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And then you confound them again

What does Bob Dylan do for a living?

"Oh, I confound expectations."

And what about Jill Greenberg? Jill startled the art world with her spectacular retouched and lit photos of bears, of politicians and of babies. Quickly, people figured out how to copy her distinctive look, which is precisely what happens when you make any sort of important work.

And so, she re-confounded.

Being done isn't the point. In fact, being done is the only thing to fear.

Kicking and screaming (vs. singing and dancing)

Unfair things happen. You might be diagnosed with a disease, demoted for a mistake you didn't make, convicted of a crime you didn't commit. The ref might make a bad call, an agreement might be abrogated, a partner might let you down.

Our instinct is to fight these unfairnesses, to succumb if there's no choice, but to go down kicking and screaming. We want to make it clear that we won't accept injustice easily, we want to teach the system a lesson, we want them to know that we're not a pushover.

But will it change the situation? Will the diagnosis be changed, the outcome of the call be any different?

What if, instead, we went at it singing and dancing? What if we walked into our four-year prison sentence determined to learn more, do more and contribute more than anyone had ever dreamed? What if we saw the derailment of one path as the opportunity to grow or to invent or to find another path?

This is incredibly difficult work, but it seems far better than the alternative.

“We need to hate them more”

Tribal jingoism doesn't scale for the long-term.

In the short run, the fear-based attack on the 'other' is a great way to galvanize those likely to take up arms, defend the brand or send in cash.

But, fortunately, for all of us, the 'others' are able to band together. Fortunately, it turns out that connecting and understanding and most of all, granting respect, is the essence of the connection economy.

It's tempting to enjoy the short-term rush that comes from hating the other guys. It's certainly a good way to get the crowd on its feet. But it doesn't last.

When we're defending a physical castle, it's entirely possible that hating outsiders is a useful tool. But in a connection economy, hating the other almost always destroys the hater.

The first rule of web design

Tell me where to click.

Just about every web page is designed to cause me to connect, to buy, to approve, to move to the next step. Okay, great. Where is the button to do that?

Eventbrite_-refund

(click to enlarge). This is the page you see when you want to refund an order on Eventbrite. Question: Should you click on the big green square or the big grey square? Answer: It turns out you click on the little tiny blue words.

NYHX___Individual___Families__

Here's the page you see to log on to a New York State site. Question: Should you log in by clicking the big green button under the box you just filled in, or the smaller blue button across the page? It turns out that the green button (green for go) actually makes you start over.

Suddenly, everyone who builds a website is in the business of making tools, and it turns out that we're not very good at making tools, especially when there's a committee involved. It takes work and focus to create a useful tool, it's more difficult than writing a memo…

Simple question with a simple answer: What do you want me to do now?

And here's why it matters: Tech is expensive. Tech is hard to change. Changing tech has all sorts of side effects and repercussions. 

Language, on the other hand, can be changed on a whiteboard. Language is at the heart of communication, and the only purpose of a website is to communicate.

Get the language right first (and the colors). Tech isn't going to fix your problem, communication is.

“I just made a fool of myself”

Actually, it's far more likely that you made a human of yourself.

When you drop your guard, opt for transparency and make an honest connection with someone, you're right on the edge of foolishness, which is another word for not-corporate, not-aloof, not-safe. Another word for human.

Most of the time, we persuade ourselves not to make a fool and so instead, we shut down a connection that could have become precious for us and for them.

Measure what you care about (re: the big sign over your desk)

It's not always easy to measure what matters. Sometimes, the thing that matters doesn't make it easy for you to measure it.

The easiest path is to find a stand-in for what you care about and measure that instead. For example, websites don't actually care about how many minutes someone spends on the site, they care about transactions or ad sales or making content that moves people to take action. But those things might be harder to measure at first, so they focus on minutes.

The problem with stand-ins is that they're almost always not quite right. The stand-in looks good at first, but then employees figure out how to game the system to make the stand-in number go up instead of the thing you're actually trying to change.

A good way to find out: If you had to choose between increasing the stand-in stat and increasing the thing you actually care about, which would you invest in?

Roses, chocolates and greeting cards are a stand-in for actual human emotions, a stand-in for caring and respect and love. But of course, it's way easier to make the expense on chocolate go up than it is to actually care more.

Political fundraisers use money as a stand-in for votes, and in the short run, it might be. But not forever.

Authors use bestseller lists as a stand-in for making an impact, and in the short run, it might be. But of course, one thing is a lot easier to game than the other.

The moment you start heavily investing in making a stand-in number increase, it's worth taking a minute to look at the big sign hanging over your desk (you do have a big sign, right?) that says what you're actually seeking to do, the change you're working to make. Make that go up, even if you don't have an easy stand-in handy.

Is Google making the web stupid?

Jazz became popular because an opera-loving engineer developed radio, which opened the door for an ignored art form to spread.

And rock and roll was enabled by the transistor radio and the FM band.

More subtly, consider the fact that real estate developers lobbied for suburban train lines to build their stations in hamlets where they owned a lot of land. A station, particularly an express stop, would lead to more residents, then more businesses, then more investment in schools, then a bigger station, an entire ecosystem based on one early choice.

The internet is no different. Decisions at the center change everything around the edges, for all of us.

Aaron Wall has been blogging about Google’s power for years, and his latest post makes an insightful connection:

Some of the more hated aspects of online publishing (headline bait, idiotic correlations out of context, pagination, slideshows, popups, fly in ad units, auto play videos, … etc.) are not done because online publishers want to be jackasses, but because it is hard to make the numbers work in a competitive environment.

Ever since the first commercial website (GNN) was launched by Tim, Dale and Lisa, the model has been the same: earn free traffic and monetize it with ads. 

There are two parts to this equation: traffic and ads. 

Google (the source of so much traffic) is under huge pressure from Wall Street to deliver increased profits, and until self-driving cars kick in, the largest share of those earnings is going to come from the ads they sell. To maximize their profit, Google has spent the last nine years aggressively working to increase the share of ads on each page in their search results, as well as working hard to keep as many clicks as they can within the Google ecosystem. 

If you want traffic, Google’s arc makes clear to publishers, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Which is their right, of course, but that means that the ad tactics on every other site have to get ever more aggressive, because search traffic is harder to earn with good content. And even more germane to my headline, it means that content publishers are moving toward social and viral traffic, because they can no longer count on search to work for them. It’s this addiction to social that makes the web dumber. If you want tonnage, lower your standards.

Google’s original breakthrough model for indexing the web was realizing the power of the link. Great content earned more links, more links got a higher ranking, and there was an incentive to create more great content. This was an extraordinary virtuous cycle, the one that opened the door for quality content online.

It was Google’s decision to send people away from the site (compared to Yahoo, which decided to keep people on the site) that led Google’s growth. People came to Google hoping to leave Google to find something worth clicking on, and media companies eagerly worked to make content that would give them something to read. We've always counted on a media arbiter to raise the bar of our culture.

The gaming of the SEO system combined with the power of first page results (virtually all search clicks come to those on the first page of results) combined with Google's shift to controlling as much as possible of the unpaid clickstream means that this paradigm is no longer what it was.

That means that a thoughtful, well-written online magazine has a harder time being discovered by someone who might be searching for it, which makes it harder to scale.

If you’re a content provider, the shift to mobile, and to social and the shift in Google’s priorities mean that it’s worth a very hard look at how you’ll monetize and the value of permission (i.e. the subscribers to this blog are its backbone). And if you’re Google, it’s worth comparing the short-term upside of strangling the best (thoughtful, personal, informed) content to the long-term benefit of creating a healthy ecosystem.

Here's the key question: Are the people who are making great content online doing it despite the search regime, or enabled by it?

For the first ten years of the web, the answer was obvious. I'm not sure it is any longer.

And if you're still reading this long post, if you're one of the billions of people who rely on the free content that's shared widely, it's worth thinking hard about whether the center of that content universe is pushing the library you rely on to get dumb, fast.

The enemy of creativity…

is fear.

We're all born creative, it takes a little while to become afraid.

A surprising insight: an enemy of fear is creativity. Acting in a creative way generates action, and action persuades the fear to lighten up.

The truth about sunk costs

It's one of the most profound and difficult lessons every MBA is taught: Ignore sunk costs. Money and effort you spent yesterday should have nothing to do with decisions you make tomorrow, because each decision is a new one.

Simple example: You've paid a $10,000 deposit on a machine that makes widgets at a cost of a dollar each. And you've waited a year to get off the waiting list. Just before it's delivered, a new machine comes on the market, one that's able to make widgets for just a nickel each. The new machine will pay for itself in just a few weeks… but if you switch to the new machine, you lose every penny of the deposit you put down. What should you do?

It's pretty clear that defending the money you already spent is going to cost you a fortune. Ignore the deposit, make a new decision.

Which makes perfect sense until it gets personal. And the work we do, the art we make, it's personal.

You produce a movie. The final scene is your favorite, the hardest to write, the one that you sweated to create and film. But in all the screenings you've done, the audience hates this scene, and when you show the movie without the scene in place, the buzz is fabulous.

Now, you're not just walking away from a deposit or some training–you're walking away from your best work, from your dreams, from you.

Part of what it means to be a creative artist is to dive willingly into work that might not work. And the other part, the part that's just as important, is to openly admit when you've gone the wrong direction, and eagerly walk away, even (especially) when it's personal.

Yes, we have to have faith in our ability. Faith lets us do our best work. But successful artists sally forth knowing that abandoning our darlings is part of the deal.

“I’m sure it’s probably going to happen”

This two-part sentence tells us a lot about bureaucracy and the challenge of being in the middle. I heard it twice in one week from hard-working but underpowered people in organizations that should know better.

The first half, "I'm sure," is a statement of power. The speaker is trying to establish trust and authority with the customer by owning what is about to be said, speaking for the organization.

And the second half, "probably" is the waffle, the denial of the responsibility just claimed. Don't blame me!

Obviously, the symbolic logic here doesn't hold up. It's nonsensical to say sure and probably in the sentence. But it's a symptom of the impossible situation so many large companies put their front line in.

Either let them own it (not just the saying, but the doing) or teach them and empower them to hand the interaction to someone who does. You build customer loyalty and connection not by answering fast, but by engaging with respect and transparency.

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