I received this letter the other day and have been thinking about it a lot.
From: Bob Bly
Sent: Mon 5/19/2008 4:41 PM
Subject: Question from a reader
As a Fast Company subscriber, I occasionally read, with much bewilderment, your column.
What bewilders me is why you are excited about the things you write about.
I am not being facetious but ask the question respectfully — and I hope you might write a column to answer it.
I can’t understand why anyone would bother with or get excited about all the Internet and electronic stuff you talk about.
It seems to me that all these things — Twitter, Facebook, iPhone, Flickr — are a thundering bore and an utter waste of time.
I don’t have any of it — for that matter, I don’t own a Blackberry, iPod, wireless laptop, or even a cell phone — and I get along fine without them.
In fact, I’d say my productivity is greatly enhanced by not fooling with all these useless gadgets or reading the endless blather on social networking sites.
Can you help an old guy from the old school understand what he’s missing?
P.S. Your column is well written and there are obviously a legion of people who get all this stuff. I’d like to see if I could become one of them or at least understand what all the fuss is about.
Copywriter / Consultant
Ahh, we have a productivity problem!
Whenever I am faced with a productivity problem I ask myself “what do I want to get out of life?”
The answer to that question usually guides whether or not I’m doing the right thing. Er, the most productive thing.
Lately I’ve been asking myself a lot of similar questions that Bob has been asking me.
“Is it better to just take the night off and watch some TV instead of trying out that new Windows Mobile Smart Phone that arrived?”
“Is it better to change Milan’s diapers or answer another email?”
“Is it better to go have a nice glass of wine down at the Ritz or open up Twitter to see if it’s up again?”
“Should I start reviewing some Facebook applications or should I go for a walk?”
But I’m just being silly. The real thing I’ve been doing for more than eight years now is to try to arrange my life so that I have an interesting conversation every day with someone interesting.
A great many of those conversations have happened because of something I wrote here, or a community I participated in.
But why use all these things? Well, they help me start conversations with other people. Look at the photo above. I shot that on a little walk I did yesterday afternoon with my newfangled cell phone that lets me post that photo automatically from my cell phone to Flickr so you all can see it within seconds of me shooting that. I was thinking about my place in life and community. The Golden Gate National Cemetery is a powerful place to visit to do just that and to think about questions like the one that Bob poses here.
Why do I want to keep up with Flickr? Well, Flickr is how I share that photo with all of you, which, by the way was shot with a new cell phone that I’m testing from Nokia (the N82). Why do I want to use Twitter? Well, that’s how I keep up with the Mars Lander that’s sending back some interesting data that have scientists very excited this week. Why do I want to use FriendFeed? That’s how I study how early adopters are reacting to a number of interesting tools and services, not to mention the news of the day. Here’s a comment cluster there talking about Freshbooks and whether or not that’s any good.
Why do I like Qik? Because that’s where I can watch a Congressman, John Culberson, who put live video of what he was experiencing as the Mars Lander started sending photos on Sunday afternoon. Magical.
Yes, I do have a productivity problem. There’s too much interesting stuff to participate in on FriendFeed. Here’s a page that shows every single FriendFeed item that I’ve either “liked” or “commented” on. Warning, that’s thousands of things. You have been warned, a lot of my productivity has been spent doing that for you.
Facebook? Where else can I learn that Jim Long, NBC Cameraman who covers the President at the White House was born 18 days before me? (Seriously, I just learned that by looking him up on Facebook). Seriously, though, I have 8,000 business cards from all sorts of people like Jim, but I go to Facebook to see if I can find their email address or phone number before going through my large rolodex. Jim Long is on Twitter and one of its most active members, by the way.
DAMN IT SCOBLE ANSWER BOB’S QUESTION
OK, OK, I see that a few of you are interested in how I’d answer Rob’s question straight up. My answer:
“There is value in staying ignorant.”
Seriously. Think of the tradeoff to staying ignorant. You might have to go to school to learn something new instead of grabbing another beer out of the fridge and sitting on the couch and watching another CSI, like I did last night. Hey, sitting on the couch with your baby and your wife and drinking a beer while watching TV is a lot of fun, but it gets back to the question I ask myself often: “what do I want to get out of life?”
Hint: sitting on a couch and drinking beer isn’t going to help me get to my goal.
For ME playing with the latest social network, the latest cell phone, the latest laptop, etc will help me get to my goal.
Now, if your goal is different than mine, you’ll want to use your own tactics.
But let’s say you aren’t into the latest technology, but, rather, are a dress maker. Well, then you probably won’t care one bit about the latest cell phones, or whether you’ve gotten poked on Facebook today or not, but you probably will want to check out BurdaStyle, where they practice open source sewing.
If you want to be productive, focus your efforts on getting to where you want to go.
Bob, you say you are a copywriter. Now, I used to be one of those too. Worked at a magazine back in the 1990s and edited and wrote and all that — even did advertising copy for our advertisers. I used to use Microsoft Word. Are you still using a typewriter? Back in the 1970s, that was the tool of the trade. Then it switched to PCs and Word. Why? Because new kids like me came along and were able to do more with less. Why? I could write and edit far faster than anyone with a typewriter could (despite their protestations — I had proof on my side and, anyway, the new employers who were hiring wanted copy sent in digitally to lay out with Aldus’ Pagemaker, which I also learned how to use, and anyone who was sticking with typewriters caused another step to be inserted where errors could creep into copy).
Today I’d say the skill set is shifting once again. This time to something like Zoho Writer or Google’s Docs. Because if you visit Fast Company’s offices in New York, for instance, they want to work with you on your copy in live time. Fast Fast Fast is the word of the day. It’s in our title, after all. Now some people still use Word, but last time I was there one of the editors told me he was moving everything over to Google’s Docs because it let him work with his authors much more effectively.
And learning something new does seem to get you kudos, promotions, and all that. When I visited the New York Times last week I noticed that the executives there weren’t proud of people who did things the same old way, but rather were proudest of the people who were trying to do things a new way. Hey, how about putting the New York Times news on top of Google Earth? I bet that team gets considered first when raises come around.
But, like I said, I have a productivity problem. I spend too much time playing with all this stuff. So, later today, I’m going to interview the CEO of Dogster. What’s that? Oh, yeah, a social network for dog owners. My productivity is going to the dogs this afternoon. I think I’ll bring my newfangled cell phone and show you some video of the offices at about 1 p.m.
I have Bob Bly to blame for finally realizing that I’ve been so unproductive lately. He taught me that I could get ahead in life by staying ignorant of it all. Maryam, can you bring me another beer please?
Another way to close this post? Sorry to impede on your productivity, but how would you answer Bob’s letter?
UPDATE: We’re discussing this post over on FriendFeed.
UPDATE2: Is Bob Bly pulling our leg? Read this comment by BlogHer founder Elisa: “A little historical context here: In late 2004 Bob Bly famously wrote a newsletter dissing the potential of blogging as a marketing & communications tool, mocking it, some would say. Great link bait and blog fodder. He then, surprise surprise, started a blog himself. Talk about built-in attention & controversy. Funny thing, he maintains that blog pretty actively to this day. I’d say he’s planning to get on Facebook, Twitter etc. in about 2 weeks & just wants to make sure people are paying attention ” –