Sunday, July 6, 2008

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Danelle and I have a little difference of opinion about my blog.

I love it. I think it helps keep my writing skills sharp, demonstrates the power and effectiveness of word-of-mouth to build an audience and provides hard evidence of my proficiency in the types of Web 2.0 tools I'm telling potential employers I have expertise with.

Danelle hates it. Actually, her exact words recently were "violently opposed." She thinks it reveals too much personal information about me and our family, sometimes presents me as crass and unintelligent and raises red flags for potential employers about my discretion (or lack thereof) and commitment to my job search.

Here's the thing -- we're both right.

With the exception of the effect on my writing abilities (and even that's somewhat subjective), all of the items above are based primarily on people's perceptions. I think that e-mailing info about one of my posts to The Big Lead, one of the most widely read sports blogs around, that resulted in them linking to my post and bringing in hundreds of new readers was a fantastic viral marketing move. Someone else may find it self-serving and disingenuous. Danelle thinks putting a picture of Zak in a post is a breach of our family's privacy. I can't discount or dismiss her feelings, since she is by definition a part of the family. But I thought it was harmless and the most relevant image I could find to go with the post.

On a side note, when I observed that her heightened concern about our safety meant she probably watched too much 20/20, she retorted that maybe I don't watch enough. Touché.

What's at the heart of these different perspectives? There's been suggestions that much of it is generational. Younger people are accustomed to more transparency in their lives thanks to everything from "reality TV" to YouTube. Older folks -- and at our age Danelle and I both fall into that category for any discussion of the internet -- have more clearly defined boundaries for what they share with other people, especially total strangers.

My mom drove that point home one day when I excitedly told her that I'd reconnected with some friends from high school on Facebook. She snorted and replied, "I don't use MyFace or Spacebook or any of that crap." Once I stopped laughing, I told her she probably had no idea how completely awesome that remark was.

Fast-forward a couple of months, and that same mom (I only have one) jots the note "Enjoying blog!" on my Father's Day card. If blogging and social networking are fundamentally similar parts of the whole "Web 2.0" phenomenon, how can she embrace one and dismiss the other? Possibly because one opinion was based on substance, and the other on something else. Maybe misinformation, maybe fear of the unknown. But she didn't even know the names of the two biggest social nets in the world -- she just knew she had no use for them.

This is where I think the rubber really hits the road. Blogs aren't inherently "evil" or "dangerous" in the same way that video games, heavy metal and comic books aren't. It's all about how they're used. If someone blogs on company time, or blogs about how much they hate minorities or shares confidential business information on their blog, it's really not the blog that's the problem. If blogs didn't exist, those behaviors would just manifest themselves in different ways. Blogs don't get people fired; people get people fired.

Is there a risk that a potential employer will stumble across my blog, read the line from a past post where I use the word "pit" in talking about how difficult it is to apply deodorant with a broken wrist and conclude that I'm too vulgar to hire? I suppose so. But do I really want to work for a company that would reach that sort of conclusion based on one data point and discount everything else they learned about me? Probably not.

Ditto for an organization that's uncomfortable with transparency. I believe strongly that the benefits of having an open dialogue with customers, empowering them to be critical and embracing those criticisms, has benefits that far outweigh the potential risks. Where the line gets drawn of how much information is too much is certainly open to debate; but as far as I'm concerned that debate is a healthy one to have.

Back to the fear of the unknown issue -- it's human nature to demonize things we don't understand. So some try to blame society's current ills on things like "the internet," as if it was a conscious and malevolent entity and not just a series of tubes. But all "the internet" basically does is accelerate the pace and extend the reach of communication.

Pen pals and ham radio were once the most techonologically advanced ways we had to try and fulfill another aspect of human nature, the need to connect with other people. Jim Saccomano, VP of PR for the Denver Broncos, noted that Thomas Paine was probably one of the first bloggers. He circumvented the mainstream press and used conversational language to speak directly to his audience in his Common Sense pamphlet. So while the way people use the internet today is more evolution than revolution, the tool still freaks people out. I blame Hal from 2001 for the irrational fear of computers, but for whatever reason the fear exists.

Heather Armstrong strikes me as a case of where both these factors combined to have unfortunate consequences. I heard her speak as part of a panel at the SXSW Interactive Festival in March. She's a "blogebrity" who's fairly well known in those circles for getting fired from her job back in 2002 for reasons that had something to do with her personal web site. I don't know the specifics. I haven't even read her side of the story in detail. But what's pretty obvious is that she and her employer had different perspectives on the transparency/privacy subject. And given that this happened in 2002 when the word "blog" couldn't even be used in Scrabble, I'm willing to bet that some folks in her company got the heebie-jeebies just from hearing the word "internet." Doesn't matter that she worked for a web development company; somebody in power over there just didn't get it and overreacted.

Another side note -- Heather's blog makes enough dough from ad revenues that it's now her family's sole source of income. Not bad for a fairly ordinary person who's extraordinarily comfortable being transparent and a halfway decent writer. So there's hope for the other 15 million of us with blogs, much like the hope I get when Zak throws a football that doesn't rotate end over end that he'll one day be an NFL quarterback.

I don't know exactly where this leaves me. I know that I'm going to keep blogging. But I also let Danelle see this post before I put it up and made a couple of changes at her request. I'm also going to probably cross lines from time to time in what certain people consider appropriate -- it's challenging to know that your mother-in-law and drinking buddy both read your blog. But at the same time it's not my purpose to shock or offend, and I'm going to apply what I consider to be common-sense standards to my language and subject matter.

And while Danelle and I may both be right, when it comes to finding my next professional opportunity I'm going to hope like heck that I'm a little more right.


James O. Clark said...

Steve, great post, and I think there are a ton of "old people" dealing with the same transparency and privacy fears.

Your wife and my wife should go bowling. They are cut from the same cloth.

We are big proponents of corporations taking an active role in helping its own employees to start using social media platforms and encouraging them to participate in the conversation.

The reason is that most valuable asset an organization has is its people.

The reality is that I'm far more likely to read my sister's blog, than I would read anything that Ethan Allen is putting out.

So if she posts a: "Hey, Ethan Allen is having a huge sale this weekend" note, I'm 90 percent more likely to engage than if it was advertising in the paper.

The biggest question we pose to organizations is this: "Do you think your employees would be willing to talk about your initiatives to their friends?"

If the answer is no - then they need to seriously consider why that is.

We could talk forever on this subject - thanks for cracking open the conversation.

And, please do keep blogging.


SteveHarbula said...

My wife actually owns her own bowling ball, so that date might work out. :)

Great point about being way more likely to respond to a peer recommendation than an ad. Sure, your sister's blog won't have anywhere near the reach of that newspaper ad. But a company should be able to get their employees and top customers to evangelize for them at a fraction of the cost. That makes the direct RoI comparable. And promoting positive WoM becomes the clear winner when you factor in the additional benefits of stronger relationships with your key customers and increased ownership employees feel in the company mission.

So why aren't more companies investing in this approach?