Don’t be bitter, be better

I wrote a post last night about my frustrations with a trend I have seen in local digital agencies. The post is the result of something that has been on my mind for months and, last night, I decided to get it out. This morning, I took that post offline because of a conversation I had with someone who reached out to me.

I didn’t take the post down because it didn’t reflect what I believe to be true, I took it down because I realised, during the course of my conversation, that it reflects a bitterness and frustration I have increasingly felt for some time.

We have a choice how to experience our life each moment we are awake. The big question is how awake we really are, how conscious we are of our choices from moment to moment? What struck me this morning is that my choices have not been as constructive as they could be.

When I think about why I do the work I do (even as that morphs), I keep coming back to working to support innovation and creative expression through smarter ways to manage digital risk. I’ve been involved in the digital marketing space in SA since it essentially began. I saw the high end agencies we have today being formed and growing.

Although my post probably gave the impression of an industry that is largely derivative, I don’t see it that way. I see tremendous innovation and potential to do even more creative work. As usual, I am probably getting ahead of the industry and the market it serves. I seem to have a knack for that – being so far ahead of the curve that my ideas seem ridiculous until they’re not (well, some never quite catch on).

I remember the dotcom boom. I was at Wits back then and I kept thinking about some Web thing I could do to tap into that new wave of innovation (this was when the big thing on the Web was probably having images in pages) and I couldn’t come up with anything before it all came crashing down. Even then, it was clear that this Web thing wasn’t done yet and it wasn’t.

Its easy to take what we have now for granted because it is so prevalent but this is so new, still. 7 or 8 years ago the social Web was mostly about blogs and RSS feeds. Twitter and Facebook were still a year or 2 away and still pioneers like Mike Stopforth, Angus Robinson, Carl Spies, Rob Stokes and others were almost willing a new digital model into existence, which they did and, boy, they have done a remarkable job.

Despite my criticisms, they still inspire me because they succeeded where I just couldn’t get my head around the value proposition with an agency I hoped to start with a friend at the same time (so much for being ahead of the curve – I missed that one big time).

The reason I chose to leave active legal practice and wind down Jacobson Attorneys, a business law firm I started in 2005, is because I can see the tremendous potential in the digital space. My fundamental belief in this potential to dramatically improve our lives and our relationships underpins Web•Tech•Law although I clearly haven’t done a terrific job expressing that particularly well. Last night’s blog post definitely doesn’t reflect that belief. It doesn’t reflect what excites me about going back to work on a Monday morning and leaves me buzzing when I tap into that innovation and creativity. That is why I took the post down.

I owe the person who reached out to me a big “thank you” for his intervention. He also said something which I appropriated and changed a little:

Don’t be bitter, be better

A parable about hubris and an ongoing digital tragedy

Row of Postal Clerks Processing Mail

This post was originally published on Medium

It feels like a lifetime since the Pushers left and the Communicators stepped up. Before then, the Pushers shaped the Message, told us how we would feel about their brand, their products and services. We either accepted what we were told or, well, we didn’t have much choice.

Then, it all began to change. The Manifesto taught us that “markets are conversations” and even though the Manifesto was soon overlooked by a younger generation, its central social message persisted and shaped our interactions with brands. This new generation, the Communicators, began to explore what a more collaborative, engaged conversation would sound like, feel like and what it could do for brands desperate for attention in an evolving digital world where we didn’t have to accept what we were told. Over the course of a few years, we discovered we had our own voices, choices and perhaps even power to influence others too.

As the Communicators rose from among us, we joined them in their journey and became their followers, their fans and co-creators. For a while we were on this wonderful voyage together, Communicators and followers. We formed new communities and we shared our lives more freely than we ever had before. We looked up to our new leaders with great admiration. They were like us and we loved them.

We had a brief Golden Age when we were finding our individual voices. Facebook brought us closer together, Twitter brought the world to us with such immediacy we were astounded at first. More services and tools followed and, today, we have so many ways to share, we are forced to choose based on where our communities are strongest. Once we thirsted for creativity, today we are inundated with it and we use terms like “overloaded” because we haven’t developed effective tools to filter our consumption. Still, its a good time for self-expression and there is so much of it.

The Communicators embraced these new tools for the brands they serve and they used them to capture our attention, share wonderful stories that entice us and weave new fabric to clothe those old brands the Pushers told us about. The Communicators learned more effective techniques as time passed and as they rose to greater heights and found that the brands they served worshipped them and their mystical magick (we knew it was nothing of the sort but then we still believed we travelled with our new prophets). Slowly, almost imperceptibly to most, the Communicators began to believe the praise heaped on them by the brands that also paid them richly. The Communicators began to believe they were the embodiment of the new Social Message and rather than being its interpreters, they started shaping it to suit their vision of this new era. They created new mantras and new laws.

Perhaps the rarified air and great heights led them to forget their earthly origins with us. Perhaps they simply saw themselves as the Pushers’ rightful heirs. Either way, our Communicators changed. They demanded more attention, more praise and they did it in subtle ways. They hosted grand parties and dinners and treated us as beloved followers, graced us with their attention and public praise as if that would somehow sustain us or even elevate us. Some of us became officials in their courts and rose above the rest of us, enjoying success for as long as they were in favour.

Then the Message changed. Our conversations became distorted. We only heard stories of joy, success, praise and favour. We didn’t heard stories about tragedy, disappointment and failure (well, except where failure was heralded as the seed of success). We noticed that officials in their courts disappeared and were replaced and heard quiet rumours about followers who fell into disfavour, were cast out and exiled. Nothing confirmed and yet the rumours persisted.

As the Communicators rose to even greater heights it was as if the Sun shone even brighter on us all and it was tempting to believe times were never this prosperous but this new light didn’t shine everywhere anymore. With this great light came more shadow. The Message was shaped even more and something unfamiliar crept into it: intolerance. Once again, we are told how we feel about brands, their products and services. The Message is no longer a shared construct, the Communicators shape it for us. For the most part we like it and, if we don’t, well, does that matter?