I’ve read Seth Godin’s book on “Tribes”. It’s not as airy-fairy as the associated literature has led me to believe. Getting a “Tribe” is not just about finding like-minded people. It’s about giving something of yourself to help people. Notice I did not say “establish yourself as an expert”, another phrase I keep hearing on marketing blogs. To those bloggers, a “Tribe” is just a cool word for self-promotion. They don’t give something of themselves. They just want an echo chamber to tell them how brilliant they are. When you actually do the work that is worthy of attracting a “tribe”, whether it’s an e-book, a video, or some handy piece of open source programming, that work stands on its own. It will get people talking, listening, and even criticizing, but it’s not about your name, it’s about the work. There’s no fame or fortune to be had, just a symbol of your gifts and abilities. Believe me, that’s plenty.
No one tells you how hard it is to write content. People think that just because you speak English and type using the home row, you should be able to dash off post upon post without breaking a sweat. Not so. Even if you have something to say, you need to undo years of academic conditioning. University will tell you how to write for the professor and how to make everything “correct”, but says almost nothing about writing honest, human communication. That kind of writing takes training. When I need training, I head over to 750words.com.
750word.com was started by Buster Benson, a developer living in Seattle, WA. It’s a writing challenge where you sit down and write 750 words of free associative writing, a practice inspired by writing exercises and psychotherapy. Only you can access your words (although you can export them), so you don’t have to worry about taking down bad ideas. It’s a great way to experiment with your writing, and leaves you open to those “happy accidents” that are the soul of true creativity.
The site also takes down statistics about your word use and tries to figure out how you are feeling at the time of your writing. You can learn a lot about yourself by just letting your fingers fly across the keyboard. When I decided to show Sara what I had written, she was surprised learn exactly what was going on in my head. I mostly wrote about the move, getting my business going, and all the stress associated with it. I find it difficult to just talk about this stuff verbally. If I write it down, I don’t have to worry about stuttering or messing the words up. Correction is only a backspace key away. I used to think that writing about yourself was kind of narcissistic. While it’s true that having no filter can make people uncomfortable, attention is not the only reason to reflect. Your own advice has more power when you write it down. Your words don’t just stay inside your head. You can catch yourself in a lie, or better yet, you can catch yourself speaking the truth. That truth, once etched in letters, can blossom until your life is changed forever.
“Specialize!” You hear that word so often on copyblogger and other blog monetization sites. They tell you to find your focus, your core audience, your tribe, and sponsors will beat a bloody path to your door. Big media has spent so much time trying to be all things to all people that the only thing that sells in this media-saturated wasteland is a qualified case of mono-mania. People even tell me, “James, baby, you’re a great writer, but you got to find your specialty here.” I’d like to cite them my favorite Robert Heinlein quote: “Specialization is for insects.”
Don’t get me wrong. You might have seen google ads on this site at one time or another. I would love to make $10,000 a month putting out 250 words a day. But what would i be doing to keep that money coming? Could I labour over the right metaphor for my conclusion? Could I write about things that interest me rather than sacrifice all my mental energy on the alter of “my passion”?
I admit I have a little bit of intellectual ADD. I graduated university four courses shy of a BA in English along with my full Bachelor of Computer Information Systems. I believe both disciplines inform each other and make me more well-rounded. This obsession with specialization makes us forget that our greatest ideas come from combinations of many ideas, not ivory tower isolation. It robs us of our potential as human beings.
But why am I writing a blog if I am making sure that not many people will read it? They may be few in number, but this blog does have readers. They are my friends and family. People I want to connect and share my ideas with, but whom I don’t want to bother with a 10:30pm phone call to discuss my latest brainstorm. If this blog is to have a focus, let it be this: It is about me, James Strocel, talking to you. Pleased to meet you.
I saw District 9 last Friday knowing only that it had aliens, a power suit, and no connections to movie, toy, or restaurant franchises. I saw aliens, and I saw a wicked power suit, but I also saw something profound. Consider this your spoiler warning.
For a while I subscribed to the documentary podcast by the BBC world service. I was sure that in-depth tales of far off places spoken in the Queen’s English would drown out distractions at work. However, the more episodes I listened to, the more I heard things that put me in the mood for a beat down. Chinese citizens we’re getting hit with nightsticks simply for filing a complaint. African immigrants were crossing the Sahara to Europe only to get robbed and left for dead. Iranian girls were being raped and then sentenced to death for adultery. I thought to myself, when does it get fun to do that kind of stuff to other people? Since I found I couldn’t do any work while angrily pacing the room, I stopped downloading the podcast.
When I saw the documentary-style presentation of District 9, I was reminded of the more grim episodes of the BBC podcast. The Aliens’ situation seemed no different than the plight of any transient population anywhere in the world. The film was also different from the podcast and other sci-fi fables about race in that the Aliens weren’t simply this noble race of “other”. They had problems just like any other large group of people. They were depicted as dirty, lazy, violent, and quite possibly high on catfood, their favorite narcotic. At the start of the film, they were not getting evicted because a bunch of bureaucrats woke up one day and thought “hmm, I’m not doing anything today, let’s go put some prawns in a concentration camp”. There was a genuine, but misguided sense of self-preservation involved here.
In places like BC we tend to think of racism in terms of slogans like “Save Darfur”, “Free Tibet”, and “Don’t say that n-word”. When you’re from a place like South Africa, like District 9 director and writer Neill Blomkamp, you are aware that overcoming racism is more complicated than that. It’s important to maintain that kind of perspective especially when we look at history. If we simply write off things like the Japanese internment or the Chinese Head Tax as simply the acts of some dirty racists, we lose the context that came with those events. Without it, we won’t be able to recognize such lines of thinking until we are entertaining them ourselves, and by then it may be too late to prevent something monstrous from happening.
District 9 is a triumph in that it steers clear of easy answers and logical straw men. It does everything a science fiction film is supposed to do. It takes reality, removes the political baggage, and allows us to see how we truly are, warts and all.
Here’s a video by Clay Shirky, author of the recent bestseller “Here comes Everybody”. He gives a little more detail to the kind of changes that are happening to mass media. I love it when he describes the Great Fire Wall of China as the Maginot line of the digital age. If you think about it, any countermeasures against transmitting or processing data are ultimately just as avoidable as the Maginot Line was. It goes against the basic tenets of what a computer is supposed to do, kind of like trying to stop an internal combustion engine using a fire extinguisher. It’s especially ironic considering that China manufactures most of the devices that it’s so desperately trying to hobble.