New Year, New Job

Yesterday, I was able to officially announce a new role for myself as Dell’s Chief Blogger on Direct2Dell.

Go ahead and laugh that someone whose personal blog has languished here over the past few months has been given the challenge of managing content for “the world’s largest startup.” I know it makes me smile. 🙂

I’m no stranger to Direct2Dell, though. My first official post there was back in 2007 when I was managing a redesign of the Dell.com home page; but, I also played a behind-the-scenes role within the team that originally launched Dell’s first blog. (Bonus points if you can recall the original name under which we launched!)

As I prepared to now step into the lead, I started a personal exercise of writing out where I thought the blog should be going. This became what I started calling my manifesto for Direct2Dell. That in turn became a presentation for the hundreds of Dell employees that contribute content to the blog. And now it has become a statement for our readers, so they can hold us accountable to follow-through.

 

But, what exactly does it mean for this little blog?

While a new year often brings out a myriad of predictions for the future, I’m not physic enough to answer that yet.

I can see it potentially going one of two ways. Either I’m so worn out from editing all of the submissions that Direct2Dell receives from Dell employees, while also writing my own contributions, that I will be even less inclined to carve out the time for my personal writing. Or, I’ll be so inspired and “in the groove” of blogging that this site will see an uptick in content.

That uptick could mean more “The Rest of the Story” style posts with behind the scenes views of what happens on Direct2Dell. Or, it could mean this blog takes on an even more personal direction than it has before. Or you could just get a bunch of funny cat pictures. I can’t predict that either.

I will go out on a limb, though, to say that I don’t think the blog is dead. That’s a topic that several others have recently opined on:

No, like Om Malik, I believe that “we’ll just do it at a different scale, at a different tempo and with a different lens.”

And I’m really looking forward to doing it on a different scale myself. As I’ve joked with several friends, I’m finally going to put my News/Editorial Journalism degree to work! Now let’s hope I can remember what I was taught…

Be a Reading Rebel during Banned Books Week

If you’ve read my blog for very long you know every year I write about Banned Books Week. (And I owe you a big THANK YOU for sticking around here with me all these years!)

Why write about this annual event that celebrates the freedom we have to read in the United States? Because I feel strongly that reading is essential to learning and learning is essential to improving so many of the things that ail our world.

It certainly can’t cure everything. And reading some things could actually perpetuate wrong ideas.

The key here I think is reading outside of your comfort zone. Something I worry about as more and more of the content we read online becomes filtered to show us only things related to other things we’ve shown interest in before. Something Eli Pariser termed living in “filter bubbles” in his TED talk.

Facebook doesn’t mean to make us narrow-minded, they just want to offer us a product that we’ll like and continue to consume. But I think we expect more from our public and school libraries, and in their world even today there remain attempts by well-meaning individuals to filter the content we can read.

Just look to recent headlines for proof, as a county board of education in North Carolina recently voted to ban the 1952 book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison because a parent felt it was “too much for teenagers.”

Apparently, they can’t handle the topics it addresses which according to Wikipedia are “the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.”

I must admit I was not familiar with this novel that spent 16 weeks on the bestseller list and won the National Book Award for fiction before I was born. But, thanks to the freedom I have to read (and the ease of “1-Click” downloads from Amazon to my Kindle), I’m about to fix that.

Just getting started with the author’s introduction to the 30th anniversary edition yesterday, I’ve already begun to highlight sections that made me pause and think:

I’m looking forward to being a reading rebel and highlighting more interesting points of view that can expand my own.

Why don’t you join me this week in reading something someone has protested? To help you get started, the American Library Association has compiled a list of the most-challenged titles of 2012.

The Captain Underpants series was #1 last year!

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UPDATE 9/26/13: (Reuters) – A North Carolina school board lifted on Wednesday its ban of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel “Invisible Man” from school libraries after being ridiculed by residents and undercut by a giveaway of the book at a local bookstore.

Let’s hear it for the prevailing of good sense!

 

Thank You Authors

A wooden chair sits atop a stack of booksJust got an unexpected free hour & a half to myself and I haven’t had time to write here in a while; so now, what to write about?

I’m too far out in the back yard for my wireless connection to pull up all those myriad articles I’ve been saving to Evernote for just this moment of inspirational need.

So, I’ll go with something off the usual topic of social media. Nothing about the latest platform or new updates to the old ones. No content marketing, just commentary on content – the content of books to be precise.

You see this past week I had the chance to fly to San Francisco for a work event. (The results of which you can read here and here.) Even though many flights now come equipped with wi-fi and plenty of opportunity to keep working through the business day, when I fly I prefer to pretend I’m completely disconnected and use that time to read.

Occasionally, I’ll read something that might be career related, but most often I enjoy the opportunity to escape into a bit of fiction. This time, I’d forgotten my Kindle, so I went really old school. I picked up a paperback copy of “The Kite Runner” in the airport bookstore. I think everyone else probably read it 10 years ago, so you don’t really need my review, but I will say that it left a deep impression.

I’ve found myself referencing it several times since I’ve been back home. I’ve censored it a bit, especially when talking with my daughter, but I didn’t spare all the details of the tough times depicted in it. I’d like her to also benefit from the insight it gave to life in a country very different from ours.

But, I know my description of it to her will never take her there as vividly as reading the book would. And that is the amazing power of a well-written story. I admire those who can write such realistic pictures into my mind and bring out so much emotion through written words. (I was at a very sad point of the story when my plane was landing in SFO and I’m sure those around me wondered why I was so verklempt.)

I use the same basic words to communicate here, but my copy is more informational, less inspirational. Next week at the dinner table, no one is likely going to say “Oh, that reminds me of this blog post Laura Thomas wrote.” And I don’t say that to be self-depreciating. I just know that this short-form expository style of writing doesn’t have the same lasting impact long-form stories do.

I’m so happy that my daughter enjoys reading. I’ve learned so much from reading – and not just textbook type stuff. I know I’ve learned just as much, if not maybe even more, from fiction. Judy Blume taught me more about adolescence than my parents ever did. That high school phase of historical romance novels did include the historical element. Anne Rice’s vampires traveled through time and across continents that I’ve never stepped foot on, but I feel like I have.

And, this last book gave me new insight into a country I’ve heard about for years on the evening news. I now know a different side of Afghanistan. I learned more about the history and customs that shaped its people, and more importantly, I have a better understanding of them as fellow human beings trying to grow up and raise families of their own.

Sure it was fiction, but all good fiction has a basis in reality.

So, I guess this post is just a great big wet kiss to all the authors out there who work so hard to bring characters and locations to life for us. I know writing isn’t easy. It’s hard enough just to do the little bit I do here simply for the sake of exercising.

Thanks to a good book, I not only went to California last week, I also went to Afghanistan and made a side trip to Pakistan. Without great authors, I wouldn’t have been to nearly as many places as I’ve traveled through words and I do indeed thank them all for that.

Image via Creative Commons by cogdogblog.

Create Your Free Infographic Resume

Last July, I wrote about how I’ve been waiting since April 2011 for Visual.ly to provide me the ability to create cool infographics with little to no graphic design skills – and for free. Because I’m cheap budget-constrained.

Today, I finally got my wish!

I’d seen some email notices from them about their Marketplace where you can locate people you could pay to design infographics for you; but, if they told me before today that there were free plug-and-play ones out there, I missed it. That whole inbox zero thing never really worked for me.

Today, however, I actually opened the email from them and read “Check out our Visual Resume data visualization tool!” Which I did because that sounded like a cool addition to the visual CV/portfolio that I created on Pinterest.

Turns out this is one of handful of co-branded infographic templates now available on the site. Most are what I’d classify as just-for-fun like one tied to my Facebook stats and the Sherlock Holmes TV series called “Elementary.”  But, some more useful ones allow you to create a Venn Diagram (might try that one to update my Enjoli Woman post) or a visualization of Facebook Page statistics.

Then there is the newest one for creating a visual resume. You just choose one of their templates – sponsored by Kelly — then log in with your LinkedIn account and boom! There are currently five styles to choose from, but hopefully there will be more in the future because I was almost tempted not to share these for fear everyone would start to have one like mine. <wink>

create infographics with visual.ly

Buh-Buy 2012 – It’s All Forward From Here

As 2012 drew to a grey, cold, rainy close yesterday, I just kept thinking of this Saturday Night Live skit from the early nineties.

Why so ready to kick 2012 out the door? Well, it hadn’t exactly been a banner year for me. Let’s just say, as much as I share online – and if you follow me on Twitter, you know that can be a lot – there’s much more that you never hear about. While research into why people share so much personal information online indicates “people don’t really know how to value their own information,” I like to think that I do.

So, lets just say I don’t really want to repeat much of my experience last year.

Before I come off all bitter, though, I must admit I’ve been very blessed, too. I’ve got a great job that lets me support my family while doing things that I enjoy. I feel like I’ve got the smartest, most beautiful daughter in the world. My overall health is good.

These things I definitely want to take into the new year with me. And I want to make the most of them. For that reason, while I’ve never been much for making New Year’s resolutions, I think I will document a few here so that you can hold me accountable.

  1. I will hit the Bible app button before I hit the Facebook or Twitter app buttons on my phone each morning.
  2. I will get my yearly plan for work done before the first quarter starts and I will make time to report out regularly on progress.
  3. I will keep up my Bollywood dance classes, but also add one more hour of some sort of exercise to each week.

And, it wouldn’t be a resolutions list without something about weight loss, right? So, I will eat less. Not less of any particular thing, just less of everything. No poor starving children anywhere will benefit if I clean my plate.

I wish you all a happy and prosperous new year.

No more looking back. It’s all forward from here.

The Mysteries of Instagram, IABC, Tron, The Matrix and the Universe Not Explained

While every good social media blogger worth their salt is writing this week about Instagram’s terms of service fiasco, I’ve never been one to follow the crowd. There are plenty of other people covering that topic for you.

There’s also a bit of kerfuffle going on this week within my professional association (that hosts this blog as a member benefit) the International Association of Business Communciators. But, while I will join the member conversation happening on LinkedIn, I’m only lightly tweeting and not blogging about it because it feels a bit like discussing family matters in public.

Instead, what brings me here today is something far removed from the machinations of social networks or professional networks. It’s a much larger philosophical pondering. As big as the universe.

You see, yesterday morning I read a post on MIT Technology Review about “Why The Universe Is Not a Computer After All.” Then just a few hours later, I saw someone tweet a link to a story titled “Are We Living Inside a Computer Simulation?” on Discovery News.

So which is it? Are we or aren’t we living TRON in real life?

According to the Discovery column by Ray Villard, aka @cosmic_ray, a team of physicists at the University of Washington recently announced that there is a potential test to see if we actually live in “The Lattice.” Not to be confused with The Matrix.  The Lattice is the idea of Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom that the universe we live in might be a numerical computer simulation – possibly created by distant descendants who constructed it to simulate the past and recreate how their remote ancestors lived.

So Villard asks, “is our ‘God’ really a computer programmer rather than a bearded old man living in the sky?”

The idea of the universe as a computer is, according to Ken Wharton at San Jose State University in California, just a popular assumption. And, it “is the least-questioned (and most fundamental) assumptions that have the greatest potential to lead us astray,” he says.

Wharton’s essay argues that only by dropping our assumption that the universe is a computer can we fully develop alternate models, explain quantum phenomena, and understand the workings of our universe.

Me? I rather like this point of view from Albert Einstein:

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”
― Albert Einstein

 

Einstein may not have believed in a personal god, as I do, so his “mysterious force” could conceivably be Bostrom’s “distant descendants ” But, to think of my progeny essentially coming back in time to create, ultimately, themselves by creating a computer simulation of the world I live in today just seems a bit too much for me.

As someone who spends most of their day working on a computer for a company that makes computers, the thought that I’m only simulated by a computer doesn’t excite me. It makes for engaging science fiction, though!

 

LinkedIn Builds Its Portfolio with Endorsements and Influencer Blogs

LinkedIn has been very busy lately trying to make sure their own profile is more complete.

First, they rolled out something for company pages called Featured Updates – a new way for businesses to highlight their content by promoting it to the top of their company update stream. Unlike Facebook which seems to be dreaming up more and more ways to make companies pay to get their content out, this is a free feature that lets brands give prominent placement to news they want to highlight and spotlight it for up to 48 hours.

Next, in an effort to bring more individual users to the site, they rolled out a new blogging platform. Publishing is only available to 150 specially selected “influencers” currently, but LinkedIn says it will be adding more in the future. One of them could be you – or your boss. They’re accepting applications from LinkedIn members who can provide quality content on a consistent basis. If you’re a communicator supporting a high-level executive who is finally ready to start blogging, rather than start from scratch, it might be worth applying to get them on the LinkedIn platform with its built-in readership.LinkedIn Thought Leaders

Current business and leadership luminaries blogging on the site include our U.S. presidential candidates, Arianna Huffington, Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, and social media maven Steve Rubel who announced his involvement with this tweet on October 2: “LinkedIn now allows you to follow experts. I was invited prior to the launch. Here are my posts. http://lnkd.in/j9kyfV  http://lnkd.in/HSE2iU

“Unlike Twitter, which emphasizes short-form content, and Facebook, which lacks curation, LinkedIn’s publishing service will place value on higher-quality content from a select number of influencers, according to Daniel Roth, executive editor at LinkedIn,” reports FastCompany.

LinkedIn, which had revenue of $522 million last year, makes money from selling ads and premium subscriptions, as well as from offering specialized services to recruiters, according to Reuters. The news service notes that this change could spur people to spend more time on LinkedIn, allowing the company to generate more advertising revenue.

But, it’s this next new feature that generated the most mixed response and caused some to cry that the network “went Klout on us.”

LinkedIn Connection Director Nicole Williams said “Getting an endorsement from a trusted contact enhances your skillset and shows that someone else has put their trust in you.”

But, I don’t predict these one-click endorsements can replace recommendations – at least not in value. It is as easy as giving +K on Klout, but at a certain point it becomes just so much noise. Sure that person has 50 people who say they’re skilled at marketing campaigns, but how many of them are just friends, or worse, casual acquaintances looking for reciprocal endorsements? Taking the time to describe someone’s experience by writing a recommendation shows that you really know what they’ve accomplished.

Endorsing someone is quick. Just click on an existing skill they’ve already proclaimed, or type several words to suggest a new one. A majority of “profile changes” I’ve seen since this launched are people rushing to add skills to their profile so they can select the ones available. In addition to endorsing individuals one by one, you can even do multiple connections at once. How meaningful is that?

Adam Broitman of Something Massive is asking that same question in poll form:

View poll on GoPollGo//

Endorsements are only available in English for the US, India, New Zealand and Australia currently; but, LinkedIn says they “look forward to expanding Endorsements in all languages to all members over the next few weeks.”

But, I wouldn’t discount the value of continuing to ask the people you’ve worked for to write a real recommendation. And, as they suggest at HR Virtual Cafe, it’s probably a good idea for you to go write a few yourself.

Tale of a Banned Books Week Hypocrite

Forbidden - Banned Books WeekEvery other year since I started this blog, I’ve managed to write about Banned Books Week, climbing on a bit of a high horse to say it’s futile and wrong to try to protect kids from subjects we don’t want to discuss with them by challenging books in their libraries. See, the American Library Association (ALA) reports that “sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections, and most occur in schools and school libraries.” And these challenges are motivated by the desire to protect children.

My own desire to protect my daughter led me to ban her from reading, or seeing the movie, The Hunger Games this year. I’m not the only one who had hesitations about its violence, as it was the 3rd most-challenged book of 2011.

But, let me back up to give a little context. You see, my daughter who just turned 10 years old has been having a difficult time sleeping in her own bed at night for a while now. Which means, I’ve had a difficult time sleeping, too, because you know where kids head when they’re scared at night. And while I myself had many fears of monsters, ghosts and vampires that led me to sleep with a wooden cross on my own nightstand as a child, my daughter’s fears have always been much more of the 10 o’clock news variety – robbers, murderers, natural disasters.

With that in mind, I didn’t think The Hunger Games would be any help to me in my quest to get her to sleep by herself. So, I read it first to make a balanced decision, and then told her I thought she needed to be a bit older. Thus, turning myself into the hypocrite of this post’s title, I thought.

True to what I knew all along, though, parents really can’t prevent their children from reading or seeing things they don’t want them to be exposed to short of keeping them locked down on house arrest. At a friend’s house where “everyone else wanted to watch it,” she recently saw the movie. Her conscience got the best of her and she fessed up, or I’d never even have known.

Banned Books WeekSo, as I thought about all this leading into Banned Books Week, I decided I should lift my ban and open it up for her to read the trilogy that she now has access to on her birthday present – a new Kindle Fire. Since it’s connected to my account and I’d previously downloaded them, she can easily enough call them up.

But, guess what? She said she doesn’t want to read them yet! After having seen the movie, she agrees that she wants to wait a while to read the books. Instead, she’s opted to read another one I’d downloaded a while back – The Help.

I went searching to see if it had been challenged, as well, since it is rather similar in theme to some other great books that people have tried to ban like The Secret Life of Bees, The Color Purple and To Kill a Mockingbird (which in 2011, still made the The Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books list). But, no, it does not appear to have received the same attention. 

So I haven’t been able to redeem myself from banning a book by getting her to read a challenged or banned book. Although ALA says research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported.

But… I am feeling at least a little redeemed after reading this in ALA’s listing of books challenged or banned in 2010-2011 (PDF)

“The rights and protections of the First Amendment extend to children and teens as well as adults. While parents have the right — and the responsibility — to guide their own children’s reading, that right does not extend to other people’s children. Similarly, each adult has the right to choose their own reading materials, along with the responsibility to acknowledge and respect the right of others to do the same.”

At least I wasn’t trying to keep anyone else’s kids from reading something, and I do respect the right of others to make choices for themselves and their families – just don’t try to force them on me or mine.

30 Years of Liberating Literature - Banned Books WeekBanned Books Week marks its 30th anniversary this year. There’s a cool online timeline to mark the occasion that you should check out. I’d also suggest you take the time to read a challenged or banned book this week. It’s a good excuse to read a classic you might have missed like The Great Gatsby, or a children’s book that came out after your own childhood, or a young adult novel that explores tricky topics you need to be prepared to discuss with your own kids.

That’s why I should probably be reading ttyl this year, but instead I think I’ll pick something will less teen-girl drama – I’ll have enough of that in real life soon enough…

Small Business Must Be Selective About Social Media Hats They Wear

An auto body shop owner, a shoe designer and an electronics retailer walk into the hip Miami Design District.

No, it’s not the start of a joke. It’s a snapshot of just a few of the diverse small businesses that walked into Dell’s Create. Work. Inspire. event on September 14th. I was priviledged to spend time discussing social media and its business uses with them.

There was a wide range of current social media usage among them, but all were aware of it and there seemed very little need to convince anyone that it was something in which they should particiapte. This aligns with a recent report from the SMB Group that found small and medium-sized businesses have been increasing their adoption of social media.

In fact, some of the most common advice I had after hearing many discuss their current social activities was actually to step back and reassess where their audience could best be reached.Small business owners often have to wear many hats and social media adds to them

It’s well-known that small business owners and their employees often have to wear many hats, and many might avoid interacting with their customers in social media because that becomes just one more hat to wear. Even worse, to do it well means not only putting on one “social media” hat, but many platform-based hats – one for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for G+, one for Pinterest, one for Instagram, one for Yelp, one for LinkedIn… The list goes on and on and just gets longer every day.

So, what I hope many of those I spoke with last week take away is that they should be very strategic with their social media plans. While you don’t want to overlook something new, a small business can’t realistically chase every new shiny object of a social network that pops up.

It’s similar to advice Ilana Bercovitz shared recently in a great Small Business Trends post “Social Media Tips for Small Business.”

Broadcasting the same thing across multiple platforms is a common way to try to be everywhere at once. But that can bug those who follow you in the different platforms because they’re seeing the same thing over and over, and it fails to take advantage of the unique offerings of each. For example, when posting a photo in Twitter, you’ve got limited space to describe it or provide a call to action; where that same photo can be posted in Facebook with a much longer description and a link to your website with a call to action that lets you track results.

So, you’ve really got to spend some time listening to find where the people you most need to reach are spending their time online. A formal listening audit can help. It can also be as simple as asking them – whether in face-to-face interactions at a storefront or on the social media platforms themselves.

This allows a small business to focus most of their efforts on building the community they already have, creating relationships with customers that lead to return visits and sales.

It doesn’t mean, they should abandon all other platforms – potential customers could be searching for them there and you simply can’t overlook the SEO potential of a G+ business page. But, those efforts can serve more as “store fronts” that then direct people to the place you want them – which should probably be an owned property, rather than someone else’s site. But, that’s a topic for another post sometime…

Image via Creative Commons by Rachel Pasch aka justmakeit

My Problem with Putting Second Life to the Milkshake Test

Tiny Dragon Milkshake by ShardsOfBlueI recently came across an excerpt on Slate.com from The Myth of the Garage and Other Minor Surprises, a new book by Dan and Chip Heath that just launched, titled “Why Second Life Failed,” that proposed the way to make better predictions and avoid fads is to use Clay Christensen’s “milkshake test.”

This premise hinges on an imagined fast-food scenario where marketers dig into customer data to learn that milkshakes are being purchased by morning commuters. Why? Because they are “hiring” the milkshake to perform the “job” of supplying them with a cupholder-compatible breakfast option.

Following this train of thought, the iPod succeeded because we all wanted to hire someone to give us access to our own music on-the-go, but the Segway failed because “No one was interested in employing a $5,000 walk-accelerator.”

As many of you who’ve read this blog or known me for long know, I was the one who led Dell into the virtual world of Second Life (SL), so I have a very personal interest in this theory applied to SL.

What the Slate story’s author proposes is that the reason SL didn’t usher in the age of the avatar that Gartner predicted (and then cautioned against a year later) is that it didn’t have a job to do. They feel it was a job candidate “with a fascinating resume…but no actual labor skills.”

And it is here, that I beg to differ. Second Life and virtual worlds do have labor skills – perhaps too many even. If I want to shop with my friend, but she’s in another country, I could hire a virtual world mall to bring us together to look at this season’s fashion trends, try them on and ask her if they make me look good. If I need to have a meeting with coworkers spread around the globe and I don’t want them reading email and ignoring me on the phone, I could hire a virtual world to provide an immersive meeting space that brings everyone’s focus on the topic at hand. If I need to show a customer how to insert a replacement part I sent them, but can’t incur the expense to fly a technician there, I could walk them through it in 3D via a virtual world.

The list really does go on and on, and maybe that’s part of the problem. An iPod is a specialist in music delivery. You may say, but an iPhone does a wide variety of things from games to banking, and it succeeded. But, I say even it is a specialist — in delivering mobile access to applications (the phone portion is really just a fringe benefit, right?).

Virtual worlds are generalists. They can do so many things only limited by their users’ imagination, that they still aren’t simple enough for mass acceptance. Second Life is the wide open frontier and that limits its avid users to the rugged pioneer types.

I don’t think the quandary of why Second Life or OpenSim or other virtual worlds did not become as widely adopted as we thought they would can be solved by simply saying they didn’t build a better milkshake – or as Henry Ford would put it, a faster horse.

No, if I had to come up with just one reason why I think experiments such as the ones we tried at Dell did not take off like I’d hoped, I would have to say it was lack of simplicity. Until the technology can be as intuitive as, say, sliding our fingers across a screen to move objects, then the barriers are just too high for those who prefer creature comforts to frontier creatures.

Image via Creative Commons courtesy of ShardsOfBlue