Sunday Jan 31, 2010

The Wonders of Propaganda

How could I not read an article in USA Today with a headline like this? Psychologists: Propaganda works better than you think.

It's true, of course. I find propaganda is a remarkably effective tool, and it's far more sophisticated in democracies than it is in totalitarian societies (see Chomsky here and here and a million other places, and also see David Barstow's reports on the media and the Pentagon -- video, article, article -- for a well-known and recent example). But what I found most interesting in the USA Today piece was the assertion that accurate information may not counteract propaganda very well and actually could help transmit it. If that's true, would it make sense to be more assertive in communications to drive the agenda and then to ignore critics (or at least the vicious and extreme ones)? I suppose this strategy wouldn't necessarily work in all cases, and there are certainly some very effective techniques to deposition attackers. But just tossing out good information in a attempt to thwart the bad stuff may not be a good use of time. Having the good information well documented so you can rapidly point to it for those interested is required, of course, but it's the never-ending iterative arguing that I think I'm done with. I've been trying this for about a year now, and I find it more effective than my earlier pattern of responding to everything in an attempt to change minds. I gave up. Plus, it's not as exhausting.

Propaganda fascinates me. I keep track here:

Thursday Oct 01, 2009

Extreme Communications

There is good reason why extremism thrives in American political discourse. It works. It really is that simple. Actually, it`s a remarkably effective rhetorical technique and has been so since the founding of the republic. Go back and read the early political debates -- or just take a good U.S. history class -- and you quickly learn that pretty much nothing has changed in hundreds of years of politicians bashing each other in public arenas. Never mind the political party. That`s always been irrelevant when it comes to this behavior. American politicians intentionally take serious issues -- freedom, war, health, money -- right to the edge. Why? To scare people. And, since they have real power over our lives, it works. We get scared. And then we don`t question too deeply. And if we do question, we really don`t do very much about it, right? Instead, over time we become passive and compliant.

The reason I think this way -- it`s just a gut observation, that`s all -- is that if you take away someone`s power to control your life then their propaganda sounds much less threatening. Oftentimes, they just sound silly. Their lack of credibility becomes obvious, and they are much more easily ignored. You can see distinctions in communications strategies when you look at other fields outside of the political/media complex. Many companies, for instance, have found that attacking competitors in public is counterproductive. Customers see right through it, and the practice becomes a demonstration of poor marketing. Also, when you build community, especially across language and cultural barriers, extremist language can easily and rapidly undermine your reputation. Now, the term community has many practical definitions, but in general it implies a distribution of power and leadership, not a centralization. In communities, people tend to be valued for what they do, not what they say. You can see this in many scientific and technical communities. I see it in all of the communities in which I participate. But I don`t see this concept expressed at all in politics. Do you?

This all came to mind tonight after I scanned this article -- The pros and cons of hissy fits. It`s a fun read.

Sunday Sep 20, 2009

Building by Contributing

I was meditating earlier and I got a great idea. It`s an obvious idea for me, but for some reason it clicked this time when it bubbled up. Maybe because I have an enormous amount of material now, I don`t know. I have some interesting stories to tell and piles of photographs to play with as source material, and I keep generated new stuff all the time. The more I look the more I find.

Anyway. I am going to put together a new presentation about all the people I look up to as great community builders. Most of them I have met and/or work with every day in the multiple communities in which I participate, but some are just acquaintances who I observe from afar and study in detail. And some I have never met but would love to because they are changing the world in important ways that oftentimes go unrecognized. They teach me. They are international and multi lingual. They are young and old. They cut across many industries and disciplines. Some think big and build globally, but even more think small and organize locally -- and many times that`s even more difficult and more important. Some are famous but most are not. And the common thread tying them together in my mind? They all build communities by contributing to communities. They do. They don`t just talk. That`s the bit they get right, and that`s why they teach so naturally by simply doing what they love. This is personal. That`s why it`s powerful. And that`s why I have to tell these stories. Just looking up to people who build community is not enough. We have to learn from these people and distribute community building opportunities among everyone. That`s the only way a community becomes sustainable.

Tuesday Sep 01, 2009

Easing Communications

I'm reviewing Chapter 6 of Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel. It's an excellent read. It covers communication on open source projects and how to interact in the most efficient and professional way possible. Also excellent is How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People by Ben-Collins Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick (slides). I view this video every few months to keep sane. I've gotten much better with my online communications in recent years in that I don't get bogged down in flames or respond to attacks anymore, which only leads to being attacked even more. I used to try and respond to everything in an effort to shape a thread or calm people down or deflect unwanted advances. But that's just not realistic. More bluntly, it's a waste of time. And it only distracts you from taking advantage of all the interesting opportunities out there. Instead, I'm trying to focus my communications by engaging more with people who are respectful and open to my efforts. I am trying to protect my most important resource: my attention. It's going good.

Sunday Jul 05, 2009

Talk to Everyone

Interesting piece about PR in the NY Times today -- Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley. And it`s running at the top of Techmeme tonight, too, with even more interesting commentary. I wonder why PR gets so much attention in high tech when practitioners in the field are forever trying to justify themselves, or at least quantify their value. I never understood that. The influence of the public relations industry is absolutely everywhere in modern society, and yet even in this NYT piece you see a defensive tone in some places -- mixed in with the pervasive and typical self importance, of course. Whatever. It`s a fascinating field, I must admit. I was in PR for a long time many moons ago, and I`m still interested in how information is delivered through filters using various rhetorical techniques that date back thousands of years. Modern PR grew from the teachings of the American propagandist Eddie Bernays, whose famous work says it all: Propaganda. Read the book. Scary stuff.

Anyway, in the NYT article right up front in the first few paragraphs, you`ll read about a scene in Silicon Valley were a PR pro is advising a client about a launch strategy (who to talk to and such), and someone shoots back about avoiding certain well-known bloggers and news websites. What? Why would you want to avoid a communications channel at your launch? I don`t get it. People who feel passionate about their stuff generally want to talk to anyone who will listen -- and if listeners have megaphones so much the better. I`ve worked with some people like that, and what they taught me is that everyone is important because you just never know -- you never know who is connected to who at any given moment, and you can never know who will be connected to who in the future. And, of course, predicting how a story will spread is difficult at best. Now, I realize the PR strategy in this case was to talk to a select group of high powered people, which is fine since they obviously have deep influence. But why talk to those guys to the exclusion of the others in an age when communities are flattening hierarchies and distributing power?

Talk to everyone. Everyone is important. Especially now with everyone connected in ways you may not even realize. And Robert Scoble is right. Talk to the grassroots first. Community building operations should be implemented first so the marketing guys have something to sell (and participate in as well). Too much of PR is still rolled out the other way around.


When you screw up, just apologize and fix the problem. Fast. That`s what Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of the Washington Post, did today. After an initial misfire, she apologized and took full responsibility for her paper`s offer to sell access to political contacts and Post reporters at private events. This was an obvious marketing and communications mistake that would have compromised the credibility of her company`s most valuable asset -- the newsroom. Hey, everyone`s human. But the apology was necessary, and the taking of responsibility at the top is rare and refreshing. It will be interesting to see the media digest this issue since the field has been under significant pressure in recent years. More background here and here.

Lesson: apologize and fix it fast. And remember, credibility is earned from the bottom up, not the top down.

Tuesday Jun 23, 2009


Communicating is all about building relationships, and that`s always a two way street (or if you are in the community business, a multi-way street). Every wonder what a rapid fire relationship with Rahm is like. Check out Ring, ring, it's Rahm:
NBC’s Chuck Todd calls the Emanuel relationship “no-nonsense.”

“He’s always trying to extract as much information as he’s trying to give,” Todd says.

But the conversations with Emanuel “can be as little as 30 seconds,” Paul Begala, the CNN commentator and longtime Emanuel friend says. “He calls, drops a few F-bombs, makes his point and hangs up.”
The shock value of his delivery is interesting (he can do that because he`s powerful), but even more important is the bit about the information extraction. Information has to flow both ways to demonstrate the value of the relationship.

Thursday May 28, 2009

The World Learning English

Interesting little video about the world learning English. And check out China. My goodness. Are they motivated or what? They view learning English as pure opportunity. Very interesting perspective.

Sunday May 24, 2009

Attacking the Extremes

Some Obama Enemies Are Made Totally of Straw -- New York Times
“Here’s the trick: Take your opponent’s argument to a ridiculous extreme, and then attack the extremists,” said William Safire, the former presidential speechwriter who writes the “On Language” column for The New York Times Magazine. “That leaves the opponent to sputter defensively, ‘But I never said that.’ ”

The telltale indicators that a straw man trick is on the way are the introductory words “there are those who say” or “some say.”

“In strawmanese, you never specify who ‘those who’ are,” Mr. Safire said. “They are the hollow scarecrows you set up to knock down.”

This is such a common rhetorical technique. It has been used for thousands of years, and virtually everyone who talks in front of audiences uses it to one degree or another -- especially your friendly neighborhood politician.

There`s not much you can do when some pol says these silly things because they are generally pretty well protected and rarely have to justify their statements. But when regular people talk like this in meetings or when you are being lectured at by someone standing on a soapbox within arm`s reach, you can actually protect yourself from this verbal manipulation without leaving yourself vulnerable. Here`s how: just ask some painfully obvious question -- who says? where? when? Etc. Most people using the straw man technique will not be able to answer the question to any level of detail, so the more detail you ask for the more you can undermine the statement. Ask if those so-called "those who say" sources are enough to justify the generalizations. They won`t like this questioning at all, by the way, so ask nicely. There`s no need to be hostile, and you don`t want to get in over your head. The questioning alone is generally enough to get your point across.

So, as speakers create and attack straw man extremes at the edges, you can calmly drive right up the middle and ask for the details. Try it. It`s fun. This little counterattack works great on rumors, too.

More here.

Saturday May 02, 2009

Tokyo is Headless

Here`s another one of those "Japan is Lost" articles. It`s an attack, basically, and this one focuses on leadership. I read these things purely for entertainment value now. My views on leadership have changed so substantially these last few years they'd hardly be recognizable to anyone who knew me in the U.S. I feel like I've recovered from a long drug-induced propaganda hangover or something.

Anyway, in the article we are told that Tokyo is "headless" and that if a Martian landed in Ginza today and said "Take me to your leader" most Japanese would be embarrassed because there are no leaders in Japan. Right. Ok. So, that`s the lead of an opinion piece in a serious magazine like Newsweek? Impressive.

Please note that a Martian landing in Tokyo would probably fit right in around here, and I can't imagine the Japanese would be embarrassed about their leadership very much because I don't they'd care very much. Why? Well, the view expressed in the article is so clearly western, and in Japan the perspective is somewhat different. In some cases, very different but there is no acknowledgment of that. By the way, I don't think Americans would care that much about Martians landing in Washington either. Heck, it would be an improvement. Also, you read the article, you`ll notice most of it is remarkably condescending, which is a shame because the writer actually points to some legitimate problems in Japan -- many of which exist in many countries. The tone is such a turn off I can`t give any of the underlying views any credibility whatsoever.

Also striking about the article is the utter lack of clear role models or demonstrated standards of success from which to judge the Japanese. I mean, really, if the Japanese are "headless" and suffering from "stress-related illnesses" and are "transparently inept" and snatching "defeat from the jaws of victory" and have "no other viable alternatives" and "continue to drift, bobbing like a mercantile cork in a turbulent geopolitical sea" as they just "muddle through" life then I ask you who the hell is doing all this right?

Monday Apr 27, 2009


Linda tells us that BSC is 5 today. That`s amazing. I had no idea. I totally lost track. Well, the truth is I can`t remember my own birthday let alone anyone else`s, so no one should be surprised. I think I take BSC for granted now. It`s just there. It just works. But I shouldn`t take it for granted at all. The application transformed my work life and enabled me to communicate with people all over the world. For that I am most grateful. We even launched OpenSolaris on BSC, and at the time that was a bold and controversial move for Sun -- and it caused a few arguments as I recall as well. Back then many of us were new to blogging and communicating in the open, but BSC provided an excellent platform for those involved in OpenSolaris to tell their stories. Directly. No filters.

My first post was a on the 30th of April 2004, just a couple of days after the so-called opening. Initially, I didn`t even know the damn thing was turned on. I followed Danese into a conference room one day and it turned out to be some blogging meeting. I heard rumors but didn`t know anything. I just sat down. I met Tim Bray for the first time in that meeting. Simon was there. Will. And some others but I can`t remember everyone. Half way though, I leaned over and looked at Will`s laptop and he was poking around on BSC. I looked at the URL and said something like "Is that thing on? That`s outside? You didn`t tell anyone?" And he responded (casually, of course) with something like "Yah, it`s live. I just turned it on." You have to realize how revolutionary that "just turning it on" bit was for Sun five years ago. But that`s pretty much what they did. People found out soon enough, though, eh?

Anyway, Linda Skrocki has been one of the leaders of the BSC effort, and many of the founding members of the platform are still around and still helping guide us all. BSC helped liberate many of the voices we so freely read today because the community is based on trust. I don`t think OpenSolaris would have been quite the same without BSC. I wouldn`t either, actually. I`d be getting a lot more sleep. Like now. It`s 2:30 in the morning and where am I? On BSC.

Sunday Apr 26, 2009

The Distinction Between Power and Leadership

Interesting talk from Marshall Ganz about building community and distributing leadership. At the 13:10 minute mark of the video he talks about the distinction between power and leadership and how in voluntary associations you can`t rely on political or economic coercion to get people to something. You can`t substitute power for leadership. Leaders of volunteers elicit cooperation by tapping into the shared values of the community, and that`s a much more challenging exercising than dictating orders with threats of force to back you up.

This quote at the 14:15 minute mark sums it nicely: "It`s very easy, if you are in a place where you can fire people if they don`t do what you want, to kid yourself about why people are collaborating and cooperating with you. It`s very easy if you are in a place where you can put people in jail if they don`t do what you want. When you are operating in a voluntary setting you don`t have those options so the burden of leadership is much greater because you have to elicit voluntary collaboration, cooperation, engagement, motivation, commitment, etc. So, in a sense, it`s sort of leadership on its own without the props that are often available to us to exercise authority in organizations."


The image below is an advertisement for an English school here in Japan. I shot it on a train a few weeks ago in Tokyo. I was struck by the piercing, obnoxious, pompous looks from those western dudes staring at, presumably, a Japanese person in some mythical meeting someplace. Nothing like scaring the hell out of someone to prompt them to take a class, eh? My goodness. Look at those guys.

Anyway, the text actually expresses an important concept, and it goes something like this: when you don`t agree with something while talking to these guys, you`ll be asked why you don`t agree, you`ll be expected to state your opinion, and, probably, you`ll have to defend that opinion. So, if that dynamic is a problem, many people just say yes and go along with the crowd in the meeting. I know many Japanese people do this in international meetings because expressing contrary opinions is done quite differently in English and Japanese. Westerners (Americans specifically) tend to be direct and Japanese tend to be indirect. But it goes beyond preference. Those styles are hard coded right into the structures of the languages themselves, and they are expressed in the cultures as well. There are exceptions both ways, of course, but the tendencies are pervasive and obvious, and a great deal of confusion can occur as a result. When communicating across languages, go out of your way to make sure your ideas resonate in the other language. Many times, they don`t. And you`ll miss that rather inconvenient fact if the other person is just saying yes. Yes doesn`t always mean yes, right? And there are a hundred different ways of saying no, right?

But here`s the kicker for me: this issue is also a problem within English; it`s not just a problem when communicating across English and Japanese. Many times native English speakers just say yes when confronted with aggressive people like the dudes in the image below. I mean, really, why would anyone want to talk to these guys? Especially outnumbered four on one. I think there are probably just as many communication problems stemming from command and control types within a language as there are resulting from distinctions in communication styles across languages. What always gets me, though, is why do these guys have meetings in the first place? They obviously don`t want other opinions. So, they deserve the yes they get -- and the problems resulting from that yes.

This is why it`s a pleasure working on teams that value open communication, and working for leaders who use communication to discover ideas and implement ideas. Human communication is an imperfect art. You have to use it as a tool to iterate so understanding emerges over time. Teams that don`t value this painfully simple concept aren`t worth your time no matter what language you speak.

Thursday Mar 05, 2009

The Chief of Staff

I have always been interested in the role of Chief of Staff. Presidents have these guys around, and so does the military. And now a lot of companies have them as well. It seems like an odd role at times, though. Good chiefs have massive power in their own right, but they also have to reflect the boss almost perfectly so their own opinions vaporize. Seems like an interesting dance. Here is a very interesting and long piece on Obama`s chief of staff -- Rahm Emanuel: The Gatekeeper.

The Stories of Community

Why Stories Matter: The art and craft of social change -- "Learning skills and practices is not like learning a formula; it’s more like learning how to ride a bicycle. You can read 10 books about it or listen to someone lecture about it all day, but how do you really start learning to ride a bicycle? You get on. And you fall. That’s how you learn practices. That’s how you learn organizing." -- Marshall Ganz

Nice article from Marshall Ganz on using the power of story (four specific levels of stories, actually) to engage people and build communities that drive change. Story telling is as old as it gets and remains probably the most effective way to deliver information that resonates. Here`s a little Ganz video, too. Good stuff.

Monday Feb 23, 2009

Alinsky to Obama: Organize! Organize! Organize!

I`ve been catching up on my Saul Alinsky now that we have a community organizer in the White House. I was never much inspired with Alinksy, although I certainly appreciate his place in American history. When I read his stuff I just feel dirty, sort of like plodding through Eddie Bernays and his propaganda or Machiavelli and his lessons for princes. But all that is reality in power politics, and many of those guys articulate some wonderfully evil and practical tactics to gut a variety of opponents in just about any situation you`d find yourself in. If that`s the sort of thing you want to do, anyway.

It`s interesting, though. We oftentimes hear that you have to fight fire with fire, and that`s probably true in some cases. But what about the exceptions? For instance, I never get that dirty Alinsky feeling all over when reading Ghandi or King, and those guys were certainly grand community organizers fighting bad guys too. In fact, they were probably the two most effective community builders in modern history. I wouldn`t put Alinsky in their league. Ghandi and King inspire. Alinsky manipulates. Ghandi and King transcend and transform. Alinsky fights. Both views are probably necessary at various points in a great struggle, but I prefer to focus a tad more on the positive and not so much on an Al Capone street fight in a dark and dirty Chicago alley. But that`s just me.

Sanford D. Horwitt, an Alinsky biographer, writes nice piece about what the so-called father of community organizing would say to President Obama today (Alinsky would be 100 this year). I guess Obama studied under some of Alinsky`s guys for a bit. So, what`s the fatherly advice on building community? "Barack, remember what got you here ... Keep your eyes on the prize and keep organizing, organizing, organizing!" That`s not surprising. And it`s good advice. But it will be interesting to see if Obama can follow it, if he can keep his obviously well honed community organizing skills up to date from the perspective of living among the power establishment that Alinsky was always fighting. That`s where Obama sits now, after all. Will it work from way up there? To me, this is what makes the Obama presidency fascinating.

Also of note is Obama`s view of Alinsky himself. It`s far more expansive view than the narrow minded Alinsky pitched. Check out The Agitator: Barack Obama's unlikely political education for a lot of Obama`s views of Alinsky. I like this bit right here:

"Alinsky understated the degree to which people's hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people's self-interest. Sometimes the tendency in community organizing of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.' Those are just words. 'I have a dream.' Just words. But they help move things. And I think it was partly that understanding that probably led me to try to do something similar in different arenas." -- Obama, 2007

In other words, community organizing isn`t always about going head to head. It`s not always about cutting people down. It`s not always about taking power away from the powerful (after all, what do you do with the power you get? Will it corrupt you as it did them?). Sometimes community building is about, well, building. It`s about inspiring. Liberating. Leading. And it`s about distributing power, not centralizing it. It goes far beyond words, too.

Thursday Jan 29, 2009

Bad News

When No News Is Bad News: "This matters because of the unique role journalism plays in a democracy. So much public information and official government knowledge depends on a private business model that is now failing." -- James Warren

This is a devastating article about the state of American journalism. And although there are many reports in blogs and the mainstream media covering the fall of journalism, this is a particularly sobering look. The opening story about John Crewdson moved me. I remember studying his stuff on AIDS, Robert Gallo, and Luc Montagnier a long time ago. I probably still have that special report, actually. Warren has many other upsetting stories in his article. Very well written piece. Read it. It`s important. The issues hit you right over the head.

Japan Social Media Marketers

I joined the Japan Social Media Marketers community recently. I found these guys via the Tokyo2Point0 community. Lance Shields started the group with these words: "So yet another community was born and it bumbled along with mainly myself posting blog entries and the occasional discussion thread that mainly I responded to myself. It was pretty lonely and it was a lot like every blog I started and stopped over the years. Then a really cool ..." And it goes on from there. The point is Lance stuck it out. Those who build things from scratch often find themselves alone and responding to themselves initially. In fact, some of the most successful people in the world started out that way, right? Anyway, I`ll hang out here for a bit and see what`s up. The Japanese international social media community seems fascinating. Stop by if you are around.

Friday Jan 23, 2009

2 Years of Intel Contributions to OpenSolaris

David Stewart posts an excellent review of the Intel OpenSolaris project. I can't believe it's been two years now, my goodness. That project gets a lot of attention around the world because David and other engineers are out there talking about it in multiple venues -- conferences, user groups, mailing lists, and associated communities. All of that communication not only helps build the Intel OpenSolaris engineering community, but it also helps support the entire OpenSolaris community. And even more importantly, it gives people like me (the non-technical types) the opportunity to leverage these engineering projects for even more for community-building programs. Cool.

Monday Jan 12, 2009

It Starts in your Heart

Some nice bits in here about community from Chris Pirillo -- How Community Works: Past, Present, and Future. My two favorites: community starts in your heart (not in your tools) and leaders grow naturally from within the community (you don`t necessarily have to start out with leaders already in place).


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