Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 23

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

Before continuing, I want to expand on something from the previous installment.

I recalled how a solution I'd proposed was rejected outright - not because it wouldn't work, but because I'd skirted The Process:
When we have a business need, we sit around a conference table and apply tools and methods proven to yield desirable results. We use real metrics, not a heap of magical bullshit, and capable executives collaborate to determine the best possible course of action!
I heard the term "collaboration" a lot at CNET, because it was something I was told I lacked. And it's taken years for me to understand this, because, actually, I've always been extremely collaborative.

Chowhound's management was never very hierarchical. While I retained veto power over decisions, I used it as seldom as possible, because I wanted people working behind scenes to feel enfranchised. The problem with treating workers like mindless drones is that, in the end, you're stuck with mindless drones! So things were always collaborative. In fact, Clay was shocked by how much sway even our "lowest" (whatever that even means!) workers had.

I've always loved collaboration in my music and writing careers, as well. Here's how it works: colleagues probe an impasse, hoping to spark a "Eureka" - a clever idea flashing from out of nowhere, giving rise to a contagious sizzle where everyone starts excitedly one-upping and tweaking the idea. "No, wait! What if we do it this way?!?" It's like magic; once the chain reaction starts, there's no limit to what can be achieved. It's pure creativity. This is how human beings transcend their animal nature: great ideas conjured up from nowhere and honed via ecstatic communal riffing.

I love this sort of thing, at least with genuinely creative people. But if someone uncreative joins in, the whole process will crash. They’ll despise the one-upmanship and bluntness, which irritates their egos. By contrast, creative people work beyond ego, focused entirely on the problem at hand. It's a profoundly different perspective.

For corporate (i.e. uncreative) people, the term collaboration means something very different. Eurekas are neither sought nor valued. There's no one-upmanship or blunt tweaking, which can offend (especially when offered by someone from a lower pay scale). Creative collaboration in this setting is viewed as an undisciplined, process-disrupting, authority-disrespecting outburst. It seems thoroughly uncollaborative!

So corporate collaboration is the exact opposite of creative collaboration. It's about pitching in to make your dry, measured, Smithers-ish case for why, say, the font should be a little bigger...and never blinking when your superior flatly rebuffs. It's about everything but hot eurekas and chain reactions.

I was frequently scolded for my poor collaborative skills, which naturally made me try to collaborate even harder. The vicious circle left Clay chronically irked, which I attributed to his (well-deserved) insecurity. But it was more than that. It's that there's a certain unbridgeable chasm between creative and non-creative people. They are almost like two different species.

I'm not sure either is necessarily superior. I noted that successful corporate execs compensate for their lack of creativity via relentlessness. But that dogged persistence is something I, like many flighty creative types, envy. Yes, I'd stuck steadily with Chowhound for nearly a decade, but I was fighting my nature the entire way. I craved fresh eurekas.

A case might be made that creative people compensate for their lack of relentlessness via their inventiveness.

Read the next installment (#24)

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Internet Kinda/Sorta Has Fresh-By Dating

A Google employee piped up with the following response to my "The Internet Lacks Fresh-By Dating" article:
Actually, Google web search does have a freshness parameter in search, but it is hidden behind a UI experience that is more than a bit impenetrable.

1 - search for something

2 - on the left hand nav-bar, there should be a 'Show search tools' option -- click on this.

3 - there should now be a pile of date restricts on the left hand side, including a custom range option.

Doing something like this perfectly is very hard, for all the reasons you mention, but the time restricts may prove useful.

Web Site Idea

When I hear about a great film or TV show, I look it up to see if it's available on Netflix "Watch Instantly" (which I route to my TV via my Roku). If not, I check Amazon Streaming (which comes free with my Amazon Prime subscription, and also routes via Roku) and Apple iTunes (which I view on my iPad, 'cuz I don't own an Apple TV).

If not, I start looking for DVDs (preferably second-hand) on Amazon, Half.com, and Amazon UK. If that fails, too - i.e. the producers have given me no way to legally purchase their product - I will search for torrents*.

* - I've left out a step: if it's a small indie film, I'll write to the director and ask to purchase a one-off DVD burn, swearing to never copy it for friends.

But why am I (and millions of others) doing all these separate searches? Someone should build a database tracking and linking to a given title's presence in all these places...and more. There'd be revenue from referral commissions, plus it would be a beau coup advertising platform.

It perplexes me that no one's done this yet. Or has someone done it and I've missed it?

Update - you may want to follow the discussion in the comments section.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Internet Lacks Fresh-By Dating

Having been online since 1988, I fondly remember when navigating the Information Superhighway required arcane tools like Gopher, Telnet, and FTP, and discovering information demanded a hacker's ingenuity and persistence. I was ecstatic when, in 1999 or so, its popularity exploded. Email's much more fun when everyone you know has an email address! And the ability to answer most any question online amazes me more than it does more recent users. This superpower is actually fairly new. Back when there were only hundreds of web sites, we never dreamed it'd get so good so fast.

But there's a downside to this explosion, which worried me early on: the Internet's a pack rat. Like any library, it doesn't favor fresh information. Search for a Wayne Shorter performance, and you'll find yourself swimming through a decade's worth of gig announcements, most undated by year. Go to Shorter's own web site, and it may be stagnant, but it's hard to tell unless the info's dated by-year...which it probably isn't.

I used to worry that the noise from so much stale information would make the Web less and less usable. And while it hasn't melted down yet, it eventually will. Right now, the Internet's a relatively young pack rat. But what happens by 2020 or 2030?

Google hasn't addressed the issue. There's no "freshness" search parameter, and adding "2012" as a search term mostly yields results from ancient pages auto-stamped with an updated "copyright 2012" footer. And it's hard to imagine how they could make such a feature work, because so few sites date their content, and those that do date often exclude the year. So the only way Google could distinguish would be via "most-recent-change-to-page". But that's an awfully imprecise method in an age of dynamic web pages, where old content is framed by constantly updated ads, nav bars, and "latest tweets".

It's a major problem, and I hope it can be addressed. The best route would be for webmasters to establish a practice of diligent dating, perhaps in the metadata. Of course, this would be gamed by SEO*-minded webmasters. But, then again, what wouldn't?

* - SEO, or "Search Engine Optimization", is the sneaky means of fooling Google into paying more attention to your crappy content. Chowhound had a unique SEO strategy: we offered highly useful content, figuring that as people came to appreciate it, Google would up-rank it. Bwa-ha-ha...the old "quality" trick!

Update: a Googler replies

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Puzzling Hubris of Helicopter Parenting

Helicopter parenting is becoming epidemic. An entire generation will be incubated with astonishingly obsessive vigilance. What could go wrong?

It's often suggested that this style of parenting amounts to a Narcissist Creation Kit. But helicoptery parents have heard that line and are prepared with rebuttals about how nurturing children - even when larded out by the metric ton - is very different from spoiling them.

A keener issue, which few such parents have considered, is the sheer hubris of it all. To devote every waking second to forging smashingly great and successful children involves two presumptions (aside from the patently false one that children are like playdough, moldable via sheer parental will):

1. You, yourself, know how to be great and successful (i.e., you are those things)

2. You know how to make children turn out great and successful.

#1, alone, is a stretch. Great, successful people usually have their hand in too many projects and interests to become helicopter parents. If your supreme lifetime creative accomplishment amounts to the union of sperm and egg, one might reasonably question your fabulous greatness (also: if you're so wonderful, wouldn't it be appropriate to consider how you, yourself, were raised, and to repeat that proven formula?)

But let's say you really are utterly fantastic, and have chosen to forsake everything to spend 24/7 crawling around amid a litter of toys with your offspring, doting on their every passing need. Why assume you have the knowledge and experience to instill this fantasticness? For one thing, even if you're cranking out babies wholesale, it will take decades to view the results. All experimental parents are newbies when it comes to long run outcome.

So what makes ordinary people, with no track record in molding human character (as if it could be molded!) so confident they can bootstrap extraordinary children? The answer's obvious: a profoundly deluded sense of their own extraordinariness. And parents prone to delusions of grandeur are the very ones who ought to spend less, rather than more, time smothering their children.

As with all human trends, there's a historical chain. Today's 20-somethings were raised, by a generation of permissive buddy-parents, to have an unshakeable faith in their own extraordinariness - a conviction transcending any need for actual evidence. Their sparkling, ineffable, and thoroughly unearned self-confidence can't help but leave them convinced they'd be the supreme parents of supreme kids if they simply put their minds to the task.

So the question is: what sort of kids will this recent crop of smothered incubatees - all destined to be far, far above average! - eventually raise? My guess: the 1960's style parents I had, who push their kids out the door to socialize with their own kind, and who step in mostly to impose hard limits. The cycle completes!

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