Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I was hoping this exercise would be a yawn

That may sound funny. Why would I want the response to my Blog Your Way Around the World essay to be a yawn? Doesn’t that mean people find it boring?

No. (Yawn.)

As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, yawning is a highly contagious activity. Just the suggestion of yawning—reading the word, seeing someone yawn or even hearing the sound of a yawn—is enough to cause many people to yawn. (If you yawned while reading this, you’ve got your proof.)

That’s what I was hoping for in this experiment. My essay spreading like a yawn; voters like yawners catching the “infection” and passing it along until it reached that magic tipping point that turned it into a virtual epidemic.

But Gladwell’s book illustrates that the magic tipping point is an elusive thing. It’s dependent on the combination of a variety of factors—the people involved, the appeal of the thing itself and the context of the potential epidemic. The book is fascinating, and I highly recommend it.

You can read about successful social epidemics that reached that wonderful tipping point, examples from Paul Revere to urban crime to Sesame Street.

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In brief: symbolism of the solstice

A short post on the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere.

This has been a significant day for much of human history. A symbol of endings and beginnings. A time for celebration in the face of a challenging season, looking forward through the winter and the darkness. Marking the beginning of a new cycle of the seasons.

Since the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, it’s also (obviously) the longest night. The longest night is the best opportunity for dreaming.

So on this solstice I am still hoping to achieve this adventure dream: Blog Your Way Around the World.

I hope you’ll share in my dream.

If you are a dreamer, you understand.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mixing numbers games and word people

Numbers often seem like a foreign language to word people. I’ve been trying to get my head around lots of them in recent weeks. Click-through numbers. Bounce rates. The only one that really resonates with me is the time that people spend visiting this blog—that’s the time they’re looking at the words.

And yet the goal of this crazy Blog Your Way Around the World endeavor is sheer numbers. I need more votes than any other entrant in order to get the chance to take those eight (there’s a number I understand) adventure trips and to write about them.

That’s where the word person–numbers compatibility challenge comes in. Word people, specifically writers, tend to be introverts. The number one makes the most sense to us. Crowd in a bunch of other numbers and we can get confused, claustrophobic, even uncomfortable.

It reminds me of the year my nephew was in the seventh grade—and having to deal with algebra. The mix of numbers and letters just seemed unnatural to him. Numbers were supposed to hang out with numbers and an assortment of symbols to build equations. Letters were supposed to hang out separately and build words. Tossing them together in an algebraic salad was just wrong.

My mind is currently unsettled in much the same way.

I am faced with composing a social networking version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” coming up with the right combination of numbers, activities, and supportive participants. “Eight great adventures … five fabulous continents … two thousand voters … and one winning essay entry.”

That vote number, though, that’s the unknown. Which brings us back to that whole algebra thing. Solve for X. And there’s no knowing the value needed for X, because there are a fair number of other writers doing just what I’m doing and trying to get that magic amount to win the contest themselves.

Solving for X and building up those votes is harder than it looks, especially because it involves working and acting like an Xtrovert.

Let’s just take it one letter—uh, number—at a time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Juggling metaphors and other quixotic things

My Blog Your Way Around the World effort has had to simmer on the back burner for a few days. There is more to life than social network campaigning, after all.

Went to Maine over the weekend to celebrate my mom’s birthday and to celebrate the season at a friend’s holiday open house. Most of the folks at the party were friends from Ferry Beach, one of my favorite places on earth. (That’s not to say I won’t jump at the chance to explore new places on the eight adventure trips that are the prize for BYWAtW.)

During the course of the evening, I agreed to helm a writing conference for women next August at Ferry Beach. It will be a fun challenge, I’m sure. And the first chapter of it was to do a little research and planning in order to write a description of the workshop for the conference booklet that’s going off to the printer soon.

Taking on this gig means that I’ll be heading up two writing conferences in the summer—the first is the Clockhouse Writers Conference for alums of the MFA writing program at Goddard College. I’m sure by the time summer rolls around I’ll be blogging about both conferences.

I’ve also been making arrangements for my monthly field trips for Trazzler, so the next few days I’ll be focusing on my travel writing.

It’s all about juggling.

Speaking of which, I learned to juggle back in the ‘70s after watching an episode of M*A*S*H. In the show Hawkeye has sustained a concussion in a Jeep accident and is trying to stay conscious until help arrives. Juggling is one of the things he does. So I watched and learned and tried it for myself.

Metaphorical juggling is more challenging than the physical kind—I mean, unless you’re talking about chainsaws. 

The tasks at hand don’t all travel their neat arcs at predictable speeds, so it’s not always simple to keep all the balls in the air. I’m feeling a little like I dropped the ball on this social networking campaign. But I’ve picked it up and added it back to the mix, and if I drop it again, I’ll grab it up again.

There are other metaphors that feel fitting to what I’m trying to do. Like “tilting at windmills” and dreaming “the impossible dream.” Perhaps I should be riding across the Spanish countryside on a skinny horse.

Perhaps I am.

That dust in the distance—maybe it is I.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Keep on keeping on

This is not a baked-potato-in-the-microwave effort. There’s no instant gratification. But I’m still moving forward one step at a time.

Got a mention in the local paper this week. I hope the Ipswich Chronicle has some trans-media-oriented readers who will take the paper to their computers and copy in the web address.

Got a callout in friend/comedian Dave Rattigan’s e-newsletter. With this I hope we’ll see a logical chain. Here’s my hopeful theory: People who like comedy shows are happy, and people who are happy will be willing to vote for my trip. Therefore people who like comedy shows will be willing to vote for my trip.

Or maybe I’m just crazy.

I’m starting to get the hang of tweeting. Maybe I am crazy.

I did another coffee-shop campout here in town at  Zumi’s, the local favorite. One woman asked about the “Help a Writer Run Away from Home” sign on my laptop and she thought the trips sounded exciting. I gave her the info and am keeping my fingers crossed.

Most people who came and went were moving with a purpose. They were zipping in to get their caffeine to go and rushed out. They were meeting others and settled quickly into their scheduled conversations. We are so purposeful here in New England; it makes me wonder if this technique would be more successful if I lived somewhere else.

But I can’t help it. I enjoy the people-watching and how the smell of coffee lingers on my jacket even after I leave the cafés. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Interest to action

Political campaigns, sales campaigns, publicity campaigns all wrestle with the same conundrum: how to convert interest into action.

My campaign to win the opportunity to blog my way around the world is a simple one. No complicated issue to explain, no negative effects for anyone who gets involved. A few clicks on a keyboard to cast a vote. But even so it’s a huge challenge.

Yes, my friends and family are interested in my wanting to travel the world and write about it. (Some of them will even be traveling with me should I win.) But even the people who know and like me have plenty of other things in their lives competing for their time and attention. Even with the people who know and like me best I have to do the dance, give them the pitch multiple times—and risk annoying them.

(I realize I am often inadvertently annoying, but I don’t like the idea of being annoying on purpose.)

The reality is that so far only a fraction of my friends on Facebook have voted. So perhaps I haven’t sparked their interest yet or even gotten their attention—it is a busy time of year. Which means I have work to do there. And not until I do that can I hope to turn that interest into action on their part.

The second level of challenge for me is to fire up my friends to help stir up interest among the people they know. That means converting interest to action on the part of people who don’t know me.

This is where I start to wonder about the whole social networking thing. It can work if (and this is a BIG if) there is a lot of good will on the part of my friends and their contacts. Because, let’s face it, at this point my friends take on the task of getting the word out there, and there isn’t even anything in it for most of them.

Their efforts are based solely on their interest. But for some that’s enough of an incentive. As one travel-phobic friend said when I told her about the adventure trips, “I don’t want to take the trips, but I want to know the person who does.”

When it gets beyond that, the campaign turns into a version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. It may fall apart, I don’t’ know yet. Will people who don’t know me actually be willing to take the action to vote for me?

My first opportunity to test that came yesterday when River’s Edge Card & Gift Store sent out their e-newsletter. River’s Edge sells my book, Ipswich: Stories from the River’s Mouth, and has always been supportive of my work. We’ll see if patrons, who may be familiar with my book but who certainly have a connection to the store, will translate that familiarity into action.

Once the appeal for votes goes beyond friends of friends, I guess I’m going to have to channel Blanche DuBois:

“Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Decaf and potential

Another afternoon with the sign on my laptop, this time at the Atomic Café in Beverly. I was here just a couple of weeks ago to write a Trazzler trip, and the place has a good vibe. I was hopeful that some of the friendliness would result in contacts—and votes.

Most of the tables were occupied when I got my coffee, but there was one open for me. A couple of moms with kids, a young guy with a laptop, a woman with a newspaper, and another young woman with a book sat around me. A pair of men possibly talking work stuff and a woman sat at a couple of the booths. A few people came in for to-go orders and then tables changed over. Several furtive glances at the sign. Nothing more.

Trying to develop the Twitter habit, so I tweeted about being at the café. @sams_stuff

Like the day before I worked on the revision of a short story I hope to send out to a literary journal this month. Making optimal use of the time camping out. The background bustle reminds of working in a newsroom, but writing in cafés is new to me. 

I got a lesson in the etiquette of laptop users in public places: If you need to get up to fetch a coffee refill or use the restroom, go ahead and ask someone nearby (preferably another computer user) to keep an eye on your equipment.

A man sitting by the door leaned over and asked if I’d watch his laptop for a minute. I agreed, and he got up. Finally, an opportunity—when he returned, I’d ask for a favor in return and tell him about the contest.

Just then, the door opened and a woman stepped into the café. I knew her—a former coworker from years ago when I worked at a local independent school. We struck up a conversation, and she sat down at my table while she waited for her sandwich order. While we were chatting, the man returned to his laptop, and I missed the chance to reach out to him (he left a short time later). But, I told Carolyn about the contest, gave her the info, and she said she’d pass it along to other folks at the school.

That’s a batch of potential votes—can’t count them yet, of course.

Just as Carolyn was leaving another friend walked in. Dawn is also a writer, so we talked shop. She teaches writing at Montserrat College of Art, whose galleries I also recently wrote about for Trazzler. Her students are another batch of potential votes—with any luck they’ll empathize with another writer’s aims.

While it wasn’t a successful day as far as reaching out to strangers went, it was a great one for catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for a while. This exercise is full of surprises.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A guerilla sipping hot chocolate

This drumming up votes for my Blog Your Way Around the World essay got me thinking about the whole social networking phenomenon. And I decided to try as many different things that I could think of to see how they worked.

Facebook. I’m rolling it out to my friends in waves and some of them are sharing the link on their walls. Not many reports back about friends of friends voting, so I can’t say how successful that’s been yet. Finding an organized way of gathering data is one of the aspects I’m still working out.

Email. As with Facebook I’m contacting people in waves. Or whenever I mention it to someone who offers to pass the word. I’ve also added the plea as the signature on my outgoing emails.

Twitter. Yup, I've started using really short sentences. @sams_stuff

Other online efforts. I’m looking for friends and other contacts who send out email newsletters or other bulk emails to get mentioned in their communications. So far I have enlisted one friend, a comedian, to add me to his next missive. I’m hoping that the people who are likely to be on a comedian’s email list are of the happy sort, and that happy people will be willing to vote for my essay.

Flyers and other paper. My books on sale around Ipswich now have slips of paper inserted into each one describing the contest and asking for support. I’ve also started hanging flyers around town with the info and the request that people “Help a Writer Run Away from Home.”

Face-to-face. Just shy of a hand-squeezing, baby-kissing sort of campaigning that started today. I am typing this in the Starbucks in Newburyport as I sip a hot chocolate and listen to the Salvation Army bell ringer’s jingling from outside. My laptop bears the sign “Help a Writer Run Away from Home—go ahead, ask me.”

Results of the onsite effort were mixed. It will be interesting to see if the atmosphere and inhabitants differ from place to place. When I settled in, three other people were typing away on their laptops and seemed intent on their work. I noticed several other people reading the sign as they past, but they didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t manage to make eye contact with any of them to encourage an encounter.

By the end of my time there (about two hours) I had made three contacts, which may result in two votes. (If I were ridiculously optimistic, I might imagine those two passing the link along to other willing voters, but let’s not get carried away here.)

The first contact was completely unexpected. A man came in, looked at the sign on his way by, and then went on to get his coffee. A few minutes later he reappeared with his coffee and stopped by my table. “Where are you hoping to go?” he asked. “All sorts of places,” I answered and started to swing my screen around to show him the contest page. He dropped a five-dollar bill on the table. “Good luck.” And he started away. “I’m not after money,” I started to explain, but he interrupted. “Then buy yourself a cup of coffee.” He smiled and was gone.

I sat for a few minutes and wondered if I should change the wording on my “Help a Writer Run Away from Home” sign. Did it sound like panhandling?

A little while later a man wearing earbuds who had been sitting in a corner armchair got up to leave and stopped near me. “Are you writing?”

He meant right at that moment in a place that he considered too noisy and busy for concentration. I told him I was editing a short story. Then I explained the sign and mentioned a few of the trips—Africa, Galapagos Islands, Borneo.

“There are cannibals in Borneo,” he said.

“Then I guess I’ll have something exciting to write about.”

He didn’t make any move toward my computer when I indicated he use it, so I took out one of my informational slips and handed it to him.

“I’m going to vote for you,” he assured me. Then he wished me luck and nodded good-bye.

A short time later a woman sat down at the table next to me and fired up her laptop. After a few minutes she turned and asked if I knew enough about computers to help her troubleshoot a problem. We figured it out, she thanked me, and then I asked if she’d be willing to do me a favor, then told her about the contest and gave her the info. She went to the website and cast her vote. Then we chatted about our work—she explained relationship marketing to me—and exchanged cards. I also told her about the guy who had given me the five dollars, and she said when something like that happens one should just say “thank you” and show that you’re open to accepting abundance.

Thank you to everyone who has voted so far and everyone who will between now and December 31.

I also believe in passing on abundance. The Salvation Army bell ringer was gone when I left the Starbucks, but I stopped at the supermarket on my way home and saw two teenaged girls with another Salvation Army kettle. They were singing Christmas carols. I gave them the five dollars.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The kindness—and clickthrough—of strangers

Help a writer run away from home.

Yes, I have undertaken another adventure. This one’s a heavyweight exercise in social media that, with luck and lots of help, will lead the way to more adventures.

I, along with many other hopeful writers/travelers, have written an essay and thrown it hat-like into the ring. Now I must campaign among friends—and strangers—to try to get votes for my entry. The goal I have in my head is 2500. (I have no real idea of how many votes it will take to win. It depends, of course, on how many votes the other entrants manage to rack up.) The deadline is December 31.

Of course, I’m asking all my friends to vote. And asking them to ask their friends. The next step is to come up with creative ways to ask strangers (without being too annoying and, I hope, with some success).

You can help with all steps. First, please vote.

Go to Blog Your Way Around the World and register to vote (supply name and email address, make up a password).

If the registration process doesn’t take you back to my essay page, just type “Sam Sherman” into the Search for Bloggers box. Back at my essay page, click the Vote for Me button. That’s it.

Second, if you would, share my plea with your friends. Give them the link to my essay page and ask them to vote too. To paraphrase an old shampoo commercial: you’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on …

Third, if you have any great ideas for me to get out the word to more folks and get more votes, let me know. I’m thinking of camping out at several local coffee shops with a “Help a Writer Run Away from Home” sign. Any other bright ideas?

With lots of help I’ll be dusting off my passport in 2011 (and celebrating my fiftieth birthday in eight exotic locales).

Thanks for your help!