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New-Logo-Vertical-DarkDamn it Uber, I like you so much as a service. You’re everything I look for in a disruptive business concept: grass roots, reliable, demonstrably better than the status quo. So why do you keep doing such terrible, terrible things as a company? You’re coming perilously close to my Chicken McNugget line.

Everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. It works like this. The average American attempt at dieting lasts a day and a half – it gets broken at about 3pm the second afternoon. That’s the point at which the brain says, “Listen – I respect that you’re dieting, really! But here’s this doughnut. Isn’t it possible that this is an unusual exception? I mean, you’ve had a really rough day/ you’re unusually hungry right now/ you deserve a reward/ not eating it is wasteful/ you promised yourself treats now and then/ whatever other excuse will fit in here to SHORT CIRCUIT YOUR LOGIC AND EAT THIS DOUGHNUT.” A serious dieter will take a step back and say waaaaaitaminit, this is exactly the type of situation where I said I wasn’t going to eat a doughnut. But most of us won’t.

When a person doesn’t want to diet, there will always be a completely logical reason why they can’t diet today. When a student doesn’t want to do their work there will always be a completely valid reason why they couldn’t possibly have done it. And they will believe, truly believe that they were totally, powerless over the situation, no matter how ridiculous the excuse. Studies show that the same is true of many folks convicted of violent felonies – they have completely plausible and valid reasons why it was everyone else’s fault that they were forced to track down and stab that one dude.

But everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. That’s the point at which the junk food you crave is so godawful disgusting that your brain just can’t find an excuse ridiculous enough to eat it. Chicken McNuggets are an unholy mix of cartilage, nerves, and skin, mixed with grain-based fillers, and held together with silicone. They qualify as food only under the definition “items that fit in my mouth”. I pass a McDonalds every day on the way to work, and sometimes the smell tempts me. My brain steps in with its siren song: I know you don’t eat crap like this, but isn’t it possible this is a totally different situation where you should reward yourself with an arg arg arg they’re just so so nasty, for the love of god don’t do it…

Car service Uber is getting perilously close to my McNugget line. Their app has resulted in at least one death, a whole bunch of rape cases, generalized attacks (with a hammer?) and one “slapping in response to a burp“, all of which they’ve denied any responsibility for. They’re accused of everything from failing to enforce the background checks they claim protect their customers, to engaging in aggressive campaigns shaming and discrediting the victims who have been assaulted by their drivers. They use startlingly icky sabotage tactics against competitors, which, if not illegal, are at least creepy as hell. And not that it makes a lick of difference, but their misleading pricing has given them and F rating from the Better Business Bureau, which isn’t easy. Hell, even some Ikea locations have a A+, so it can’t be that hard.

But today’s snafu is particularly ‘eek’-inducing – at a recent dinner, Uber’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, explained his plan to spend a million dollars on a smear campaign against journalists who dare report on Uber’s failings. The focus for his ire was PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, who’s been key in exposing some of Uber’s scarier infractions, particularly against women. Michael suggested that researchers could be hired to “dig up the dirt” on journalists and their families, and use what they found as a threat to keep them silent. In his own words, it would give the media “a taste of its own medicine”. When it was pointed out how this might backfire, he responded, “Nobody would know it was us”.

Now, besides the basic first amendment issues at work here, this is about as bad PR as a company can manufacture. Using threats of violence and intimidation against a plucky underdog who dares to stand up to a powerful business is a classic Hollywood trope.

At the same time, it’s easy to understand the allure. Terror is an extremely effective weapon in silencing critics, particularly when the victims are women with families to protect. For all that movies are full of square-jawed fathers trying to save their wife and kids from kidnappers/burglers/ terrorists/dinosaurs, in reality these soft targets are much more likely to be used against a mom. Few dudes consider sending their family into hiding or requesting FBI protection before publishing an exposé, whereas their female counterparts are often forced to do just that. Just ask any of the brave lady journalists recently targeted by Gamer-Gaters. But while it’s easy to silence critics, it’s much harder to silence the fact that they’ve been silenced.

When asked for comment, Michael gave a carefully worded response that said, in summation “LOL/JK, I was just a little annoyed”. It’s still better than an earlier response where he said Lacy should be held responsible for any woman who got themselves raped by a taxi driver after deciding not to use Uber. I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up.

So, it begs the question, why the hell is this guy still talking? Or more importantly, why is Uber still letting him talk? In public? Don’t they have any sense of self-preservation at all? I don’t know enough about the financial ins-and-outs to say if he should fired or not (I mean, obviously, but he hasn’t been yet, so…?). But Uber, at the very least, for your own good, lock him in a basement somewhere with a gag on so he can’t keep making these outrageous PR blunders every time he opens his mouth. While you’re at it, lock up most of your senior staff – very few of them are passing the basic “pretend to be human” test right now.

I want to use Uber. I want to use them so badly. And I can always find an excuse why this time is the exception. The local drivers aren’t to blame for corporate error/ yellow cab drivers are often so much worse/ it’s cold out/ I’ve got my puppy Oyster with me/ I’m wearing these awesome heels. And as of yet, my willing suspension of disbelief is still gamely chugging away, defending what I really want to do from what I really know is right. Especially if I can’t get a ‘Go Green Ride‘ car. Hey Go Green, do some usability testing already – you’re fantastic, but your app sucks.

So if that doesn’t work out, I may still use an Uber. We haven’t crossed my Chicken McNugget line…yet. But it’s not going to take much more – this camel is already carrying a whole lot of straw. Just try me, Uber, just one more revelation, one more horrible remark, one more incident. I’m using you today, maybe, but tomorrow, who knows.

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urbanThe physical experience of shopping at an Urban Outfitters is different than shopping at a Zara or Gap.  Unlike other stores’ carefully organized layouts, at Urban, clothing is strewn in piles dozens high and wedged into wall units. Multiple styles are crowded onto the same rack. Some styles are hidden in nooks and crannies, under pieces of furniture where only the most dedicated spelunker will find them.  And everywhere, carefully-folded piles of shirts, shorts, and jeans, dozens high, require the shopper to shred the entire tower to find a specific size.

This is a setup meant to encourage browsing. It’s not a setup meant for quick item location.  Finding a specific type of shirt is a daunting task.  Sometimes jean are in the same place, but then again, sometimes they’re not. But Urban still makes it work with a secret weapon: manpower.  They flood their stores with, by my count, twice the number of staff other stores employ on the sales floor at any given time.  Yes, finding a specific tank top often requires dismantling an entire 6×6 display, but I suspect Urban has run the numbers, and discovered it’s cheaper to pay a college student to immediately re-fold everything than it is to buy classier fixtures.

In the physical world, retail outlets can afford to use the “acceptable anger strategy” of customer service, assuming that their customer’s frustration can be overcome through other, more human means.  At Urban, the jumbled “garage-sale” feel stays just this side of impossible by the constant ministrations of staff. It’s almost fun, in a way. Like playing hide-and-seek, with the bonus that someone else has to clean up after you.

Discount furniture store IKEA  overcomes the built-in frustration of walking around a maze of a store, long lines, and carrying your own packages, by imbuing their store with a quirky cheekiness. Yes, this is horrible, hah ha, but we’re all in this together saving cash!  Have some meatballs and lingonberries! It’s almost fun! They have almost certainly run the numbers and decided more money can be made by exposing users to a vast number of products than can be made by improving the customer experience. Like Urban Outfitters, a certain number of people will swear to never return, but many will shrug and say, “well, I guess it wasn’t that bad – and hey, look at this great shirt/necklace/dresser/bag of meatballs.”

In the digital world, it’s a little more complicated.

In 2011 my company shared an office with one of those cool online cosmetics services.  They specialized in sending out boxes of samples to subscribes each month. Not Ipsy, the other one. As a workspace it was great – perfume samples everywhere, free coffee in the kitchen, but there was one significant downside.  Our pod was placed right next to the customer service team.  Every phone call, every single phone call, with almost no exceptions, started this way:”Hi, this is E___ at B____, how can I hep you?  Oh I’m so sorry!”. By week two we came to realize that the apology was, in fact, probably encoded into their script.

Now, the customer service team at this company was absolutely gorgeous. For almost all of them this was their first job directly out of college, where many had belonged to the same sororities.  The uniform was stilettos, professionally blown-out hair, and full evening makeup no matter the weather or time of year.  Lunchtime meant doing each other’s nails and nibbling on celery.  A couple times a day a bell would ring. The entire team would lay down their headsets, take off their heels, and do yoga together.  Then they would spend 8 hours apologizing. Constantly apologizing. Shipping issues, technical issues, packaging issues,  “Oh I’m so sorry, let me see what happened” over and over and over

I can only assume this company had run the numbers and decided it made more sense to employ a huge and very specialized customer service team  – at the time significantly bigger than their tech team – to apologize, than it did to solve the institutional problems their customers were complaining about.

In the real world, this is a brilliant compensatory strategy.  Walk into a physical store with a complaint about your perfume and meet the sheer perkiness, the earnest enthusiasm of these gorgeous mayflies, and few shoppers with would find themselves able to stay angry for long.

But charm doesn’t work at a distance. There’s a certain charm to being annoyed and confused by the IKEA store. People boast about it.  There’s a 30 Rock episode about it. There’s no charm to being confused by the IKEA website.  Virtual services can’t afford to compensate for organizational failings with quirkiness the way a store in the real world can, because they require a level of trust that isn’t needed at a physical location where someone can simply walk away.  Few disgruntled shoppers at Urban Outfitters ever approach the level of panic and outrage evinced by those cosmetics customers. You could hear it through the speakers 10 feet away.

Perhaps all of us could take a page from the Evil Overlord list. This was a viral email from back in the mid-90’s listing all the classic blunders an evil ruler might make in their quest for domination. It includes common sense suggestions such as “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” and “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps”.  One of the best ideas here was this: “All naive, busty tavern wenches in my realm will be replaced with surly, world-weary waitresses who will provide no unexpected reinforcement and/or romantic subplot for the hero or his sidekick.”

As more and more services arise to mimic interactions that previously required physical proximity (I’m looking at you, Google Shopping, Instacart, PostMates…), we’d do well to remember this.  Charm, romance, playfulness, all of these are important tools in allowing customers to overlook issues with the real-world shopping experience.  But when it comes to a virtual storefront, there’s no substitute for actually solving the problems people raise as quickly as possible on an institutional level.

In an app or a website, the “world weary waitress” of proper user interaction beats out the “busty tavern wench” of fun customer service every time.  In a way, by the time the complaint makes it to customer service, it’s already too late.

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ImageThe 1993 softcore classic Sex and the Single Alien contains a moment of unexpected clarity. On his way to a clandestine tryst with a young lady, our undersexed lawyer/strip club owner is kidnapped by aliens. His travel companion is a gladiator (these are time traveling aliens). One alien asks the other ” Why do they dress this way?” The other alien replies, “It is to impress their women.” Then our hero is granted the superpower of involking orgasms with his mind and returned to earth to wreak vengance on those who have done him wrong. Oh TNT’s up all night with Gilbert Gottfreid, how you are missed.

13-year-old me, whose interest in the movie may have been other than purely ethnographic, may have missed the moment of insight. Just a year earlier I’d endured my first teenage crush, a skinny lad in my 7th grade Intro to Computers class. His name, alas, is lost to posterity. The class was taught in BASIC, the command-line kind, and, being a lady of the world I decided the best way to woo my love was a personalized computer program.

For two weeks I skipped lunches to sit in the poorly-ventilated janitors closet that was the computer lab and wrote my labor of love. It was a fill-in-the-blank affair, a set of questions feeding into a story mad-libs style. The story probably had something to do with asking him to the next dance.

The elderly matron who acted as lab monitor thought it was charming as hell. The object of my affection not so much – when I finally presented him with my completed valentine he gave me a confused look (granted, 7th grade boys wear that a lot). A week later he made fun of my plaid leggings in front of everyone, probably out of self defense, and my digital affair was over.

Oh the music careers launched on the not incorrect premise that ladies dig a dude who can play the guitar, the cartoonists who picked up a pen for the first time on the completely incorrect premise that some dude might be impressed into makeouts… I suspect that puppy love is never about the object of our affection, always about what it inspires us to do. I’m not sure if self betterment is always best invoked in an environment of dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t hurt. I learned to program for the first time in an effort to impress…what’s his name. Thanks skinny dude from 7th grade Intro to Computers, wherever you are.

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18408619-brain-on-the-plate-with-fork-and-knifeWhat better funereal tribute could there be for a dearly beloved aunt than to eat her brains? If the cause of death is an ill-timed antelope stampede, or a disagreement with the chief over who makes the sharpest spears, then go right ahead! Let her memory be preserved, at least for a couple of hours, through the digestion of her venerated noggin.

But if her method of decease was almost anything else – sickness, poisoning, more sickness (there are so many interesting ways to get sick), then that is precisely what you won’t do. Neurological body bits are where many of the toxins that can cause death are densest, and passing them along in culinary form is one of the fastest ways to create a vicious spiral of grey-matter munchies. The diseased brain is consumed, which spells the end of the eater, who is then consumed as part of her own mourning rituals, which then causes…but you get the idea.

Outside of cannibalism, the only other area I’m aware of affected by this issue is the pet food industry, which routinely buys euthanized animals from shelters and zoos to mix into Fluffy’s dinner. However, Fluffy’s consequential mess on the floor might never be connected with the penguin who passed away a year ago at the Baltimore Aquarium, whereas surely, we assume, someone would notice if half the community suddenly goes the way of our beloved aunt. Surely someone would say “Hey, maybe just this once, let’s eat the toes instead“.

Not so, says the law of negative memes! One study noted that a negative meme can wipe out 70% of a population before someone questions its underlying validity. But here it becomes more complicated because it’s not just a blindness to facts that must be overcome. Without an understanding of germ theory, we can imagine our poor cannibals mulling over the issue of a population die-off, and after many long days of pondering, coming to this conclusion: “We are all dying! The gods must be angry with us! Quick, pacify them by eating more brains!”

An interesting natural experiment of just this phenomenon is occurring in Japan as we speak, and no one has to eat anyone. Since the 60’s, Japan’s anti-feminist culture has been playing havoc with their population prospects. While men and women receive the same education and early professional pressures, women are often let go after marriage, and professional ladies with children can expect to be stigmatized as “devil wives” (at least one female CEO recently visiting Japan was forced to re-title herself as a secretary to her male subordinates in order to attend her own meetings).

With almost no tradition of daycare, and, do forgive me, no system of child-brides or slavery in place to counteract female unwillingness, it’s not a surprise to find that a huge percentage of the lady population has chosen to opt out of relationships. And not only them – lots of men are rejecting the monetary pressures of keeping a spouse in a society that won’t allow them to share the stress of being sole breadwinner. Celibacy in this sort of climate is one route to freedom and equality, and as a result, the Japanese population will soon be losing a million people every year. Current trends place its complete extinction sometime in the next century. Which, to use a scientific phrase, would just suck full of suck.

As a western-raised feminist white Jewish liberal short lady (I’ve been assured the shortness has a lot to do with it) it’s very easy to point the accusing finger of righteousness and demand, how hard would it be to just to pass a couple little equal rights concessions? Offer a couple daycare tax breaks? Maybe even, dare I say it,  full-pay maternity leave like that offered by that bastion of women’s rights Iran (yep, even Iran has better protection for working moms than Japan. Full disclosure, they have better protection than the US as well, so.) And yet, such risque proposals haven’t made much headway.

Like our unfortunate cannibal friends, when a negative meme is firmly entrenched there can be a lot of confusion about where the problem really comes from. Many of Japan’s conservative LDP party would argue that the true issue is not Japan’s anti-feminism, it’s that Japan has not been anti-feminist enough. If only women (and increasingly, men) would adhere more closely to their traditional pre-world War II roles the problem would be solved! As of yet there have been no dystopian-style attempts to criminalize female employment or enforce a one-child-per ovary policy, but it seems imaginable as the situation becomes more dire. The true power of a negative meme is hidden and subtle: the meme offers a solution to the problems it causes by propagating the meme even more strongly. Our people are dying! Quick, eat more brains!

This all sounds really depressing, but the good news is that negative memes, the truly virulent ones that can take down an entire population, are usually self-correcting. Here’s a good metaphor: the absolutely pants-wettingly terrifying super-virus Ebola. Ebola can rip through an entire population in weeks. It’s intensely contagious and can survive outside of the human body for years, a combination that should have turned the world into a scene from Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ decades ago.

And yet, we’re still alive to spout social science at each other. The key is in its extreme virulence – the virus is so deadly, and kills so quickly, that there’s rarely enough time for the victims to spread it beyond the immediate vicinity. Ebola’s very toxicity acts like a natural quarantine – in a small, immobile village population, the virus perishes with the last available host.

Now consider the case of Krokodil. Like Ebola, Krokodil turned up in the 70’s, this time in Russia, as a quicker, cheaper, more addictive alternative to heroine. Krokodil is the crack to heroine’s cocaine, the Ebola to heroine’s mild flu. It will also kill you stone dead in a particularly gruesome fashion, by rotting your skin off from the inside, but that’s almost beside the point. Krokodil is relatively easy to manufacture – any number of websites will give you the instructions on how to stir up the codeine/iodine/phosphorus mix. And yet, so far, the streets are not full of rotting zombie corpse people.

The key seems to be in Krokodil’s very virulence – even though any kid with access to a CVS and her mom’s stove can saute up a batch, who would want to? Like biological pandemics, memes survive through repetitive propagation – the passing of a piece of information from mind to mind, or in this case, victim to victim. But while someone could technically take Krokodil for a year or two before checking out, they usually succumb to a gory list of secondary infections long before then.

There is no peer pressure to sample Krokodil because no one lives long enough to pass the meme along. No one is saying, “Hey, I just tried this stuff and it’s awesome and you should too” because, not to put too fine a point on it, that would require still having a mouth, and anyway, who would take advice from someone who looks like they’ve taken Krokodil? Despite its persistent availability, Krokodil as a meme is just too nasty to spread beyond isolated outbreaks here and there.

Krokodil is back in the news this month thanks to a scattering of reported incidents in Illinois, none of which have come up conclusive. Let me repeat that – without even a single verified case, that is to say, not one person who has actually tested positive, media outlet after media outlet has spent the last two weeks seeking to outdo each other in righteous condemnation and gory pictures. This isn’t yellow journalism, or at least, it isn’t just yellow journalism. This is what a negative meme is up against: society’s immune system is extremely clumsy in its targets, but it can be fantastically powerful in its effects.

For example, in a different section of these same outlets earlier this year many sites devoted a few paragraphs to “Gallon Smashing”, that brief-lived prank which saw teenagers walk into grocery stores and stage a massive pratfall while carrying (breakable) containers of dairy. Like many pranks, a forgiving viewer might view this as a sly social commentary: the action loses money for a large corporation and inconveniences it by the necessity of cleaning up the mess. All while the stores’ wrath is hamstrung by their own customer service policies and existing social mores: it looks goshdarn mean to take out your wraith on a kid who just metaphorically wet themselves in public.

Now, that feeling of control over a large institution, even when it’s through an act of self-humiliation, has a lot of appeal. The high-minded might attempt a parallel to the passive protests during the civil rights era, when workers who could not outright rebel nonetheless protested by pretending to be more stupid or clumsy than they actually were. That’s the idealistic view of it. In reality, let’s be honest, this was just unbelievably dumb. Grocery stores are often locally owned, and the wage slaves forced to clean up might easily be classmates of the perpetrators. A long-term propagation of this meme might have meant damage to the nearby economy, the complete collapse of the national dairy industry, mass calcium deficiencies, plagues of hungry kittens everywhere

News outlets duly wrote up the Gallon Smashing phenomenon, with many a ‘crying over spilled milk’ pun, as the new Harlem Shake. The elements weren’t that dissimilar – the same ritualized humiliation and the same sly anti-authoritarianism (part of the fun of Harlem Shake videos lies in witnessing a sedate office environment transformed into…whatever). And yet days went by, and the internet reacted to Gallon Smashing, not through a loud outcry of support or condemnation, but through the worst possible punishment that can be meted out, to ignore it. Despite high viewing numbers – in the same class as early Harlem Shake videos, milk spilling videos received just a fraction of the Harlem Shake’s comments. Very few clips, meme-wise, were actually ever made, and even fewer once perpetrators began to get arrested. Eight months later there are less than 38,000 spill clips on youTube. That might sound high, but for comparison, even a year after the Harlem Shake broke there remain more than 4,640,000 clips, and every single one is hilaaaaaarius.

We’re well-aware of the ugly side of social pressure – the side that advocates on behalf of established social standards against the rights of the individual. The Oscars love nothing more than the story about a hero’s valiant struggle against a fiendish societal presumption, and rightly so. But it’s easy to forget that social pressure has another duty: to nip negative memes in the bud before they get going. This is social pressure at its very best. In a way it’s what social pressure is for. When a meme goes wrong, the white blood cells of our disapproval swing into action – whether it’s to prevent an epidemic of zombies, or just a little spilled milk.

Low grade negative meme-infections surround us all the time- in fact, fighting them is an important part of a healthy society, and it gives socially awkward undergrads a reason to get excited and meet new people, which is also of vital importance. I’m looking at you, me­­­­ of 1998. Japan is a rare opportunity to witness a negative meme so subtle that it has managed to use a society’s own natural defense system against itself. What sort of inoculation might jump-start Japan’s baby-friendly antibodies is anyone’s guess.  Speaking as an outsider, all I can say is, whatever you do, stay away from the brains.

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So here we are knee-deep in summer, and I bet you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, there’s just too much relaxation going on right now.  I’m feeling too darn happy with the world.  I need some pretentious reading to sandpaper my nerves so I have something to bitch about.”

Well TOO BAD, cause one look at this summer reading list and you’ll notice that none of us have anything to complain about at all.  This summer’s topic is the economic impacts of fandom in a digital age, and baby is it a delicious one.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky – Obviously every list with any kind of buzzword has to start with Clay Shirky’s tasty musings about all that’s good about heavy connectivity. You’ll want to spend most of your time on the chapter dealing with fan motivations.  Start off your drinking game by taking a shot every time you slap your head and say , “Huh, teenage girls make sense for the first time ever.”  It’s summer, so the shot should be something with watermelon.

Fan Cultures, Matthew Hills – Ever wonder what academics do when few people care about their subject?  They write for each other! Painstakingly plotted out,  most of this is a refutation of the heretical theories espoused by the dozen or so other fan theorists active in the world.  But look a little closer and you’ll see some interesting points about gender and decision-making in pre-digital  fandom. Take a shot of something with iced tea in it every time he claims that someone’s theory didn’t take the X-Files into account

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker – How does what we buy reflect our social affiliations and sense of identity?  Rob wants to tell you! He makes a great case that our commercial motivations are thoroughly tied to the image we build up of ourselves. Take a summery shot of something with cucumber in it every time he uses a euphemism that isn’t quite “fan group” but really means “fan group”.  Don’t worry Rob, we know what you’re talking about.

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott , Anthony D. Williams– At two years old this is kind of ancient for a  tome about digital whatsis.  But be not deterred!  This is the classic ‘Origin of Species for crowdsourcing’ – not first and certainly not completely right, but it’s held up remarkably well for a book that relied on examples that, in hindsight weren’t actually the next big thing.  Take a shot of something minty every time you feel a smug sense of superiority.

Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Jonathan Gray (Editor), Cornel Sandvoss (Editor), C. Lee Harrington – More academia!  This collection of nifty essays spans everything from early proto-music fandom to Korean pop-stars.  Ignore all that and highlight every third word in the introduction where the different stages of fan theorization are spelled out.  Take a shot of something with ginger every time you have a mood swing between “Oh-my-god-I’m-dying-from-bordom” and “oh-my-god-this-just-changed-my-life”

Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business, Eric Qualman – Any book that adds the phrase “-nomics” to the end of  their title is good by me: freakinomics, wikinomics, MICRO wikinomics…there’s nothing ‘nomics can’t do.  A lot of this book has been said before, but the conversational tone is helpful for beginners and the examples give a great insiders view. Take a shot of something with lemon every time you suspect there’s something intrinsically, horrifically terrifying about all forms of marketing.

Fans Bloggers Gamers, Henry Jenkins – By the dude who wrote the much-touted Convergence Culture, you can believe this is a serious page turner. I’m totally not being sarcastic.  Compared to most other books from this time period, these essays are less dated, and more , what’s the word, AWESOME than its contemporaries.  Spend most of your time in the early chapters about fan fiction and gender.  You’ll never look at man-on-man stories written by middle-aged straight women the same again. Take a shot of Champagne every time you feel the urge to google “Kirk/Spock”.

Now go drink some water.  What were you thinking reading all those at once.

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Before client meetings, an early design guru of mine always insisted our team stand in the hallway and chant the phrase “All designers are arrogant bastards” until he felt we were in the proper frame of mind for the upcoming stand-off. From the vantage point of a decade I’d love to ask him about this little ritual; the project was a website redesign for the space industry, not the most cut-throat of opponents to begin with. There’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from dominating a bunch of kindly old astronomers. But for whatever reason, we never failed to ram our design suggestions through.

That website is still in use today, and it gives me the deepest pangs of shame to browse over its now-venerable pixels.  Not ’cause the design is so  ancient – for all I know its longevity could be a sign of really timeless thinking and not, as is more probable, budget cuts.  The shame comes from this:  My goodness were we a fantastic design team.  But what were we absolutely lousy at?  Astronomy.

It takes a lot of cash to hire a consultant who’s sure enough of herself to be a bully, and there’s a temptation to believe that throwing your weight around is part of the floor show.  This is the same line of thought that leads to rude service in a fancy restaurant: only a restaurant completely confident in its food could afford to be so disdainful of a customer. But does anyone actually enjoy eating at those restaurants?  No! Oh neophyte consultant, of course you know more than your client, but only, and this is important, only in one very small, specific area. What does your client know more about than you do?  Everything else.

A dude was recently ranting to me about a troublesome coding team.  The whole project idea, so terrible!  I’d offered them SO many better alternatives! And they wanted it in purple!  Agh!  Well dude of mine, let me take this opportunity to apologize for the angry lecture I gave you (not for the angry part, but I really shouldn’t have cursed so much.)

It can be tough to explain why it’s so important to never say no to a client.   I myself have asked prospective employees “So give me an example of how you handled a difficult client” and chortled at their tales of supremacy.  But why do we offer alternatives and trade offs, and when all else fails, beg and plead, but never ever ever ever outright say no?  It’s not, as the poor beleaguered dude guessed, that we need the money, although there are worse incentives for diplomacy.  It’s because more often than we’re comfortable admitting, the client is completely right.  After all, they do know a hell of a lot more than we do.

Imagine if any of the big innovators had let themselves be intimidated by their design team: Alright, let me get this straight – you want a big screen with extremely limited functionality, but you’re going to charge three times the amount of a fully functional computer. But having no content won’t matter because you expect thousands of programmers to teach themselves one of the more sophisticated coding languages  in order to create entirely new custom apps for it. And you’re going to make it white and rectangular, and name it the “ipad”, a combination sure to make schoolchildren everywhere snicker.  Mmmhmmm.

Well if that were you, wouldn’t you feel silly now (not to mention totally poor).  Every once in a while, the client isn’t being stupid or stubborn or disdainful or dense, they’re being gosh darn brilliant and you’d better listen up.  And the kicker is, you’ll never know which one it is until afterwords.

So, dude of mine, just for a moment,what about entertaining the possibility of a completely purple website?  Who knows what fantastic new ‘all-purple’ trend your clients may actually be onto?  Being an arrogant bastard is a great way to bulldoze over a couple of sweet old astronomers, but a really crappy way to build a website about astronomy.  It’s an awesome way to get things done your way, and a terrible way to innovate.  When it comes to assuming idiocy over invention, consider giving your client the benefit of the doubt. After all, they were smart enough to hire you, eh?

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In the summer of 2004 I was poor. I was fresh back from playing the wandering European for a year and I was cashless, homeless, jobless, and had spent too long living on what I’m proud to call “Zoe’s stolen spaghetti stew” (secret ingredient: stealth).

The first temp company had no design jobs, but on the way out the receptionist asked me if I knew anyone who could use Visio. Why yes, I said, I’m a Visio expert, did I forget to put that on my resume? She called my interviewer back, who said  in that case the job started tomorrow.

I left the building, went the the nearby Barnes and Nobles and looked up what the hell this Visio thing was. Then I called the guy on whose whose couch I was crashing and had him pirate me a copy. I spent the night working through the help files, and started my new job designing userflows for SAP the next morning. It lead to what’s been a rather nifty career in interaction design.

I am proud to say I have never been hired for a job I didn’t have to lie to get. Not about my achievements, those are stupid to lie about and anyway they’re easy to check on. But when it comes to skills, to take a job you’re absolutely sure you can already do seems silly. Taking career risks is the only way to make sure of having one, and I’d sure as hell prefer to try and fail than demur until some imaginary time when I’m 100% sure I’ll be perfect.

This is the time of year when students start coming to me for career advice. The dudes in general either have something or don’t. But for some of the ladies its not so clean-cut. Yesterday, for the third time this year I heard a variation on this theme: girl has a job, usually an internship. Girl is offered a promotion to full time. Girl is nervous she’s not ready yet and decides to turn it down. Or this variation: girl is offered dream full-time job. Girl is also offered dream freelance job on the side. Girl decides to take full-time job, but turn down freelance one because she wants her performance in the full time job to be perfect. Neither of these scenarios have happy endings, at best her career stalls from lack of trying new things, and at worst at some point she’ll be replaced by someone with a bit more guts.

From where came this bizarre female aversion to self promotion? This insistence on perfection to the point where, like OCD, it handicaps the victim and ruins their  prospects? Why is taking a risk so impossible to contemplate for some otherwise brilliant ladies ?

Lets run through these scenarios again. Girl gets offered promotion. Girl takes promotion. Girl fails. The boss is disappointed. Or this one: girl takes both jobs. Girl does marginally less well at both. Girl will be forced to quit one of them. One of the bosses will be disappointed. Bottom line: disappointed bosses. Is that truly the worst possible thing that could happen? Without resorting to the highly improbable, the answer is yes, yes it really is. But hamstringing a career from  fear of letting down an authority figure is something even the most  desperate of daddy issues should balk at.

Well ladies, being successful takes guts, and having guts means taking the type of risks that sometimes result in looking stupid and disappointing people. That assurance, that strike of lightning that says “Why yes, I just realized I am the best possible person in the world for this particular job” may by long coming.  As Nietzche points out, “claiming to be good only because you have no claws” isn’t actually being good at all, and cowardice masquerading as politeness does no one any favors, least of all your boss.  Speaking as one now myself, I’d surely rather have my employees ambitious than submissive.  It makes them more fun to be around, for one.

So go after that job ladies, even though you don’t have a clue if you can handle it or not. Grit your teeth and tell that lie about your confidence that, for you all you know, might just be the truth. And maybe you’ll fail. Maybe you’ll be fired. Maybe you’ll have to cut back your hours. Maybe your boss will yell at you in front of everyone and they’ll all point and laugh while you cry. But maybe, just maybe, you will be amazing at it.

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