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: http://blogs.sun.com/jimgris/tags/propaganda

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.

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.

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 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.

Tuesday Jan 06, 2009

Attacks in Politics and Marketing

I see attack politics and attack marketing as pretty much the same thing. Or, a distinction without much of a difference, anyway. Politicians generally attack enemies who threaten their getting elected or getting some policy implemented. If you aren't a threat, though, you are basically ignored in that system. And if you are a little guy trying to attack powerful politicians, you are generally ignored, too. This is why collective protest is a necessary prerequisite for change. Strength comes in numbers. You have to make yourself a threat to even get noticed, and that has to happen well before you have a shot at changing things (whatever your thing is). But from the politicians point of view, since they have the power, it seems the attack principle dictates that they shouldn`t want to give too much exposure to a competitor or group they don`t support, so many politicians actually tend to attack pretty carefully. The rhetorically skilled know this very well. They think out a few moves ahead. Who should do the attacking? What`s the venue of the attack? What will the counter punch look like? Where will it come from? And when? What does it mean when no counter attack comes back at all and instead they are met with silence? And heck, what if the opponent praises in return instead of attacking as expected? The answers to these questions are imprecise at best.

I used to do competitive marketing, and I went through this exact same process. However, I always told my clients that attacks are best done by third parties and only in response to a precipitating attack. In other words, you don`t attack first. It`s not worth the headline. Instead, you be the one responding. Here`s why: those who attack first generally give away at least some of their position, and that gives you much more flexibility to respond. Unskilled politicians and marketers make this mistake all the time when they shoot their mouths off, but the concept holds up pretty well over time. I`ve said before that I think people attack for basically two reasons: (1) they are afraid that someone smaller than them may grow up and kick their butt, or (2) they are small themselves and want to pick a fight with a big guy to get attention. Either way, if you study your attacker you can learn a lot.

It's a game, granted. And everyone in it knows this. Most attacks can be quite easily turned around with some basic facts and logic. But rationality is irrelevant in the arena of delivering really good emotional propaganda for the purpose of influencing behavior. That's why attacks can work in some cases if they generate a strong reaction from the attacked. Attacks spread fear. And many times that fear shapes how people think if it`s not characterized properly. In fact, the term used to describe this process is sometimes called FUD -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It`s a silly sounding term, but it should be taken seriously because the best propagandists out there can be rather dangerous people if they have a power base and resources supporting them (a country, a company, an interest group, a foundation, a university, a union, whatever). In other cases, however, attacks and fear mongering backfire badly, and we saw this in the recent political campaign in the U.S. where pols on both sides took some things too far and the people (remember the people?) called them out on it.

So, what should you do if you are attacked in the marketplace? First, stop. Think. Don`t react immediately with the first counter attack you can think of in the first publication you can find. You`ve been attacked so you now have the upper hand for a period of time (not forever, though). What is the attack telling you about your attacker? Is he or she responding go your attack? If so, you deserve the counter attack so enjoy your stupid little fight. If not, though, something else is going on and you may be in a much better position than you think. It means that you got someone`s attention for some reason. You may have not even intended to get this attention, but that`s what the attack may mean and that`s valuable competitive intelligence if you can confirm it. Remember, if you were really irrelevant, chances are you`d be ignored. So, dig right there before responding and respond to defend and deflect not to attack back. And if you can praise the attacker (or his product or community or company or whatever) so much the better. Attackers are generally simple minded and angry and unable to deal with praise as a response. Alternatively, your attacker could just be engaging in bad marketing or politicking. Consider that too. Either way, you have the upper hand if you do the responding, not the attacking.

Tags: propaganda attacks

Saturday Dec 06, 2008

The Power of Mainstream Publicity

Every time I chat with bloggers who feel the mainstream media is not that powerful anymore I trip over an article like this -- One man's military-industrial-media complex. This piece is a textbook lesson in the power of mainstream public relations to drive a marketing campaign. It`s perfect. And, in this case, it worked like a dream, too. Now, the article is disturbing because it talks about the selling of a war, but that`s not the point. It`s reality. And to not realize that is a delusion.

Monday Nov 03, 2008

Edward Bernays: The Ultimate Propagandist

I was watching The Century of the Self recently. It`s an excellent four part documentary from the BBC that aired back in 2002 about how the powerful control the rest of us. Even now six years later it holds up very well. Scary stuff. The time period ranges from around World War I through the late 1990s. Sigmund Freud, his daughter Anna, and his nephew Edward Bernays, seem to be main characters throughout, along with lots of politicians, business leaders, and psychologists. But Bernays was everywhere. And he was probably one of the most manipulative dudes of his era, selling everything from cigarettes to presidents to wars. His methods of implementing propaganda, all based on his uncle`s theories, were largely responsible for the creation of the consumer society in the United States. In fact, the United States leads the world in consumption, yet very few people know that Bernays was the guy behind the curtain. Actually, very few know Bernays at all. I`ve read a bunch of his stuff and I used to be in his business, so I still see him everywhere.

There are a few things striking about the film -- especially in this ultimate season of campaign propaganda in the United States. First, there is a lot of politics in the documentary, obviously, but I couldn`t pick out any clear partisanship. Propaganda clearly transcends party lines. Second, most attempts to directly confront and fight back against the powerful ultimately ended in failure. The elites just used propaganda to leverage the counter punches to their advantage. And third, it doesn`t seem to matter if you know propaganda is being used on you. It works anyway. It`s remarkable. Now, it`s not all that bleak. Change does occur. But it occurs indirectly and over long periods of time. So, confront power carefully, I guess. Oh, and the term propaganda, which was common before World War II, was eventually dumped by the propagandists for the more positive sounding public relations. Today, PR is pervasive. So, if you are interested in communications or politics, give this BBC program a watch. It`s humbling at the very least. Don`t forget to vote tomorrow, too.

Sunday Aug 03, 2008

Chinese Ambitions

China’s Ambition Soars to High-Tech Industry: "President Hu Jintao hinted at China’s vaulting ambitions during a meeting of China’s scientific elite last June at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he called on scientists to challenge other countries in high technology. "We are ready for a fight," he said, "to control the scientific high ground and earn a seat on the world’s high technology board. We will make some serious efforts to strengthen our nation’s competence."-- NY Times.

Cool. More competition. Should be good for the West. Right? That competition should be good for Japan as well. Rhetorically, though, this article is interesting. I never hear the Japanese talk this way. Americans are bold rhetorically, and the Chinese are demonstrating that they are as well. Not the Japanese, though. I wonder. Is aggressive rhetoric a necessary ingredient for innovation and growth? 

Friday Jun 20, 2008

The OGB Breaks Wind

Sam Varghese scratches out a very humorous quote here -- Hey FOSS project, what's your pedigree?
"The project is so tied up in its own bowels, trying to draft structures for its own operation, that the only thing it has left to chance is probably the order in which members of the governing board break wind - and in which minor key they do so. I wouldn't be surprised if even that was specified in an amendment some years down the line."
Sam, I have to admit, that's a great quote. You know pretty much nothing about OpenSolaris (just ask Patrick), but that's a very funny quote indeed. I'm saving it.

The context for Sam's quote is the whole "organic vs inorganic" open source argument. Linux is great because it's "organic" and springs to life from the great wild, and OpenSolaris sucks wind because it's "non-organic" and is driven by Sun and the OGB has flatulence. That's pretty much it. Whatever. I'm a fan of Linux (I use Ubuntu), but I really don't know enough yet about the Linux community to comment about its lack of pesticide use. I know more about OpenSolaris, so I can comment there.

OpenSolaris is still very much a mix. Some parts are most certainly organic -- porting of DTrace and ZFS to MacOS/BSD), the non-Sun distros, the user groups, the OSDevCon conference, etc. Some parts are represented by transparency on Sun's part and the interaction with other communities, such as the specification and testing of the SCM choices, the new wiki applications, the OpenSolaris Summit operations, etc. Some parts are characterized by various open development projects on the site with live gates outside the firewall with external committers, such as desktop and g11n, or just engineers working in the open as much as possible, such as some of the technologies in the new OpenSolaris distro (install, packaging, etc). And other parts of the project are still largely internal to Sun but plan to move outside, and that's probably represented best by the ON consolidation -- the kernel. The kernel source is out there, of course, and the community is contributing via the request-sponsor process, but the main gate is still inside. So, give or take few inaccuracies on my part, it's pretty much a mix of organic and inorganic. Or is it non-organic. Anyway. The problem with all this is ... what? What's the big deal? This is all normal operations for a large, multi-phase, long term project to open Solaris from within a multi-billion dollar corporation that still has build, ship, and support products.

OpenSolaris can't live up to an artificial standard of being a totally "organic" project. I'm not sure anything could, actually. And we never claimed such a characteristic, actually. I think it's fine for those involved in the project to criticize various things (and they do), but that's all in an effort to fix things and move forward. Again, it's normal. You will find that in all projects in all industries. I'll give Sam one thing, though. There is a kernel of truth in that we have spun ourselves around silly on some issues these last few years. But that's very much changing now. Sure, you can argue with the changes, but the fact is that the project has changed significantly lately and for the better. But did Sam choose to get involved and help out in the true spirit of open source? No. Instead, he chose to use a two thousand year old rhetorical technique (well documented by Aristotle) to attack while sitting safely on the sidelines.

It's not big deal, really. I just loved the quote.

Wednesday Feb 14, 2007

Actions, Not Just Rhetoric

From Dana Blankenhorn: SAMP makes sense for Sun -- "When CEO Jonathan Schwartz took command of Sun he urged the community to grade Sun's commitment to open source based on its actions, not just rhetoric. So far I see little to fault him for, although your dissenting opinions are welcome."

I'm happy someone is looking past the rhetoric to find the substance. I'm finding that rhetoric is just getting in the way far too often lately, and it's doing nothing but confusing people. Action first. Let the rhetoric follow if it wants, but it shouldn't drive anything.

Friday Mar 19, 2004

How to Define Open Community

I spent some time at the Open Source Business Conference this week in San Francisco and was struck by the behavior of Microsoft. Impressed, too. They sponsored, they did a keynote, they participated on panels, they talked up the lawyers, and they didn't spark any controversy. There was no talk of cancer and anti-American trends, either. On the contrary, I heard several people say, "Hey, Microsoft is here to learn." Pretty innoxious performance, I'd say.

But here's where it gets insidious. What they did was interesting rhetorically, and Aristotle -- the guy who first quantified rhetoric -- would be proud. They carefully mixed two terms with the intention of redefining both of them. Very smart. Basically, they said: "We are here to learn about open source, but 'community' is not exclusive to open source. We have a community program, too, and it's called shared source." Nice. Expand the term community on which open source is built by associating it with a program not based on open community concepts at all. It's a distinction with a pretty big difference. The term community means something very specific to open source developers, and Microsoft's shared source doesn't fit that definition. If you call them on it, they will gladly admit the distinction, but then they go about their business of redefining and elevating their program to community status until it's part of the open source vernacular. It's just another community model, after all, and we all know there are many different community models.

But at an open source conference? Perfect place, actually. But I think they are on the edge of what is generally accepted as the definition of an open community. Granted, there are passionate debates among developers about various open community models. NetBeans, Jxta, Linux, Apache, Gnome, Mozilla, OpenOffice, etc. All different, but all based on openness and sharing that benefits all involved.

Open source developers are not fooled by this, of course, but as Tim O'Reilly says, OSBC was filled with hundreds of lawyers, who are themselves expert rhetoricians. The conference was also filled with business people who rightly need to build profit-making models around emerging open source development methodologies. I'm not hitting lawyers and business people here. However, as the open source community matures and diversifies, multiple communities are growing and this gives Microsoft an opportunity to redefine terms and change the definition of what an open community means.
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