It’s cool. I understand. You got here through a different door. You haven’t been blogging since before blogs were invented, Facebook didn’t demand that you use a .edu email address when you signed up, and you weren’t on Twitter when the “@” convention was just something people added cuz it felt right. You’re newer than that. And that’s totally okay — there’s room here for you, too.

And I know you’re one of the good ones. You’re not a spammer. You’ve been doing your homework — watching how it works around here, learning a few tricks, testing them out, and realizing this internet community-building stuff is pretty freaking neat. You can get a big audience for free, just by being in the right place at the right time and sounding like you know what you’re talking about. You can connect with people you didn’t know how to reach before. You can get good free advice whenever you want, and pull in free contributions to your work from lots of people. You can be famous. You can sell things. You can work from anywhere. You can change the world.

It’s true. But let’s talk about a few things.

The way I see it, there are two major problems people can crash into with social media marketing:

Problem #1: Being really good at the strategy stuff, but missing the importance of sincere relationships.

Problem #2: Being really good at sincere relationships, but missing the importance of strategy.

Those of us who grew up around here are often prone to the second problem. We don’t like to admit it, but we honestly do believe that relationships will conquer all and strategy is just an outsider’s rationalization for magic. It’s okay. We know we’re delusional. We’re working through it together on Twitter.

You, my friend, are in a different boat. You’re not coming at this with ten years’ worth of internet strangers being your cheerleaders, so your Achilles’ heel is in Problem #1. You’ve figured out how to establish a reliable presence or get a spike of attention, but it’s from carefully calculated moves — not instinctive exploration. You’re the kind of person who stops to think about it.

Believe me, we have a lot to learn from you. Please keep explaining to us how this stuff we call “magic” actually works — it’s very useful for us. But let’s also let it stay magical. Please? We like the magic.

Here’s how we’d like you to do that… in as strategy-like terms as I can put it:

Be human.

Here’s an exercise: brainstorm a list of 20 words you want people to think of when they think of you. Funny? Interesting? Trustworthy? Go on… come up with a lot. Now do two things:

1) make sure that EVERY SINGLE THING you put out to the world supports that lovable, human image that you have of yourself.

2) make sure whatever you say is put into words that you would actually say out loud to another human being in person.

If it doesn’t pass those tests, don’t write it.

This also applies to system-generated messages, like letting Youtube tweet everytime you favorite something. That’s not human. Knock it off.

Don’t litter.

If you’re writing something that’s not meaningful or valuable to the people around you, you’re littering. If you’re promoting something that’s not awesome, you’re littering. If you’re reposting a press release without adding your own two cents for why this is worth paying attention to, you’re littering.

No one likes to wade through your trash, even if it does give you an attention bump for a minute. It’s not worth it.

Only ride the waves that are meant for you.

Sometimes you can see an opportunity — a thing that’s getting attention — and you’ll want to jump in on it. Before you do that, please make sure it’s your wave to ride. Does it fit what you’re into? Is it something you feel strongly about? Does it match your lovable, human image of yourself? Does it make sense in your life? Is it carrying you in the directions you want to go? If yes — ride it. If not, then step back, and be a good audience member. It’s time to let someone else rock the spotlight.

Give give give give give give give.

And don’t ask. Okay, you can ask a little, but keep it to stuff that people will be excited to help with. Cuz then it’s still giving. Give give give. And don’t complain, either. Celebrate. Look for the good stuff, applaud the success of others, offer your support, include people in neat things, and be there for people. And keep doing that. And don’t stop. And don’t expect anything in return. Make everything sincere and generous, and engage people in your stuff by making it about them. Really. Not in an underhanded “i’m gonna get something out of this way,” but in a “yes, i can really make your life better” way. Do that.

And I hesitate to say this, because I know it’s what your strategy mind is hoping for, but yes, that’s when it will really start to pay off.

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s immersed in academia.  She’s halfway through a 7-year Masters and PhD program and working as a teacher’s assistant in the midst of it. I admire her commitment, and ended up telling her a bit about my own experience with academia… and why I got out.

The Chronic Dropout with the 4.0

I don’t want to say I chose the easy classes — that’s not fair. I chose the classes that interested me. The ones that matched my skills. Linguistics, Mandarin Chinese, Logic, Religious Studies, any kind of Writing… these were things I had some connection to, and wanted to learn more about. But across the 6 schools I attended as I bounced around the country, I rarely found myself feeling more engaged than a teacher’s assistant would, sitting in the back of a classroom, grading papers (and that’s a pretty fair analogy, since it’s what I set myself up to be treated like most of the time, anyway). Whether it was in helping everyone else on their homework or providing the Example Paper that the professor could use as a model, I wasn’t there to be a student. I was there to be fulfill some obligation to the world that I couldn’t quite name.  And for the first few years, I did it cheerfully.

My brain’s a quirky creature. It’s exceptional in some areas, pathetic in others. I grasp new concepts quickly and I can memorize things well for tests. I seem to understand structures and logic better than most people. I listen attentively, and I write clearly. But here’s the catch: I’m terrible at reading. My mind wanders too much to stay on a page unless I’m focusing very, very hard.

It just happened to work out that the listening, logic, and writing parts of my brain are exceptional enough that throughout high school and college, nobody seemed to notice that, no really, I can’t read. I survived all my social studies and literature classes by scanning a few chapters, listening well in lectures, and choosing paper topics that only required me to analyze small portions of the text.  I got A’s every time, and was treated like one of the best students.  Every time.

This, coupled with sheer boredom, is probably why I stopped respecting academia.  How does someone end up getting straight A’s at a prestigious liberal arts school without being able to get through a single book?

I attended six schools, I’m about 4 classes short of a degree, and up until my last semester (which I didn’t complete), I had a 4.0 GPA. I am a chronic college dropout, and I have no desire to keep going. I’m done.

Will I Eventually Give In?

But that’s not what I tell my family. My official line is that I dropped out because it stopped mattering to me.  And I’ll go back if it starts to matter again.

It will matter again if I ever want to…
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Well THAT was cool.

After posting yesterday’s set of suggestions for designing a better drop-down menu for gender, someone took me up on the design challenge that I slipped into the last paragraph, and within an hour, had sent me this early concept mockup:

The Dopp-Down Menu

(click for full version)

(In the interest of creating a new standard, this is admittedly more graphics heavy than necessary — all of this could also be achieved with standard HTML elements. Layout, etc, could also vary quite a bit.)

I LOVE that she’s experimenting with a scrolly-menu to the right that auto-populates based on related words to what the user is entering (rather than just “words that start with the same first letters”). That’s even further than I was gonna take it!

(This designer, btw, is working with me on another project that hasn’t been announced yet, so we’re gonna hold off on proper attribution until everything else is a little more public.  Just know: she rocks.)

A year ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, asking people to stop and think about how they’re handling gender (and race, for that matter) in their community websites.  The short version is that if you’re requiring users to select their gender from a drop-down menu that has two options in it, you’re alienating some people. I didn’t offer alternative solutions at the time — it was just a request for everyone to think about it.

(Note: if you’re not clear on why gender is a complicated issue in data collection, please stop right now and go read that other post before continuing. This will make a lot more sense after you do so.)

After grappling with this problem on a few other projects, and talking about it in a session last week at She’s Geeky (I called it “My gender broke your drop-down menu…”), I’d like to now offer my suggested alternatives.

Alternatives to asking for a user’s gender in a required two-option drop-down menu…

Option 1: Make it Optional

Baby steps.  If the idea of getting fancy with your data collection method gives you nightmares, just remove the red asterisk.  Stop making it required! Most people will still answer the question, and those who don’t want to will select not to.  Put a plan in place for how to treat and account for those who don’t want to declare their genders, and you’re done.  It’s not the most celebratory or inclusive measure, but it is a very clean way to resolve a lot of problems.

Option 2: Don’t Ask At All

Instead of asking for gender, ask for what you actually want to know.

Is it what honorific should precede the person’s name?  Well, then gender’s not going to tell you if they’re a doctor or a reverend, is it? Give them a comprehensive list of options, and allow them to select none, if they wish. (And really, why do we use these again?  My preference is to drop them entirely.)

Is it what marketing you think they’ll respond best to?  Newsflash: not every woman likes baking, and not every man likes cars.  Ask them about their interests and market to them on that basis, instead.

Is gender not actually relevant at all, except that you think it makes for an interesting statistic? Meh. I’d like to convince you that you really shouldn’t touch it, but if I’m not going to win that argument, please see Option 1.

Option 3: Have a Third Option

Your drop-down menus can have more than two options.  Some people are trying three.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s my current position:

  • “Other” is a poor choice for a third option.  Why? Because gender-nonconforming people are othered enough as it is.
  • A more useful choice would be “Decline to State” (or something similar) — then it’s not about non-conformity, it’s about privacy.
  • But taking this a bit further, I’d like to submit “It’s Complicated” for consideration as the new third option.  Most gender-nonconforming types will smile at you for it.  It tells them you understand.

I’ve seen some people try to implement a “lots of options” dropdown menu, but I don’t really recommend this route, for two reasons:

  1. What if someone looks at the list and doesn’t identify with any of the words?  You just alienated them much further than your male/female dropdown menu was doing before.
  2. What if someone identifies as more than one thing on the list?  Take, for example, a transsexual woman who is proud to identify as a woman.  Are you really going to make her choose between “trans” and “woman”?  Come on now.  That’s insulting.

If you change it from a drop-down menu (“pick only one”) to a checkbox menu (“select all that apply”), you solve issue #2, but you still have issue #1 to grapple with.  And let me tell you: if you think you can come up with a finite list of all the possible gender identities in the world, you’re wrong.

Option 4: Redesign the System

So you’re convinced that “male/female” is a deeply flawed data breakdown for the purpose of your website, but you want people to assert their identities, and you want them to get personal about it.  Okay, then!  Time to scrap the dropdowns and do something new.  Here are some ideas…

A “gender spectrum” slider bar. Take a look at how Blackbox Republic is structuring their sexual identity data:


I could see a similar thing done with “masculine” and “feminine” at each end, and letting people self-identify.

Note: one huge problem with the spectrum model is that it’s too flat.  I believe there are people who have “a lot of gender” (i.e. dripping both masculinity and femininity all over the place) and “not a lot of gender” (i.e. minimizing signals of any gender whatsoever), and on the spectrum, they might look the same.  But that brings up my next idea, which is…

A second dropdown that asks how important gender is to them. Take a look at how OkCupid handles religion.  You get one dropdown menu for how you identify, and a second dropdown menu for how important it is to you.  For some people, their gender is a strongly identifying factor in their lives.  For others, it’s nearly irrelevant.  What if we just started asking that question?


You could also…

Get fancy and use Kreative Korp’s SGOSelect menu (or some variation on it), which basically says: if you have a traditional identity, you can use the simple form.  And if you want to get more specific, you can switch over to the Advanced form:

sgoselect… but it still runs into the “finite number of options” problem, even in the Advanced view.

And that brings me to my last suggestion, which so far seems to be my holy grail. I worked this out with my co-founder team at Boffery while we were strategizing the user interface… with some outside input from Kirrily Robert of Freebase:

An open-ended tagging field that suggests words as you type. I want to be able to define my gender as “female, androgynous, genderqueer.”  And I believe that if we were all encouraged to, we would come up with a great rich vocabulary that uniquely characterizes ourselves in all the ways a two-option gender set is trying to do, but failing at.  If the tagging system were set up to automatically suggest words as you typed, you could either loop in to what others are saying and be associated with that group, or create your own words and add them to the lexicon. The result would be a rich mix of groupable/categorizable labels (marketers: this is far more meaningful than what you’re currently working with), along with the ability for us to self-identify however we want.

I don’t have a picture for you ‘cuz it hasn’t been built yet.  But if anyone understands what I’m talking about and wants to test it out, let me know.

I want in.


ETA: immediately after I posted this, a designer took a stab at the open-ended tagging field idea and sent me early concept mockups.  Check ’em out!