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Chapter 18: Our Computers, Ourselves

Social media is based on simple principles and it actually takes very little to become indoctrinated in it. In fact, for some there’s a bit of let-down upon signing up for these services. You know this feeling, don’t you? After all of the hype, you finally take the plunge. You fill in your name, get a password, and start adding friends, only to be left wondering, “what’s next?” At first I felt like I had just stumbled upon a really big bulletin board and little else.

This is the problem with new tools: we tend to see them as an end in themselves, while instead they are starting points. Pens and paper aren’t fundamentally thrilling; it’s what you do with them that can be. Social media is much the same, and employing these tools isn’t such a big deal—doing something innovative, inclusive, or useful with them is the part worth noting.

Let’s take a little time to consider your online persona. I recognize this may seem a bit weird, and you may not think you even have such a thing. Regardless, it’s real and it’s wise to make conscious choices around it.


You found your accountant through a friend, and you’ve stayed with that accountant for many years. A recommendation for a doctor came to you from a relative. You still go to the same mechanic your dad suggested when you bought your first car. Meanwhile, you happily recommend these service providers to your friends, so long as these companies continue to provide reasonable service.

Welcome to the world of reputation economics, where trust is the currency of choice. Here, the “right person” saying the “right thing” makes a huge impact on your company, and even more so when this person says the “wrong thing” about your company.

Before we talk more about marketing your company online, I’d like to get a little more personal. The curtain has been raised; the mighty voice of Oz is no longer. There’s just you. With no layer of corporate protection to hide us, we’re left with a strange new reality: we have to put ourselves on the line.

Be yourself

In the early days of the web, everyone was freaked out by the potential loss of privacy. People hid information about themselves, posted anonymously, and some tried to cover their tracks. This perceived cloak allowed some to act like jerks. They’d say things online that they’d never say to someone’s face, and this resulted in really ugly “flame wars.”

With time, order prevails in even the most chaotic spaces. We’ve seen this happen on the web; we’re also getting comfortable with the idea that a lack of anonymity isn’t really such a scary a notion. I also think we’re relaxing about the whole notion of privacy. Sure, we’re still concerned with protecting our passwords and that sort of thing, but we’re not quite so worried about being identifiable in a digital setting. The internet is becoming nicer and more civilized, now that our actions online are getting closer to our real world behavior.

Web-etiquette is still somewhat new. We’re using our real identities more online, and we’re yielding some of our control regarding privacy, but some of the rules are still a little sketchy. For example: is it wrong to promote your own products on a forum? Can you email potential clients about your services without being perceived as being a spammer? When do you accept/deny a friend request?

Each of these questions leaves one in a gray area, and I can’t give you a single clear rule that addresses all of the above, nor the numerous other questions of this sort. You’re just going to have to figure these things out for yourself. I suggest you look around, test the waters, and perhaps check the depth before you dive in. This might entail spending a week on a forum, contributing general thoughts, and getting to know some of the members before mentioning what you do. It could mean sending out a single email to a potential client and following up with a phone call, instead of hitting “send” on a thousand generic messages. It could force you to carefully consider what that “friend request” means and the kind of online interaction that seems appropriate for you.

Mostly I’d urge you to start slowly so you can get the lay of the land. It’s fine to get excited about the things you can do with these tools, but rushing in might make you seem like a bull in a china shop. Sit back, relax, get to know “what’s what,” and you’ll probably have a better chance of being seen for who you really are. This is the strongest advice I have regarding web-etiquette: be yourself.

A part of our daily fabric

I ask if we need to look at the web less like a separate thing, and more like another layer that folds right into the fabric of our daily lives. Remember those silly movies in the ‘90s about “cyberspace”? Filmmakers of the time seemed to like the idea that we’d all go into these virtual worlds where we’d jump and fly around accompanied by Matrix-like effects. This sometimes made for entertaining movies, and it’s not entirely fiction. Environments like SecondLife offer something like this already. The thing is, there’s a lot of ground between reality and a completely immersive virtual world. For most of us, this is the most relevant space.

This is why so many great little startups have gotten off the ground in the past few years. It’s nice to have sites like Meetup, which allow us to connect with others who share our interests. It’s pretty convenient to use Evite to quickly set up a party. Facebook is handy for sharing photos and interacting with our friends. These things don’t replace normal, human interactions; they just make them a little easier.

As this newfangled stuff ties into our lives, our real personas become more closely tied to our online ones. In time, I don’t think we’ll even see any delineation between the two. Few of us get excited about adding someone’s phone number to our address book; equally so, it will soon be uninteresting to add someone as a friend on a social network. For now though, we’re left to determine exactly where the boundaries lie, and what kind of behavior is to be deemed appropriate in such settings.

A good example of a situation that tends to throw people is whether an employer and staff member (or a client and supplier) should be connected on social networks like Facebook. Conventional thinking leads us to believe that separation should be maintained in such a setting. I’ve heard it a million times before, “No business at the dinner table,” “I keep my private life to myself” or, “I don’t want the people at work to know too much about me.” I’m of the belief that this is outdated thinking and will seem awfully silly in years to come. Such parceling of life-roles is exactly why customers don’t care about companies, and why workplace interactions become so awkward. These separations make us act less human in order to seem more “professional.” I say: screw professional. It’s a phony and unimportant construct. We just need to “get real” with one another.

All just bricks in the wall

What would happen if clients and suppliers, staff and employers broke down these walls? I think they’d start to understand one another better, see what’s real, and have a reason to believe more in one another. It could lead to a world in which we weren’t worried about getting “snowed” by marketing rhetoric or management double-talk. Wouldn’t this be awesome? I don’t know about you, but I loathe how predisposed we are to having our defenses up.

While I recognize the utility to be found in hierarchy, social norms, and other customs, I wonder if they perhaps get in the way of other, potentially better ways of interacting. I’ve employed people who didn’t want to tell me how their weekend was. We’d sit next to one another for forty hours a week, without ever having had a single real conversation. I’ve worked with clients in situations where everyone guarded how they spoke for fear of possibly offending someone. This is old-world thinking folks—worse yet, it’s incredibly limiting. It’s time to let it go and move on.

A couple of years ago I made a concerted effort to challenge professionalism. I don’t mean that I want to behave poorly or do a bad job of things; I just want to cut out the unnecessary layers between me and the people I work with. Part of this is done by limiting exaggeration. We’ve been trained to “amplify” reality for so long that most automatically expect that we’re all doing so. When someone tells you that they have a “great deal,” do you believe them? No way! You expect a catch, if you listen at all.

Advertising has brought us to believe that everything is a pitch, exaggeration, or lie. My goal is to cut through that, so that when I have something to say it will actually be heard. When I note to a client that I’ve budgeted a project as tight as I can, they know I’m telling the truth. When I explain to a staff member that we really have to buckle down, they don’t think that I’m trying to squeeze them and line my pockets.

This is a great position to be in. The only way to it, however, is to invest in the people around you, as you would with friends. This extends to one’s digital persona too.

You’re building history

Whether online or in real life, it’s the history of your actions that lets others know how to categorize you. We all know that Al Pacino is a pretty good actor because he’s proven it to us time and again. (Even if he has done so a little less, lately.) How do you think it was for Al early in his career? My guess is that it wasn’t quite as easy. Very few really believe us when we tell them what we can do. So we need proof. Winning an Academy Award was probably pretty good proof for Al and I bet all those multi-million dollar box office totals helped too. Gaining such credibility can seem like a massive hump to overcome. On one side few will give you the time of day; on the other it seems like you can do no wrong.

Regardless of what you do in life, you’ll need proof in order to get the gig. This means establishing markers of trustworthiness and finding people who’ll vouch for you. When you need a new job, colleagues can be proof, helping you make connections. In your organization’s sales, a common reference can be proof, allowing you to make contact with someone new and not having them respond with a cagey, “Gee Bob... I’m really busy, can I get back to you?” or “Thank you for contacting ABC Corporation, unfortunately, we have no need for your services at this time.”

If you’re good at what you do and get enough proof (or references) things will simply occur more easily. They’ll come personally, “Oh, you just have to meet my friend Jennifer. She’s single too and you guys would really like one another!” They’ll also come in a business setting, “If you need search-engine marketing, Roxanne is the only person to talk to. Let me get you her number.”

One guy calls me periodically to sell his research services. He calls, asks for my business, gets mad when I don’t buy, and then calls again six months later. He spends a lot of time trying to “sell” me, but doesn’t care to build any history. On the other hand, Vito at Giuseppe’s Bread Deli Da Vito, down the street, is always happy to see Amea, Oscar, Ari, and I. He remembers us and the meals we like. He always takes the time to talk a little, and sometimes even walks our newborn around, so that we can enjoy our lunch. He could be more “professional” with us, but instead he gets to know us, and becomes a part of our lives.

Without history, you’re nowhere. Given a choice, everyone would rather buy from someone they know and trust.

What gets in and what doesn’t

“OK Eric, OK... I get your point, but how does this relate to how I use social media for my business.” I’m getting to that, but I still want to concentrate on “you” a little longer—bear with me, OK? We’ll talk about marketing your business with social media soon, but in this context, you—the individual—are more important than ever. This means you have to start by considering yourself first.

In using the web for marketing, I ask if we might be better off to act like people first and corporations second. Personally, I can wrap my brain around human beings but I find it far more difficult to do so with companies. For example, what does Microsoft look like? How big is it? (Big, I know—but how big?) Do they stand for something? I really don’t know.

On the other hand, a person is much easier to build a relationship with. So while I might not believe that Microsoft really cares about much, I get the feeling that Jeff Weir (who works for Microsoft Live Labs) gets excited about what he does. When Jeff makes a note on his blog about something neat that he’s working on, I might find myself interested enough to take a look. I bet you know this feeling: even the largest and most impersonal organizations seem a little more approachable when you have a human connection there. The funny part in this instance is that I hardly know Jeff, but even that’s enough to make me treat his posts and updates differently from corporate updates.

Part of this relates to how our “filters” are set. When I receive email from people I know, my “ignore” filter is set low. So I read the message. On the other hand, when I get direct mail from companies, my “ignore” filter is set incredibly high. Actually, it’s set so high that I tend to not look at all. I throw these things out without a second thought. Looked at this way, bulk-mail seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it? Lots of companies still do it, though, and conceivably think that they’re marketing effectively.

Why persist given the ostensibly dismal response rate? I don’t know. Part of me thinks that it’s just because we’re used to doing so. Another thought is that it’s easy to justify such efforts as a marketing expense, and there’s little likelihood of one losing their job as a result of running these. More than that, I think it has something to do with numbers. The idea of building connections with people one at a time seems costly and impractical for many companies. I’m not suggesting that this is inaccurate, but I’d like to look at how this starts to change through social media.

The “bandwidth” for humans just opened up

I often reference social media as plumbing. On its own it’s not wholly riveting; nevertheless, it does help some important things to happen. The interactions facilitated by today’s tools allow us to scrub that impersonal bulk-messaging approach of old and instead maintain connections with people of all sorts.

This morning I went online to read about a friend going to Disneyland; then, I watched a funny video posted by another friend. I also shared in banter with a designer I’ve only ever corresponded with online. I also “tweeted” a couple of brief notes of little real consequence. Through these small interactions, I feel like I have a sixth-sense or inside track about my friends’ and colleagues’ lives.

Do these things add up to much? Maybe not, but I feel as though these brief interactions tend to build dialogue and break down certain layers. The histories we collectively build with one another help us more naturally interact and work with one another. You might even find that looking at your personal interactions like this is more fruitful than the “professional” methods we had grown used to.

Maybe it’s been a shitty day

Earlier, I introduced the notion of privacy being out-of-date. This may not be the case in all settings. For example, if you like running sandpaper across your nipples for a thrill, you might be wise to keep that to yourself. Nevertheless, a lot of people are of the mind that many things we were protective of simply aren’t a big deal any longer. In the next chapter, I’ll look at how we might talk about our companies with this in mind; first, let’s consider ourselves: a whole bunch of people just trying to figure out how to act online, and what’s appropriate to share.

When we observe how people act online, we find a few different approaches. Many are protective of their interactions; some do wild and crazy things; and a few are just trying to sell themselves and their companies, rarely giving us anything real. This new environment leaves us a little unsure of how to conduct ourselves. I ask if we should simply look to the real world as our model. In “un-wired” life, we edit ourselves but not to the extent that we become phony cardboard cutouts. We may do outlandish things but most pick the time and place for such actions rather selectively. What if we just acted like this online?

I can’t say how you should manage your digital presence, but I do think it’s an area of importance deserving of careful consideration. The distance between ourselves and the people/companies in our lives is being reduced. You should think about how close you’re willing to get.

I’m not suggesting the following for everyone, but I find it easiest to be an open book. I share my thoughts quite publicly, in part out of ease. I don’t know entirely where to draw a line, and in many respects, I’ve found such boundaries to be pointless. Fragmenting my life seems awfully strange, so I don’t do it. Additionally, I’ll share almost anything online that I would in a physical setting. I tell people when I’m having a crappy day or when things are kind of hard. I also share little breakthroughs and achievements. Sometimes I pass around links that I find useful, and I almost always respond to people who have questions I can help with.

Little of this is uncomfortable, as it’s what I’d do anyway. I can’t quite imagine how doing so would compromise my work or “personal” life. I moderate my behavior online in almost exactly the same fashion as I would in the real-world. Some get in trouble by posting things on social networks they’d be embarrassed by in a non-digital context. In my mind, the only way to avoid such blunders is to align how you present yourself (and your company) both online and in the physical world.

And, although the temptation to do so is ever-present in social media, I ask you to avoid bragging. Instead, imagine that your best friend is on the other side of the message you’re posting. Would they look at you differently if they saw what you’re putting out there?

So now you (perhaps) have some new ideas on how to build your online persona and employ social networks for yourself. Let’s move on to that business you’re running. How can you use these tools to build trust?


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Next chapter: Getting to Trust (and Beyond)



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