P104: On Encouraging Revolutionary Creativity

There’s a great editorial by author Adam Grant in this week’s New York Times that’s ostensibly about fostering revolutionary creativity in children. It’s one of those perfect storm type pieces that combines data and anecdote to build momentum and drive the reader to a seemingly inevitable conclusion, then casually opens the door to considering the implications of the research in adjacent fields. I found it super interesting as both a parent trying to do right by my kids and as a professional trying to build creative environments for myself and others. For example:

”When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.”

And…

”Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things.”

Strip the parenting language and those concepts can be just as easily applied in a management context, which makes sense when you consider that Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton. And let me tell you: there’s no feeling in the world like having a NYT bestselling author and top-rated professor at Wharton write an op-ed that confirms some hunches you’ve long had on both a personal and professional level about going where your natural interests lead and the value of cultivating a diverse set of inputs and experiences. I mean, maybe the only thing better than that would be if the same person also wrote a piece extolling the virtues of procrastination. In case you’re wondering, yes, I instantly bought his new book.

Anyway.

If you’re the type of person who likes to have discussions, I’d be thrilled for you to read Grant’s op-ed and strike up a conversation with me. This piece really resonated with me – I hope it does for you as well. And if you’re the type of person who maybe just needs a little permission to embrace diverse interests, well, consider it granted.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P103: You say “insatiable memory hole” like that’s a bad thing

Last week’s dive into Snapchat ended up kicking off a period of fun and creativity for me that I haven’t seen with a social network since I realized that Twitter was pretty rad. If you’re still not sold on the idea of Snapchat, Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal has a great explainer video so go check that out real quick and come right back so we can talk about dick pics.

KIDDING! But for real: the insatiable memory hole that is Snapchat does incentivize, shall we say, off-brand behavior. And nothing is more interesting to advertising and media types than when brands go off-brand. Take for example, this twitter beef between famed purveyors of mostly-beef, Wendy’s and Burger King. The cynics among us might question whether a couple of social media community managers taking a 30 second break from feigning concern for botched value meal orders should be considered a news story. To those people, I say “@ me hoe, it’s 2016 and the only thing that matters is brands.”

REALLY KIDDING FOR REAL! Man, if only there was some sort of social media platform where I could do and say goofy things without having it appear on my permanent record. Where suburban dads and multinational corporations alike can swing and miss with little fear of the awkwardness of their tentative first steps on a new platform. Where you can close the taste gap without without giving the world ammunition for a random #tbt in the future. A platform like that might be pretty fun.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P102: The Adventures of #oldguyonsnapchat

In this week’s edition of “Doing Literally Anything to Avoid Writing a Newsletter,” I decided tonight was the perfect night to learn how to Snapchat. I fired up the app, fleshed out my half-completed account and begged a few Snapchat veterans for help getting up to speed. All this while live-tweeting the experience, natch. What follows are three observations from my first serious venture to Snapchatland.

  1. It doesn’t matter how inscrutable your interface is if the reward is worth it. For those looking for something beyond the obvious sexting utility, the appeal of Snapchat can be hard to find. But that’s because it’s only hard to figure out how to follow DJ Khaled, the record producer/DJ/social media star whose Snapchat stories absolutely live up to the hype. In fact, it’s hard to follow anyone. Also: the difference between a story and a chat is not immediately apparent, the iconography is obtuse, the concepts of “back” and “forward” are dependent on the user’s current action, and the Discover section has no organization or scannability. Despite all of this, Snapchat is a hugely successful and transformative force in our culture. There must be something more to it than just dick pics.
  2. Your Snapchats are a more thoughtful, more produced version of yourself. If, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, on a text message, nobody knows you haven’t showered in three days. Snapchat does away with this by putting video front and center. I’ve thrown out snaps where my voice cracked or I just lost track of what I was saying and I wouldn’t consider myself super-high on the vanity meter. This must have an impact on how people interact on this platform.
  3. The days of clichéd, paint-by-number engagement devices are over. How subversive, the third point of a list negating the form of the list itself! But with no preview, no scannability, no easy way to refer back to past content and no expectation of anything other than ephemerality, Snapchat is a medium for the moment. A user proactively commits to watching a snap and doesn’t get tricked into it with cheesy headlines or listicles.

There you have it. I now understand what everyone else has known for the past 18 months. If you want to connect on Snapchat so you can mock me, do whatever the hell it is you do with this thing:

bsdeluxe on Snapchat

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P101: Sean Penn is Decadent and Depraved

Sometimes it seems like there’s a Hunter S. Thompson quote for every occasion. This week can only belong to a line from his great 1973 piece for Rolling Stone titled “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl

”When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Weird: Notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera is recaptured just six months after his dramatic escape from a maximum security prison.

Pro Weird: Rolling Stone publishes a gauzy profile of El Chapo written by the actor Sean Penn, who traveled to meet Guzmán in secret – a meeting which directly led to Guzmán’s capture.

Think about that for a second: Sean Penn takes his bad ideas on a white privilege adventure, pals around with a drug lord, tosses some softballs in a half-baked Q&A session, leads the Federales directly to Public Enemy #1, then fails just so spectacularly at, you know, actually writing up the thing that he makes reading about a secret journey to meet a mass murderer seem like work. Penn’s masturbatory prose echoes the most gratuitous excesses of Gonzo without any of the charm and wonder that Thompson or Vollmann bring to the proceedings. To top it all off, the whole piece was submitted to El Chapo for approval before being published.

All this for what? Guzmán is back behind bars (for now) and the people who are interested in his story have to wade through Penn’s bloated mess of an article, only to be left wondering what a more skilled practitioner could have produced. Rolling Stone continues its downward spiral and thousands of people who have lost loved ones to the Sinaloa Cartel get to relive that pain whenever Fast Times at Ridgemont High comes on TV. The only question remains: who has the bigger ego, Penn or El Chapo?

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P100: The Hundredth Issue “Extravaganza”

A hundred times I have sat down and began to type and a hundred times that typing has resulted in an issue of the newsletter that you are reading now. Big milestones can sometimes lead to reminiscence (or even worse: a clip show), but while I’ve been pretty happy with more than a few of these missives, I think we all had our fill of nostalgia last week, what with New Year’s and all. So instead of reliving the last two years of weekly thought leadership (cough), I’m going to go all the way back to the wise words of Alan Moss, my elementary school band teacher:

”Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

While this handy aphorism did not propel me to international superstardom playing the trumpet, it has definitely informed the production of this newsletter. In it’s simplest form, Periodically is a gimmick come to life. Baking a rigid publishing schedule into the branding of the property gave me just enough momentum to get to the point where my ego and fear of failure took over to keep quality up and the schedule fulfilled. But the muscle memory created by two years of weekly keyboard time isn’t enough to justify Periodically’s continued existence, if those hours are not in pursuit of some version of perfection.

The form of this newsletter has grown and meandered and morphed over these hundred issues. The twitter account has had its ups and downs. There’s syndication on Medium now. My maniacal obsession with getting the dang thing published on Tuesday (Central Time) has subsided somewhat. But the writing will continue unabated, removing each vestigial feature until nothing remains, save its pure, perfect essence. Thanks for coming along thus far. Here’s to the next hundred.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P099: You Can’t Inoculate Yourself Against Affluenza

By the time I got around to checking Twitter this morning, my timeline was in full backlash mode. With each successive tweet I became more and more convinced that this story was just Not For Me. But eventually, my love of wordplay won out and the irresistible portmanteau that is “affluenza” became a part of my vocabulary forever.

The facts of the case are as depressing as they are unsurprising: wealthy Texan sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch got his blood alcohol level up to 3x the legal limit before crashing his truck and killing four people. He was convicted of juvenile DWI manslaughter and sentenced to ten years probation instead of real time because (1) he’s a wealthy white kid, and (2) a psychologist testified that

…after spending more than 50 hours with the Couches, he thought the family was “profoundly dysfunctional.” He said it was clear that Fred and Tonya gave Ethan incredible freedoms, with no regard for the law, and that his abuse of alcohol and drugs had escalated for years.

This “affluenza diagnosis” was widely criticized and the light sentence did nothing to convince neutral bystanders that the justice system (and society in general) was anything other than hopelessly biased towards wealthy white people. Then everybody forgot about it until Ethan Couch and his mother went missing after a video was posted showing Couch (allegedly) violating his probation.

To me, the most surprising thing was that I’d heard none of this until this morning when reports started to surface that Couch had been captured in Puerto Vallarta. I religiously avoid TV news, I very rarely browse news-based websites. All of my news consumption is of the push variety: either through email or various social media channels. Without the backlash from Sick-of-it-all Media Twitter I’d probably never have heard of affluenza at all.

I’ve written before about the tradeoffs in a personalized push notification-based news system. This seems a natural byproduct of that experience: the “above-it-all” tweet that actually brings everyone down a notch. See also the hate-link that becomes an actual link and the fake-spoiler that’s actually a spoiler. If nothing else it shows that social media is, for better and worse, in line with the rest of human experience.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P098: Design Thinking and the Mobile Runtime

Celebrity venture capitalist and all-around smart guy Benedict Evans nailed 16 Mobile Theses to the door last week and it’s a pretty interesting jumping-off point for anyone interested in the mobile space. Part retrospective, part tone-setter for 2016, Evans highlights the topics that he believes most inform the discussions and ideas moving the market these days. Of the sixteen, the one that resonated the most for me was the idea that evolving mobile interaction models are creating new opportunities to find customers and build audiences:

”Really, we’re looking for a new run-time – a new way, after the web and native apps, to build services. That might be Siri or Now or messaging or maps or notifications or something else again. But the underlying aim is to construct a new search and discovery model – a new way, different to the web or app stores, to get users.”

Previously, a linear model of user -> browser -> search -> result dominated consumer interactions on the internet. You used one web browser and (basically) one search engine to go online, find what you need, and deal with it. As these interactions became more and more transaction-based with the rise of e-commerce (to the point now where the “e-“ seems like an old-timey affectation – it’s just commerce) companies began seeking new approaches to capture these transactions.

Platforms emerged from companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, WeChat, Baidu, Tencent, and others pursuing an obsoletive approach by providing a compelling user experience around the core functionality of their products. In the case of the iPhone, this means top notch industrial design, a robust app ecosystem, a fantastic camera, and dead-simple payments complementing the phone/email/messaging/media heart of the device. Then, once the platform owner earns that customer, they are driven to further differentiate their offerings by creating unique user experiences and using those experiences as jumping-off points for discovery, search and other revenue-generating behaviors.

For the user-experience geeks among us, this makes for a truly exciting moment in time. Each step forward in this platform-based services race brings with it new technologies, new ways for people to interact with their devices. And unlike past innovation cycles, the market seems to understand the requirement that design and UX leads the creation of these new services. To all the design thinkers out there: the market has spoken. The budgets are there. Go forth and do your best work.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P097: Cave-In at the Content Mine

Two interesting data points this week about the people who make things for the internet and the money they make (or don’t) for their trouble. First, The Awl determines once and for all The Value of Content to be about $550. Author Noah Davis struck a deal to get paid by the pageview for his seminal state-of-the-market-for-online-writers (previously featured in Issue 84: Farm-to-Table Media), and this short post (complete with downward trending graph) closes the book on that agreement. Key takeaway, in the classic Awl voice:

”If there’s a lesson here, maybe it’s something about charging your audience with the responsibility of your wellbeing? Idk.”

Secondly, YouTuber Gaby Dunn went long on the precarious balance between internet fame and making ends meet in the wonderfully titled Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame. Turns out: having a well-received YouTube show (Just Between Us) with over 500,000 subscribers doesn’t insulate you from the concerns of the proletariat. Dunn combines her own experiences and those of other YouTube stars to craft a riveting narrative that explores this dichotomy:

”One week, I was stopped for photos six times while perusing comic books in downtown L.A. The next week, I sat faceless in a room of 40 people vying for a menial courier job. I’ve walked a red carpet with $80 in my bank account. Popular YouTube musician Meghan Tonjes said she performed on Vidcon’s MainStage this year to screaming, crying fans without knowing whether she’d be able to afford groceries.”

The level of access and notoriety that the modern internet affords is unprecedented and we as a culture are still working out what that means. It has always been difficult to earn a comfortable living as a freelancer or small business owner, but the temptation to try has never been greater than today. I mean, PewDiePie is a dude playing video games – I’m a dude playing video games! Why can’t that be my story?

For many content creators, the first step is being realistic about their role in the content ecosystem – only then can one identify the steps needed to move up the food chain. Or, you can reframe the argument entirely: if the winners in a gold rush are in the picks-and-shovels business, what are the tools that the next wave of content miners will need?

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P096: A Conservative Dictionary Can Only Describe The Past

Here’s what might be an uncontroversial statement: the way we speak to each other changes over time. If you don’t believe me, try and read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol aloud. Bet you don’t get past the word “farthing.” It’s abundantly clear that human communication patterns evolve, driven by the method of connection, the topic of the day, the tone of the moment. However, when it comes time to document this natural evolution, the process is anything but uncontroversial.

Last month, Oxford Dictionaries named the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji the “word” of the year and the response was, uh, consistent. Thankfully, Caitlin Dewey took a moment to pull apart the incentives at play when dictionaries pull stunt PR moves and it all is starting to make sense. According to Dewey:

  1. Sales of reference books, including dictionaries, are down 37% since 2007, and traffic to their owned websites are down as well, due to Google’s ever-increasing sophistication.
  2. Dictionaries looking to offset these losses are differentiating their product by adding modern words and phrases.
  3. The dictionary then rides the wave of publicity around these announcements, driving awareness and positioning themselves as the most relevant, up-to-date dictionary.

This is a the only way forward. A dictionary cannot be frozen in time. Yes it’s true that dictionaries have been disrupted by search engines, but in order to remain relevant at all, they need to have the most useful, most diverse set of words. A dictionary that closes itself off from the outside world becomes an artifact: ossified, rigid and useless. Those who would close the borders of our dictionaries would sentence our language – and those who speak it – to the inbred backwaters of our cloistered past.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–

P095: A Day Unlike Any Other

Last week, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, a time to gather with your family on the fourth Thursday in November and count your blessings. Now, if you think that I’m going to get into the colonization and massacre visited upon Native Americans by European settlers, well, that’s for another time. No, today we’re talking about declarations and designations and the powers they hold. Because, you see, Thanksgiving (est. 1621) was not the only holiday in the last week. Black Friday (est. 1961) is a nightmarish shopping extravaganza immediately following Thanksgiving. Small Business Saturday (est. 2010) encourages you to spend money with local retailers instead of out-of-town conglomerates. Cyber Monday (est. 2005) takes those same deep discounts to the ecommerce side of the retail equation. And then there’s Giving Tuesday (est. 2012), a day of charity that stands in opposition to the consumerist (and genocidal?!?) overtones of the other “holidays”.

The common trait of these days, and of all holidays, is the idea that there is some sort of declaration establishing the holiday and a general consensus (or at least a good PR firm) that legitimizes the event. The dirty secret of all of this is that you don’t need a broad consensus to realize the power of the declaration.

This newsletter was founded on the gimmick that publishing every Tuesday (or Wednesday morning – oh and except last week, lol) will unlock sort of magical connection with its audience. It’s too soon to say whether that’s true, but I’d rather have sent 95 newsletters by adhering to a gimmick than not. And while “gimmick” is usually a pejorative term, I think it’s safe to say that there’s 45 billion reasons why organizing around a declaration can have positive effects.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

–30–