What I Read

I ran across The Atlantic’s series asking pundits what they read. I’m not pundit, but hey…I thought it’d be a good feature for me. Naturally, it’ll start with what I read and will probably dovetail into what I’m listening to, since if you’ve followed me at all over the years you know there’s probably something playing in the background.

The Atlantic’s feature starts like this and I’ll answer mine with the same prompt: How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can’t they live without?

I wake up around 6:30am or so. When I do, I usually resist trying to read anything until after I’m ready for work. Because I live less than two blocks from work, there’s no real commute and so, I just wait until I get into the office to catch up on things. I heavily rely on Google Reader and Twitter to get the pulse of what’s happening. Hacker News is an underrated source and because I have blogs there, Tumblr usually ends up being on my radar too. I read local papers too.

The New York Times and The Atlantic mobile apps are on my iPad and I read them pretty regularly. I don’t rely on friends for their social news recommendations, as much as I take their cues and then end up surfing on my from. You know how link will take you to 30 others? That’s pretty much how I operate these days. If you’re not careful, you can get sucked into an internet vortex and not come out. So I try to pattern my reading for certain periods of the day and if I miss something, so be it. So it’s usually at the beginning of the day, around lunchtime on the iPad and maybe if there’s downtime later in the day.

I post on Twitter a lot more than I do on Facebook during the day. A lot of this owes to the audiences I subscribe to and because I just prefer the former to the latter. Still, I’m not as prolific as I once was. I’m okay with this. I’m retrofitting a lot of my online presence because it’s been three years or so with this current iteration of things. So post-work time these days especially has been spent plotting those moves and making them.

On the book front, I strongly prefer print books. But the iPad Kindle app is just great. I just finished Scorecasting and I’m currently reading the much bandied about The Art of Fielding and just started The Darwin Economy and Cognitive Surplus. The thing that it’s always been great for is as a kitchen tool. It’s my unofficial sous chef when I’m making new things ; which I do a lot especially since finding out a few months ago that an allergic reaction I had from camp this summer was actually gluten intolerance. Being a huge tea nerd, The Story of Tea is one book that wouldn’t suffice in digital format; I need the actual hard cover coffee table edition.

There’s no shortage of things to keep myself engaged. What I find most liberating is when I can shut down all of the consumption to block off time to write or to read. I think for many of us self-styled pundits, there’s a penchant to want to read-react-respond to things. I absolutely hate internet comments on news stories. It’s the worst thing to happen to media. I’m sure it can help gather a pulse on what the community things, but there was decorum in Letters to the Editor that internet comments absolutely lack. Some exceptions to the rule exist, but it’s easily my least favorite thing online.

Ultimately, I’m trying to be more thoughtful in my own commentary and I think the more you read and ponder, the easier that gets.

Goodbye Google+

I deleted my Google Plus account yesterday. Mostly because I didn’t see a place for it within my current communication landscape. I’m sure there are folks who will say that this does not matter, because it’s there and we should use it. But I view distribution platforms as extensions of my personal presence online. Every time someone goes to LinkedIn or Facebook (ha ha, you can’t) or Twitter to find out what I’m riffing on, it’s just one more place that I’m less likely to show them what I want them to see.

What do I mean? Well, it’s not an issue so much right now. But when you’re actively on the market and want people to discover the talents that make you interesting or worth knowing, it can be very difficult to get that picture from the constraints imposed by social networking sites. Despite my ubiquity online, I’ve always been very hesitant to share casually without really knowing my audience. On some level, I don’t really care. But I can’t deny that it plays a part in my calculus at times and makes it hard for me to know how I want to communicate.

So as I thought more about G+ and what I was doing with it, I realized that there existed a true failure to really launch. I’m sure that if I dove in more readily, there would be opportunities for growth and perhaps a wellspring of interestingness to be discovered. But the truth is, that all takes time. And I’m not entirely convinced that expending lots of energy merely cultivating networks in the off-chance that someone, somewhere might someday be useful — seems fine for folks who are wired in that way. But that’s not me.

There are things about it that I liked. I thought it was great that privacy settings were flexible. Circles were nice enough, though onerous in their own way — except, it was new so there were less folks to add — and I thought the fact that there is so much less noise than Twitter is a huge advantage. And lots of interesting people I didn’t follow on Twitter were there actively sharing.

I do my best work face to face. You don’t really understand what I’m about until you see me in action. Can I articulate what I translate into when it matters? You betcha. But I think for many people, it’s a lot better to spend your time living and thriving within the confines of what you do well; rather than looking around at the follow me economies of scale online and wonder how to get involved in the action.

It’s a personal choice and I decided to put the eject button.

Big East football and why it’s important to be who you are

If you follow major college sports, you’d know there’s a great deal of shifting going on. Schools are changing conferences more than ever before, often without regard for traditional rivalries or even geography. While most of these tectonic shifts have to do with the potential for increased television revenues, it’s also about positioning yourself to be amongst the haves and the have-nots.

College football at the major college level (formerly known as Division 1-A) does not have a playoff system like other sports. This means that if schools aren’t in the right conference, they lose out on massive revenues and the exposure that comes with being associated with other schools. One of the reasons that college basketball is so popular for its March Madness is because it allows minor schools from small conferences to play on the big stage with the giants for a theoretical chance at the same national championship.

The Big East conference is at the present a sixteen-team behemoth of a basketball conference. The league was founded for basketball and has always been among the better basketball leagues in the country. Anchored by eight Catholic schools that do not play FBS/1-A football and eight that do, the league retooled when it was hit by defections from Boston College, Miami (FL) and Virginia Tech who jettisoned the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005. The Big East responded inviting schools that allowed it form the most dominant basketball conference in college sports. The league had the record for most bids to an NCAA tournament in one year (8) in 2006, 2008 and again in 2010. Last year, they topped this netting 11 bids to the tournament. We’re talking about 16% of one conference having a shot at a national championship.

There has always been consternation between the “football” schools and the “basketball-only” schools in the league. The league is headquartered in Providence, not a football hamlet and at a school that lacks football. As the Big East faces another risk of massive defections, it is considering all kinds of options to retain its automatic qualifying status in football including inviting the U.S. Air Force Academy (in Colorado Springs), Boise State University (where it’s only east of what, Washington?) and two Texas universities among others.

The real problem? Failure to recognize a shifting marketplace and understanding how to adapt in the face of it. Leadership in the Big East were content to stand pat while other leagues were moving forward and its fractured constituents with different agendas (why would basketball-only schools care about football) and surely insider baseball that we don’t know much about; leads to a situation where the public opinion of the league falls by the day.

It doesn’t help that the Big East has continually lost its signature programs. The league could’ve been refocused itself as the best basketball league on the planet. It could’ve separated its football programs keeping a loose affiliation. It could’ve aggressively pursed merger options with the upstart Mountain West that would’ve benefited both leagues. But with automatic qualifying status, the Big East saw no reason to adapt because they were safe on the inside with the others looking outside wanting what they had. Now? They find themselves vulnerable with few options for their football league to continue with the comfort it’s had through the last decade as one of the preferred members of college football’s elite.

The lesson for you in this sports example? It’s possible to be the most dominant player on the planet and have the same relationships that benefit you in one aspect of your existence, hurt you in another. Long-term planning only goes so far. The Big East couldn’t have set aside a rainy day fund for this scenario. It was initiated by conferences with members that have more clout than the current membership. It’s not as if the league lacked assets, it’s just failed to use the advantages it had by failing to articulate a vision for itself.

Now? It’s being picked apart by other leagues. No one is knocking down the doors of lesser leagues trying to find its members and destabilize them. You can’t reign forever. At some point, your dominance will be threatened and you need to have a strategy to respond. Not crisis strategy, but a proactive that sees the landscape and assess how your organizations fits into it. At the end of the day, partnerships are voluntarily associations of people with similar goals. You need to assess those relationships.

Things change. Adapt or be left as a relic.

The future of school libraries

So this came up via Twitter when a friend mentions her local school bought Kindles and Nooks for the students and thought this was a bad idea. Her legitimate concern? What happens to libraries when technology is used to get rid of the books? Having spent my entire professional career in higher ed, my immediate first thought that such an introduction would be good.

I have an iPad, but I use the Kindle app a lot. I like physical books and find that I read better with them than I do with my Nook/Kindle/iBooks triumvirate. But ease of use can’t be understated. So much of today’s advantages are derived from businesses online not needing to invest in shelf space. I felt that school libraries would struggle — not due to a lack of talent, but funds — to keep up with demand in the places they still might be open. The New York Times talked about this a few months ago, specifically mentioning the decline in librarians due to declining budgets.

Nancy Everhart, president of the American Association of School Librarians, whose membership has fallen to 8,000 from 10,000 in 2006, said that, on the contrary, the Internet age made trained librarians more important, to guide students through the basics of searching and analyzing information they find online.

Libraries, Ms. Everhart said, are “the one place that every kid in the school can go to to learn the types of skills that will be expected of them when it’s time to work with an iPad in class.”

Some states, including Arkansas, Indiana and Kentucky, require every public school to employ a certified librarian; others, like Maine, leave staffing decisions to districts. New York requires certified librarians in middle and high schools but not elementary schools, and also requires a certified library assistant for any school that has more than 1,000 students.

But an analysis of state and city data shows there is one librarian for every 2,146 students this year, compared with 1 per 1,447 in 2005. At least 386 schools serving students from grades 6 through 12 do not have a librarian on staff, the records show. A spokesman for the Education Department said some of those schools shared librarians, though he could not say how many.

I realize that innovation isn’t necessarily the strong suit of districts squeezing pennies, but what if our view of librarians changed from someone who is a herder of books and instead, one who helps students learn about research, how to use the web and digital tools to do so and utilize public libraries more readily. I doubt that most districts would manage to make this shift, because money is tight.

I’m just not sure that the death knell to librarians is to eschew any progress at all. The ship is already out of the gates. More and more kids are using digital tools to research and learn. It seems that schools should value the need for research and to view librarians not as outdated expenses, but rather, educators who provide an invaluable skill.

On the flip side, it would seem the librarians association could stand to improve the image of the field, demonstrating the diverse curriculum involved in Library Science programs and how these educators are critical to teaching in the information age.

“Facebook and Google do it wrong, Twitter does it better”

A very eloquent and passionate treatise from 4chan’s Chris Poole on social networks, identity and how we represent ourselves online.

This is a topic I think about a lot, because I never know to explain myself to people on the web. I don’t think many of us are one-dimensional and we all have lots of interests. But mine are pretty woven into the fabric of how I live and so, when I move seamlessly from doing very technical things on the web to working with kids on the finer points of their tennis games — I see no disconnect. Other people have communicated to me at other times that this is strange to them; wondering “well what don’t you do?”

Talking specifically about the web, I have lots of places that I’ve been a member for well over a decade. Communities that I’m an active part of where there are — for better or worse — strangers whom I’ve interacted with for the better part of my adult life who know a lot about each other and are brought together for interest and love of a common (often obscure) hobby, passion or game.  While these interactions are meaningful in context, they don’t necessarily translate to the day-to-day dealings of what I do. Nor should they, really.

Facebook is especially harrowing for me whenever I think about it. Here there is a pool of nearly 800 people with whom come from different aspects of my life at different times. There’s my favorite uncle and that kid from summer camp from a few months ago. My closest college friends and that girl from grade school that I haven’t seen in ten years but with whom it’s cool to “know how she’s doing.”

I digress, but that’s the challenge of trying to communicate your interests with disparate communities takes time, effort and becomes onerous. I’m not sure it’s the job of social networks to be tailored to the diverse ways in which we communicate or the ability to use say, a handle on a network is even the best way. But I do agree wholly that I have far richer interactions — and always have — on social mediums where I feel more anonymous, less exposed and more apt to communicate with the wider world without regard for pagerank, bios or who is going to take what I say out of context. It’s almost why I blog so little and why my real life friends are often bored by my internet persona via blogs.

It’s a contrast that I’m aware of and that Chris Poole articulates concisely in this speech.

You have to fuel your own vision

When I was younger, I used to think that it was enough to have a good idea. After all, we tell kids that good ideas can lead to great things happening. After years of failing, I started to realize that it doesn’t really matter how smart your mom thinks you are, how successful you were in your last job or how much you think you deserve to “make it.” It’s not the job of other people to empower your dreams. Will it happen sometimes? You betcha. But it’s not a bet you can make nor should you gamble your life away assuming that someone else is going to show up recognizing the intrinsic abilities you possess and try to help you get there.

It’s all about timing. But it’s more than that, too. You’ve got to bring your A game more often than not and when it’s prime-time, you just have to be ready. Sometimes, it won’t come all at once. It’ll be a slow crescendo that rises up from nowhere. Maybe it happens so fast you didn’t even know it while it was going on. But the biggest thing I’ve come to accept over the years is that you can’t expect anyone else to embrace your vision.

If they did, it’d cease to be yours. Or they’ll screw it up and annoy you, when really, it’s just your fault. Too much of this stuff starts earlier than we realize. So when you ask someone how they became an overnight success, they tell you a story about when they were six. Or nine years old doing that thing they loved. Or how they transitioned at a certain point, committed themselves to it and good things came about to the point that they’re talking to you.

There have been far more eloquent folks who’ve tackled this topic in a far less impromptu manner than I am right now. So much of the rhetoric these days rests on blaming someone else for what didn’t work out how we wanted it to go. It just seems misplaced. Are there structural problems with certain things? Yup. Are there people who exist in the same places we live, work and play who have legitimate grievances and don’t even know it? You betcha.

Success isn’t a pill and it doesn’t come in the form of a piece of paper. You have to define it for yourself. It might not be what your neighbor wanted for her life, it might not be what your dad wanted for his. That’s okay, because so long as you’re excited to wake up everyday working towards whatever this thing might be…there’s not much more you can ask for than that.

It can be disappointing when we’re not where we want to be at a particular point. I know I think about this a lot and try to find the words to describe it; but I usually don’t have them. Resilience comes from recognizing that if you’re still in the ring, that you have to keep fighting or else you need to find a new thing to do.

Tomorrow is a new day and what happens isn’t entirely up to me. But there are things I can do to make it the best day possible and you can best believe that I’ll do that tomorrow as I did today, yesterday and the days, months and weeks before.

Ultimately, all you’ve got is your ideas. Bring them to life or spend your days daydreaming and wondering “what if?”

Getting buy-in: Managing content in the trenches

For some of us, content management is merely a matter of dealing with engagement content providers around campus who gleefully edit and publish their own content. There are folks who don’t have it so good. Content can become a hot potato or something that’s viewed as easy to ignore.

If you spend a good part of your day blogging, tweeting and Facebooking on behalf of Ye Olde Alma Mater, it’s easy to forget that there are people struggling daily with figuring out ways to coax people to give a damn about content creation.

Sometimes, the buy-in doesn’t exist and it’s a matter of educating before you can get to the point of knowing what you want to do and how to get there. There are a lot of moving parts and pieces to the puzzle. When you’re like me, it’s a bit different. My professional career has been akin to the baseball player who signs with a new team. While there are differences in each place, I remember the first time I switched jobs and realized how similar it felt to what I was doing at my previous school.

I don’t let this lull me into a sense of security, though. Assessing the landscape is a good starting point, but at some point, you need to decide what you’re going to tackle first and establish a plan of attack. Here are some things to keep in mind as you develop it:

1. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your site probably won’t be revamp that quickly either: Sure there will be lots of pages to rewrite, dead copy to replace and perhaps an entire site to revamp from its current state. It’s easy to get consumed by things you want to fix, but it’s more important to prioritize your plan of attack. Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew for your entire team.

2. Content management is really about content ownership: When you’re trying to convince wary people to help you help them with content, you can encounter all kinds of resistance. Some don’t want you involved at all, others don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Add in a bunch of variables like how your CMS is setup and you can see the recipe for disasters embedded here. Ultimately, I like to remind people that they are the subject matter experts of their particular arena and that working together, we can advance their goals better than if we stay in our individual silos camped out. Giving people a sense of ownership while establishing where you come in process is usually the most helpful.

3. Don’t be defensive, it’s (usually) not about you: If you’re inheriting a situation that’s less than pretty politically, design or otherwise; it’s usually rife with the ill effects left behind from whoever you replaced. Don’t take it personal if in the early going, people are less than receptive to your overtures (or you know, demands for help.) It’s not your fault you might have been handed a bad deal, but from the perspective of the end user, none of that matters. Computers are magic machines that make all of these things easy and thus, no matter how much your sitemap may be disarray or the number of times you mutter obscenities to yourself about what someone else might have been doing before you arrived; it’s probably not anyone’s fault. Just go with it and be a rockstar.

4. Educate. Educate. Educate. I had a long conversation with a friend who isn’t even a web person, but a counselor fresh out of grad school at a college. She was asked to give presentations and to do things that she wasn’t told she’d have to do when she was hired. This initially bothered her, because the request was a bit out of her comfort zone. But now? She’s really good at it and it’s her favourite part of the job besides interacting with students. My point? It’s your job to be an advocate everyday for the work you do.

Despite the ubiquity of websites & social media everywhere, if you’re working full-time in a job on the web, you’re doing a job that didn’t exist twenty years ago. (Note: I used to write that line and put ten years ago. Time flies…) People often need to be educated, even if they don’t realize it. To them, it’s either wizardry or child’s play that you get paid for. 

We’re just scratching the surface here. I’m tentatively planning to follow up on this topic through this week, because it’s on my mind. We’ll talk in more detail about these topics in a bit more detail. Naturally if you stumble here and have questions or thoughts, chime in and I’ll attack those topics as we go along.

To tweet or not to tweet

Life in the hinterland is different. While my colleagues in the Twitterverse bandy about this metric and that strategy on their blogs, the issues I contemplate and deal with day to day are far less complicated than that. 

As I contemplate the merits of social media tools, the first question always ends up with “should we bother with that?” Understanding your audience is a critical component of this and if I know that few students are tweeting, is there a rush to get on Twitter?

Twitter is the big example because it’s an otherwise relatively large part of my social media existence. Our conversations are always about more, pushing the envelope and helping people use more of what’s out there to supposedly make things easier. But what if investing time, energy and money isn’t worth it at all? So much of our business is vendor driven and so, it makes sense that no one is out writing longform blog posts about austerity or that one time when they said “no, we’re not going to cut a check on a particular project because we can’t.”

I like these situations, though. As much as I enjoy being in the room discussing big ideas and implementing them as I have in the past, it’s here in the trenches that you really earn your money. People in rural communities, at small colleges where innovators often fear to tread don’t get the same attention that bigger places get. There are lots of reasons for this and I don’t need to explore them here. 

It’s just a different environment. Years ago, it was just something to be online at all. Now? We watch the world around us go at breakneck speed and wonder what it all means. I feel wedged between the realities of the landscape and a need to push forward in spite of the various challenges. So much so, that it’s often strange to blog about it until many of the decisions are made. Then we can discuss how we got there.

So no, we don’t tweet yet. But I did create a Twitter placeholder on my 2nd day almost two months ago for the day when we’re able to. Our Facebook presence will undergo a bit of a facelift in the coming months and so will our various web sites. It’s an exciting time to be part of laying a foundation that sorely needs to be laid down. This type of role is a sweet spot for me, in part because I’ve done it so many times before in recent history and because it’s sorely needed.

There’s more where this came from.