Looking for diamonds
Yesterday I was having lunch at Zivaz (my new favorite Mexican restaurant in Tucson) with Adam and Susan. They’re back from Los Angeles with their Airstream, and eager to talk about all things new and interesting, which is part of why the lunch went on for nearly three hours.
Sometime after the plates were cleared, our conversation turned to the incredible array of Internet-based communications technologies that people have adopted lately. We were specifically fascinated by the options for self-promotion: blogs, forums, Facebook, MySpace, etc. I was interested in how those technologies might merge with other Internet communications like Skype, instant messaging, video conferencing, and with communities like online forums, Yahoo Groups, Gather, and LinkedIn. It feels like an important evolution is in the wind.
It feels this way partly because there are so many overlapping offerings, and partly because the speed of self-promotion has accelerated. Blogs allow you to post your thoughts every day or even every hour if you care to. With micro-blog sites like Twitter, you can now keep the world abreast of your activities on a minute-by-minute basis. “I’m having lunch with friends at Zivaz,” my Twitter post might say, and later, “I’m shopping for hiking boots on the east side.” People can subscribe to your Twitter stream and keep up with your updates via mobile phone, if they want.
Amazingly, people do. To me, posting every turn on the road and every snack you eat on the Internet seems narcissistic, and this is coming from a guy who posted his daily activities on a blog for three years. But people do it, and on that basis alone I have to study the phenomenon to understand why they do it. The trivialities of another person’s life can be very relevant if that’s someone you care about. There is value to almost any information, for someone, even if it doesn’t work for me. (I imagine myself trying to keep up with my hourly activities and it feels like something you can only maintain with extreme diligence or an abundance of ego.)
The other reason I am watching new communications and networking technologies is because they are surprisingly relevant to publishing a magazine. Being a publisher means you need to take an interest in all things, and being a print publisher means you are selling horses in a Model T world, so you’d better be looking carefully at The Next Big Thing. I don’t want to end up like the guy who sold typewriters, telegraphs, or film cameras.
Back in a former career I was charged with sitting around my office and thinking about things like this. It was a great job, because I got to dig into technology and sociology subjects that I found interesting, and then do a ZOLTAR act, presenting my best guess as to what the future held. People paid well for this, because I was part of a tight little team that usually got it right. (A few of my minor blatherings live on in the Internet as archived columns and press releases. The things that survive that period are not necessarily representative of my best work, but the Internet answers to no one.)
Now in the publishing business, I find myself spending a lot of time doing the same work. I’m not in the paper business, I’m in the information business, and so there will inevitably come a time when I need to disseminate my information in a different way. The only questions are: when, and how?
Everyone loves a crystal ball, even if it’s not always 100% spot on, because any hint of what’s coming helps ease our collective anxiety. It’s useful to me to build forecasts of the future so I can plan ahead, since Airstream Life is a quarterly with very long lead times. The changes I want to make next summer and fall have to be planned today.
The trick is simply to listen critically, a skill not taught in most schools. I trust my analytic skills but I’m not so vain as to think I know it all, so I listen. I also don’t trust any single media outlet to be unbiased and accurate, so I criticize. The media like to base their views on “consensus” of analysts, but having been in that industry I can tell you that the entire analytical field can be dead wrong and often is. Just because a lot of people in the industry think (or want to believe) something is going to happen, doesn’t have anything to do with whether it does. If you projected the accuracy rate of most analysts as a percentage, you’d find that weathermen do a lot better.
I’ll teach you how to be an analyst. It’s like making jewelry. You don’t start with a design in mind. You start by digging through millions of tons of muck (perspectives of other people) trying to find a few diamonds in the rough (good ideas). Then you clean up each diamond, check it for flaws (fact-checking), and if it meets your standard, you trim it up into something better.
Each diamond directs you to the ultimate jewelry that it should be. Once you’ve got enough diamonds, you’ll see the finished pattern, and you can assemble your piece into a beautiful theory. As long as you don’t force the process, it almost always works.
The failing of this process is when the underlying assumptions of the entire world are wrong. You’d be amazed at how often that happens. When the underlying assumptions are wrong, everyone’s theories are wrong by default. For example, imagine all the weathermen predicting tomorrow’s high temperature. If the sun goes nova, they’re all going to be wrong, aren’t they?
Analysts and academics excuse their errors in this regard by blaming “disruptive technology,” “quantum leaps,” “hidden factors,” and a whole host of other terms. What they mean is, “We didn’t see that coming.” Technology people love this, because it always sounds good for them to call their latest invention “disruptive” or “game-changing” even if it isn’t. It helps with raising money. But a good analyst should never fall in love with their theories to the point that they forget to consider that all the underlying assumptions are dead wrong.
This explains why I like looking at our self-absorbed, noisy, and wildly diverse opinions. Sure, we may be becoming a nation of narcissists who post rants and idiotic opinions in public forums, but we are also a nation of people with ideas. Those ideas are going to form the basis of our future. I want to know what those ideas are.
This is also why I am a rabid First Amendment supporter. Some ideas are bad ideas, but quashing ideas is never good. Once in a while I get a letter from someone “disappointed and disgusted” in the magazine for something I allowed to reach print. Once it was a cartoon that was perceived as sexist, another time it was a photo considered racist. Once I said something about a campground in a blog and a couple of people told me I shouldn’t criticize. All of these people ran to what I call “the free market defense,” threatening to cancel their subscriptions.
I encourage that. My opinion is that someone who thinks only their ideas and perspectives should be allowed in print, doesn’t deserve the benefits of a free press. Those who are so inured to conflicting opinions or standards that they must refuse to accept a harmless travel magazine should probably stay home with the shades drawn. So my approach is to politely share my view on the offending item, and then invite them to cancel if they can’t see their way to continuing to support the magazine. I have never caved in to pressure of this type and I never will.
I think the magazine’s readers are generally tolerant people. In four years of publishing I’ve gotten four or five hate letters. Mostly the letters seem to come from unhappy people who feel victimized about all sorts of things. The rest of the bunch put up with whatever I produce. I’m curious, however, to see if I get any reaction to the photo on page 44 of the new Winter 2008 issue (in the mail now).
We live in communities of people bound together by ideas and commonalities. The magazine represents the centerpiece of American freedom and a centuries-old publishing tradition that helps hold communities together. Somewhere down the road — soon, I hope — we will expand the role of the magazine to encompass the fascinating Internet technologies that are developing and integrating right now. If we do it right, we’ll grow stronger (both as a business and as a community), and have more fun. I’m looking forward to that.