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500,000,000 can't be wrong, can they?A couple of very different stories about Facebook hit the news cycle at about the same time last week, and they both speak to the site’s place in our lives — but in very different ways.

The first story is a pretty straightforward piece of evidence. Facebook has doubled in size in just the last year, and has now surpassed 500 million users, amassing 100 million new users just since February. Mark Zuckerberg, the face behind Facebook, has promised that they will reach 1 billion, and at this rate that seems certain.

But here’s the other curious piece of news. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, conducted by the University of Michigan’s business school, a LOT of those 500 million people aren’t very satisfied. The site placed in the bottom five percent of private sector companies for customer satisfaction.

Put those two stories together for a minute, and let them roll around in your head. What’s that tell you? That Facebook better get its act together or they’ll tumble? Doubtful.

What it says to me is that Facebook has reached some pretty rare heights. They have built a product that is so ubiquitous that they don’t have to care if people are satisfied with it. Sure, they will no doubt continue to make tweaks to “refine” the Facebook experience. But in the end, it’s like we used to say about Ma Bell before the breakup.

They’re the phone company. They don’t care. They don’t have to.

Other service providers have this same status. Take cable television, for example. My guess is that most of you reading this post pay a pretty penny every month for access to hours and hours of programming you don’t watch and wouldn’t be interested in anyway. Bad service? Oh, well. Spotty signal? Bummer. We kicked the cable habit (as well as the TV habit pretty much) about eight years ago and now the thought of actually paying $30, $50, or even $70 dollars a month (how high do YOU go?) to watch TV seems like absolute folly. Yet for most, it’s just not something they would ever consider doing without. Increasingly, it’s the same with web access. We simply feel like we have to have it, and we’ll pony up whatever we need to keep it.

For my part, I’m not sure whether I need Facebook or not. Certainly this blog would have far fewer readers without it. And I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of catching up with some old friends at a high school reunion a few weeks back if I wasn’t a Facebook user. So there are some definite advantages for me. But increasingly, there are times when I log on and find myself wondering exactly what I’m looking for. Or whether or not it’s the best way for me to be spending my time at that moment.

In the end, I tend to judge technology’s worth to me by its utility, not how engaging or amusing it is. Sometimes, as in the case of my iPod Touch, I am surprised to discover just how quickly a particular technology proves valuable to me, often in ways I might not have expected. But other times — and this is where I am with Facebook — the scales begin to imperceptibly tilt in the opposite direction.

I’m not sure I’ll ever pull the plug on Facebook as I did with cable TV, but I’m not sure I could rule out such a possibility either. In the meantime, you can find me there at www.facebook.com/oneluckyman. Look me up, and tell me why I should remain among the 499,999,999 (and growing) people who “like” it.

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The house on Hazel MountainNot so many years ago, I found myself checking into a hotel in Lebanon, Virginia in the late evening. Lebanon is not exactly a rural place, but it’s close enough. I was there for a funeral; this time, for an aunt. The trip was just the latest in a pretty somber string of such events, as my father’s once large family slowly shrank, succumbing to time and age. My role, as it had been more often than I liked to think about, was pallbearer, a role I had played with such frequency that I was no longer taken aback by the surprising heft of a coffin, even when toted by six or eight strong men.

As I filled out the registration card and pushed back across the counter, the clerk — a kindly woman about my mother’s age — looked it over, then reached out and rested her age-speckled hand across my forearm.

“Are you one of Maudie’s?”

Here’s what you need to understand. First, I had never laid eyes on the night clerk in my life. Second, while I am indeed one of Maudie’s — Maudie being my grandmother — I have never lived in Lebanon. Never lived anywhere near Lebanon. And finally, Maudie — God rest her soul — passed away long before this encounter.

But this woman at the night desk  — this stranger — had noted my last name, sensed my muted grief , and instantly understood that I was connected to that place in some way, and that some small part of that connection had been severed. And she knew this in a way that surpassed even my own knowing.

“Yes,” I said. “Maudie was my grandmother. Aileen was my aunt.”

“Turrble,” she said, gliding over the embedded vowel. “So sad.” She extended my key — a solid brass affair on an oversized plastic fob — over the counter. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

This memory has been on my mind a lot lately and, believe it or not, it’s all because of Facebook.

It’s not so much that I feel a part of a similar community online. After all, while social media can do many things and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of them, it can’t replicate that tangible and generational connection that I experienced that night.

But I’ve had the good fortune to reconnect with a couple dozen friends from high school over the past few months (Portage High School, Class of 1975, if you really want to know) and from time to time, this same group of friends will post pictures of themselves together at a restaurant or some other venue not far from where we all grew up. Sometimes there will be three or four of them, sometimes more. Sometimes it’s all men, sometimes all women, sometimes families.

What strikes me about these photos is that these people — some of them my oldest friends — are all there. In that very same, very specific place. A place where they have grown up. Gotten married. Had kids. Lost jobs. Gotten other jobs. Enjoyed their grandkids. They are rooted there in a way that I sometimes believe that I — who have had more addresses than I can count, some of them on the other side of the globe — may never experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bemoaning my fate. I’ve seen much of the world, and more importantly, I am blessed to have a wife who is my home, my community, my connection — no matter where I am.

But some day, a man or a woman far younger than I am will walk into an establishment somewhere in northern Indiana and maybe — just maybe — someone will look them over and ask them — are you one of Rich and Gail’s? Or Doris and Chuck’s? Or Tom and Marlene’s?

And they will know where they belong.

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If news happens, and there is no one there to report it, is it still news?

Sadly, this isn’t just some variation on the old metaphysical riddle about a tree and an empty forest. It’s becoming an increasingly real — maybe even troubling — question.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press, the 163 year-old granddaddy of independent news organizations, started letting people go. How many have been laid off is a bit unclear, and even their own account does not go beyond saying “an undisclosed number.”

Here in my part of the world, those layoffs mean that the AP’s Roanoke bureau — one reporter really — is no longer staffed, and may well be on the way to closing its doors. This comes on the heels of similar layoffs and cuts throughout our region, cuts replicated in communities across the country. Some of our media outlets now require reporters to take regular furlough days, as if news just doesn’t happen on those days.

In some ways, of course, this shift is almost invisible, since most solid local reporting has long gone the way of the dodo bird. In its place, we get slick “Seven On Your Side” and “Health Team Twelve” features, complete with dramatic theme music and not a whole lot of news value. Or worse, the “man on the street” stories, where solid and aggressive reporting is replaced by lurking in public thoroughfares and asking passersby what they think about a current hot topic. On the print side, we’re sure to see more and more wire service stories, though perhaps not from the AP.

I can’t blame media outlets for taking this route. With profits — particularly in the newspaper business — in a freefall, how could you not gravitate toward this kind of coverage, coverage that is easily produced and packaged as time and budgets dictate?

But who’s going to be doing the reporting? Brace yourself, because it may be you.

Okay, maybe not you, but someone like you … or me for that matter.

To my mind, one of the incredible things about the evolution of the web has been how it has transformed from a relatively static place where we went to seek information to a place where we increasingly seek and provide information. We build web sites, we blog, we tweet. We make our voices heard. And sometimes — the Hudson River plane crash being the prime example — we report the news, long before traditional media are anywhere near the story.

Of course this model isn’t necessarily very reliable … yet. It leaves way too much room for error, for bias, even for malice, I suppose. But surely the demand for solid credible real-time reporting will, at some point, give birth to a new model of journalism, one that is both profitable and built around current events, contemporary technologies, and communal interests.

Hope so anyway. I’d like a chance to blow the dust off my press pass from days gone by.

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Is it just me, or is anybody else feeling the boundaries of their personal and professional lives becoming more porous? My friends are my colleagues, my colleagues are my contacts, my contacts are my peers, my peers are my friends, and so on and so on. Smarter folks (like Julien Smith and Chris Brogan) call this the blending of social constructs, but no matter what you call it, I think it’s critical if you want to get anything out of social media.

Okay, scratch that — maybe not anything. After all, I suppose some folks find value in simply staying connected in these new ways. It’s kind of fun to know what my cousins in Atlanta are up to, and what my old high school friend did over the Fourth of July weekend. Either of those would certainly fall under the category of anything. But I like to get a bit more out of it, frankly.

Take Twitter, for example. I don’t follow a ton of people, but those I do follow are pretty interesting folks. All day long they are cluing me in to websites I should check out, pointing me to some new trend in my business or my profession in general, or guiding me to a pertinent news story. These folks aren’t selling anything. They are simply giving me a small 140 character window into what they are thinking at that moment, and since many of us are in similar businesses or professions, I often find these tiny windows surprisingly illuminating. Perhaps that’s because, like most folks, I tend to build my networks around similar interests, and so those networks are often rich with pertinent information.

True, my network sometimes tells me things that may not be so illuminating — at least not in a professional way (though I do reap great benefit from my friend Laura’s irrepressible optimism). Some of the folks I follow on Twitter, like comedian Tim Siedell, are simply good for a laugh at random moments throughout the day. And some of my Twitter feeds are straight up news. (For my money, there’s no better way to get on-the-spot news.)

But here’s what intrigues me — it all seems to add up somehow. This blended stream of incoming information seems to create something unlike anything else I’ve known. If it were all professional all the time, I’d process it with some corner of my brain that holds the “you-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-good-for-you” reflex. If it were all personal all the time, I’d process it with my “well-that’s-interesting-but-probably-not-particularly-useful” reflex. And in either case, I’d be missing out on something.

Also — lurkers, take note —  it’s worth pointing out that until you jump in, you quite likely won’t understand how this confluence works. That’s another matter I’ve been giving some thought to, and will be doing a presentation on at the fall College Communicators Association conference.

So thanks to all of you, my personafessional friends/colleagues/contacts/peers. Keep me posted.

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Here’s a little story about a day my world shifted, and how it may be shifting again.

Years ago, I was a bit of a Deadhead. Okay, maybe more than a bit. I usually caught somewhere between six and ten shows a year. Maybe 50 to 60 shows when it was all said and done. I did it for the music — partly. To paraphrase Bill Graham, the Grateful Dead weren’t the best at what they did. They were the only ones who did what they did.

But I also did it for the crowd. Back then, it felt like belonging to a tribe. A tribe of misfits, maybe, but a tribe nonetheless, with its own code of conduct. Over time, as the tribe got larger (and the band became more popular) things started to change, and you could no longer count on the code holding up. The whole scene was more widely accepted, but its standards were not more widely shared. A lot of the newcomers had different ideas about what was okay and what was not.

And then one day, in a mall in middle America, I stumbled upon a Grateful Dead tee shirt in a tacky gift shop — you know, the kind that sell the ersatz lava lamps and blacklight posters. That’s when I knew it was over for me.

You see, part of the appeal of the whole experience was that I could feel securely outside the mainstream and still operate within the comfort of a set of shared values and assumptions. Now that the scene had so clearly become mainstream, it had taken on those mainstream values and I didn’t really want much to do with it. (In fact, it wasn’t long afterward that the scene pretty much collapsed of its own weight, but that’s a different story.)

For some reason, this is what I thought of when I read this Newsweek piece about some trends in the blogosphere.

Look, I’m as aware as the next person that an obscene number of people are blogging, so it’s not as though I imagine it as anything but mainstream these days. But still, one of the reasons I’m drawn to both reading them and writing one is that the medium manages to carry a sense of personal connection despite its broadcast delivery. This paradox — a personal touch in a broadcast medium — is, I think, at the heart of the success of all social media. Even if I’m one of a million followers of Pete Cashmore’s smart smart Twitter feed for Mashable, I still feel like he’s talking to me.

But when I’m confronted with evidence that forces me to acknowledge that what I’m reading is not so personal after all, I’m left feeling a little skittish. What if the review I’m reading isn’t a true review, but the work of a corporate shill? What if the advice I’m seeking to resolve a computer problem is simply an effort to guide me to a particular product? What if choosy blogging mothers don’t actually choose Jif, but are paid to say so in their endearing mommy blogs? Blech.

The web is democratized, and that’s a good thing. But democracies don’t guarantee fairness, only access. Those who know best how to game the system, win. (And if you don’t believe that, then explain our political system to me.) Maybe we — legitimate users — will find a way to preserve what’s good about the medium, or maybe we’ll simply move on to the next thing that satisfies our need for personal connection in an increasingly disconnected world.

Either way, I’ll be looking at certain Twitter feeds, blogs, and websites with an even more cynical set of eyes. And no one paid me to say that.

Promise.

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Okay, so I just realized it has been more than two weeks since I last posted here. That’s twenty days without a single thought passing through my head. Right? Well, not quite. In fact, I’ve had a whole bunch of thoughts going through my mind. Thoughts about work, about language, about parenting, about <gasp> politics. But none have made it here. Why?

That’s a little complicated to explain, but I think the answer says a bit about me, and a bit more about the medium.

About me — every day, just as I settle down to the keyboard to post something here, a pesky little editor lurks just over my shoulder, a mean spirited imp who has an opinion about everything from subject matter to semi-colons, from metaphors to metonymy. And he’s not the least bit shy about sharing his opinions, especially when he’s really got his game on. Lately, he’s been playing like an MVP. He doesn’t even wait for words to form before he starts whispering in my ear.

“Why would anyone care about that?”

“Don’t you have anything worthwhile to say?”

“Shut up already and go mow the lawn, doofus.”

As I mentioned he’s a pretty mean-spirited guy.

I know everyone has one of these companions. Some of them are worse than others. For the most part, mine’s been largely vanquished. Writing professionally for a couple of decades will do that. But here on this blog, he’s found new ground. And that leads me to a bit about the medium.

If you give me an assignment — something you need written — I’m on it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a clear or complicated, long or short, studious or silly. It doesn’t even matter that much if YOU understand what you want to say. I’ll write it because you need it. That’s what I do.

But a lot of new media doesn’t fit that bill for me. Take this blog, for example. No one tells me what subjects to focus on, what each post should say, what absolutely positively needs to be said. It’s a soapbox, really. The same holds true for my Twitter account. It’s there, waiting for me to feed it. There’s no assignment, no task to complete. Just the soapbox, waiting for me to step up and have my say. But just because I can have a say, should I?

Consider something as simple as a Facebook update. Do you think twice before you fill in that box? Do you wonder if it’s pertinent enough or witty enough or important enough? Sometimes the answer to that question is simple and you post away. But when it’s not, do you point your browser elsewhere?

Clearly there are those who deserve a say, and there’s ample evidence of these new methods of having it are working and working well. If you are a public figure, or the least bit concerned about public perceptions, the climate of the blogosphere is critical. And I’m sure most of you already know that the story of the plane in the Hudson was broken by a Twitter feed. What’s more, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the ability to capitalize on new media played a key role in electing our president.

But when it’s all said and done, I think striking this balance between what we can say and what we need to say remains an unresolved issue for many of us, even though my annoying pal says “What a load of hooey.”

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Okay, bear with me here: a couple of decades ago, I found myself standing on the banks of the Nantahala River at the tail end of a wet spring, getting ready to climb into a canoe. I’d only been canoeing a half-dozen times or so, mostly on flat water or slow, lazy rivers. In front of me, the water was moving faster than any I’d ever seen, sucking white foam into eddies behind mammoth rocks. From downstream came the noise of a thundering waterfall. My partner was waiting for me to climb in. I did, and he pushed us off. Immediately the canoe lurched forward, as if on a rail. The river grabbed us, and propelled us forward. We steered as best we could, but there was no turning back.

When I think about social networking, I’m reminded of that feeling. The river is moving fast, and many of us in the communication business are dipping our toes in the water. Some of us have already pushed off, and are being carried downstream, navigating with varying degrees of success. Others are still on the shore, wondering a) if we really want to go where the river will lead us, or b) where the heck we’re going to use for a paddle.

There’s a certain sense of inevitability in the air. We all know how much these kinds of networks have grown, and we’ve all seen evidence of how powerful they can be. So, of course we are all tempted to jump in. After all, how long can you stand there watching your competitors barrel past you?

But before you shove off, I think it’s worth remembering that while you can guide your canoe — often quite deftly — that doesn’t mean you can go anywhere you want in it. You can’t pick a spot directly across all that white water and say “There. That’s where I’m going.” It’s just not going to happen. The current is going to pull you downstream, whether you want to go there or not.

In the end, I think it’s just like me standing on the banks of the Nantahala all those years ago. At some point, you just have to push off, hang on, and go.


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