On Cities & Building A Scene

The most interesting thing about living off-the-beaten path, is realizing that most people living in those places have some kind of tie to the smaller life. Whether it’s a family connection, a relationship or just a desire to “get away from it all,” I’ve encountered all types of folks with stories of their own on what motivates them away from “the big city.”

Yet, many of the narratives I hear from people building medium-sized cities like Bloomington (Indiana) where I live, revolves around startups, creating energy where it doesn’t currently exist and enticing 1) people who are here to stay and create jobs through some magic or 2) bringing capital (and people) from elsewhere to make our already good place a bit better.

Ignoring all of the challenges that comes with, I’ll just say that the most difficult part of building a scene is how much work goes into cleaning a particular corner of the sky. It can be vast, unnerving and frankly, a lot of patience. Most people seem able to invest in one or two pet causes and are happy with that. I find myself shocking close to the cauldrons of influence on one hand, yet often feel as distant from actual change as I’d feel in a larger place.

I like to say the biggest difference between say Brooklyn and a place like Bloomington, is the fact that in Indiana, there’s one of everything. In Brooklyn, I can find multitudes of organizations and overlap, but there’s enough space — somehow — to be involved in a niche or to craft your own lane if you have the right mix of money, time, relationships and whatever magic necessary to pull it off.

This isn’t a screed about why some places are better than others, it’s a reflection on the need for people making decisions about growing communities to be responsive and participating in the scene they’re trying to create. It doesn’t just rely on outsiders or insiders, it’s a mix of the two that combine to forge some kind of strategy that can propel a sleepy town into something better.

Every night, there’s a lot happening relative to a place of this size. Surely, having a Big Ten university helps tips the scales dramatically. The problem is, there are only so many people that you can engage. Students are a unique challenge due to their transient existence and other commitments that make them difficult to count in your total numbers for much of anything. That leaves the relatively small sliver of people who might be worth targeting.

I’ve been wondering aloud if I expended this same level of energy in a bigger place, what would the end result look like? There’s a lot to say for a critical mass. I wouldn’t be the first person to decide I needed something bigger, nor will I be the last. I have always been drawn to relatively small places, because the proximity and lack of pretense at times can give you an outsized ability to make an impact.

But across the board, I find that it’s a lot more difficult to penetrate whatever smallness pervades everything from the local politics to the ways people become close friends. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with dynamics of American life, and are present in other places. I’m quickly getting to a point personally and professionally, where I want to be intentional about what I work on, how I work on it and why. Especially extracurricular/passion projects, because I’m one of those people with lots of ideas and often feel like I’m “running out of time” to clear my own docket.

 

The Cost of Timestamps

Growing up, I loved getting mail. I recall waiting for the mailman on days when I was home. How much mail does a pre-teen get anyway? Not a lot. Some postcards, a note from my aunt stationed in Germany. Eventually, college packets and other junk would arrive as I got older. Instant messaging had at least a modicum of friction because it existed in a world where most people at home weren’t always online. I recall putting up an away message or letting people know when I’d be back, so there wasn’t an expectation they were being ignored.

These days, it’s almost impossible to keep up with everyone wanting a second of your time in one form or another.

In her book, Alone Together, Shirley Turkle explores this modern conundrum.

“Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.”
― Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Nobody talks about the price of stamps as much as they used to, because we so rarely send personal letters. Postage matters when you care about Amazon sending you a flat rate package faster, but gone are the days of obsessing over the right amount of stamps for sending individual letters to your pen pal or friend across the pond who you haven’t called in weeks because it’s too expensive to do all of the time.

As marketers and product people, how often do we consider people’s time in our design? I’m not talking about page load times or the opaque “time on page” metric in Google Analytics. I once joked on Twitter that app designers should make their apps with the idea that people are driving 60 mph reading whatever it is on the screen. It’s a horrifying thought at first, but how much are we considering the stress cases that are a lot more unique than our ideal personas would have us believe. Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher explore this in “Design For Real Life”:

“As you write your personas and scenarios, don’t drain the life from them: be raw, bringing in snippets of users’ anecdotes, language, and emotion wherever you can. Whoever picks these personas up down the line should feel as compelled to help them as you do.”


Designers need to ask better questions about our complicity in a world that makes people more anxious through tools aimed at making our lives better. It’s not only an exercise in self-control, it’s recognizing the unwitting ways that our desires for connection leave us tethered when we should be more present. It might sell fewer widgets, perhaps fewer people will check into your app more. But what about thinking aloud about being human in the ways that we construct and design for real people? So much of our design is created for an aggregated populace; we traffick in habits and trends rather than real experiences. This construct makes it easier to detach ourselves from the impact and outcomes of design decisions made in an open-office somewhere far from where regular people are using what we make.

As apps proliferate, we have to ask ourselves whether every intrusion is warranted. Instead of thinking of our product as the one solving problems others leave behind, we need to confront each interaction as an intrusion. Every time we ask someone to track what they did, when they did it and assume they meant it as a result, we’re creating an imprint that might trigger a domino effect that transforms their life — not always for the better.

Doing your own year in review slidedeck

2016 was an interesting year for me.

It’s easy when you set goals, to lose sight of the things that went well to focus on the things you’d wish had gone better. I was talking to a friend about his own work and he mentioned doing an annual review that was just for his partner, because he’s independent. I think it’s a fascinating idea to assess your own work over the year — your successes, what didn’t go right — and develop a roadmap for the upcoming year. Even if it’s only internal (e.g. just for you), it can be a powerful way to focus yourself on the things you deemed important and to take stock of your successes.

Rather than overthink every thing you did, I spent time just highlighting big things that happened through the months. You can pick and choose — after all, it’s your review — but again, the goal at the end is to feel good about what you accomplished and if you didn’t do enough, taking stock on each month and how to be proactive in the new year.

Did you do an annual review of your year? Which ways to do you take stock of your work?

I’d share my template with you, but part of this exercise is about sharing what you’ve done internally and not feeling the need to itemize for the crowd. It’s less about showing off (though if you contact me offline, I’d probably send it to you…) and more about taking stock and re-assessing what the next steps are going to be.

Happy planning!

 

Pondering the frivolity of sports fandom

In a world beset with important problems ranging from hunger to climate change, stateless people seeking a better life for themselves and families, how is it that we can spend so much time and attention on the sheer uselessness of professional sport?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, because I have an often uncomfortable relationship with sports fandom. People can take it too far, much like they can take anything too far. But an entire set of industries borne around an industry we don’t own, but take a modicum of ownership in, seems useless when we think about al of the ways that we could be benefitting our communities and society at large if we didn’t have so much invested in games that have become bigger than life itself.

When I first saw the tweet above, I thought “well, what separates an athlete making millions from an actor or a hedge fund manager?” Sports are games we play on our own, so it’s easy to look at someone playing a kid’s game and believe that we’re a lot closer to them than a person locked inside a windowless office staring at a computer screen for 14 hours a day. We relate to athletes in ways that we cannot with someone who willingly gets on stage and bears their soul in a song or performs dramatic works in a moving theatrical performance.

So what is it about sports? Can you both abhor the NCAA as an entity and root for the athletes and/or the universities they represent? Is it a massive contradiction to watch gridiron football, hockey or baseball when teams willingly bear caricatures on their uniforms; often with owners, management and players who have retrograde views not in lockstep with a forward-thinking society?

Or should we just be spending our time in better ways? The biggest criticism of sports fandom is how it can consume people’s lives to the detriment of all other things. I find this most offensive when considering how much time we spend in the US on youth sports, when decades ago, kids mostly played with people in their neighborhoods in unsupervised games with always needing adults to mete out the winners and losers.

We’ve surely lost something in a world of millionaire athletes, billionaire owners, subsidies for stadiums and tens of thousands of screaming people who feel entitled to a piece of people for having paid scrip to watch the circus perform. But I’m not sure that sports are the symptom or the remedy for what ails us.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means not just to be an American, but a citizen at large. Amidst this thinking is pondering precisely what responsibility comes with citizenship, how that intertwines with community and whether the collective good is something attainable and how we define what “good” is.

For me, sports are a way to connect with people I’d probably never talk to otherwise. When I find myself, a borderline teetotaler at a bar, knowing I can talk intelligently about all of the other things that interest me, as well as the historical origins of most sports — because I’ve just always been interested — is exciting to me. Sports is a vocabulary no different than my passion for shoegaze records, Star Trek or preference for coming-of-age indie films. I used to be too good for television shows, too. A winter in a rural town fixed that for me, because there were only so many things I could do on the computer.

Participating in an unequal world means making a lot of compromises in order to function day to day. Sports is just another of them. Fandom doesn’t excuse us. We should be cognizant of our complicity in the structures that inhibit progress, even unwittingly.

On gatekeepers

I tend to look at different mediums as a way to connect with people. I’m less concerned with the mechanics, often. For instance, podcasting. For me, it’s just another vehicle for connecting and getting a message out. More importantly, I’m interested in the stories other people have to tell and what they’re interested in sharing. I’m not as concerned about immersing myself in all things podcasting, going to every podcasting conference there is or becoming a hobbyist in the sport.

What I’m learning the past few years, is subcultures take their crafts very seriously. They’re not as happy about people showing up to the buffet late without a desire to participate fully in the statecraft of whatever rituals and exercises they’ve developed.

I love the DIY space between the start of something and before it becomes formalized. I liked the web before they started convincing kids they needed degrees in it. That empty space where people can tinker, communicate, share and fail is special.

Once there are gatekeepers, I’m a lot less interested in being involved.

Two Civic Projects I’m Working On

Worth noting that earlier this year, I launched 100 Good Folks, which aims to entice 100 people to move to Bloomington, IN and bring their ideas and passion. It’s an idea I borrowed from Boulder.us from back in 2006 where that community had folks coalescing around  bringing people to town though they didn’t have to really sell it that hard.

The other is Design of the City, an initiative where a group of designers work with civic leaders to redesign communities. This has nothing to do with art & culture and everything to do with mundane things like policy and how services in communities work. Using service design techniques and frameworks, we’re convinced we can make a big impression and affect change in  communities across the country.

 

Season 2 of #24hrsofstrategy

via GIPHY

Season 2 of my ongoing series #24hrsofstrategy started tonight.

It won’t be 24 articles, mostly because Medium doesn’t support that. Nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about web management, the way things are and how we neglect people who manage our sites and why we need better education for ordinary web people.

Not just at expensive conferences, but in ways that people can actually get the information they need. So much of the conversations about design thinking or strategy are always high minded. They’re aimed at people who don’t work in the trenches, but are good at passing the ball to someone else to figure out how to actually get the work done. Or setting battle plans that don’t bear any resemblance to reality & hope it’ll be good enough.

We can do a better job. I’ve known this my entire career, because I’ve been at very stage of this process from the entry level guy punching above his weight to the dude in charge of an entire department of web managers across a disconnected network trying to figure out how to implement bad policy being given to me by people who don’t know what we’re actually going through; while deciding what I can do to provide actual air cover while my people on the ground get real work done.

Maybe this will resonate. Perhaps it won’t. I don’t know that I care anymore, I just needed to record the background, the struggles & my solutions for fixing what I see are problems.

Sometimes has to.

(P.S. Here’s the link to Season 1 in case you missed it. Season 2 will be a lot better though.)