Saturday, February 6, 2010

Multi-friending? Social Multi-tasking?

Just to round out a week in which multitasking unexpectedly emerged as a recurrent issue, a further thought inspired by a piece in the New York Review of Books. Charles Petersen discusses two recent books on Facebook and MySpace. Both recount the histories of the social networking sites and the review focuses on the class-based origins of Facebook at Harvard and the more working-class ethos of MySpace. It's an appropriate approach to social networking and one that Petersen develops with insight. More implicitly, the review underscores the importance of capturing and analyzing the history of digital communities and social interaction, which for many seem utterly ephemeral. It's sobering to realize that the establishment of both MySpace and Facebook (or at least Mark Zuckerberg's initial attempt, Facemash) occurred only in 2003.

Where Petersen ends, though, and ultimately why the review relates to multitasking, is with a question about the nature of "friends" that are made and maintained on these networks. We may have dozens, hundreds, even thousands of "friends," but what is the level of intimacy or sustained interaction we share with them? While the news has recently focused on Facebook's privacy policy, the better question may be how communication on the site allows friends to share or to hide aspects of themselves. "We have turned [our friends] into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud," William Deresiewicz is quoted as observing. "Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling." Is the parallel here to the quandary in digital learning of seeking abundance and novelty or avoiding depth and hard work? If so, the consequences of these technologies for society and interpersonal relations go far beyond class and warrant greater consideration from all of us.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Embracing Others - and Change: Leadership Insights from Peter Guber and Jeff Jarvis

I have the pleasure of working at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership (, an innovative school that offers an Executive MBA to talented creatives preparing for greater management responsibilities in industries like advertising, television, journalism, and new media. While the majority of the program takes place in Germany, we hold separate two-week teaching and learning modules in Asia and the U.S. We just completed the latter module, an intensive fortnight of sessions split between New York and Los Angeles, and I am still digesting the rich and diverse learnings offered in courses, site visits, talks by industry leaders, and just plain interactions with the Berlin School’s own fascinating program participants.

Among our guest speakers in January were two luminaries who at first glance seem completely different. Jeff Jarvis is a career journalist, having created Entertainment Weekly and been Sunday editor of the New York Daily News, who now directs the Interactive Media Program in the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is now known more broadly as a prolific blogger (at and the author of What Would Google Do? A tireless advocate of re-thinking the business and conceptual models underlying journalism, Jarvis believes that social and digital technologies have utterly transformed the news (and other industries) into an interactive, collaborative enterprise. His next book, tentatively titled, “Beta,” outlines the power of collective, ongoing revision and re-making. Appropriately, as a work-in-progress itself, the project’s core ideas were the subject of Jarvis’s public President’s Lecture to Berlin School friends and the wider New York creative community on January 20.

Peter Guber is an icon in the entertainment world. Currently the Chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, he has thrived for more than three decades as a creative producer and business leader across motion pictures, music, television and multimedia. Guber has held executive positions with Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment. He co-founded Casablanca Record and Film Works, formed Polygram Pictures, and was the co-owner of the Guber-Peters Entertainment Company. His credits as a producer or executive producer include such films as Taxi Driver, Rain Man, Batman, and Philadelphia. As well, Guber holds a professorship and teaches regularly in the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA. On January 27, he spoke to the Berlin School EMBA cohort at UCLA's Entertainment and Media Management Institute about the power of storytelling for leaders and, in doing so, shared several of his own key tenets for leadership.

So what lessons and insights were shared by this odd couple? Much was different, of course, in their respective styles and areas of industry focus. Yet in reflecting on their ideas, I was struck by how many of the core ideas offered separately by Jarvis and Guber dovetailed and seemed to spring from common values and perceptions about organizations, the media and success. Here are a few illustrations:

1. “Technology isn’t the answer; it serves the answer.”
These are Guber’s words, though they resonate with the persistent message from Jarvis that the seachange we’re experiencing in social and digital media has less to do with technology and more to do with mindset and the dynamics of collaboration that are served by that technology. For both men, it is the exchange of ideas and passions between individuals – however that exchange occurs – that is paramount.

2. Leverage the power of collective intelligence
Jarvis is at the forefront of thinking through how the intelligence of collaboration can yield not only richer creative work and better information but also more efficient and innovative business models. Guber speaks more generally about the power of social networks. For him the leveraging their power is ultimately about leveling the playing field on which companies compete. Again, rather than going it alone, both men acknowledge and embrace the wisdom of the crowd.

3. Relinquish control
The turn to collaboration requires that individuals give up some of the control that ego and often institutions insist on. Guber puts it simply, “Accept power and opportunity by surrendering control.” Jarvis’s entire notion of “Beta” seems likewise predicated on a willingness to release ideas or projects that are incomplete – and with them individual control over their future shaping – in order for others to improve them more than any one individual could.

4. “Manage by objective – Not Yours, Theirs”
The emphasis on others is recurrent and defining for both men. Leadership of organizations or communities of ideas comes not from tirelessly driving home one’s own vision or idea but from embracing the visions or ideas of others. This should not suggest passivity, of course, and no one would claim that either Guber or Jarvis shrinks from asserting their own views and priorities. They both insist, though, that individual efforts and specific goals should be regularly and constructively subjected to the wisdom, power, or potential of others – including competitors and challengers.

5. Abandon “the myth of perfection”
This myth is Jarvis’s and central to his analysis of contemporary journalism. The pursuit of perfection by news professionals both insists on the value of finished products (stories, newspapers) rather than works-in-progress and reserves the right for trained professionals and insular institutions rather than wider publics. Interestingly, Guber, too, speaks directly to the negative impact of pursuing an unattainable goal instead of releasing an already strong achievement. Quoting a friend who works at NASA, he notes that “perfect is the enemy of success”; striving to be “good enough” is what enables things to get done and organizations to move forward.

6. Someone else is out there…
Maybe the most intriguing of parallels between the two speakers was their nearly identical invocation of a complete stranger who they believe drives their work. For Jarvis, it is the “student in a dorm room somewhere” who is creating a new network or releasing an idea to a community who will grow it in unprecedented ways. For Guber, it is “someone halfway around the world” developing an idea or technology that will transform the entertainment industry. For both, besides providing motivation to work harder, these strangers embody the greater worlds of knowledge and imagination that even the most talented individual leader or thinker or even single organization recognizes exists beyond them.

For me, the crucial thread running through these shared ideas is a committed openness to change – in industries and institutions, in teams and in individuals, and perhaps most in the romantic ideas we tend to harbor about the individual leader or writer. One might counter that such an attitude toward openness is less possible for others than it is for those like Jarvis or Guber who, as the latter himself remarked, are already observing the world “from 30,000 feet,” well-positioned and successful. I’m quite certain both would disagree. The values of collaboration they espouse, served and supported as they are today by extraordinary media networks and communities of common interests, can breed success and productivity at every level.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

More the Digital Nation

Last night, PBS's Frontline broadcast a 90-minute program called "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier." The website has actually been up and active for months and was Frontline's first multiplatform project. You can watch the entire program online. Frankly, though, it is the website, with its multiple links, fuller-length interviews, stories submitted by the public on YouTube, expert roundtable, and self-guided online workshops, that offers a more impressive introduction to a host of social, cultural and psychological issues related to the proliferation of digital technologies. Much of the attention in the program itself is dedicated to younger generations of users, the digital natives, and how they learn (or don't) as constant users of multiple technologies. With the technologies being so new and the generation being so young, conclusions are hardly clear, but the consensus in the program and research beyond is that multitasking does not generally enable deep learning. (One irony pointed out here is that those who believe themselves most adept at multitasking, even among the natives, are in fact the weakest.)

Focusing on digital natives and their typical exclusion of analog media is a worthy and timely topic. Yet one does get the sense that many of the experts' fascination with the younger generation's distinctiveness stems in part, and not unimportantly, from their own parental curiosity about their children (on the "Digital Nation" homepage is thus a link to a "What is you Digital Parenting Style?" quiz). Whatever the ultimate motivation, by extending that fixation on the digital native, the program and website avoid what is a more complicated and also more widespread set of issues. How is learning or information gathering and processing across generations affected not by a categorical shift to digital technology use but by a mixing of digital and non-digital media? Perhaps this is a question that will be obsolete in only a few decades, but in the meantime, it seems much more pressing for making sense of how anyone over the age of 30 or so relates to diverse media and other people. That is also obviously a relevant question for media companies -- and neglecting it may betray yet again most media industries' characteristic over-emphasis on the tastes and habits of youth demographics.

The Frontline site is a great resource:

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Media multitasking: Seeking abundance or avoiding depth?

Not unrelated to my experience of returning to reading newspapers in print, and inevitably comparing them to digital news sources, is some recent research on student learning in the classroom. Summarized nicely in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, one of the key questions boils down to this: Is media multitasking driven by a desire for new information or a wish to avoid hard thinking? While there's predictably no clearcut answer, the implications of that research on attention and distraction, analytical thinking and memory, seem relevant to a range of other settings and information. Perhaps including news.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On Reading a Newspaper (on paper, again)

I flew back from Los Angeles to New York yesterday and had a novel experience: reading two Sunday papers the old-fashioned way, on paper, section by section. I used to read the New York Times regularly, religiously, on the weekend in paper form, but that ritual ended when a delivery service could not dependably deliver my paper (in a downtown Manhattan apartment building, no less; and much to the incredulous chagrin of the Times circulation office). For the last two years or so, I’ve been reading it at and on my iPhone.

So with substantial but now, with each passing weekend, increasingly receding experience with newspapers on paper, I picked up both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times as I was boarding my flight. The cost was not insignificant, $8.25 for the two, and neither was the weight. I did so in part out of nostalgia but also out of curiosity: I regularly find myself in discussions about the future of newspaper, print and journalism and I realized that I had not immersed myself in print in some time.

While I didn’t read every article or word, I spent most of my five hours on-board with the papers. Along the way, and reflecting afterward, I had various thoughts and reactions. Most are familiar and have even been the subject of careful research (I myself share insights on such matters to the NYT). Yet returning to print personally was, I must say, instructive, for the directness if not freshness of ideas that otherwise have been well-analyzed in the abstract. It was also enjoyable.

Here are some reactions:

1. The feel of the paper
There is a feel of paper in the hands that transcends the experience on the eyes (and the efforts of “e-ink” designers to replicate). There was a tangibility and texture that was different from any screen or device I’ve used. And then there’s the gritty charm of blackened fingers.

2. Having the news organized for you
Online news is also organized, in many cases, into subjects like the sections of print papers. Yet the physical coherence of the paper sections and the contiguity of multiple, related stories on a single or facing broadsheet pages offered a more coherent impression around that subject than I’m used to. The NYT Book Review is a great example of this, with page after page of happy discoveries. If only as an occasional variation, I liked having others do the work of organizing that I otherwise enjoy doing myself through clicks and links. Perhaps like the mix of movies, where one ordinarily gives oneself over to the storyteller, and games or websurfing or mobile apps, where one is in greater control of the narrative journey, print and digital news may offer a pleasing variety.

3. More diversity in what I read
It’s counter-intuitive, but I felt like I was reading more diverse stories in the print papers than I would have on my Mac. This is also somewhat a matter of control and our own filters. Though advantages abound in personalizing our digital news, it’s also a process that excludes much that we either don’t like, care about or agree with. I ordinarily might not read online about extremists in the Russian republic of Dagestan but did so with interest in the front section of the NYT.

4. Fewer perspectives in print
If I read more diverse topics, I nevertheless found fewer perspectives about each individual topic in the print stories. Maybe this is inevitable. The glory of digital news is that it’s unending: on a given topic, the immediate links and then the limitless searching beyond multiplies the viewpoints around the story. Some might say that not all perspectives are equal and that print offers a knowledgeable summary, but ultimately I felt limited while reading stories I couldn’t immediately pursue details of as I wished.

One of the crucially missing perspectives, for me, concerns the press itself. Reading about Davos in the NYT, where the focus was on the lack of trust expressed in institutions expressed at the World Economic Forum, I couldn’t but wonder about the role of media and journalism itself in covering the leaders and pronouncements there. Besides the carefully positioned voice of the Public Editor, a reflexivity around journalistic practice seemed lacking in print that is – sometimes excessively among aggregators and bloggers -- abundant online.

5. Losing myself in the source
Without that reflexivity, and the skepticism it engenders, my print papers impressed me as more authoritative. The consistency of style and voice and presentation all contribute to a kind of intellectual coherence that’s utterly lacking across multiple digital sources. While some say that the web has a flattening effect, for instance, and makes the information on nearly all sites seem similar if not the same, most thoughtful friends of mine are very attentive to the site they’re on and the source of information it represents. (I know there are also claims about generational differences here, with alarmists saying digital natives don’t distinguish their sources, but my experience teaching college undergraduates suggests exactly the opposite.)

6. I wanted analysis not headlines
Despite leaving my hotel before 6am, I had already thoroughly perused the day’s headlines on netvibes, digg, iGoogle, and my Google Reader. By the time, I sat down on the plane, in other words, I already knew most of the major, timely news of the previous night and now early morning. What I didn’t yet have was good analysis, background or context for those stories. I hadn’t clicked through and read more about those headlines that interested me. That meant I was eager, when reading print news, to have deeper analysis and thoughtful mixing of perspectives. Again, with the two papers I was carrying, especially on a Sunday, I was mostly satisfied with longer stories. It’s ironic, though, at the very time print papers are needing to scale back because of advertising and business challenges, that more and better analysis beyond the headlines seemed a worthy differentiator. (Interestingly, this same argument for less time-critical analysis has been raised by some who suggest weekly magazines may fare better in print than daily newspapers.)

7. Reading the articles more closely
Maybe it’s the lack of links, boxes with related content, or even separate windows that can distract from reading news on the web or mobile – grazing for digital news can be fun – but I find myself more concentrated on individual stories. Of course it could also be they were better written or laid our more appealingly. (Or perhaps being on a plane further reduced my usual distractions.) Put another way, while both turning print pages and clicking digital ones are both physical acts required to advance one’s way in reading news, handling the papers and read their stories, with a certain stillness, felt different and allowed me to focus more.

8. I miss the interaction
The saddest section in both the NY Times and the LA Times has to be the letters to the editor. This is not to say they’re unimportant or unintelligent. As a form of interaction, though, they seem like letters lost in the past when compared with the instantaneous opportunities not just for comments and readers’ responses to news stories online but to blogs, Facebook posts, and the whole gamut of possible digital mass information collaboration. More generally, print – and not only because I was on a plane without wireless – offers fewer opportunities, certainly immediate, direct ones, for responding to what’s being read than digital.

9. Loving the local stories
Perhaps it’s my own selection of digital information sources, but I tend not to follow much local news online. It’s there but most of my attention, particularly in the analysis and commentaries about news, tends to focus on larger stages. My focus on the local tends to be more on social an cultural matters and to come through (often localized) social sites like Yelp, Going and Facebook. One of my favorite stories in print was the complicated search for a new animal services manager in Los Angeles in the LA Times. Really interesting issues but probably never would have read it online. Makes me think about hyperlocal services like, and Patch and all they offer.

10. Print ads are cool
I paid a lot of attention to ads in the print papers. Of course, they’re what papers have fewer and fewer of these days. But they’re also big, many of them are beautiful, and they’re part of the layout. I’m accustomed to ignoring digital ads and rarely click on them. Yet in print, the positioning of ads makes them part of the flow of reading that’s very different from digital banners or sites that are a click away. Even more, the NYT magazine, with its glossy color ads, shows off the lushness of print that wowed me even more than large-screen computer displays of online ads. Of course, video ads are absent (as of now) but for the most part they’re still a click away or unwanted or at least not integral to the layout of the digital realm the way ads are in print.

As most of these suggest, my readings left me appreciating the sometimes distinct, sometimes overlapping advantages of both print and digital news. There is a physical feel, a coherent voice, and a most digital news doesn't replicate, despite my own efforts at aggregation and curation. My takeaway was that continuing to read news on multiple platforms, including print (not to mention TV and radio), is valuable precisely it provokes thinking about how we gather and process and filter what we learn and know about the world around us. Yes, business models and public information are important and necessary to consider, but news should also help us to understand who we are individually and as communities. Besides probably returning to print occasionally in the future, my transcontinental experiment made me pause and think about how and what of the stories and sources that I otherwise hungrily consume and process in digital form. It was a good flight.