Clarifying Views on Faith

Last week turned out to be a fantastic for Exodus. More than 2000 books were moved, and when I woke up on Christmas morning, the book was ranked #207 on the Amazon Kindle free rankings, and number six in the science fiction category (I engaged in a modified version of Brian Meeks’ strategies).

Top207

The success brought some interesting commentary (cough) from some more devout Christians who weren’t pleased with the depiction of a medieval-like fundamentalist state that used their faith to conquer others. This post is not a response. I did want to take the opportunity to clarify my views on fundamentalism, Christianity or otherwise, for friends and readers who may be curious.

As to the hate mail itself, I expected this when I published the book. I don’t believe hardliners will actually get the message. As soon as the more devout read the first chapter, they’re certain that I am a heretical liberal. By the fourth they may think I am in league with Old Scratch himself (thus the preface from Paul Dunn).

To be clear, I read every remark to see if it’s an actual critique of the book, or someone ranting that Christianity was used as an example of fundamentalism. If it’s the prior, I pay attention. If it’s the latter, I ignore it. Welcome to America and The First Amendment.

Faith and Christianity

I believe that any faith is capable of helping people enjoy life more. That includes Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Bhuddhism, and others. I personally believe in God. I also believe that humans are capable of taking any faith, and warping its words to achieve wrongdoing.

I don’t think Islam is a violent religion. In fact, I quite like Sufism. Unfortunately for the faith of Islam, violent extremists use it to justify their actions. And that creates quite a lot of ignorance and stereotypes about fundamentalism.

Back to the impetus for this post, I have seen many benevolent acts performed by Christians. The faith (in its various forms) offers incredibly powerful teachings for anyone who wants spiritual guidance. In fact, while not a Christian, I say the Lord’s prayer several times a week, my wife is of Presbyterian decent, and most of my friends are Christian or of Christian descent.

Yet like any other faith, people can use its words to justify great wrongs. You can look back at the Crusades for an example. Or more recently at the IRA terrorism of the 70s and 80s, or in the Unted States the KKK’s acts of racism and violence. I have experienced this personally in my life. Many people have tried to convert me, or explain to me how I was going to hell because of my decent. You could argue the Christian right’s political impact in our country could (not will, but could) create similar situations.

As for the faith of my blood, Judaism, some feel Israel’s hard line views towards Palestineans and other Islamic states is also in the fundamental extreme. People are dying in the Middle East, and sometimes at the hands of the Israeli military.

In none of these situations is the faith in question wrong. Rather, people make decisions, and use religion as a justification to take actions that impact their fellow man, usually in a negative fashion.

What’s worse, when blind faith exists or when people generally believe what they are told, we create problems. We see this today in the media and the violated trust we feel when the Lance Armstrongs and government officials of this world let us down. To be clear, this is the power of propaganda, not religion.

Now About the Book

Let’s look at several aspects of fundamentalism in the book. First, it was the Islamic fundamentalism of the present (and a fictional Christian right reaction to it) that provokes the Great Sickness, the apocalyptic event that creates the world of Exodus.

Why not continue with Islam as the faith of wrong doing? For starters, it’s too easy per the earlier stereotype discussion. As a writer it’s about as challenging as depicting Richard Nixon as a villain.

Frankly, I think we have a blind eye in this country to our own actions. Since the book takes place in America, I decided to use our country’s dominant faith, Christianity. And per the conversation earlier, Christianity has been misused by the power-hungry for such purposes in the past. Unfortunately for humankind, history has a nasty tendency of repeating itself.

Several of the characters have intentional names referring to Greek mythological characters and one biblical character, Mordecai. Mordecai represents the true Christian faith (at least as it appears to this Jewish fellow’s eyes). In book two, Mordecai attracts new Christians, but he does so through principled action rather than proselytizing.

The power-hungry leader of the Christian Empire is Pravus, which is Latin for depraved. That should be a clear tip off to folks who think I am engaged in blasphemy. I am not, this guy is fricking nuts. There’s a reason why Mordecai left the Emperor’s side to venture out on his own.

Without tipping my hat too much, the entire trilogy explores the concept that every single one of us is capable of rationalizing wrong with ideologies and belief systems. We think we’re right, that our ideas can protect us from wrongdoing, but in actuality we may be harming others.

This is true for every human, and there are many ideologies — not just religious ones — that can be used to justify wrongdoing. Evil is rarely a dramatic moment. It is often the result of small decisions that collectively point someone in the wrong direction.

OK, I’ve said my piece. The floor is yours.

Haters Hate and I Choose to Listen

Hater's Locker Room
Image by pixel8

Haters gonna hate.

It’s what top bloggers and community managers say when they interpret criticism to be nasty and inappropriate.

In the case of trolls that deliver aggressive comments that border on threats or worse, you have to agree with them. This post is about the haters, the ones that deliver criticism in harsh ways that irks the recipient, but doesn’t necessarily equate to trolldom.

Brands and bloggers alike need to listen to harsh critics. Sometimes these people are right in spite of their methods.

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The Fallacy of a Strong Defense

“The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.” Hamlet, Act III, scene II

Defensive Dice
Image by M Hillier

When you engage in questionable acts, sometimes you or your organization have to set the facts straight to protect brand reputation. Many individuals and some brands tend to want to over-defend themselves. Instead of removing the tarnish, strong defenses can do the opposite, keeping an issue alive, and in most cases suggest a complicit nature in the brands’ actions.

Questionable is defined as when the community starts publicly doubting your approach or acts. Note this is the public’s perception, not when you think you are right.

A recent example is the White House protest of Standard & Poor’s well broadcasted credit rating downgrade. The Obama Administration looked powerless, and again at fault for not successfully leading the country into a better and less contentious resolution of the debt ceiling. The sudden and ensuing Justice Department investigation into Standard & Poor’s 2008 mortgage actions also looks like a smeer job (Why not all three credit agencies?).

The right thing to do would have been to follow standard reputation management protocols, and issue the White House’s differing opinions with the $2 trillion error clearly pointed out, and leave it at that. The White House would have been well served to simply acknowledge the political issues at play. While Obama has publicized the political divide in recent weeks, it has been in a negative attacking manner. The overarching series of reactions have in turn validated Standard & Poor’s criticsm.

Defending Personal Reputation

Cullen Burnett, 14, of Culpeper (left) and Master Deputy Chad McKnight, (right) practice defensive tactics. Sgt. Owen Bullard, who leads a team of school resource officers for the Sheriff’s Office, looks on (center).
Image by Culpepper County Sheriff’s Office

While brands make this mistake, more often it is the terrain of individuals who take personal issue with criticism. We see this everyday in the blogosphere, but because well known bloggers are prone to drama when criticized, let’s use some celebrity examples.

Mel Gibson is the classic example of the questionable person who over defends himself. His angry tirades on public TV and in embarrassing off-air recordings don’t counter the behavior in his alcohol related arrests (and incidents of fascism), rather they signal complicity and confirm characterizations!

Instead say you’re sorry, change, make some amends and let it go. Or simply acknowledge the mistake and move on. Or disagree about characterizations in a public statement, and move on. Any of these would be better than the strong retaliations Gibson has made. He is now unbookable by most accounts in Hollywood.

Conversely, when Michelle Bachman was dubbed the Queen of Rage in a cover story on Newsweek, she completely ignored the story. Many Tea Party loyalists came to her defense, and Bachman sidestepped character issues by simply refusing to acknowledge the criticism, in turn making it look like an attack. It is doubtful that the Newsweek cover changed many people’s minds about Bachman (but it may have sold a few magazines).

The Newsweek article is analogous to a troll. Most critics are not trolls, rather they have strong differing beliefs, and as such they should not be ignored even if they will never agree with you. Just as President Obama has to acknowledge Tea Party criticism, it is wise to address issues raised by the opposition.

Just like engagement with a negative commenter, state the facts, and if you believe you are in the right, simply let your statement and actions represent you. In marketing a brand, an overtly strong defense can signal complicity. Address questions, be right, be confident, and move on.

What do you think of strong defenses in questionable matters?

When Hate Turns to Apathy

The only thing worse than haters is silence.

In the attention economy, losing wholesale support from vocal minorities as a result of shunning them — even publicly mocking them — is a worst case scenario. Isn’t that what companies and bloggers are asking for when they coldly dismiss disagreeing voices wholesale as haters?

Certainly, to some extent, the “Haters Going to Hate” concept is true. Some people will never agree. In fact, if everyone agrees with you, you’re not talking to enough people. Everyone with some level of online success has kvetches and trolls.

Yet, simply dismissing whole vocal minorities as haters seems like a dangerous proposition for a brand. Lack of responsiveness, and worse uncaring public refusals risks turning upset customers and advocates into the apathetic and the disenfranchised. All because the heat of criticism was too strong to bear. How much churn can a brand sustain?

This is particularly ironic for the social media expert who preaches listening. What’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. Ah, the hypocrisy.

Perhaps in the end, it is better to acknowledge the differing voice, and respect the right to a minority opinion. Let someone else have the last word, and listen. Maybe, just maybe, they possess an element of truth.

And when we fail (and we all do), go back and own it. Sometimes the apology is well received. It is always a good personal reminder to keep our sides of the street clean in business, and in conversations.

Otherwise, enjoy the silence.

Imperfection

Imperfection - Circular Polarizer
Image by Richard Cocks

Have you ever reviewed a piece of your work and shuddered afterwards? Do you get mad when one person criticizes something you invested a great deal of time on, even though dozens of others laud the effort?

Typos, incomplete theory, lack of experience, poor timing, fear of public speaking, a bad decision; just some of the many flaws that can “taint” work. It’s worse when flaws are beyond your control; vendors, friends, etc. You have to live with it.

Elusive perfection can drive you crazy.

Welcome to humanity. Flawed, troubled, imperfect, some learning, some not… We all screw up.

Imperfection is one of the most humbling aspects of life that will continue until it is over, and our ashes are spread across the earth. It is something we all must suffer. This maddening pain can only be relieved by embracing our personal imperfections. There is no escape.

All projects must end, every single one of them with some flaw, some aspect that can be improved. Rare is the perfect effort.

It’s best to look at what could be improved, be happy with what went right, and learn from the experience. Sometimes we must suffer the same mistake again. That may be our journey. This is the stuff of millennia of philosophy, theology, and human storytelling. It is not a unique phenomena; rather, a quandary every human being faces.

Salty Criticism

Sometimes criticism can sting like salt in a wound. Imperfection confronts us.

But can we simply say that our efforts are definitively in the right? It is unacceptable to simply say, “No, that type of criticism is invalid.” It may really be incorrect. But then again, time may reveal that critique was spot on. Our experience (or ego) at that time did not permit us to see it.

Wrong or not, criticism is a reality of the human condition, and the more public and well known you become, the more you will receive. But even the most humble of workers and family members suffer from the bruises of criticism. That’s why when in disagreement, it is often best to state our point of view – factually to the best of our ability — and move on.

The great fight is not worth it. In essence, take it with a grain of salt. Learn what you can. In time, things may make more sense. Or the critic was simply wrong.

This sector is one of opinion with many degrees of opposing views. If everyone agrees with you, you’re not talking to enough people. But it is important to remember that every single one of us — critic, critiqued and observer — are flawed. Imperfect.

Depending on how you view flaws and criticism, imperfection simply is. Or it is simply painful.

What do you think of imperfection?

What ARE Influencers Good For?

Towed Out to Sea

The influencer hype bubble overvalues the role of popular digital voices in an online marketing program. Influencer attention can’t sustain a community over the long term, and using them often fails to produce strength of online community and actual business measurements. Rather than producing another post deconstructing the influence model, let’s try to take an objective look at what influencers can and cannot lend to an organization’s communications program.

It’s important to understand what influencers achieve in the larger social context. For the most part that consists of bursts of attention, and a perception of validity. In essence, this is the online version of media relations: Earned social mentions creating an aura of credibility.

Just like the traditional PR world, this tactical choice has its limitations. Mostly, it simply creates a word of mouth opportunity that needs to be backed by an actual product and service that a real pre-existing community likes. In addition, if deployed in an advisory role, influencers (the trusted servant kind, not the personal brands) can serve as a barometer for how a community will respond to an initiative.

Conversely, influencers don’t create the day-to-day participation and conversation necessary over long periods of time to develop and sustain a community. They can’t create valuable content for your stakeholders — unless you’re willing to sponsor full time bloggers. Influencers don’t manage communities and distributed networks of loyalists in such activities as crowdsourcing. Finally, influencers don’t produce the business outcomes that a loyal community delivers when it has embraced a symbiotic two way relationship.

A tow boat can only take a freighter out to sea, but if the actual ship is not sea-worthy it will sink with or without the tow. Similarly, influencers can only draw attention to something, but they can’t make a business, cause or idea succeed over the long term. Far from it. Let’s take a look using a familiar and recent case study.

Quora’s Mountain of Hype

Quora Traffic Post Influencer Bubble

As you can see by the above chart, the excitement over Quora has slowed down after the Silicon Valley influencer-driven bubble that started during the holiday season. It’s also interesting to note the drop in traffic preceded recent criticism and squabbles about Quora from that same Silicon Valley influencer community. Arguably the debates have given the site small, barely noticeable spikes. However, Quora’s overall traffic has increased since November, indicating the social network has successfully retained a minority of its new users.

The post-influence bubble decrease in traffic occurred because many found Quora’s product to be less interesting than advertised (and somewhat misrepresented as a blogging service). The spike featured industry specific conversations, and did not offer a broader consumer or cross-sector appeal. In essence, the influencers served as trade press, creating an echo chamber, but one that failed to compel non-insiders.

The higher plateau post influencer attention shows that Quora was able to retain some people who like question-based and information wiki-like products online. This can be credited to the preexisting community that had already seeded many questions and served as moderators. In actuality, the site was already growing in traffic naturally without the influencer bubble. The newly retained traffic after the influencer spike may have hastened Quora’s growth, but not by anything more than a few months.

Similar to an advisory board’s role, the usage created public feedback about problems with Quora, from its wonky interface and geekiness to popularity based answers as well as questionable moderation and editing. In some cases, influencers complained about censorship and their posts disappearing. Quora will need to respond and address these serious flaws if it hopes to become anything more than a niche community.

All in all, using the tow boat analogy, Quora has been brought to sea, but there are serious questions about its sea worthiness. The ship labors off the coast.

The influence bubble brought great attention, but Quora did not fully capitalize on the opportunity. It also needs to get beyond the confines of the Silicon Valley influencer circle and generate a much broader series of topical questions and answers if it intends to become a mass market success. It should be noted that there’s no business model in place to monetize, and given the large influx of traffic, this too can be considered a lost opportunity.

Conclusion

While Quora was “discovered,” its experience serves as the perfect example of the positives and limitations of influencers. As such, it should serve as an example of what to use influencers for… And what they cannot offer in the context of larger marketing programs that include product marketing, broader public relations efforts, advertising, as well as additional Internet marketing and tactics.

As for Quora itself, the question-based social network has work to do, but it still has business value, and should be monitored by professionals. Keep in mind that overall, in spite of the spike, traffic is still increasing.

What do you think an influencer’s role is in an online program? Does Quora have what it takes to make it?

P.S. Quora users seem uninterested in the question, “What are online influencers good for?