Peeling back the media layers

When I consume fiction, I try to dive in with enthusiasm. I suspend my disbelief and let the story itself carry me. I try hard to not worry about meta-narrative, or technique, or politics get in the way. I try to let the story itself stand on its own. For “good” media, this often works. I readily enjoy the experience, be it book or film or tv or game. Often the first sign of problems is when the media can’t stand on its own, and I end up being forced into analytical mode.

Almost inevitably, the first layer I pull back is technical: with a literature degree by way of a few years of film studies and a perverse need to watch all the extra features, I think a lot about how stories are told. I worry about why that particularly manipulative camera-pan, or upwards-to-the-right angle, or why mention a missile at all, because now I know it’s going to come back later in the book. In the score, was that overbearing timpani in that one scene really necessary? (pro tip: no, it never is). Again, things split here. When I re-watch a really good movie, looking at it through this technical lens only adds to why I love it (My favourite movie is probably I am Cuba, which I like perhaps more for the technical elements of the film than the film itself).

Beyond technical, I start to think about meta-narrative: when you know an author’s work, you tend to see recurring themes, images, etc -both in print and screen, and I start to wonder how the decisions made this time tie into the overarching œuvre. And in film, you not only have the writer’s meta-narrative, but also the director’s. And the cinematographer’s. And sometimes the actors’. When you get to “corporate” film, you also have the producers’ (see: Pixar, Disney, Marvel, etc). Watch a bunch of Scorsese films back-to-back, or binge-watch a tv show under the same show-runner, and see how quickly you can start to identify which episodes were directed by which person – there’s all sorts of little tells that keep popping up.

And then, finally, likely to my own discredit, I often think about the socio-politics of the media (Hi! I’m a Canadian, straight, white male who has the luxury of not having to think about this all the time!). Why this casting choice? why that gender/race for that character? who directed? How is that reflective of the audience’s experience? the creators? the funders? This, most often than not, is where films that have survived all the previous examinations start to fall apart.  Just passing the Bechdel test is hard. Add in “positive/lead/speaking” roles for non-white-men as a layer and it gets worse. I have this immense luxury of approaching virtually any media knowing that I am the target audience for it. I had a small sense of perhaps what it might be like to not be recently reading “Between the world an me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is definitely not aimed at middle-class white Gen-X… and it was fascinating to start to look at the assumed terms of reference in the book that were not at all common to me (aside: this is a reason I like to read foreign novels, particularly from non judeo-christian-heritage authors, because that means I need to work more to figure out the common terms of reference).

(all of this bubbled to mind after binge-watching the 100, and why i thought it was inevitable that Clark and Lexa would kiss. And then wondering why it made me squeamish that the only black lead in the new Ghostbusters was, also, the only non-scientists (indeed, she seems to be the “street-smart” character), and why, while it makes sense to cast a non-white actor in a new Harry Potter play, or as James Bond, it is still hugely problematic that Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone).

 

Software is eating the world like…

A river cuts through sand

This adage is well-know. Based on a Google search, it would appear that Marc Andreessen has made several comments on this topic since 2011, and is has become defacto accepted as truth. And, of course, bastardized to suit (eg. Mobile is eating the world, IoT is eating the world, etc)

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how “regular” companies interact with software. Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with lots of companies as they slowly embraced to-them new technologies several years after, as someone in the field, I would have thought it was a necessity – so there’s a disconnect. And, to my horror, the way in which these accounting firms, lawyers, retail shops, etc, embrace the tech now available to them is really hodge-podge and often to their initial detriment. Quite consistently, it takes an initial failed dive to get the next version “right” – which isn’t necessarily bad. But maybe there’s other ways.

That thought lead me down the path that maybe earlier recognition of technology trends for the non-technical would be useful, if possible. And then I started to think about how that might surface. Which brought me full-circle to this adage, about Software eating the world, which has an interesting corollary in “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. So, yeah. Software is eating the world – just not evenly.

… And this is where this serious train of thought goes a little off the rails: If software is eating the world, but unevenly, what’s the best simile here, and why? And could that exercise actually be useful?

Software is eating the world like the Sarlaac:
Software is more of a trap that unsuspecting industries fall into, without realizing they’re about to. They’re then digested slowly, painfully over a long period of time. This feels like an apt metaphor for the transportation industry, who were rolling along and were suddenly confronted by Uber, Lyft, etc – and are now in the midst of slow, painful contraction and likely death.

Software is eating the world like a river:
This is another “slow” simile, but has an inevitability factor about, as well as a randomness: Software, like water, eats the easiest path through, and it meanders, is uneven, and, importantly, is constantly digging deeper in paths where it has already been. Think about communications software, and this feels true to me: it wasn’t everywhere, it was channels, and it entrenched (literally?) quickly, and kept re-doubling the victories in those spaces as it moved and opened new channels.

Software is eating the world like Galactus:
Galactus is the “world devourer”, a giant space entity and roams the universe, and when hungry, eats entire planets, destroying everything that was there, leaving nothing as it moves on. Apart from the immense disruption that occurs when Software arrives at a new industry, I’m not sure how apt this is: Software is mostly transformational, rather than destructive (although, maybe Telephone Operators and Transcription artists would beg to differ). But I like how strongly this simile enforces how radical the arrival of new software in an industry can be.

Software is eating the world like a vulture:
With this similar, the idea is that when software enters a new industry, that industry is actually already dead – it just doesn’t know it (maybe?). When design software started replacing letter-setting and manual type-setting industries – were they already on the decline? A lost art? This doesn’t feel like an appropriate simile in most cases to me.

Software is eating the world like like a cheetah:
(Or any big hunting cat). I quite like this simile, because it correlates intent, as well as the thrill of the hunt. When software enters an area, is it because there was an intent to disrupt/enter that space and remove it? The old “find a Linux command and build a web-service around it” adage of Web 2.0? Although, the chase of a big cat and it’s prey implies an element of chance that doesn’t really seem to exist. Has software ever failed to eat an industry once it has started down the path?

Software is eating the world like Prometheus’ Eagle:
I feel like this is an apt simile for software’s relationship to the media industry. Media, like Prometheus, has done so much, but is now left out, chained to a rock, while software slowly pecks away at it every night, only for it to regenerate every morning to continue on its way. It implies an immortality to the media industry, which I feel is true, but it denies the transformational nature of software: the media is not regenerated, unchanged, each morning. It is rather transformed. But this constant pecking, picking at an industry that is suffering, left exposed rings somewhat true.

Software is eating the world like…:
Like what? Probably in different ways, in different industry. Software is a many-headed hydra with innumerable ways of attacking a new enemy. But understanding both that software is inevitable (to pervert an idiom: The only things certain in life are taxes, death & software is going to eat you) in whatever your industry is, and also, that, in each of the above original stories there are survivors, heroes, escapees and even beauty is important. Most Yoga professionals I’ve met hate all work that takes them away from their passion – and resent technology for it. But I’ve also learned that I can write software that lessens their time away from their passion, that reduces resentment, because it can still bring joy and delight. Software that reduces grunt-work, without eliminating the whole job is often appreciated. Bringing software into an industry, into an office, into a single person’s life in a way that yes, perhaps does make what they used to do redundant, but also yes, provides them new tools to either do more, or do different in a newly rewarding way is a good thing, not something to fear.

Thinking about Twitter

Thinking about Twitter

I like Twitter a lot. I’ve been using it nearly a decade now. It’s an indispensable part of my professional and personal social life. Chances are, you’re reading this after seeing a link on Twitter. But Twitter is having some problems, some which I think are real, some less so. And because punditry is fun, here’s a few thoughts about Twitter, product opportunities and issues at hand.

Scale & ongoing growth

I’m going to be upfront about this: I don’t think continued growth is necessarily always a necessary, or even a good thing. Twitter is big. Not Facebook big, but, that’s probably ok. There’s lots of commentary about the lack of growth of users as being essentially a death-knell for Twitter. That’s possibly true – but it becomes true if you say it’s true. Having run a company, I knew early on that there was a sort of ideal size for what I was trying to do with the company. We had opportunity to grow much beyond that size, and resisted, because it changes the nature of the company.

Twitter’s like that. I’m not advocating that it regress in size, but, I will say that I find as it has grown, there was a tipping point, which for me was in mid 2013, when the signal-to-noise ratio became unwieldy and I needed to change how I used Twitter. So – what if there’s only 300 million users? That’s still the size of America’s population. And certainly some don’t believe in incessant growth of the national user base, or they’d be clamouring for more immigrants, right?

Part of Twitter’s problem, as it relates to users, is that in the modern free-app world, the only way to make money is advertising, and advertising demands ever-more eyeballs to make money – which in turn seems to drive down the value of each eyeball, so…huh.

But maybe Twitter could spend more time examining how to monetize it’s own users more. Also: I should preface this by stating I don’t actually know how Twitter makes money, besides selling data access and advertising. They may already do some of this. Looking back at the original WhatsApp model, they charged $1/year for users. What if Twitter did that? Or provided a free model, which works as is, but charged $1/month to power users? Or significantly more for Corporate or Verified users? Or, like Facebook, charged business users for reach within their own network (maybe they do this already?) when they post? There’s likely a tonne of money to be made just be re-examining access, stats, limits, etc on existing users. & I strongly suspect that Wall St would be much quieter about user-growth if per-user revenue and overall revenue would grow.

Of course, implementing all of this would certainly cost them users. Would celebrities still tweet if it cost them $$$ to reach all of their followers? Who knows. But looking at experiments like YouTube Red, and other paid-access social networking, there’s clearly money being left on the table.

Changing the product itself

There’s lots of complaints about ongoing Twitter changes:

  • Moments suck
  • I don’t like Hearts, I like Stars!
  • Quote? Retweet?
  • Longer Tweets?
  • Longer DMs?

Etc. Essentially every change to Twitter has brought much derision. But Twitter’s own UI, own feature set has been going more or less constant tweaks and refinement since it started. A major difference now is that since Twitter cut off it’s own developer network at the knees, these changes have been top-down, rather than bottom-up. So feel imposed, rather than organically grown. But even still, the Twitter community has managed to build cultural tools, with Tweetstorms and fun quoted-tweet rabbit-holes and other items. But, even when I don’t like the individual change, I love the feeling that Twitter is a growing, changing organism willing to explore fundamental changes to itself. While there’s a lot of worry about changing the “core” of Twitter – this ongoing change to me, is “core” Twitter. It’s been changing since the day I joined. But! I do, wholeheartedly, believe that Twitter needs to find a way to re-embrace it’s own community. It will be very hard, nigh impossible, to win back the trust of developers at this point. But, with a massive leadership change underway, this becomes a window to do so.

Abuse and dealing with it

I’m writing this as a white, cis male – so let it be know I don’t experience this much. But friends do, and I’m certainly well aware it’s out there. And that lots of much smarter people are working really hard to confront this. But, strangely, Twitter doesn’t seem to be doing much. So, here’s some of my own thoughts:

  • Where’s the “Akismet” for Twitter? A user-subscribable service to auto-filter inbound responses? Most of my miss-tweets are Scots angry at their local TV station – it’s pretty easy for machines to learn that this isn’t relevant to me or a recent tweet. S0 – quarantine them for me. In-app, give me a spot to review them if I want. But otherwise, just let me ignore them.
  • Network-rating? When someone I don’t know/follow joins in a conversation, one of the first things I do before I decide to respond is check: a) are they an “egg”? (I ignore all eggs – why this isn’t a feature in and of itself is beyond me) b) what’s their following/follower ratio? C) what’s their tweet count? D) do we have common networks of followers/followees? E)content of their recent tweets? Now, I don’t actually do all of the following every time. But you know what? A robot sure could. It could give me a score based on these (or other) criteria. And let me decide what sort of score would let their tweet come through or not.
  • Banning is, for me, a very problematic tool (free speech and all). But blocking should be easier and work better. And yes, should probably have better in-network tool too (ie, if this person is blocked by X% of people I follow, then…)
  • A large part of the problems I read about stem from piling-on across networks. I don’t have a great solution here – even if you don’t see the abuse, it could still be public and thus affect others, and even get back to yourself. Tools like Slack’s purported public-broadcast channels could be an interesting tool here: if your account is “public-broadcast” only, then no one can mention your account (or something) – people you follow could still DM, possibly even mention you still. That might reduce direct abuse, but not sub-tweet (and sundry off-line extensions that, TBH, I don’t even know where to begin).

Other Thoughts

  • As above: Letting users decide how interactive Twitter is for them is potentially useful: Twitter for large-follower users is already essentially broadcast – why not create an explicit channel/toolset for broadcast vs conversation?
  • As I tweeted last night: Liking/Favouriting is fine, but I’d really like two additional tools: a “mark” this tweet – which lets me use some sort of single-emoji to mark a tweet – the stats about which emoji I use for what could surface all sorts of interesting data, and a “react” to this tweet – again – a single/short emoji would work well here, like Slack reactions, which would go back to the tweeter, but perhaps not as a public tweet – perhaps in a method similar to poll-responses – show up in notifications. But maybe this, again, would be available as public data, so I could see when I look at a tweet, the various reactions to it – but not directly in the timeline.
  • I, personally, love the idea of long-tweets, or tweets with embedded stories. What if every Medium article I posted would auto-embed in my related tweet? Great! Feels like a win for everyone. I was unsold about embedded images/videos, but those are generally good. So why not longer text?
  • Media likes Twitter. Twitter likes Media. There’s probably a very interesting intersection here about the end of TV, channels-as-apps, Netflix or Twitch-style streaming…and Twitter. Periscope is definitely down this path. But how much money could there be if, say, I could pay monthly to ESPN to get access to a particular Twitter feed of ESPN programming, directly in my Twitter app. Or if I could make money by streaming through Twitter – particular tweets (or whole accounts) that people had to pay to see? (Beyond streaming, there’s simply an interesting Patreon-style model in here for supporting interesting writing, etc directly in Twitter
  • Seriously Twitter: let go of app-control. Let other people build various, use-case-specific or even general apps. Simply enforce feature-sets, so that as tools get added to Twitter, apps need to update too, if it applies to their use-case. Many common interactions now all grew out of app-developers experimenting with how to display Twitter.
  • I’ve always thought of Facebook as AOL, Twitter as IRC. Both are, in their own way, walled gardens, But one is a super-controlled walled, curated, corporate walled-garden, while the other is more of a slightly-off-kilter free-for-all that is still self-contained. Twitter almost feels like a utility, or a protocol, rather than an app to me – which probably explains why it has such a hard time dealing with Wall St – it is a fundamentally different tool than many of the other social network competitors (Who, increasingly, are just Facebook), and needs to find a way to revel in that.

So, Twitter. I love you, but you’re bringing me down. But we’re all in this together, so let’s figure this all out, so you can become a sustainable company and I can go on loving you.

Vance Joy at the Orpheum

One of Liam’s favourite artists is Vance Joy, who’s an Australian folk singer, in the vein of Jack Johnson, that is to say he’s very charming, pleasant and not particularly challenging, so absolutely radio-friendly and enjoyable.

As a last-minute thing, I found a pair of reasonably-priced, decent seats at the Orpheum, and so suddenly I was taking Liam to his second concert ever (his first being Mumford & Sons out in Surrey).

And… it was perfect. He was happy – singing along, clapping along, dancing in front of his seat – exactly what I want as a parent when I take him to something for him, rather than for me. The late night definitely meant a few yawns, and I think he’d have preferred if people didn’t stand up for the whole concert, but a rousing success.

The show itself? Well, it was mixed. The opening act, Rueben and the Dark were excellent. Really enjoyed their show, their energy, their music – Liam too – he immediately wanted to add their stuff to his music.

Rueben and the dark
Rueben and the dark

Vance Joy was charming as all heck, telling short stories to intro the songs he was singing. But… it all felt a little too pleasant. Charm, not excellence was the tenor of the night. The quality of songs is also widely varied – I’m not sure if he has on occasional collaborator who is responsible for his 3 (to date) radio hits, but they (+ 1 other) stood head-and-shoulders, quality-wise, above most of his material. Then, closing the night, he covered Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, which.. while an excellent cover, really showed up his own music as lacking a certain something.

But – maybe that’s just where we are. According to one story Vance Told, just 2.5 years ago, he was playing the Media Club, just him and a guitar. And now he’s got 2 sold-out shows at the Orpheum. That’s a pretty good 2 years of work. I definitely enjoyed the show – he’s so damn pleasant you’d have to be a real asshole to not – but, I can’t say he was excellent.

But, that wasn’t really the point last night. The point was to go with Liam to see someone he really likes, for him to experience the pleasure of live music being played well in front of other like-minded fans and that, that was everything I could have wanted it to be. Liam’s just now developing his own distinct tastes in music, and I look forward to learning from him about new and different acts in the way I started teaching my parents about music I discovered, sharing back. This night was a great start to that, sharing his enthusiasm.

New(ish) Tannock.net

So, it turns out that when one has a WordPress site that is so old that its content predates WordPress itself (indeed, WordPress is, I believe, the 4th in a series of CMS/publishing platforms that I’ve used to maintain this site), it gets some cruft. And when it is additionally sitting on a server that was new sometime in the 90s, occasionally bad things happened. And so, it came to my attention last week that the site was riddled with malware. Some investigation lead me to discover that while the current, immediate threat was easily contained, there were some 1400 suspicious files on the server that I wasn’t sure what they were doing – most were contained by the server itself, but, still – I clearly wasn’t being a good site owner.

So, rather than try to clean that all up in place, on a server that often chokes whenever I click a button, I simply exported the data, moved the site and re-launched it the least amount of time possible. So now I’m using the default WordPress theme for a while, and there’s likely tonnes of things missing. But the site’s now up on a Digital Ocean Droplet, so, in theory, modern technology that will keep it up and running smoothly.

It’s probably time to actually move platforms again, but I have neither the time nor the inclination at the moment, so this’ll have to do.

Albums of the year – 2015

I used to do this regularly (see 20042005, 2006, 2008, 2009 & 2010), but apparently haven’t done it in a while. I suspect that it is no coincidence that my stopping this corresponds directly with Kellan’s arrival in my life.

But this year has felt like a particularly good year in music, and one where there’s been lots of changes in how I listen to music (good bye Rdio! hello Apple Music!). So, as in previous years, here’s an alphabetical list of albums that I liked a lot. Unlike previous years, I won’t be linking to Amazon, because who buys music anymore! Also – only a top 8 this year: If I had to think about it, it didn’t make the list. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something I really loved at some point, but these albums all stuck with me.

Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

A stunning mix of gospel-blues-electronica, powered, unerringly, by Brittany Howard’s unbelievable voice, this album has the distinction of being my most-played album of the year. I couldn’t get the first eponymous single out of my head

Depression Cherry

Beach House – Depression Cherry

Lush, ethereal, moody. Dark like a grey afternoon, but maybe just after the rain has cleared, this feels like a slightly rawer album than their last.

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Björk – Vulnicura

A strange, moving, personal album about painful divorce, it is cathartic, raw, and even occasionally really hard to listen to.

Roses

Coeur de Pirate – Roses

A most Canadian of albums, this was my favourite “pop” album of the year. Introspective lyrics and some well-done orchestral arrangements make this a lovely listen.

Art Angels

Grimes – Art Angels

Local-via-Montreal wunderkid Grimes can really do no wrong in my book. I’m not sure I “get” this album, but I sure can’t stop listening to it! One reason I really like this is in comparison to her last – she, as I understand, wrote, performed, produced, art-directed – the whole thing on here. Incredible craftsmanship.

In Colour

Jamie XX – In Colour

The standout techno album of the year, an amazing, astounding mix of anthemic and yet somehow really small, detailed, personal music. It also has this weird sense, from the earlier-era samples carefully paired with modern collaborators of being not really of today of being a really timeless, yet somehow immediate, album

To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

I’m not really knowledgeable hip-hop, but some albums cross over – this one crossed way over. It felt like a window into a completely different world – as Pitchfork wrote, this album is “black as fuck”. It tied together social consciousness and politics lyrically, with amazing music. This album was my intro to Kamasi Washington, who’s album The Epic should probably be on here too.

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Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Right up there with Vulnicura as perhaps the most depressing album of the year, this is also one of the most beautiful: a loving, detailed look at Sufjan’s parents. Not self-pitying, not aggrandising, but a really intense look inwards that we all get to peek at.

Access to reading: architecture informs literacy

riverside book-stall in Paris

I’ve been thinking recently about the privilege of access — mine in particular. A fact about me that I constantly found surprising growing up is that, generally, I’m significantly more well-read — wider-read — than many people that I’ve met. I’ve always loved to read, but I’ve had the immense luck of getting to know many brilliant people with advanced degrees, often in the arts and humanities, which require lots of reading. And while they’ve all read deeper than I have, I’ve learned by taking those Facebook quizzes about what books you’ve read that I’ve generally read more books that most of my friends.

If I start to pull out differences, a primary difference is that I grew up in a house surrounded by books. We had a bookshelf in nearly every room. Each of my siblings and I had overflowing bookshelves in our rooms. There was a bookshelf in our dining room, piles of books here and there. We had a study, which was an unused bedroom that had 2 walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. This room was also where our TV sat — explicitly linking the notion of relaxation and entertainment with reading. Beyond the quantity of books, the breadth of topic was huge. As a kid, I could freely explore the massive set of Taschen art books, London Times archives, Complete works of Dickens, Shakespeare, Life-science books, travel books, novels, poetry, plays, non-fiction of all stripes (I learned early on that I generally dislike autobiographies and memoirs, but got a peculiar satisfaction from biographies that were, if not unkind, not wholly flattering of their subjects).

But I live in a townhouse in central Vancouver. While I’m certainly lucky, when I look around the house, there’s not really any unused walls — where could I put a bookshelf? My living room has 1 wall. We put our couch there. The other side is a fireplace. The third wall is doors & windows. The dining area has a no walls: window one side, staircase across. There’s a bit of wall in the kitchen, so we put a shelving unit there to store things like food — but we did cheat and have a lovely cookbook shelf! And that’s the entire main floor! There’s a half-landing as the stairs turn, but it’s too narrow to put a bookshelf there (I tried — even a basic Ikea shelf means I don’t fit width-wise there).

And then I started to think about places where I have lived vs how many books I had. Unscientifically, the older the place I lived in, the more likely it was to have had wallspace for books. But as modern architecture has trended towards open space, this has removed interior walls that are perfect to hang a bookshelf on. Visiting friends, this is true too: Look at where you live. Was it built in the past 20-odd years? If so, I bet there are very few interior walls — it’s not the style — particularly on the main floor. Even large houses often just have larger open spaces. And this, for literacy, might actually be a problem. Sure, I could put a bookshelf in front of that bay window, but I’m not likely to. My bias is showing, but the surest way for me to fall in love with a house while browsing MLS.ca or watching House Hunters is the presence of built-in-shelving. And yeah, once the interior decorator gets done with them, those shelves are generally filled with trinkets, but all I see is double-stacked books in those shelves.

My oldest kid, luckily, is a good reader. But he still is much more constrained than I was by access to books, because they’re not just there. Discovery is a problem. He’s really good about leveraging his own collection, and he gets a monthly eBook allowance, but the issue here is access and discoverability. He can’t just browse the shelves from the couch and pull out an interesting-looking spine to flip through for a few minutes. Buying a book (or even checking it out of the library) incurs a kind of commitment that is larger than we might want. Oddly: I’ve bought many physical books that I didn’t enjoy, so just stopped reading them — because they’re around, I know that I might pick them up again later — and often have. But when I buy an eBook, I slog through it unless I really dislike it — because I know that once I put it down, it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind, lost in my eReader.

I don’t how how to reconcile interior design and architecture with having more visible bookspace. Indeed, I suspect that architects are responding as much to trends (people own fewer books, so don’t want space for them) as they are causing them. But I do think this is something for parents in particular to think about: Where, in your common family space, can you fit a bookshelf, or bookshelves? And is that bookshelf a common shelf with everyone’s books (yes, even the ones that probably aren’t appropriate yet for your kids)?

Update: The New York Times no less also has a piece on this topic. You should read that one too: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/fashion/our-bare-shelves-our-selves.html?_r=0 (H/T to Richard Eriksson)

Gearing up, gearing down

Extroverting while introverted

It took me a really long time — well into my twenties, maybe even early thirties, to learn to respect my need for downtime, both before and after social interactions. It took nearly 7 years of working with the same team for me to feel comfortable telling them of those groundrules for me. Of course, when I told them — they all already knew this about me, I just didn’t know how to tell them. But what was amazing was that by taking the time I really needed, the overall energy and effort these events take out of me has greatly decreased. It just took really looking into who I am and what I needed to function, and then adjusting my expectations for myself and others to accommodate that.

I recently tweeted about my experience participating in a round-table discussion:

And then afterwards, I started to think about why I find these so hard (apart from the obvious “because I’m an introvert”), and how I handle these intensely social interactions — and thought this might be helpful for someone else out there.

Before

Names & Faces: When I know I have an upcoming social event, I try really hard to find out who’ll be there. This isn’t so much about learning things about people, but often just as basic as a list of names, and hopefully photos. This is primarily because my anxiety levels are at the highest when I first enter a room, and thus my ability to remember names & faces at the lowest. If I can do that work beforehand, I’m much more relaxed during that first interaction, and that can set a better tone for all that follows. I’ll often quickly flip through a list of them on my way to the event. Linkedin, facebook, etc — all great tools!

If I can’t get names and faces before an event (as was the case this past Tuesday — I went in totally blind as to whom I’d be meeting), I have a slightly different approach — I try hard not to panic all the way there. This is sometimes successful, but I’ve also been know to take an extra walk around the block now and then too.

Talking Points: If I have names & faces, I often go one step further and try to learn something about the person — not personally, but some sort of professional note. LinkedIn is actually really helpful for this: What does this person do, what’re their skills, where to do they volunteer. Where any of these meet with the circle of my interests, skills, experience, I get a Venn-diagram of conversational-comfort.

I also try hard to quickly scan recent news/media/pop-culture for 15 minutes. Twitter + trends is super-useful for this — I only need to be conversant so that when someone, inevitably, says “hey, did you see/hear/know — “ I might actually, which again — more conversational comfort.

Be Still My Beating Heart: as I approach the event, I almost invariably can feel my heart-rate rising. Calming my thumping heart is a critical thing. For me, quick meditative process works great. I’m really good a quickly quieting, if not completely emptying my mind. My favourite tool for this is music. Headphones on, eyes-closed, listen intently to the song, let the world disappear. Often, one song is all it takes, but it’s incredibly helpful. The takeaway here is that you likely need to find what tools help you quiet the mind, focus yourself, and move on the quickest way possible. Permanent Bliss isn’t the goal here — short-term calm is.

During

Listen: I used to get really stressed out about this habit, but now, I’ve come to embrace it: When I first get somewhere where I’m going to be dealing with a bunch of people, I just listen at first. If it’s a crowded room — a party, networking event, I’ll get a drink and wander through listening in lightly here and there, using the excuse of my drink to not participate much. If it’s an event like a meeting, panel discussion — I let the other people talk first. If I’m leading something — a seminar, presentation, this clearly doesn’t work, before I’m set to start, I’ll just sit quietly and soak in what’s going on.

I’ve been told that I can be hard to read, intimidating to some — and I think my need to listen quietly, to calibrate is in large part responsible — I’m often fairly stone-faced at this time. So — if you see me, do know that I’m listening and absorbing — I’m just not necessarily ready to contribute yet.

Engage: Once I’ve got a read of the room, it’s time to actually participate. I, oddly, can’t speak about this too directly because I often feel I step “outside” myself, and watch myself participate in ways that I find surprising in retrospect. But, some things I do while present in a social settings:

  • Measure how much everyone (including yourself) is participating. Don’t dominate a conversation. Conversely, don’t stay silent.
  • Look, and call for, unheard voices — This is a “abuse-my-white-male-privilege-for-good” tactic: particularly at business meetings, there’s always someone, usually a man, who’ll just blather self-importantly (make sure that’s not me!). Say something, and pointedly ask someone who’s being ignored to answer.
  • Stay engaged. When topics move on past what I’m interested, I’m prone to zoning out/disengaging, only to find a lot of time has passed and I’m lost. Or, I haven’t participated in a while. Staying present, engaged is a super-important piece of actually being in a social setting.
  • When you’re overwhelmed, take a break: go to the bathroom. Get a drink. Switch groups. Take a 30-second mental time-out. This is directly opposed to the above, but, in short bursts, they help each other.
  • Don’t waste time on people you don’t like. Don’t discount them — that person who just grates on your nerves may actually have useful contributions. But you don’t generally need to waste time engaging with them directly — or minimize where possible.

After

After an event, I’m invariably wiped out. A day at a conference? No, I’ll skip dinner with everyone & just go for a long walk for an hour, then go to the party. Otherwise, I’m just a mess. After the round-table I participated in on Tuesday, despite the cold rain, I walked home for 45 minutes to try and clear my head. Basically, when I’m done these social events, I need to be alone. I’m no good to anyone, so I try to never continue on to the next event, the after-party, what-have-you, unless I’m feeling really good. For me, even close friends often need to be ignored for a little while — your mileage may vary of course.

For work purposes, this can cause real problems. On Friday, I had a critical conference call, where I had to be on for 90 minutes. The call was at 11:30. It wasn’t until 2pm that I felt recovered enough to get back to work. & that’s totally normal. For me, morning social events are terrible because they often cost me my entire day’s work. A one-on-one coffee in the AM is ok — but I know that I’m going to need an hour or so. But conference calls, round-tables, seminars, presentations, etc? If I know I have one of these in the morning, I try really hard to do one of two things:

  1. Don’t plan on getting anything else done that day afterwards. Or, do only light, mostly mindless work. Chores, etc.
  2. Plan back-to-back socially-heavy things, but treat them mentally as one. A day of 4 conference calls is ok, I just know that’s all I’m doing that day. And don’t plan to get anything done in between.

The baseline: Once you’ve got something social done, take time for yourself, and take all the time you really need, not just what you think is acceptable.

All in all

These tactics/tips may, of course, not work for you. You’re not me. But maybe you’re likewise introverted with a dose of social anxiety on top — and this might help. Or maybe you know someone who is — and you’ve never really got them: I know when I’ve explained some of this to my more extroverted friends, they look horrified at how complicated interacting with the world seems to be for me, versus their own experience, but really, it’s not so bad. It’s just work.

Quick thoughts on Current Politics

While Harper was PM, it was politically useful for opponents to ascribe all policy to him; indeed, he cultivated that (“the Harper government”). It hid the body of Conservative support somewhat, which helped focus opposition.

However, now that he’s resigned, it strikes me as much more useful to talk about those same policies as Conservative party policies instead: raise the profiles on the ministers who enacted them; don’t let them escape their actions through amnesia. Remind everyone that it wasn’t one man, it was a plurality that all believed that. Rona Ambrose shows signs (sensibly!) of wanting to distance the party from Harper: don’t let that happen. They’re all responsible for what I’m already starting to thing of as “Canada’s Lost Decade”

Design & Content Conference: A sort-of review

So let’s get this out of the way up front: I have a lot of bias regarding the Design & Content Conference:
My company was a sponsor of the conference.
– The host & organizer, Steve Fisher, is a good friend of mine.

I’m not going to review all the talks — the levels were very good, with 2 exceptions, but wanted to highlight some, as I talk about the “structure” of talks and what I like and don’t. This conference, as I experienced it, consisted of 4 types of talks: The Story, The Essay, The Review & The Editorial. I’ll use examples of talks to talk about each. It should be noted I’m not a public speaker (though I’ve been thinking a lot about giving it a shot), and it’s entirely likely I’m making up terms for actual styles that already exist and are described, so… well. I’m already here, so let’s just dive in.

The Story

The Story talk is where the speaker guides you through one or more related tales, and uses these tales to illuminate her point. Sort of like fables of old, where the story contains important lessons. These are generally always my favourite talks, because I love stories and parables.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s talk, let’s just get this out of the way, was one of those really special, you-just-had-to-be-there, life-changing sort of experiences, which makes it hard to review in any way. As soon as video is up, go watch it. Better yet, find out where she’s next giving this talk and pay more or less whatever it takes to see this. Seriously. That good.

Sara’s talk consisted of 3 short, personal stories, all relating to the central theme of kindness. Her slides, which was common in story-style talks, were additive to the talk, but not required. Progressive Enhancement, if you will.

The Essay

The Essay talk is, to my mind, the most basic kind of talk. Think of your standard university essay with an intro, several key points, and a conclusion. That. They tended to be more technical, and, as a group, tended to use slides to explain points (or to repeat what they were saying). I feel like this might sort of a “beginner’s” format, or a safety format. With the exception of Rebekah Cancino & Eileen Webb’s talks, who rose above, these talks were the least interesting to me. One, they tended to be drier, but two, I don’t really want to have to read lots of text on a slide, and information-dense slides were common elements amongst these. Really, nothing is more off-putting than a speaker half-turning their head to read the slide out loud to me.

The Review

James White’s talk, Design Renegade, should have been one of those god-awful masturbatory “portfolio review” talks that artsy designers seem to like to give. But. It wasn’t. It rose above, way above thanks mostly to his unbridled energy, humour and pace. It reminded me very much of a talk by Aaron Draplin I saw a couple of years ago. Packing hundreds of slides into a rapid-fire cross-section of his professional and personal explorations it was wonderful, although, I suspect that how my inner 13-year-old comics-obsessed self identified with it helped. I spoke to several others who were much less enamoured with the talk. Given the nature of the portfolio review talk being very much about the speaker, the success of these would likely be directly impacted by two things: how much you like the speaker’s work; how much you like the speaker. Self-hagiography is a dangerous game.

The Editorial

This style I named because it straddled a line somewhere between a story and the essay. While the essay talks were very linearly-structured, and stories were pretty loose, the editorial tended to talk around a particular point, and were more opinion than essay (which had a veil of objectivity), without the flourishes of the story. In particular, Denise Jacob’s & Parker Mclean’s talks fell into this category. Denise was opining on how to be creative through banishing your inner critic (oh how this talk spoke to me!), while Parker was giving a whirlwind tour through how & why to make accessible content & design decisions. Denise’s slides tended to be illustrative of her points (often literally, with heavy use of photos), while Parker’s slides seemed, for the most part, to be punchlines, or accessories to his jokes. This style of talk greatly appeals to me intellectually, as while it demonstrates clear expertise, it couches it in experience & opinion, so comes across didactic than the essay-style talks.

Special Mention: The Click-bait

I want to take a moment to talk about Jared Spool’s talk, which was great (as his talks are — this was the fourth time I’ve seen him speak). Very Much an Editorial-style talk, but he’s sort of the Buzzfeed of this — in a good way. Everything is set up in a slide that shows some obscure image, and Jared will ask a question to the audience about what they think it means “Look at this graph — You’ll never guess what happened next!” over and over. Which…when I’m thinking back, really should have been annoying. And, perhaps it was. I don’t particularly like being asked an actual question that is really rhetorical. But. And it’s a really big BUT. It was awesome. I learned a lot about metrics (and how/when to ignore them/go beyond them), it was hugely entertaining, and a great way to close the conference.

In Toto

Really, it’s hard to believe that this was the first time this conference was put on — it was so smooth, so well run. Live captioning! Excellent, diverse, high-calibre topics! Tasty lunches! A party at Science World! The Venue itself isn’t fantastic — no coffee allowed in the auditorium, it was split across two-levels with some odd narrow hallways, but the team at the venue clear is great. Linking to the conference to two other Vancouver events: Style & Classmeetup & Creative Mornings was an interesting initiative to showcase Vancouver’s culture. I’m less convinced of the Creative Mornings inclusion (caveat: I didn’t attend Creative Mornings) only because the post-event chaos made the start of Day 2 a little weird.

When it’s announced next year, definitely grab a ticket. I hope I can still be involved somehow too.