Last week I had the pleasure of attending my first Nerd Nite. If you’ve never heard of it, they’re an organization with branches in dozens of cities around the globe with a simple program. They take over a bar one night a month and have smart people give short talks. This month’s topics included an innovative ice-cream maker discussing her methods and launch of a thriving business, some San Francisco historians discussing an early-20th-century suburb made of abandoned trolley cars, and a biological engineer talking about antibody synthesis. They talk for about 20 minutes, leaving time in between to head back for a refill, and that’s about it.
And I think it’s totally genius. Here’s why:
Learning new things is fun. Smart people are interested in all kinds of things, and it’s too easy to get trapped in your same old circles in terms of new information (look up ‘filter bubble’ if you don’t know what I’m talking about. This is one of my favorite topics to think about right now). If you go out once a month with your coworkers or friends, you end up hearing about the same kinds of things. This is guaranteed variety. Plus, it’s low-impact (short talks) and high-enjoyment (you’re in a bar, not a classroom). So it’s not the commitment and stress of continuing education or the doldrums of a company self-improvement workshop. The format makes it easy to pay attention and get something unexpected and fascinating out of any given night.
Conversation topics provided. As may be well known from spending time with me ever (or following my Twitter), I like few things more than a pint with friends, but sometimes conversation runs dry and you end up talking about the same old things as always. How’s work? What TV shows are you watching right now? The weather — my god, the weather. Here, you have something novel introduced as part of the night out that immediately sets you off. In fact, my second-biggest disappointment of the night was the fact that my friends were ready to head out right after the talks ended. A wasted opportunity to soak in and chew on the weird and mind-expanding things we just heard which could have probably kept us going late into the night.
The best ‘scene’ in any bar. My biggest disappointment though was not taking better advantage of the very full audience to meet some new people. Here we have the most finely self-selected crowd at probably any bar in the entire city. How can that room not have been filled with some of the smartest, most interesting people I’m likely to meet? Again, not filtered the way an industry networking event or interest-based meetup would be, but centered around a more diverse but equally sharp point of similarity — the desire to keep learning. And, well, also drinking.
I won’t pretend every second of the night was a wild success. They could stand a slightly bigger venue as it was almost uncomfortably full. The third talk was a bit dry (and admittedly a bit over my head). But in terms of concept and value, I’m extremely impressed and satisfied. See you there next month maybe?
If you are like me (or even if you are not), last week you were able to pay a mere 5 dollars to download and watch the new Louis CK: Live at the Beacon comedy special. If you are even more like me, you probably laughed loudly and frequently at his well-crafted stand-up. If you are also, like me, a nerdy media type that spends your time thinking about the future of entertainment, something else caught your attention. You were probably impressed and excited by how an hour of quality filmed comedy, for such a low price, could be delivered directly to its audience in such a convenient way.
It’s this last point that’s getting the most attention in the press since the release: how CK is cutting out the middle man, shirking the studio system and going independent. What does this mean for the industry? Are big media businesses doomed to be left behind if more stars realize they could work under a similar model?
Naturally the comparisons to other artists who’ve tried self-published, pay-what-you-want experiments come up. One particularly interesting from Anil Dash said, “My Internet media lesson, courtesy of Louis CK, Radiohead & Prince: Start by being one of the greatest talents in the history of your craft.”
I don’t disagree with his cynicism, but as with any idea expressed in a tweet, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Radiohead, Louis CK, and other successful artists have gathered huge, loyal fan bases over the course of prolific careers. They’ve worked hard to get where they are. They earned their stature, and it makes sense that at this point they’d want to experiment with ways to control their output and their subsequent rewards. But as many have noted, they came up through their respective systems and have grown to a point where they can be shaken off. This is progress.
Similarly, many up-and-comers are using these same digital channels to find their big break. Tumblrs become book deals, YouTube sketches become development deals or writing positions. It’s easier than ever to start a career with some scrappy little project that serves as concrete practice in a craft, and if the talent is there, gets noticed and propels that talent on to bigger things. This, too, is progress.
Where does that leave big media and the brands who want to advertise to their viewers? Are they doomed as the two poles of digitally savvy beginners and digitally independent veterans move closer and closer together?
I would argue that at least for now, there is still room in the middle, and that it’s actually a good thing. Let the newcomers experiment in low-stakes forms, and set the unqualified visionaries free to pursue their own creativity. Where studios, distributors, labels or brands can have a place is going back to where they should be: discovering, nurturing, and elevating talent when that talent doesn’t have the resources or regard to reach success on its own.
Theoretically, big media companies should function like the stock market operates (also theoretically, which is to say before things went haywire). Smart people with an eye for what’s good pick out fledgling artists and invest in them. That investment helps the talent itself grow, and helps it find a larger audience. Sony Music can do this, Comedy Central can do this, Mountain Dew can do this; they have money and reach. If they invest wisely, everyone benefits, including us the viewers and listeners, who are introduced to new things we may eventually become truly loyal fans of.
Instead of trying to milk established acts for all they’re worth, wouldn’t we be better off it these companies depended on breaking new ground for maintaining their bottom line? They shouldn’t be scared that Louis CK doesn’t need them any more. They should be out finding the next dozen great acts that really need them right now. I’ll keep paying for anything CK puts out, but I have other dollars to spend. Show me something new to fall in love with.
A few tabs I’ve had open forever, waiting to be shared and remarked on.
I don’t go to a lot of museums, because too often I feel like when I do, I stare at things, attempt to appreciate them, and leave not having gained much. So I was totally on the side Jason Schwartzman in this promo video for the Pacific Standard Time series of museum events happening across Southern California (full disclosure: several former coworkers worked on this as a pro-bono project).
But it also totally won me over with its points. There’s a TON of art in the world. Some of it I won’t like. That’s okay. Some of it I will. And it helps when we take a minute to learn about the who and why behind what it is we’re looking at — something I personally feel all museums, galleries and art institutions need to be better at. Not everyone has the tools to “get it” from just a rectangular canvas on a wall. But we want to! Help us, museum curators! Make art more accessible and we will come see it more! People like stories, not being left out of secret knowledge.
At the very least, I found the video charming. Maybe a little bit more so because it all takes place a couple blocks from my old apartment, along streets where I used to go for walks pretty much every night for the year before moving up here to NorCal.
This article from Grantland is over a month old, but it’s SO fascinating. Essentially, Oregon had a crappy football team, until Nike stepped in. Not by helping them play better, but by redesigning their facilities and uniforms:
The football Ducks of Oregon are something new. They didn’t get people to watch because they got good. They got good because they got people to watch. They are college sports’ undisputed champions of the 21st century’s attention economy.
So after the Cotton Bowl loss, [Nike boss Phil] Knight asked the Ducks’ coach a question, and he asked Nike’s designers a question.
He asked the coach: What do you need from me?
He asked the designers: How can we make teenagers who are good at football want to come to the University of Oregon?
The answer Knight got from the coach was an indoor practice facility. The coach got that and more. Since then, Knight has spent some $300 million on stadium additions, luxury boxes, and palatial locker rooms. All of these things obviously are on the list of reasons Oregon’s football team got good.
But back in Beaverton, the Nike designers did their part, using the Ducks program as part laboratory, part showroom.
It’s a glorious chicken-and-egg problem, totally turned on its head by smart design, and a really non-traditional case study on of the power of sexy packaging. It certainly gave me a new reason to respect how incredibly smart the Nike team is at solving problems creatively.
Talent in sports is the equivalent of ‘influencers’ in any other market, and if you have strong visual style, you just might stand out enough to interest the people who matter most. Attract the right small core group, and the rest follows from there. Pretty brilliant.
Every business based on a physical location selling us media products is having a tougher and tougher time of it. We’ve grown used to saying goodbye to local record stores. Video stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are finished; even LA’s classic Rocket Video is on its last days. Borders is dissolving as we speak, surely Barnes & Noble is facing some tough decisions. We even heard recently that this was the lowest box office summer since 1997, and seen small theaters fold and multiplexes with huge, empty lobbies.
Part of the problem, surely, is that these places either a) feel like sterile dispensaries of product, in the case of the large chains, or b) serve a small niche very well and loyally, but just can’t pull a sufficient profit when faced with the low-priced, conveniently distributed digital version of their products. A chain store may be able to stay afloat on volume, but doesn’t inspire loyalty. A beloved local shop inspires loyalty, but can’t maintain volume serving their small following. No matter how much we enjoy books, or comics, or records, we can’t spend enough to keep their lights on. And so we, as lovers of culture, stand to lose both.
I recently heard about a seemingly wonderful place that may offer an alternate solution, as well as some hope. The Bookshelf, an independent outlet in Guelph, Ontario, pulls a sort of hipster hat-trick (an appropriately Canadian metaphor): it’s a book store, an independent art-house cinema, and a gourmet bistro all in one.
Now I haven’t been to Guelph to check it out — if you can believe it, Ontario college towns aren’t in my regular travel calendar. Nor do I know how well they’re doing business-wise. But there’s a bit of magic about this.
Instead of struggling to serve one slice of the local cultural appetite well while still making a living, they’ve found a few closely tied, overlapping segments to serve in one place. This lets them sell tickets, paperbacks and meals to the same community. By offering more in one place, they’re forced to use the space smarter, which means curating their selection more personally — one of the only remaining reasons to keep going back to a physical store run by real humans anyway. And by offering more of the things that specific community loves, they give that community more little reasons to love them and keep coming back.
Personally, I’ve had similar fantasies of a book club/comedy venue/beer bar. An intimate, not-too-loud place to celebrate the written and spoken word with a pint to ease the ensuing conversations. Of course, those may just be my own eccentric tastes overlapping in a venue that would only do a good job of serving me and a few of my nerdiest, brew-lovingest friends.
A recent video I really enjoyed provides an extremely memorable anecdote, and some thoughts:
Simon Sinek (the speaker, an ethnographer and leadership guru-type) approached a homeless woman with a typical sign asking for handouts, reading something like, “I’m hungry, I’m homeless, I have children, please help.” He volunteered another approach, making the plea less about her and more about her potential donors: “If you only give once a month, please think of me next time.”
He claims she went from her average 20-30 dollars a day to making 40 dollars in two hours. All by addressing her audiences’ needs instead of her own. The new message alleviates potential guilt (“See, I understand you can’t always give, and that’s okay.”), as well as any worries about her motivations (“Yes, I really do need it, I’ve been here before and will be here again.”). I hope that story is true, because it’s totally brilliant.
This is 20 minutes into an interesting talk about how we crave connection with others more than anything, and are constantly on the lookout for symbols that help us establish that connection. The woman’s sign connects because it’s her considering your position, not just broadcasting hers. If you’re traveling overseas, just hearing someone speaking the same language is an excuse to connect. In your home city, maybe it’s a sports cap or an accent.
But it could also be the brand of clothes you wear or electronics you carry. All the most-loved companies got that way not just by making the best stuff (though many also do that), but by having a badge value. A great brand stands for something that its fans want to be seen as standing for too. Which can sometimes be mistaken for “cool”, but is more about conveying meaning — broadcasting something about ourselves in the hope others will pick up on it. It’s the same reason people tweet or update or blog or share anything online. We’re all just hoping someone notices and responds. We want to connect with each other.
It’s a desire a lot of companies seem to get slightly wrong, though. There’s a persistent idea that they should be having a ‘conversation’ with their audience now that these new technologies exist. But do most people want a connection with their TV brand? Their potato chip company? Their car dealership? They may want information or service from those entities, occasionally, but ongoing conversation? Not really. What people really want is better, more interesting conversations with other people. If they’re doing a good job, sometimes those companies will do or create something worth talking about. If they do it often enough, the symbol becomes shorthand for lots of interesting conversations past and present, and people who want to seem interesting display their interest in that symbol by putting it on their car or backpack or even body.
Really interesting people don’t just join conversations, or keep conversations going for the purpose of filling the silence. They start ones that everyone wants to join. Ones that are worth having again with new people they talk to later, because they can’t stop thinking about them, because they matter.
I’m the type of person who is always in the middle of some book or another. Finish one, pick up the next. Lots of people are like this I know, it’s not that special.
I do feel like a lot of my colleagues, however, tend toward reading for their profession a majority of the time. I get the impression that they’re constantly ‘studying up’, if you will. And sure, any spare moment during my day at the computer, I’m likely to be reading trade publications, inspiring blogs, research studies and all that.
When it comes to extracurricular time, however, I read novels almost exclusively — with the occasional well-written essay collection, short story volume or graphic novel for fun. And I’d started to wonder if maybe this was a detriment in the long run. Thank you, then, to the Psychology Today blog for pointing out it may not be after all:
I [ed: Susan Cain, author of the blog post] just came across a study suggesting that fiction readers tend to be more empathic than non-fiction readers. This could of course be correlation rather than causation — maybe the kind of person who likes fiction is more empathic to start with — but the researchers think not. They believe that there’s something about exposure to fiction — the direct immersion in another person’s mind and body — that stimulates our empathic muscles.
Now I feel so much more justified in my choices, it’s a great relief. My peers in the field of “knowing how people think and why they do what they do” can all read the same trend reports and look at the same sources of data and we can all say we understand people so well. But it’s gratifying to know that scientists back me up on what I’ve thought all along: you can always research the details, but a real sense of people and how they work — what they feel, how they tick — is a much deeper skill. Knowing that that skill can be strengthened by reading fiction, something I’ve always adored, makes me think I’m in the right business for the right reasons. Not to mention letting me breathe a sight of relief that I don’t have to start browsing the business section to stay good at it.
As a side note, I think this applies to some degree to my favorite bands as well. Several of them are what you’d call quite literary. Storytellers. Creators of well-fashioned characters and scenes that evoke emotion. Maybe all these things are related, maybe not. Do I tend to favor more ’empathic’ bands, or am I just a geek for language and its skillful application to song, I don’t know. Nonetheless, one of my favorites has put out a record this spring that ranks among his best, so do check out The Mountain Goats’ All Eternals Deck if you’re in the mood for an album of stirring songwriting. I’ve been especially likely to be singing “Prowl Great Cain” these past few weeks.
Happened to be up late last night, and caught a bit the rebroadcast of ‘Night of Too Many Stars’ on Comedy Central. Now, on top of not being able to help liking a bunch of comedians getting together to help kids with autism, there was one particular bit from Jim Gaffigan that I thought was particularly brilliant. Sure, he goes on a bit too long for a set about fast food, but I think it’s all intentional for that last minute of super-sharp insightfulness:
[UPDATE: Looks like comedy central has taken down the clip. Sorry! Luckily, I was able to find a similar bit on youtube, about 6:20 into this clip]
[UPDATE 2: Replacement clip also taken down at the request of his legal representatives. Even sorrier! You’ll have to trust me, or try to catch the bit live/on tv/on one of his albums.]
“I’m tired of people acting like they’re better than McDonald’s. You may have never set foot in McDonald’s, but you have your own McDonalds. Maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read US Weekly. That’s McDonald’s. It’s just served up a little different. Maybe your McDonald’s is telling yourself that Starbucks frappucino is not a milkshake. Or maybe you watch Glee. It’s all McDonald’s.”
Say whatever you want, we all do things we know are bad for us, things we know we shouldn’t do, even things we say we’re not going to do. People aren’t rational creatures most of the time, especially when it comes to momentary, seemingly harmless satisfaction. It’s hard to think big picture when the pleasures of now await.
I don’t drink coffee. I love the smell, but I just never started drinking it, so I never got the taste for it, and so it’s not a part of my life. The whole Starbucks fever of the last 20 years has been completely wasted on me. There’s even one in the building right next door to my apartment, which lots of people would see as a huge plus, location-wise, but for me it’s just something I walk around to get to Subway or the smoothie place. Too bad, looks like they have some comfy chairs in there.
But then I saw an article this week that got me a bit excited. Well really, it reminded me of this even better article from back in July, but where The Awl makes a better case, USA Today puts it nice and simply:
The Starbucks of the future arrived today.
If Starbucks executives have it figured out right, this could be the prototype for the next generation of stores for one of the world’s most influential brands.
A very different kind of Starbucks is on tap. It will serve regional wine and beer. It offers an expansive plate of locally made cheeses — served on china. The barista bar is rebuilt to seat customers up close to the coffee.
Most conspicuously, the place looks less like a Starbucks and more like a cafe that’s been part of the neighborhood for years — yet that’s “green” in design and decor. This is the calling card of independent java joints that have been eating and sipping away at Starbucks’ evening business for decades. U.S. Starbucks stores get 70% of business before 2 p.m.
As an admirer of what Starbucks has done from a brand standpoint — but only ever from afar as a non-coffee-guy — I love this for a couple of reasons. One, selfishly, I could end up with a potentially decent wine bar practically outside my door in the near future; and I’d finally have an excuse to go sit in one of those comfy chairs.
But professionally, I respect this move for its astuteness. Starbucks’ core competency, to get all B-school for a second, is coffee, no one would deny that. They made coffee in America what it is today. Their brand, however, isn’t just taste in that timeless Maxwell House “good to the last drop” kind of way. It’s taste in a curation sort of way. Starbucks introduces people to the wider world of coffee and educates them in why that matters. The exact service is something a huge swath of America could probably use when it comes to wine.
And they’re just as much about a comfortable place to enjoy the product as they are the product itself, which, hey, why not give coffee fans a reason to come back around at 6 and wind down in those aforementioned chairs? Or Starbucks gawkers like myself a chance at the warm feeling of having your local barista know your favorite drink when you drop by the neighborhood shop, even if that happens to be a dark red instead of a skinny cap?
That’s why I’m pulling for this to work, even though, as the earlier Awl article points out, there might even be a bigger benefit:
Here’s where I start to buy the corporate speak. They’re doing it because we need it. Because wine bars outside of wine country in America generally fall into two categories: terrible and privileged.
We’re not in northern Spain, and while a lot of our bars do an impressive job, we’re not the freewheeling, drink-wine-because-it’s-there society we could be. You get hackjobs and you get greatness, but there’s usually no wine “local” we all head to at 5:30 on a Tuesday.
Starbucks stands to change that. As you went from Folgers to fresh-brewed to macchiato to maybe even a working knowledge of “free trade” and “single origin,” we may someday be in position to make everyday wine a larger part of our patois. The sameness Starbucks will bring, much as it did with coffee, can be precisely its source of innovation.
So come on Starbucks. Make with the updates and warm up a lounger ’cause I’m dropping by and I want my wine and cheese. For America.
Two interesting bits I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts on but, well, putting off for one reason or another. One was a splendidly comprehensive piece in The New Yorker about procrastination that’s worth a full read but especially good at this part, describing experiments around a phenomenon called ‘hyperbolic discounting’:
“A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”
The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.”
Not only did this hit home for me particularly (I’ve recently been reprising my personal “Mile and a Movie” challenge in which I walk or run at least a mile, and also watch a movie — preferably off my Netflix queue — every single day for a month), but I’d never seen the temptation to procrastinate so clearly outlined and labeled with a sciencey-sounding term.
We all like to think we’ll do grand things, make big changes, become better people, or even just do the things we should be doing already. But it’s much easier to take the path of least resistance and keep doing what we’re used to doing. It’s probably true of most people in their professional lives as well as the ho-hum day to day stuff.
I, the career-oriented planner, should be undertaking big juicy projects that will make me a lot smarter and better, but it’s easiest to just crank out quick Powerpoint slides as needed. Just as the people we’re trying to reach might really like to get involved in some big, juicy program or event or web experience we’ve put together for them, but it’s a lot easier to just check Facebook and watch football. (Which makes it seem not entirely unrelated — in that it’s a question of motivation, really — to Gladwell’s point about Twitter in the previous post).
But hey, not to say that I’m all lazy. Not only am I exercising AND catching up on serious classic films, I also take the time to tweet, tumbl, and blog; which may be slightly less juicy but does make me smarter and better, honest. It’s just that I can’t share the really juicy stuff on the web.
On the other hand, there are times when putting things off is a good thing, in that saving them for later can make them easier to properly enjoy. Case in point, Instapaper, about which I’ve read a couple great articles recently and am thinking about investigating now that I have a Kindle. The idea of taking some of the best writing from online sources, many of which I skim through over a sandwich during a lunch at my desk, and being able to carry them offline to digest with fewer (digestion-related) distractions? Marvelous. I especially love this quote from its creator, Marco Arment, in Wired:
“People love information,” Arment said. “Right now in our society, we have an obesity epidemic. Because for the first time in history, we have access to food whenever we want, we don’t know how to control ourselves. I think we have the exact same problem with information.”
I’ve heard no better term for what the web can easily do to us — especially people whose job it is to ‘stay on top of what’s happening in culture’ — than information obesity.
It’s easy to load up on RSS feeds, whip through them at the beginning and end of every day, maybe tweet a few out into your social sphere, but there will always be something to be said for sitting down away from the screen to truly engage with ideas with some focus and depth.
so, i got a new toy this week, which i’m sure i’ll have more thoughts on once i’ve had more time to fiddle with it.
but before any fiddling took place, there was that wonderful moment of making a somewhat major purchase and bringing it home to unbox. and as great as anything i’ve ever owned was to actually, you know, use, a lot of the ones that stand out are the ones that put a little care into that moment right before you even get to touch your pretty new thing. when a thing is well packaged, it feels more like opening a present.
with the kindle, not only was the container nice to look at, but there were these two little touches that made me smile before i even got into the thing. a barcode with a person reading against a tree, that age-old image of a book-lover’s dream moment; and next to it, an assurance that getting to my new toy would not be a hassle.
if the difference is made in the details, kindle had me on their side before i’d even flipped the power switch. now to get on to the whole reading business…
[side note: any kindle users have a reco for a killer, perfectly handsome and holdable case? i’d hate to go bareback for too long and end up sitting on the thing, leaving only the pretty box to enjoy.]