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The Vicious Cycle of Assumptions and Stereotypes

Let me step away from technology and business for a few moments. I’ve got something to discuss as it is still elusive to people.

As humans, we tend to put people into boxes. On the egregious end, it results in things like racism and sexism. On the more mild end, it causes things like disappointment from false expectations. We look at people, or groups of people, and we channel our own biases and notions – sometimes fairly, but mostly unfairly – on those people or groups. It keeps us on cyclical merry go rounds repeating the same mistakes over and over again

As an example, in the wide world of the web, it’s easy to break people into two groups – marketers and developers. Marketers are often seen as the type of person who can sell. They are social creatures that meet people, pitch people and generally are more socially adept than the other side.

Developers are generally seen as the types that sit in front of their computers writing code. The comical stereotype is the pasty-faced guy in his momma’s basement. Average Computer Science programs at Universities are male dominated making the relationship between men and women…. interesting. Or so it’s perceived.

In a similar vein, there are people who are seen as right-brained creatives. They are seen as artsy and, in the web world, tend to be the design and UX types. They are free thinkers. These types may be musicians. Or photographers. Or painters. Or they may just be “ideas” folks. They build iPhone apps because iPhones are cool. They work independently because… they don’t like the restraint of working with others within a structured environment.

On the flip side, you have left brained people who, as perception goes, are more mathematical and analytical. They see system and process and routine and operate well within those confines. They tend to think less open ended and more linearly with finite points of start and end. These are project management types that need the structure to perform.

In politics, you have Democrats who, if the perception is accurate, are supportive of social issues like green energy, are anti-war, support equal rights for all and no expense should be spared to see that the world is, in a very utopian way, a better place.

The opposite of that, however, or so our culture would dictate, are Republicans. Republicans are generally seen as stodgy and supporting policies of military expansionism, lower taxes which result in lower costs, and perhaps, reduced services and benefits.

The problem with all of these stereotypes is that it is impossible to evaluate individuals for who they are and what they stand for. My good friend @amandare will blow your mind. She is a motorhead, pool shark and a major football fan. And she loves knitting.

Another friend, @caseysoftware, is a computer science engineer and one of the smartest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s also the community guy (or has been since he’s now moving to Austin), for the PHP developers group in DC. That’s a fairly social position and doesn’t work with the stereotypical developer personality.

I am actually a fairly left-brained guy. I write code, I think in systems and patterns, and I operate well with definite task-oriented routines. I’m also a creative in that I am a musician, photographer, have an open-minded sense of aesthetics and art and prefer to think outside the box than inside.

How do people function in a world where stereotypes rule the day? Well, clearly, many don’t. Women pass up men to date based on assumptions of what a guy would be like. Some people fail to put themselves in positions to be hired simply based on a pre-conceived expectation of who will be at an event. Managers fail to manage effectively, because of assumptions about how the people they manage need to be managed. Job seekers fail to apply for their perfect job because they assume they are not qualified for it.

Taking the time to understand the world around you will help you succeed in life. Otherwise, it’s a never-ending cycle.

Photo by The Knowles Gallery and used under Creative Commons.

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Online Media: Relationships and Finding Signal In the Noise

When I first started using Twitter in the fall of 2006, I was one of only a few thousand people using this weird new service. It was fun because my friends were there. I’m an early adopter when it comes to technology so it’s not all that uncommon to find me on some new online tool kicking the tires.

Back in those days, there was a small enough pool of users that, hey, if someone followed you, you followed them back. It was just that simple. Many of us set up scripts that would automatically follow anyone who followed us. It was karma. It was social. It was how the changing face of the Internet made “us” better than “them”.

As all things go, however, Twitter began to jump the shark. People started using Twitter to push their products and agendas instead of simply communicating. We were like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water, many of us not realizing until it was too late, that the reciprocity approach simply wasn’t scaleable. We concocted formulas to rationalize our efforts. We chose not to follow people who had an unbalanced follower to following ratio. We called them spammers. We labeled them as people unable to engage in conversation. We rationalized our own existence on Twitter, all the while boiling ourselves in hot water to the point that our worlds were nothing but noise, and our effectiveness as professionals became nil.

Around the time I had 2000 followers (also roughly 2000 people following), I stopped following everyone back. This was almost two years ago. Organically, I grew to 8500+ people following me in return simply because I was interesting and people wanted to follow interesting people. The concept of equivalency was tossed out the window by most people while the “influencers” kept talking up the idea of equivalency. I only followed people I had actually met.

Still, the noise became too much. There was no real way to come back from the brink. I had long ago reached the point where tweets in a tweetstream were at full force. I called it Twitter Terminal Velocity – the point where a tweetstream could not perceptibly travel any faster. And the content was not relevant to my personal or professional life.

Good people. Irrelevant content. Too much noise. This was the problem.

About two weeks ago, I made a drastic move that has improved my life in immesaurable ways. I culled the people I was following from 2800 down to 492 (that number has organically grown since). I had a number of criteria for who I kept – people in Austin (gotta keep my new city close, right?), people in tech (not tech news, not social media… tech!), people in the WordPress community, and real friends.

These are the people that matter to me on a daily basis. They make my life worth it on a personal and professional level. I see all their tweets now.

This is not to offend anyone that got cut. If you talk to me (via a mention), I still see those tweets and most of the time I will engage. I also have keyword searches so relevant conversation surrounding topics of interest are also seen, whether they are directed to me or not. However, in my day to day content consumption, I have made my Twitter experience a much more pure experience.

Today, I find myself more engaged with the people I care about. It’s not about me and my existence and importance. It’s about the people I care about engaging in my world and me in theirs. For instance, I would have never been able to encourage a friend about her father’s deployment to Afghanistan if I had 2800 people I was following. It doesn’t scale. It’s not personal. It’s not real relationships.

In closing, let me give on zing to the social media marketers and networkers. Relationships aren’t about what you do or if your customers care. Relationships aren’t about ROI. Sometimes in relationships, you get nothing in return. But real relationships actually make a difference to ROI and customer care. Just don’t mistake the two for the same thing. They are very far from the same thing.

The Rise and Fall of Friends

We have been transformed. We have been transformed from a culture of Leave it to Beaver, where friends were next door neighbors or maybe work or church associates, into a culture where “friend” is a status symbol peddled by the gazillion social networks. It’s not uncommon to hear someone at a tech conferenct like Blog World Expo, where I am for the next few days, or Web 2.0 Expo, where Ray is bringing us coverage, proclaim, I’ve got 3500 friends on Twitter or I capped out at 5000 friends on Facebook. They won’t let me add more.

Silliness, of course, and I’ve talked about it before.

Putting aside the cliché friends bit, social media has definitely altered the way humanity interacts with each other and it’s not at all a bad thing. Cultural divides are falling, business relationships are being built. Heck, people are even getting married because of Twitter.

I can’t help but think that there is somewhat of an ebb and flow that takes place and we are on a retreating slope. At the very core of our human existence, we want relationships. While the inundation of networking opportunities, associates or “friends” is satisfying in its own right, it challenges the ability for humans to have their most basic relational instinct satisfied.

The other night on The Aaron Brazell Show, I cornered guest Jim Long (a minor demigod on Twitter) about who his favorite people on Twitter were. I knew I sent him a curve ball and expected him to dance out by making a diplomatic statement like, “Everyone is my favorite” or “I don’t have one”. Instead, he noted that as the quantity of friends go up, it becomes increasingly difficult to “see” the people he loved to see.

In essence, he was stating that, though Twitter satisifed a communications need and a desire to be connected, the ability to “relate” was getting more lost.

On another episode of the Aaron Brazell Show, my friend Jessie Newburn talked about the ebb and flow of generations and how the 4-part cycle of generations demonstrated and ebb and flow of how things were done. In Generation X,  loosely disconnected from previous generations and went their own way, but that the Millennial (often incorrectly called Generation Y) generation has a tendency to regroup.

Sort of like social media. The influx of friends, the followers, the contacts, the blogs, the feeds, the networking opportunities, the parties, the conversations…. all relatively empty from a human instinct perspective. For my part, I’ve spent less time engaged in all these things and more time in one on one relationships. I haven’t read my Google Reader in over a month. I get on twitter and Friendfeed in small spurts. I don’t go to DC for as many social events as I used to.

However, my Twitter direct message box is full. My IM is going all day. My phone book is full.

It’s all about being personal?