Good Men Media CEO Lisa Hickey wants you—and Malcolm Gladwell—to know: the revolution can be tweeted.
In December 2008 I walked into a Starbucks. “Are you Erik?” I asked a guy who was scanning the room looking for someone. “No, sorry.” We laughed awkwardly. I sat at a table and waited for my chai tea to cool down. Finally, Erik walked in, recognizing me right away. “It’s been a while,” he said.
Erik Proulx and I had worked together—for a week—about 10 years earlier. We hadn’t talked since. But Erik had just been laid off from his job at a large advertising conglomerate and needed to network. “I don’t know why I called you,” he said, frankly. “I’m just trying to connect.”
Erik had started a blog called Please Feed the Animals to help laid-off ad people like himself. At the time, I had never read a blog.
I was, however, excited about the potential for Facebook and Twitter as networking tools. I had 300 “friends” on Facebook, an amazing number, I thought. My daughter Shannon laughed at my efforts. “How many ‘friends’ do you have today, Mom?” she would say, using her favorite hand gesture, the air quote.
Admittedly, I was “friending” people for the wrong reasons. Was it an ego thing, something I was doing to make me feel better about myself? Check. Was I competitively trying to rack up more friends than everyone I knew? Check. Was I sending friend requests to people I thought were funny, smart, clever, and popular in the hope that they would think I was funny, smart, clever, and popular? Check, check, check, and check.
More than once I was told, “Sorry, I save my Facebook connections for my ‘real‘ friends.” Ouch. (I soon recognized that if someone already had 400 friends or more, they weren’t so worried about “real” friends.)
At the coffeeshop, Erik had a proposition for me. “I’m having an online chat for out-of-work ad people,” he said. “Could you join and talk about your experience on Facebook and LinkedIn?”
I stared down at my tea and tried not to groan. The last thing I wanted to do was brand myself an “out-of-work ad person.” What would my Facebook friends think?
Erik wasn’t even a friend, not in the way I had previously thought of friends. I didn’t remember if he had one kid or two, or if he lived on the North Shore or the South Shore. Heck, I hadn’t even recognized him. But Erik was trying to help others, and he needed help himself. I could see how what I had learned might be especially helpful to out-of-work ad people, so I agreed. I logged on to his chat the next day.
It was a bit of a dud. I was excited about where I saw social media going, but the other participants were less than enthralled with my contribution. “The last thing I need to do is join another social network,” one wrote. Then, Sally Hogshead typed four words that changed my life: “Have you tried Twitter?”
Sally, someone I knew from afar as a speaker, author, and branding expert, explained. “You can follow influential people, see what they are talking about, and join in the conversation.”
Five months later, I was standing in front of a crowd of 70 people, where I had been asked to speak about social media. In just a few months, I’d been branded as a “social media expert.” I was careful never to call myself that, but I didn’t have to. All I had to do, it turned out, was get 13,000 followers on Twitter and talk about social media. A lot.
Malcolm Gladwell taught me the value of “weak ties.” In his book The Tipping Point, Gladwell cited a study showing that most people got jobs not through friends, and not through traditional means like headhunters and ads, but through acquaintances—people they knew but saw rarely or occasionally.
According to Gladwell, 56 percent of jobs are acquired through these “weak ties,” while only 18 percent are found through ads and headhunters, and just 9 percent are found through good friends.
This is an actionable piece of information, the kind I like best. After reading Gladwell’s book, I spent 56 percent of my time working on my weak ties.
I had been socially awkward for most of my life. I’d show up in social situations and not be able to remember if the person I was talking to was married or divorced, had one kid or three, was a Republican or Democrat. Acquaintances would ask me questions and I couldn’t think of what to say in return.
Half of me was worried I’d let slip something stupid about my life, and the other half was scared that I would totally screw up what I should have known about their lives. Nearly every conversation filled me with anxiety. When I could, I’d say as little as possible and leave the room. I rarely spoke on the phone. Work was a safe haven: the conversations were safe, scripted, and professional. I worked a lot.
In the summer of 2008, right before I made the decision to get on Facebook, I read an article in The New York Times by Clive Thompson called “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy.” Clive wrote about something social scientists call “ambient awareness”:
Each little update—each individual bit of social information—is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of ESP,” an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.
Ambient awareness not only made perfect sense to me, it was what I’d been missing my entire life. My fear of interaction and social situations meant I didn’t interact with people. I didn’t know how. A form of ESP—some way of knowing enough about people’s lives to be able to have a comfortable conversation—was exactly what I needed.
Like Gladwell’s concept of weak ties, the idea of ambient awareness was information I could act on. All I had to do was get in the rhythm of seeing what was happening in people’s lives through status updates and other postings; that way, when I connected with them in real life, I could have a conversation. I knew when someone had been promoted to vice-president, or when they had been fired. I knew if his or her relationship was “complicated.” And not only could I recognize people, I could recognize their kids.
The running joke about Twitter was, “Who wants to know which breakfast cereal you’re eating?” The answer? I do. When in doubt, I could have a conversation about Corn Flakes.
Not long ago, my daughter Shannon had an asthma attack. When we arrived at the emergency room, it was crowded and understaffed. When the doctor came in to examine her, he didn’t have her charts, medical records, or even a piece of paper. He looked around the room and finally wrote her vital signs down on a piece of brown paper towel.
When the hospital finally realized they couldn’t care for Shannon properly and decided to transfer her by ambulance to another hospital, they accidentally knocked her IV out, spurting blood out of her wrist and onto the floor. The two nurses spent precious minutes yelling at each other, passing blame. By the time Shannon was in the ambulance, she was in severe respiratory distress. She spent a week in pediatric intensive care at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Flash to another parental crisis: it was a Saturday night and Shannon was supposed to check in to tell me where she was. She didn’t call, I was worried. I got on Facebook, contacted a couple of friends of hers (who had, much to Shannon’s chagrin, friended me), and asked if they knew where Shannon was. They didn’t. But five minutes later Shannon called me: “I heard you were looking for me, Mom.” Her phone had died; she was at a party that was getting out of hand. When I picked her up, she thanked me.
Of course, these are two very different crises. I wouldn’t use my social network to cure an asthma attack, and I wouldn’t ask a hospital to find my daughter on a Saturday night. But when the health and wellbeing of my daughter was in question, who was more helpful? Who paid more attention? Who had the necessary information? Who took the action needed to make sure she was OK? A group of 14-year-old kids in my social network beat the hospital staff by a mile.
What happened in the hospital might not appear to have much to do with social networks, but it does. The ER should have been able to anticipate the rise in visits and mobilize the necessary staff. They should have been able to access my daughter’s complete medical history from a single computer. The nurses should have cared about my daughter the same way friends would. Friends would have focused on the 14-year-old girl who couldn’t breathe instead of yelling at each other.
The hospital should have been able to act on information the same way Shannon’s friends were able to act on information. The fact that they failed to do so was close to catastrophic.
“You can find influential people to follow, see what they are talking about, and join in the conversation.” Sally was right: I started having some of the most interesting conversations of my life. I talked to brilliant technology people about how technology worked. I talked to creative ad people about the creative process. I talked to politicians, experts on social media in government, filmmakers, authors, bloggers, lawyers, inventors, and champions of social justice.
I had a conversation with Jesse Dylan, Bob’s son, about poetry. One sleepless morning, I got on Twitter and had conversations about sexism with people from five different countries. One of them translated my tweets into Spanish and retweeted what I said to his followers in South America.
I formed a theory about where I saw the universe heading:
The old days: Information, news, content was read. Calling someone “well read” was a compliment.
Today: Information, news, content is shared. “Social sharing” is the mantra.
Tomorrow: Information, news, content will be acted on. The people who get shared information and ideas and know how to act on it will change the world.
I was asked to write my first blog post by fellow blogger Michael Calienes, whom I didn’t know very well and had never met. The post is based on the idea that social media is the sharing of ideas that lead people to action. A week later, I started my own blog.
Twenty-seven days after Sally Hogshead tells me about Twitter, I am in love. With Twitter, and with the network I’d created. I loved the people I was meeting, the depth of information, the ebb and flow of conversations, and the fact that if I said something stupid everyone just ignored me.
I decided to follow at least one person from every country in the world, all 242 of them. I met teenage computer hackers from Singapore. “Digital Femme” from Germany, “Djevers” from Belgium. Anastasia, an ex-pat in Turkey, and a stay-at-home mom in Mexico made my list. I made some inroads into the African countries, but found I needed to use the right hashtag and introduce myself before they trusted me. I become a big fan of a graphic designer in Egypt. I called myself a “global conversationalist.” My tweets continued to be translated into different languages before they were retweeted and shared around the world.
I started talking about things I didn’t usually talk about, like global macroeconomics. One Saturday night, I had nothing better to do than have conversations with really smart people from around the world. Somebody tweeted a link to a Harvard Business School post called “The Smart Growth Manifesto”:
20th-century growth was dumb … Dumb growth is unsustainable … Dumb growth is unfair: it’s growth that’s an illusion for many; just ask the American middle class. And, ultimately, perhaps most dangerously, dumb growth is brittle: it falls too easily into collapse, reversing many of yesterday’s gains; just ask Iceland.
I read that paragraph and think: “Absolutely. The world should ask Iceland. And Iceland should talk to the world. The same way I am talking to the world. If I can solve my very own micro-economic problems, as an individual, by talking with people from around the world, perhaps Iceland can solve the its more macro-economic problems by talking to people from around the world. Iceland should get on Twitter.”
Social media: sharing ideas that lead people to action.
I knew one person in Iceland: Einar Orn, an advertising creative director at BBDO. Less than 10 minutes after I had the idea, I contacted Einar on Facebook, told him what I had just learned, and said, “Iceland should get on Twitter.”
Einar’s reply was brief: “Let me see if I can make that happen.”
Einar and I worked together on a social-media strategic proposal that he took to the cultural ministry of Iceland. It took a while. There were delays: “We just had an election.” “There’s a fire in the street.” “Erupting volcano.”
But Einar persevered, and with the help of many other Icelanders, Einar helped create a social media program called “Inspired by Iceland.” It’s truly inspirational. It connects the rest of the world to Iceland’s powerful, raw, natural beauty, showcases its citizens’ strength and work ethic, and highlights the country’s native art and music.
Not bad for a Saturday night.
Three months after being introduced to Twitter, another friend of mine was laid off from his job at a large advertising conglomerate. Mark St. Amant is a copywriter who, when he landed his first job in advertising, had the dumb luck to get me as a partner. It had been 18 years since we worked together. We had been in touch by email four or five times since, and had seen each other maybe twice in that span.
Mark wrote on his Facebook wall that he had just been laid off from his job. He needed help. I replied, “Let’s meet at Starbucks and I’ll tell you everything I know about social media.” At the time, Mark didn’t know enough about Facebook to realize that writing on his wall was public. “How did everyone know that you and I were meeting?”
I told Mark about my connection strategy, how to build a network, about weak ties. I told him, “I’m social-media promiscuous and couldn’t be happier.” At the end of the conversation, Mark said, “That was awesome. You should meet this guy Tom Matlack. He’s an author, writing a book of men’s stories. He could use your help.”
The next day, I met with Tom. He told me his plan to put together an anthology of stories about the defining moments in men’s lives. Tom was passionate, articulate, and believed in his idea. He had a half-finished manuscript of amazing stories. He wanted to “spark a national discussion” around the idea of what it means to be a good man.
I knew exactly what to say to Tom: “Let me see if I can help make that happen.”
Erik Proulx and I stay connected through Twitter, Facebook, email, and phone. Six months after we met in that Starbucks, Erik produced a movie, Lemonade. He asked me to be in it. At the screening, I screamed in horror at how I looked on the big screen. But then I laughed along with the rest of my friends.
I look the way I look. I can’t hide. I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Not at the place where social media collides with real life. Truly, Popeye, I yam what I yam. I no longer worry about my own personal brand based on perception. I worry about whether the actions I take help move the world.
I consider Erik to be a very dear friend, but we don’t actually socialize. What we both do well is understand the power of weak ties, the power of ambient awareness, and the power of changing conversations and ideas into action. The minute Erik and I connect these days, every month or so, one of us takes action that moves the other person forward.
Malcolm Gladwell showed up in my life again recently. This time, I wasn’t as happy to see him. In a piece for The New Yorker called “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” Mr. Gladwell implied that I don’t really know what activism is—that my participation in the Iranian elections on Twitter was imagined. “No one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi,” he wrote.
As I spread information about the election on Twitter, my tweets were being translated into Farsi—but I’m sure Malcolm Gladwell didn’t know that. He wasn’t following me on Twitter. He goes on to say that real activism needs to have strong ties, high-risk strategies, and a clear hierarchy in order to achieve systemic change. “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend.” Yes Malcolm, that’s me. Guilty as charged. When he writes, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties,” I want to shake him. “No kidding,” I want to say. “You were the one who told me about the strength of weak ties.”
On the other hand, Clive Thompson—the other life-changer, who wrote about ambient awareness—recently started following me on Twitter. I laughed and immediately friended him on Facebook. “You must have heard about all the times I mentioned your name when I described ambient awareness,” I joked. Is he a real friend? He changed my life, he found me, and he connected with me. In my life story—the only story that counts—that more than qualifies.
Tom Matlack, the Good Men Project founder, has been a successful venture capitalist for more than a decade. He once told me that his most successful deals usually involved figuring out a way for the other person to get rich first. Those words stuck with me. “The other person needs to get rich first.” It’s as simple as that. Help the other person get rich first. For me, I like to think social media is my way to invest in the world.
Two numbers are bandied about for people with personal social networks. One is “Dunbar’s Number,” which states that the number of people with whom one can maintain a stable social relationship is 150.
The other number is 10,000. Once you have 10,000 people in your social network—10,000 fans, followers, readers, subscribers, whatever you would like to call them, you no longer have an individual social network—you have your own media channel. You then have a certain value to advertisers, investors, and other media companies. You can say something or create something or share something and know that it will probably spread—sometimes around the world.
Here’s how I understand Dunbar’s Number: I might only be able to have 150 strong relationships at any one moment in time, but the 150 people with whom I have strong ties today is different from the 150 I will have tomorrow, next week, or next year. But whoever you are, if we once had a strong tie, you can always come back.
The 50,000 people to whom I am personally connected, whom I have in my various “media channels,” can fluidly go in and out of that circle of 150 strong at any given moment. Thus, maybe Dunbar’s Number will go the way of urban legends. Maybe it is simply just that I am social-media promiscuous and refuse to conform to societal norms. I don’t really care. I’m social-media promiscuous because I like connecting with lots of people. At any given moment, when one of us needs a friend, we can become “real.”
Like Erik, I can go 10 years without talking to someone and still consider him a friend. And when that person says, “Hey, Lisa, let’s meet for a cup of tea and plot a revolution,” I’m there. Because—yes, Mr. Gladwell—the revolution can be tweeted.