Another Time, Another Life

It’s been nearly 10 years since a tree fell on my house, and nearly 6 years since I posted anything on my blog. So much life happened in between, and life finally moved on in it’s own way. My son grew up and is now studying to be an engineer. My wife and I still live in the same house. My business is still growing. A pandemic turned the rest of the world upside down. Life goes on.

It took 5 years to recover legally and financially. It took another 4 years for the anger and outrage to subside, and another year for me to realize I was no longer thinking about it every day. One fifth of my life was wrapped around that one event, which is hard to fathom.

Relatively speaking, it was a trivial tragedy. Compared to illness, war, poverty, oppression—things people routinely experience every day—I suffered nothing. But the impact on my mental health, my outlook, my consciousness, was significant. I spent a little bit of time drowning my feelings, a little bit of time anesthetizing myself to everything, walling myself off to get by. But in the end it was getting back on my bike that did the most for my mental health.

When my son started high school, he came home one day announcing he’d joined the mountain biking team. A few days later he told me they needed adult riders to help out with the team. I’m now on my seventh season as a NICA-certified mountain biking coach. That turned out to be the lifeline that helped me the most toward moving on with my life. I’ll be writing more about that in the days to come.

So This Happened


A few weeks after the last post I wrote on this blog, almost 4 years ago, a 100 foot tree fell from my neighbor’s yard onto my house. My wife and son were sitting down to dinner when the tree crashed through the roof. They dove under the table and the tree came through the ceiling to stop three feet above their heads.

I was running late getting home from the office in San Francisco when I got the call from a neighbor, saying only that the tree had come down, neighbors were trying to get to my wife and son, and I needed to get home as fast as I could. I was stuck in the evening gridlock on highway 101. Miles away.

It’s been a long road through a dark and lonely forest trying to find the light of day. I lost my house and my home. I nearly lost my business, my sanity, and more than I ever want to put into words.  I also learned the hard truth that misfortune is a resource that is very thoroughly and efficiently mined for profit by insurance companies, banks and lawyers. After almost 4 years of battle, we are awaiting word on an insurance settlement that would make us whole so we can finally move on with our lives.

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Now that the sun is rising again, now that my company SocialRep is beginning to thrive, I’m thinking of writing again. Writing without disaster and survival always at the forefront of every free moment.

For all that’s happened, I have no idea how to address the past.  It happened and our lives were turned upside down. We trudged through the wilderness and now our lives are almost normal again. There’s a universe in between, and now I only want to leave it behind. Maybe someday I’ll unpack it, try to unwind everything and make sense of it.

But maybe I’ll just pack it up, put it on a little boat and push it out to sea.

Coincidence: When Real is Better than Real

To me, coincidence is like magic. It makes you see the world in a way that is slightly unreal. Better than real. Like real could be a whole lot better than you think. A good coincidence makes you think, makes you look for the unseen thread that strings a strand of random events together like pearls. Like ghost stories, there’s a time for telling stories of coincidence, and they never seem to lose their magic with the telling.

Recently my wife and I have been talking about the need to encourage my son to write. My wife is a librarian, I’m a writer, so we kind of figure our son should be writing epic novels by the time he’s twelve. That’s a joke. But recently we’ve been looking over our son’s school work and thinking he could use a little more practice writing. Another momcoincidence from my son’s class mentioned a small writing group she’d discovered for kids and invited my son to join up. My wife was enthusiastic; I was ambivalent. He’s already got a full schedule, I thought it could wait until summer. Better yet, I could, you know, give him a few assignments myself. Sort of a father-son writing-apprentice bonding thing, which, maybe we’d get to sometime in the summer. The idea faded into the background of busy days.

Tonight, at the end of another busy day, I raced home to take my son to basketball practice. On the way back home from practice as we drove through town–something we’ve done exactly the same way nearly every day for years–this time for whatever reason we started talking about all the neon signs. We noticed all the colors, the lights that were broken, the lights that had been fixed, and eventually my son asked how different neon colors are made. I started to answer, and then remembered back to the very first article I ever wrote about 20 years ago–a newspaper piece on neon signs for the Santa Maria Times. Aha, I thought. A teaching moment on the magic of writing.

For the rest of the drive home, I focused on the setup. Instead of telling my son what I’d learned about neon signs from writing about them for the newspaper, I told him about my first experience getting a job as a writer. I’d just graduated from college with a degree in poetry, and had been unable to find a job in Santa Maria, where I’d moved to live with my girlfriend the librarian. The newspaper was the only gig in town that involved writing but they didn’t have any job openings. So I came up with a plan. I looked through the newspaper and settled on the lifestyle section, and then imagined the most colorful and cool topic I could dream up to report on for a story. Neon signs. I wrote the piece, walked it in to the editor of the Times, and walked on to my first gig as a newspaper writer.

I finished the story as we drove up to the house, and then led my son to the file cabinet in the back of the garage. It took awhile, but I finally found the folder of newspaper clippings, and pulled from it the only copy I still have of that first article on neon signs. While my son got ready for bed, I got lost in the folder of clippings, remembering each of the stories, each of the columns and magazine articles, and finally the obituary I wrote for my father–a lifelong writer and newsman. So much magic I’d forgotten. When I checked in on my son he was lying in bed, reading the story of neon, my wife looking on bemused by the old newspaper clipping. It was a beautiful moment for me to feel smug.

With the hour getting late we hurried my son to finish the story. He held out to the end, and then folded the newspaper for filing away. But as he handed it over he stopped, and then gasped. He pointed at the date. January 24, 1993. The article I’d given him to read, to maybe excite him a little about writing by connecting the dots to our random discussion about neon signs, the first article I’d ever written, was published 19 years before to the day. And then my wife added the punch line. She’d forgotten to tell me, but today was the first day my son had participated in the writing group.

What it Means to Fall

Fall Mountain Biking

A couple of weeks ago I took a spectacular fall while mountain biking. I was pushing the limits on one of my favorite trails, riding full speed through a forest of redwoods, when my front wheel lost traction and I hit the deck. I slid about 20 feet through roots and rocks before rolling over the side of the trail and down a steep hill. I wound up with deep gashes on both arms and one knee, a wide swath of trail rash from shoulder to ankle, and what would later turn out to be a couple of fractures to the bones that make up my left shoulder. It now ranks among the top 5 falls since I started mountain biking seriously more than a decade ago.

Falling is an unfortunate fact of life with any difficult pursuit. The scars you rack up are like merit badges marking your progress, hopefully, to some kind of mastery. I fell 87 times my first year of mountain biking (I kept score once I realized it was going to be chronic) while trying to learn how to navigate switchbacks, climb boulders and dodge trees on steep descents.  My second year I fell only 10 times, but the fewer times I fell, the more dramatic the falls became since it took more to throw me off the bike.

Just as you get better at riding with practice, so it goes with falling. The cloud of shock and confusion clears up after a few good spills and in time you begin to feel present as a fall unfolds–the collapse of gravity, the awareness of arcing through space, the sampling of sensory inputs from each point of impact. The more tuned your awareness, the more you can process the mechanics of falling so you don’t repeat the same mistakes again. Was it a failure of technique? Of equipment? Of attention? If you’re competitive, you learn to see falling as the outer edge of the envelope you have to constantly push to get better and start winning. If you’re not good with falling, you’re stalling.

What I never ponder after a fall is what it means. There’s no hidden mystery with falling. Every fall is just a challenge where the mechanical convergence of bike, body and terrain is something you can navigate successfully or you can’t. Falling is part of the process of identifying and resolving those challenges. You get up, you brush yourself off, and either you hit it again until you get it right, or you find a way around it–a decision rooted in whether or not you understand the mechanics of what went wrong and how to fix it.

Learning to fall has been an invaluable lesson for me in business, because in business it’s called failing, and there are so many tortured interpretations about the meaning of failure that it obscures the simple mechanics. You hear a lot of received wisdom from pundits about what it means to fail. Studies are conducted by major universities. Books are written. Conclusions are made that shape corporate policy. Some gurus say failure is a natural part of business that should be embraced as an opportunity to learn. Others say no, accepting failure breeds failure, and that only success breeds success. When you inevitably encounter some significant failure in business, all of these pronouncements become voices in your head, and you spend hours staring at the ceiling pondering what it all means.

If you find yourself in that position, just think about falling on a bike. No one who knows how to ride a bike did it without ever falling. The greater the rider, the harder the falls they’ve survived, and the more scars they have to prove it. The key is to forget about meaning and focus on mechanics. Don’t just get up and ride on ahead to the next fall. Take the time to understand the factors that led to the fall in the first place. Was it a failure of technique? Of equipment? Of attention? Then get up, brush yourself off, and either hit it again until you get it right, or find a way around it. Let the pundits debate what it means.

Remembering Maya

Maya Machnicova

Maya Machnicova

I attended the memorial last Saturday of a former employee, a young woman named Maya Machnicova. Memorials are always a reminder of basic truths we tend to ignore, or simply forget, and Maya’s passing in particular has made me think a lot about the subtle ways people impact my life.

The push and pull of primary relationships is obvious—parents, spouses, children, business partners—they’re like heavy planets that shift our trajectory whenever they come into orbit. But what about the coworkers we spend a few hours with each day? There are hundreds of people in my life that come and go over the years, and maybe they leave a lasting impression because of some big drama, or maybe they just fade away. Maya reminded me of the subtle impact some people have that isn’t obvious until you have perspective to think about it, and then you realize they shifted your outlook in some important way. Maya was like that.

Maya was remarkable in a lot of ways. Her family escaped communist Czechoslovakia in the early eighties when Maya was 10 and eventually fled to the US. When she walked into our studio to apply for a job as an Account Executive, maybe 15 years later, Maya was thoroughly American. She didn’t have a lot of experience, but she was smart, enthusiastic and confident, and we didn’t hesitate to hire her. Over the years she worked at Cymbic, Maya was an incredible asset. She was ambitious, self-directed and determined. She went after big accounts, she thought creatively and strategically about how to run them, and she consistently put in the hours and effort required to deliver to the highest standard.

I remember one project she wanted to reel in from a big software company called Manugistics. It was an assignment to produce some online product marketing materials that she thought would be a perfect use for Flash, which wasn’t in wide use at the time for much more than web site splash pages. The budgets were tight, and there were only a couple of days before the proposals were due. Maya came up with the idea of delivering the proposal in Flash, and scripted a “build-your-own-project” proposal, where you could drag and drop components of the project and the price and timeline would automatically adjust. She assembled a team and worked through the weekend to get it built and delivered. It was an all-or-nothing risk—not only in terms of delivering something so far out of the box to a large client, but just getting it built in such a short time. What impressed me when she pulled it off wasn’t just that she delivered, but that it was such a substantive way to address the opportunity—it wasn’t clever for the sake of show, but demonstrated directly to the client what was possible.

I don’t remember how many years I worked with Maya, two or three years I think, right at the end of the dotcom bubble and into a recession that devastated our industry. I was a very green agency principal trying to figure out how to survive and manage through a challenging market. There was a lot of stress and some drama as we went through layoffs and lost a lot of business. At some point, Maya moved on—I remember she took me out to lunch some months after she left to tell me what she had learned at Cymbic—and eventually we wound down our agency.

Thinking back on it now, I realize that Maya modeled many of the qualities I now look for in new employees. She was a true entrepreneur, combining incredible ambition with the creativity and determination to achieve whatever she set out to do. Often that comes with a big ego that can cause conflict on a team, but Maya was adept at keeping the focus on the project more than her own agenda. She was incredibly smart, articulate and optimistic, and she never failed to find a way to get up when she was knocked down. Many of these qualities are celebrated in management books, but Maya lived them naturally, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, she helped set the bar in my mind of what the best colleagues, co-workers and employees are like.

Something else I remember about Maya that never made sense at the time, but now seems symbolic. Maya liked to wear this big, masculine watch–like an aviator or diver’s watch–that always looked a little out of place to me. Maya was slight and pretty, and the watch just looked incongruous, swimming on her small wrist. I imagine there was some story behind the watch that I didn’t know. But it’s funny, when I think about all the qualities Maya embodied, her strength, ambition and determination stand out. Now the watch seems to fit after all.

Thank you, Maya, for everything I learned from you.

Facebook’s Engineered Privacy Loopholes

Facebook is getting a lot of attention over its privacy policies for a variety of reasons. Depending on who’s offering up the criticism, the complaints include:

  • They change the rules too often.
  • The rules are too convoluted and too hard to figure out.
  • The rules err on the side of sharing private information without permission, so Facebook can profit.

So far, Facebook seems to be Teflon. The fun and attraction of engaging on Facebook outweighs most people’s concern about privacy–assuming they understand the privacy risks. But I, for one, am starting to get creeped out. And my threshold is pretty high.

A few months back, during the last highly public change in Facebook privacy policy, I went into my account settings and navigated all the features to establish my settings. I was a little pissed that they assumed I would want to share all kinds of personal stuff they didn’t ask my permission to share, but I figured the change in policy was public, and I was able to re-establish control over my private information. I didn’t think much more about it.

This week, something happened that really made my antennae go up. I logged into my account, and a helpful little dialog box appeared, displaying two private email addresses that I use, and have never linked or associated with Facebook. Facebook wanted to know if they could link those accounts to my name. WTF? 1) Where did they come up with those addresses? 2) How did they associate them with me? Any answer you come up with is creepy. Either they were sniffing around my computer, or they were crawling the web looking for other possibly related instances of “me” that they want to unify so they can leverage and sell the data. How they knew these addresses were mine, and not one of the other Chris Kentons on Facebook is interesting, but gives depth to the creepiness–they’re digging around. This is getting far too deep into my private life for comfort–especially by a company so demonstrably cavalier about how it shares my information.

So I decided to review my privacy permissions, and I found some things that need a lot more scrutiny. Facebook is not just playing fast and loose with privacy details, they’re burying settings that will share information you’ve told them not share. Check it out for yourself.

Go under the Account tab in the upper right hand corner of your Facebook page and choose “Privacy Settings”. A list comes up of all the various categories of settings you can choose. Many have complained this is too hard to navigate; Facebook claims it offers greater granularity of control. Whatever. Start with your Personal Information and Posts settings, where you can decide what personal information to share with whom. Facebook helpfully assumes you want to share everything with everybody. So turn everything to “Friends”, so that you’re only sharing your private information with Friends. You’re safe and secure now, right? Not even close.

Go back to the main Privacy Settings page and go down to “Applications and Websites”. Another long list of options to navigate, one of which is “What Friends Can Share About You”. Click to edit settings, and check it out. All the things you just said you only wanted to share with Friends are now, by default, checked to allow Friends to share with other people about you. Huh? So, I’ve just told Facebook I want to keep my photos, my family relationships and religious information just to my friends, but now buried two sections deep under another, different privacy topic, Facebook is allowing my Friends to share that information around? Houston, we have a problem. I Googled this topic and, sure enough, people have found themselves in some awkward situations because of this loophole.

I’m sure Facebook can make a passionate case about trying to make the web more social, and that social doesn’t come without sharing. I’m sure they can argue all day long about how these granular controls allow all of us to have minute control over the information we share. But here’s the thing. I don’t want minute control. I want simple control. Stop sharing my shit with everyone on the web. Stop assuming I want to share everything, and assume I want to share nothing, except who I say I want to share things with. Stop hiding little loopholes under nested lists of settings that allow you to get around the permissions I just set. Stop changing the privacy policy every month to allow you to reset all my settings to your “Share Everything” default. Just. Stop.

Social is *not* about sharing everything with everyone. Social is about making choices about the company we keep. And it’s starting to look like it’s time to make a choice about Facebook.

Is Social Media is Making Gender Roles Obsolete?

Post image for Is Social Media is Making Gender Roles Obsolete?

The best thing about staring at web data all day is that I get to see trends as they emerge. Usually it’s just little shifts in the drift and flow of online dialog. But sometimes I get a front-row seat to a tectonic change that points toward some unexpected and emerging truth. A clear view of a reality that’s just beginning to unfold.

I had one of those experiences recently working on a project for Creative Labs. Creative is doing a lot of exploration in social marketing, and one of the areas of interest was digging into the phenomenon of Mommy Bloggers. If you’re not familiar with the trend, blogs written by moms reached a tipping point a couple of years ago and have grown to be such a market influence that the FCC cited them in a new regulatory review process.

As part of our research into online dialog and influence, we spent a lot of time looking at mommy blogs and daddy blogs, and variations on the content they create, the audiences they attract and the communities they develop. All very interesting stuff that would fill a good marketing brief. But the most interesting insight was a simple observation about the nature of mommy and daddy blogs. Moms are writing a lot about consumer gadgets, Web 2.0 and tech, while dads are writing a lot about changing diapers and teething. It’s a striking role reversal that’s fascinating to observe.

It’s not hard to speculate about what’s going on. Men have had hundreds of sources to learn about gadgets and tech for decades, but few to share about how to be a good dad, while the opposite is true for women. Women have unlimited opportunities to compare notes with their peers about parenting, but where can they connect with other moms about new technology? In the world of mainstream media, we accepted these cultural boundaries for which there was apparently little interest in crossing. But the mommy and daddy blogs demonstrate there is a huge pent-up audience for gadget moms and diaper dads that mainstream media never found a reason to serve. Traffic on these blogs is now a full blown phenomena.

Beyond any commercial fascination, there’s a profound social implication. The phenomenon puts a stark lie to the notion that mainstream media simply reflects social values and expectations, and suggests instead that mainstream media has played a central role in sustaining traditional values and expectations–if through no other means than projecting the world view of the tiny minority that has controlled media for the past 100 years, or whatever world view they could exploit for advertising dollars. Clearly they never conceived of the kind of content that would emerge when you unleash media and let ordinary moms and dads, or any other constituency, loose on the world to talk about whatever really interests them.

It’s equally clear that mainstream media is not only coming apart at the seams as a financial model, but its peculiar power over the stories we accept about our lives is quickly being rendered impotent. As media is democratized, ordinary people are gravitating to the stories that resonate with their lives–and those stories emerge in a more authentic and compelling way when they emerge from a shared interest among a group of like-minded people rather than being projected from a board room focused on a demographic chart.

In a very real sense, we’re returning to stories told around a fire after a lifetime of only listening to stories told from a stage. And if the content driving traffic on mommy and daddy blogs is any indication, it’s going to be a radical shift in the way we see ourselves.

Livestreaming Bioneers Social Media Panel

I’ll be moderating a panel on Sustainable Social Media at the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael. We’ll be streaming the session live, tying in more than 20 remote conference locations. If you have questions during the panel, feel free to post them on Twitter, tagged as “#bioneers” and I’ll pick them up and weave them into the Q&A.

Is Cision Accountable for PR Spam?

Is Cision accountable for spam?

As a blogger, I receive a fair amount of PR spam–5-10 emails every day pitching crap I would never write about. And 9 times out of 10 this spam is illegal. It’s unsolicited commercial email in blatant violation of numerous provisions of the CAN-SPAM act. Day after day, week after week, the crap just rolls in, and frankly it pisses me off. Most of the time I just delete it and forget it. Recently, however, I started receiving spam at an email address I created specifically to keep “clean”, meaning I’ve never registered it anywhere or opted in for any list, though I have it posted as an “at dot com” address on my personal blog About page. So I started responding to the spam by asking where my name was sourced so I can get off the list. No one has ever responded to my request. Until today. Today, one spammer apologized and told me my clean email address was sourced from Cision and a product they call the Media Map. Interesting.

After Tweeting about this discovery, I connected with a Vice President at Cision by email. I’m not going to publish her name or emails without permission, because I didn’t open the communication with the intent of entrapping her. But I will publish the gist of the email, because she’s a senior executive with Cision and a communications professional. I’m sure she can take care of herself, and I told her I would let her know when I posted this. My intent in writing this post is not to throw a bomb at Cision, but to open a public dialog about the practice of social media relations, and the behavior of Cision specifically. The executive assured me her intent was to be open and accountable and I take her at her word.

Cision bills itself as “the leading global provider of media relations software services and solutions for public relations professionals.” Their homepage is full of social media products and services, and they offer a steady stream of webinars and whitepapers helping PR professionals navigate the brave new world of social media. So. To cut to the chase. Why is Cision harvesting my email from the web without permission, and providing it to PR agencies as part of a paid service to allow them to spam me with social media pitches? Call me crazy, but that doesn’t exactly jive with any notion of responsible social media marketing I’m familiar with. In fact, it sounds like Mercenary Marketing 1.0 cynically repackaged with a shiny Web 2.0 wrapper.

When I asked these questions of Cision, the very polite response was, yes, they did “recruit” my email address from the web “prior to opt-in”, but they just hadn’t “gotten to the point” of asking me to opt in. They were, however, able to sell my address to PR agencies for the purpose of pitching me. At this point, by my reading of the CAN-SPAM act, this is illegal spam, although it’s a bit of a grey area. Cision is not emailing me, so they’re not sending spam. The PR agency is indeed spamming me–sending an unsolicited commercial email–but in all likelihood since they’re buying a professional service they’re under the impression it’s legit. One question I neglected to ask is whether Cision is representing the list I’m on as opt-in. I’ll let them answer for themselves.

The Cision exec was also very polite in saying she’d be happy to note the names of any repeat offenders, but I told her that was unacceptable. Part of my annoyance with Cision is that it took me this long to figure out where my name had been sourced–which, if I were less charitable, I’d suggest was by design. The spam laws are clear that commercial emails must contain contact information and a way for recipients to unsubscribe. In none of the PR spam that I’ve received has there ever been an unsubcribe link or any mention of Cision. The only contact is the PR flack who wants to book an interview. This is not a transparent or accountable business practice on Cision’s part–and frankly, the responsibility cannot be pawned off on the poor naive agencies. Cision bills itself as “Helping Communications Professionals Navigate the Evolving Media Landscape”, and they are proud of the numerous webinars and whitepapers through which they educate PR professionals about the practical requirements of social media. But not one of their clients is following the most basic guidelines of responsible email marketing, not to mention the law? What does that say about Cision’s effectiveness as a social media leader?

Fundamentally, I have no problem with Cision’s professed vision. There is a legitimate opportunity for someone to help agencies navigate the shifting media landscape. But in my experience, Cision’s practice doesn’t measure up. Whether they call it harvesting or recruitment, they collected my contact information and sold it to agencies, no matter how deeply it may have been embedded in a product or a service. They did not seek my permission, and they had no means of holding their clients accountable for the most basic legal and ethical marketing practices, whether or not they’re educating those clients through their webinars and whitepapers. However laudable their messaging may be on the subject of social media, they’ve treated me, the blogger, without respect. And in enabling PR agencies to continue the practice of unaccountable spamming, they have done no favors for their own market. I am far less likely today to pay attention to any email from a PR agency, which is a direct result of this experience.

I have no doubt Cision will respond ably to this post. But it’s a commitment to action I want to see. Specifically:

  1. End the practice of “recruiting” emails and including them on any list before permission is explicitly granted.
  2. Require every agency using one of your lists to include a footer, or a post script, that includes an unsubscribe link with a Cision contact. You can not claim to be accountable if the bloggers you “recruit” cannot close the loop with you about the communications we receive.
  3. Create a clear set of marketing guidelines for which you hold your clients responsible, including adhering to provisions of the CAN-SPAM act, and provide a transparent place for your “recruited” bloggers to register complaints.

If you’re truly the social media leader you position yourself to be, this shouldn’t be any issue at all.

Update: I’ve gotten a few emails, and a few comments below, directing me to other posts and comments online about similar experiences with Cision–and, frankly, similar platitudes from Cision about accountability and desire for “dialog”. There’s a pattern emerging, which you can clearly see here, here and here. Someone calls Cision out for enabling spam, Mea Culpas ensue with perfectly played “openness and accountability” and yet Cision doesn’t change its behavior. The post you see here, including Cision’s careful self-defense wrapped in a “willingness to listen” are played out again and again, month after month making idiots of us all. So Heidi. C’mon back. Let’s have a real discussion about the game Cision is playing.