It’s been a rollercoaster around here and I’ve kept my game face on, but there are things that need saying.  Things about what matters, and why, and how keeping a Pollyanna attitude is no more naïve and no less radical than a scowl.

I don’t presume to take goodness at face value, and no, I don’t believe that all we need is love, or that tragedy and injustice aren’t happening every minute in every town the world. I get that. I do. But I also believe in the power of slicing through that grim nightmare with a sharp and unflinching force of forgiveness, kindness, and grace.

I believe in putting all that noise on MUTE and working tirelessly to build haven after haven from the rain.

I believe in disrupting expectations by giving someone a second chance.

I believe in putting white-knuckle fists to the steering wheel and getting the hell out of dodge — even just for a night — when anything is stuck, or broken, or stagnant. And I believe in ending up the next morning with your feet hanging off a cliff, staring at the ocean, the grand canyon, a cityscape, a mountain range, a cornfield, a playground, or even an empty Walmart parking lot if you have to — just as long as the sun is rising and you’re paying attention and you feel free. I believe in bringing that feeling home with you and pouring it into your work, your home, your loves, and your willingness to fight for another person’s moment of relief.

And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I still believe in the Internet. Like I did in 1999, when my secret and hand-coded log/journal/diary thing that didn’t have a genre name yet was an oasis for people digging through Alta Vista and HotBot late at night for someone who was being honest and telling a story. It didn’t matter what story was being told as long as it sounded like secrets being whispered in the dark. Because that was the sound of not being alone.

I still believe in the Internet like I did before everything was archived and cross-referenced in the Wayback Machine and Google’s public caches.  Like I did when still I believed in anonymity.

And some days it’s harder to stay focused on what matters, but I do still believe in the Internet like I did before SEO was a competitive sport. Before businesses started dropping vowels in order to score a good domain name. Before plastic and aluminum grade disposable ads, widgets, and apps littered every square inch of the Internet’s surface like empty Coke bottles after a high school football game.

I believe that sincerity and excitement are critical ingredients for anything to matter, and that that is why the Internet is winning. I believe that everyone who tries to fake those ingredients will either fail or have a house dropped on their heads during a tornado as punishment for their lies and their laziness. But I also believe it’s now commonplace for people to see Internet marketing as a set of cold strategic formulas void of genuine connection, and that this is morally wrong.

It’s not the large companies and marketing agencies that bother me (this has been part of their game forever). It’s the individuals — the folks who are just trying to carve a reasonable space for themselves in the Digital Land of Opportunity — who’ve been taught that analyzing social media profiles and then contacting large groups of strangers with canned and solely self-promotional messages counts as “making connections.”  That it’s not spam. That this is how they’re supposed to do it. That this is what it means to contribute to a community. That’s the part that breaks my heart.

And yet.

And yet, on the same Internet, regular people collaborate with strangers to build free software that makes our lives better. Building a decent website without technical skills is possible.  Designers hand out attractive site designs for free, just to make the Internet a more beautiful place. Photographers give strangers permission to use their photos. Musicians offer their tunes up freely for remixing into podcasts and other creative projects. Artists can raise funds for new projects by getting friends excited about them. Anyone can start a community discussion space. Committed members are happy to volunteer.

While I sometimes miss the days when the Internet didn’t feel like a sensory and information overload bomb, I don’t think I’d go back to them. Our tools, creativity, and commitment to each other have come so far. We’re real people now; not anonymous screen-names looking for fantasy cybersex on AOL chatrooms. Our online and offline lives are so tightly woven together that we get to grapple with one another on questions like “How and when should I keep my social circles compartmentalized?”. My mom is on Facebook, and my she has the power to hide my feed because I talk too much. AND we’ve all stopped using <blink> tags. That’s progress.

Last week, the feature for Queer Open Mic (an event I co-organize) opened with a poem that stunned and rocked me back into place. It started with…

She said to me that most trailblazers
may never see the trail.
May never see the path they cut into the earth,
or the feet that come behind them.

Most days, she said, the act of walking
without a set route probably won’t feel like revolution.
There are too many goddamned branches in your face,
Too much to hack through, dulling the machete
and making your muscles scream for the kind of comfort
your mind can’t hope to welcome.

And it ended with…

She told me it was all impossible, and still
she said, “Go.”
She said, “Leave, and scare the shit out of yourself.
You’ll be glad you did.”

— excerpt from She said, “Go” by Tatyana Brown

We’re pushing paths into this Internet together. I believe the tools and opportunities we want to see are worth fighting for — that these branches are absolutely worth hacking through — but only with our feet firmly planted in the what we care about and love.

The BlogHer Geek Lab in Washington, DC was loaded with questions about how to improve a blog and increase its reach.  I ended up on my soapbox more times than I expected, ranting about misinformation and imploring bloggers to rethink their strategies.

I’m summarizing most of my rants below because I think they’ll be helpful to some people.  Please keep in mind that I’m coming at this from my own experience.  I’m not an “ad revenue” blogger, and there are plenty out there who can give you tips on what they’ve done to be successful. I encourage you to go talk to them, too.

The Goals Rant

If you ask me, “How can I make my blog better?” I’m going to ask you what “better” means.  What are your goals? If you don’t know, stop whatever you’re doing right now and figure them out.  Here are some common ones:

I want to…

  • express myself in a creative, positive way.
  • vent my frustrations in a safe and constructive way.
  • work through some challenging issues.
  • document a process or experience.
  • create a space for myself that’s separate from my daily life.
  • establish a certain kind of reputation.
  • convey a certain tone and aesthetic.
  • serve a certain community in a certain way.
  • build a community that supports me.
  • make money with ads and affiliate revenue.
  • find new work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • maintain my existing work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • give friends and family a way to keep track of me.
  • keep track of my thoughts and the interesting things I’ve found on the web.

If you have a lot of these goals (and hopefully some others I haven’t named yet), that’s great!  Now you need to prioritize them. Which ONE do you care about first and foremost? How about second? Third? Fourth? Lay them all out in order — NO TIES! It’s fine if your priorities change in the future, but you need to be honest with yourself about what they are right now.

Once you’ve got that, you’ll know what “better” means. And you’ll probably be able to brainstorm about 20 answers to your original question without any help from me now, too.

The Money Rant

So you want to make money from blogging, and you’ve heard that ad revenue is the way to go.  That’s great and I completely support you, but let’s talk about it for a minute.

Read the rest of this entry »

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I just got a snazzy little digital camera for Christmas. It’s 12 megapixels, it fits in my pocket, and it takes beautiful pictures. There’s only one problem: out of the box it makes loud beeping noises every time I press a button. And much to my dismay, the “OFF” switch for this is NOT quite so intuitive to find (hint: clicking the “MENU” button isn’t going to bring you there, and the instruction manual hides the answer). But after many wincing minutes of “Okay, I think we’re gonna need to return this damned thing,” I finally mashed enough buttons that I ran into it.

So if you’re trying to enjoy your brand new toy and find yourself fighting with the same problem, I bring you… THE SOLUTION!

  1. Click the “HOME” button once or twice until you see a menu.
  2. Use the Right arrow key to scroll all the end of the list, where you’ll find “SETTINGS”
  3. Click the Middle button to select “MAIN SETTINGS”
  4. Use the Right arrow key to select the first option: “BEEP”.
  5. Click the Middle button to toggle the options for this setting.
  6. Use the Down arrow key to find “OFF” and select it with the middle button.
  7. Click the “HOME” button again to get back to taking pictures.

All better!

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Once upon a time, there was a social networking website called Friendster.

friendster-logo.gif

Friendster had a good thing going for awhile, being the only decent social networking website on the Internet and all. But then Friendster made a few mistakes, and people stopped using it. Even though Friendster is still out there today, most people consider it dead.

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Then another social networking website came along called Facebook.

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Facebook had a good thing going for awhile, too. Since Friendster had already paved the way for social networking, there was already a broad user base to draw from, and LOTS of people joined Facebook. (Facebook made some pretty big mistakes, too, but we’re not going to get into that right now.)

Facebook and Friendster had a lot in common. They both let people post information about themselves. One of those information pieces was “relationship status.” You know, like single, in a relationship, married, etc. Friendster went a step further than the standard categories and added a category called “it’s complicated.”

Facebook decided this was a good idea, and they did the same thing. After all, many relationships are complicated, and it’s important to let people express themselves in a way that fits.

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Then Dead-Friendster yelled out, No! No! We said that first! It’s ours! And they added a trademark symbol to it, to claim their territory.

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And then the Internet laughed and ignored Dead-Friendster, because even though Dead-Friendster wanted to be important again, you just can’t trademark a complication.

And because the Internet is a cruel, cruel place, the Internet decided to give the trademark (in spirit) to Facebook. Just to spit in Dead-Friendster’s eye.

And they all lived complicatedly ever after.

The End!

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there are a heckuvalot of tools out there. Here’s what’s working for me right now:

  • Thunderbird – Managing my email (loving: filters, folders)
  • Firefox – Browsing the web (loving: tabs, the web developer extension)
  • WordPress – This blog (loving: admin panel, active community of developers)
  • Google Reader – Blog-reading (loving: tags/folders, shortcut keys, starring)
  • Ma.gnolia – Collecting miscellaneous links (loving: bookmarklet, preview thumbnails)
  • LiveJournal – Keeping track of friends (loving: filters, threaded comments)
  • Flickr – Sharing photos (loving: tag searches)
  • Twitter – Microblogging and keeping track of tech pals (loving: SMS integration, Twitterrific, the fact that I can display my most recent tweet at the top of this blog)
  • Last.fm – Listening to music (loving: discovering new music that I actually appreciate)
  • SocialText – Keeping track of work notes (loving: separated workspaces, useful text editor)
  • LinkedIn – Professional networking (loving: the reviews people have left for me there ::blushes::)
  • GreenCine – Keeping my apartment stocked with good movies (loving: the independent film selection, not giving money to NetFlix)
  • EggTimer – Timed reminders (loving: the “repeat alarm” feature, for jumping-jack breaks every ten minutes during bust-ass sessions. seriously.)
  • Electric Sheep – Screensaver (loving: being continually surprised and impressed)
  • Skype – Group chats (loving: conversation history, decent emoticons)

You’ll notice that I didn’t name Facebook, Gmail, or Google Docs — the current darlings of the web tool landscape. I have accounts with all of them, but to be totally honest I don’t have much use for any of them right now. And I’m okay with that.

If you’re curious about my hardware, here’s what I keep nearby:

  • A dented and refurbished (yet sticker-free!) 15″ Mac PowerBook G4 Laptop (in a backpack that does not look like a laptop bag).
  • 30 GB ipod (with cheap-ass black earbuds that do not look like they’re coming out of an ipod)
  • Treo 650 (which is not meeting my needs as well as I’d like, but I just had it replaced, and I’m not ready to upgrade)
  • Whiteboards – Capturing ideas, organizing quick lists, brainstorming, doodling
  • A Moleskin 1-page-per-day calendar notebook – Recording major tasks, goals, and hours worked each day
  • A regular lined Moleskin notebook – All other notes, journaling, lists, and spontaneous poetry
  • My Roomba – Vacuuming (loving: automated scheduling, how incredibly freaking adorable it is)

The missing piece for me right now is a camera (mine recently bit the dust), but I’ve already put in a good word with Santa on that one.

This post was inspired by Web Worker Daily’s list today.

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As I talked about in previous posts, Social Media can help you reach lots of people for very little money if you know how to use it well. For me, the magic key to Social Media is blogging. But through talking to other people, I’ve found that most non-bloggers either

A) don’t think it’s for them, or

B) don’t know how to approach it.

I’ve also noticed a few myths floating around the blogosphere and its conferences lately, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t helping the situation. So here are my debunkings:

Myth #1: The blogosphere is full. Whatever you want to say is already being said.

Fact: The blogosphere is a cloud, not a box. If you have something to offer, start sharing it. Some people will pay attention while others won’t, and that’s not what matters. What matters is that you’re giving yourself a voice, and you’re joining a network of other voices. You might just need to trust me on this one — it’s worth it.

Myth #2: You can make money from your blog.

Fact: You can make money through your blog. It’s possible to make decent money by putting ads on your blog, but first you’ll need to become absurdly popular and get tons of visitors coming to your blog every day. The bad news is: most of us will never get there. The good news is: your blog can still put money in your pocket, even if you’re not displaying any ads at all. By building a relationship with your readers, you develop an audience asset that can bring you business. By having a public voice that is continually posting new thoughts, you present an image of authenticity that adds value to your reputation. And whether you’re a consultant, an organization, a business, or an employee, all of these can have a positive impact on the amount of money others are willing to give you. But watch out, this brings up another myth:

Myth #3: Blogging will make you valuable.

Fact: Blogging will amplify your value. If you have something of value to offer the world — be it your insight, your advice, or your experience — your blog will crank up the volume on how much people appreciate you. If, on the other hand, you’re not already tapping into something of value within yourself, blogging isn’t going to help.

I’m of the (admittedly idealistic) opinion that everyone has something of value to offer, though, so I think you should start blogging right now.

Start here:

  • Typepad.com – If you’re willing to put a little money into having a truly awesome blog.
  • Blogger.com – If you’re looking for something free and easy.
  • WordPress.org – If you have a few tech skills and want to make it your own.

Once you’ve got it running, please send me the link. I’d like to keep an eye on it. Thanks!

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In my last post I talked about nonprofits using social media to reach their audiences — it’s inexpensive and effective. Unfortunately, I also know from personal experience that many people — especially in the nonprofit sector — don’t have time to sit down and learn the best strategies to leverage new technology. So let me lay out a few Cliffs Notes.

One of the cooler features of social media is that it allows you to keep an eye on what people are saying about you. If someone across the planet blogs about your organization, you can know about this almost instantaneously. If that blog post was favorable, you can jump right into the comments and thank them. If that blog post was unfavorable, you leap right into ‘damage control’ mode and address the complaint. If fact, you can do whatever you want with this feed of information once you’re receiving it. It’s kind of like a secret ninja move.

These are sometimes called “vanity feeds.” Here’s how to get them:

Technorati Feeds
Watch the blogs.

  1. Go to Technorati.com
  2. In the search box, type in your name or the name of your organization. If it’s more than one word, use quotation marks.
  3. The results that come up are what all of the publicly-indexed the blogs on the web are saying about you. Just above the search results, you should find a link that says “Subscribe.” Click it!
  4. What you’re looking at now is an RSS feed. You need to take the URL for this page and put it into an RSS reader, so you can be alerted when new things are added to it. If you’re not already using an RSS reader, go get an account with Google Reader and follow their instructions (it’s super easy).

Google Alerts
Watch the web.

  1. Go to Google.com/Alerts
  2. In the search box, type in your name or the name of your organization. If it’s more than one word, use quotation marks.
  3. Leave the search type drop-down at “Comprehensive,” unless you want to ignore some things and just focus on one area.
  4. Leave the “how often” at “once a day,” unless you really prefer otherwise.
  5. Type in your email address and hit “Create Alert.” You’ll get notifications of your presence on the web whenever it comes up.

Note: There’s some overlap between Google Alerts and Technorati — try both and see if you only feel like you need one of them after a few weeks. In my experience, Google Alerts will sometimes repeat the same alert over and over again, which can get annoying (and which is why I don’t recommend receiving Google Alerts “as it happens”). Technorati is a cleaner, more meaningful, and less invasive feed, but it also doesn’t cover the entire web.

Knowing about your reputation on the web is a key step in gaining control of it. But be careful not to get too addicted to watching these feeds… you still have other work to do.

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I usually try to keep my love life out of the public blogosphere, but this story just needs to be told. I have a date tomorrow night with a guy who is six feet tall and looks like a surfer dude. He enjoys talking about movies, society, philosophy, and politics, and is looking for someone mature and responsible. Sometimes he can get bored easily. Sometimes he smokes. He’s white, he’s college educated, and his religious beliefs are “Other.”

Crazy Blind Date - BetaI also know his first name and his age, and that’s about it. We’re meeting at 7pm at a bar in San Francisco. And no, a friend didn’t set us up… unless you want to call CrazyBlindDate.com a “friend”…

CrazyBlindDate.com was started by the folks who brought us OkCupid — the free social networking / test-taking / dating site that’s given the pay sites like Match.com and eHarmony a run for their money. And so far, I’m impressed.

The premise is simple: you tell them a few things about yourself, who you’re looking to meet, where you’re willing to travel, and when you’re willing to do that. Meanwhile, other people are on the site doing the same thing. The Internet Brain lines you up, makes a match where requirements coincide, and asks both parties to confirm the date after showing basic information about the other person. This includes very blurry pictures of each other, as a teaser. Once you say yes, you’re committed to it.

CBD - Blurry Pic

Thirty minutes before the date, they open a phone relay so that you can send text messages to each other via CrazyBlindDate’s central number (you don’t actually get to see the other person’s phone number). This helps with the “spotting each other in a crowded bar” issue. Once you find each other, you’re on your own. Then, after the date, you provide feedback for each other on the site. This helps in coordinating and verifying future crazy blind dates.

Blind dates are inherently sketchy-sounding. Blind dates without mutual friends involved, even more so. That’s why I’m excited about this site: they’re taking something that has massive screw-up potential, and handling it well.

My favorite thing about the site is that it stays focused. When you get there, they don’t start by asking for your login info; they start by asking what city you’d like to go on a date in (sorry — it’s only active for Austin, Boston, NYC, and SF Bay right now). They then walk you through a full dating wizard, convince you that yes, this really could work, and get you emotionally invested in the process. THEN, at the end, after you’ve already checked your schedule to make sure you can have a date tomorrow night, they suggest signing up to actually make it happen. It’s clean, friendly, American-buddy-style language that sets an encouraging tone and asserts some basic etiquette. There’s nothing extraneous thrown in to distract. Not even any ads. And the service is free.

Since the site is pretty new, it’s not overrun with a massive dating pool yet, and finding specific kinds of people at specific times can be hard. I didn’t specify age, gender, or any other personal details. I also set my region to cover most of San Francisco, and I listed wide time slots. That seemed to do it.

What does Surfer Dude know about me? He knows that I have a shaved head, I like to talk about technology and poetry, I’m really just testing out this website, and I’m not planning on sleeping with him (let’s just get that out of the way now!).

CBD- Status

The rest will come out over a beer tomorrow night.

Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about it.

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Just as mysteriously, my email started working again and all messages from the last day just came through.

Huh.

My primary email address (…@sarahdopp dot com) stopped receiving emails at 4:30pm yesterday for no apparent reason and with no error messages.

If you’ve emailed me anything since yesterday afternoon, I haven’t received it.

I’m working with my provider to (hopefully) resolve this as quickly as possible.