Meet Your Pinterest Customer

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review.

Pinterest is the social media darling of the month, growing madly and reported to be driving more traffic to third-party sites than Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn put together.

Think of Pinterest as a hybrid between a photo-sharing service like Flickr and a social bookmarking service like delicious: on Pinterest, you “pin” images the way you bookmark URLs with Delicious. You can curate these images into thematic “pinboards” and follow other people’s pinboards to find inspiration or images you want to “repin.”

From the beginning Pinterest has seemed like it should be useful to marketers, and the hype has only amplified companies’ desire to be there and figure out who’s the Pinterest customer and how to reach her (so far, it’s predominantly her).

I’m here to help, because I am that customer. I’ve been an active Pinterest user for over a year, experimenting with how to use this new kind of social networking service, and watching how others use it. Here are some anecdotal observations from my year with Pinterest.

Shopping: Both compulsive shoppers and anti-shoppers who aim to get in and out of stores fast like and use Pinterest. I’m in the former camp. I created a Pinboard for my quest for the perfect grey boots, and used it to poll my friends on the best option; I’ve now got Pinboards going for Lego storage options and the perfect computer case. While Pinterest makes shopping even more fun for enthusiasts like me, Chris Tackett of The Atlantic points out that it can also reduce their actual volume of purchases by providing form of virtual acquisition that displaces a certain amount of consumption. Sometimes, just looking at all those pretty grey boots is enough.

What it means for your business: Target Pinterest users’ experience of shopping as a creative process, not just a potential transaction, by making your online presence as pleasurable as it is functional. Product photography matters more than ever; you want your prospective customers to pin your hot-looking products, and you may want to engage with the people who’ve pinned your products to see if you can nudge them toward a purchase.

Bonding: Pinterest nudges online shopping into something more like the real thing: a social experience shared by friends. When I joined Pinterest it was still an invitation-only site, so I used my invitations on the friends and colleagues with style I admire or share. Like many groups of Pinterest users, we follow each others’ pins to help each other find the kinds of clothes, shoes and home items we love. It’s the online equivalent of that age-old female bonding ritual, the shopping spree. Marketers might note the opportunity to foster and track the social influence on purchasing, but they should also see an opportunity to build on this experience and reinforce the social experience created here, just as retail stores pipe in music and offer snacks and other freebies to bring groups of friends into the store.

What it means for your business: Busting in on a circle of Pinterest pals to hawk your wares is not unlike sticking your head into the dressing room where two girlfriends are discussing whether that dress makes her butt look good. Better to send your pro-bonding signals from afar, perhaps with a product comparison page that encourages users to pin their top choices so their friends can help them choose what to buy.

Collaboration: It’s not all about shopping, though. I’ve also found Pinterest to be a powerful collaboration tool for both work and home. At work, I’ve used it build a shared file of visual inspiration for an ebook design project. At home, we used it to help find a fence that also appealed to our neighbours. By inviting other people to contribute to a board, Pinterest users can collaborate in way that is easier than Google Docs, more fun than Delicious, and quicker to scan than either one.

What it means for your business: Recognize that a single pinboard may reflect the tastes or interests of several contributors. If your customers are frequently comparing a similar set of products, consider collecting all those products on a single Pinboard.

Inspiration: Many pinboards are highly personal, eclectic or quirky collections of images that users find exciting or inspiring. When I joined Pinterest, I decided it was finally time to create a “vision board,” a widely-praised technique for visualizing your professional and personal goals; I collected representative images on a single pinboard that I occasionally look at to reinforce my focus. I now use a separate pinboard to create social media infographics that can inspire my research. For users like me, images that inspire are as pin-able as images that represent what we plan to buy or wear.

What it means for your business: Engagement and branding! Create inspirational custom graphics for your blog posts or website that will appeal to your customers or clients. Cultivate your own well of inspiration by identifying the major areas where you want to develop your professional skills, and curate pinboards of inspiring images or examples that will push your own practice forward.

I try a lot of social media tools, but only a handful become part of my daily workflow the way Pinterest has in the past year. That’s why I’m convinced it’s here to stay, and why you should start using it to target your customers in the year ahead.

Who Are You Online? A 360-Degree View

This post originally appeared on the site of the Harvard Business Review.

Who are you when you go online? That’s a question that goes way beyond how you feel in your own virtual skin, and affects how we perceive and relate to one another in the world of social media. I recently gave a TEDx talk based on my HBR post, 10 Reasons to Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life. When that talk appeared on sites like The Atlantic and Slate, the comment threads revealed that many people have already embraced their online lives as real — which is why we need to stop using the acronym IRL (In Real Life) to refer to the offline world.

But many wonder whether online people are real. Those who remain reluctant to engage online often blame the frequently confrontational, hostile, or even cruel tone of online conversation. That rudeness might be a sign that we aren’t our real selves online, but some kind of demonic creature that is unleashed by the computer. Or it might be a sign that we are all too real online, liberated to be our real selves by the remove or anonymity of online communications.

The truth, of course, is that people are their real selves online — but they make wildly divergent choices about which part of that real self they’re going to share and project. Some of us may get real by becoming angels: letting down our defenses, sharing our creativity and insights, or even our most personal experiences (sometimes by getting real anonymously). Others get real by becoming devils: losing the sense of diplomacy or offline inhibitions that restrain their brusqueness, narcissism, or cruel sense of humor.

Most worrying, people are often utterly aware of whether they’re being angels or devils. They read their outbound emails through the lens of their own good intentions, their clever tweets as funny rather than mean. Online, the human struggle to honestly understand your own strengths and weaknesses is intensified by the newness of our online customs and interactions.

Fortunately, we have some offline tools that are designed to compensate for our natural inability to see ourselves as others see us — most notably, the 360. The 360 is a widely-used HR and leadership tool in which a range of colleagues, friends, and family offer their different perspectives on your skills, talents, and character, to provide a 360-degree view of who you are.

While the 360 is sometimes criticized for its limitations, undertaking an online 360 offers a huge advantage over the way people usually evaluate their online personas (either not at all, or using a dubious indicator like Klout).

To get a clear picture of your online persona — and make no mistake, the variety of ways you communicate online define your online persona in the eyes of the people who know or follow you — send an online 360 to people who know you both on- and offline, as well as to people who know you online only. (Ideally you’ll also do a 360 of people who know you offline, so you can compare your online persona with your offline personality.)

Ask your respondents to provide a scaled assessment (1= never, 10=always) on the following:

  1. Is polite and respectful in their emails, tweets, or other online communications
  2. Provides useful or informative content in their online contributions or comments
  3. Makes effective use of their time online, and responds to online communications (e.g. emails, messages), comments (on blogs or in Twitter mentions) and feedback in a timely and effective way
  4. Provides constructive feedback and generous appreciation in their online comments, replies, and other online communications
  5. Is transparent about their relationship to or financial interest in the brands, companies, and products they discuss online
  6. Makes thoughtful and appropriate choices about which on- and offline communications channels to use for different purposes or in different circumstances, and inspires or encourages others to do the same
  7. Builds online relationships that support their own work and their organization’s goals
  8. Is an online leader within their field

Combine the results of your 360 into a single tally that gives you your average score on each indicator. When you look at your average numbers, don’t worry if you’re not a 10 on all eight indicators. What’s actually most useful is to look at the relative variance across each dimension: if you’re strong on content and leadership, but weaker on politeness or constructive engagement, that tells you your persona is recognized for expertise more than conversational style. If the same is true for your offline 360 — perhaps people describe you as a smart person who can be brusque in pursuit of a goal — then your online persona may be a very accurate and consistent reflection of who you are, period.

But if your personas diverge — if you’re known for your personal touch offline, but come off as a bull in a china shop online — you may want to think about how you can translate your face-to-face interpersonal skills into your online relationships, or conversely, how to speak so that the authority and expertise you hold online is also recognized by the colleagues who work down the hall.

Just like your offline personality, your online persona now forms a significant part of your professional identity. Understanding how those personas align, diverge, and complement one another is crucial to ensure your professional effectiveness, on- and offline.

3 ways you can use Pinterest

In my Friday post for Harvard Business Review, I provided companies with some ideas about how they could use Pinterest to connect with customers. Today, I want to suggest 3 ways to use Pinterest personally:

  1. Compile a list of purchases before deciding what to buy; or use it compile a snapshot of your style that costs a lot less than the real thing. The more specific you are about your shopping list, the more helpful your board will be: “red dresses” is a better pinboard than “dresses”.
  2. Follow the friends whose style or taste you already admire, and keep your eye out for pinners who consistently pin items you love — they are doing your homework for you!
  3. If you are making a decision or working on a project that has a visual component, assembling your options or ideas on a pinboard is an efficient way to ask others to weigh in.

Excel template: 7 steps to achieving your goals

Do you have trouble making good on your New Year’s resolutions? Do you have a hard time staying focused on your most important work? Do you simply get overwhelmed by all the tasks on your plate, and worry about how to get them all done?

When I’m trying to stay on mission or on task, Excel is my best friend. That’s right: the lowly spreadsheet can be a powerful tool for accomplishing your goals. My latest blog post for the Harvard Business Review shares my 7-step process for achieving your goals, using Excel to help you focus on what matters.

Since this system is based on using a spreadsheet to sort and organize your tasks, I’ve created a multi-page Excel template that steps you through the process. Some parts of this process borrow from Stephen Covey (the idea of prioritizing tasks that regenerate you is analogous to his “sharpening the saw”) and David Allen (like the “someday/maybe” category). Most importantly, this process was inspired by my work with executive coach Jeff Balin, who kicked my ass until I finally had to acknowledge that simply putting something on my to-do list wasn’t enough to get it to done.

Download the Excel template: 7 steps to achieving your goals, and please feel free to share with friends.

10 geek gifts for this holiday season

Today’s practice: Choose gifts that celebrate the inspiring or inspired ways your friends and family use technology, instead of gifts that implicitly nag them to spend less (or more!) time geeking out.
I shared this list of geek-friendly gift suggestions last December, in a post for the Harvard Business Review. I would recommend all but one of these items as 2011 gifts, too — most are even more relevant this year (like the “feature phone” suggestion for your favourite smartphone addict).  And there are some new items I’d add to my own shopping basket or wishlist, below. 

The holiday season sends many of us into the aisles of Best Buy or the Apple Store. We might wander hopelessly through a collection of gadgets, looking vainly for something the geeks in our lives have not already acquired. Or we might scoop up the devices that our less wired friends have overlooked, seizing the opportunity to “fix” their lapses by gifting the technologies they ought to have adopted already.

In either case, we might forget that the gadget gift, while cool, is also the gift of putting someone on a technology treadmill. Come December 26, they’re immersed in manuals, learning how this thing works, transferring purchases, signing up for services, downloading apps, syncing contacts. Or, the less savvy are nervously eyeing the doodads, both intrigued and intimidated by this thing they now “have to” learn how to use.

I’m the last person to suggest that you give the electronics store a pass while doing your holiday shopping. But if you are giving the gift of technology, why not make it a technology that encourages your friends and family to make their digital lives healthier and more meaningful? Here are my suggestions for a range of gifts that will help your geeky friends tone down their online compulsions, and your less geeky friends level up:

  1. For the social media addict: HootSuite. Has someone you love become a slave to their social media presence? It’s great to see a family member or friend find success online, and we know you want to cheer them on when they reach their thousandth Twitter follower or Facebook friend. But when the need to post a status update takes precedence over the opportunity for face-to-face conversation, it’s time for an intervention. Give your addict a premium subscription to HootSuite, a service that lets them schedule the updates they want to post to Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks. That way they can queue up a day or week’s worth of updates at a time, and recover some attention for their offline lives.
  2. For the distant relative or friend: Online gaming. By now most of us have had the experience of rediscovering an old friend or lover via Facebook. But you don’t need to limit your long-distance or rediscovered relationships to the occasional status update or photo exchange. Online video games let you virtually visit with your friends or family by, say, bowling together, while you catch up. It’s a terrific way to help your kids connect with their long-distance cousins. You can find lists of recommended online games for the XBox, Wii, Playstation or iPhone/iPad; just be sure you know which platform(s) your friends/family already use, and choose a title that you can afford to buy for both them and yourself so that you can play together. Use your console’s chat system if it’s available, or dial up your pal on a land line (remember those?) while you play.
  3. For the Blackberry addict: A feature phone We all know a smartphone user who e-mails their way through date night, tweets during movies, and multitasks during meetings. “But I can’t leave home without my phone!” they object, if you try to encourage even one night off the ‘berry. The only way to help these folks is with a phone that limits them to basic connectivity. Disconnect the temptations of e-mail, Facebook or Twitter by giving your addict a feature phone, i.e. a basic, non-smart cellphone, from the same carrier that supplied their Blackberry, iPhone or Android. (You can find some basic model recommendations here.)That way they can pop the SIM card out of their smartphone and use a simple phone one day a week. Imagine the world they’ll see when they finally look up for a second. (Note: If your giftee uses an iPhone 4 or other micro-SIM based phone, you may need to buy them an extra SIM card, too.)
  4. For the civilian: Backup. Nothing does more to sour an incipient love of tech than a digital disaster. Non-geeks are doubly threatened because they can be especially vulnerable to those disasters and particularly unprepared for dealing with the consequences. Protect the less geeky members of your family or social circle by setting them up with a bullet-proof backup scheme: something that doesn’t require their active involvement to keep their data protected. A premium DropBox subscription is a great way to go. For $100, you can buy someone 50 GB worth of online storage, useful not only as a backup solution but also to keep files synced across multiple computers. Go the extra mile and set up DropBox on your pal’s computer, ensuring that their key folders are automatically synced and backed up online.
  5. For the early adopter: Keyboard case. Early adopters are the hardest folks to shop for. As an early adopter married to yet another early adopter, we struggle to find good gifts, since we own every gadget we need, and many we don’t. That’s why you’ve got to surprise us with something so new that it hasn’t yet arrived at Best Buy. But you don’t want to feed our tech fetishism with yet another device. Instead, help us make saner use of the tech to which we’re already welded. A great bet is a keyboard case that will speed up the pace of our relentless tap-tap-tapping on iPhone and iPad screens: this case turns the iPhone into a slider phone with a keyboard, and this case does the equivalent for an iPad. Just make sure your geek promises to use the keyboard to type faster, and not more. (UPDATE: I bought that iPhone keyboard for myself, and it was awful; the weighting was all wrong, and I retired it after two days. It sounds like the NUU MiniKey might be a somewhat better option.)
  6. For the kid: uDraw. Every aunt, grandfather and parent has a chance to shape how the next generation relates to technology. Is life online a series of quick hits and pointless games? Or a chance to discover meaningful human connection and self-expression? Help point kids towards the wonders of online creativity with a gift like the new uDraw studio for Wii, a drawing tablet that turns your little gamer into a little artist.
  7. For the agnostic: Songs about the Internet. Lost among the early adopters and the tech skeptics are those who are still struggling to make sense of this online world; to decide whether they want to plunge in with both virtual feet or maintain a life that’s primarily analog. Help them mull over the meaning of life online with this iTunes playlist of songs about the Internet [opens in iTunes].

    plus 3 new recommendations for 2011:

  8. For artists-with-iPads: the Wacom Bamboo stylus 
  9. For health nuts: the FitBit pedometer
  10. For mini Apple enthusiasts: the Lego Life of George set 

The most important guideline for your holiday shopping: choose a gift that celebrates what your favorite geek is doing gracefully online, instead of one that nags them to spend less (or more!) time there.

Delete your Klout profile and be more than a Klout score

Today’s practice: Refuse to quantify your worth and your relationships. Delete your Klout profile, and sign onto the Social Sanity Manifesto.

My latest blog post for Harvard Business Review outlines a Social Sanity Manifesto: a set of commitments you can make in 2012 so that the Internet becomes a place where relationships are built, not commodified. Here’s the very first commitment on the list:

I will delete my Klout profile. (If you use social media, you probably have one, even if you haven’t signed up on Klout.) I will assess my influence through my actual and reflected accomplishments, not a commodification of my relationships.

Deleting your Klout profie is an immediate and tangible action you can take to recover from metrics madness. Even if you’re not ready to turn your back on metrics, you may still want to delete your Klout profile. Klout has been criticized for violating the privacy of minors, exploiting users for their own profit, and using a deceptive or unreliable algorithm.

Yes, it feels somehow risky to drop out, in part because other apps, including the beloved HootSuite, now build Klout into some of their filters. But we should be wary of the service’s claim to reduce our importance, and our friends’, to a single number. We should be wary of building a world in which human value, and human relationships, are quantified.

Pulling the plug is simple, but not obvious, particularly since Klout changed the process after a number of pro-deletion posts were published. So I’ve mapped out the steps to deleting your profile, as they stand today. It takes a staggering 7 steps, but you can complete them all in less than 3 minutes, so just take the absurd number of steps as another strike against Klout and a good reason to kiss it goodbye.

These steps work whether you have claimed your Klout account or not, but they are a little different if you haven’t signed up for Klout. Follow the orange arrows in each picture so you know where to click.

  1. Go to Klout.com.
    >> If you have previously signed up, log in using your Facebook or Twitter account, and follow my directions for registered users.
    >> If you’ve never signed up, click on “Learn more” (see orange arrow) to get into the Klout site, and follow my directions for unregistered users. Login
  2. Unregistered users: Once you’re inside the Klout site, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “privacy”. Skip to step 5.privacy link
  3. Logged-in users: Select your profile settings from the upper-right dropdown.Choose settings
  4. Logged-in users: At the bottom of the profile settings page, choose the itty bitty “click here” link next to the assertion that “Klout values your privacy”.Klout profile page privacy link
  5. Next, you’ll land on the Privacy Policy page. At the bottom, you’ll see the following text: If are not a Klout user and wish to opt out of Klout, please click here. If you have a Klout account, please sign in before following this link in order to delete your account.  Klout privacy policy use of data
  6. Now you’re on the final appeal for mercy — a page that exists just to give you another thing to click before you delete. For logged-in users, it looks like this (click where it says, “continue opting out”):Klout opt out confirmationFor unregistered users, it shows this option instead (you’ll need to authenticate with Facebook or Twitter to complete the process):Klout opt out authentication
  7. Finally, you will see the opt-out completion form, where you get to tell Klout why you are leaving. I told them: I’m committing to the Social Sanity Manifesto! I don’t want to live in a world where my relationships are measured.
    Klout opt out form
Congratulations! You’re now Klout-free. Now that you’ve stopped allowing a company to quantify your value for their own economic gain, you may be interested in finding other ways of tracking your worthiness as a human being and/or the strength of your interpersonal relationships. May I suggest:
  • The generosity of the smile that greets you when you walk into a colleague’s office
  • Number of spontaneous hugs bestowed upon you by your children
  • How you feel about yourself when you pass by a mirror
No, none of those is a social media metric. Commit to the Social Sanity Manifesto, and discover life beyond metrics.

Countering the Excuses for Avoiding Social Media (and Video Games)

This post originally appeared on my blog for the Harvard Business Review.

“I can see why it’s important, but it’s not something I need to be an expert on myself.”

“I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

“I guess I’m too old to really get it.”

I was talking with a colleague about gaming when I heard these phrases come out of my mouth. I run a digital research centre in a city, Vancouver, that’s a serious player in the gaming industry. That means I’m one of the few people who worries that I don’t spend enough time playing video games. Sure, I have a few games on my iPhone, but as I told my colleague, I’ve got better things to do with my time, like catching up on Twitter. I’ve got a Wii, but at my age, it’s way easier to see the point of blogging than the value of World of Goo. I got a Playstation 3 so that I could play Uncharted 2 &38212; all the hype about the latest generation of truly cinematic games made it sound like an important development — but hey, I don’t need to become a champion gamer.

Holding video gaming at arm’s length felt totally justifiable, until I realized why my resistance sounded familiar. It’s the same resistance I hear — and counter — about the social web. As a social media geek, I rarely go a day without convincing a friend that even a 42-year-old can enjoy Facebook, or hectoring a colleague about how much time and effort they could save with social media communications, or coaxing a communications pro into embracing social media as a core part of their professional practice. I bat aside the protests about age, time commitment and personal preference.

Until it’s time to invoke them myself in the context of video games.

The release of the Microsoft Kinect last week once again forced me to confront my double standard. Faced with the widespread accolades for this “revolutionary”, controller-free gaming system, I felt like even a skeptic like me had to take it for a spin.

The experience was in fact revolutionary enough to inspire a set of 10 predictions for how the Kinect will change our world in the next decade. And it pushed me to think about how my anti-gaming arguments would hold up in the face of the same arguments I use to evangelize social media. Here’s how they break down:

  • I don’t need to be an expert on this. You don’t need to be an expert on everything, but you do need to be an expert in your own field. And guess what? If you’re in marketing, advertising, communications, or the media, social media is now central to your field. That means you need more than a Twitter handle and a LinkedIn profile: you need to be as comfortable choosing the right social network for an online campaign as you are choosing a broadcaster for your latest ad, and as creative in conceiving an online conversation as you are in crafting an offline message. And I’m afraid that if you’re in a media or technology field, gaming is now mission-critical too. With American teens now spending more than ten hours a week on gaming, a deep understanding the culture and idiom of video games is essential to participating in the future of in web communications, narrative and media creation.
  • I’ve got better things to do. This excuse is a pet peeve of mine. You find time for professional investments like reading trade journals or going to conferences; you may make time for hobbies like golf or knitting. What makes you think social media is intrinsically less meaningful than what’s taking up your time now? In fact, Twitter’s being used to help survivors of the Haitian earthquake. It’s fine if you have things you’d rather do than tweet, blog or Facebook, but then you’d better not want to want to work in communications or media. Because in 2010, saying you don’t think social media is worth your time is like saying your communications job is not worth your time. Same goes for video games. You need to at least have working knowledge of them or you’ll lose your job to someone who thought it was worthwhile to understand this enormous new medium.

  • I’m too old. Unless you’re reading HBR for your high school social studies class, then you’re right: you’re much too old to “get” social media. You will never be a social media native. On the other hand, that’s not an excuse to dismiss them. You simply must get comfortable working with tools and media that feel fundamentally foreign. That goes double for gaming: if you feel like you’re too old to “get” console and iPhone games, be prepared to be pwned by 3D gaming and neural interfaces. And cheer up: today’s high school students will be tomorrow’s old fogeys.

The tough love argument on video games leaves me feeling the way I see my friends and colleagues look after a good harangue on the importance of diving into social media: daunted and anxious. The Darwinian “do it or get winnowed out” lecture may be true, but it’s no way to stoke the kind of sustained enthusiasm that’s necessary to mastering a field.

Here’s what works: URLs. Point me to Dance on Broadway, a Wii game that promises to indulge my weakness for musical theater. Show me a review that makes the latest game title sound as emotionally affecting as the movies and TV shows I love. Get me to download a game that blurs the line between gaming and art.

Stop trying to convince me that learning about video gaming — or social media — is a way of avoiding professional pain, and start showing me how it can be a source of personal delight. Because nobody ever became an expert under duress. The only way to become a real expert is by loving something enough to get really, really good at it.

4 ways to protect your privacy and reputation on Facebook Timeline

My latest blog post for HBR takes a look at the new ooh! aah! Facebook Timeline, which comes tantalizingly close to fulfilling my wish list for a social media scrapbook without allowing me to easily print the damn thing already. (And I’m guessing it won’t be long before some clever company offers to do just that.)

The HBR post looks at how Facebook’s Timeline will affect your career, promising that you’ll soon know too much about your colleagues, your colleagues will know the “propersonal” you, and you’ll know more about yourself. It outlines the specific strategies you can put in place to address all three of these developments.

Developing those strategies is one way to protect your privacy. If you want to ensure that Facebook’s new Timeline doesn’t intrude on either your personal or professional life, here are three more adjustments to consider:

  1. Be your own primary audience. There’s a tendency to see any social media presence as outward-looking — after all, there is a reason it’s called “social”. In the case of Facebook’s Timeline, however, you may be your own most appreciative audience. It’s very satisfying to look back over moments in your life and have them organized chronologically, in a tidy lay-out. It’s so satisfying that you may want to record more moments so that you’ve got a more detailed record. That is a great use of Timeline, but I strongly encourage you to consider that many such posts may be for your eyes only — even if it’s simply because nobody else will be interested. Use your per-post and account privacy settings to make yourself the only person who can see some (or even most of) your past and future Timeline posts. Use the “custom privacy” setting on an individual post or picture to select “only me”. You can make that your default privacy setting by going to Privacy Settings, then Control Your Default Privacy, then choosing Custom; “only me” will be one of the options in the pop-up window.
  2. Shape your history. Your Facebook privacy settings now gives you the option, “limit the audience for past posts”.  Facebook gives you a lot of warning screens about how hitting this button means changing the settings on *all* your past posts, with no option for a one-click undo. I bravely forged again, and the result was that all my past posts were limited to Friends unless I’d previously made them visible only to a specific list of friends (like my “kid-sharing friends” list). In other words, I didn’t lose any of my previous per-post privacy customization, and I gained the freedom of knowing that random strangers won’t be able to see what I was up to in 2007. You may even want to go back and change previously shared posts to “only me”; just because you felt comfortable sharing some of those updates in a Facebook that largely hid them after a week or two, doesn’t mean you want them laid out as part of your narrative.
  3. Create an events and apps strategy. Think carefully about who should see the major life events (births, marriages, engagements, home purchases etc) that FB now invites you to add to your timeline. This is an entirely new category of Facebook post, so you may need to think through the implications. Ditto for apps: A number of apps will now make entries in your Timeline if you let them, so you may want to revisit your apps permissions.

How is the new Facebook Timeline changing your Facebook strategy? I’d love to hear your insights and stories, perhaps arranged in some sort of visually compelling, chronological interface….if only there were some way to do that.

Make Peace with Always-On Access

This post originally appeared on my blog for the Harvard Business Review.

The park ranger who helped us pick out a campsite didn’t know he was giving assistance to the enemy. He thought he was simply helping a family of inexperienced campers find a place to pitch their tent, roast some marshmallows, and give two young kids a nature experience to remember. Would he have been so helpful, I wonder, if he knew our night in a tent would inspire a plea for enhanced campgrounds?

Enhanced by Internet access, that is. After spending a couple of nights camping, I realized how helpful it was to get online in the great outdoors. We used cell-based Internet a few miles away to download (travel tips, news, audiobooks) and upload (photos, videos, Facebook updates) as needed. The connection helped us find a nearby restaurant when we had a campfire meltdown, entertained the kids on the iPad while we dug out toothbrushes and pajamas, and allowed a quick lookup of their nature discoveries (shells, birds, insects).

Because of my positive experience, I was thrilled to hear that Canada’s provincial parks have been experimenting with WiFi access for campgrounds.

A WiFi campground sounded like a swell idea, so I happily agreed to discuss its potential benefits with a local radio show. Sure, I understand why people worry that iPads and iPhones might distract kids from their chance to engage with nature, but our kids were delighted to leave their screens behind when faced with the opportunity to catch salamanders, race up sand dunes, or plunge into a cool lake. As I said on the show, if your kids have a healthy interest in the natural world, an iPad shouldn’t disrupt that. Indeed, if your kids would rather play with an iPad than go running around in the woods, maybe screens have become appealing and exotic because your kids aren’t getting enough tech time.

My comments drew quite a reaction from listeners who were shocked by my enthusiasm for net-enabled camping. The intensity of their reaction came as something of a surprise. After all, nobody is proposing mandatory net use in public campgrounds: it’s not like WiFi hotspots are going to compel campers to bring their laptops and hop online. So why isn’t this a matter of live and let live? What is it about the potential availability of WiFi for those of us who do want connectivity that intrudes on those who do not? There are a few potential answers, each of which tells us something about the challenges of living digitally:

Work pressure: “Gone fishing.” That’s the subject line on the current out-of-office email message from a colleague who wants his would-be correspondents to know that he’s not only on vacation, he’s inaccessible by email while staying at a cabin that is off the grid. In a world in which it’s become routine to exchange business emails during evenings and weekends, it can feel like the only way to draw a firm boundary around our personal time is to go somewhere that the net still doesn’t reach.

Kid pressure: “But I want to play Angry Birds!” Kids and technology are like a set of powerful magnets: it’s brilliant how well they go together until the second you try to pry them apart. If you rely on getting out of range in order to get screen-free family time, a net-enabled campground can become yet another battleground for the war on your kids’ gaming or social networking time.

Peer pressure: “Have you had Skinny Girl Margaritas? I love Skinny Girl Margaritas. I wonder where we can find Skinny Girl Margaritas? Let’s call some places to see who has Skinny Girl Margaritas.” I got treated to this live infomercial in the locker room of my gym, where a young woman was celebrating her recently completed workout by conducting a long and tedious cell phone conversation with one of her pals. A campground with a WiFi hotpot may not force us to overhear our fellow campers’ banal conversations (unless it’s a solid enough connection to support Skype), but a large-enough coverage area could see a cloud of iPad screens disrupting our sense of being out in nature.

Personal pressure: “I wonder if that email has arrived?” It’s hard to switch off the internal tracker that notes which emails have received a reply, which friends are waiting for a call, or which crises need a resolution. When you know you can check your email, it’s hard not to; when you know you can update Twitter it’s hard to let your account go dark.

These are all understandable reasons for jealously guarding the few remaining spaces where connectivity is not an option. They are even better reasons for learning how to make peace with always-on access. After all, net access is only becoming more and more widespread. Cafés, highways, salons, airplanes: thanks to 3G, WiFi, and satellites, each of these former offline refuges has now become yet another locus for our online lives. Connectivity may never become ubiquitous, but we will have fewer and fewer opportunities to escape the reach of the web.

That is terrible news — if we rely on going out-of-range as our only way of setting limits on whether, when, and how we go online. But the mere availability of a net connection needn’t leave you vulnerable to the demands of your employer, your kids, your neighbors, or even your treacherous inner voice.

What many of us forget is that we always have the choice to turn off the computer, to ignore the inbox, to resist reaching for the Blackberry while we’re hanging at the playground with our kids. Keeping WiFi out of campgrounds is like asking the park ranger to make that choice for us: to save us from the job we haven’t learned to contain, the kids we can’t say no to, the news sites we can’t resist checking. To save us from ourselves.

Better to claim the mental space created by contact with the natural world, and use it as inspiration for exercising some degree of agency over our own choices about when to go online. Or even more powerfully, to make choices about how to use ubiquitous connectivity: To reply to that email about tomorrow’s meeting or to reach out to a sick friend? To read the latest industry white paper or to write our own insightful blog post? To shop for the must-have game that your kids will play when you get home, or to search for the details on the salamander your daughter is holding in her hand, right now?

“What kind of salamanders are they?” I asked that helpful park ranger.

“I don’t know,” he told me. “You might be able to find out online.”

On the dangers of crowdsourced surveillance

My blog post for Harvard Business today looks at the troubling online reaction to last night’s riots in Vancouver. Reflecting on the widespread enthusiasm for using social media to track down criminals, I wrote:

I don’t think we want to live in a society that turns social media into a form of crowdsourced surveillance. When social media users embrace Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs as channels for curating, identifying and pursuing criminals, that is exactly what they are moving toward.

The reaction to my post has been intense. Many people seem to read my concerns about social media surveillance as an argument to let rioters off the hook. On the contrary: I hope that everyone who engaged in criminal activity last night is held accountable.

But there is a big difference between individuals cooperating with law enforcement — carefully, thoughtfully and with discretion, to reflect the presumption of innocence — and an online mob that has taken the job of law enforcement into its own hands. A Facebook page is gathering pictures and comments from thousands of people who are offering to help identify riot participants. A Tumblr site is crowdsourcing the creation of a Vancouver 2011 Riot Criminal List. And now Premier Christy Clark is going beyond a simple request to share pictures with police, and suggesting that people do so publicly:

Vancouver police are asking people to email their photos and videos to robbery@vpd.ca, or post information through Twitter at #VPD.

What makes this especially peculiar is the the Vancouver Police Department’s own statement encourages people to submit photos via email, and to share their videos privately on YouTube.

The fact that the police department itself is encouraging people to share their photos and videos privately should tell us a lot about the troubling territory social media users have wandered into. There is a reason that the state has been defined by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force: delegating law enforcement to professional police is a way of preventing vigilantism, ensuring due process and protecting civil rights.

Just as crucially, professional law enforcement protects a healthy civil society from the corrosive effects of citizen surveillance. When citizens take on the job of reporting on one another it can lead to some very dark places, very quickly. One of the most difficult revelations to emerge in the wake of German reunification was the sheer number of civilians who cooperated with the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police. About 5% of East Germans were secret informants, a culture of crowdsourced surveillance that eroded social trust and perpetuated an authoritarian state.

Precisely because social media is such a powerful tool of mass mobilization, it has the potential to turn selective cooperation with law enforcement into a mass culture of surveillance. That’s a culture in which a key responsibility of law enforcement — the tricky job of surveillance — is outsourced to citizens instead.

Police forces are typically major proponents of gun control because they know exactly what is at stake when citizens begin to take the law into their own hands.  And “taking the law into your own hands” doesn’t have to involve administering vigilante justice with a gun. It can look like people creating their own Wanted posters. It can look like employers making decisions based on online information instead of criminal records. It can look like organizing a mass, volunteer corps of police informants — exactly what is going on today.

We have seen Big Brother, and he is us.