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In Defense of Snark

Snark (Combination of “snide” and “remark”. Sarcastic comment.) is a method of creating reality, a reality that suits me better than what’s presented to me, even if that reality is dark and pessimistic. If you call my writing snarky, perhaps you should refer back to Packer’s original piece and reevaluate your definition of snark.

So how exactly does this steaming helping of schlocky snark add to the discussion?

– Commenter Casso

Casso, how does whatever-you-said not add to the discussion?

I stand by the words of writer J.G. Ballard, best-known for his novel Crash:

We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

Snark (Combination of “snide” and “remark”. Sarcastic comment.) is a method of creating reality, a reality that suits me better than what’s presented to me, even if that reality is dark and pessimistic.

Yes, I creatively rewrote Packer’s piece which, admit it, was complete bullshit – his article was full of fear and ignorance that you could smell from a mile away.

Don’t even get me started on the unfair jabs he made at David Carr – I was coming to the defense of a journalist I admire.

If you call my writing snarky, perhaps you should refer back to Packer’s original piece and reevaluate your definition of snark.

I like to think that I was providing a service for people who trust Packer based on his reputation and generally stellar writing. Some readers may know nothing about Twitter and will now judge it unfairly, based on Packer’s ignorant assessment of it. I was providing a counterpoint for the unenlightened.

Snark, because it can be so abrasive and eye-catching, is a language that people understand – it elicits emotion. I was translating Packer’s piece for an audience that might not understand it.

In the comments on my post, Casso and Boom (snarkers themselves) hide behind nicknames.

I’m not afraid to speak my mind and attach my name to my strongly-held opinions.

Snark v. satire

According to Wikipedia, “In satire, human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, ideally with the intent to bring about improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour in itself so much as an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit.”

I believe snark is different because it calls out just one human folly: the use of bullshit in writing and speech.

Now, I COULD get all philosophical here and say that truth is subjective, that there is no absolute truth, and that bullshit is relative.

However, in today’s media landscape, facts are regularly manipulated and spun.

To counter “bullshit” constructively, without snark, you could provide a detailed summary of facts that support your argument.

Or, you can bring attention to its absurdity by mocking it, exaggerating it, or creatively reconstructing it. Snark.

Snark v. bullying

On February 5, Alison Hendre contributed a piece to The New York Times Complaint Box about mean-spirited comments on a high school sports blog.

This kind of snark, which I think is more accurately referred to as “bullying”, stems from boredom rather than an actual desire to change anything. She cites some comments:

“What? He’s no longer averaging 25 points per game?”

“Why does that no-talent bum start every game?”

In response to Hendre: have you ever sat in the bleachers at a Yankees game? Sports fans heckle and prod – that’s just what they do. I understand the comments are a bit harsh for a high school sports blog but realize that these people have sad little lives and nothing better to do than make pointless comments.

The problem with snark on sites like Gawker is that the commenters are just trying to “one-up” each other. On Gawker, commenters are actually encouraged to generate the most ridiculous comments possible – they receive gold stars and virtual pats on the back for great comments. Therefore, they are just writing things for shock value. Leaving comments on Gawker is just another form of bullying.

As for the people that lurk on Gawker all day long, waiting for approval? Just feel sorry for them and ignore them too.

Snark v. respect

In a way, written snark engages in direct conversation with the original writer. Realize that, if I respond to someone, it means that I respect them enough to care.

If I thought Packer was a completely bad/worthless writer, I wouldn’t be wasting my time by engaging in a dialogue with him.

For example, yesterday I realy wanted to engage with this piece about government-funded media. Though I generally disagree with the concept, I was interested in what writer David Swanson had to say.

However, I read his first paragraph about 10 times, didn’t know what the hell he was trying to say, and moved along my merry way.

Listen, I realize that George Packer is a very accomplished writer. However, just because someone is accomplished doesn’t mean he is omnipotent.

I was angry and wanted to express myself. And I did because I could. Because this is America, and we, as Americans, have certain freedoms.

I only snark because I care and because I seriously mistrust anyone who tries to write about something he doesn’t understand. I believe my choice to rewrite his piece, rather than write about it, only further emphasized my distrust of his language.

(Photo by cogdogblog)

Where Have All the Writers Gone?

What I offered was a community of writers and networking opportunities, the freedom to write about almost anything arts and culture related, my editorial feedback, a customized article layout, and a chance to be published online. I have also written job/school recommendations for many of the writers that have worked with me.

Laryssa,

I remember talking to you a long time ago about how you got started with Too Shy to Stop, and now I am in a position where I am wanting to start something that is likely going to require a lot of writing. I just want to talk with you a bit about how you got your writers to begin with.

I think I remember you saying something about going to Craigslist at first, but some of those people didn’t work out.

I guess what I need to know is have you come up with a successful method for finding the correct people to write for you? What do you pay them? Did you pay them at first? If not, what did you offer them as compensation?

Sincerely,

Wrangler of Writers

– – –

Dear Wrangler of Writers:

Great question! I am happy to offer my input.

When I first started Too Shy to Stop, I had no intention of inviting other writers to contribute. For four months, I was the sole contributor. During this time, I generated approximately 150 posts.

In September 2008, I wanted to use Too Shy to Stop as a way to make new friends and to create a venue for other people with similar voices/interests. I tapped into my immediate professional and personal networks, and I also did advertise on Craigslist.

I couldn’t pay anyone to contribute, but I wasn’t trying to start a business either. In retrospect, I’m amazed that anyone agreed to contribute at all. The original Too Shy to Stop website was very plain and amateur-ish in appearance.

When I launched the new Too Shy to Stop website in January 2009, I tried to recruit more writers – I placed ads on journalism job related websites like Ed2010, Berkeley School of Journalism Jobs website. I also spend a lot of time networking via Too Shy to Stop’s Twitter account.

I advertised the chance to write for Too Shy to Stop as an internship and an opportunity to build a writing portfolio.

At around the same time, the economy tanked, and a lot of people were getting laid off from media jobs/having trouble finding media jobs. In an effort to continue writing and building their portfolios, many recent or soon-to-be graduates wanted the opportunity to write.

I was one of those people, and I too used Too Shy to Stop as an opportunity to write articles, keep my journalism skills fresh, and have the satisfaction of sharing my writing with others.

What I offered was a community of writers and networking opportunities, the freedom to write about almost anything arts and culture related, my editorial feedback (I spent a lot of time editing drafts), a customized article layout, and a chance to be published online. I have also written job/school recommendations for many of the writers that have worked with me.

I didn’t hold any of the writers to time commitments or article minimums. They came and went as they pleased, and they had very flexible deadlines. These terms meant that I had a lot of contributor turnaround. I also had to deal with receiving submissions from people who shouldn’t have been writing in the first place – quality control is tough when you’re asking people to contribute for free. However, I was happy to publish what I could.

Nowadays, writers are pretty easy to find, but that doesn’t mean the writers you find will be any good. With the market as it is, people who enjoy writing are generally desperate to land any type of writing job. However, the good writers know what they are worth, and they probably won’t work without pay unless they are trying to build portfolios or have ulterior motives.

Managing writers and an editorial calendar requires a lot of time, effort, and patience; it’s pretty much a full-time job. I wish I could devote more time to this type of work, but I have another job and other responsibilities. For this reason, I suggest that you hire or be a good editor.

You need to value great content and understand what makes great content in order to provide it to your audience.

Good luck!

Sincerely,

Laryssa

Why You Should Care about Media and Writing

The Internet makes writing exciting and dynamic! Ideas can quickly spread and evolve, and more people than ever before can feed the information machine. What was that? “Writing and media are just fine without my input or attention,” you say? I can understand why you might think that way.

In case you didn’t already know, I am passionate about and completely in love with writing and media, and I hope to convince YOU, person who probably doesn’t really care about writing/media, why these things are important.

The Internet makes writing exciting and dynamic! Ideas can quickly spread and evolve, and more people than ever before can feed the information machine.

What was that?

“Writing and media are just fine without my input or attention,” you say? With so much being circulated via print publications and the Internet, I can understand why you find it difficult to imagine a dearth of information.

However, choose an issue that’s really important to you and ask yourself: how you would feel if everyone just stopped writing about it?

Or, better yet, how would you feel if all the good writers stopped writing about it?

What if you REALLY cared about blue-footed boobies and then, suddenly, all the good writers decided to stop writing about blue-footed boobies, leaving one amateur poet to publish a series of poems about these birds? Wouldn’t that embarrass you? Would you want someone with absolutely no talent to be the person writing about your favorite thing?

Essential writers, the writers who WOULD do blue-footed boobies justice, are losing jobs due to budget cuts. One of the most depressing and hard-hitting things I’ve read recently were the comments on a Gawker post about “Freelance writing’s unfortunate new model”, a Los Angeles Times piece about the freelance writer’s struggle to make a living. Gawker commenter CassandraSays writes:

Those media outlets then wonder why their sales are dropping. You know, now that there’s hardly any actual content in their publications. Why oh why is no one subscibing to their almost content-free newspaper that takes a week to cover even really big stories?

Writers are representatives and ambassadors.

Online, writers are leaders – they are best at articulating an original thought, and they move people to participate. Readers respond with comments like “Oh yeah, you’re right” or “I never thought of it that way” or “I totally disagree with you” – instantly. Many times, these readers did not previously care enough to have an opinion, but the writer is able to challenge them.

To respond to a printed piece, you would have to write a letter to the editor/author and snail mail it. Rarely, would you know that he or she received your letter, which would probably not be republished unless you were lucky or awesome. On the Internet, a commenting community is just as important as the author who publishes the original piece.

You should care because you can get involved. Even if you have no desire to start a blog, you can become part of the commenting community on a website that you enjoy and appreciate.

SO MANY people on the web write for free; as a writer, becoming discouraged on tough days is easy when you’re not making money. However, comments can keep a writer going. Given the anonymity and the vastness of the Internet, writers like to know that their work is being read.

Take a moment to think about your favorite websites. Do you even know about the people who contribute? Do you know the people who do the layout, the editing, and the programming?

Next time you read an article that you like, notice the byline. I am always interested to learn more about a writer when I read something I enjoy. These days, most journalists and authors have personal homepages where they showcase their writing samples. Take the time to get to know their writing style and where they’ve been published. You might even become a loyal fan!

Every time you whine about the length of an article, realize that the time it took you to read (or not read) it was probably just 10% of the time it took for the writer to craft the damn thing. Trust me, writers have better things to do than sit around and write 12-page articles. But a writer WILL write a 12-page article when he/she cares about the topic (and is most likely being compensated for writing about it).

Last week, I received news from editor-in-chief of The Silver Spring Penguin that she is moving out of town. Because this hyper-local, hyper-informative website was basically a one-woman show, The Penguin, which provided Silver Spring’s 75,000 + residents with news, restaurant reviews, an event calendar, updates from board meetings, and profiles of local business owners, is closing shop.

Commenter JD writes, “Your departure seriously leaves a massive hole in Silver Spring news.”

Not happy with the size of the Sunday Times? Well, the Times has cut writers and therefore content to save money, which means the paper is smaller and fewer people buy it. If no one is buying the paper, then the newspaper has to cut more writers because they are not making enough money to pay staff members. The paper becomes even thinner. The smaller the paper, the less advertising space.

Stop complaining about the death of print; if you want newspapers to stay alive, you’re going to have to buy them, regardless of whether or not you can find the news online or elsewhere! You, the consumer, who now appreciates writing and media (thanks to this post, of course), have power and the ability to influence.*

*Don’t get too cocky. You lack the media’s power, but your power makes an honorable mention.

(Photo by K. Kendall)

Instant Books for Hungry Readers

This new thing called the Internet allows anyone to publish anything instantly. Slam your head on your keyboard, examine (or don’t examine) the results, and publish online! Only on the Internet could something like this go viral – heck, people might even call your head-banging efforts art.

Some people still aspire to publish their writing in printed and bound books.

Despite the fact that more and more writing is digitized, a print book is the gold standard of achievement and success for many aspiring (and even established) writers.

The problem with printed books is that they take a long time to write and a sometimes equally long time to produce.

First, the author needs to secure a contract with a publisher, which can be one of the most daunting and difficult tasks. Next, the manuscript must be edited, and the publishers must decide how they want to market the book. Then, the book goes into production (copy-editing, layout, binding, etc.). Finally, the book is released and finds its way to a bookstore near you!

With digitization, the writing process can take a long time too. However, production cost and time are slashed.

This new thing called the Internet allows anyone to publish anything instantly. Slam your head on your keyboard, examine (or don’t examine) the results, and publish online! Only on the Internet could something like this go viral – heck, people might even call your head-banging efforts art.

Kidding aside, a lot of writing on the Internet can actually be very good. Out-of-work journalists share writing on their blogs, fiction writers share chapters from their works-in-progress, and comedy writers test jokes on their Twitter followers. Many of these people could care less about the print publishing process and its obstacles. Instead, they value making their work visible and accessible to a hungry audience. The online audience, constantly devouring the next-new-thing, is always seeking fresh work.

I have this theory that, in an effort to compete with online publishers and writers who primarily promote their work online, writers who still aspire to be print rockstars have to rush through the process. Often times, printed work can become quickly irrelevant, especially when so much new content is being produced online.

Why wait to publish an entire book when you can release each chapter as it’s completed?

Why rely on a publisher to do your marketing when you have endless free marketing tools and tactics online?

Have all the good in-print novels been written already?

Shouldn’t critics turn their attention to work being produced online as well as in print?

Is the best new work stewing like primordial matter on the Internet?

(Photo by Hieropenen)

What Would Tina Fey Do?

Newsflash: having a lot of Twitter followers does not make you famous, not on Twitter, not in the real world, not anywhere. Though she’s extremely hard on the women she profiled, Grigoriadis actually gives these women way too much credit. The average person would have no idea who these twilebrities are!

My Twitter friend Matthew Rogers tipped me off to a Vanity Fair piece, which he described as a “complete failure of an article” and “extremely insulting to several female users in particular”. Boy, was I curious!

America’s Tweethearts“, published in the January 2010 issue, is about female “twilebrities”, Twitter celebrities who amass a ridiculous number of followers. Writes Vanessa Grigoriadis:

Whether you consider Twitter a worldwide experiment in extreme narcissism or a nifty tool for real-time reporting—a plane ditches in the Hudson, millions take to the streets in Tehran—it may not yet have dawned on your text-saturated brain that it’s also a path to becoming famous.

Newsflash: having a lot of Twitter followers does not make you famous, not on Twitter, not in the real world, not anywhere. Though she’s extremely hard on the women she profiled, Grigoriadis actually gives these women way too much credit. Sure, I’ve heard of some of these twilebrities because I’m interested in media and marketing, but ask the average person if they know who Julia Roy or Stefanie Michaels – they wouldn’t have a freaking clue!

Why did she choose to write about these twilebrities and give them any sort of press if she already sort of hates the fact that they have thousands of followers?

MOST people who sign up for a Twitter account have no idea what they’re doing. They follow who they follow because it’s cool to follow those people. In the new media circle jerk, new media types fluff each other up and add each other to lists of suggested people to follow. None of this circle jerking actually means that the tweeted content is worth following. However, the more followers you have, the more followers you get – it’s a tipping point of sorts.

In a tone that reeks of jealousy and bitterness, Grigoriadis writes:

According to a study of 1.5 million tweets, released this year by Oxford University Press, the words “cool,” “awesome,” “wow,” and “yay” are among the most common on Twitter—and it’s a safe guess that most twilebrities use them as freely as Laguna High freshmen.

Since when did Twitter become a source for high-brow literature? Twitter doesn’t claim to be anything but a place to broadcast 140-character bits of information.

Frankly, I would be really angry if I was one of the women profiled in this piece. Grigoriadis has absolutely nothing positive to say about them, even though she COULD HAVE said positive things about them. These women all make a living doing something related to media/social media/tech, and they’re all fairly successful. Way to speak positively of your peers!

Take Sarah Evans, for example. She is a public relations and new media consultant who owns her own business. When Grigoriadis describes Evans, she uses this quote: “’Twitter is like going to a giant cocktail party, every day,’ says Sarah Evans, 29, a publicist and self-described ‘Twitterholic.’ ‘Except you don’t ever have to get dressed up!'” I would like to see the Evans interview in its entirety.

Of course Evans is on Twitter – why wouldn’t she be? She makes a living off of being technologically savvy, connected to important media people, and staying at the forefront of her industry. You, Grigoriadis, may not like Twitter, but Evans needs it to put a roof over her head.

This is America. If someone can make a living working for themselves, more power to them. If they have to employ tools like Twitter to stay on the cutting edge, so be it.

In a way Twitter IS a popularity contest, but it only has to be if you care. If you want to follow the people with the most followers, if you choose to pay attention to the most popular people, you will be annoyed by these things. You should be following people who tweet things of interest to you. If you don’t like something, don’t follow it. If you don’t want to sit at the cool kids table, DON’T DO IT.

I’m just so personally embarrassed by this article. You can’t say one positive thing about these ladies, Grigoriadis? These women have their own viable businesses or creative pursuits, and they work hard, JUST LIKE YOU. Just because they use different medium than you doesn’t mean  you have to belittle them.

(Photo by Robert Scoble)

Storytelling Online and Georges-Pierre Seurat

Bryan Macintyre’s “The internet is killing storytelling” was published by The Times over a month ago, but I haven’t yet forgotten it. Macintyre believes that the byte-sized information we consume online is ruining our interest in narratives, which are vital to the human experience. I do not agree.

Bryan Macintyre’s “The internet is killing storytelling” was published by The Times over a month ago, but I haven’t yet forgotten it. Macintyre believes that the byte-sized information we consume online is ruining our interest in narratives, which are vital to the human experience. He writes:

The internet, while it communicates so much information so very effectively, does not really “do” narrative. The blog is a soap box, not a story. Facebook is a place for tell-tales perhaps, but not for telling tales. The long-form narrative still does sit easily on the screen, although the e-reader is slowly edging into the mainstream. Very few stories of more than 1,000 words achieve viral status on the internet.

Though Macintyre’s piece is very interesting and presents some great points for discussion, I do not agree that the Internet is killing storytelling. I believe the Internet is actually enhancing storytelling in a new way, a way that transcends the storytelling done within a typical novel or short story.

Using Twitter and Facebook, social networkers are creating stories over time, stories that perhaps are not apparent in a section of 10 or so status updates or tweets but stories that show the evolution of an individual through photographs, links, and bits of text. The online story is comprised of more than text; it’s a mixed media collage.

In fact, interactive marketers know that the only way you can really get your point across on the Internet is to present a narrative and develop it over time. Unless you’re famous, you’re not going to be able to set up a Twitter account, follow a whole bunch of people, and try to convince them to trust you and buy your product/service all in one day.

You have to gain trust over the course of months by developing your narrative and unfolding your purpose and personality. I think this is very hard to do on the web, especially if you want to create an identity. Online, people know you by your story and your story only.

Also, blogs can become narratives, especially if they are personal blogs written in the first-person. Many are diary-like in their format but can include video, photographs, links, quotes, you name it.

If I learned one thing from my narrative form classes in grad school, it’s that a narrative does not have to move from beginning then middle to end. It also does not have to be continuous string of words. It can include footnotes, fragments, and fallout.

Have you ever heard of a style of painting called pointilism? Think “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges-Pierre Seurat. From close up, the observer sees only a series of painted dots. From far away, the complete picture becomes obvious.

Narratives developing on the Internet are kind of like those paintings – the bits of information, the tweets, and the barrage of digitized byte-sized content are the dots. Step away and see the bigger picture!

(Photo by karla kaulfuss)

Tedium in a New Medium

I have a theory about some of the funniest, most compelling, and most intelligent content on the Internet: it’s produced and consumed by educated and funny people who are bored out of their minds at desk jobs. Why don’t you think anyone updates on the weekends? Let’s call this theory “Tedium in a New Medium”.

I have a theory about some of the funniest, most compelling, and most intelligent content on the Internet: it’s produced and consumed by educated and funny people who are bored out of their minds at mindless desk jobs.

Let’s call this theory “Tedium in a New Medium”.

Why don’t you think anyone updates on the weekends? Why do you think the acronym NSFW exists?

Here’s a little-known fact: I started Too Shy to Stop while a summer intern at a company which will remain unnamed here. Bored out of my freaking mind and doing lowly intern tasks, I would frequently write elaborate descriptions of places where I bought my lunch (I spent my entire intern salary on food), comment on the literary magazines I read during train rides into New York City, and post reviews of nail polish and salsa (thrilling, I know). In fact, my first post was about a free iced coffee that I got from Dunkin’ Donuts.

I kept up the stealthy blogging for an entire summer, updating on weekdays, sometimes more than once a day (never on the weekends). At another internship that fall, I transformed Too Shy to Stop from my personal blog into a group blog – thus, I had to manage other writers and edit their work. These self-imposed editorial duties took up a lot of internship time. However, I was being not being paid and was also going to school. I spent a lot of time justifying my new-found hobby.

Dear readers, judge me if you must, but I always get my work done in an efficient manner. When I’m working a desk job, I often pretend I’m working because I finish my assignments quickly and worry that my supervisor will have nothing left to give me. Of course, the busy days keep my wandering eyes away from the Internet, but Google Reader and Facebook help me get through the slowest of slow days. One of these days, I should write Mark Zuckerberg a thank you note.

On her personal blog, a friend of mine has a tag called “Clandestine Work Blogging”. I remember laughing out loud when I noticed it; when I asked her if she blogs at work, she told me she never blogs if she has assignments left to complete. She only blogs during down-time. Clandestinely.

You probably wouldn’t even notice much of the brilliant content on the web unless you are sitting in front of your computer all day, and who, really, wants to sit in front of a computer all day without pay? I am famously described by friends as the girl who finds the strangest, and most things on the Internet. How do you think I find these things? If you spend a day in the forest, you will probably see a lot of animals. Similarly, when you spend a time on the Internet, you find random creepy guys peeking from behind doors.

Have you ever heard of the blog Get off My Internets? It’s pretty brilliant and especially funny if you know a thing or two about Internet celebrities/the new media circle jerk. The writers poke fun at everyone from Julia Allison, “new media personality”, to Gawker, a website supposedly devoted to outing the very people it is starting to emulate. The writers who update this blog don’t make any money, but they have enough time to find and poke fun at all the ridiculousness taking place on the Interweb during the day. I love them for it!

Reblogging NonSociety is “dedicated to watching the trainwreck that is NonSociety“. It’s especially popular among people who work in the media industry, who would have heard of Julia Allison (you might know her from the latest Sony ad campaign, which also features Justin Timberlake). A look at the most recent post, “Julia Allison: God Says, ‘Sup‘”, shows a timestamp of 3:25 PM and 65 comments between 3:30 and 6 PM. Clearly, at least one of these 65 people has a job.

At first look, both of these blogs look like horrible hate sites. However, if you spend any amount of time reading the comment thread, you start to realize that the people commenting are intelligent, culturally-aware people who are frustrated with the cult of celebrity and seeking an outlet. You can actually learn a lot from the commenters on both of these sites, and you might learn a little about pop culture and literature/film too. A mutual dislike of Internet celebrities brings these ambitious, hard-working nine to fivers together.

I mean, all the good stuff happens during the day, right? Says Jennifer Deseo, editor-in-chief of The Silver Spring Penguin: “Everyone handles their business while at work. The Penguin hauls steady traffic from 9 AM to 6 PM. It slows down after that, then spikes at 11 PM. I guess people want to be sure they didn’t miss anything before they go to bed.”

She’s right! I don’t want to miss a thing. All this being said, I have gotten in trouble for using the Internet at work. A boss once threatened to monitor my Internet usage despite my overall good performance.

Just yesterday, I blogged about how long I’ve been searching for a job – the confessions in this post probably won’t help my efforts, but I don’t care because everyone surfs the Internet at work! How can you not give your mind a mental break after sitting at a desk and focusing on the same task(s) for eight hours at a time? I don’t know about you, but I sure can’t. Come on, fess up.

I no longer blog at work – I can’t devote enough attention to writing when I have other tasks to complete. However, I still check Google Reader and keep an eye on Twitter during my downtime, of course.

(Photo by LWY)

Improve Your Ability to Innovate

In December’s Harvard Business Review, researchers identify five skills that separate true innovators from other smart people. What makes one person an innovator, able to trailblaze a path in the media jungle, and another person a wanderer, lost and seeking direction? Here, find descriptions of the skills and my practical advice.

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about the ways that young people are innovating media instead of taking the traditional route and working their way up the corporate ladder. In his New York Times piece, David Carr writes, “For every kid that I bump into who is wandering the media industry looking for an entrance that closed some time ago, I come across another who is a bundle of ideas, energy and technological mastery.”

In December’s Harvard Business Review, researchers identify five skills that separate true innovators from other smart people. CNN.com reports: “Because the ability to think differently comes from acting differently, [Hal] Gregersen says anyone can become a better innovator, just by acting like one. ‘Studies have shown that creativity is close to 80 percent learned and acquired,’ he told CNN. ‘We found that it’s like exercising your muscles — if you engage in the actions you build the skills.’

These fives skills are associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.

What makes one person an innovator, able to trailblaze a path in the media jungle, and another person a wanderer, lost and seeking direction? Below, find descriptions of the skills (from CNN) and my practical advice for developing each.

Associating: The ability to connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields.

Take some old newspapers and/or magazines and cut out random bits of text. The longer the phrases you snip, the more challenging this exercise will be.

Place all your clippings in an envelope and pick two or three. Sit down in front of a blank piece of paper or your computer and craft a one-page story (any topic!) with a beginning, middle, and end. You must use all the phrases exactly as you appear on the clippings. When you get better at this exercise, try fitting more found words and phrases on the page and use less of your own language – remember, your story should be coherent!

Questioning: Innovators constantly ask questions that challenge the common wisdom. They ask “Why?”, “why not?” and “What if?”

Next time you go out to dinner with a good friend (this works best in a one-on-one situation), be prepared to ask a lot of questions. When your friend tells you a story, question everything he/she says. For example, if your friend says, “I met him for drinks on the Lower East Side,” you can ask, “Why did you decide to go to the Lower East Side?”.

You will probably listen to yourself and realize how annoying you are, but your friend will be caught off guard – I can guarantee that your friend never asked him/herself “why” before performing an action. Your questions will inspire both of you to step away from the casual nature of story-telling and reconsider your impulses.

My best friend is really good at questioning; it’s a natural instinct and one commonly found among journalists who are determined to get to the bottom of the story. She will frequently interrupt me and ask questions like “why did you feel that way?” or “why do you think that is?”. The questions CAN be annoying, but I am grateful that she can fuel my introspection.

Observing: Discovery-driven executives scrutinize common phenomena, particularly the behavior of potential customers.

The next time you’re in a waiting room (doctor’s office, airport, Department of Motor Vehicles, etc.), look around the room and find an object that begins with every letter of the alphabet. Proceed in alphabetical order from A to Z. A = Applejacks spilled on the floor; B = Brad Pitt look-alike; C= Cupcakes; etc. Continue until you reach Z.

Experimenting: Innovative entrepreneurs actively try out new ideas by creating prototypes and launching pilots.

The next time you’re not sure what to eat for dinner, go home and use only the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator, a la Iron Chef. In some ways, Experimenting is similar to Associating. To experiment, you will probably have to fuse two or more ideas that have never been fused together before. Create a meal only from the ingredients at hand. Eat the meal.

If you think it’s delicious, then you have created a successful experiment, and you will have more confidence during future experiments. If your experiment was a failure, don’t worry! The next time you don’t know what to eat will be another opportunity to be creative.

Networking: Innovators go out of their way to meet people with different ideas and perspectives.

Go to Google.com. Type “opposite of (fill in your name here)”. Find the first search result that leads to someone’s personal blog. For example, when I type “opposite of Laryssa”, The Opposite of Tomato is the first blog that appears in the search results.

Peruse some of the blog entries, get to know the writer’s interests, and understand the writer’s purpose/mission. Find a way to contact the writer (either by e-mail or through a comment) and share at least one positive thing about the blog and one small commentary on a blog entry or specific point. This is a painless way to learn how to relate to all types of people.

When you feel comfortable with this exercise, apply all of the above in a real-life situation to learn something new about a person who may never otherwise know.

Do you have any unique and practical exercises?

(Photo by Photo Denbow)

Curiosity Made the Cat

Marketing expert Seth Godin wrote: “I’ve noticed that people who read a lot of blogs and a lot of books also tend to be intellectually curious, thirsty for knowledge, quicker to adopt new ideas and more likely to do important work. I wonder which comes first, the curiosity or the success?”. Here is my answer.

Today, on his blog, marketing expert Seth Godin wrote: “I’ve noticed that people who read a lot of blogs and a lot of books also tend to be intellectually curious, thirsty for knowledge, quicker to adopt new ideas and more likely to do important work. I wonder which comes first, the curiosity or the success?”.

Well, since he asked, I decided to take time out of my busy day and craft an answer.

Curiosity absolutely precedes success. Curiosity is born from a desire to create, develop, and cultivate a passion or interest. Most people that are able to develop and pursue their passions are able to find success (whether professional or personal) with their chosen passion.

I am convinced that some people are just naturally more curious than other people, and that it takes a certain kind of person to find the drive to become successful. These people see the world as a playground of never-ending possibilities, where every day is a chance to learn something new and exciting.

If you have a certain passion, you will naturally gravitate toward reading books and blogs about your passion. If you don’t yet have a passion, or you’re trying to cultivate a new passion, then you may read about a variety of subjects to see what does and doesn’t appeal to you.

Either way, your natural curiosity propels you to learn and grow. If you don’t care to have passions or interests, then you probably won’t read at all.

I read a lot of blogs and books, but I usually only read blogs and books about certain topics. I either read for entertainment, or I read for knowledge, books about writing, creativity, marketing, design, and technology. Reading is time-consuming, and I make sure that I spend my time with books and other reading materials that will appeal to my interests.

However, nothing I learn is a waste of time.

Sure, the Internet makes it easy for me to read about certain subject matter. Blog aggregators, RSS readers, niche online magazines and publications, search engines, and “smart technologies” like AdWords and Facebook ads serve up content particularly tailored to my interests.

Nowadays, my greatest challenge is to access content that is different from what I would usually read. Reading outside of your interests may not hinder your success, but it could help you be even more successful, more empathetic, and better able to understand how the world works.

All this being said, can you become more curious? I don’t think you would be asking yourself this question if you weren’t curious to begin with, but I think the answer to this question is more existential than anything else: being alive, how can you NOT be curious?

How can you not be totally moved by all that is mysterious and dazzling in this world?

(Photo by altemark)

Letting Go to Grow Artistically

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of reading Happyloo: Friends, Foes, and Fun by my friend Mark Mariano. A colorful and playful comic book filled with characters like Tickle, a friendly turtle, and Meatsauce, a gentle yet dim-witted bulldog who loves food, Happyloo first ran on Mark’s website from June 25, 2008 to January 19, 2009.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of reading Happyloo: Friends, Foes, and Fun by my friend Mark Mariano. A colorful and playful comic book filled with characters like Tickle, a friendly turtle, and Meatsauce, a gentle yet dim-witted bulldog who loves food, Happyloo first ran on Mark’s website from June 25, 2008 to January 19, 2009.

Though written for children, the comics appeal to adults too! I really admire Mark’s use of color, his simple yet lovable illustrations, and the ways that he can communicate emotion without the use of words. As a writer, I was extremely inspired by Mark’s storytelling. His characters are memorable, and the situations are quirky and imaginative.

Each chapter or installment teaches a simple lesson: play fairly, don’t litter, and keep your bedroom clean are just a few of the lessons that children can learn from his instructive and encouraging comics.

As someone who loves stories about artistic process, I really appreciated Mark’s History of Happyloo at the back of his book. Happyloo was born in the late 90s, when Mark sketched a concept for a wacky town with an extensive cast of characters.

Mark writes: “I took the advice from my peers. I did MORE studying and MORE research. I further developed my skills as a cartoonist and I completed this book. I thought about redoing several stories in this book because my art style changed. I decided to leave them all the way they were. I like the fact that I can see how I grew as an artist.”

I find Mark to be a true inspiration. When I was in college, I wrote a lot of poetry. On my hard drive, I have digital folders filled with poems in Word documents that no one has ever seen. In fact, most people that didn’t know me in college don’t know that I ever wrote poetry because I ended up pursuing a graduate degree in fiction, not poetry.

I am thinking about compiling the best of these poems and sharing them with friends and family. What good are they hidden on my computer? I actually spent a good part of yesterday reading through all the poems, and I hate about 80% of them. I’ve matured and changed a lot over the past five years. However, at least 15 poems still resonated with me – I’m going to arrange them, but I’m going to resist editing them in any way.

Personally, I think any artist who can feel comfortable with his or her early work is a brave soul. I have always admired poets and writers who compile their early work, especially if the work is not as “good” as the work that their fans love the most. No matter what your craft, are you embarrassed by or proud of your past work? How do you separate it from yourself? And how do you use it to help you move forward and evolve artistically?

You can buy Happyloo and other merchandise by visiting Mark’s online store.