Are We Becoming A Little Less Human Online?

2676960860_fa358c04a1_oI’ve been watching the TV series HEROES. The show is about people but with special abilities – flight, invisibility, ability to predict the future, melting solid objects, instant healing from any injury, and many more – who live among the normal population.

During one of the episodes.  Claire Bennet, a high school cheerleader who can instantly heal from any injury, loses her ability to feel pain. Pain was one of the few things that made Claire feel human.

After I watched that episode, I started thinking about my own experiences – offline and online – and about the many ways in which many of us are just a little less human when we’re online. Part of the problem lies in the medium – we can’t usually see the people we’re talking to online, and that makes our conversations a bit more detached and impersonal. We send @ messages on Twitter, post updates on Facebook, send emails and direct messages, and think of those activities as conversations. And they are indeed conversations – through these conversations, we learn, share, teach, laugh, discuss, debate, etc.

But as we continue to become a society that spends increasing amounts of time looking at a computer, are we losing a bit of emotion with each conversation? In the quest for popularity and followers and/or  friends, are we losing perspective? Are we more likely to forget when we’re online that harsh words and criticism can hurt others? And we quicker to judge others when we have the cloak of invisibility surrounding our online activities? And is this trend impacting our offline relationships too?

What do you think?

Image credit: 파파곰

Happiness Is Helping

Can you make a difference if you help just one person per day? You bet!

Many of us become involved with efforts to help the environment, cancer research, and numerous other large-scale causes. Those efforts are worthy and important.

Some of us help by donating money. Others help by volunteering their time. At the end of the day, most of us feel happy that we were able to help, in a small way, a worthy cause.

When it comes to small-scale efforts, most of us are less interested. After all, if I can spend 2 hours helping thousands of people, why should I spend 2 hours helping just one person? It’s a fair question and the answer will differ for most people.

As we get ready to start a brand new year, think about how you can help others. Imagine how much good you can do if you help just one person per day. Imagine how much good THEY would do if they too help one person per day.

We should all continue to wake up in the morning with a strong desire to help as many people as we can. We should continue to help protect the environment, promote cancer research, and other large-scale worthy efforts. We should strive to share our knowledge and educate as many people as we can.

But we should also remember when we wake up in the morning that we can help just one person per day. It seems small – just one person – but the effect can be powerful and real.

What can you do to help someone today?

Somali Pirates And Lessons About Negative Publicity

Today, hardly a day passes without a news report about how Somali pirates have managed to impact one of the most important sea trade routes in the world. In 2008 alone, pirates have attacked 90 ships and have successfully captured 14 of them. Recently, they seized a Ukrainian freighter transporting military equipment and a Saudi tanker with $100 million of crude in its holds.

Some countries, including Saudi Arabia and various Asian countries, have paid nearly $30 million in ransoms to the pirates – in 2008 alone. This response was similar to one used over 200 years when the U.S. faced threats of piracy from the Barbary pirates. Then, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. opted to pay a bounty – spending nearly 20% of its federal income in an effort to placate the pirates. But those efforts only prompted more piracy.

At the moment, the world stands virtually paralyzed by the brazen actions of the Somali pirates. Major shipping companies are diverting some of their ships around the Cape of Good Hope, and transferring cargo to faster ships – increasing their transportation costs 25-50% – in order to minimize the risk of piracy.

So what does the Somali piracy crisis have to do with negative publicity?

Regardless of how careful we are, each of us (and our companies) will face negative publicity online. Negative publicity may come from one or multiple sources, and could come at any time. It can come from a disillusioned former employee, from angry customers, from people threatened by an innovative business model, from online bloggers or people who make their living spreading unsubstantiated and malicious rumors. In a real way, the prospect of negative publicity presents real world risk – analogous to the risk from Somali pirates to companies moving their cargo through what have become dangerous shipping lanes.

What can we learn from the global response (or lack of a response) to Somali pirates (and the earlier responses to historical piracy on the high seas)? Let me offer five lessons:

1. Engage Negative Publicity Head On. In the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”, Captain Jack Sparrow is told that he is the worst known pirate. His response: “But you HAVE heard of me.” While that line in the movie generally gets a laugh, the premise that any publicity is good publicity simply isn’t true when it comes to running a business. Negative publicity is bad publicity, as most recently learned by Motrin.

When faced with negative publicity, your response shouldn’t be to ignore the problem. As the world has learned multiple times throughout history when dealing with piracy on the high seas – ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Historically, the only effective method of dealing with pirates has been to engage them head-on and eliminate their threat.

In much the same way, you must engage negative publicity – and respond. You must do so quickly, thoughtfully, and decisively. And remember that the response doesn’t need to be an attack on the source of the negative publicity. Often, negative publicity comes in the form of a blog post by someone who either had a bad experience with you/your company/your company’s products or services, or from someone who really doesn’t know or understand you or your company. Sometimes, a direct discussion with that person could help to set the record straight.

2. Develop a Broad Strategy To Respond To Negative Publicity. Although the U.S. today is not the fragile country it was in the 1780s when dealing with the Barbary pirates, it would nonetheless be futile for the U.S. to attempt to unleash its military power against Somali pirates without International support.

Similarly, if the negative publicity is sufficiently serious, you should evaluate your resources to built a “coalition” that will help you respond. While a response on your own blog might be sufficient in most cases, you’ll often need to reach out beyond your own site in order to find a broader audience. For example, we recently had an opportunity to address the issue of spec work – No!Spec vs. crowdSPRING – on 37signals’ Signal vs. Noise blog. Although, we could have written an article in our own blog, we jumped at the unique opportunity to address a far bigger (although perhaps more hostile to our view) audience.

If you’re active on Twitter or other social networks, leverage your social friends to help you respond to the negative publicity. And if you are not active on social networks – what are you waiting for?

3. Don’t Panic. It would be relatively easy for shipping companies to panic because of the real threat to their cargo from Somali pirates. While the Saudis and certain wealthy Asian countries are able to afford expensive ransoms to buy out captured cargo, the rest of the world stands in a disparate position.

Learn from the reactions from shipping companies that are re-routing their ships or putting cargo on much faster ships. Rather than suffer paralysis – find ways to deal with the threat even as you and others around you are finding solutions to the root cause of the negative publicity.

Be persistent in developing appropriate responses to negative publicity, and be patient. Sometimes, it’s impossible to extinguish negative publicity in a short amount of time. For example, if a bad story about your company is ranked very high and come up in first page search results for your company’s name – don’t despair. Find ways to respond. Develop strategies for SERP and find ways to push that story lower in the organic search results.

4. Don’t respond impulsively. It would be easy for U.S. military vessels (or the military vessel of any other country) to start blowing up pirate vessels. In fact, last week, an Indian warship destroyed a Somali speedboat manned by pirates. But, would such an impulsive reaction truly reduce piracy? The pirates are spread out across thousands of square miles of water, from the Gulf of Aden to the Kenyan border along the Indian Ocean.

In the same way, it’s often tempting to respond impulsively when faced with negative publicity. But – that’s the last thing you want to do. An impulsive response threatens to spin the negative publicity out of control and runs the risk of making the problem even more damaging. Consider your response carefully, assess your options, and think multiple times before letting your impulses govern how you respond.

5. Look for the root cause of the negative publicity. Observers suggest that the Somali pirates are emboldened by the lack of an effective central government in Somalia. Poverty in the region is another contributing factor. It’s widely believed that any effective solution to stop Somali piracy must include efforts to improve the regional economy and to strengthen the Somali government. Without those actions, efforts to stop piracy will serve only as temporary stop-gap measures.

And that’s a lesson that also holds true when dealing with negative publicity. Make sure you evaluate the root cause of the publicity. Is it coming from a single source that had a bad experience with you/your company? Does it foretell of more such bad experiences by other people? Do you need to respond only to the source of the negative publicity, or do you need to deal with the heart of the underlying problem? Understanding the root cause of the negative publicity will help you to properly and effectively respond.

What other lessons about dealing with negative publicity can we learn from the response (or lack thereof) to the current threat from Somali pirates? Please share your suggestions in the comments.

Worry About What You Say More Than What Others Say About You

he blogosphere and print media are full of articles about corporations leveraging the Internet, including social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter (among others), to provide customer service and to manage their online reputations. I recently wrote about “personal brands” and whether people are brands.

We spend far too much time worrying about what others say and write about us and not nearly enough time thinking about what we ourselves say and write. For some, a blog article or post on Twitter is solely a sound-bite to generate controversy and “followers”, with little regard for the impact our words might have on others.

We all become frustrated and angry at one time or another. And there are times when we want nothing more than to demonstrate our mastery of the written word by leaving insulting and negative comments online.

You don’t improve your reputation by lowering the reputation of others. When you direct negative comments or insults to someone, your words impact both their reputation and yours.

Don’t fall prey to the temptation. Follow the examples set by those who understand that “a reputation for a thousand years may depend upon the conduct of a single moment.” [Ernest Bramah - an English author]. Think twice – think three times – before you put your own reputation at risk by attacking someone else.