Archives for the month of: October, 2009

Ever since I discovered them, I’ve been fascinated by something called “performatives” in speech. These are statements that inherently change the state of affairs. The classic one is “naming,” as in “your name is. . . .” Before the statement, I did not have a name (or it was different).  After that statement, I did. It was the statement itself that gave me the name.

Another one is “I nominate you.” Before I say that, you are not nominated. After I say it, you are. My saying it makes it so.

Performatives came to my mind when I read recently of the woman who got jailed for violating a protection order — by poking someone on Facebook.

Picture poking Jeffs Video poking me by Flickr user ogimogi

"Picture poking Jeff's Video poking me" by Flickr user ogimogi

In trying to explain to the uninitiated what a Facebook “poke” is, the article says:

“Poking is a feature unique to Facebook that conveys no other message but informing a user they have been ‘poked’ by another user.”

This is a kind of performative, although trivial in its meaning.

Social media is filled with such performatives, in fact you could say that this is its currency.

Simply by virtually saying “I follow you,” this makes it so in Twitter. By saying “I accept your friendship,” it’s made manifest in Facebook. I only “like” something after I have said I “like” it.

Social media, in other words, is a semiotician’s playground. Of course this is nothing new, but think about the consequence this has on the so-called real world.

Because there is a land that so many of us occupy, in which performatives hold such sway and power, the very utterance of certain words and phrases (“poke,” “like,” “friend”) can give rise to all manner of effects. Why, I can get arrested!

This is a major shift in social relations, one which we are only beginning to grapple with. It is both exhilarating and frightening to imagine what our social norms will be in ten years, given the trajectory we are on.

In this week’s edition of my podcast, Public Life Today, I talk about my friend who’s a civil engineer. The other day, he happily observed to me that none of his bridges had ever fallen down.

It caused me to rethink a few things about my own work. What if I approached my work with the intention of making sure it would still be there in 40 years?

I’ve had more than my fair share of occasions to hire someone. I’ve done it on my own, and in teams of people. I’ve been the one making the decision, and I’ve been in an advisory capacity.

failure by Flickr user tinou bao

"failure" by Flickr user tinou bao

There’s a question I always ask, but that I myself have never been asked. Indeed, when I ask it, most colleagues seem to respond somewhere between rolling there eyes and looking at me in shock. But I think it’s one of the most important questions you can ask.

It’s this: “Tell me about a time that you, personally, failed.”

What I am listening for is the quality of being able to admit that I failed. In my experience, this is an incredibly rare quality. It is the building block for the kind of humility I want my colleagues to exhibit and that I want the initiatives I lead to exhibit.

I am looking for someone who actually has an answer to the question.

In fact, so few people actually answer the question as posed, that I have had to rethink my approach. I used to see the question as fundamental and not being able to answer it was a serious downcheck. Now I’ve flipped it around — not having a good answer is neutral, while having a decent answer (or any answer) is a big-time plus.

Failures Are Not Mistakes

Note that the question does not ask about a project that failed. That would elicit interesting information and reveal something important about how a candidate goes about understanding and organizing their work.

The question also does not ask about a “mistake.” We all make mistakes and they can be big and small. I am looking for a mistake that rises to the level that the person individually would call a failure. It may not have momentous consequences, but it needs to have significance.

This question is all about mindset.

I prefer to work with people who can admit they were wrong, because it makes it easier for me to admit when I am wrong. It’s so easy to see admission of failure as a sign of weakness. It’s what we’re taught from the beginning, especially when it comes to the workplace.

But people who behave that way are a drag. When they do fail, by not being able to own up to it, they create churn, resentment, and inefficiencies. Plus they seem to have bad karma that can just be a bummer to be around.

The Humility Of Organizations

But humility is an increasingly critical skill for organizations and their leaders to have, too. The last decade has seen the empowerment of the individual in ways no one could have imagined.  As organizations make missteps in this environment, they will have to apologize. For an object lesson, look at the difference between Domino’s Pizza (who addressed a problem head-on, with sincere remorse) and United Airlines (who stonewalled and tried a token donation to a nonprofit).

In this environment, to pretend that one is always right is no longer just ludicrous. It is a recipe for — well, for failure.

Everyone fails. I want the organizations, initiatives, and people I work with to be able to own up. This is the kind of weakness that makes everyone stronger.

A North Carolina foundation has announced that its Facebook fan page cracked 1,000 fans. The Pretty in Pink Foundation in Raleigh, NC provides financial help to North Carolina women diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Pretty In Pink Foundation Reaches Social Media Milestone,” blares the headline. Says the executive director of the foundation: “Reaching this key social media milestone during Breast Cancer Awareness month demonstrates how much the community supports our efforts.”

Turnstile, Perranarworthal by Flickr user Tim Green aka atoach

"Turnstile, Perranarworthal" by Flickr user Tim Green aka atoach

On the one hand, this is an unremarkable event and the press release reads like the usual announcement from a PR firm touting anything and everything just to have something to say. That was my first reaction.

On the other hand, here I am talking about it. Why? I think there are lessons to be learned here for public leaders.

There’s a shift happening on what constitutes “support.”

In Facebook, “fanning” a page is a micro-action, taking just one click. So to announce 1,000 fans seems trivial indeed. To translate it into real world terms, it’s as if you set out an information table at the mall, and had a stack of fliers. A “fan” might be everyone who picked up a flier. By that logic, this announcement is akin to issuing a press release that you ran out of fliers.

But on Facebook, once you’ve picked up that flier, you’ve given permission to be contacted. While the act of giving permission, or fanning the page, is trivial – the effect goes beyond that.

Many leaders in the community benefit sector look skeptically at the hype and buzz surrounding social media, especially at numbers that purport to show “engagement” but that don’t bear a close relationship to the real world. Indeed, it’s easy to get sucked into Facebook-land and begin to think that a certain number of fans is the goal of any given initiative.

But if you can look past that, and see social media as an efficient way to get permission to contact people on an ongoing basis, the utility becomes much more apparent. Who doesn’t want 1,000 people who’ve agreed to get information from you?

But it goes beyond that. Facebook contains built-in mechanisms for interaction. Say I’ve fanned Pretty in Pink, so on my main Facebook home page, I see they’ve posted this reminder: “Remember, October is breast cancer awarness [sic] month. Share the gift of hope with someone you love. Spread the word that Pretty In Pink is here to help.”

I can then “like” the update, which lets my Facebook friends see that I support Pretty in Pink, and also gives feedback to PiP themselves. There is a series of self-reinforcing microactions PiP’s fans can take that, over time, can add up to more loyal fans. For instance, in addition to “liking” one of PiP’s updates, I can comment on it. Another PiP fan might comment on that. I’ll get a notification that someone has commented after me. Now we’ve got a little group going. (On my own page, these kinds of interactions happen regularly, with people exchanging views without my intervention.)

The trick, for community benefit organizations working in social media, is to turn these new kinds of “supporters” into real-world donors and volunteers. This is a hurdle that it’s both hard to get over, and easy to lose sight of. The most effective leaders will keep their eye on this prize, but they won’t dismiss the value of having a good social media footprint.

It’s a gateway. It not only gets people in the door, but lets them enter in such a way that they become more loyal friends.

(P.S. I fanned them.)

Some time ago I made what I thought was the best case I could make for why philanthropy ought to support Journalism. Today I want to argue another side of that.

To be clear, my article about nonprofit Journalism was not about bailing out newspapers. It posited a split between news gathering, Journalism, and news delivery. News gathering is finding out what’s new. In many cases, online organizations are doing this better than traditional newspapers. News delivery is about how news gets to people. Again — so far — online organizations have newspapers beat.

Journalism, The Profession

But, then, there’s Journalism. This is a pursuit that goes beyond simple newsgathering. It’s a profession. Journalism is doing the shoe leather work of the reporter. It’s double-sourcing to make sure the story’s nailed. It’s not putting up with anonymous quotes. It’s digging deep to find the truth. This is an area where newspapers and other traditional news outlets still have a competitive advantage. They have deep knowledge and abilities in the Journalism space.

My previous article made the case that Journalism is not commercially viable and that it is something that foundations and philanthropy ought to consider supporting, as a public good.

However, as I said in that piece: “I am not entirely sure I buy this line of argument, primarily because I am optimistic that today’s pain will drive new creative responses that we haven’t thought of yet. . . . Somehow, I feel like resorting to foundation funding for Journalism is throwing in the towel.”

No Pain, No Gain

This is the same argument that Daniel Lyons of Newsweek makes when he rails against the idea of a government bailout of newspapers:

Nobody in their right mind believes the future of the news business involves paper and ink rather than pixels on a screen. We all know where the news business is headed, and what’s more, we’ve known it for at least a decade. So why on earth are people talking about a bailout for newspapers? Why is President Obama saying he’d consider it? Why is Congress holding hearings and considering “The Newspaper Revitalization Act” in a bid to save these ailing old rags with tax breaks and other handouts? It’s like introducing legislation to save horse-drawn carriages, or steam engines, or black-and-white TV. It’s stupid. It’s pointless. It won’t work. . . .

Instead of giving newspapers bailouts, we should be hastening their demise. The weak papers need to die. The strong newspapers need to go into bankruptcy and restructure their businesses with smaller staffs and lower cost structures. Yes, it will be painful. But journalists will find jobs—and they’ll be working in a better, faster medium.

Lyons is being overly harsh, but he makes a good point. Don’t save Journalism — make it survive. That’s the only way it will survive.

Too Important To Coddle

People make the argument that Journalism is a public good that is an integral foundation for our form of government, and so it must be supported. I reject that argument, because it misstates what is fundamental: it’s not the newspapers, it’s the freedom to report. If this is fundamental, then the very last thing a government ought to do is support Journalism, because the immediate question will arise: what constitutes a Journalist?

Similarly, if it’s so important, we can’t depend on foundations to keep the lifeline going. Philanthropy is subject to the same fads and is just as fickle as the next sector. (I say this as a past beneficiary of foundation support, during a time when there was a particular fad about democratic reform that then ran its course.)

The Business Of Journalism

$5700 by Flickr user AMagill

"$5700" by Flickr user AMagill

Perhaps we should start with the premise that Journalism is and ought to be commercially viable. So, what would the business model for Journalism look like?

In the first place, it might need to carve out a niche for itself that is away and apart from news gathering and news delivery. It loses those battles because of the very things that make for good Journalism: slowness and thoughtfulness.

Journalism might see itself as a provider to other organizations, as opposed to a direct-to-consumer system. Perhaps news delivery organizations could contract with Journalist organizations to get content.

Overall, it’s possible that the footprint of Journalism will shrink if it’s asked to make its own way commercially. That might not be terrible. The definition of Journalism I am using — that is, the deeper stuff, not the sports scores and the crime blotters — may only support a handful of of organizations.

Yes, But . . .

As with all these discussions, there’s always a rub. In this case, it’s access. The more commercially dependent Journalism is, and the more rareified a commodity it is, the more only rich organizations will want (and be able to) purchase the services of Journalists. Yet the service that Journalism provides is actually a public good. When political scandals are broken, when corporate malfeasance is exposed, the public needs to know, not the plutocrats.

This is an important point that can’t be overlooked. No, Journalism should not be coddled. But yes it should be made available to all. How to square these two perspectives, which are in inherent tension with one another?