Sunday, September 28, 2014

Undue Influence

One of the hot concepts currently in the online world is the “Influencer.”

It's a formal title now, but the criteria for awarding it aren't clear. Arianna Huffington, for example, is an Influencer. Look it up on LinkedIn and you get 83,294 results (as of 09-28-14).

It’s the sort of thing I had come to expect on LinkedIn, but the virus is spreading. An outfit called Sirius Decisions recently presented awards at an “Influencer Program of the Year” gala. 

I’m not sure if “Thought Leaders” are complementary to, or in competition with (or the same as?) Influencers, but we have them working for us as well (121,239 returns for “Thought Leader”).

It’s a clever ploy. In an earlier time, to qualify to influence everyone or lead the world’s thinking you would have been expected to be an “expert.” That’s more than semantic nitpicking; an expert has to be an expert in some field of expertise. There ain’t no such animal as a generic expert, with no particular field (or no credible ones, anyway). But this apparently isn't a problem any more.  In an age when celebrities are celebrated for being famous and famous people are famous for being celebrities -- why not “thought leaders” and “influencers”? people who've been anointed by LinkedIn because they’re believed to be influential or who are believed to be influential because LinkedIn says they are.

And influence cuts both ways, doesn’t it? good and bad? Can we be sure everyone we might meet in those 83,000-plus instances is a good influence? And thought leading doesn’t have all that wonderful a past, either; one of the most successful thought leaders in history led a whole country to depravity and eventual destruction 70 years ago. 

Yeah, that’s kinda heavy, maybe more than we need to worry about here. Just a reminder: “Watch out for the people who tell you what to think.” We don’t want to lose the habit of thinking for ourselves. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Solidarity Forever

I was a Teamster once. It happened while I was living near Yosemite National Park, pursuing a doomed mailorder business   I think I may have mentioned elsewhere.  Things had gotten pretty desperate, and a friend with some clout in the park maneuvered me into a job on the maintenance crew.  I lasted about a week.

It was a first for me, and quite possibly for the Teamsters as well. I had never done maintenance work, not even on my own possessions, much less on someone else’s. I was pushing 40 at the time, and in not-too-good shape.

The maintenance crew for the park had its work cut out for it. As the seasons changed, whole communities of workers in the various concessions came and went, and their housing was put up or dismantled accordingly.

Many of these temporary workers were accommodated in dormitories – “Boys’ Town” and “Girls’ Town.” Each roomer was furnished a bed and a bedside dresser. I learned, on the first day, that we were expected, each of us, to carry one item to waiting trucks. One man, one piece of furniture.

I could struggle one of the dressers down the stairs and to the truck (in the time my fellow Teamsters took two or three) but the beds --  I don’t think there’s anything you can compare them to today.  They were cast-iron frames holding what must have been lead springs. I never heard an actual weight value, but they were monsters.

The foreman cheerfully demonstrated the technique. With the bedframe upended, resting on its side -- you addressed it from your left side. Bending at the knees, you grasped what was now the bottom rail with your left hand and the upper rail with your right, which now crossed over your head. You were now in position for the approved method of lifting, with your legs. Straightening your knees -- off you walked.


What our insructor might have  spent a little more time on, for us newcomers to the job, was that if you didn’t get the bed exactly at the midpoint, the dam’ thing would tilt forward or backward, and take you with it.  The result in many cases was a series of lurching dance steps, with the inanimate partner leading.     

It was at this point that I discovered that the dressers weren’t all that bad, and went looking for some. As luck would have it, all the dressers were already accounted for, but the foreman was looking for help with the tents.      

I didn’t mention the tents, did I? Visitors to the park who sought the real outdoorsy experience could rent tents down near the river. Not those little two-man pup tents like you had in the army. Family-size tents. Big, heavy canvas jobs. Rolled up, they were big enough you could just get your arms around one. Here again, the one-for-one rule obtained: one set of arms, one tent.  

As I said, I lasted about a week, retiring from the field before doing myself an injury. The Teamsters collected their dues out of my first (and only) paycheck and we parted ways.  

I don’t say that about the dues grudgingly, by the way; I’m a union man in spirit even though that’s the only union job I’ve ever had.  I’d be even less use in a steel mill than I was on that maintenance crew, but these many years later I’m an associate member of the United Steelworkers. I’d have joined the Wobblies by now if they'd still been around.   

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Still More on LinkedIn

One of the features of LinkedIn is “People You May Know.” It’s a rotating roster of people that appears on your page when you log in and whom you’re invited to “link” to or “follow.” I’m not sure how these people are selected. Is it random? Do they pay for it? Or are they just the most successful “linkers” in the system? But 99 percent of them are people I don’t know.
The flip side to that is that for the 1 percent I recognize, I can usually telephone or email them if I want to talk with them. We already know each other. There would be little to no advantage to linking to them on LinkedIn.  I have to conclude that the feature is meant for people who collect other people, for whatever purpose. A numbers game, maybe? Link up with 500 people and maybe one of them will buy something from you?  And that 500 number isn’t made up, either; I’ve seen people who have that many links in their chain, and there may be others with more for all I know.  
Back in school – way back – when I was a business major in New York, we were obsessed with “contacts.” There was even one instructor who made it part of his course to meet with each student at a downtown restaurant to demonstrate the art of the business lunch. It was tacit admission that you weren’t going anywhere, especially in advertising, in New York, unless you could schmooze with people. But good grief! The most ambitious among us would have at best a handful of contacts. Only later, once in business, would any of the group develop the fabled Rolodex that marked the connected player, and I don’t think there was room for 500 of those little cards on any Rolodex I ever saw. How did we get by?
Like good people, who can be promoted to their level of incompetence (the Peter Principle) a good idea can be extended beyond its practical limits and become a caricature of itself. I read recently that LinkedIn has 277 million members and counting; in theory you can link to all of them if you want. That may make having only 500 seem reasonable, but it’s not, unless you’re General Motors, and not many of the people I see on LinkedIn make it into that size category. In fact, an awful lot are one-man or -woman entrepreneurial entities (aka freelancers in many cases, as in mine).  If it’s an active relationship, there wouldn’t be time for anything else but exchanging messages; and if it’s not active, what’s the point?  bragging rights for “most links”? Just one more of these newfangled inventions I use but don’t understand.        

Sunday, September 7, 2014

More Thoughts on LinkedIn

What you have to understand -- and I’ve learned to beware of  -- is that LinkedIn is a digital souk. An electronic bazaar. Everybody there is selling something.

That includes me; I’m selling a writing service. So it’s 2,286,358 people, as I write this, just in "my" network (219,563 more than a week ago) all trying to sell things to each other, under various guises. 

Largely it’s a numbers game: (“10 Reasons Why You Should  [insert subject here]”; “6 Things You Must Have For [job satisfaction/success with women (men)/growing hair]. These will often be closely followed by pitches offering the very thing that will enable you To Do What You Should or that you Must Have. 

We no longer advertise the product up front; we “engage” the reader with some story (in fact, “storytelling” is a recognized ingredient) before we slip him the Mickey [Google “Mickey Finn” if necessary]. It’s all to do with “content marketing,” and my family of reader will know my views on that.     

Another type of selling is done on the profile page, where you put your best foot forward to the world. Here, too, some will sell more aggressively than others, the presumption being that more selling will get you more business. It sounds like a reasonable premise and is probably right.

It’s a matter of taste, though. If I ever had a client say my writing was a cross between David Ogilvy and Ernest Hemingway, you bet I’d put that up on my profile page in a minute. But should I say it about myself?

I don’t think so, but others disagree. Here’s a quote: “She has a gifted way of pulling you in [to the narrative] and holding your interest until the very last word.” High praise; but it’s not attributed to anyone, so we’re left with the suspicion that the writer is saying it about herself. Even if it’s true – that’s kinda tacky. But it’s something she can’t herself know; readers would have to have told her their interest was held, and to the last word, in which case wouldn’t she be likely to quote some of them or attribute their remarks?  

Ever fair and even-handed, I’ll concede it may be bringing her more work than my approach is bringing me. As I’ve said before, I haven’t yet figured out how to monetize a LinkedIn membership. I’m letting my work speak for me; but if no one reads it, I’m just another tree falling unheard in the forest.