Sunday, July 19, 2009

Personal Branding

From PBS,
In 2007, Atlantic Media's director of digital strategy Scott Karp was named one of the 40 most influential people in publishing by Folio magazine. But Folio wasn't honoring Karp for his work at Atlantic, which publishes the Atlantic Monthly magazine, but was instead fawning over the work Karp did at his personal blog, Publishing 2.0, which covered how technology is changing the publishing business.

Karp is a great example of someone who worked at a company but also developed his own personal brand, something that's been in vogue since Tom Peters famously touted The Brand Called You at Fast Company magazine. With blogging, Twitter and social networks as springboards, personal branding has spread like wildfire through media and technology companies, allowing people like Matt Cutts (Google), Robert Scoble (Microsoft, PodTech, Fast Company) Xeni Jardin (Wired, NPR) and Scott Monty (Ford) to expand their influence.

Karp says he built his brand at Publishing 2.0, using it as a soapbox of ideas and a forum to discuss them through comments.

"My blog became resume, business card, references, network all in one," Karp told me. "I would go to conferences, meet people, and find they already 'knew' me through my blog -- an odd but useful form of micro-celebrity."

Through his blog, Karp met fellow blogger Robert Young, who ended up co-founding Publish2 with Karp, a startup that helps journalists share ideas and links.

At a time when people jump from job to job (or get laid off from job after job), personal branding is becoming more than just a hobby -- it's a necessity. Matt Cutts, who heads the web spam team at Google and runs a popular personal blog, has become much more than a faceless programmer at the technology giant.

"When you're considering switching jobs, even a personal website with a small portfolio of sample work can be invaluable," Cutts said. "People will search for you online, so it's important to take part in that conversation, and having your own website can be a great way to put your best foot forward."

Dan Schawbel, author of "Me 2.0" and publisher of the Personal Branding Blog thinks that good companies and publishers will give workers the freedom to create personal brands.

"I read a survey last year that showed that college graduates would spend an average of 1.6 years at their first position, after college, before moving on," he said. "That number is going to shrink in the future, so companies should focus on results and let their employees own their brand. Smart companies will look at employees as their greatest asset and by allowing them to engage in social media, they will be that much stronger."

Balancing Personal with Corporate Brands
Personal branding in the media obviously predates the digital age, with newspaper columnists going on TV and TV anchors writing books. But now, there's a chance for many more reporters, editors, marketers and salespeople to use simple digital tools to create their own following online. And the media companies that encourage that -- without too many restrictions -- will end up reaping the benefits.

One of the more tech-enlightened newspaper editors, John Robinson of the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, says that when a columnist or blogger builds a "tribe" of followers, it helps the paper.

"Newspapers should encourage columnists and bloggers to build their own brands online," he told me. "Trust and integrity are two of the coins of the online realm, in my opinion. We know now that it's no longer good enough to tell people that Joe the columnist is trustworthy. People will determine whether Joe is trustworthy by what he says, what he does, who he associates with, how he talks with others, who he links to, what he links to and who he's friends with and follows. People develop that sense of Joe over a period of time watching him and talking with him."

Jeremy Zawodny was a prominent engineer at Yahoo (now working at Craigslist), but built his own personal brand on an independent blog that gained notoriety -- and also caused trouble within Yahoo.

"When I got started it was a rocky road," Zawodny told me. "Several years ago, having a public blog on which I wrote about my employer (Yahoo at the time) rubbed some people inside the company the wrong way. That led to a fair amount of criticism and backlash. In the end, after several uncomfortable meetings and discussions and some careful wording on sensitive topics, everyone agreed that it was a positive thing in the long run. One thing that fell out of that was a set of company guidelines so that others would not have to navigate the minefield that I did."

Scott Monty, who leads social media efforts for Ford Motor Co. and has a successful blog and Twitter feed (more than 26,000 followers), says people should be careful not to overshadow their brands.

"If you're employed by a notable brand, it should always be brand first, self second," Monty told me. "Your personal brand will benefit from the halo effect of your company's brand. If you want to promote your own brand, you should should either (a) go into business for yourself, or (b) figure out a way to do it separate from your company."

Kathlyn Clore is associate editor for the European Journalism Centre and described herself to me as "20something journalist" who has a personal blog. She said she has limited what she writes about reporting work she has done, and is wary about blogging taking away from work.

"The biggest issue for me has been colleagues asking suspicious questions about work-related goals and intentions when they saw me begin blogging about professional topics in January of this year," she said. "It probably raises the most eyebrows if I'm seen to be dedicating time to my own site/brand/portfolio of work when perhaps I could have been doing something for the journalism centre for which I do most of my work. I'm sure that's true for others."

Keeping Talent On Board
Even at a time when people are less likely to quit due to the economy, companies are better off keeping their talented workers happy rather than upsetting them with limits. Branding expert Schawbel notes that some media companies are better than others when it comes to tolerating personal branding.

"Media companies such as Fast Company have completely ripped apart their old website and turned it into a community, while other companies, such as the Wall Street Journal have placed their employees in chains," he said. "For instance, [the Journal's] social media policy states that 'business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter.'"

Tom Regan was a longtime editor at the Christian Science Monitor, but now is a Monitor columnist and freelancer due to an editor who didn't give him enough room to be creative. He says that smart companies that give people space to be themselves have a better change of keeping them on board.

"If a writer believes they are building something up, and the company has nurtured it, then I don't think most people would go," Regan told me. "It's when they feel that they don't have that environment that they say, 'The hell with this, I'm going to do this on my own.'"

Publish2's Karp told me that media companies need to value personal branding above all else.

"In a digital media world where corporate industrial assets like printing presses, delivery trucks, etc. are declining in value, people -- reporters, editors, bloggers -- are the greatest asset that publications have," he said. "They should actively cultivate that asset by helping personal brands flourish...You could define social media as the shift from publication brands to personal brands, as media shifts to the social web. At some point a publication brand without personal brands will have very little value to the people who consume that brand."

Advice on Personal Branding
Here's a roundup of advice for people who want to create a personal brand online:
"Grab a domain name and work on burnishing your personal reputation online. It's definitely not the case that everyone needs a blog, but having one place that acts as a face to the world can really help. There's room for a resume/CV, but also for some writing samples that show off your abilities." -- Matt Cutts, Google (from his Letter to a young journalist post)

"The importance of building your brand online today is an opportunity to survive this print industry crash, and protect yourself by having an asset you can leverage to get your next writing job, whether you want to be a freelance writer or work as an employee. Personal branding has become mandatory recently, not just something to do to get ahead." -- Dan Schawbel, Personal Branding blog

"In the future, personal brands will be everything. As newspapers and media companies get smaller and break apart, journalists will be known as much by their personal/professional brand as by the company they work for. Many will be their own company. The quicker you establish a digital brand -- I recommend shooting for integrity, trust and authority -- the better." -- John Robinson, Greensboro News & Record

"The microphone is always on. Remember that whatever you do, it reflects on you and your company, if you connect those elements of your life. And in this era, you need to be very careful, as search engines can log all sorts of things. Remember: Whatever happens in Vegas...stays on Google." -- Scott Monty, Ford Motor Co.

"I would go so far as to say that journalists without personal brands, like journalists without digital and web skills, are going to be less and less employable. If you want to be a cog in the machine, it's probably not a good idea to be a journalist in a social media world." -- Scott Karp, Publish2

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Time to Retire?

I'm considering retiring this blog. Why? Well, I've had it since 2005, but I think it's outlived its usefulness. Of course, I have two more blogs going right now also, so I'm feeling a bit stretched.

This "place" has been my site for personal reflection and venting. I would like to take some of the better posts and convert them into a self-published book. No, not for money. Just for me to have around. I like reviewing the old posts.

Who knows? No harm in keeping this around. We'll see.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Evil Comes Home

Last Sunday, my six-year-old said to me that I wasn't going to heaven because I didn't believe in Jesus. She was upset at the thought of my not going to heaven, and maybe even a bit perturbed at me. I think she sees me as being rather difficult. I sensed why she was upset: she and I (and Mommy and the rest of the family) wouldn't be together in heaven. To her, both my Jewish roots and my atheism meant absolutely that we would be apart. Such a horrible thought for a young girl to have to bear.

Being the director that she is, the poor child was adamant that I had to change my mind and accept Jesus. She gave me five days. Of course, I was too bull-headed to see that she didn't need an argument, and that's just what I gave her. Bad parenting by me.

But one has to consider the supposedly ethical and valuable teachings of religion and wonder if there are any ethics or value in there at all. Why promise a little girl this magical land (for some) after we die? Why coerce her into believing with an afterlife? Why poison her against disbelief?

My wife and I contacted our daughter's Sunday school teacher, just to find out what he'd taught that day so we could sort out what was taught and what was our girl's reasoning. Now, this teacher is a genuinely good and decent person. But he sent three rather raving emails about how he wasn't trying to teach about rewards and consequences for believing, how he respects Judaism, and how he wanted me to be comfortable with the church.

I know he meant well, but the basic yet unspoken message was, "Well, yes, of course you'll spend eternity in hell if you don't repent, but we're not going to say that outright and, who knows, maybe one day you'll be so impressed with how good and decent we are and decide that this is a good enough reason to become a believer yourself."

No, I won't spend eternity in hell. There is no hell. I've looked into matters enough to be satisfied that my conclusion is probably right. There's no heaven and no purgatory either. Also, I'm certainly not going to be bullied into believing some cockamamie story of gods on earth who demand that you believe they really are gods on earth. These folks don't realize that I have concluded that atheism probably best portrays the true state of affairs in the universe. There's no reason they should have known this, but because they didn't their sincere attempts to bridge the gap between their Jesus lunacy and Jewish lunacy came off rather ridiculous to me.

My wife and I spoke to the girl. I told her that it was OK for people not to believe. Indeed, she may decide later that the truth is something very different than what she thinks it is right now. I told her that mommy's beliefs had changed, which was true. I told her that Mommy and I loved each other because we had different beliefs - this was part of what made our relationship special. Mainly, I tried to tell our daughter that she didn't need to worry about heaven for me or anyone else.

My wife, good believer that she is, tried to give the message that god was in control, therefore the girl shouldn't worry about who was going to heaven and hell. Obviously, I think that whole "god is in control, not us" is a loser philosophy and doesn't really make sense for our daughter's situation. My daughter has acted perfectly rationally to try to inspire me to belief. These people are told that they should share their glassy-eyed appreciation of the magic Hebrew. My girl is quick and logical. I wouldn't blame her if she were troubled by the contradictory messages.

One bright spot is that I did get to talk to my daughter about evolution, how about the world came to be, and how life might have arisen. I am not sure if my wife sees it, but even though my daughter is passionate about her belief in Jesus right now, the more she learns about the world and the more we talk together, the far greater likelihood is that our girl will realize that religion is made up and incoherent.

And let us say, amen.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Elusive God

This is a review I found on for The Elusive God, by Paul Moser. The reviewer seems to think Moser has a great and provocative case, a real challenge for atheists. I beg to differ. The reviewer starts right off on shaky ground.
Where in the world is Waldo!? This is probably the question we ask ourselves when we are looking at a Where's Waldo? book created by Martin Handford, a children's writer and illustrator. John Ortberg says in his book God is Closer Than You Think "This guy Waldo is supposed to be on every page. The author assures us that it is so. But you couldn't prove it by me. He is often hidden to the untrained eye. You have to be willing to look for him. "Surely Waldo was in this place, and I knew it not." When you find him, there is a sense of joy and accomplishment. In fact, developing the capacity to track him down is part of the point of the book. If it were too easy-if every page consisted just of a giant picture of Waldo's face-no one would ever buy the book. The difficulty of the task is what increases the power of discernment. The author said he hides Waldo so children can learn to "be aware of what's going on around them. I'd like them to see wonder in places it might not have occurred to them." But sometimes it takes a while to find Waldo. It demands patience. Some people are better at it than others. Some people just give up. Part of what makes it hard to find Waldo is that he is so ordinary-looking. In the initial pages his presence is obvious. Later on, he's hidden but the other occupants of the page are giants and sea monsters, so Waldo still stands out. Then eventually we come to the last and hardest page. By the end he's in a room full of Waldos virtually identical to himself, the only distinction being that one detail is different, such as he's missing a shoe. Handford allows rival Waldos to counterfeit his identity. You can be looking right at him without even knowing it. Where's Waldo? Why doesn't he show himself plainly? Why does he hide his face? He may not be absent, but he is elusive. He is Waldus absconditus-the Waldo who hides himself." (pages 31-32)
The insult at the beginning is subtle yet familiar: you can't see, sense, or otherwise perceive god because of your "untrained eye." It's your fault. But wait a minute. That Waldo analogy doesn't quite hold up, does it? The Waldo analogy is clearly weak. Unlike god, Waldo can be seen and independently confirmed to be Waldo. People who find Waldo can show him to you. Waldo himself actually is there. Whether I want to see or not, whether my eye is trained or not, Waldo can be brought before me. We cannot say the same for god because there is no direct evidence. Indeed, this supposedly is part of the point of god.

The review continues:
Philosopher Paul Moser argues (without the Waldo analogy) on a sophisticated level yet still accessible to the average person in his book The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology that the Judeo-Christian God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, is like Waldo; there (as in this God does exist) but hidden or incognito for specific divine loving purposes and intentions. Not only is this God's existence disguised but also evidence for this God's existence. In Moser's words, "this book contends that, despite being concealed at times, the reality of the God of traditional monotheism is knowable firsthand by humans on the basis of salient and conclusive, if elusive, evidence." (page 2)

The “reality of the God…is knowable firsthand”?
I can applaud the boldness of Moser's claim, but I still have an issue with the argument that god is "hidden or incognito for specific divine loving purposes and intentions." Instead of explaining the hiddenness - how it works, how it's achieved - Moser decides to defend it. But what business is it of Moser's or mine or yours to defend this god's actions? They tell us this god is inscrutable, except when they are apologizing for him. They tell us his ways are mysterious and beyond our mere human, subjective morality - except when they tell us he's all good, all the time. I am always puzzled and irritated by this asymmetry: We can't say anything about this god or about religious beliefs, unless we're praising or defending them. So, at this point in the review, I'm pretty suspicious. Will we learn just how to know this god firsthand, or will we instead be baited-and-switched to a meditation on these assumed loving purposes and intentions? Place your bets....
This elusive evidence isn't kept hidden because God is morally bankrupt; the evidence is kept elusive due to the morally loving character of God keeping with loving divine aims. The loving divine aims have to do with bringing selfish and destructive humans into a loving, volitionally surrendered fellowship with an unselfishly loving God. To make this possible, the evidence at hand cannot be given coercively. This evidence cannot coerce a will toward or against God, for that would violate a loving God's loving aims, purposes, and intentions for humans. In Moser's words, "Conclusive firsthand evidence for divine reality is, I'll contend, purposively available to humans, that is, available in a way, and only in a way, that accommodates the distinctive purposes of a perfectly loving God. The latter purposes, we'll see, would aim non coercively but authoritatively to transform human purposes to agree with divine purposes, despite human resistance of various and sundry sorts." (page 2)
Hmm. At least as reported here, Moser’s argument is tough to parse. He starts off by asserting something rather straightforward: humans have access to conclusive firsthand evidence for the existence of God.

But here’s the catch: to access this evidence, one must be attuned to whatever the "distinctive purposes" are of a "perfectly loving God." In other words, one must be biased as a condition of obtaining the evidence. One must assume the existence of a perfectly loving being and somehow imagine the purposes of such a being. Moser basically champions confirmation bias: if you believe it, it will seem true.

If this is the big insight, we're already done. But, let's go on and see what's said about the nature of the “evidence” for the reality of god.
This evidence is not spectator evidence. As humans, this evidence challenges us to get off the bleachers of our search and onto the field of our search. In other analogical words, the evidence is found on the field of our search and even challenges who we are becoming as persons and how we play the game of life.
And this evidence is….?
In Moser's words, "we'll consider purposively available evidence that is both person-involving and life-involving in its identifying and challenging both who we are and how we live as morally accountable personal agents under the authority of a perfectly loving personal God. Such purposively available evidence would seek whole-hearted transformation of humans toward God's character via volitional fellowship with God, where such fellowship between God and a human requires sharing in each other's concerns guided by love. The relevant evidence, then, wouldn't assume that humans are just spectators in need of further information or intellectual enlightenment. It would thus contrast sharply with any kind of spectator evidence that fails to challenge humans to yield their wills to a perfectly authoritative agent." (page 2)

All throughout the book, Moser argues that question (a) Do we humans know that God exists? is better answered if we start with question (b) Are we humans known by God in virtue of (among other things) our freely and agreeably being willing (i) to be known by God and thereby (ii) to be transformed toward God's moral character of perfect love as we are willingly led by God in volitional fellowship with God, thereby obediently yielding our wills to God's authoritative will?
We’re bordering on dishonesty now. The silly argument here seems to be that to know god exists we must be willing to be known by god. Well, that’s just balderdash. Imagine if someone said, in order to know my dog exists you must first be willing to be known by my dog. No, I can know your dog even if I don’t want him to know me. We made this point early on when we were thinking about the Waldo analogy. Sheesh.
In Moser's words, "We'll see that question (a) is fruitfully approached via question (b), given that a perfectly authoritative and loving God would be distinctively purposive in relating to humans, cognitively (in terms of evidence and knowledge provided) and otherwise." (page 4) Behind question (b) lurks another important question; question (c) Are we humans known by God in virtue of (among other things) our freely being willing to receive an authoritative call to volitional fellowship from a God of perfect love that is presented to us in order to reveal, at least to us, the adequacy or inadequacy of our moral and cognitive standing before this God? Moser notes that this shift of focus is suggested in some of the apostle Paul's writings found in the Christian writings in the Bible. He goes on to argue that "we are morally responsible for the questions we willingly pursue, just as we are similarly responsible for everything else we intentionally do. The typical focus on question (a) to the exclusion of questions (b) and (c) tends to place the sole responsibility on God for supplying the desired knowledge to humans, as if humans were just spectators who need only to open their eyes to see the relevant evidence. In contrast, this book's focus on questions (b) and (c) as means to answering question (a) directs us to ask whether we humans are well-positioned to receive any purposively available evidence and knowledge of God's reality. Perhaps we aren't thus well-positioned, because our wills have gone awry and thus need attunement to reality, including divine reality." (page 5) Moser argues that this is indeed the dilemma that human beings find themselves in; we aren't well positioned and we are in need of help or a word from a morally loving and perfect God. But what will happen when this elusive word comes? How will human beings respond? Moser argues that there are three main ways humans can respond: conforming (or, obedient) reception, indifferent reception, and negative (or, disobedient) reception. Regarding the most important response (conforming reception), Moser argues that "This book's account of purposively available conclusive evidence and knowledge of divine reality focuses on a distinctive kind of evidence available in experience: evident authoritative divine love expressed via human conscience, including an evident invitation to repentance and volitional fellowship with God." (page 8)

The whole of Moser's book focuses on three main questions: (1) If God's existence is concealed, hidden, or incognito, why should we hold that God exists at all? (2) If God exists, why is God's existence hidden at all, particularly if God aims to communicate with people in some way to lead them into better lives? (3) What are the implications of God's concealment for philosophy and religion as they concern talk of God and of knowledge of God? Without falling into some type of fideism, Moser gives due attention to certain skeptical doubts, questions, concerns, and objections all throughout his work. In his words, "careful attention to skeptical qualms will keep us honest in our inquiry, and save us from any uncritical or cognitively arbitrary dogmatism." (pages 8-9)

Regarding how this Jewish-Christian epistemology works in other religious conditions and geographical situations, Moser notes that "the true God may indeed be troublesome rather than convenient by our preferred standards, and may need to be thus, given our dire predicament of destructive selfishness. If God seeks to rescue us convincingly from our predicament, God would need to convince us of our need of rescue and of God's reliability in the rescue effort. In addition, God would have to challenge and then noncoercively transform our deadly selfishness. A God of perfect love, as suggested, would aim to elicit not just new beliefs in us, but also new volitional attitudes, including unselfish intentions and desires. That's no small task, of course, and it may succeed rarely if at all.
This is classic religious bogeyman-making: “the dire predicament of our destructive selfishness.” Notice how in the quoted phrase religion has portrayed humans as helpless damsels in distress, needing the hero-god to "rescue" us. Dire predicament is a matter of perspective, and I frankly don't think we are or ever were in one. Religion depends on the Romantic notion of being desperately captured in our own passions. Indeed, religion revels in it. But we are not slaves to our desires; neither do we need to be ashamed of them. How sad that in religion people are encouraged and praised for pining away in the hopes of solutions to non-problems.
As indicated, however, we shouldn't assume that divine intervention is just in the life of Jesus; it may be wherever God is at work, regardless of geography, even if Jesus is the authoritatively and morally perfect exemplar of divine revelation in a human." (page 14-15) All in all, as one who was an honest and open agnostic (while also seriously entertaining the possibility of atheism), I think Moser's work does indeed offer an enormously effective challenge to skepticism about the reality of the Judeo-Christian God. This book will not only challenge the way you think but also challenge the way you live your life...if you're willing.
Of course we have to get to the odious figure of Jesus, and of course the reviewer feels the need to say "I was once agnostic, but now I'm found. Amazing Grace, meh-meh." This is standard rhetorical fare, where the writer's former skepticism is supposed to make his present conviction all the more persuasive and fulfilling. Like so much that has come before, it's just and only artifice in intellectual drag.

I can see that Moser's book may challenge the way one thinks, but that's because in the end the thinking seems to be rather shoddy. Maybe it's high-caliber shoddiness - obviously, neither the book author nor book reviewer is a dummy. Moser seems not to produce any firsthand evidence, just assertions that "god-creme will make you feel 100% better instantly. You'll be completely satisfied." God's a placebo-product in this. It's The Emperor's New Waldo - everyone proclaims "I see him!" And maybe they really think they do see him. I wonder if in his book Moser ever considers the idea that Waldo actually ain't there, that god doesn't exist. That would be impressive.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Take a Load Off, Fanny

These days I weigh in at about 211-213 pounds. I'm huge. It's embarrassing, especially after I had once worked so hard to shed the weight and get into shape. That fit me was supposed to be me for the rest of my life.

There's not one good thing about being obese. I look terrible. My body always feels heavy and tired. One morning earlier this week, I got out of bed and my knees almost buckled from my weight.

So, I'm about six months away from birthday number 40, and I want to hit that day in the best shape of my life. Can I do it? Will I do it? What person will turn 40 in January?

Stay tuned....