In my recent presentation at e.day, my "5 sure-fire steps to transforming yourself from a spammer into a connector" (said with booming voice) were:
- Turn that bullhorn around: stop talking and start listening
- Be part of the community you serve: get out of the boardroom and into the community
- Design for maximum happiness: design products that delight people
- Embrace the chaos: stop overplanning and recognize the everyday magic
- Find your higher purpose: figure out how to give back to the wider community and do it often
Now, last time I openly talked about that higher purpose stuff, it led to all sorts of issues...both because of a reference I used that was unfortunately anti-semitic (it was an ignorant mistake, not an intended one, but a mistake nonetheless) and because my talk of higher purpose smacked of self-helpy stuff.
The issue with self-helpy stuff is that, well, 99.9% of the time, it lacks any substance or self-reflection. Authors like Deepak Chopra and Tim Robins come to mind as leaders in this realm. Loads of people buy their materials every year in a hope to change their lives from miserable to luxurious after listening to an inspirational lecture. Do these 5 things or take those 10 steps or repeat this mantra in the mirror when you wake up every morning and it will change your life. Well, of course people buy this because it represents some sort of hope...albeit an easy answer to complex issues. Of course, these materials very rarely change anyone's life for the better permanently, but there are plenty of stories of success that can be found in the rare cases.
When people buy any sort of marketing message, really, it's because we hope. We hope that this cereal will make us skinny like the woman in the ad who lost 30 lbs. We hope that that liqueur will give us that european sophistication and appeal. We hope that by booking at that hotel, we are supporting a company whose sole purpose is to help people be kinder to one another (re: Hilton's latest ads that represent people doing nice things for one another).
This is not at all what I want to represent.
Well, let me rephrase that. I DO want to represent hope, but I DON'T want to represent EMPTY hope. I'm very very sad that positive messages have been conflated with empty hope, which is why I have thought for many years that marketing has been its own worst enemy and dangerously short-term thinking. So now, positive messages have become so distrusted that negative messages are, too, being co-opted. Basically, we've gotten to the point that messages no longer mean anything at all. Actions truly do speak louder than words.
So, coming back around to Higher Purpose and keeping in mind that actions speak louder than words, I proposed another list of 5 ways that a company can give back to the community they serve in very real ways:
- Democratize something: create tools to empower the disempowered...to make something inaccessible, accessible
- Open source your work: donate your code or a deep API to giving others a platform for building their businesses
- Build bridges: work with open standards like Microformats and OpenID as well as WITH your competitors to build bridges between websites and web apps for better customer experiences. I'm not talking 'lifestreams', either.
- Spread love: create communities and ways for people to connect on deeper, more positive levels. There is enough spreading of hate. Dissent is encouraged, of course, because homogeny is not good for anyone. But disagreement needs to be approached with compassion, not "You are an idiot".
- Value something bigger than yourself: Is there something unrelated to your company that you believe in? Put your energy into it.
These are only 5 overviews of more action-oriented ways to give back to the community, and my favourite of all of them is to spread love. I've been a huge fan of Jane McGonigal's work at AvantGame since I saw her speak at ETech this spring. Even though these are 'merely' games, the impact she has made in the people's lives who play them is pretty significant. She gave endless examples of people whose lives have been transformed and whose faith in humankind has been restored. I think Jane's work represents something that is growing in general, too: compassion for one another.
I - It and I - You
In 1923, a really smart philosopher named Martin Buber published his philosophical thesis on human existence, I and Thou. Basically, he states that the basis of our existence is our relations to others (he was influenced heavily by the work of Kierkegaard and Feuerbach) and we, basically, relate to others in two ways:
- I-Thou (I-You in modern terms)
In the case of I-It, I relate to another as an object. Something to be used. An example of this is how many people treat waiters. I did a stint being a waiter in university and was told that the best waiters are as invisible as 'background' that delivers food and drinks in a timely manner. The people I served didn't want to know who I was as a human being, in relation to them, they wanted their food. Ever since that experience, I pay more attention to my waiters' existence...even if they are not so great. I-It, as Buber pointed out in later texts, is also what happens in the case of racism. When a person lacks compassion for another person, the other person becomes an It. I think it is safe to say that the many people who view the awful images of war victims on the news start to see them as Its as well. We start to numb ourselves to the idea that the dead have left behind families and had lives that are to be mourned.
I-It is also how 'consumers' and 'users' are framed in a transactional economy as it is a very efficient way to think of relationships. These are masses, numbers and generalized unmet ideas of people.
The opposite, I-You, is the relation between two people where both are, basically, equal and have agency. As in my example of someone waiting on me in a restaurant, I make certain to pay attention to that person as an individual. Even though our relationship is brief and for a single purpose, I don't think of someone serving me food as my servant or as 'background'. Tomorrow, they may come into my office and need help with their startup community and I would want them to treat me with the same level of respect. Basically, on whatever level, fleeting or deep, a relationship is formed with an I-You interaction (or a relationship is already formed).
I-You, of course, is the basis of communities. Communities are filled with relationships between people. The only way a company representative becomes part of a community is by a. not being a company representative, but a community member...an equal in the community and b. never looks at their relationships to others within the community as the accumulation of numbers. That's when I-It creeps back in.
Now, what we work on as part of our higher purpose is creating more instances of I-You where I-It has existed for so long. I-It is incredibly disempowering for the 'It'. I've been the 'It' too many times in life. It feels shitty. I'm an 'It' quite often as a woman in technology. I'm an 'It' when a PR person emails me an impersonal note that says something like:
I really enjoy your blog. I especially enjoyed your recent post on blah blah blah. That is why I think you will enjoy this unrelated company's site. Some sort of description...If you enjoy the site, you may even want to blog about it. Perhaps we can set up a meeting between you and CEO who doesn't give a damn about who you are, but wants your linklove so that he can explain more for you.
Sincerely, Joe PR* [name protected]
Of course, there are far worse examples of the I-It experience than receiving a spammy note, but every level on which we think we can treat people like objects, numbers and targets contribute to the overall disenfranchisement we feel from one another. When we live in a world where trust breaks down to the extent it has now, it can only get worse.
I want to spend as much of my time turning this around as I possibly can.
Since e.day, I've been thinking of additional ways in which Citizen Agency could practice what we preach. We generally work on democratizing stuff (Coworking, BarCamp), opening stuff up (history with Firefox, Drupal and CivicSpace), building bridges (Microformats and OpenID) and valuing stuff that is bigger than us (we work on many sustainable projects, including the upcoming GreenDevCamp)...but we've lacked a bit in the spread love department. Sure, we do this in our day-to-day relationships and the way we personally treat people, but we haven't really stretched ourselves outside of that.
So, the other day after thinking about the whuffie stuff, I went an registered the domain Spreadloveproject.org, where there is currently nothing, but I have started a wiki, a bookmark group and a Google Group. I'm not entirely clear yet on the projects, but have put down Ping Whuffie and SmoochyBot (formerly known as The Lovendar) as two of mine. As for what kind of other projects, some of them will be app based, some of them task based and others...I don't know. You decide.
I want everyone to consider this their project waiting for their ideas, too. I figure it will unfold as we move along. Either way, I'd love to see people share their ideas of how to turn I-It situations into I-You situations. Maybe it is as simple as being more aware of the people who serve us as people. Maybe it is as deep as uncovering stories of individual war victims. Maybe it is as light hearted as playing 'killing with kindness' games. All I know is that the goal of the overall project is to work towards creating a culture of generosity and kindness between people.
Currently, the wiki is pretty sparse, so feel free to add your own ideas, projects, stories and initiatives - you can also promote the work you are doing elsewhere there, too. I've named the contributors as Social Capitalists, kind of a fun play on words.
Like I said above, I don't want this or any of our projects to be empty vessels of nothingness with a pretty coat of paint on top. I'd like to actually have this mean something, even if they touch a few people and are simple, the projects need to have substance and be directly related to the end goal of creating a culture of generosity. As well, anyone and everyone is encouraged to lead their own projects and movements. The project, itself, is un'owned'. I see it as another starfish project with many leaders. I only provide my 'leg' of the journey. ;)