Friday, October 15, 2010

F2F and Dancing with Steven Johnson, Kaleb Nation, and a Journey Tribute Band

[Sun a couple hours from rising.  Breath steaming in the cold, but feet bare anyway.  Soundtrack: DJ Wombat's Deep House mix.]

I like to be alone.  Social media has made it more fun.  I no longer like to read nonfiction without Diigo.  I check Twitter several times a day to see what my network has curated for me.  I carry social media's perpetual buffet in my pocket.  I bike with it pressed to my belly into the cityscapes I love.

And yet, for all this plenitude,  serendipitous f2f events last weekend packed the Diigo'd snowflakes I'd been reading into a ball I could toss to someone else.

Like to you, right now.

3 events, 3 days:

Steven Johnson's book tour at the Bagdad Theater three days after the launch of Where Good Ideas Come From delivered presence, aura.  Johnson writes prolifically about the history of science and how it shapes innovation today.  He is both old school and new:  he writes monographs in solitude, just like the Enlightenment intellectuals he admires; but he's also robustly new media, with 1.5 million Twitter followers and a cadre of high-test bloggers who learn from him and spread his ideas.

Sitting at the Bagdad, washing down slippery fries with Hammerhead, I wondered why Johnson (or anyone) bothers with book tours anymore.  In the age of viral video, why zoom up and down the coasts selling books one at a time?

Indeed, about half of the material Johnson presented at the Bagdad I'd heard in his September 2010 TED talk. Midway through his perf at the Bagdad, I became conscious of my behavior as a fan:  I was nodding at his big reveals & laughing at punchlines I already knew.  Why?

I meant to testify:  we need to redefine the open web as essential to innovation and growth or risk its becoming, as Scott Rosenberg has suggested, "a brief transitional interlude between more closed informational regimes."  

Next AM, I was still thinking "why does Johnson bother with f2f?"  I rolled over, scooped up my iPhone, and found that he'd tweeted #ideachat, which led me to this video from Derek Sivers about how to start a movement.  Iranian progressives and Burmese monks have used Twitter to start social movements.  Why do movements culminate in physical presence, even when it's very dangerous to do so?

Sivers' crucial idea:  the leader embraces a "First Follower" as an equal and collaborator.  Contagious excitement takes off from there.

I was thinking of Sivers' vid twelve hours later when I decided to dance on the periphery of my row in the Alberta Rose Theater.  The 300-seat ART is stadium-style seating, which prescribes passive, butts-in-seat art consumption.  Friends, hubby and I were there to see a Journey tribute band, Stone in Love.

I didn't take my shirt off and wiggle around like the guy in the vid above.  I stood at the edge of my row, swayed against the wall, and held my microbrew as a kind of shield.  Because yeah, I don't really like to stand out.  But I like to dance more than I fear judgment.

You know what's coming.  3 women in the row ahead of me got up and danced next to me.  Their leader turned her head to gaze at me.

I thought about the First Follower.  I smiled, toasted her with my Ninkasi Double Red, and we bobbed our heads in time.  Then she returned her attention to her friends.

Skip ahead, skip ahead.  A coupla songs later, and 6 people rushed to the front and began dancing with abandon.  I darted down.  Kevin the lead singer made eye contact with me.  He sang to me for a coupla bars.  I felt like it was my reward for being the first.  Of course I sang along with him. What else to do in junior high but memorize pop songs?

Fully half of the theater was suddenly rocking out down at the front.  Pressed together, lights beaming, vocals soaring, double bass thumping.  Women I don't know throwing their arms around my shoulders and dancing.

A movement for  . . .  movement!

Not exactly one of Johnson's Liquid Networks--no grand intellectual ambition here; we did not discover GPS--but I still think there's something intellectually relevant about physical crowds in the era of crowdsourced knowledge.  Not sure what exactly.  Post a comment if you have a hunch.

Next day, my friend Laura called.  She was buried hip deep in grading and could I use her ticket to Wordstock?

Sure I could.

That's where I saw Kaleb Nation.  This YA author, seasoned at age 22, is the canniest DIY architect of a new media promo campaign I've seen in a while.

Only some of Steven Johnson's potential audience is NM savvy.  Many of his readers rely on book reviews and other top-down media to discover his book.

Not so for Mr. Nation, whose 18K+ Twitter followers upload photos of themselves in Kaleb Nation t-shirts they've bought on his site.  KN makes and uploads a vid every day.  He showers his fans with Tweets many times a day, at least 12 hours daily:  his whereabouts, responses to fans, jokey photos, glib throwaways.

Talk about high-touch!  Nation's fans are never far from his electronic caress.

In response, Nationeers dutifully show the love.  Example:  NPR asked KN to write a book review.   When it went live, he Tweeted his Nationeers, asking them to favorite it on the NPR site.  Result?  Within 5 minutes, KN's article leapt to the number #1 slot on NPR "most popular" beating the next article by like 400%.  Shortly thereafter KN's article was promoted to the NPR front page, and  . . . .

A star is born. Or at least showing up in the telescope.

KN exemplifies Johnson's idea of the Liquid Network:  weak ties bound together by common interest and physical proximity.  Except now, the "physical" is virtual:  all those photos and vid we upload.

Like the eighteenth-century broadsheeters who cranked out satires and other entertainment overnight and posted them outside coffee houses in the morning, Nation amps up the production schedule:  24/7, always-on.  Instead of being inspired by caffeine, that "chat-inspiring liquor" as c18 poet Laetitia Pilkington called it, Nationeers get high uploading, mashing and spreading Kaleb-inspired arcana.  They're not consumers of ideas. They're producers.  KN is the context, the venue.

He's the juice in the Liquid Network.

What's the takeaway, you might ask?

The smaller the feedback loop, the more contagious your ideas.  Nothing makes a feedback loop smaller, more immediate and intimate than f2f.  

Why else would Steven Johnson be knocking himself out on the road?

But an electronic constant caress is a close second.  Witness KN's killer book tour sked (two!  two at once! His own for Bran Hambric:  The Specter Key, and another, as chief media officer for The Beautiful Darkness Tour, a book by his friends, #2 on NYT paperback bestseller list.)

F2F.  Still what's for breakfast.

1 comment:

Kaleb N said...

I'm not sure how I found this article, but it's spot on in describing how social media can be used to create a movement. If you look at most popular fandoms these days, especially among teens, massive popularity was only reached once the readers and fans themselves created their own fandom voices, and people amongst the fans became leaders. Harry Potter was greatly fueled by online fansites, which by making the actual stars and author into celebrities, also created small celebrities of their own (Emerson Spartz, Wizard Rock bands, endless Youtubers who discuss it). This same effect happened in the Twilight fandom -- those who were leaders into something that was new and still vastly unknown were suddenly bombarded by waves of followers, and suddenly seen as important, when in actuality they are just fans like everyone else.

It's interesting to watch how these things work. It's impossible to calculate where the followers will go or appear from, but it is always the same pattern in hindsight.