Monday, September 20, 2010

My Yahoo's Annoying Ads

Like many other people, I use as my browser homepage. Have for some years, now. It's a fine aggregator of news, weather, and financial and investment updates. But Yahoo was about to lose me as a customer—until I found a way to (maybe) defeat its evil plan for world domination. Well, domination of my Yahoo homepage, anyway.

The problem started about a week ago, when Yahoo! began putting an advertising block atop one of the columns on my "personal" homepage. It seemed to be an intrusion, but we've come to accept advertising as the price we pay for otherwise "free" media. Television does it; radio, magazines, newspapers, too. Banner ads appear on all kinds of websites, and every search engine service features paid results and advertisements. So much for "personal" homepages, I guess, but I'm willing to accept a little advertising with my morning news and evening investment portfolio updates.

Soon after the advertisements began, though, they became much more intrusive with animation designed to distract the eye. The design is extremely effective, the distraction almost impossible to ignore. True, once the ads complete their disturbing animated cycle they just sit there. But My Yahoo is a portal. One uses it to see and access articles and features, then returns to the homepage to continue browsing for other articles. And each time one returns to the homepage, another animated ad begins its irritating swooshing, popping, zooming cycle.

Today, the effect was even more distressing because the ad was not merely an animation, but a full-fledge commercial complete with a pounding music track and an annoying announcer. I can't imagine many people who would appreciate hearing all that noise in a business setting, so I'm sure most folks who live their workdays in cubicles will stop using MyYahoo for their news and information portal in order not to disturb their co-workers. The noisy ads proclaim to all within hearing, "I'm browsing the Internet now. On company time." Not something you might want to advertise.

Yahoo allows its My Yahoo users to comment on each ad, and I've made my opinion known. I doubt it will do any good, because the Yahoos don't seem to care very much about the opinions of their customers.

Searching for a way to politely decline the offer of ads on my "personal" homepage, I ran across the Yahoo Blog. The title of the most recent post there is "A Little Serenity amid 'The Blur.'" Wow! That's just what I'm looking for: a little peace and quiet and escape from blaring commercials. Of course, the post had nothing to do with that, but I thought I might add a comment to it, suggesting how Yahoo might create a little more serenity in this jangling online world of theirs.

Now, on the My Yahoo Blog page, there's a notice reading: "We encourage you to leave a comment and we'll likely read it when you do." So I clicked in the appropriate place, only to see this: "Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time." Seems it's been closed for quite a while.

Turns out many people aren't too happy with the new My Yahoo ads; there's an angry discussion about them on Yahoo's own Answers forum. And that's where I discovered Ad Block for Internet Explorer, which led me to Adblock Plus for my browser, Firefox. I downloaded and installed it in under a minute, and now My Yahoo is—so far—advertising-free.

Surely there's a more elegant and customer-friendly way for Yahoo to monetize the eyeballs its fine My Yahoo portal draws. I hope they find it soon. Just imagine what would happen if EVERYBODY blocked ALL advertising on the Web! There goes the advertising business model. Wouldn't that be terrible?

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Promotion of Ignorance

Timothy Egan's commentary in the New York Times,"Building a Nation of Know-Nothings," describes how, in America, an "astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design."

Not to single out the GOP—for ignorance knows no party—but 46 percent of Republicans believe the lie that President Obama is a Muslim. Twenty-seven percent stupidly doubt that he is a United States citizen. Half erroneously believe the TARP "bailouts" were enacted by Obama, not Bush.

A poll released this month by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that of all Americans, nearly one-in-five say Obama is a Muslim, while only 11 percent thought so just a year ago. In 2009, 48 percent rightly believed him a Christian, while just over a third think so now.

The public's increasing ignorance is doubtless the product of an incessant disinformation campaign by conservative media and the right-wing leadership, and the inability of liberals—or knowledgeable people, for that matter—to articulate the truth effectively. It's also an indication of the public's gullibility and its growing disregard of "inconvenient truths."

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, John Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin, Laura Schlessinger and Ann Coulter plant and cultivate outrageous lies in the media, while John Boehner, Kim Lehman, Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders cynically encourage falsehoods and slander in the political sphere.

The promotion of ignorance, hatred, suspicion, and hostility-as-entertainment is purposeful. It serves the commercial interests of the cable networks and builds the brands of their yack-show bloviators. It sells books and syndicated columns and draws eyeballs to blogs and websites. It distracts public attention from the real, hard issues of the day and, in complicated times, it appeals to the fears and uncertainties of voters.

It is a sad commentary on human nature that so many find hostility both entertaining and perversely empowering—and fail to recognize pettiness, dogmatism, spite, hate and self-promotion for what they are. But that is where we are today.

Egan's commentary reminded me of something John Kennedy said about lies and myths in a commencement address at Yale University in 1962. "...the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie...but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." In myths, he noted, "We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

I most remember that speech for Kennedy's witty introduction to his remarks. At the ceremonies, Yale awarded the famously proud Harvard graduate an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and Kennedy remarked, "It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree."

This morning I looked up that address and was delighted to find that, apart from some then-topical particulars, Kennedy's words are as useful and instructive today as then. The President spoke eloquently about issues of his day, and they are the same flashpoints that occupy political discussion today: the size of government, public fiscal policy, and our confidence in government and in the nation.

Not much has changed, it seems, about what rattles our cages; we still struggle with the same divisive issues. Not much has changed about our use of stereotypes, myths, and misdirection in political rhetoric; we still suffer from the same strategy of divisiveness. What has changed is that lies and hypocrisy, antagonism and prejudice have become acceptable—even sought-after—forms of entertainment. Personal invective has always been more entertaining than rational conversation about political philosophy. But entertainment value now seems more important than truth.

You can read the full text of John Kennedy's commencement address at Yale University here, but below are some excerpts that I found particular relevant to current events.

Commencement Address at Yale University
President John F. Kennedy, June 11, 1962

"As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

"For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

"Mythology distracts us everywhere—in government as in business, in politics as in economics, in foreign affairs as in domestic affairs.... In recent months many have come to feel, as I do, that the dialog between the parties—between business and government, between the government and the public—is clogged by illusion and platitude and fails to reflect the true realities of contemporary American society.

"There are three great areas of our domestic affairs in which, today, there is a danger that illusion may prevent effective action. They are, first, the question of the size and the shape of the government's responsibilities; second, the question of public fiscal policy; and third, the matter of confidence, business confidence or public confidence, or simply confidence in America. ...

"... in the wider national interest, we need not partisan wrangling but common concentration on common problems....

"The truth about big government is the truth about any other great activity--it is complex. Certainly it is true that size brings dangers—but it is also true that size can bring benefits. ...

"... Generalities in regard to Federal expenditures, therefore, can be misleading ... each case must be determined on its merits if we are to profit from our unrivaled ability to combine the strength of public and private purpose.

"...Finally, I come to the matter of confidence. Confidence is a matter of myth and also a matter of truth—and this time let me make the truth of the matter first.

"...The solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.

"The stereotypes I have been discussing distract our attention and divide our effort. These stereotypes do our Nation a disservice, not just because they are exhausted and irrelevant, but above all because they are misleading—because they stand in the way of the solution of hard and complicated facts.

"...But the unfortunate fact of the matter is that our rhetoric has not kept pace with the speed of social and economic change. Our political debates, our public discourse—on current domestic and economic issues— too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces.

"What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and cliches but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

"... If there is any current trend toward meeting present problems with old cliches, this is the moment to stop it—before it lands us all in a bog of sterile acrimony."


Friday, April 16, 2010

No, I'm Not Shampoo

Lot of talk these days about "personal branding." Tom Peters is one of the better known business gurus doing the talking, and at there are pages of books by other experts on the topic.

Brenda Bence, MBA, is one of them: an "internationally-recognized branding expert" who has worked for Procter & Gamble and Bristol-Myers Squibb and as a motivational speaker and executive coach. She has created an industry around the personal branding fad that includes several books all titled with variations on "How YOU Are Like Shampoo."

In the first of these, she says, "I firmly believe that people—just like shampoo and other products—are brands, too." Ms. Bence goes on to remind us that Brad Pitt, Mel Gibson, and Britney Spears are individuals with very specific personal brands, with the implication that the rest of us surely want to be just like them.

I doubt that. In fact, I doubt any of them are entirely happy being "just like them." Their celebrity brand serves a publicity purpose but, probably to their own dismay, it is not a reflection of themselves as three-dimensional human beings. And it is not the secret to their success in show business. Don't be fooled: there's a lot more behind Brad Pitt's success than the gloss of his celebrity. Gibson is hired for his whole self, not merely his public brand.

Celebrity is a facade that some wear with grace, others not so much. But what they bring to those who hire them is not their personal brand—it's their talent and their work ethic and their humanity, with all its strengths and quirks.

But back to our shampoo marketer/executive coach...

Bence goes on to dismisses the reasonable objection that the rest of us can't be like those people—Pitt, Gibson, Spears and the rest—because, unlike us, they are celebrities. She suggests that the only thing that makes them "different" from the rest of us is that they all employ image specialists to manage their brands.

But there's hope, says Bence: We don't need expensive help to manage our personal brand's perception, we just need to read her book and take her advice.

The first bit of that advice is that "perception is reality in marketing ... it doesn't matter who you think you are. What matters is how others perceive you."

So to Ms. Bence, personal branding is all about managing perception, not about substance: about perceived value, not real value; image, not integrity.

And that's why I don't believe one does, or should, create and market a personal brand. The term is meaningless and the very idea dehumanizing, inappropriate, and dishonest.

"Personal branding" is a two-dollar name we give to the age old act of posing-to-impress. We use such high-falutin' phrases to make ourselves seem (or feel), more knowledgeable, sophisticated, and fashionable. (We don't look for jobs anymore, we "network." We don't act ourselves our improve ourselves, we "develop our personal brand.")

"Personal branding" is the most currently hip in a long string of self-help management techniques, except that it is not about self-improvement, but conveys something less genuine: self-packaging.

The only value of the phrase is that it gives us a slightly different way to think and talk about our ambitions and how to achieve them—modeling the process on tricks pioneered by the "hidden persuaders" of yore. I'll grant that. But it's an inherently dangerous model that can make us less than what we are—not more.

The phrase has the ring of scientism and enlightened, dispassionate management—but also the accompanying smell of fraud, exploitation, and fakery. It reeks of the rudest ambition and the most unseemly self-absorption. It sounds dishonest and beneath the dignity of human beings.

Branding is for corporations, not people. It is the creation of meaning around a business or product that is otherwise devoid of meaning and differentiation. In practice, branding is more the manipulation of image, less the creation of substance. It's something we do to cattle, potato chips, the aforementioned celebrities, and cosmetics. It's what Ms. Bence did for shampoo at Procter & Gamble.

What real people do is engage with other people and build their reputations—through good works and value, through their contributions to the success of others, through their humanity, and by their demonstrated integrity.

Branding is too restrictive for anything as versatile and deliciously unpredictable as a human being. Despite what all the gurus proclaim, I am most decidedly not a brand; I am me, take it or leave it. Today and in this place with these people I am one me; tomorrow, elsewhere, or with others I will be another. My generation fought against the grey flannel suit, the organization man, the pigeonhole, the stereotype, the glass ceiling—and won. We won the right to not be pigeonholed or defined by others, and it would be hypocritical and foolish to do that to ourselves.

We should not think of ourselves as brands—and should not want to—any more than we should think of our faces as logos, our beliefs as positioning, our character as our "unique selling proposition," or our friends, colleagues and associates as a network or the "value chain" we bring to the market. I am not a definable collection of features and benefits, not a platform or an ecosystem, but an ocean of possibility. My name may be my word, but I refuse to call it a brand promise. My sizzle is not for sale.

Personal success does not come from packaging, but from performance; not from buzz, but respect, not from a marketing strategy, but from a consistent habit of goodwill, kindness and humor.

We are hired for the value we provide others, for our honor, honesty and reliability—not because we have succeeded in creating an appealing "personal brand." Branding may get us in the door as objects to be oggled, but we will be judged for something else: our true selves; our unadorned substance; our un-spun character; our raw, naked unpackaged and unpretentious humanity.

I have nothing against genuine and sincere self-improvement, no quibble with the value of learning and skills development, and certainly no problem with ambition nor argument against the self-promotion necessary to get what one wants. But let's leave the branding to objects that cannot engage with others on their own behalf. We're better than that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Message of Silence

President Obama was the adult in the room last night as he delivered his first State of the Union Address. The speech was, if nothing else, presidential. He accepted responsibility for some of his Administration's failures and chastised Congress for its recent dysfunction. He was the grown up, and there were no immature outbursts from the audience as we saw the last time he appeared before a joint session.

As is tradition, the audience punctuated the speech with repeated standing ovations, for about 17 of which Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues. The State of the Union message is one of very few presidential responsibilities that are specified in the Constitution. That the members of his party frequently stand and applaud the President's words—especially the fighting ones—is an unwritten rule. When those words are about the Country's greatness or the valor of American heroes, the rule applies to Members on both sides of the aisle. Regardless how enthusiastic or how bipartisan the ritual standing and clapping is, it tells us nothing we don't already know.

Any impact of those ovations paled in comparison to the unanimous silence that met the long conclusion of the President's speech. For a full five minutes and fifty seconds Mr. Obama called for government, business, and the press to act with the dignity and demonstrate the values of the American people. And for all that time, the audience was hushed, still, attentive, and perhaps even contemplative. The Members of Congress responded as would a chastised child, listening to a parent's quiet, wise, and reasoned counsel.

It was, for me, an emotional and rhetorically effective few minutes. Several times, Obama paused for four or five poignant seconds to let his words sink in.

Whether his message and plea will have any practical effect on the tone of debate or the progress of legislation in Washington, whether it will turn the opposition from obstructionism to governance, is yet to be seen. I am hopeful, but not optimistic.

But those riveting few minutes of respectful silence spoke very clearly about the nature of leadership, the stature of the President, and the seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves.

(Listen to the last 5:50 here.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

To Be, Or To Do?

It used to be that word processors were machines that people used for the single purpose of preparing documents. Then personal computers came along, absorbed the functionality of those dedicated devices, did the job better, and did other things, too.

Appliances like word processors, telephones, fax machines, GPS navigators, scanners, calculators, games, televisions, radios—and even computers—aren't just discrete gadgets anymore. Not necessarily.

They are functionalities that are built into myriad devices. They are capabilities, not contraptions. They are things that are done, not gizmos that do a thing. Their physical forms have dissolved away into the digital soup of possibilities; their potential floats freely, to be sucked up into other, more complex forms.

Making voice calls is only one functionality of the smart phone, and it's a function that's available as well in computers and automobiles—and will be in your television, too, if it isn't already. Television isn't just a box in your living room; it's a function that's available in your computer, your phone, and your game console.

It isn't just computers that can connect to the Internet. So can a cell phone, a refrigerator, a home irrigation system—anything that's equipped with digital communications functionality and the necessary software.

A doorknob can be connected to the Internet. But there's no reason to do that, unless connecting to the Internet makes it in some way a better doorknob—or provides some valuable benefit: increased security, or useful information. In many buildings, doorknobs connect to security systems, and some of those use the Internet to send information about who's entering, when.

So this raises questions: If your computer can be a telephone and your telephone can browse the Internet, what is a telephone? What is a computer? What is a calculator? A game? A radio? A television? Or a doorknob?

What they are not (or no longer need to be) is single-purpose, stand-alone gadgets. They are functionalities that are absorbed into other things; they are things that can absorb other functionalities. That's the result of information of all kinds in digital form, of the ubiquity and power of microprocessors to deal with that information, of software to tell those microprocessors what to do, and of communication networks that connect discrete systems to others.

I doubt there's any reason to connect my toaster to the Internet, any benefit that's worth the effort or expense. I don't need a hammer that can find a hardware store through Google when it knows I'm running short of nails. Some tools will continue to be single-purpose and rather dumb gadgets that don't connect to anything—or need to.

But devices that communicate and deal with information are dissolving and becoming functionalities of other things. It wasn't so long ago that people wondered what computers could possibly be used for. Many of us struggled to justify buying the things. Now that they have sucked up so many capabilities from the digital soup, we wonder how we ever lived without them.

At one time, we thought that "digital convergence" meant that you could handle just about any kind of information on a computer. We thought it was a threat to industries that delivered information through other means: publishing, broadcasting, telephone and cable companies.

I made a movie for Bill Gates (see "Digital Convergence") to explain this perception in humorous ways and describe how the media and communications industries were reacting to the menace.

Now we know better: that convergence is not so much a threat to these industries, as to their old business models and product lines. It is an opportunity to transform both and add value to their offerings.

Television can get out of the box in the living room, and has done so. Telephones run applications and games; know where they are in the world; retrieve, store, and present information and entertainment. They have become re-defined, and much more useful and valuable. Books and magazines, even in their present ink-on-paper form, can be interactive communication systems of greater value and relevance—if publishers embrace and promote technologies that are already available and ask the question: What is a book? What is a magazine?

The only threat is to those who persist in the old definitions of what things are, and who think that things are and will always be just things—objects instead of functions, nouns, rather than verbs.

Ulysses S. Grant and Buckminster Fuller both said, "I am a verb." The objects around you are saying the same thing. Are you listening?