Creative Commons Grand Canyon photo by maureen via Flickr

Building Kommunity

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The first draft of this post was written a year and a half ago. It’s been edited quite a bit since then, but the main reason it never got published is – I’m ashamed to say it – I was afraid of how it would be received. I still have no idea how it will be received, but that doesn’t really bother me anymore. And although the landscape has changed since I first wrote this, I think the basic points still apply. And, more important, they still annoy the shit out of me.

Creative Commons Grand Canyon photo by maureen via Flickr

Creative Commons Grand Canyon photo by maureen via Flickr

Here’s the thing: I really don’t like Klout. More specifically, I don’t like what it’s done to blogging – or bloggers.

When I first started hearing about it back I-don’t-remember-when, I was intrigued. Measuring social influence? Yeah, actually, that does sound like it’d be a valuable thing for both bloggers and the PR folks who work with us. But when I poked around a bit more to find out just what the heck they were measuring, I was less enthusiastic. The short version is that social influence is still way more nebulous than any of us really wants it to be, and measuring it based on well-informed gut reactions (by smart people who do their research) still seems more effective than going by a tool like Klout or Kred when the data that’s pulled in is flawed to start with.

Not to mention the fact that I seriously hate how I can’t say “clout” or “cred” – y’know, the actual words – anymore without sounding like a tool myself.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a numbers person. I would very much like there to be a gizmo that would give me a reliable read on someone with whom I was thinking of working or a PR company who had invited me on a trip. Klout or Kred or some as-yet-unlaunched thing may eventually be that gizmo – but, to my mind, they aren’t quite there. That’s fine – perfecting a new tool takes time, especially when the landscape is changing every nanosecond. What bothers me, though, is that so many of my cohorts are already using these tools as if they’re infallible – because, frankly, it fits the downward spiral pattern they’re already on.

When you’re focused on outside (and imperfect) measurements of your community building rather than trying to determine what your community really wants, what you’re building isn’t community. It’s Kommunity.

Build enough kwality kontent, establish enough konnections, and in no time at all you’ll be well on your way to high Klout scores! Dominate keywords (making them look like organik linking), generate kick-ass komments, and you’re a kommunication rockstar! (Or should that be rokkstar?)

We’ve all seen examples of what I call Kommunity building – services that retweet stuff from other people in the “tribe” you joined without you really being aware of it, Twitter streams filled with retweets of the same people in some informal scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours band over and over again, travel blogs that publish keyword-stuffed posts on irrelevant topics to please sponsors or ad buyers at the expense of readers, claims that it’s not at all disingenuous to buy Twitter followers and Facebook fans… There are people I like who do some of this stuff, and it makes my heart hurt. I understand why it might seem appealing, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable.

What we sacrifice when we chase Kommunity is our actual community. Someone’s needs are being met when you engage in Kommunity building – either your personal needs or your sponsor’s – but those needs are not likely your community’s. If that’s enough for you, if building a sustainable and real community isn’t necessary to achieving your goals, then the path is Klear.

Real community building is slow. It takes time and dedication. It requires consistent interaction and availability on a human scale, not a points system. There is no shortcut to community success. You can do research on best practices or hire someone to help you get from 0 to 60 more quickly, but if you think buying Facebook fans is the path to success then you’re in for a harsh reality check.

Yes, there are people acheiving something they’d call success because of their high Klout scores or fake Facebook fans, but I’d spell it “sukkcess” instead. Quick fixes usually end in tears for the people who thought the duct tape would hold, and the worst part is that counting on that shortcut means you’ve spent no time building a sustainable foundation for when everything else comes crashing down.

Think about it: who do you think of as your community? Whose needs do your actions really serve? If the answers you give don’t jive with what you put on your site, then at best you’re just lying to yourself. At worst, you’re lying to your community, too. They’re not stupid. They’ll figure it out. And they’re much harder to get back once you’ve lost them.

The tortoise wins the race in the end. Don’t ever forget that.

Work of One’s Own

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creative commons photo by blumpy

creative commons photo by blumpy

In the year-plus since I lost my job working on the Italy site (and was unsuccessful in buying the site), I’ve moved on to freelancing – something I never thought I’d tolerate very well, but that has turned out to be interesting and often fun. I’ve had Italy projects in the back of my mind throughout the past year, knowing I didn’t really have the ideal outlet for them any longer, and almost always defaulting to client work instead of rolling up my sleeves and digging into creating something of my own. It’s easier to spend hours on work, I reasoned, when you can bill someone else for that time.

Last month, however, I was reminded on two separate occasions that my Italy know-how is still valuable. At TBEX in Dublin, I was told by an experienced traveler that whenever he looks up information about Italy he still sees my old site first – and the information he finds there is still the best. And then out of the blue I received a message from a complete stranger via Facebook:

Hi Jessica,

While we don’t know each other, we have many Italy expat friends in common and I always enjoyed listening to your views via the Eye on Italy podcast. I have lived in Italy since 1996.

I miss your presence on the web, if that makes sense because we don’t even know each other! But you used to give great information and I liked your spot-on articles, which I often linked for friends. I am pretty sure that you no longer work for [that site].

I currently have friends in town from California and we were talking the other day. As they are expecting guests later this week who will be arriving via cruise ship, she was asking me some questions. Then she tells me that she found the best site, the best information…and it was yours!

So I just wanted to say hello and let you know that I hope things are going well for you in your life. I do follow you here on facebook and check your blog, but I have sensed your absence in the online world in recent months.

Warm regards,
Jill

I was so touched by Jill’s message, knowing that not only has she missed seeing my Italy articles but that her friend also mentioned my work. That message, combined with the comment from my fellow travel blogger at TBEX, have me thinking again about working on something that’s entirely my own. It’s a scary proposition, and I don’t really know where the time necessary is going to come from, but perhaps by saying it out loud here I’ll be more inclined to hold myself to it.

If you have suggestions on how to force yourself to carve out time to work on your own projects, I’d love to hear them.

Also, you may recall that I got a message from a reader not long after I lost my job last year. I just re-read it, and am now thinking about pasting both Cindy’s and Jill’s messages to my office wall as reminders to get to work.

New Week, New Job Title: TBEX Community Manager

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It’s been a whirlwind of a last few days, y’all.

To recap:

On Friday, it was announced that I’d be the new TBEX Community Manager, an opportunity I couldn’t be happier about. If you’re outside the travel bloggy world, I’ll remind you that TBEX is the Travel Blog Exchange, a blogging community and conference I’ve attended every year since it began in 2009. I made quick last-minute arrangements to attend this year’s conference in Colorado, which I gushed about later, and I’m positively giddy at the prospect of being the advocate for a community I adore so very much.

Today’s my first official day with TBEX, and in practical terms it’s a part-time gig – which means I still get to do freelancing and my own projects, although it also means I’ll have a much shorter client list than I thought I might need when I started freelancing in early June.

But really, it’s nearly impossible for me to stay practical when I think about this position. It’s community – y’all know how much value I place on community. It’s a community I know, love, and have been actively engaged with for more than six years. Plus? It’s a community that has already given so much to me over the years, it feels like this is my chance to give back.

If you are part of the travel bloggy world, I am excited to serve you – I am bursting with ideas, and eager to hear yours. I look forward to meeting you (online and in person)!

In addition to the usual places, you can now also find me here:

Who is NBC’s Olympics audience? (Hint: it’s not us.)

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Now that we’re officially two days into the Olympics in London, cracks in the shiny surface are not just showing – they’re growing. I’m not talking about London – I’ll leave the debate over how the city is handling the games to others. I’m thinking about NBC’s coverage of the events so far. And, since people typically see the entire world through their biased lens, I’m thinking about NBC’s coverage as it relates to the idea of community.

To bring you into my community-oriented world, let’s back up for a moment.

A few travel bloggers I know regularly get into conversations about whether sponsored trips turn bloggers into shills for a destination, or whether sponsored posts mean bloggers have sold their audience to a brand. There are, of course, differing opinions on this, but the most reasonable response seems to be that it’s not the sponsored posts or trips in and of themselves that make a blogger more or less believable. Going on a trip paid for by a destination does not, by itself, cause you to lose sight of reality. Forgetting that your blog was originally intended for readers, not companies and destinations? That’s the problem – that’s when you’ve turned toward the dark side.

The questions raised in these conversations are, “Who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach? To whom are you beholden?” Sure, most of us may never know our audience members by name, but I doubt very much that many people start out their travel blogging career with goals like, “I totally want to reach pharmaceutical companies who will then want to pay to have their links inserted into my posts about my trip to Bali.”

So, how does this relate to NBC’s Olympic coverage? What does this have to do with community? I’m getting there, I promise.

Each year, coverage of the Olympics seems to get more extensive. This year, that means events broadcast across five different NBC channels and live-streaming of all sporting events on NBC’s Olympics website. Leading up to the start of the games, it sounded promising. Before the games even started, however, it was already clear that not much had really changed.

To recap some of NBC’s shortcomings thus far:

  • The opening ceremony, live-cast all over the world, was tape-delayed by NBC in the United States. That meant those of us on the west coast got to see spoilers posted on social media not once, but twice – first when most of the world got to see the ceremony live, and a second time when it was first aired in the U.S. at 7:30pm on the east coast. By the time 7:30pm PST rolled around, anyone who hadn’t been avoiding social media all day knew what they were going to see, down to the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter with James Bond. To say it was anticlimactic is an understatement.
  • We found out later that not only did NBC edit the opening ceremony so they could insert commercials without missing any of the action, they actually edited out an entire performance segment. Even more surprising, the performance they cut out was a tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005 in London – which occurred a mere 24 hours after London was awarded these very Olympic games.*
  • The promised live streams of each sporting event aren’t always available; some are evidently only going to be videos to watch in replay. The videos that are available are streamed without any commentary whatsoever, which is a bit confusing for viewers, and especially strange given that the same event happening at the same time and being shown on television has commentary.
  • Soccer, while growing in popularity in the U.S., is still a tough one for American broadcasters accustomed to commercial breaks every few minutes. Thus far, the only games that haven’t been interrupted by commercials – while play is still going on, mind you – are those involving the U.S. women’s team and the U.K. men’s team. Otherwise, during each 45-minute half there are at least two commercial breaks inserted – and these aren’t quick 30-second ads thrown on when someone is getting medical attention, these are 3-4 regular ads in a row, while live play continues.
  • NBC has been telling us for weeks (months?) that the big story of the games, perhaps the only one that matters, is Phelps vs. Lochte. Yet for the first race in which these two American swimmers were up against one another, NBC delayed showing the race until primetime, hours after it took place. What’s more? Despite holding back on televising the race, the official NBC Olympics Twitter account posted the race results immediately. Spoiler alert much, NBC?

There are, I’m sure, more problems with NBC’s handling of the games, but there are only a few events I’m interested in personally. What I find more interesting is that all of this adds up to one very clear message: NBC doesn’t think we’re the audience.

All of what the public is perceiving as “bad behavior” on NBC’s part, what we’re taking to Twitter and Facebook to complain about, is seen in a completely different light if you understand that NBC’s audience is made up of advertisers and sponsors. Not showing the Phelps/Lochte race or opening ceremony until prime time? That’s more eyeballs on commercials, for which more can be charged in the first place. Editing out a tribute to the 52 people killed in London seven years ago? That kind of negativity doesn’t sit well next to an ad for Coke or Proctor & Gamble. Leaving commentary off the live streams? That leads people to tune into the televised broadcasts, which feature the commercials the live stream does not. Inserting commercial breaks where there’s no break in the action? That’s just being an asshole. (And, yeah, shoving more ads into the broadcast.)

It’s not as if NBC isn’t listening to complaints, either. They’ve got the likes of Ryan Seacrest in London specifically, it seems, to appeal to the hip, young social media-using generation, highlighting such fascinating tidbits as “women on Facebook overwhelmingly liked David Beckham’s appearance in the opening ceremony more than men did.” Such shocking revelations aside, they’re taking what they want and need from social media – demographics, most likely, which they can use to attract more advertisers – and ignoring the rest.

I’ve no idea what NBC pays to get exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S., but I’d be willing to believe it’s a damn sight more than any other country’s major network has to pay. NBC is not a non-profit organization, and they can – and should – get as much advertising revenue as possible from the Olympics in order to make up for the enormous amount of cash they are splashing out. It seems, however, that somewhere along the way they’ve turned their back on the audience they should be serving – us – and sold us entirely to the audience they now serve – their advertisers. So, since it’s obvious that they’re now answering questions like “Who is your audience?” enthusiastically with “Comcast Xfinity!” I’d say they’ve identified their community – and are serving them pretty brilliantly.

As for us? We’re just the bystanders. We don’t have a say in the matter, especially when exclusive TV rights means we can’t exactly just go watch stuff on the other guy’s network. But hey, knowing NBC doesn’t care a whit about us, it’s kind of liberating. Now we can skip the outrage and just turn the TV off entirely when we don’t like what we see.

Or, since that’s unlikely to happen, how about we lobby to make outrage the next Olympic sport? I’m pretty sure we could medal in that one.

* UPDATE: Apparently editing out the 7/7 tribute wasn’t low enough for NBC, who has justified its actions by saying “our programming is tailored for our American audience,” which is somehow supposed to make it okay. Nevermind that the entire world tunes in with its outpouring of support during terrorist attacks in the United States. NBC obviously thinks we’re idiots who can’t understand anyone else’s grief. This turns a bit of programming stupidity into an unbelievably arrogant and heartless act. Well done, NBC. You’ve one-upped your own assholian behavior. (Thanks to Geraldine for the link to that story.)

What would Cindy think?

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Email has become one of those things about which I complain, since my inbox is so often flooded with advertising pitches. Every so often, however, I get an email that reminds me it is, after all, just another delivery method for actual heart-felt messages – like the ones we used to scribble onto paper and send in stamped envelopes. I got one of those emails last week, and thankfully the sender has given me permission to share it with you.

Cindy found me on this site, and emailed me with an Italy question after reading my old Italy guide for (she says) “one full week.” Before she got to her question, though, she wrote this paragraph.

So I first have to say how much I LOVE your writing style. I honestly feel like I could go for coffee with you, have a good ol’ laugh, leave, and feel like I made a life-long friend. So kudos on your interesting, informative and engaging material. 2. Thank you for being so passionate and approachable. I have totally been captivated by your enthusiasm for travel and I SO look forward to my first ever trip to Italy. Your tips & suggestions have been ridiculously informative and I feel so prepared. And 3. Thanks for making me laugh. Out loud. By myself. Like a geek. You. are. funny.

I wrote recently about how supported I’ve felt by my travel blogging community. I never thought the same would be true of the people out there who read my words, but there you go – Cindy set me straight in that regard with one simple email.

Cindy, you might have just become the reader I think about when I write. I’ll pause mid-sentence and think, “What would Cindy think?” I hope you don’t mind.

photo by jasminejennyjen

On Community

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about community.

Somewhere between preparing for TBEX in Colorado, updating my LinkedIn profile, and chatting with people about what social media is really all about (hint: it’s not Klout), I was reminded that I’ve been passionate about and involved in community building since way before Twitter and Facebook were even things.

Yeah, I know. I’m old.

In 1998, I started working at the American Cancer Society in Portland as the Grassroots Coordinator, mobilizing volunteers to write letters to politicians and testify in front of the state legislature. At the time, my family hadn’t yet been touched by cancer – but it was still impossible to keep from being swept up in the wave of cancer survivors and families who had lost a loved one to the disease. Looking back, that job gave me a unique look at the power of community, even when that community wasn’t “mine,” per se.

This recent piece about a once-homeless girl who is on her way to Harvard this fall was absolutely an inspiring story about her dedication and work ethic, but I saw it as more of a story about community than anything else. Without the support network of that North Carolina town stepping into the void in her life, where would she be now? I’d wager it’s not en route to Harvard.

Fast-forward to three days after losing my job in late May, when I sent messages to some of the people – my people – who I was, thankfully, connected to on Facebook. I told them what had happened, what I was looking for, and asked for whatever help in spreading the word and/or rebuilding my social network they were willing to offer. I was blown away by the responses I got, both online and off, from people who were instrumental in those first few days in making me feel much less panicky about whether I’d ever find a job in this field again. Every kind message I got produced a lump in my throat.

This time, it was the wave of my community that was catching me in its supportive arms, bolstering me as I took my first wobbly steps on new legs.

I rode that wave all the way to Colorado, received hugs and kind words from even more people, and was extremely glad I’d made the trip. And I haven’t even talked about how many of these people, my people, have come to me with ideas of projects I could work on with them, have passed on job leads they’ve heard about, have passed my name on to people they think may be helpful.

In recent years, I’ve had the honor of participating on panels on the topic of social media and community in the travel blogging world. I was already a big believer in the power of community, but even then I acknowledged that when it comes to travel writing there was bound to be a certain level of competition. There are, after all, only so many National Geographic Traveler bylines to go around.

It wasn’t until my recent job loss and experience with this group of exceptional people rallying around me, however, that I realized competition doesn’t need to diminish community at all. Yes, if there’s one job and we’re all applying, we need to (and do) sell ourselves as best we can. And if that job isn’t right for me? I probably know someone in the community who’d be perfect. Somewhere in the heart of this community is the belief and understanding that whenever one of us succeeds, it’s good for all of us.

I can’t speak to other industries, but at least in this little travel blogging world of which I feel so fortunate to be a part? Community trumps everything, it seems.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to thank all the people who deserve to be thanked, at least not in words that are even remotely adequate to the task. I’m just waiting for the opportunity to repay them all, by paying it forward to the next community member who needs a leg up.

Or, y’know, by feeding them gelato. Next time you’re in Portland, let me know.

photo by nateOne