Archive for free advice
Because I work on storytelling and crisis management on social media, I often find myself thinking about conflict online. Conflict, after all, is what drives interest and makes a story go – it’s what you need to identify as your first step towards an online campaign that will interest people. Conflict is also the first thing that a lot of companies worry about when they start working with social media. They ask – what if someone says something mean about us? What if so many people say mean things about us that they somehow bring down our company?! Can we – the executive asks nervously at this point – can we maybe just not have a comments section? And not let people post on our wall? But still be somehow social? Because public conflict is a Bad Thing, right?
These concerns about conflict usually involve a conversation about how public conflict is not a bad thing for companies, that it lets you tell your story and respond up-front to people; we talk about building community, getting people on side, fostering a space where folks can connect to you – so, no, you can’t just broadcast your message and turn off your comments section. The comments matter. Instead, we work on creating a culture of constructive comments, and we make a plan to so that when conflict happens, the company can stay on top of their comments section.
But I’ve started asking myself…do you always need a comments section? Alexandra Samuel posted this comic from The Oatmeal recently (heads up, it’s semi-NSFW, unless your chosen career is + the internet, like mine) , and it makes a pretty persuasive argument that not only can comments become a spawning ground for deconstructive criticism, but they can also crowd out the creative offering that’s being commented on. If the Mona Lisa had a comments section next to it, The Oatmeal asks, would it disturb your experience of the Mona Lisa? Could it take away from the Mona Lisa?
Absolutely it would. Obviously it would.
Alex was thinking about this because she’s been dealing single-handedly with a ballistic comments section (here’s the article that kicked it off on the Harvard Business Review). But here’s the thing: while she makes a forceful argument and it made me think more critically about some of my meeting practices (and the comments section made me nauseous) this post is not the Mona Lisa. It’s a blog post about productivity, and Alex wrote that article with the expectation of conflict and conversation, although I bet she was expecting a higher level of conversation than this (keep it classy, Moleskine users!) If Harvard had different practices around the way their comments section works, this could have been a very different read.
For a great example of a comments section that works, go to online magazine The Hairpin (here’s an example you can start with). Editors Edith Zimmerman and Jane Marie have worked hard to foster community in the comments section by setting an example in the comments of how they want participants to treat each other, and as a result of the social capital they’ve built they’re able to experiment with posting stuff that most online women’s magazines can’t get away with: experimental fiction, poetry, comics and articles with narrow or um, quirky focuses. And their readers love them for it. Somehow, their comments sections are doing the reverse of what comments sections usually do: they’re fostering creativity, critical thinking, and providing a space that gets excited about new ideas and supports conversation.
While I keep working on helping organizations to get comfortable with comments, I’ll admit that what The Hairpin has acheived is still rare on the internet: they’ve turned their comments section into a source of strength that helps drive interest and gives the editors power to do more of what they love. But it’s not rocket science: even Harvard could adapt these best practices.
Here’s what they’re doing: the editors have a voice, they stay active in the comments sections, and they respect repeat commenters (some of whom go on to become contributors). They don’t take themselves too seriously, they don’t sweat the less popular content, and they iterate once they have something they know works for readers. At the same time, frequently they challenge their readers with new kinds of content, and this approach keeps readers from falling into commenting patterns. Commenters need to have a Hairpin profile to comment (which helps keep the troll population down) and they frequently self-organize city-based meet-ups, so a lot of them know each other in real life and refer to that in the comments. Finally, the writers for the Hairpin are also consumers of Hairpin articles and are active in the comments sections of articles they have no stake in, seeding the comments section with good writing and respectful responses. If you look back at the comments section in the Harvard Business Review blog post, you can see Alex is positioned as the only person responsible for responding to comments – and while she handles it like the pro she is, it’s a dynamic that seems to encourage personal attacks. (And I suspect that she’s unusual for a Harvard author in responding to comments at all.)
Hard as it might be to swallow, it looks like if Harvard online community wants to encourage original thought or content, they’re going to have to address their weak approach to a comments section – and from the looks of things, their best first step would be to learn from online comics and women’s magazines (radical advice! clutch your Moleskines, ladies and gentlemen!) Ok, that was a little snarky, but here’s the bottom line: No matter what content you’re talking about, it’s clear that the approach risk-averse organizations tend towards of lip-service to comment sections is the real problem that breeds conflict. It’s only when you give thought to an approach that supports writers and gives comments value that you’ll get a conversation that can take you places.
I just took the best writing workshop with Lynda Barry. She’s a huge hero for me, so if she had sat up there and read the phone book for three hours I would have been totally happy – but she of course did and said amazing things instead, and the workshop sparked a ton of new ideas for me.
Lynda writes comics, and she thinks about images. Her approach to writing uses images as her vehicle, both in a kind of romantic sense – you know, using strong images and memories to spark off a good writing exercise – but she also explores whether images might have a biological function. Why have we carried the arts along with us over thousands of years? Why do we sing and dance and draw? Why do our brains release dopamines when we do these things, and why does doing these things help our brains recover from trauma? And perhaps most importantly for me: why is using our hands to make things (instead of typing) important? How does using our hands change our thinking?
It might seem strange to you that someone who relies on being connected all the time would be curious about this last question so let me say this: I haven’t met anyone who thinks and works online for a living who doesn’t sketch. Not all of them make images (the talented Rob Cottingham excepted) but ALL of them are the grab-a-napkin-and-sketch-out- the-flowchart type. We all know there’s a part to good thinking that requires us to use our hands but why is that? Why does having a whiteboard or post-its or playdoh around result in better ideas?
These are the kind of questions Lynda asks, when she’s not asking real stumpers (what WAS photographic memory called before the invention of photography?) or singing to you about Underpants Gnomes. Did I mention she’s a huge hero for me?
One of the most interesting things about the workshop was her technique for overriding the logical part of your brain to get at what she calls the back of your mind, or your creative right brain. She does it through timed writing exercises which you can see here. But the videos leave out the magical part. Before she started the exercise, she had everyone draw a spiral on their page, concentrating on not letting the lines touch, and she read this poem at the same time, telling us not to think too hard about it. Somehow doing these two things simultaneously totally overrode my brain and I wrote without hesitation. Reading it over, I realize I was so hypnotized I never ever registered that last verse (eep).
The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty
You are sitting here with us,
but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.
You are yourself the animal we hunt
when you come with us on the hunt.
You are in your body
like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you are wind.
You are the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach.
You are the fish.
In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.
Your hidden self is blood in those,
those veins that are lute strings
that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf
but the sound of no shore.
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
If you’ve never encountered her stuff before, check out her thoughts here on her Tumblr, where she includes some of her writing exercises – and here on YouTube, where you can listen to one of her workshops in five parts. Even if you do a lot of technical writing like me (especially if!), her ideas will give your work new energy.
Also, you’ll half memorize a Sufi poem and get the Underpants Gnomes song stuck in your head. She’s no end of fun, is Lynda.
Feeling lucky that Lauren Bacon wrote this blog post after she told me about this technique for mastering your to-do list, because now I can share it with you. You’ll need 25 cents and this blog post, and a gag for your (somehow totally British upper crust sounding, it’s so true) inner critic. Pip pip.