An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

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Confession #105: The Action Movie Blog Post

I’m twelve stories up and being chased by two guys with four guns and I’m running out of roof which leaves me with two choices: I duck and cry, or I take a flying leap for the adjacent building’s rooftop. Without breaking stride, I jump for it. My hands make it to the next rooftop. My legs, almost. So I’m dangling there and in a brief moment of stillness, all I hear is my iPhone ricochet off the corner of an overstuffed dumpster into the alley below.

That seems like a reasonable way to start a post on how difficult it is to grab and hold a little attention in this era of twitchy fingers and shifty eyeballs, when two tweets on the same topic can pass for longform writing.

Almost no one does just one thing anymore. The screens won’t let us. And in an incredible burst of human evolution, our minds have grown accustomed to monitoring multiple inputs at once. Yeah, you’re reading this post. But we’re nearly three paragraphs in. So if you’re anything like me, it’s about that time to check Twitter, count the additions to your Google Plus circles, read a handful of new incoming email messages, and chime in on a couple of ongoing instant message conversations. But wait.

During my junior high Presidential Physical Fitness challenge, I topped out at half a pull-up. I’m the wrong guy to be dangling from the side of a twelve-story building. When I woke up this morning, I was just a writer and tech investor, tucked behind the warm glow of my 27-inch Apple monitor. How did I end up here? Well, it’s long story. Long stories don’t work so well on the web, and besides, one of my hands just slipped and now only a four-fingered grip is keeping me from becoming a chalk outline on the street below.

On a recent morning, my wife was busy with several work related tasks on her Macbook Air when our two year-old daughter sprinted across the room and dove onto the couch, knocking the computer lid shut. Without looking up, my wife re-opened her laptop and said, “Don’t dive onto to the couch when Mommy is working, Jen.”

Only, our daughter isn’t named Jen.

It’s getting harder to concentrate on anything, even the stuff that’s clearly the most important. My daughter is too young to email us a note that she’s about to jump, tweet a message from midair, and then provide a link to a YouTube clip of her flight as she heads towards her couch landing. But that’s what it takes to get undivided attention. Little what’s-her-name didn’t stand a chance.

The other day, I asked my son if he wanted Daddy or Mommy to take him on the bus for his first day of Kindergarten. He answered: “I want the iPad to take me.” Who can blame him? His parents are barely the equivalent of a single app.

As my whitened knuckles are about to give, I feel the grip of a large, strong hand around my wrist. Someone is trying to pull me up. So I do what any neurotic Jewish man would do in that situation. I pass out.

AT&T regularly runs commercials for its version of the iPhone touting what the company sees as one of its key advantages: You can make calls and browse the web at the same time.

Makes sense. I mean, can you imagine just talking on the phone or just browsing the web? Sure, maybe that’s fine while you’re also driving in your car or jaywalking across a heavily trafficked street or teaching your child to ride a bike, but otherwise, it just seems silly to waste that kind of time unitasking.

A naked light bulb glows dimly in an otherwise dark and dank room. I see a perfect face just above me; puffs of glitter float down from her golden, brown hair making me feel like I’m suspended in a disco-themed snow globe. It takes a second for me to hear what she’s saying as her fingers cradle my head, one of her thumbs caressing my cheek. “Say my name.” She whispers, “Say my name.”

“Beyonce?”

I have three friends who are accomplished novelists. Two of them have cut off all Internet access to their homes. The other leaves his devices behind and sits in an unconnected cafe with a pen and a stack of paper for several hours a day. They know that even their impressive abilities to concentrate can’t compete with a connected computer.

These strategies are working for now, but the realtime Internet is starting to sneak in. They all have kids and other parents want to be able to make last-minute playdate schedule changes, so they all bought smart phones. Their publishers demand that they use social media to promote their writing, so they’ve all started to Tweet and build-up a Facebook following. Their eyes water when I mention that now Google has introduced a new social network.

They can sense the inevitable. The Luddites’ days are numbered. The Gluddites are coming. It’s only a matter of time. They can run but they can’t hide.

I squeeze and re-open my eyes a few times. I hear a voice say, “Wow, this guy is really out of it.” I then feel an iPad (the heavier first generation model) slam down on my head. The next thing I see is the inside of ZipCar’s trunk.

I recently heard a pitch from the founder of company that – like many start-ups these days – has the goal of garnering a large percentage of your mindshare on the second screen. The second screen is how media types refer to your computer while you’re watching TV. To them, the idea that you’d ever just be watching television seems about as likely as you reading hieroglyphics by torchlight.

The founder described a scenario. Say you’re watching the latest episode of Mad Men. We can connect you with thousands of other people who are watching at the same time. You can discuss the show, post opinions, and make and share polls. Meanwhile, we’ll scour web and serve up the latest gossip and news about John Hamm so you can read that while you’re watching the episode.

I looked at him and said: “Tell me the truth. You don’t really like TV, do you?”

The idea of reading gossip about John Hamm while watching a new episode of a great show like Mad Men might seem crazy, but the truth is that both my wife and I have our laptops open during almost every other show. And we’ve already aged out of the target market. Several friends have told me that their teenagers absolutely never just watch television, even when they’ve rented an action movie. Some other screen is always on.

If you’re a content creator, you have a few options. You can create content that is simple enough to be easily absorbed during a series of quick glances from viewers whose attention is divided. You can attempt to make your content so unbelievably riveting that even the most jaded member of Generation Realtime can’t take their eyes off it (I’m thinking here of a show like Game of Thrones which adds to its hour of excellent content a healthy dose of frontal nudity interspersed with graphic beheadings). Or, you can provide second-screen content to further engage viewers while they half-watch your shows.

Where does that leave me when all I’ve got is this pile of words and I’m four paragraphs away from my last action scene?

I’m splashed in the face with ice-water and wake to find my ample torso chained to a chair in front of a new Ikea desk, empty other than a yellow pad and a finely sharpened number 2 pencil. Beyond the edge of the desk, I see a semi-circle of nerdy-looking guys each holding a pistol in one hand and an iPhone in the other.

Recently a guy who goes by the name of Lezevo and often shares videos of himself playing Call of Duty 2 decided to share the personal details of his just finalized divorce. Someone as familiar as Lezevo is with immersive shoot’em up video games knows how unlikely it is that people will listen to thirteen minutes of someone talking about his crumbling union. So he layered his voice over a video of himself shooting up buildings, taking down helicopters, and creating a trail of carnage. The viewer is entertained by explosions and action-packed battles as the speaker calmly shares the ups and downs that led to the cratering of his marriage. Kaboom.

In addition to coming up with a pretty satisfying metaphor for the way many divorcees feel about the experience, Lezevo may have also created a blueprint for the way we need to think about sharing the details of our lives. The content can be deeply personal. The audience can still be wildly public. And once you’ve gone past 140 characters, you’re not going to hold anyone’s attention without machine guns.

The nerd directly opposite me cocks his gun and points it towards the yellow pad on the desk. “Dave,” he says, “We need the next blog post.” I now recognize these editors and readers and manifestations of the voices in my head, and I instinctively complain that I’ve been busy lately and that I’ve had a major case of writer’s block.

“You’ve sent 12,000 emails, pushed 1,800 tweets and dropped at least 30,000 words into your instant messaging client since the last time we saw a new piece from you. That sound like writer’s block?”

They all laugh as their eyes shift back and forth between me and their iPhone screens.

“Sorry. Pal. You’re gonna sit at that desk and write until you have something to post. No tweeting, no browsing, no screens, no Angry Birds, nothing, until you’re done.”

I pick up the pencil from the desk. Before I start to write, I have to know one thing: So, I guess Beyonce was never actually part of this, eh?

“Nope. But you should include her in your post anyway. It’ll keep things moving…”

Confession #104: I Wish I Could Be More Like My Avatar

I wish I could be more like my avatar.

The other day I accidentally loaded the wrong version of a podcast I had been working on. About a minute in, I heard myself stumble over a few words, and then ramble, “What are you doing wasting your time with this? You’re a grown man with two kids. Is this the crap you want them to see you doing? Even your two year-old complains that this web garbage has no revenue model. Did your parents really survive the Holocaust and make an idyllic life for you in America so you could be reading this goddamn crap into a microphone attached to your laptop you stupid loser.”

My avatar never acts like that. He never lets life’s frustrating moments get him down. Every wrong can be made into a right. When an investment goes bad, he tweets something funny yet insightful about the offending company. When someone cuts him off in traffic, they get anonymously humiliated on the Internet. When his kids complain that he’s on his laptop too often, he knows he can turn their complaints into a pithy quote that will lead to a couple hundred retweets. If he screws up a podcast recording a few times, he just laughs knowlingly and thinks to himself, “Looks like I’ve got the topic for my next blog post.”

When my avatar drinks too much coffee, his wit accelerates. When I drink too much coffee, I get jittery, frustrated and my irritable bowel syndrome kicks in. When my avatar gets drunk, he becomes more entertaining, makes more pointed jabs at those who deserve them, and leaves his mark as the life of the online party. When I have a couple too many bottles of beer, I usually sing as much of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album as I can before passing out with my cheek propped up against the cool porcelain of the Toto in my master bathroom.

My avatar easily maintains every popular diet. He doesn’t get those creases around his eyes when he laughs. He completed his journey to the 4-hour body in less than 45 minutes. Both of my kids asked me if I’d make them a t-shirt with my avatar on it. They look up to him.

I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this. You know my avatar a lot better than you know me. I’m sure some of you who have never met the real me probably think that me and him are one in the same. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, my designer Brian went to great lengths to match my current facial hair (the curved tough-guy mustache and the unironic soul-patch). But in reality, my facial grooming comes nowhere close to the avatar. I ended up with this look after I shaved off all the gray parts of my beard. The last time my neice saw my facial hair she asked me if I was going to a costume party.

She never talks trash like that to my avatar. No one does.

My avatar is steady. He’s attractive. He’s even-keeled. He looks great on coffee mugs and mousepads. He didn’t see a shrink three times a week as a kid. He never wet the sleeping bag at camp. He didn’t cry during his first week of football practice. He never owned a Manilow poster. He never drove a Moped through the bushes and into his outside bedroom wall. No one bought him a vaporizer for his 44th birthday. When he watches porn, he feels even more secure about his own anatomy. He’s cool. He’s enigmatic. Sometimes when my wife closes her eyes during love-making, I know she’s thinking of my avatar. And I don’t blame her. More often than not, I’m doing the same thing.

I still think it’s pretty sad I that spend so much of my life in front of this computer screen. But my avatar has no such doubts. The Internet is the only place where he exists. No apologies. No second thoughts. No carpal-tunnel syndrome.

And in the end, he doesn’t really care if you like this post. If it sucks, he knows you’ll just blame me.

Confession #103: The First Rule of Tweet Club

I had been writing a political blog for about six months when my wife and best friend sat me down to give me some unsolicited advice:

“Dave,” they explained. “You need to start swearing in your commentaries.”

They both argued that I was more funny, irreverent and interesting in person than I was on my blog. Swearing could help the real me to break through the text. So I took their advice and I included a few choice obscenities in my next post. And it felt good.

Five minutes later I got a call from my mom. She said while she enjoyed my latest article, she really didn’t think the swear words were necessary or appropriate.

I stopped swearing in my posts.

That series of exchanges took place nearly a decade ago. Back then, it didn’t seem that unusual to experience a significant crossover between my two lives — the real one and the one on the Internet.

Today, while a larger share of my life is online, I actually feel that the connection between my online and offline selves is significantly less seamless.

Without any prodding from my friends or relatives, I decided to swear in a recent tweet. Given my past experiences with digital profanity, it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. But after a series of deletes and rewrites, I finally pulled the trigger. And it felt good.

Five minutes later, I walked out into the lobby of my office building and someone I know looked up from her phone and said, “Hey, I see you’ve decided to start including some pretty aggressive language in your tweets.”

This time around, the in-person, real life feedback about something I had shared online was a lot less welcome. My negative reaction to this terrestrial input about the virtual me had nothing to do with the content of the feedback. Unlike my mom a decade earlier, the person in the lobby said she enjoyed the profanity and urged me to keep it coming.

What felt uncomfortable was having a face-to-face conversation about something I posted on Twitter. The only place I want to discuss something I write on Twitter is on Twitter. You can reply to me, you can retweet me, you can even tweet hurtful and hateful responses about me.

But don’t talk to me about my tweets in real life. The first rule of Tweet Club is that you don’t talk about Tweet Club. Whether your reaction is positive, negative or neutral, you can’t possibly expect the real me to answer for the Twitter me.

These days, when I tell someone to have the guts to say it to my face, I mean my avatar’s face.

Part of me even understands Anthony Weiner’s initial reaction to the very public inquiries about the crotch shot heard around the world. He explained that he couldn’t be sure whose crotch it was and that he certainly didn’t send it out via Twitter. To this day, I believe him.

Anthony Weiner didn’t post that photo. @repweiner did.

One of the holy grails of Internet marketing is the merging of our online and offline worlds. Everyone from Groupon to Google wants to own local and better connect our mobile devices to our real life experiences through deals, maps, augmented reality, and location-based check-ins.

And maybe that merging of our offline and online selves is inevitable. But for some reason it just doesn’t feel natural to me.

I was at a party last weekend and over a couple glasses of wine a fellow Internet professional mentioned that he didn’t understand one of my recent tweets.

The issues described above flooded my mind. I took a deep breath, finished off my glass of wine, looked off towards the horizon and gave him the only response that seemed possible at that moment.

“Is this some great fucking weather or what?”

(Sorry Mom.)

Confession #102: I Don’t Care if You Read This Article

I’m still not sure what precipitated it, but the other night at San Francisco’s Jackson Fillmore restaurant, over a couple large bowls of linguini with butter and cheese, my four year-old son raised his fork and tried to stab my two year-old daughter in the head. His mother quickly restrained him while I checked the white tablecloth for any signs of splattered blood or dislodged eyeballs. Once I confirmed no metal-to-flesh contact had been made, I delivered a classic parenthood right-of-passage line: “We never stab our family members with forks, especially in public.”

My son apologized. My daughter — magnanimous and probably more than a little relieved to be entirely intact — quickly forgave him. Unprompted, they hugged. It was an extended, cheek to cheek, smiling, giggling, It’s Gonna Be Us Against The World Long After We’ve Forgotten Your Droning Parental Speeches And Your Silly Overbearing Neurotic Rules About A Little Forkplay Hug. Soon, my wife and I were giggling too. Regardless of the preceding events, the moment was beautiful. The love, joy and gratitude I felt at that moment can’t be measured.

And that’s one of the things I liked most about it. I experienced something. I felt it. That was it. There was nothing to measure or count or rank.

The Internet measures everything. And I am a slave to those measurements. After so many years of pushing much of my life through this screen, I’ve started measuring my experiences and my sense of self-worth using the same metrics as the Internet uses to measure success. I check my stats relentlessly. The sad truth is that I spend more time measuring than I spend doing.

I used to feel an immediate sense of accomplishment when I wrote an article or came up with a joke that I thought was good. Now that feeling is always delayed until I see how the material does. How many views did my article get? Did it get mentioned the requisite number of times on Twitter and Facebook. I need to see the numbers.

And I define myself by those numbers.

I judge the quality of my writing by looking at the traffic to my articles. I assess the humor of my jokes by counting retweets. My status updates, shared links, and photos of my kids need a certain number of Likes to be a success. How am I doing? That depends on how many friends I have, how many followers, how much traffic.

My shrink recently asked me how my current projects are coming along. I said, “Let me put it this way. Lady Gaga has 10,329,595 more Twitter followers than I do.”

Sure, as the fork incident made clear, there are many ways to judge success, accomplishment and pleasure other than numerical rankings. I keep telling myself that. But the Internet keeps telling me the opposite.

A couple months ago, notable web designer Jeffrey Zeldman addressed this conundrum with a tweet: “Popularity on Twitter won’t cook you breakfast in the morning.”

My first reaction was to exclaim, “Yes, of course, Zeldman got it right!” My second reaction was to check how many retweets he got.

For the past several weeks, my friends Alex and Brian worked with me to design and build Delivereads, a service that enables me to send out a handful of great articles to the Kindle of anyone who subscribes. It’s a passion project. Everyone worked for free. Brian’s design is one of his best. Alex’s coding and workflow is fantastic. And the three of us had a great time working on the project. I couldn’t have been happier with the process and product.

Then it launched. And for two days, almost nothing happened. The numbers were not there. No traffic. No subscribers. The pride and fellowship I felt went out the window. I viewed the entire experience as a failure. I guaranteed my wife and friends that this was it. I was done with the web for good. The last decade and a half in this business had been one massive waste of time.

That all changed when, after getting some nice reviews from a couple of popular bloggers, the subscriptions started to pour in. With each refresh of my subscription numbers page, my self-esteem and pride inflated. I was back. I loved the web. I was a success.

But then I thought: what if I just stop refreshing that page? What if I try to stop judging the experience using Internet stats as my only yardstick? Of course, anyone who works on a site hopes that if you build, they will come. But the thing about this project that makes me most happy is the passion, joy and satisfaction I felt while working on it with two guys who I like building stuff with. And over the long haul, those feelings far outweigh any collection of numbers amassed on a stats page.

The project was great before anyone signed up. Period. I can’t put a number on it.

It’s a struggle, but I try to remind myself that there’s more to life than the rank order of things. I love this article. It is a pure reflection and honest confession of how coming of age on the Internet affected the way I perceive myself. You might like it. You might tweet about it or forward it or share it on Facebook. But no matter what the reaction, I’ll try to remember my opinion of these words right now, when it’s just me and them alone.

Last night my wife and I worked up our courage, loaded up the car, and took the kids out to another restaurant. On the way, my two year-old daughter called out from the backseat, “Mama and Dadda. I have to tell you something.”

Yes?

“I didn’t choke Veronica in school today.”

And I was reminded again that the proudest achievements in life just can’t be measured.

Confession #101: Calling the Internet Police

A few months ago my friend Hudson was working on a new and promising internet business. He hired contractors for most of the work – design, graphics, engineering. Once the site was done and ready for launch, his engineer called him and demanded more money.

After Hudson rightfully said no, the engineer responded by hijacking the site, right down to the domain name. And he did a pretty good job of it. No one could help. Other engineers didn’t have the required credentials. His hosting provider had no means to solve the problem. And even his registrar couldn’t figure out a good way around the hack that the engineer had devised to hold the site and its contents hostage.

At the height of the dispute, the engineer taunted Hudson with this question:

“What are you gonna do, call the Internet Police?”

The situation was ultimately resolved. But during the thick of it, Hudson called me since I’ve spent the last decade and a half working with Internet companies, launching sites, and investing in tech startups. But I had nothing useful to offer. I had no idea how to get his site back.

Even for people like me who live and work on the web, there is a constant, underlying feeling that something core to our lives is one or more steps removed from our control.

And almost no one is completely immune to that sensation. Recently, several of the top sites on the Internet went down for several hours because of problems at a single data center run by Amazon.

During a major New Year’s Eve fire in San Francisco, key personnel at the city’s Division of Emergency Services were reduced to taking notes with a paper and pencil. The organization’s main computer system had crashed. Why didn’t someone just get the backup system running? Because no one knew the password.

In these cases, from the rogue engineer to the missing password, everyone at least knew what went wrong, who to blame and the people who could fix the problem. That is rare. I usually know something has gone wrong, but I really don’t have any idea what it is.

It’s always been frustrating when a technology you depend on doesn’t function properly. But it’s becoming even more alarming as many of us move our work and personal lives onto the cloud.

The other day, the Internet access in my office went down. I began where I always begin — I restarted my modem. I’ve been told by so many technical support staffers to restart so many modems that it’s become my first reaction to almost everything. If a site doesn’t load, or my email doesn’t arrive, or I twist an ankle, I restart my modem. And it never works.

I called my access provider for a service status update. No problems to report. I rebooted my laptop. I unplugged and re-plugged every cable and power cord within a thousand yards of my desk. Someone in my office lobby suggested that I reset my modem with a paperclip. “I’m an internet professional,” I shouted, “Where am I gonna find a paperclip?”

I was cut off. I wanted to check my bank account balance. I wanted to Tweet and blog. I needed to connect with friends on Facebook. I wanted to see my kids’ beautiful faces on Flickr. Maybe I could just escape from it all and get a nice relaxing massage. But no, I couldn’t access Groupon to get my half-price massage deal. Even my offline life is online. I was left alone, alienated from almost everything key to my daily existence. Refresh. Web page not available. Refresh. Server not found. Refresh. Nothing. Refresh, refresh, refresh.

“I give!” I screamed. “Whoever or whatever turned off my internet, you’re the boss. You own me. Please make it come back.”

And about 45 minutes later, it did.

But I don’t know why it did. And there’s the rub.

So much of my daily life is hosted in the cloud — websites, finances, news, entertainment, social interactions, family connections, schedules, notes, memories, business transactions — and yet I have no real control over any of it.

At least my friend Hudson can complain that someone else hijacked his site. I’ve handed myself over to the cloud of my own free will. Sure, right now that seems fine. But at any moment, I know I can be cut off — from one site or from the whole network of computers that hold among them the contents of my life. And there’s not a thing the Internet Police or anyone else can do about it.

This is all starting to depress me. Maybe I’ll restart my modem and see if that helps.

Confession #100: Buried Under an Avalanche of Options

Looking back on it now, the first time I truly felt the need for a note-taking app was when I started researching note-taking apps. I was just looking for a simple tool to save ideas about upcoming articles or jot down an occasional to-do list.

Stop. Do not send me your pick for best note-taking app.

I can’t take any more options. I’ve already spent weeks comparing sets of features I’m pretty sure I’ll never need. I tried out at least fifteen applications on my desktop, phone and on the web. I was completely overwhelmed by choices. The process began to take over my life. I spent hours in front of my laptop, I’d demo various features for my wife and kids, and my quest quickly became the only topic I could focus on when interacting with friends.

They say failure is not an option. But everything else is.

Before long, I was sucked from the relatively simple playing field of note-taking apps into the deep and horrible vortex of productivity tools. There are nearly two thousand personal productivity apps for the iPhone alone. I found myself digging deeper into my research, comparing features, downloading free trials, and even inventing new behaviors to match the feature sets of the tools I encountered.

I didn’t even have a personal productivity problem. But I do now.

These options are everywhere. Amazon just launched a Cloud Drive for storing and streaming music. Please, not another potential way for me to interact with my music. I spend so much time trying to decide where to download, store and stream my music collection that I don’t have any time left to listen to it. I’d be better off hiring a cover band to follow me around and take requests.

A few years ago, the only lesson I had to learn about music storage was to keep my records away from the back of a car on a hot day.

Last week, Firefox came out with a newer, faster, better browser. Oh god no. After months of switching back and forth among browsers I had finally settled on Chrome. And now the speed and new features offered by Firefox have ripped open that wound.

Goodbye browsing. Hello deciding.

I have been reading The New York Times for decades. But now I have to figure out the new paywall. I can access a certain number of articles for free, I can pay for more, or I can get the Sunday paper and be given free access, or maybe I should subscribe to the Kindle edition and then download the apps for my other devices. Come on. Who has time for the articles anymore? Let’s make this simple. How about if I just give you my wallet, my checking account number, my social security number and my first born child and you just let me sit down and read?

Remember when there was a really simple answer to the question, “Do you want to watch a movie?”

Yes, I want to watch a movie. I just can’t decide whether to watch it via Netflix, AppleTV, Pay-Per-View, Amazon, Blu-ray, Boxee, Vudu, Roku, or whether I should watch it on my iPhone, my iPad, my laptop, my desktop or my TV. If I want, I can even download the movie to my iPhone and then stream it to my AppleTV. I was confused enough when I had to choose between Betamax and VHS. What’s next, a hundred and eleven flavors of popcorn?

Want to read a book? Just decide if you want it in hardcover, paperback, or digital format, and if digital, which device, which app, which font size and which background. It’s that simple. Within a few hours, you’ll be happily reading.

Need a new television set? No problem, I can recommend an excellent six-week course on which factors and features to consider. The only problem is that almost all of them will be obsolete by the time you complete the course.

What happened to the old television learning curve when the most complex factors had to do with rabbit ear positioning?

Technology has inundated us with great tools and given us access to heaps of information. But it’s also burying us under an avalanche of options.

For certain products, I can take the easy way out. My friend Isaac is one of those rare people who loves doing the research. If I need a new camera, I just call him. But even then, it’s a challenge to get a simple answer without being confronted with a list of possible features.

Isaac:  One key factor is the number of megapixels.

Me:  Just tell me which camera to buy.

Isaac:  Is battery life or video quality more critical?

Me:  Stop. Which one?

Isaac:  I tend to focus on white balance, iso and lens brightness.

Me:  I’ll give you ten grand if you just hand me a camera and never mention white balance again.

Of course, picking a camera is easy compared to choosing a way to share your photos. My parents always complain that I never let them see photos of their grandchildren. Believe me, I want to. I just can’t decide how.

I hate these choices and I hate doing the research. I’m not even sure how I became an early adopter in the first place. This isn’t me. In other parts of my life I never consider the options and I never change. I’ve poured the same salad dressing and wiped my counter with the same paper towels for more than twenty years.

When it comes to technology, I’m lucky if I can be satisfied with the same tool for twenty minutes.

Maybe what I really need to do is come up with a perfect app that enables people to quickly make decisions about all of their other apps. I should write that idea down somewhere.

Anyone have a pencil?

Confession #99: Jimmy Wong Saves the Internet

It seems like a great time to be a bully. When I was a kid, even the most productive bullies could only manage a handful of victims at a time. What used to take a lot of effort can now be handled with a couple thumbs and some wifi. A hateful rumor can spread a lot faster on Facebook than it could on the school bathroom wall.

And while it used to require a certain set of characteristics to thrive as a bully, the internet makes it simple for almost anyone to graduate from cowering weakling to kicking virtual sand in the face of friends and strangers in no time. If you’ve spent more than five minutes reading Internet comments, you know that being a cyberbully requires about the same level of exertion and fortitude as screaming obscenities at other drivers while you cruise down the freeway with your windows rolled up.

And the bullies have figured this out. Cyberbullying has become so prevalent that several states are considering the enactment of laws targeting its perpetrators. The federal government even has a site dedicated to the troubling trend.

The connection between bully and target is so seamless that hate speech can often spread more rapidly than its originator ever intended. One assumes that’s the case with UCLA student Alexandra Wallace, who recorded a three-minute rant against Asian students, in particular those who use cell phones in her school library. In the video, which she posted on YouTube, Wallace shared her version of the Asian language (including several ching chongs and ling longs), urged Asians who come to UCLA to first adopt “American manners,” and for good measure even managed to work in a reference to the tsunami in Japan.

The video went viral. Its contents and the reaction it generated made it all the way to the pages of the New York Times. In a previous era, it would have taken Alexandra Wallace several lifetimes to even encounter as many Asian students as she managed to offend in three minutes.

I’m sure Wallace regrets posting that YouTube video — and will likely continue to suffer the repercussions thanks to the web’s reach and permanence. But the ease with which it was produced and the pace at which it went viral is another indicator of just how easy it is to spread hate in the Internet age.

Tomorrow’s kids — in addition to facing the usual natural disasters that come with adolescence — will be confronted with the multichannel, always-on, upsettingly viral slings and arrows of bullies. Although Alexandra Wallace is a far cry from the worst of bullies, the whole incident left me feeling depressed about the future.

But then I saw Jimmy Wong.

Jimmy Wong reminded me that the tools that can be deployed by the so-called cyberbullies are also freely available to those they harass. Wong, a 24 year-old singer, and up-and-coming YouTube sensation, wrote and recorded The Asians in the Library Song in response to Alexandra Wallace’s video. Here’s part of the chorus.

I pick up my phone and sing…
Ching Chong, it means I love you
Ling Long, I really want you
Ting Tong, I don’t actually know what that means

The lyrics are funny and good-spirited, and effectively turn the tables on the original rant. And the song itself has a catchy hook, has been viewed about 800,000 times, and is now for sale on iTunes.

When I was a kid, here’s one thing I never thought of saying to a bully who was about to pummel me:

“Hey, don’t mess with me. I’ve got a quirky sense of humor, a great singing voice, and I know how to code!”

But Jimmy Wong and many others are proving those types of creative skills could be a decent way to put up a defense.

Modern victims of bullying have a much broader arsenal of tools with which to defend themselves. I’m reminded of those old match box covers that featured a Charles Atlas advertisement with the line:

“Tired of having sand kicked in your face?”

Back then, the ad was for a muscle building program. A Jimmy Wong era version of that ad could read: “Tired of having sand kicked in your face? Get a video phone, take singing lessons, practice Photoshop, and learn to develop snappy retorts that are shorter than 140 characters.”

None of this is intended to suggest a future free of bullying or a panacea that helps all the little guys win in the end. But in some ways, the playing field has been leveled. It’s not just about being physically tougher or being the type of person who thrives on conflict. Sometimes it’s about being smarter, funnier or more creative. And — Ching Chong — I really love that.

Maybe it’s still a decent time to be a bully. But it’s an even better time to be Jimmy Wong.

Confession #98: Why We Need Charlie Sheen

You might be one of those people who just can’t get enough of this Charlie Sheen story, following him from television to TMZ to Twitter. And who could blame you? The story has all the elements that we love: Celebrities, bad TV, drugs, sex, and self-destruction (generously re-branded as winning).

On the other hand, you might know just enough about Sheen to be enraged that such a pathetic and meaningless story dominates a significant portion of our national discourse in the media and across social networks.

It doesn’t really matter where your opinion falls along the Sheen story continuum. Either way, you’re part of the Sheen Meme, and I thank you for that.

The other day when I was walking out of my local grocery store, one of the guys in the meat department stopped me so he could make a joke about Charlie Sheen. Some of the other folks within earshot laughed while others quietly shook their heads. But everyone on both sides of the refrigerated case got the reference. And that doesn’t happen much.

The Charlie Sheen story fills a vacuum. We used to have fewer television channels and fewer sources of information flooding our screens. It was much more likely that we’d have a common topic to discuss when we gathered around our modern version of the giant campfire.

Today, we’re all wearing headphones, sitting in front of screens. There are infinite channels and thousands of stories flowing in and out of our streams. Even though we are more virtually connected than ever, the content we ingest is wildly varied. We’re each alone in front of our own small, private campfires.

So when one of those campfires blows up into an inferno, we all gather around it faster than the guests at Sober Valley Lodge would dive towards two and a half lines of unattended cocaine.

Nearly all of the major news outlets have provided exhaustive coverage of Sheen’s rants and rambles. Almost everyone I follow on Twitter has had a take or two (or ten) on the topic. Everyone knew that writers everywhere from The Daily Show to Saturday Night Live would open their shows with bits devoted to Sheen. They wait for these moments when a story emerges as a common point of reference. Even other celebrities can’t resist making a joke or coming to Sheen’s defense.

New York Times reporter Nick Kristof, who of late has been providing illuminating coverage from the Middle East, recently lamented the coverage of the Charlie Sheen story: “If there’s a symbol of everything wrong with television news, it’s the focus on Charlie Sheen … It all makes me embarrassed for the news media.”

ABC dedicated a 20/20 interview slot to Charlie Sheen. Nine million people tuned in. We’re all a little embarrassed. But we’re all here around this campfire. And the folks who edit the news need to remain relevant, so they’re more likely to come with lighter fluid than a fire extinguisher.

Sure, we should be gathered around the Libya fire or the Wisconsin union fire or the budget debate fire. But we’re not. This story is not about the quality of the content. It’s about the merits of regaining a sense of community, even if the campfire around which we’re gathered happens to be burning a combination of horrendous television scripts, illegal drugs and our own better judgment.

You are looking at your screen, and I am looking at mine. Half the time, that’s true even when we’re standing right next to each other. Ironically, one our few remaining areas of commonality are the sites and devices we use. That’s why it’s such a huge news story when Steve Jobs announces a new device or Mark Zuckerberg realigns a few pixels in our Facebook stream. That’s why my mom once called me to discuss Steve Jobs’ reaction to the iPhone antenna problem. The fact that we’re all staring at separate screens is one of the last things we have in common.

It’s not that memes are rare. They emerge all the time. Earlier this week, my small corner of the internet erupted with responses to a change Twitter made to its iPhone app. The new feature, called the Quick Bar, makes Twitter’s trending topics of the moment more visible to users of the app. Those offended by the placement of the Quick Bar re-branded the feature as the “Dickbar” (named, in part, after Twitter CEO Dick Costello). The discussion gained so much steam that Twitter employees actually built a makeshift Dickbar in their San Francisco Headquarters.

That turn of events made for a nice communal event for folks who spend their lives working in the internet industry. But if I brought it up at my grocery store, I can’t imagine that anyone on either side the meat display case would get the reference. The Twitter Quick Bar story, like hundreds of others that likely spread during the same period, was an inside joke.

Charlie Sheen is the inside joke everyone gets.

You can nod your head in agreement. Or you can complain about yet another Charlie Sheen story. Either way, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Confession #97: Breaking News: Man Tweets Without Really Thinking About It First

Journalist Nir Rosen managed to do the near-impossible. He published some tweets offensive enough to rise above the din of the Internet’s general state of offensiveness and lost his fellowship at NYU.

Rosen’s offending tweets were in response to the reports that CBS’ Lara Logan had been sexually assualted near Tahrir Square on the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Here is a sampling of his handiwork.

“Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson [Cooper]. Where was her buddy McCrystal.”

“Yes yes its wrong what happened to her. Of course. I don’t support that. But, it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too.”

“Look, she was probably groped like thousands of other women, which is still wrong, but if it was worse than I’m sorry.”

During an interview with Anderson Cooper, Rosen apologized for his remarks and explained that he didn’t realize that Logan’s assault had been sexual in nature at the time of his first tweet. He stood by this assertion even though his tweet included a link to a short statement from CBS News that clearly included that detail.

Anderson Cooper suggested that Rosen was describing an unbelievable scenario. How could he link to an article without knowing the full contents of that article?

I have no idea if Rosen was telling the truth, and I certainly have no interest in defending his latest tweets — or the many that came before. But that notion that one would link to something without fully reading its contents seems anything but unbelievable. The fact that the assault was sexual does not appear in the CBS statement until you read a full 463 characters into it. Who’s got time for that kind of research? I would say tweeting about a topic — and even linking to an article — before reading the whole story is the norm, not the exception.

I used to have a junior high chemistry teacher who, in an effort to keep us moving forward on a problem or equation, constantly advised his students: “Write, Don’t Think.”

That could easily be the tagline for this era.

Rosen may have crossed lines of appropriateness and sensitivity. But how many times a day do you see that behavior mirrored on the web? Are Rosen’s takes that much more brutal than the comments you can find in the footer of many web posts?

Even if Rosen’s level of offensiveness was enough to rise above the rest and cost him his job, his underlying behavior make him a poster child for the internet age.

Just look at his own explanation:

“it was the twitter equivalent of blurting something out. i had no expectations because i just didnt think of it … in those few minutes i didnt think about it, you’re lying in bed late at night … just f—ing around on the internet thoughtlessly”

He gave some incoming news his partial attention and then thoughtlessly jotted down a couple phrases and pressed the submit button. Write, don’t think.

Doesn’t that behavior sound just a little familiar? That’s the national pastime. Hot dogs, baseball, apple pie and rattling off idiotic statements without really thinking.

We dedicate a mere 140 characters to explaining our opinions. That’s often about as much thought as we’re willing to give a topic before shoehorning it into our preconceived narratives.

Once Nir Rosen’s tweets started to circulate the web, he deleted them. He would have had better luck trying to build a time machine. That’s one of the ironies of this era. We’re quicker to share half-baked opinions publicly. And now there’s no way to take them back.

Write, Don’t Think. Maybe that isn’t the best strategy when it comes to reacting to the news or publishing opinions. For what it’s worth, it didn’t really work all that well in my Chemistry class either.

Confession #96: Is the Internet God?

How could god let this happen?

I am the Jewish child of Holocaust survivors, so that is a question that I have heard asked throughout my life. Everyone from the most revered religious leaders to George Burns playing the title character in Oh God, Book 2, has tackled that enquiry.

During the early nineties, I traveled to Poland with my parents to visit the rural village where my dad grew up and where he eventually lost his family and his home. As part of the trip, we visited a concentration camp. While every aspect of this tour was moving and upsetting, I was most shocked by what I saw outside the fences that surrounded the camp.

I saw homes. On hills. The concentration camp was in a valley and in each direction I could see more and more houses built on the raised dirt that completely surrounded the killing factory where I stood. These neighbors would have constantly seen and smelled the plumes of smoke.

As I stood at the center of camp I wondered if things would’ve been any different if the whole world was watching. Not just knowing. Watching.

Nearly two decades after that trip with my parents, I am staring at this computer screen and I realize that I am living on those hills.

Pretty much everyone I follow on Twitter has had some reaction to the revolution happening in Egypt. Most of this commentary, including mine, is not backed up by a deep knowledge of Egypt’s history. Instead it’s a knee-jerk reaction to a moral dillemma. Whether we adhere to some religious values or view morality as a human construct, we are all reacting to a situation on the ground where we see the good guys (the young protestors who want freedom) and the bad guys (the old dictators who have repressed the masses for their own gain).

And we’re all living in those houses surrounding the valley where we see something that has to change. Physically, most of us might be on the other side of the world. But the story is piped at us all day long by the mass media and by members of our networked communities. We don’t just know about it in the back of our minds. We’re watching it.

As the revolution unfolded, major media outlets were repeatedly looking to the White House to get the official American response. But at this moment in history, anyone with access to the Internet already knew the American reaction. The network had already responded.

Did the Internet cause the revolution? Of course not. Did it play a critical role in enabling the revolution? It might take a little time to answer that question completely. But it’s certainly worth noting that those who helped to light the fuse used the Internet to do so, and one of the first reactions of the ruling party was to turn the Internet off.

In an interview on CNN, Wael Ghonim, one of the voices of the revolution said: “If you want to liberate a government, give them the internet.”

Of course, there are countless other events in the world that we’re able to ignore even with modern life’s constant connectivity. But every now and then, a series of events in a corner of the world rises up onto our screens and into our communal consciousness.

This will happen more and more often. The more connected we are, the more we’ll see. This will have a dramatic impact on our own experience of world events. Will more be better? It’s easy to argue that we’re better off watching the streets of Cairo than American Idol. But living on those hills might overwhelm us. Every now and then, you might want to take off your virtual beret and focus on events across the living room, not across the world.

But our old living room might be gone. Once you live on that hill, it’s hard to close the curtains. It’s hard to deny that we’ll be increasingly confronted by a new question.

Instead of asking about god we’ll have to ask:

How could we let this happen?

I don’t pretend to have any idea if our watching will make a difference in the course of world events. A few people on the hill didn’t make any difference to the victims of that concentration camp. Would hundreds of millions of people on the hill do the trick? Will we live in a better world because the world is watching?

I don’t know. But at least we’ll know who to blame.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.