Don’t Deprive the World of Your Ideas: Four Books

It’s difficult for me to even think about marketing or branding without thinking about Scott Belsky. His Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, 2010) and the whole 99%/Bēhance/Action Method is as close to a working system for this stuff as I’ve seen. Belsky says to identify your differentiating attributes and emphasize them. Doug Rushkoff once told me to give people something they can’t get anywhere else, and Howard Bloom once said that if you’re not actively marketing yourself, then you’re depriving the world of your ideas. This is how you stand out without a doubt.

Besides Belsky’s, I have come across four other recent books on the topic of self-promotion and breaking through the cluttered airwaves. Even the airwaves specific to this topic are noisy, so if my reviews seem cavalier, it’s because I only want to give you a general sense of each of these books. If one piques your interest, I highly recommend checking it out.

On the very first page of his book Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business (FT Press, 2010), Luke Williams cosigns the statements above, but makes strong qualifications thereof. “Novelty for novelty’s sake” is a resource killer, and customers seek the familiar. Differentiating yourself is one thing, being different is entirely another. It’s not about differentiating, it’s about disrupting. “Differentiate all you want,” Williams writes, “but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die” (p. 2). The full “Disruptive Thinking” plan is more complex than that, of course, but that’s its most basic premise. Williams is a Fellow at frog design and an Adjunct Professor of Innovation at NYU Stern School of Business, so this stuff is his stuff. His book deserves to be at the top of this list.

I’m trying to change the world before I change my mind.
Pete Miser

The subtitle of The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith with Carlye Adler (Jossey-Bass, 2010) reads “Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” but before you scroll to the next book, hear me out. Aaker, Smith, and Adler have put together a crash course in achieving the ever-elusive just noticeable difference for your big ideas.

A dragonfly has four wings, and the dragonfly effect has four skills: focus, grab attention, engage, take action. Their first case study (Team Sameer and Team Vinay) yields the following list. Some of these should sound familiar (these are from How to Do Something Seismic–and Create a Movement by Robert Chatwani):

  1. Stay focused; develop a single goal.
  2. Tell your story.
  3. Act, then think.
  4. Design for collaboration.
  5. Employ empowerment marketing.
  6. Measure one metric.
  7. Try, fail, try again, succeed.
  8. Don’t ask for help; require it.

I love these, and that last one, seemingly counterintuitive, is quite brilliant. And there are hundereds more in here. The Dragonfly Effect is a solid system for success in our media-saturated times.

If you’re more interested in starting a movement, a campaign that focuses more on people and passion than products and projects, then Brains on Fire by Robbin Phillips, Greg Cordell, Geno Church, and Spike Jones (J. Wiley, 2010) is the book for you. These authors aren’t writing about product launches and opting-in. They’re writing about conversations and engagement. The clutetrain might be still making the rounds, but these folks are taking it to new stations. And now that the technology has caught up with the ideas, so can you.

“Markets are conversations,” stated The Cluetrain Manifesto (Perseus Books, 1999), and conversations are where movements start. Participation does not equal engagement, but Brains on Fire employs eleven lessons in getting from the former to the latter. From “Movements Start with the First Conversation” (Lesson 2) and “Movements Empower People with Knowledge” (Lesson 5), to “Movements Have Shared Ownership” (Lesson 6) and “Movements get Results” (Lesson 10), this book is as fun as it is fearless.

I found out about Brains on Fire from Scott Stratten, fellow Geekend 2010 speaker and author of Unmarketing: Stop Marketing. Start Engaging (J. Wiley, 2009). Unlike some of the authors above, Stratten tackles more traditional marketing tactics (e.g., cold calling) in less traditional ways (e.g., giving things away). He also often tries too hard to be funny. That, along with the traditional marketing buzzwords found throughout the book, make it difficult to take some of this stuff seriously. Reading this, I often got the feeling he wasn’t talking to me.

With that said, Stratten’s ideas are good. If you’re looking for a quick guide (the chapters herein are very short, easy to read one or two in just a few minutes) on how it’s done now, Unmarketing is a damn good start.

Getting focused, truly differentiating yourself or your campaign not just for differentiation’s sake, involving and engaging your audience, and being as open and transparent as possible are not just suggestions for success, they are how it’s done now. These four books (along with Scott Belsky’s Making Ideas Happen and the ever-relevant Cluetrain Manifesto) are a crash curriculum in current marketing and spreading ideas. Don’t deprive the world of yours. Get them out there.

Think Inside This Box: The Bēhance Action Method

Ever since Matt Schulte mentioned Scott Belsky’s book Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, 2010) on his site, I’ve been test driving Belsky’s and his company Bēhance’s “Action Method,” which is outlined in his book. Being the notebook nerd that I am, I had to get some of those Action Books to, you know, follow the method properly. So, if your new year’s resolutions are already slipping, think inside this box:

The Action Method consists of Action Steps, References, Backburners, Discussions, and Events, and the Action Book is designed to employ these categories to help to achieve your goals. Donald Norman once claimed that “attractive things work better” (one could picture that credo posted on a wall in Cupertino). That is, if something is aesthetically pleasing, we are more likely to use it. Howard Rheingold is fond of saying “Don’t skimp on tools.” I used these insights to justify my purchase of yet another notebook.

In her book Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986), Natalie Goldman suggests using whatever notebook you can find. She finds fetishizing the tool an inhibition to getting things done. While Action Books are pretty and made with fine materials, they’re also rugged and ready to put in work.

The Action Books come with durable rubbery covers and muted but colorful to-do lists. The back of every page is ruled with dots, which are subtly guiding without being as intrusive as lines or as restrictive as grids. They’re perfect for notes, sketches, diagrams, flowcharts, mindmaps, or any combination thereof. My favorite notebooks thus far have pages ruled in a similar versatile manner (lines on one half of the page, none on the other). At the very least, I find these arrangements helpful in that they aren’t the traditional notebook pages or blank pages we’ve all been staring at all of our lives. The tools we use affect the thoughts we have (cf. McLuhan, Nietzsche, et al.) — even at the most basic level.

So, don’t skimp on tools. In addition to nice software, see what nice pens and paper do for you. As the Action Book itself says, “Show your ideas some respect.” I’m still working through The Action Method, but if nothing else, I dig the notebooks.

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You can check out the full line of Bēhance tools in the Bēhance Outfitter store.

Desiring Lines: The Path More Traveled

Campus sidewalks meander between places of interest, connecting buildings and parking lots in a maze of concrete stripes. Often where their right angles turn near grassy areas between them and another building or parking lot, there are paths leading off diagonally. These forking paths are called “desire lines,” so named because they show where people would rather walk. There’s a story circulating that says good engineers (or lazy ones, depending on who tells the story; see Brand, 1994, p. 187) put sidewalks in last as to follow the desire lines and avoid wear on the grass. Desire lines illustrate the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them.

Desire lines are where the system – the system of people in conjunction with their built environment – asserts itself. “Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space (1958). “These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space… Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs” (p. 12).

Our dealings with Nature are just lines in innumerable directions.
— William James

In A Line Made by Walking (Afterall Books, 2010), Dieter Roelstraete examines a series of art work and black and white photographs thereof by Richard Long. In 1967, while a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, Long wore single, straight line on a hillside outside of London. His single photograph of the line wore his name into the annals of art like so many footsteps on that hill. The piece, also dubbed A Line Made by Walking, Roelstraete writes, “equally belongs to the histories of early Conceptual art, Land art, performance or body art…” and experiments in photography, among others (p. 2). It was Long’s first recognized piece of art and set in motion a career that took art out of the gallery and into the landscape. Roelstraete’s book explores his work, but also the many trajectories that spin off of it. Travel, technology’s influence thereon, walking, performance, and the relationship of the body to the world.

Rebecca Solnit has done the best job of exploring the history and philosophy of walking and thinking. Roelstraete situates Long’s work in relation to Solnit, quoting Solnit’s Wanderlust: A history of walking (2001): “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). Richard Long’s work and Dieter Roelstraete’s book about it illustrate this thought in lines both walked and written.

By the way, A Line Made By Walking (the book) is an entry in Afterall’s “One Work” series, each of which explores a particular piece of art and how it changed art and our perception of it, not unlike what Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series does for records. Both are highly recommended.

Desire lines and the meditations in A Line Made by Walking remind me that aspects of our lives only matter because a certain amount of us have decided that they do. Often called social construction and often harshly critiqued as uselessly postmodern, the concept is testable. Go to your local coffee shop or restaurant and try to walk behind the counter. You will be swiftly ushered back to the other side of the counter if not out of the establishment. Whether or not there is an actual physical barrier in place, there is an accepted area for the employees and one for the patrons — that’s social construction. As a society or culture we tend to agree on a great many of these constructions. We decide what matters.

To read Solnit, you’d think we’d decided that walking no longer matters. She writes,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination. (p.250)

Though I’m less pessimistic than Solnit sounds above, I acknowledge that technology often makes decisions for us. Often we aren’t left a choice as to what is easier, more convenient, or more fun, much less what is more acceptable. Often the technology in place makes only one path available — a sidewalk in the current example. But, as GeorgieR, an admin for the Desire Path Flickr Group, puts it,

The key to the desire path is not just that it’s a path which one person or a group has made, but that it’s done against the will of some authority which would have us go another, rather less convenient, way.

Desire lines illustrate our endless ability to stray anyway.

References:

Bachelard, G. (1958). The poetics of space. New York: Beacon.

Brand, S. (1994) How building learn: What happens after they’re built. New York: Viking.

James, W. (1903). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Roelstraete, D. (2010). Richard Long: A line made by walking. London: Afterall Books.

Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Penguin.

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Special thanks to Katie Arens for introducing me to the concept of desire lines.

Bringing the Attack to Your Network: Hacking 2.0

Hacking, as the term is generally (mis)understood, gets a bad rap. The longstanding attempts at distinguishing between hacking and cracking have yielded little results. If you self-identify as a hacker, most will still assume you illicitly break into computer systems to steal secret information or vast sums of money.

In Hacking (Polity, 2008), Tim Jordan puts great effort into developing a solid, working definition of the term. Not only is Jordan concerned with differentiating hacking from cracking, but also in not watering down the concept (as he claims McKenzie Wark, Pekka Himenan, and Sherry Turkle, among others, do). “A hack…” he writes, “is a material practice that produces differences in computer, network, and communication technologies” (p. 12). Grounding hacking as a material practice allows Jordan to explore what he considers the two major categories of hacking: information gathering (e.g., cracking) and creative hacks like the myriad tools and toys of the Linux operating system and the open source software movement, both of which push technology beyond its intended uses. Jordan’s book is a cogent, clear, and concise look at what is usually quite a muddy topic.*

Speaking of clear, if you know anything about computer books, you know that O’Reilly publishes the best of them. Hacking: The Next Generation (O’Reilly, 2009) by Nitesh Dhanjani, Billy Rios, and Brett Hardin (all of whom are security experts, engineers, or advisers at large companies with lots at stake) is about as good as these books get. Much like their sister imprint’s book by a similar name (Hacking: The Art of Exploitation on No Starch), this is a solid guide to how to break into things and how to keep someone from breaking into yours. Subtitled “Bringing the Attack to Your Network,” Hacking thoroughly covers everything from the usual corporate firewalls and email accounts to Facebook and Twitter with the hands-on depth you’ve come to expect from O’Reilly.

Bringing hacking to a much larger scale network, environmental futurist Jamais Cascio’s Hacking the Earth (Lulu, 2009) explores the consequences of geoengineering. If you can imagine the global climate as a system to be hacked, then Cascio is speaking your language. This collection of essays (culled from the past five years of his writings at World Changing and Open The Future) covers everything from techniques and terraforming to geoengineering and geoethics. It’s a lofty and enlightening look at hacking the very system of our planet.

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* Special thanks to John David Smith at Learning Alliances for recommending Tim Jordan’s book.

The End of Print

Magazines have always been my favorite form of media. Having grown up in rural areas of the South, I found the window to my interests opened in their glossy pages. The big photos and words from other worlds kept me connected to all that I wanted to be a part of. If this sounds a bit romantic, it was. The grocery store newsstand and the mailbox were the modem jacks of the time.

Back then, it was music, skateboarding, and BMX magazines, and though those still capture my attention on a regular, these are the ones of which I don’t miss an issue.

SeedSeed
For my regular science fix, Seed is by far the best magazine out there right now. If Wired was still weird (like it was up until 1998 or so) and focused on science instead of the web, it might resemble Seed. Excellent visualizations and great writing, plus the Seed Salon in which two luminaries — whose interests are often unexpectedly juxtaposed — discuss a pressing science issue. Past Seed Salon’s have included such pairs as David Byrne and Daniel Levitin, Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler, Jonathon Lethem and Janna Levin, Benoit Mandlebrot and Paola Antonelli, Will Self and Spencer Wells, Jill Tarter and Will Wright, Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga, and Robert Stickgold and Michel Gondry, among many others. I’m obviously biased, but I love the fact that every issue includes this form of dialogue alongside the monologue of Seed‘s traditional articles, which are consistently stellar (oh, their website is excellent as well).

GoodGood
Coming in second on my magazine must-haves is Good. Some of the best infographics I’ve ever seen have been on this magazine’s pages. Good is not necessarily about anything in particular, except good things — good ideas, good design, good stuff. Each issue of Good is themed, which is both good and bad. It’s good because when they cover something, they cover it well. It’s bad because sometimes one might not be interested in the theme. With that said, they’ve often won me over anyway.

WiredWired
Though the common sentiment (I even expressed it above) is that Wired used to be better, it’s still one of the best. The lost art of long-form narrative journalism is alive and well in Wired. They’re also consistently refreshing their voice with new writers, staying true to much of their original blueprint, and challenging their readers with easter eggs. Their recent “Mystery Issue,” guest edited by J. J. Abrams no less, is chock-a-block with perplexing puzzles and hidden games. So times have changed and so has Wired, but you’ll still be hard-pressed to find a better read at your local Safeway.

MakeMake
Make is more like a quarterly how-to book — how to do everything yourself. It’s the D.I.Y. bible. Some of the most creative people and writers alike work for Make (people like our friends Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder), and they spread and network with makers from all over with the magazine, the website, tools from the Maker Shed, and Maker Faire — the latter of which is going down in San Francisco this very weekend!

There are a few more I pick up once in a while: Geek is never quite as cool as it purports to be, but I still snag it sometimes. Fast Company is sometimes interesting enough to buy. Psychology Today often reels me in in spite of myself. And despite everything I’ve written above, DIG BMX is still the best magazine on the planet.