My State Department Lectures in Italy: Social Networks and Social Narratives In the Digital Era

Update: You can see some photos of me looking terrifying during the talk here, courtesy of Paolo Ricotti of Giornale dei Lavoratori.

I usually finish public presentations with a bit of an endorphin rush and energy for some hours afterward. It would appear that I’ve found a way to extend that feeling: consecutive translation from English to a foreign language.

I’m in Milan in northern Italy traveling as a Speaker and Specialist Grantee on behalf of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of International Information. Whew. I was summoned through my involvement with the Interfaith Youth Core‘s Alumni Speakers Bureau, and sure enough, I’ve already found myself talking quite a bit about interreligious dialogue.

My inaugural presentation on my inaugural day in Italy was held at the headquarters of ACLI (Christian Associations of Italian Workers), a network of organizations committed to work and social development like peacebuilding and entrepreneurship. My handlers from the US Consulate met me and walked me out to a local trattoria for a wonderful lunch. ACLI’s training department head was there, as well as a local imam (the funniest imam in Milan, as he was introduced to me), representatives from Yalla Italia, and some other consular staff. My recommendation: Check out Yalla Italia (with Google Translate installed). They are doing amazing work to publicize and connect the various immigrant communities in Italy. YI and its people totally rock.

I had some wonderful conversations at lunch (so much food) and on the walk to ACLI. As it was told to me, 12.5% of Italy’s GDP comes from businesses run by immigrants. That’s incredible. All the more incredible is Italy’s lack of useful or comprehensive immigration laws. Most immigrants aren’t citizens, which means that they can’t vote, which means that they can’t “elect their own”, which means that their representation stays nonexistent in the Parliament, which means that the immigration laws don’t change. Some of my meetings on this journey will focus on immigration reform and the messaging that goes along with it.

My presentation at ACLI was well-attended, with a wildly diverse audience: NGO folk, independent journalists, young and old people, and civic leaders. I talked a lot about storytelling and social narrative, pausing after every few sentences to wait for my amazing translator to catch up with me. The Q&A was twice as long as the presentation, which I view as a win. It felt that they “got it”.

I faced some tough questions, though, many about the frustration that organizations and individuals feel when using social networks and not seeing immediate return on their time investment. The density and penetration of the social tools that I take for granted in the US are different here. I had a blast, and as I mentioned earlier, I found that consecutive translation, aside from giving me a pause to gather my next (brilliant?) thought also extends the “speaker’s rush” that I feel. Part of my positivity comes from knowing that I’ve also learned a lot in a short period about the ways that the social web organizes people here. I’ll apply those learnings at my next meeting.

I leave in the morning for Rome and a non-stop schedule that will take me from there to Florence then back to Milan. Hopefully I will be able to check in like this after each meeting. Until then, ciao!

RIP Adam Yauch (MCA) – A public death

Adam Yauch, known by his rap moniker MCA, has died. MCA was one of the three Jewish kids from New York who changed the face of music (and often, their own music) forever. I haven’t had any experiences with public deaths that caused a soulful reaction in me until today.

I was conversing with one of my interns when I saw the tweet: “RIP MCA” I didn’t have to guess at who or what “MCA” was – my mind connected his protracted illness to his current age and figured that it was Adam Yauch. Sharp intake of breath, both hands to my mouth, a softly-whispered “Oh no”, that weird wet tickle behind my nose and between my eyes that signals the lacrimal glands to start shedding fluid, a pause. Naturally, my first post-pause action was to retweet the news with a “Speechless…” attached to it – I am human, aren’t I?

My tummy hurt. I thought back to that day in 1995 (probably) when, while wandering through our local Wal-Mart, I picked up “Ill Communication”* and bought it with my mother’s money. I don’t know what attracted me to the disc. The cover art certainly doesn’t say anything about the Beastie Boys, a name that up until that point I had associated only with rap music, about which I knew precious little.

But I popped that Grand Royal-branded green thing into my RCA CD player and grooved out. I had no idea what I was listening to, but I loved it. It was the first album that I purchased.

I’ve bought every album and b-side collection and documentary that the Beastie Boys created. Between awesome lyrics – occasionally sick, occasionally something that was clearly created to rhyme but made no sense – and a solid “in sound from way out”, the Beastie Boys encapsulated what is great about music, namely that it can (and should) change from time to time. Instrumental jams, punk rock, hip-hop, rap, gospel, acapella, chanting, experimental – they did it all.

These were guys that spoke out about urban America, poverty, Tibet, Islamophobia, and other social issues before it was vogue for bands to do so. They didn’t do it to attract attention; they did it because they deeply believed it.

MCA was my favorite B-Boy. Dignified, intelligent, and gruff in a friendly way, his voice was the experience. Mike D and Ad Rock both had high-pitched and rapid rhymes, but MCA hit like a sledgehammer when he grabbed the mic. This day has been great for reminiscing – the tweets with his best lyrics remind me of why I liked him in the first place. As an interfaith activist, I’ve also found solace in his embrace of Tibetan Buddhism. It informed his rhymes, his medicine, and his activism.

Adam Yauch was a humanitarian and a peacemaker, a documentarian and a true musician. Like all of the Beastie Boys, he was a person who made wonderful music that cut across all genres. He rhymed as if his life depended on it. But perhaps that last point bears a deeper look. The thing that I loved the most about the Beastie Boys was that for as serious as they could make their music, they were never a serious phenomenon to themselves. They took the piss out of themselves more often than their critics. That took balls and it created longevity and fierce loyalty.

We have lost 33% of what, for me and many others, is one of the most amazing musical experiences that this world has had. It’s not a good feeling. It’s a public death that has finally forced me to understand how the general public reacts to such things. I think of the weeping crowds after Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston or Levon Helm and realize that I’m just like them.

I was on the phone with my fiancee a moment ago. She’s driving to the other side of the state tonight and asked, “What are you up to right now?”

My reply was, “Oh, just writing a blog post about…the Beastie Boys…” *sob* “and MCA and how he’s gone now.” *sniffle* *sob*

I didn’t expect to feel this way, but it’s been a great ride. Thanks for all the memories and rhymin’ and stealin’, MCA. You will be missed.

 

Reverb 2011 – What did you discover?

I found amazing camping spots out and about with Jackie. Really, really cool places.

I discovered an entrepreneur’s spirit in me, and it wasn’t just because of the lifestyle design books that I enjoy. There’s some kind of DARK POWER that guides me through this world now. By “dark”, of course, I mean “light”. America!

I discovered (again) that I really do love Jackie – she is so swell and tiny and cute.

I noticed that all one has to do is be active and make a decision to have life happen at 1000 miles per hour.

Reverb 2011 – Let’s do it.

Gwen Bell said that she won’t be organizing Reverb11, but that we are indeed welcome to do it ourselves.

“Fine!” I said. “I’ll go right ahead and do it, then.”

And then I didn’t.

Instead, I waited for Cali Harris (of the Formerly Reverberating Triad of Gwen, Cali, and Kaileen) to serendipitously tweet about how I could outsource my Reverb prompts to Kaileen: [blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/caligater/status/142627309692788736″]

After scraping Kaileen’s list and saving each item as a draft here, I am now ready to get it crackin’ once more.

It is time for Reverb11.

Reverb 2011 – Where did 2011 begin?

This year came in with a great WHOOSH. I was living with a little kitten named Jackie. Note: Jackie is actually a woman who I refer to as a kitten. She is also my girlfriend.

I was hopeful, I suppose. I had money in the bank, but the consulting gig that had provided my income for the second half of 2010 was gone. I knew that I’d eventually have to square away new work, but what it would look like and smell like and feel like was a complete unknown.

The support network that is Denver was ready to help, though, and I inherently knew that it would all figure itself out.

What I didn’t know was just how difficult and workful this 2011 would be.

Aaaaaaaaaand we’ll get to that soon enough. Still plenty more posts to go before I sleep.

Reverb 2011 – Who did you meet?

Most important meeting of 2011: Yet another version of Tim Brauhn – more on him later.

This is definitely a post that I should move further down in December, since four of the most interesting meetings will happen after Christmas when I’m back home in Illinois.

I have so many babies to meet.

Five, to be exact:

1. My little brother had a baby, so now I have a nephew. His name is Eli, and he seems fine.

2. My oldest buddy Murph’s wife is in labor as I type this, so that’s another baby.

3. I was home for a short time in June to attend my buddy Jason’s wedding. Now he’s got a baby named Benjamin, so I’ve got to meet him and tell him not to trust his father’s lies.

4. My cousin Jason had twins, like, forever ago, but his family moved back to Illinois from Florida so I’ll get to meet the babies at a family reunion/Christmas/New Year’s part of sorts.

So many new shiny little baby-people. I dig it.

Reverb 2011 – What books did you read?

Crush It – Gary Vaynerchuk (won it in a prize drawing and devoured it one sitting inside a tent at the edge of a large cliff)

Four-Hour Body – Tim Ferriss (pre-ordered it because I’m a sucker – if Ferriss wrote a book about punctuation marks I’d buy it)

Brewing Up A Business – Sam Calagione (he founded Dogfish Head – need I say more?)

The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls (terrifying tale of a dysfunctional family)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – Alexandra Fuller (another terrifying and offensive [in that special White African way] memoir that I guess I didn’t really finish)

Mirrors – Eduardo Galeano (bunch of vignettes from human history – I realized after the first page that Galeano had stolen my idea, damnit)

Buncha cook books (because I can’t not read them)

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa (amazing story weaving together the lives of the civil rights activist Flora Tristan and, many decades later, her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin)

Couple others. Many. Books good.

Reverb 2011 – When did you struggle?

Quite a bit, actually. This year was funny in that way.

I opened 2011 with money saved and no good ways to earn, so by the end of January I was a little tense from the work-search. On January 27th, two crazy, simultaneously-strugglesome-but-opportunityesque things happened.

1. My boss at The 1010 Project told me that he’d be leaving very, very soon. I would be the only paid staff (aside from our part-time Country Director in Kenya). At that time I’d been hanging around as a consultant with a stipend. Anything could have happened – maybe I’d become Executive Director, maybe we’d find someone else, maybe the organization would shut its doors. But we rolled through. The Board crowned me Director of Operations (a part-time employee) and tasked me with guiding us during the transition.

2.  Spotted Koi, a web development firm whose principal I was friendly with, offered me another part time position. This meant doing some project management stuff for online things here and there.

Suddenly, my calendar was a LOT more full, and my bank account wasn’t hemorrhaging quite as massively. But then came April, and TAX SEASON.

For the second half of 2010, I basically earned all my money as a contractor, i.e. I did not pay taxes. Suddenly, I was staring down the barrel of a considerably large payment to the IRS. I hired an accountant and set about trying to make sense of the previous year’s expenses and payments. Luckily, we worked my dues down to a slightly lower level, but it was still enough to wreck me. April and May were not pleasant, as I dodged student loans and cut back on food budgets.

I went to Kenya for a few weeks in June to lead a group of high schoolers on an Engaged Learning Experience with The 1010 Project, which is not the easiest thing to do, but it did provide some breathing room.

I spent the rest of the summer and early fall with Jackie, hiking and camping around our beautiful state. That wasn’t a strugglesome part, but I will mention it in a later REVERB post, I’m sure.

And then to wrap the year up, I started Denver Seitan Company with Mark Mann and another dude. Launching a company, especially one that requires me to cook food and distribute it is a wildly nuts thing to do.

Also, it was goddamn cold today and my bike rides to and from the office were fraught with misery.

AppSumo Review: Facebook Ads Action Video Bundle

I’ve messed around with Facebook ads before, but never with any real success. It’s not an intuitive process, nor does Facebook make it very easy to figure out what’s actually going on with the ads dashboard. The financial commitment itself makes all the buggersome aspects even harder to handle, so when I saw that AppSumo was offering an action video with a true Facebook ads wizard (Jennifer Sheahan from Facebook Ads Lab), I jumped at the chance. Or rather, I jumped at it with some AppSumo credit that I had on my account, which made the $49 price tag a bit easier to stomach.

The video comes in two parts at somewhere just shy of two hours total. There’s plenty of great content – Sheahan has a way of explaining incredibly complex concepts and actions in an easy-to-understand way, but she doesn’t try to hide the fact that she doesn’t know everything. Some of the processes behind Facebook ads are quite opaque, and keeping campaigns active enough for good ROI can take a lot of hands-on work. Jennifer shows us step-by-step just how to do it and not overdo it.

I wouldn’t say that this action video turned me into a Facebook ads wizard. Maybe more of an apprentice; I now actually understand the platform and some of the nuttier things that determine bidding and CTR. I am by no means ready to raise an advertising budget for Denver Seitan Company with an eye to Facebook ads, but I in a far better position to read the more detailed guides and case studies online and put them to work for me.

Brass tacks: This video gets an 8 out of 10 from the Tim Brauhn Corporation of America. It would have grabbed a 9 or 10 out of 10 but for the following. I think that there’s a bit too much talk about general Facebook page engagement strategies that could have been left out or replaced with more drilldowns on ads themselves. I’m ready to do some more testing and try to make the platform work for me, and I have this video to thank.

AppSumo Review: Brand Perception with Grasshopper.com

It’s time for another AppSumo Review! This Action Video’s headline was “Grasshopper.com got big through extremely creative marketing, learn the tactics” and led in with a story about Grasshopper’s Jonathan Kay getting kicked out of SXSW by police. That’s attractive to me, so I bit.

To be honest, I didn’t read through all the rest of the description before I clicked “BUY NOW”, and in hindsight, I may not have purchased it if I had read all the way through. I thought that I had a good handle on “brand perception”, and figured that I’d eventually watch it when I had some downtime to kill.

As luck would have it, I was visiting Crested Butte for the Thanksgiving weekend and found myself alone at the house on an elliptical with some time to murder. I started the video.

Jonathan Kay is a funny fella. He and Paul Hontz kept up the energy throughout, and it paired nicely with my workout. Grasshopper.com, of virtual phone system fame, is a company that I am familiar with, but I didn’t know much of the specifics of their growth and corporate culture. I enjoy AppSumo’s Action Videos for the insider’s look not just at issues facing startups and tech-folk, but at the companies and people that make up the sector. Jonathan walked us through A WHOLE BUNCH of practical examples and solid knowledge about how to exploit brand perception to promote and convert. It was very interesting stuff.

Brass tacks: I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I had a blast and walked away with a few ideas for how to firm up the ways that customers (potential and current) interact with Denver Seitan Company. The video was 41 minutes, but it went by super-fast. Using my arbitrary ratings system, I’d give this one 8/10 magical glowing stars of fury.