5 life lessons you can learn from emptying your inbox

It’s day 7 of our quest for an empty inbox, and I’m now at inbox zero once again. What I’ve discovered is that while it takes me less than a week to empty my inbox, it takes more than a week to blog my methodology, so I’ll be writing further posts to clarify a few more pieces of the process. That includes a continued discussion of how to set up filters that handle the messages in your “filters needed” and “worfklows needed” folders, so if you still have some messages left there, don’t worry! Today, I’m going to help you get through those last few e-mails sitting in your inbox, and talk about next steps.

If you’ve been clearing out 20% of your inbox each day for the past 5 days, you’re down to your last 20%. You may even be further ahead. But you’ve probably got a handful of e-mails that are still in your inbox because you are, on some level, avoiding them. These e-mails, more than anything else, illuminate your core personal or professional blocks. Forcing yourself through them — the way you have to in order to empty your inbox — is not just a path to e-mail efficiency, but a very meaningful exercise in character-building. Here are some of the lessons that may lie waiting in your inbox — lessons that may help you make peace with information overload:

  1. The sushi will come around again. One type of e-mail that typically gets stuck in my inbox is what I’ll call the potential opportunity. It’s a consulting inquiry, partnership solicitation, conference invitation or other opportunity that sounds tempting but for whatever reason doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe I’m too busy to take it on, or I can’t afford to say yes, or I have a gut feeling it’s not a fit. But it sounds like the kind of thing I might regret not doing, and so even though I can’t commit to a yes, I can’t bear to deliver a “no”, either. My friend and coach Jeff Balin came up with the metaphor that has helped me come to terms with these situations. It’s the experience of sitting at one of those conveyor belt sushi places: if an awesome-looking bit of sushi comes along while your plate is really full, you may be tempted to snatch it up even though you don’t have room for it. But if you can let it float by, it may come back around once you’ve got some room on your plate…and if not, some other delicious thing will come along instead.
  2. Make no your default answer. This was one of the recommendations I made in my HBR New Year’s post last year, which talked about the importance of learning to say no. When it comes to saying no, my mostly-empty inbox has been my best teacher, since it’s forced me into the discipline of saying no to things promptly rather than letting them linger. That’s only been possible by making no my default answer; unless something is so amazing that you absolutely can’t bear to say no to it, say no. (My bet is that at least half of the hard-to-answer e-mails that currently remain in your inbox can be resolved by applying this principle, right now.) One way I’ve made it easier to say no is by writing a few all-purpose “no” messages that I’ve saved as signatures in my e-mail program, like the response that I use for “can we meet so I can pick your brain?” e-mails:

    The growing interest in social media has been great for us, but as a result I’m only able to book meetings on a consulting basis. If you’d like to schedule a consultation, I’m happy to book something; an initial ninety-minute consult is $375.

    I rarely send messages like this verbatim, but it makes it easier for me to face those awkward e-mails (I always feel rude when I decline a meeting request!) and it’s helped me learn to say no more promptly.

  3. Disappointing someone does not erase your worth as a human being. A few years into our business, we ran into the growing pains that a lot of small businesses encounter, when we suddenly found ourselves so overcommitted that we missed a number of deadlines and disappointed a number of clients. It only took a couple of months to build the systems and staff that got us out of that crunch, but they were two of the worst months of my life. The idea that I was disappointing people was completely soul-destroying, and I realized that it was because on some fundamental level I felt like my basic worth as a human being stemmed from my ability to always meet other people’s expectations. But there are moments in life when you’re going to let people down, and learning to live with that — and not letting it destroy your sense of self-worth — is crucial to performing with integrity and excellence the other 98% of the time. Once you accept that you will occasionally disappoint people, you can deal with those e-mails that require you to say no to something, to confess that you’re behind on a deadline, or even (ideally rarely) to change your mind and un-commit to a commitment you’d previously accepted. Send those painful e-mails, and you may even get a little more comfortable with your own imperfection.
  4. Don’t defer, decide. How many of the e-mails in your inbox are at least the third e-mail in a thread? You know the pattern: someone e-mails you with a request, task, idea or invitation that you can’t whole-heartedly commit to, but aren’t ready to say no to, either. So you reply with a request for more information, or ask them to e-mail you again in two weeks when your schedule is clear. Their reply comes back with the additional information or after a little time has passed, and it doesn’t fundamentally change the challenge, which is for you to make a decision and live with it. Most of the e-mails I’m tempted to defer have only about a 10 or 20% of changing my initial instinct by providing more time or move information. So if you know that you’re overwhelmingly likely to decide on a certain course — whether it’s saying no, or booking someone into your schedule, or sending someone the file they’ve asked for — just do it with your initial reply, and save yourself a lot of additional e-mail. If you can make these decisions when you first read an e-mail, rather than setting it aside for a later decision and response, you’ll become more decisive in your offline life, too.
  5. You’re not the only one with a crushing inbox. One type of e-mail I frequently avoid is the e-mail that’s been sitting in my inbox for longer than a week thanks to an e-mail pile-up. It’s so excruciating to deal with the e-mail that I’m horribly, shamefully overdue in addressing that I’d rather avoid it than send an embarrassingly overdue reply. The only solution is to grit your teeth and begin with, “I’m so sorry for this overdue reply; I’m just catching up on a terrible e-mail backlog.” If I can confess to an e-mail backlog — after writing a dozen blog posts on my commitment to inbox zero!! — so can you. And you’ll discover what I have: in a world where just about everyone is coping with e-mail overload, people understand if you’re occasionally overdue with a reply.

Almost two years into my life as a steady inbox emptier, I’ve found that the skills involved in emptying my inbox have migrated to other aspects of my life. I’m better at saying no. I’m less avoidant of difficult conversations. I’m more accepting of my own limitations.

I hope that 2011 brings you that kind of discovery. We’re living in an era of information overload: the challenge you have getting through your inbox is likely symptomatic of a larger set of challenges in keeping up with the ever-accelerating flood of tweets, messages and networks. You can let that flood carry you along, or you can focus on where you want to go, and use the challenge of filtering as a daily practice in clarifying your goals and exercising the discipline to achieve them.  Processing your e-mail to zero every day can be the core of that practice, and give you botha source of insight into your own personal and professional blocks, and a way to develop new habits that get past them.

All that, and a much, much cleaner inbox.

The 5 questions to ask about online distraction

New technology, in the form of mobile phones, email, texting, the Web, and, more specifically, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other social media, enables us to be in a constant state of distraction (what we euphemistically like to call multitasking). Our ability to immerse ourselves in a single activity is becoming a lost art.

..[M]y concern is that we will lose our ability to absorb ourselves and find delight in the minutiae of life: the subtlety of the written language found in a book, the smell of lilacs while out for a walk, the sight of a hummingbird extracting nectar from a flower, the intellectual and emotional enjoyment of a stimulating conversation. And without these “simple pleasures” perhaps what will be most lost is the depth of happiness that can only come from unmediated, complete, and sublime engagement in life.

That’s the heart of Jim Taylor’s blog post today, Be Focused, Be Happy. In the past 6 months I’ve seen a number of people advance this kind of argument about the potentially deleterious impact of the Internet, but Jim’s post has to be one of the best-written, clearest and most compelling. And for that very reason, it helped me crystallize my concern about this growing genre of “The Internet is eating our happiness” arguments.

Here are the 5 questions that any argument about the distracting impact of the Internet has to answer:

1. What is the evidence showing that the Internet is the primary cause of distraction and disconnection?

I would agree that we are a presence-starved culture. But what makes us think that the Internet is the prime culprit? Shopping, booze, drugs (both legal and illegal), TV, work…there are dozens of ways that people numb out or multitask. I can’t argue that there is an element of self-soothing distraction to some of our online behavior, but it strikes me that the distraction of using social media has the virtue of involving some kind of human connection or creative expression. This brings me to my second question:

2. What is the basis for the claim that online activities are the distraction, and offline activities are the “real” focus?

Arguments about multitasking typically imply that our Twittering is distracting us from our offline meetings, or blogging is distracting us from our face-to-face relationships. That kind of argument is based on the implicit superiority, or at least superior “realness”, of our offline lives.

Yet our offline lives are full of artificiality: moments when we fail to speak honestly. Personas we adopt to avoid awkwardness or vulnerability. Meetings we don’t want to be at, jobs or relationships we don’t want to be in. In contrast, many people embrace their lives online (often under a pseudonym) because it allows them to be more genuine than they know how to be offline.

For those of us who are sometimes at our most genuine online, it seems preposterous to see the Internet as a distraction. On the contrary, our times online may include some of our moments of greatest presence: of full-throttle, fully immersed, fully awake commitment to being ourselves. Just the kind of moment that can bring us real happiness.

3. What’s the alternative?

Of course, not every moment online is that kind of fully present moment. As with our offline lives, life online is full of empty, thoughtless, numbed-out times: I say this as a woman who has lost a really appalling amount of time this month to Angry Birds.

So I’ll give this to Jim and all the other folks who are worried about the social and mental health impacts of our increasingly wired lifestyles: the way that many of us use the net, much of the time, is indeed cause for concern. But what’s the alternative?

The implication of Jim’s post — along with the New York Times’ Your Brain on Computers series, or Nick Carr’s The Shallows — is that we’ve got to switch off. Maybe not completely, but more than we do now.

To buy that argument is to give into despair. Because if you look at our history as a species, and especially over the past two hundred years, you’ve got to admit that our track record with the off switch is not exactly stellar. Where there is a new technology, there are people using it. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single example of a technology (broadly defined) that has been widely adopted and then widely rejected on the grounds of its social/mental health impact.

Which is to say that our daily, hourly use of the Internet is not going anywhere. So rather than wringing our hands over its deleterious impact, we need to think about how to use it constructively. To notice all the ways and moments it’s actually helping us be more present and more happy.

My desire to see the Internet in positive terms, if only because I think it’s irrevocably part of our lives, leads me to ask myself a question on a weekly if not a daily basis:

4. Am I just trying to justify my life online?

The inner (and outer) voice of any addict is full of claims about why the addictive behavior is not, actually, a problem. So just as I interrogate any Internet skeptic with the three questions above, I regularly ask myself whether they might, in fact, be right about the Internet. Maybe it is just a big addiction, distraction, pathology.

And then I have one of those moments: the moment where I write something for my blog that has me deeply, fully immersed in the writing process in a way I would never experience if I didn’t have an immediate channel for self-publication. The moment when I make a human connection and talk frankly about something very personal with someone else who shares the same challenge…even though we’ve never met offline, and perhaps don’t know each other’s names. The moment when I discover some miracle of creativity and joy online because someone else has found a unique and delightful form of self-expression.

Those are the moments that let me know that my faith in our ability to make constructive, meaningful use of the Internet isn’t just the voice of denial. And they’re the moments that inspire one last question — or perhaps it’s a challenge — to everyone who worries about the deleterious effects of the Internet:

5. How could you create your own experience of presence and happiness online?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

7 practices to strengthen your online presence

Buddhists make great friends. They’re fantastic listeners, they’re thoughtfully engaged with the world around them, and if they’re the real deal, it’s calming just to be around them. But when I wrote the HBR piece about the 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life, there was one line that made me afraid to run into my Buddhist-y friends:

When you take the idea of online presence literally, you can experience your online disembodiment as a journey into your mind rather than out of your body.

Since my experience with meditation focused on getting out of your mind and into your body, I can imagine that the idea of online presence may seem like an oxymoron in Buddhist terms. The Buddhist idea of presence is about being exactly where you are, experiencing that moment, and not letting your mind carry you off with a thousand thoughts that take you away from where you are. We’re used to thinking about “where you are” in physical terms — the chair you’re sitting in, the room you inhabit, the path or sidewalk you are walking.

Woman in peaceful setting with computerAnd certainly, the experience of plugging in — whether it’s by computer, phone or iPad — often feels anything but present. You go online and you can feel yourself tuning out of the world around you, perhaps even illustrating the degree of your disconnection from body and physical presence by bumping into people as you walk and tweet at the same time.] For the same reason that it’s dangerous to talk on a cell phone while driving — researchers show the distraction comes from the driver engaging in an alternate cognitive context while at the wheel — we can see that going online takes us to something like a virtual place. That virtual place doesn’t have to be created in three dimensions like in Second Life. Even if you’re just engaging with text or voice, when you’re online you’re not fully present in the place you are physically located.

Nor can you be fully present online, if only because your body will continue to feed you stimuli from the offline world. But if you shift your attention deliberately and fully into whatever you’re doing online, the same way you might shift your weight onto one leg while still keeping both feet on the floor for balance, you can experience real online presence. If you have spent much time online, you have probably experienced some of those moments already: the moments when you feel fully immersed in the online conversation with an old friend. Or in the creative engagement of editing a film or writing an artful bit of code. Or the moments when you are overwhelmed and overjoyed by the discovery that someone else has created something miraculous online.

True online presence offers opportunities for authentic experience, connection and discovery; opportunities for joy and fulfillment. Practices like meditation, yoga and day-to-day mindfulness help cultivate the capacity for offline presence, so that we live our lives more fully. Now that we live so much of our lives online, we need similar practices for our networked time so that we can integrate our online moments into a meaningful life rather than experiencing them as moments deducted from our “real” lives. Here are some practices that foster online presence:

  1. Fully commit to your time online. To experience online presence, you need to embrace the immersive potential of the Internet and jump in with both feet. If you’re going to check your Facebook feed, don’t meander into it by absent-mindedly logging in so that you can put off the thing you’re supposed to be working on. Stop what you’re doing, and set your intention for why you’re about to log into Facebook: is it to check up on one friend? See if someone can give you that mid-afternoon lift you need? Whatever you’re looking for, dive in with clarity and really commit to your time online…even if what you’re committing to is to fully experience What Greek God Are You?
  2. Know what presence feels like. You’re unlikely to experience true online presence without a solid, visceral understanding of what presence feels like. You can cultivate your capacity for offline presence by taking yoga with a teacher who has a strong focus on breath or the spiritual side of the practice; by running, biking or swimming without your iPod and focusing on your breath; by meditating; or by simply practicing everyday mindfulness.
  3. Log the online moments that make you feel alive. Once you know what offline presence feels like, you can take note of the online moments that evoke a similar sense of satisfaction. Don’t expect online presence to mirror your experience of offline mindfulness — you may feel them in a different part of your body, or register them on a different emotional level. But when you recognize a comparable experience of focus or fulfilment, take note of it. That could mean bookmarking the site that made you go WOW! with a “onlinepresence” tag on delicious; creating an Evernote or paper notebook where you record or capture the online interactions that made you feel present; or taking a screenshot of a site or conversation you want to remember. Use your presence log to spot the kinds of online moments or interactions where you feel truly present, and pursue the digital experiences or practices that help you feel present online.
  4. Be open to serendipity. Many of my most memorable online moments have come from sites and people I stumbled across (not the same as stumbled upon). Allow yourself a certain amount of random clicking: following the cryptic tweet that points you to an unexpected URL, or visiting the delicious popular page and looking at whatever sounds interesting. Just exercise some judgement about clicking links from people you don’t know, in e-mails or tweets that sound really strange (a tip-off that your friend’s account has been taken over by some kind of bot or virus), make sure you’re running decent security software in case you click on something that’s potentially invasive.
  5. Mono-task. Give at least some of your online moments the same quality of attention you focus on your most crucial offline interactions and efforts. Turn off the TV, go into a quiet room, close all the windows except the one you want to focus on. The more you focus, the more present you will be in that online moment.
  6. Unplug when stoned. If you’ve ever played a videogame for hours and hours at a time you know the experience of being stoned on excess computer time. When I’ve been online too long I get a kind of numb feeling in my head, as if I had a really bad cold and took too much cold medicine. When that feeling comes on, it precludes any kind of meaningful online presence — and can even lead to bad decisions, like upgrading your blog software while overtired, or e-mailing the ex you swore you wouldn’t contact again. Once you’re computer stoned, unplug.
  7. Don’t drive and text. Oprah’s told you, the Department of Transportation has told you, and that guy giving you the finger as he pulls around you in traffic have told you: you’re a crappy driver when you’re texting, tweeting or even talking. But guess what? You’re also a crappy online conversationalist when you’re driving — or watching your kids, or in a meeting. True, you won’t kill anyone by going online while distracted — unless you’re part of some kind of black ops security agency, in which case, please turn off the TV before texting that “ALL 4CES GO” command. But even if your half-hearted tweeting isn’t likely to be fatal, it contributes to the impoverishment of all our lives online, and undercuts our ability to recognizing that our time online can be as meaningful and as real as we need.

Have you experienced moments when you feel truly present online? What practices help you to be digitally present? I’d love to hear them.

5 ways to get authentically naked

Sarah Wilson has busted me. In her blog post about the meaning of authenticity in an age of over-disclosure, she asks:

Blurting stuff out, warts and all, can certainly look and smell and feel real. But it’s often a seductive guise for the truth. We can carefully select what we wish to over-share, and then broadcast it on Twitter and our blogs, thus painting a picture of ourselves as wonderfully transparent. But are we just being shouty? Are we authent-a-bragging?

Or is it a bit like doing that thing that women (sorry, it’s true) do so often, where we point out our faults before anyone else can? (We’ll say things like, “I know, I know,  I’m fat today”, or “Thanks for the compliment about my lipstick, but my hair is having a frizz attack… sorry!”). When we do this we fend off perceived, impending criticism.

Sarah’s second question — about defending ourselves from criticism by beating our critics to the punch — is easier to address than the first. I can’t argue that women especially have the tendency to undercut ourselves with self-criticism, mainly because we point out our faults in an apologetic way. But Thomas Leonard, who more or less invented the idea of personal coaching, has a great take on the value of acknowledging our faults: when we “endorse our weaknesses“, we actually make it easier for others to accept and work with us.

When you post a tweet about how your poor spelling is proof that you’re an idiot, it’s not amusingly self-deprecating; it’s uncomfortably self-critical. When  you write a blog post about how you’ve concluded that your terrible spelling means you’ll never get a job in editing, but has liberated you to write blog posts that put the focus on your ideas rather than your writing, you’re actually helping your reader know what to focus on and appreciate. I know that many of my favorite blog posts have done just that: helped me relax about my own flaws, or stop focusing on a flaw that bugs me in other people, because someone’s confessional “over-disclosure” has helped me see that flaw in a new light.

Sarah’s point about self-serving self-disclosure poses a tougher challenge. What she calls “authent-a-bragging” (a term that deserves a ™, BTW) takes both blatant and subtle forms. I’ll spare the world another rant about all the tweets to the effect of “Just got off the phone with an incredibly high-profile client who is going to pay me tons of money based on my brilliant work”, but suffice it to say that I had to coin the #hotshit hashtag to deal with them.

But I’m not above the occasional authent-a-bragging myself. Just the other day I posted a gloating tweet, arguably making it extra obnoxious by framing it with a “I usually avoid the ‘yay, me’ tweets, but…”, thereby implying that self-restraint is the only thing keeping me from hourly reports on my own brilliance. (I hope you all appreciate how I’m using this to illustrate Sarah’s point about online self-criticism.)

There’s nothing wrong with sharing both pride and regrets when they help you create an authentic presence online. We all have moments of great joy and accomplishment, and we all have moments of self-doubt. Sharing those moments online give other people a chance to learn from both your weaknesses and your strengths, a way to put their own deeds and misdeeds in context, and a chance to offer you congratulations or support.

But as Sarah points out, there are few among us who are equally comfortable crowing and crumbling. Even if it means violating the rules of netiquette, we cultivate a persona of eternal confidence, or develop an online schtick about our endlessly amusing foibles. While either approach offers the benefit of building a consistent personal brand, that brand bears little resemblance to an actual human being.

Sarah suggests the solution is to “be alive to the issue. And practice NOT saying the shouty, over-sharey stuff, unless it serves a purpose beyond simply putting up a wall.” But most people need some tools or structures to help them identify when they are being “over-sharey” or simply transparent and authentic; to help them identify when they have a purpose or when they are “putting up a wall”. Here are some online practices that can help you tune into the distinction, on- and offline:

  1. Consciously cultivate balance. If you typically tweet humorous (or not-so-humourous) self-deprecating remarks, stretch yourself by tweeting an equal number of reflections on your latest insights or accomplishments.
  2. Interrogate your confessions. Review each blog post you write or video you create, and ask yourself what revelations (if any) would shock your mom, your kindergarten teacher, your preacher or your boss. Then ask what each of these revelations accomplishes. It’s ok if they have purely aesthetic value (“I love the way my naked butt looks against that red background!”) or expressive value (“I’m going to feel so much better once everyone knows I’m the one who stole our elementary school mascot.”) But know, explicitly, why you’re revealing what you’re revealing.
  3. Be your best friend. When you are about to post something self-critical, imagine what your best friend would say to make you feel better about it. An authentic self-portrait may include the admission that you can’t remember names; your best friend would have you tweet that “Even if I never remember anyone’s name, I always remember at least one thing they told me about themselves.”
  4. Be your bitchiest relative. Everybody has at least one relative who sees ego deflation as a sacred responsibility. The next time you’re about to post a self-congratulatory update, imagine that bitchy relative’s reaction, and incorporate it into your narrative: “Thrilled our pitch went over well. Amazing what you can do by blowing three months’ worth of grocery money on a single logo!”
  5. Time travel. Take a look at your blog posts, videos or tweets from a year ago. What’s your gut reaction? Do you like the person you see? If you read that level of disclosure from a stranger, would you find the content inspirational or uncomfortable? If you don’t feel good about the online you from a year ago, it’s time to re-evaluate the online persona you are creating.

As a chronic over-discloser, I’m reluctant to see concerns about over-sharing disrupt the medium that has finally given me a community of fellow over-disclosers. We are the people who strip naked, online and off, literally and metaphorically.

And yet we’re no different from the people who keep it all under wraps. Over-disclosure, like secretiveness, is ultimately a mechanism for managing the anxiety that arises from living in a community. We know that other people may judge us, so we either rush to put it all out there, or struggle to keep it all hidden.

Social media means that over-disclosers now have a permanent record of our coping process. Let’s make that record as authentic as possible.

5 paths to self-discovery online

Between Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and my recent presentation at Northern Voice, I find myself thinking a lot about the post I wrote last summer on 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your online life. That post was a call to arms, to embrace our online lives as real and stop distinguishing between online and IRL — “In Real Life”. But what really interests me about us embracing our online lives as real are the specific practices that help people live those real lives with integrity.

The promise (and the difficulty) of translating the possibilities for online authenticity into daily lived reality are clearest when you look at the way the Internet can help us be our truest selves. This post was my effort at outlining some practices that can help.

A few years ago I attended a conference where I’d done my homework, Googling the people I was most excited to meet. So when I was introduced to G., I had my opening line all ready: “It’s great to meet you! There aren’t many government officials who manage to launch a successful screenwriting career, too.”

Her eyes widened and her boss — standing right next to her — looked just as surprised. “I didn’t know you were a screenwriter,” he said.

That exchange taught me a couple of lessons. One is that you should never assume that what you learn about someone on Google is known to the people in their offline life. But that was overshadowed by the realization that the Internet could give voice to passions and dreams that might otherwise remain not only unknown, and unexplored.

Or as I put it in my latest blog post for Harvard Business Review:

When you commit to being your real self online, you discover parts of yourself you never dared to share offline.

That’s one of 10 reasons to stop apologizing for your life online that I offer in my post. It’s a response to the gathering storm over how the Internet is making us shallow and how what we really need to do is unplug.

But the off switch is an awfully blunt instrument for dealing with the human challenges we face online. Instead, I argue that we can rediscover the Internet, and find a way of being online with integrity and purpose. The key is to throw out the false dichotomy between online and “real” life, and instead focus on the ways we can make our online lives real and meaningful.

And one of the key ways to make your online life more meaningful is to use it as an outlet for self-discovery and self-expression. Here are 5 ways you can use the Internet to get to know yourself a little better:

  1. Create a pseudonym. It’s great that you’re building a personal brand online. But if that brand is linked to your legal name or professional reputation, there are going to be things you don’t say and communities you don’t participate in. Create a truly untraceable pseudonym — one that isn’t linked to your business e-mail address — and use it to participate in personal conversations. Being your real self isn’t the same as using your real name; in fact, it’s sometimes easier to be authentic when it feels like nobody’s looking.
  2. Get support. Once you’re liberated by your pseudonym, you can get encouragement on your secret dreams, or support on the problems or challenges that are too awkward to discuss face-to-face or online under your own name. Write that first novel, with the support of a group for new authors. Find out if you’re supposed to have red spots down there. Talk to other people whose spouse does the same annoying thing that has you fuming at yours.
  3. Bookmark your passions. If you’re using Twitter, delicious or Google Reader’s “favorites” button to keep track of relevant blog posts and web sites, you may have discovered that this is an easy way to solidify and showcase your professional expertise. The same tools can help you discover your passions and interests — if you create separate accounts or tags for tracking the stuff that catches your eye, but has nothing to do with work. Spend a few months bookmarking stuff simply because you like it and you will then have a file you can review to notice any patterns or interests you didn’t know you had.
  4. Budget for personal time online. Now that social media has become so central to so much of our professional life, it’s easy to lose track of the joys that made us fall in love with social media in the first place: Mommy blogs. Silly Flickr photos. Intense discussions about The Simpsons. Commit to spending a certain number of hours online each week for the pure fun of it, and you’ll have a chance to connect with people who care about what you have to say not because you’re the leading expert in your professional field, but simply because they can’t understand how anyone could like Marge more than Homer.
  5. Maintain a personal web presence. You may be the most successful blogger or Tweeter in your company, but nobody should be all work and no play online. Create a channel for your own thoughts and expressions, whether it’s a family blog that you keep entirely separate from your work blog, a Facebook account where you only connect with a small number of close friends, or a LiveJournal that you keep entirely anonymous. You’ll know you’ve got a personal presence that works for self-exploration if you feel genuinely uninhibited about sharing your half-baked ideas and self-doubts.

How has the web helped you develop a more honest sense of yourself? I’d love to hear your stories.

Originally published July 15, 2010.

6 Ways to Get Wired and Inspired

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

The Internet has a terrible way of distracting a girl: You sit down to search job postings, and you end up in a chat room with some guy in Thailand who wants to know how you refinished your floors.

When I posted my long-term goals online in December 2004, it was a way of procrastinating the immediate goal of getting a job:

  • Be invited to a gay wedding.
  • Hire our first fabulous employee.
  • Meet Stephen Sondheim.
  • Never use the word “synergy.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of yielding to the siren song of online distraction, you can use your computer to connect to your goals—and to find the inspiration to achieve them.

That’s exactly the point of 43 Things, the website I used to record my goals. It asks a simple question, “What do you want to do with your life?” and gives you a quick way to record up to 43 answers. Five years after recording my initial goals, I’ve crossed almost two dozen off my list…including some big ones, like “start a company that lasts longer than two years,” “create a writing group” and “potty-train my son.”

I’d love to tell you that 43 Things is the tooth fairy of the Internet: Stick your to-do under a virtual pillow and wake up to a giant check mark. But no, I had to do the hard work of finding clients, fellow writers and rubber bedsheets. What 43 Things supplied was the focus, advice and support to help me do it.

We tend to think of setting goals and seeking inspiration as highly personal. But achieving our goals is not always a solitary pursuit: The encouragement and resources of a larger community can help us do something we couldn’t do alone.

Your computer can support both sides of this equation. It can be a solitary meditation room, an artist’s garret, a silent retreat or even the red carpet entrance to the party of your dreams—where your best friend, favorite musician and newfound mentor gather to offer help and cheer you on.

Here are some of the ways you can plug into inspiration on your solitary desktop or on the social Web:

Create an Inspiration Playlist
Use iTunes or your favorite MP3 manager to create a playlist of songs that inspire you. Since I’m a big Broadway nerd (yes, in addition to being a tech nerd), my playlist is full of my favorite inspiring show tunes like “No One Is Alone” (Into the Woods) and “What I Did for Love” (A Chorus Line). I listen to it when I’m working on a creative project, going for a run or just need a boost. Burn your playlist to a CD so you can have copies in your car and at work: Nobody needs to know that you wrote that terrific report while listening to “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Create an Inspiration Feed
As fascinating as it is to read about the Fruit Loops my best friend is eating for breakfast, sometimes I want a little more fiber in my Facebook or Twitter feeds. So I’ve created a group of people to follow on Twitter strictly for their inspiration value. It includes the latest tweets from the likes of David Badash (a prolific, funny and thoughtful gay rights activist and writer), Tricycle magazine (a Buddhist publication) and Angela Raincatcher (an artist). I peek at the latest tweets from my “inspire” group throughout the day; these words of inspiration are a great counterweight to the gossip and links that otherwise overwhelm my online experience. You can do the same thing on Facebook by creating a list of your most inspiring friends and clicking on the name of that list when you’re viewing your Facebook homepage.
Inspire Your Password
Using your dog’s birthday as your email password may help you remember to pick up an extra juicy soup bone when the big day rolls around, but it’s not doing anything for your inspiration-starved soul. Take those passwords you punch in day after day after day—your email password, your Facebook log-in, even your bank PIN—and turn them into pick-me-ups. Try a password like B3Y0urs3lf or JustD01t or Trust1nU, mixing letters with numbers (4 for A, zero instead of O, 1 instead of L or I) for extra security.

Bookmark Your Inspiration
You’ve got browser bookmarks for every newsletter in your field and every after-school program in your neighborhood. That’s great for your work and your kid—but what about your heart? You can use your browser’s bookmark collection to create collections of online resources related to spirituality, creativity, mental health—whatever inspires you and keeps you on track. My inspiring bookmarks range from ideas for beating writer’s block to short meditations that inspire me.

Inspire Your Desktop
The background on your computer doesn’t have to be an ad for your computer manufacturer. Whether you’re moved by a panoramic view of the Himalayas or a close-up of Hugh Jackman’s abs, stick those inspiring ridges where you’ll see them every day: on your computer’s desktop. Starting up to the sight of Hugh’s six-pack may be just the thing to lift you out of your morning blahs.

Share Your Inspirations
“I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” I had listened to this line from the musical called [title of show] 900 times before I finally had to write a blog post about how it inspired me. As I struggled to describe the impact the show had on my life and work, I uncovered new lessons in it, like how to separate yourself from how other people see you. When you share a blog post, Facebook update or YouTube video about what inspires you, you’re not only helping other people discover a new source of wisdom or courage: You’re likely to come to a new understanding of what helps you soar.

These practices won’t turn you into a digital Buddha, someone impervious to the magnetic appeal of Perez Hilton’s latest headline and Zappo’s latest sale. What they can do is rebalance the scales: to edge you away from a tech life that toggles between relentless offline productivity and mindless online distraction.

“Productivity tools” like computers and smart phones can be transformed into personal touchstones, and “buddy lists” can become support groups. Now that’s what I would have called synergy.

Making time for creative expression online

Creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

[T]he bad news: You have to make time to do this.

This means you have to grasp that your manic forms of connectivity—cell phone, email, text, Twitter—steal most chances of lasting connection or amazement.

So Anne Lamott writes in a wonderful piece for Sunset Magazine, Time lost and found. (Thanks to Britt Bravo for pointing me to it!) It’s no accident that her article initially points to all the online activities that steal our time — though she eventually gets around to acknowledging lots of other time sinks. But the go-go, non-stop web is the distraction that so many of us notice (and resent) the most, if only because it’s the newest and fastest-growing source of interruption in our lives.  And our unease with the interruption reflects the fact that what we’re interrupting, so often, are those pursuits that are most likely to make us truly happy: The time to connect with friends. The opportunity for self-expression. Simple quiet.

But our time online doesn’t have to pull us away from what really matters. The irony of Lamott’s piece is that the very joy she urges her readers to make time for — the pursuit of creative self-expression — is one that the web makes vastly more accessible. Yes, the satisfactions of writing (among other forms of expression) are available even if you never get published — as Lamott points out in her excellent book, Bird by Bird. But for a lot of us mere mortals, the possibility that someone could read your words (or see your photographs, or listen to your music) is a useful motivation, a source of sustenance during those moments when we wonder exactly why we’ve skipped the gym five days in a row in order to write.

The same online tools that can distract us from self-expression also serve as a gateway to the possibility that yes, someone will see what you’ve taken the time to create. Whether you’re a published author or a first-time writer, you can write a blog that gives you an audience not in six months (when that magazine finally hits the stands) but today. You can post your photos to Flickr and add them to a collctively-curated collection of related images. You can record your song in Garage Band and share it on Jamendo. You can make your brilliant movie and distribute it on YouTube or Vimeo. In fact, it’s hard to think of a form of creative expression that can’t be somehow produced and shared online.

And the web offers more than a distribution channel: it can be a powerful source of inspiration and support, as I described in my recent post on 9 ways social media can support your creativity. You can maintain an always-accessible inspiration file with a tool like Evernote, which lets you access your notes via computer, web or smartphone. If you can’t find another local artist to critique your work — or the time to get together — you can get support, feedback and encouragement online. You can ferret out the facts for your historical novel using YouTube and Wikipedia, or find  the right palette for your next painting at ColourLovers.

But the web’s creative riches and possibilities remain elusive as long as you relate to it in the manner that Lamott describes: as the always-on, non-negotiable distraction that demands your attention and dictates how you spend your time. If you want to take her advice to “fight tooth and nail” for the time to pursue your creative expression, you’ll need to turn the web into an ally rather than an enemy in that fight. That means thinking about your top priorities before you sit down at the keyboard (or pick up that iPhone) and directing your online minutes towards the sites, activities and relationships that help you pursue what matters.

What matters most, as Lamott points out, are those creative outlets that make us feel truly alive. Before you click another link, join another network or send another text message, I highly recommend reading her excellent article. It will reinforce your resolve to make the most of your time — online and off.

Kill your tech truths

I recently read a profile of the performance artist Marina Abramovic, whose work is currently featured in a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Abramovic’s signature works include Rhythm 0, in which she lay passively in a gallery next to a series of objects that audience members could use on her body, including to injure her; The Lips of St. Thomas, in which she cut a pentagram into her stomach using a razor; and Balkan Baroque, in which  the artist spent hours sitting in a basement room, scrubbing maggot-covered, rotting cowbones.

While I was still mulling over how I could get to New York for the exhibit — and whether I was brave enough to see it! — I landed in a crunch week that blocked out all thoughts of weekend getaways. I got the great news that my first blog post for Oprah.com was going to go live — a post that would link both to my blog and to the SIM Centre’s. I had three days to get my blog cleaned up, and to get the SIM Centre site — at that time, a bare-bones placeholder — ready for public consumption. So I went into overdrive, and the day that my Oprah post went live, I was more than a little bleary-eyed.

“I hear you were working until 4 last night!”, a colleague exclaimed when I showed up.

“The last three nights, actually. But you know, that’s what it takes to launch a web site.”

She looked at me, incredulous. Her face portrayed the same mix of fascination and horror I’d felt when reading about Abramovic’s work. To my colleague, 3 consecutive late late work nights sounded about as pleasant as cutting a pentagram into my flesh.

I relayed this story to Lauren Bacon, a friend and colleague with her own successful web shop, Raised Eyebrow.

“You know what it’s like, don’t you? You just can’t get a web site done without all-nighters.”

“Actually, we have a no overtime policy,” Lauren told me. My jaw dropped.

“How do you get your sites launched?”

“We plan our development process out,” she told me. “It’s very rare that anyone has to stay late.”

I was astonished. Lauren’s been in the development business longer than I have. With no all-nighters?

The intensity of the shock was my sign that something was up. Shock happens when something collides with a baseline, unshakeable truth. And I’ve trained myself to be suspicious of unshakeable truths: it’s the absolute truths that always get you in trouble. Absolute truths hold you back, tell you something has to be a specific way and can’t possibly be any different.

And tech truths might be the most pernicious kind. After all, much of the power and efficiency of technology lies in its consistency, structure and predictability. We’re taught to think of technologies as constants…and so we fall into thinking of tech in absolutes, and getting attached to truths that hold us back more than they help us.

Here are some of the tech truths that I hear a lot — either in my own head, or from other people:

  • I have to respond to every email.
  • If we let our employees access Facebook they won’t get any work done.
  • Social media is for people who don’t value their privacy.
  • I have to be on Facebook (or Twitter, or FourSquare, or….).
  • I’m no good at computers (programming, cell phones, blogging, etc).
  • I need more followers/friends/contacts in my network.
  • I can’t go on vacation without my Blackberry.
  • I’ll never convince my boss to use social media.
  • Macs are so much better than PCs.
  • I don’t have time for social networking.

Do any of these sound familiar? Well, just because it made the list doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But if any of these lines is something you say (or think) a lot — and the more certain you are that it’s right — the more you need to step back and ask whether it’s a truth that’s serving you well. It’s these certainties that lock us into limitations that keep technology from being as useful to us as it can be, or that keep us from recognizing when it’s time to unplug and connect with people (or ourselves) offline.

If you’re ready to rethink one of your tech truths, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who else thinks this is true? Does that person have the kind of life, work or attitude I want for myself?
  • Who do I know who doesn’t believe this? What does she or he have to say about this?
  • What’s a gentle way I could push my limits? Can I think of a one-day or one-week experiment that would let me try out a different approach?
  • What frightens me about letting go of this truth? What’s the worst thing that could happen if it were true, but I tried acting as if it weren’t?
  • If this weren’t true, what would I do differently? What possibilities would emerge?

These are the questions I’m now asking about one of my most pernicious tech truths: the Law of the All-Nighter. Yes, I know lots of other developers who subscribe to this law — and like me they experience the pain of the morning (and week) after. Lauren’s experience proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. I could try another approach by promising that my next web project will involve no work after midnight — and by making that a project without a fixed launch date.

And while there are some fears around letting go — what if I never get the site finished? won’t I miss those crazy, focused late night work sessions with Rob? — there’s also the relief of imagining a web launch that isn’t followed by a week of total exhaustion and physical collapse.

If I can kill one tech truth, I know I can kill others. What are the tech truths that you need to kill?

9 ways social media can support your creativity

computer with brushes and paintsSome new mothers worry about when they’ll get to sleep through the night; I worried about when I’d get to write a novel. I’d always figured that I’d write a book some day, but now that I had a kid, would some day ever come?

For me, the answer lay online. Not in an online writing group: I felt far too protective of my writing to consider sharing it with people I’d never met. But I was brave enough to reach out to other local writers by using the web to connect.  I found a couple of other writer friends who liked the idea of starting a creative writing group for people like us: people who earned a living as professional writers or communicators, but wanted an outlet for personal writing. I created a simple web site that explained the purpose of the group, with an application form for would-be members. Once we had found our fellow writers, we used a Yahoo Group to run an e-mail list that let us schedule meetings, circulate drafts and store files.

Whether your creativity takes the form of a solitary activity like writing or painting, or is intrinsically collaborative (like theater or filmmaking) the web can help you connect to the people, resources and ideas that foster your creativity. Creativity often demands social connection: for peer support, for feedback, for knowledge, for collaborators.

The social web offers a lot of ways to capture, hone and feed your creativity:

  1. Find your medium. YouTube not withstanding, the web is still a text dominant medium. Blogging makes it easy for writers to find a creative outlet online; photographers have Flickr, and filmmakers have YouTube. But there are lots of creative projects that don’t fit inside these boxes, so you’ll need to get even more creative in finding your online voice. Take pictures of your canvases; shoot a video of someone interacting with your installation piece; film your play, tape your song, make your own music video.
  2. Engage another hemisphere. I rely on my netbook for writing – but I rely on my iPhone to spark my creativity. Not by serving up poetry or inspirational stories: by turning off the very parts of my brain that are key to my writing. When I hit a wall, I pull out my iPhone and plug into a game of Flight Control: an utterly uncreative, dangerously addictive game that involves landing planes on a tiny landing strip. A few minutes of Flight Control is so absolutely absorbing that it lets my creative neurons recharge until they’re ready to fire up again.
  3. Collaborate. My first adult forays into fiction writing happened spontaneously online. An online chat with a pal turned into an extended riff on a “what if” scenario, and within an hour we’d written our way into a story. Over the following weeks it grew into a manuscript, albeit one that we never published or even edited. But even in raw form, that collaborative writing process reconnected me with my writer self. I was far braver as part of a team than I was able to be solo; by collaborating online, I rediscovered the joy of writing and recommitted to writing on my own.
  4. Keep an inspiration file.“Things that aren’t even cats”. It’s a line from a Malcolm In the Middle episode that has become our internal label for “none of the above”. I’m not sure why we find it so compelling, but somewhere in that phrase lies the kernel of a story about organizing ideas online. And when the inspiration for that story hits, I’ll be ready, because I am religious about maintaining a list of story ideas in Evernote, an application that keeps my notes synced between my mac, my netbook and my iphone. Wherever I am, I’m always ready to jot down an idea or retrieve one.
  5. Talk it out. Sometimes the mere act of writing something down strips it of its passion – or feels like too big an obstacle. Text recognition services and software can help you brainstorm out loud, whether by writing full documents by voice, or just using a mobile service like Jott to make calls that will get transcribed and set back to you as notes.
  6. Relocate. When I want to do an intensive bit of writing, I have to get out of the house and out of the office. But I don’t need a quiet garret: I do best in a cafe with lots of light, and interesting people who aren’t too creeped out when I stare blankly into the middle distance that they happen to be sitting in. I’ve made it easy to dive into a day of cafe writing by buying a tiny, lightweight computer just for writing days; it’s always packed into a tiny backpack that’s ready to go with the essentials for a day of writing. (The essentials: computer, mouse, headset, advil, hand cream, nicorettes). And I use a couple of programs that ensure my writing machine can access any relevant notes on my primary computer: Evernote, which is my master notebook, and Dropbox, which lets me keep a folder full of files synchronized across computers.
  7. Find material. Artists are the world’s most incorrigible thieves. As anyone with a writer friend can tell you, everything is subject to appropriation: that quip you made at a party, the video of your first birthday party, the story of your most painful breakup. The social web liberates you from stealing from your friends’ lives, and opens the door on a world full of images, characters and experiences that are yours to borrow and embroider. Stay within the bounds of intellectual property law (i.e. no stealing someone else’s words, images or stories) and you can find all the real life material you need online.
  8. Remove distractions. The same computer I use for my creative projects also contains an endless series of distraction. My hard drive is never more organized than the day before a major writing process: I can procrastinate for hours by consolidating folders, renaming files and optimizing my software setup. To limit my techie procrastinations, I use a separate computer on writing days, and keep it as light as possible: I’ve deliberately minimized the number of software tools installed on my writing machine, and I use a low-powered computer that makes it hard for me to run distracting programs or do much geeking out. I also keep a separate, distraction-free account on my primary computer: if I want to write, I switch to my alternate login, which denies me access to the chat programs, email and files that would pull me out of writing brain and into work or geek brain.
  9. Expand your horizons. I’ve always been comfortable with words, and assumed that in some previous life I accepted the deal that my ability to write would come with an inability to draw a straight line with a ruler. My family is full of visual artists, but drawing stick figures appears to be the outside limit of my artistic capacity. Happily, I’ve discovered that online design doesn’t require the kind of eye-hand coordination that has always defied me: I’ve created photo collages, illustrative graphics and entire web page designs, and had a heck of a good time doing it. You may have a preferred medium, but trying out other forms of creative expression online – whether it’s making a movie, recording a song, or writing a poem – can help you discover other kinds of creativity in ways that fuel your primary creative commitments.

Are you an artist/geek — or a geek/artist? Or maybe even a techno-skeptic who has nonetheless found ways of harnessing technology to your creative self-expression? I’d love to hear about the  practices, tools and work habits that have helped you turn the social web into a tool for supporting your creativity.

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5 ways to shape the soul of the Internet

Does YouTube make people into exhibitionists? Does Facebook stunt teenagers’ social skills? Does 43Things help people realize their dreams?

Journalists, academics and web surfers have been arguing over whether the Internet is Ultimate Good or Ultimate Evil long before the social web (a.k.a. “web 2.0″) came along. But blogs, social networks and other kinds of online communities have raised the stakes and intensified the debate. Social web sites are more intensively interactive, and more socially connected, so they offer users an experience that is potentially more compelling (or in the view of Internet skeptics, distracting/disengaging) and (in the view of Internet boosters) more elevating, because they realize the Internet’s potential for forging and deepening interpersonal and community connectedness.

As online community strategists we spend a lot of time thinking about the Internet’s impact at this level: the meta level of community design and planning. We try to create sites, tools and communities that deepen community members’ connection to one another, that offer meaningful outlets for expression and conversation, and that build social capital. We think about communities as whole systems, and try to create conditions to make those systems socially constructive.

But I recently read a book that inspired me to think about how individuals can shape the social impact of the Internet. The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist, looks at money as a social system, and suggests how each of us can transform our relationship to that system, and our relationship to money itself, by acting with integrity in all aspects of our relationship to money — whether it’s in how we earn it, spend it, or give it. It’s a book with a profound and powerful vision for social change, and an equally profound vision for personal change, both of which can be accessed and catalyzed through our individual mindset and actions in relation to money.

The moment I finished reading Twist’s book, I saw that her perspective on money — that each of us must “be the change we wish to see in the world “, in Gandhi’s words — applies equally to the Internet. Twist writes that “money is like water. It can be a conduit for commitment, a currency of love.” I would say say that the Internet, too, is like water: we can direct its flow towards our most craven instincts (spam, porn, gambling) or towards our vision of what the world can be like (online volunteering, e-giving, digital art).

The Internet may not yet be quite as pervasive or all-encompassing as money. But as it structures or touches more and more of lives — our personal and professional communications, our ways of meeting or staying in touch with people, our financial, information and sexual transactions, our creative outlets and our entertainment consumption — our relationship to the Internet becomes a powerful expression of our personal and social values, and a crucial opportunity for both personal and social change.

Just as the soul of money, or the role of money in the world, is the product of individual decisions as well as systemic forces, the soul of the Internet can be shaped by how we individually engage with the online sphere. Whether the Internet alienates and isolates us, or connects and enriches us, is not just determined by web developers and social media strategists.

The social value of the Internet is determined by how each and every one of us uses the Internet as a communications medium, social space and support tool. How we experience the Internet in our daily lives — whether we experience it as a dehumanizing void in which e-mail replaces face-to-face interaction, or as a meaningful community in which we discover new commonalities and connections — is a choice we make every day, with every message we send or browser page we load. Those choices can add up to personal and social alienation, or personal and social transformation.

What kinds of choices can create a relationship to the Internet that supports positive personal and social change? Let me propose a starter list of principles:

  • Give your attention to sites, people and organizations that reflect your true values. When I talked about the Soul of Money with my husband, he summed up his own approach to values-based spending with the following: “every dollar you spend on something is a vote to have more of that thing in the world”. On the Internet, every page you load is a vote to have more of that kind of content, or more of that kind of interaction. That doesn’t mean a diet of digital granola: you can have your virtual froot loops, too. But try redirecting your video surfing to indie films instead of gossip clips, or sending a personal hello instead of a generic Facebook poke.
  • Find love online. Love online can’t be relegated to match.com. We need to bring the very highest qualities of empathy, respect and affection to our online interactions…in as many contexts as possible. The Buddhist practice of metta — meditation to foster loving kindness in ourselves and the world — counsels us to begin by meditating with love towards ourselves, our family, and our dearest friends, and gradually expand that attitude of love to encompass a larger and larger circle, and eventually the world.We can use the Internet to entrench and amplify our confrontational and hostile social dynamics. Or we can make our online interactions a practice in loving kindness by approaching each online interaction, even writing each e-mail message, as if it were an affectionate encounter with a dear friend. Yes, we need to be sensibly discreet and protective in an environment that is currently rampant with abuse, fraud and predation — but caution can co-exist with connection, and even hostility can be met with empathy and kindness. Indeed, with the amount of time we now spend online, we can’t afford to spend it in a mindset of suspicion; we must find ways of experiencing our online hours as a practice in forging and deepening relationships.
  • Let down your guard. We live in a fairly guarded society. From locked doors and car alarms to invitation-only parties and call screening, our physical spaces and social practices often serve to keep people out rather than bring them in. The anonymity of the Internet, and many of the emergent pathologies that anonymity makes possible, have led many Internet users to be even more guarded online than they are in their offline lives. Guarded equals disconnected; every wall we put up makes it harder to discover new people, ideas or experiences.But anonymity affords a certain kind of safety, too: a safety in which new levels of candor and connectedness can thrive. Indeed, if you talk to people who enjoy spending a lot of time online, they will often tell you how much they treasure anonymity (or degrees thereof) because it frees them to have honest conversations or forge deep friendships in the absence of superficial social judgements. Experiment to find out whether your truest self emerges from anonymity, or from disclosure. Embrace the Internet as a place where you can be more honest (but with kindness) or more transparent (but with some discretion) and thus experience a new kind of social intimacy. Put more of yourself out there, and let in more of other people by absorbing other people’s blog posts, videos, photos and ideas without the social filters that often shape our in-person perceptions of others. Personal transparency builds interpersonal trust, and interpersonal trust builds social capital.
  • Give as good as you get. There’s a reason a lot of people describe social media or Web 2.0 as “user-contributed media”. A lot of the sites you now enjoy — whether it’s Flickr, YouTube or Boing Boing — are driven by regular folks (or at least, one-time regular folks). That spirit of contribution is the cultural shift that we need social media to nurture; to transform us from a disconnected culture of passive TV consumers to an awake and alive community of creative expression. So don’t engage with the Internet as a passive consumer: embrace and nurture the spirit of expressive and contribution by participating actively yourself.
  • Fuse the power of money and technology. The soul of the Internet is not just analogous to the soul of money; they’re interconnected. The Internet is our bank, our shopping mall, our charity box. Taking our financial transactions, shopping and giving online is an opportunity to transform our dysfunctional experiences on those fronts into more meaningful and effective interventions. You can shop at Etsy instead of Overstock, or supplement habitual workplace charitable giving with personal investments on Kiva.

I expect that these principles will feel most alien, and most challenging, to people who currently experience the Internet through a filter of mistrust, hostility or simple frustration. Many of the people who talk to me about their concerns about the Internet are people who are passionate about our very fragile and very beautiful offline world, and see the Internet as a distraction from the real-world relationships and challenges that need our attention.

But these — you! — are the people who most need to shift their approach to online interaction towards a paradigm that is both personally and socially productive. The Internet is too powerful and too pervasive to be left as the province of people who don’t need or value interpersonal conection. Every online encounter that dispenses with personal affection in favour of brusque efficiency or places self-protection ahead of empathy for others, pushes the Internet towards an online culture that is as pathological as our worst offline moments.

The answer, both personally and socially, is to consciously embrace the Internet as a new frontier for community and connection. The Internet can be abandoned to those who see only its commercial opportunities. Or the soul of the Internet can be forged, and found, by those of us who care about the quality of human connection and community.

If you believed the soul of the Internet was crucial to the future of our planet, how would that affect the way you spend your time online?

What principles guide your use of the Internet — and what principles would you suggest for others?