are the front door of customer service and the creative marketer behind the company. They want genius for nothing, they want art for nothing, they want passion for nothing, they want experience for nothing, they want intuitive creativity for nothing. This ad is the epitome of how businesses large and small perceive online engagement - "we know we need to do it, but we think it's for chumps." And, fyi, most recent college grads have no concept of how to WORK in social media. A social media professional is needed to TEACH them how.”  Michelle Johnson

"I'm so glad I'm not the only one who's as frustrated by stuff like this..."  Haley Hannon

“This is terrible. Others have said it more eloquently than I, but yeah. This is stupid.”  Connor Dillon

Connor followed up with: "The commonality of the problem? Enormous. I look at job boards almost every day, and quite a few places hire for the more creative roles as managers, put them on a part time salary (so they don't have to pay overtime) and call it good. It's a business tactic I've seen a lot.”

“This is spot on. Administrating a good and effective Facebook page is VERY time consuming and requires almost constant monitoring. Well said!”  Mary Shahan

This comment got the following follow-up:

“Not including Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger, and managing communities like Yelp, TripAdvisor...I could go on and on but what for.”  Angelica Mata

And then there was this amazingly epic rant from an old friend who extended the issue to all sorts of people who do creative work online:

“You have no idea...being a professional artist is devastating...your friends and family and half the people on your social media think since you have a "fun" job you shouldn't be paid for it, because it's fun and you’re already good at it so why pay. Even worse I crossed over into graphics and media to find the perception is even worse, because they don't use "real tools and art type things so it's not like they have to do the work of a real artist."
Except the "real" artist like me doesn't have a "real" job because it's fun so I'm not really working because anyone can paint right?
It's just mind boggling because as the PR social media "Marketing Manager" you’re just playing on a computer like you would be at home anyhow...right, an intern should be doing this so they get practice...but you’re right that student will take over everything, bring up the sales, numbers exposure and get a following and then the boss usually thinks "Cool, we did you a favor and gave you a great portfolio piece" then they let you go because your job is "done" right...you got us what we needed so now Harry the new intern can take over your hard work and totally change the social media program for his portfolio....right? Making your work completely unusable for your portfolio and when you mention to the next company that you didn't get a salary for it...the problem then carries on to the next guy...
As a mural artist running my own business on my own for 15 years I was given a few responses while trying to even be considered for a "normal" job when the housing crash happened...my favorite most common response was " why do you want to work for us if you can paint like this?"
Apparently the roles reverse when you actually try to get the "real job" everyone tells you to grow up and get... 
And yet I still continue to ask myself...how did the perspective not change over the years...how is it possible that artists of all kinds who are good at their craft are perceived as not worth paying for the skills they have sweated for and painfully learned over the years, but not qualify for being capable of learning to be a phone rep, a burger tosser or an inventory clerk for side money? Successful artists, especially musicians, don't even get paid what they should have, yet everyone thinks they are rich... 
Now get to the millenials who are real good at social media, marketing and they call it socializing....yet it actually runs and becomes the core of their business....but they want a student to do it for free...
 Seriously you get to where you just want to stab yourself or someone else in the eyes with a fork when this cycle starts...no wonder why many talented and skilled professionals have no desire to offer their services....” ➖ Amber Dawn, from Murals by Amber Dawn


I did have one person whose comment was like “Boo hoo, that first job out of college sucks.” But the people who commented above range in age from 22 to north of 65. This is not about college, really. This is about how we treat people with skills that are central to our business while we create the sense that bros with MBAs get sweet gigs in offices and immediately drive down productivity numbers.

The social media workers you string along think you, in your office, writing job ads like this one, asking for 5 years of experience on software that has only existed for 2 years, are exactly the source of data that the “average” office worker has only 45 minutes of productivity a day.

Does it bother you at all that the people who are the public face of your company hate you? Don’t you think we are careening toward an enormous downside?

One of the comments mentioned that if this company knew anything at all it would have contacted me to take down my rant. But no one noticed. So more bad PR  . . .
 . . . or did they? They still have posts going up on social media. The person who is leaving the job is still there, waiting out the last weeks before their better opportunity.

Did they look at my post and laugh? Did they, knowing the boss doesn’t know anything and wasn’t going to look, simply look at the comments and smile knowingly, leaving it alone, caveat emptor?

If we keep treating people like this, there will be consequences.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Answer to the Nine Dots Prompt, "Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible:" -- “We Are the Unembraced: Technology Gave Us Captial P Politics, and Now It Takes It Away”

by Steven S. Vrooman

I submitted an entry for the Nine Dots Prize on their inaugural theme: "Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?"

Looking at it now, months later, I am trying wayyyyyy too hard to squeeze way too much into the word count. The idea that mass media gave us a small window of "mass" politics in the middle of the 20th century which we now mourn the passing of is still something I think is interesting and correct. But I approach this question with a style that seesaws a bit too much from a casual lit review to quick pop culture references. In my defense, I could not tell whether they wanted a more or less academic text, even after researching the organization and the people behind it. If I were to do it again, I think I would choose more pop culture and less theory, but I write these words two hours before the prize winner is announced. We'll see if my prediction of what they want is true.

Okay, the results were just announced. Looking at some excerpt's of winner James Williams' submission, it sounds like they wanted academic after all. Ah well, it is better to make a choice than try to do it all, as I did. If it's wrong, well, then, next time.

So what you see below is a sandstone of approaches that may not, ultimately, be structurally sufficient. I hope to return to this idea in the future. In which case this post will stand as an early, failed form of these ideas. 

This is the core of writing: failing and then revising.


“We Are the Unembraced: Technology Gave Us Captial P Politics, and Now It Takes It Away” 

Politics is impossible. Not the brute Laswellian mechanic of who gets what when why how.

What has long been impossible is the inevitability of the embrace, the optimistic Aristolean entelechial dream of the enormous, affirming group hug of civilization. Aristotle suggests that such an outcome is logically inevitable, as we might expect of a thinker fulsome with the sameness of his Athenian tribe, here at the beginning of his Politics and its dream, where he is three mere paragraphs away from an insulting discourse differentiating women and slaves and bees: “But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”

This faith that goods are additive into a magic Emerald City polis is, as are so many of Aristotle’s ultimately cloistered Aquinian faiths, cute. This faith is not simple. It involves conflict and compromise, but it sees inevitable “harmony” resulting from that, unlike the single beat or foot of music he critiques in Socrates’ political ideas in Book Two. While he awaits the final swell of a Garlandian thematic reprise in Victor Fleming’s musical, we live in a world of more complex harmonics.

Bernard Crick, who has come to represent a battered postwar version of a faith in the telos of politics, writes in an age in which the devil’s tritone has been pulled from satanic dissonance into Baroque harmonies and bebop improvisation. Unlike Aristotle, he sees political good as an axiological commitment, not an ontological inevitability, embracing, as many did in a century of fascists, political process as a bulwark against horror. 20th century dissonance, as in jazz, resolves into something approaching harmony only with “tolerance and diversity” for Crick.

Crick understands that group hugs are awkward. They are work.

Although Crick talks “compromise” fifty years ago, he really seems to be after what the business school gurus will eventually call win-win problem solving. In a compromise we both feel like we lose. And in a world where, as E. J. Dionne writes, we “hate politics,” and, as polls continue to show, distrust it, so many seem willing to Brexit and Trump their way past politics to something that looks an awful lot like win-lose problem-solving, as they vote to protect their tribe, their community, their family, their race, their dream, their illusion, their jobs, their nostalgic picture of a better time.

So much for the grand, “big tent” wins of the coalition-builders.

Does that kind of politics no longer exist?

It might be more prudent to ask if it ever existed.

Have we abandoned the big tent group hug Emerald City major chord politics of yesteryear in a digital stream of narrowcasting, fake news echo chambers and unfollows? Or was Crick always peddling an illusion he knew we needed as a motivator whilst Stalinism rose on ballistic plumes in the east and Blitzed buildings went on to a second decade of unrepair?

Ah. Now we’re talking rhetoric, another Aristotelan passion which Crick departs from, unfortunately equating it with vapidity and sophistry, exactly the things Plato wished to rescue it from, by, well, writing to defend “truth” in dialogues where he made up dumb things for his sophisitic opponents to say before they recognized that he was right, like classical age wish-fulfillment fanfiction, complete with a “yes” at the end.

If we are to suggest, for a moment, that Aristo-Crickian politics is impossible, we are left with a definition of politics as the art of achieving the least-bad outcome for your tribe. Big tent group hug coalitions happen when those least-bad outcomes dovetail. Candidates win when they can narrowcast least-bads to a governing preponderance of groups. Get out the vote is more reliable than convincing the other side. Which sounds like a departure from a rhetoric that might involve persuading someone who thinks differently than you do.

Instead, we’ll shift past Aristotle’s rational, conscious, mental, calculation-heavy, try-hard formula of the “use of the available means of persuasion in any given case” to a post-Freud Kenneth Burke, who posits that persuasion happens via the magic of identification in a quasi-mystical commingling. It is hard to say when it happens, which is fair, as if you, reader, were to list all the times you changed your mind about something important as an audience member, I imagine the list would be shorter than that for your weekly groceries.

It is a shift to the “you can’t not communicate” era of unconscious complexity given to us by ethnographers of ritual like Gregory Bateson, who suggests that our words and gestures sound a lot more like animal noises, the very differentiator Aristotle used to justify his entelechial faith at the beginning of his Politics. For Bateson, people just kinda suck at information-processing. Most of what we say is ritualized friendship messaging. We, like Democratic candidate Al Gore in his AME church event, simply and awkwardly continually try to communicate fealty. I am here. I care.
We have, then, always lived in small echo chambers of friendship since we dropped from the trees and needed another set of eyes to look for big cats.

Politics and Rhetoric should not be separate books.

Does Martin Luther King convince white America with his ideas, or does he simply use enough religious code words to convince the Bible belt that he is part of that tribe, as Selby seems to suggest? Is social change the result of cognitive dissonance in tribal identities as much as it is anything?

One more moment for rational faith in rhetoric comes from the optimistically monikered “new rhetoric” of postwar argument theory. Stephen Toulmin adds markers of uncertainty and calculation to syllogistic reasoning, suggesting, for example, that in a world of diverse audiences and complex knowledge, arguments have a “modal” qualifier which signifies a level of certainty. Practical argument in an uncertain world, I guess, requires us to diagram that the claim “Kanye West is a genius,” is, even for its proponents, not at all meant with anything approaching certainty.

Better work in the new rhetorical school comes from Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, who catalog every form of argument they can find in a rather exhaustive reading list of Western discourse. Perelman, who remembers being unpersuaded, not believing the Holocaust was possible when first told of it in his office in Belgium, is an enthusiastic student of the impediments to persuasion. His catalog of argument spends more time stripping the logic out of argument, calling it, at best, quasi-logical, a general form that looks like math, maybe, perhaps, if you are bad at math and don’t really know much.

Perelman, for example, finds that most argument seems to proceed from example or cause, with more paradoxes and errors in both topoi than you’d think. He emphasizes the impossibility of a universal audience to respond to the premises of argument, which Toumlin, for his part, reduces from “major premise” to the accurately and inevitably ambiguous notion of a “warrant,” which, like the legal document, simply authorizes us to move to the claim, to the end, inside the door to search for contraband. For Perelman, premises must be given “presence” like “Caesar’s bloody tunic” and he spends the end of the book dithering into how we more readily break philosophical pairings than build them.

All of this adds to a world where reasoning, the kind of thing you’d need to compromise, is fraught, mistaken and rare.


We return, again, to Aristotle. He suggests that there is such a thing as an enthymeme, an incomplete argument. This could be a persuasive tool, as when you suggest the two premises that have only one logical outcome and let the audience say it themselves: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. So….?” But the dark side enthymeme, which we would expect to be triumphant in a world beyond Aristo-Crickian politics, is fantastically common. In this case we drop a piece of evidence and barrel on to the claim, because, you know, we are preaching to a narrowcasted choir. We rely on the old saws (loci, for Perelman) of our tribe and expect them to be able to provide the chamber’s echo. When Fox News suggests a candidate might raise taxes, for example, there is no need to remind the tribal hordes of the major premise/warrant that “Taxes are bad.”

So is technology free of the burden of its contribution to making this kind of politics a dodgy business at best, the kind of thing that exists most clearly in Aaron Sorkin programs and heavily-advanced political autobiographies? Are we all choirs to our chosen preachers, clicking our ruby slippers to go home when confronted with another opinion, whether we are on Facebook or in the donut shop?

Not entirely.

The dream of technology, since Howard Rheingold coined the term “virtual community” in books he wrote in the pre-web 90s with pictures of himself wearing pajama pants on the back covers, was to foster connections of ideas. If you are a brony or lover of bar graphs or Blue Note LPs or late 19th century US presidential facial hair or long discussions of which Shoshtakovich symphonies count as art, the Internet is the place for those conversations, as they usually don’t fly between frames at the bowling alley. The unabashed optimism of the early days of the Internet was that it meant that someone out there, somewhere, dug the same obscure shit you did.

And this isn’t new. Since even before Paul innovated new uses of a distributed communication technology, the publicly performed letter, to expand and cement an enormously successful tribal identity, the early Christian church, since before Virgil piggybacked on the Homeric poetic invention of Troy to remythologize Rome, since the beginnings of writing and song and myth, we use communication technology to craft tribes.

Although lazy enthymemes and choir-preaching are inevitable rhetorical habits in a world built of communities and tribes, the act of seeking out, riskily, additional connections with a new tribe based on a new interest or secret passion is structurally different than the passive replication of the memes of your clan over Sunday dinner or football halftime or happy hour.

That kind of entry into a pre-internet irl wizarding world has so many nostalgic paeans that it is hard to imagine 20th century popular culture without this story: the smoky jazz club luring you with its horn riffs, the underground record store smelling of pot, the surfers rolling in the swells after dawn, the mysterious colors and textures of yarn on the craft store shelves, the nerds fighting with swords in the park in the afternoon, the folded party flyer you’re sure most people don’t know about, the hushed up Bible study in that 3rd floor dorm room, the older kids who hang out in the back of the comic book store with Crumb comics and quiet when you walk by, the Tupperware party at the end of the cul-de-sac you finally got an invite to, the like-minded political meeting at 6pm in the conference room in the back of the library.

We have always been, just a bit, the Gore Vidals of our lives, looking for what we can archly appreciate as an inside joke, even though the rival 70s icon, George Plimpton, autoethnographically finding a way to do everything and then ruining it by writing a tell-all, just sounds more real, even though the opposite seems like the truth.

In Internet makes the search for the smoky rooms easier, and it also makes it easier to crowd out everything else. I’m looking at you, Tumblr.

So it should make our tribal-style politics easier, too, while at the same time reducing Crick’s axiological bridge-building.


But was it really that hard before?

Or have we just recently popped what felt like the new normal bubble of 20th century collective broadcasting, when we all watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite crying when we landed on the moon and all read the same papers that pretended we were all duped by Welles’ War of the Worlds until we believed it was true?

Was the group hug moment of political life across the world a temporary function of the big media monopoly bubble that lived on in our memories as the way-it-should-be even if it was no longer the-way-it-is when the Paramount decision and new TV channels Howard Bealed the media into market shares?

When exactly, in fact, did this Technicolor dream of politics exist, this foundational historic moment of better times, this Golden Age fallacy which, as in Baudrillard, is a simulacra, a vision of visions, a text of texts, a medium of media which represents what we wish it was as much as anything else.

Politics and education, even amongst academics who might know better, share this tendency to believe that students and voters of the past were smarter, paid more attention, and probably ate more fiber.

Giddens suggests a reason for this pervasive Yellow-Brick Age fallacy in another context, when he suggests that the complexities of modern life and its abstract and expert structures, technologies and discourses which proliferate but which we don’t get, induce both increased states of trust and faith in buildings and vehicles and institutions and discourses which we don’t understand but which require magical fealty in order to satisfice our ways though life and something like Kroker’s panicky concern at the lack of the grounded Real that Baudrillard and other salty postmoderns keep swiping out from under us. We wish for a simpler time while we enjoy all the channels and apps. We don’t understand the simpler time either, the jazz tritones, how Fallingwater’s cantilevers stay in the air, how three strips of Technicolor come together into one film, whether or not TV pictures break apart into pieces and fly through air over Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka hair, how the little rectangles on the punch cards worked in the mainframes, what the difference was between the superchargers and the turbochargers installed in the Pony cars that boomer dads raced past Rydell High. But we all know someone who says they did, even if they are just bullshitting us.

They tell us that back in the day they could take apart their VW engine on the lawn and have it working again by the end of the day but now mechanics work by popping a thumbdrive dongle into the slot under the dash, which seems improper even without the symbolic overtones. They tell us that back in the day the polls were never surprised. They tell us that back in the day, as my grandfather swore, that Gone with the Wind somehow got colorized later and everyone just lied about it.

We know that Ozzie and Harriet and Anne of Green Gables and Upstairs Downstairs and even Godzilla were always already nostalgia bombs, but we want to believe that big P politics hasn’t always already been an impossible game we built on the endorphinned memories of the war correspondents who built the network news.

In the 70s, Anselm Strauss was exploring the constant segmentation of our social worlds across geographic and interest boundaries, with the inevitable battles of legitimation and authenticity, and Dick Hebdige was exploring exploding subcultures as Star Trek fans were finding ways to share mimeographed erotic fan fiction via mail-order catalogs.

Technology is the fever dream of unity, the CRT LCD glow of electrified human connection, but the deep structure of that connection is the ham radio after midnight “Can anyone hear me?” you drop after your callsign, or the phone number you found in the back pages of the local free paper from the head which you call on your Hayes Micromodem II to connect to a MUD, or the new local show about the surf at your beach you found on a 3-digit channel on a cable box you didn’t know went up that high, or the pimped-out MySpace page of the sweet new band your friend from history class said the flute player in the marching band her cousin was drum major for said was going to be the next big thing on TRL, or the new trending subreddit that was the community that you always wanted to find but doubted existed.

Politics is the fever dream of humanity. But its deep structure is of people finding their tribes and cooperating just enough to defend them.

Our task is to study the textures by which technology and politics haunt each other, structure and move each other while we burst the cynical histories that suggest that something is, in fact, different about now. Every now feels like a surprise, like a discontinuity with the mythology we have been weaving around ourselves. That feeling, which feels like wisdom, is in fact the oldest mistake. It is a grit of sand which we always seem to use to spitball ourselves another pearl we can inevitably spit upon the shore of the new world on which we will inevitably land, a beach of millions of grains of sand which always seem to be just too much to swallow.

If we study those textures, those eddies, those magical currents, those surprises, if we can work through this history while resisting the lure of myth, if we can turn to the technological rhetoric of politics, and if we can use this different pearl-less faith, perhaps we can grab a more secure hold on the house as its spins, one more time, through the twister. And when we leave our yellow-bricked golden age behind, perhaps we can learn to love living as the people behind the curtain, people who see the wizard on the screen as what he really is, a flawed sideshow that still brings us all together.