Category Archives: Communications

The Magical World of Craigslist

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 3.48.56 PMI wrote this for my bro Matt Johnson’s online selling how-to site. We’ve had fascinating conversations about bookselling and general online sales, how the web is changing business, future needs and trends, and how to provide genuinely useful content. This business article is actually a lengthy diatribe against the “mania for the present” thinking that pervades the marketing philosophy engulfing the web.

How we use the web, how we’re supposed to use it, how we’re being guided to use it is changing fundamentally. As the whole field becomes more optimized and polished, we are being oriented more toward a passive experience online rather than one we create.

Craigslist, for the most part, has remained the same as it ever was. Its ultimate utility was in nimbly catering to whatever people used it for, as its audience expanded out of the tech community, and out of San Fran to other major cities, and then, out of the United States. Craigslist’s sticky user experience seems quaint in a world where stagnation equals death. And it’s possible to be too nostalgic, of course. But Craigslist’s continued existence and success questions the “inevitable” speeding up of technological progress, whether it’s necessary, and whom it serves.

So what, if anything, can a young entrepreneur in online selling, or business creation, learn from Craigslist?

Craigslist is one of the few for-profit online companies I can think of that seems to operate on the basis that, once it has a good user base and income stream, all a company needs to do is maintain an equilibrium and work out problems as they crop up. This is antithetical to the almost religious idea that everything must keep getting better, an ideation that conveniently supports a rat-race ethos, and keeps expensive software engineers busy.

Any company or website might be a fad, riding out a trend, and so successful websites start to do things almost immediately to diversify their income and to avoid stagnation. Update early and often, and figure out what you’re doing as you go.

This has led to a culture of updating. Many, many companies offer very little in the way of actual services, they’re really just platforms, but they get into the wealth-creation mindset, leaving users cold with incessant upgrades, tweaks, ominously vague terms of use changes, and unintelligible licensing agreements. Forcing users to relearn how to use something every few months that was only ever supposed to be a cool or useful tool is not a clever business strategy. At least, not outside of the small echo chamber of those for whom tech is the end, and not a means.

But the point is that a lot of tricks used by people to make money online are now eroding confidence and ease of use to such an extent that people are wrestling with them and their impact on all of our lives. Being a profitable company is not itself a winning strategy for a product. Our nativity online was in connecting people, and helping people do what they wanted to do, making things easier, rather than bleeding people dry. Many companies are missing the forest for the trees.

Read the rest on How to Be an Online Seller.

I can’t wait to write about eBay next! As the Paypal/eBay split attests, much is in play in that company right now. It’s unlikely to be a love letter.

Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences header

In the March/April 2014 issue of Industry I look at some of the effects that social media has on our social lives. Truth and Consequences: How to find a balance between honing a productive social media identity, and attention-hungry cyber lurking

Social media does alter our experience of ourselves as social beings, especially when it replaces part or all of our social life. Sometimes I use it mostly logistically, i.e. to see what’s going on with friends in town. But occasionally it gets more distant, going into browsing, as when I check out the page of someone I just met, wondering if they’re doing the same. I feel sudden self-conscious doing this. Usually people aren’t up on the latest privacy snafu of facebook’s, and so even if you’re not friends you can just watch people as they live. Right there online. Or at least, get a flavor of their life, leaving room for doubt, obviously.

Self-consciousness is something I used to think I outgrew in my 20s, but its reemergence in the context of my online persona is fitting, as I’m literally allowing people to spectate at me, to know about, instead of know. Can we help creating a strange publicized hybrids of ourselves? One day maybe we’ll all know what celebrities must feel like, even down to having your (not to mention other people’s) livelihood depend solely on your online popularity.

From the article:

I’ve never really thought of myself as a private person. Ask me a question, the more personal the better. I’ve always erred on the side of too much information. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that many times people prefer to be lied to sweetly, to be let down gently than told the ugly truth. I’m more discerning now about what I share, not only to preserve my privacy but also, the mystery. This goes against the tide of social media and on-line dating–realms in which we are compelled to give more and more information and about ourselves to a more general audience.

Read more here: Truth and Consequences

 

the fucking mystery, right?

After writing this I realized that now, when I share something with someone in person, or even on the phone in a one-on-one conversation, it feels very intimate. It’s only in contrast to social media, where everything feels flatter and less risky in a real way. But that’s kind of cool as an unexpected outcome.

Games Worth Playing

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My latest column for Industry is up! Games Worth Playing: How a ritual based upon the I Ching can change the way we think about life and love

 

Perhaps readers are aware of the concept of the filter bubble: that with more and more tools to personalize online offerings, we are more in danger of seeing only the news we want to see. The term, while a nice coinage for the internet and indebted age, is not new. In relationships, too, we see what we want to see.

The bubble first grows in our heads, a fact I learned from a 3,000-year-old book
of divination called the I Ching, or the “Book of Changes.”

I’ll risk my reputation as a serious individual here to admit that, when it comes to relationship deciphering, I’m addicted to what could be considered a tool for magical thinking.

Read more here.

The New Girl: How Does Change Happen?

Chinese new year seems more suitable for making resolutions (or setting intentions, in the parlance of our time) than Jan. 1, post-holiday, when we are tired and overfed. In Industry‘s Jan/Feb issue (and its first Brooklyn edition!), I try to sort out how change actually happens.

The new year is a time for turning over a new leaf, they say. We all know how that goes, though. Some years are better than others. In real time, the future is a promise and the past a memory. Around this time of year, we do have a moment’s pause, a sense of the last year being over and the next not quite here. This moment in between may last only a day or two, as we scramble to tease the disparate strands of experience, integrating them into a larger story, “My Life,” (with chapters “My Love Life” and “My Career”) and reorient ourselves. Then, the portal closes up, and we are left in the middle again to muddle through.

Read the rest here: The New Girl: On the Thrill and Terror of a New Year

Red Flags

My latest column for Industry Nov/Dec. 2012 issue:

Red Flags …and all the things we’re worried about in relationships that are really not that big of a deal

An excerpt:

Maybe the writers of these one-size-fits-all relationship articles are trying to be helpful, but they are little better than hucksters selling us a panacea, that holy grail of the “right relationship.” We chase apocryphal fantasies, that outlier couple who knew each other only a short time before getting married, and who are happy thirty years later. But these ideas have little personal meaning for us. We haven’t earned those insights. As much as we’d like to be able to make rational decisions based on unbiased observations, relationships and our perceptions of them are pretty much the opposite of that: they are emotional, partial, and incomplete, and our love flows from some intangible source while our knowledge lags behind.

Read the rest here. Thanks!

Cosmo Grrrl

My latest Industry article Cosmo Grrl …On sex icon Helen Gurley Brown’s passing, finding mojo in print, and some advice on writing relationship articles.

Maybe Cosmo indoctrinated me into lady concerns, or gave me a slight complex about my body, but that HGB took her readers more seriously than did the tween mags on offer was obvious. I might never have shiny hair or wear skirt suits, but I was a Cosmo girl in independence.

Read it here.

On Ray Bradbury

There are writers we love in our youth and ones we outgrow. If we are magnanimous we don’t disparage them later for being too symbolic or obvious. A few that come to mind include Poe, Dickens, and those genre writers that proved too entertaining to be taken seriously. Ray Bradbury somehow eluded the dangers of this latter category.

I’ve gotten much relief from Bradbury over the years, as a writer, long after reading Something Wicked This Way Comes (a book whose very title evokes the sublime), and Farenheit 451. When I read his Paris Review interview years ago, it made me stop and realize that as a writer I was trying too hard. I put the pen down for a while. Writing had become a pressured thing, and I needed to clear that out so that I could again create for no one’s benefit but my own.

He also took quite a bit of the guesswork out of the process.

“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”
—Ray Bradbury, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 203

**

“I want you to envy me my joy.”

There are few writers who seemed to take such distinct joy in their occupation. Quite a different thing from Dorothy Parker’s “I hate writing. I love having written.” (I can’t find the source, I thought it was Hemingway.)

In this 2001 lecture at Point Loma Nazarene University, the then affable curmudgeon exhorts writing students to start with short stories to learn the craft. His theory was,  if you write a story a week, it’s almost impossible to write 52 bad ones in a row.

He wrote, and talked about writing, so straightforwardly, and he made it clear he was a steward of his own subconscious. He honored his source. Writer’s block is just your subconscious telling you to do something else, he said. Write what you want to read. He spoke in terms of “hygiene,” purposefully I think. Because there is a way to go about it and a way not to, a way that pollutes it. You keep the well clean and then drink from it. The well is basic, it is not interesting, per se. It is the beginnings of thing, not a thing itself.

There is almost a delicacy to this understanding that is itself rare. Is it modern life gets us into habits of ripping ourselves to shreds, killing the goose so to speak?

Not allowing the transmogrification of the process of living is a form of self-control that our overanalysis merely feeds and abets, like a stripping process or a splitting. We are gone to extremes of self-monitoring, self-making, that even the most ordinary impulses in us can have no outlet because we deny we should even need it. So we twist ourselves in knots and block our own flow.

Maybe it’s time to put down the self-help and pick up the Martian Chronicles again.

His actual writing advice is wonderful, too. In this video he argues that literature is a pressure valve for civilization, a place for us to indulge animal instincts and emotions. “We save up a tension of tears,” he says, “I come along as a writer, and help you to cry.”

But really the thing that stands out about Bradbury in all his interviews and lectures is that he seems like a relic, almost a fictional paragon of decency and romanticism, a pure talent, a pure intellect, unblemished by consumerism and careerism. It reminds me of having a conversation with my grandfather and coming away completely disillusioned about the world, but in the best way.

I’ve always been more of a nonfiction writer, but I dabbled in fiction when I was younger. Following a recent shift in writing goals, and in honor of Ray Bradbury’s passing (during the epochal transit of Venus) I think I’ll write a story a week until further notice. I will not necessarily post them here, but if anyone would like to join me, please do! It’ll be like a mini NaNoWriMo.

One last thing: Bradbury’s vow of poverty strikes me as a necessary thing for an artist (maybe anyone) willing to be more than career-minded, to dedicate oneself to a life of integrity, to live with goals beyond mere survival. Of course, poverty’s not the only way, but the fearless facing of it may be necessary, just so we’re not fooling ourselves. It’s enough to participate, it’s more than a career. It’s the art of creation.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 6: Some Woo-Woo Stuff

© Emily Johnson

The other day one of my fellow trainees asked how to balance the needs of students in a class when they diverge. Some of her students want to learn about the philosophy behind yoga, and others were weirded out by that. They just want the physical practice.

I think this quandary is grounded in the idea of the two being somehow different or unattached to each other. I believe that if you are teaching yoga well, the philosophy gets in, too, and at best unobtrusively.

At the beginning of training our teacher said that we might find some things just change: how we eat, how we behave with others, how we think about things, all an organic outgrowth of our practice. And many of us have found this to be quite true. Then again, we have studied the philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, the yoga sutras, all eight limbs.

But we didn’t start there. I’ve often had the suspicion that yoga is just an elaborate way to get you to meditate and do breath work, which is too subtle at first (read: boring) for most of us. It would be like giving a first-grade reader a book by Austen. It’s enough to get into the physical stuff, at first.

One major challenge for a beginning (or any?) teacher must certainly be putting physical experiences into words. That’s what we do, really: we translate the physical to the verbal, and then people translate it back for themselves. Things can get lost in the translation, so we try to keep it simple and send people back into themselves and not out, as can happen when we’re indulging loftier ideas.

The challenge is that we don’t typically verbalize our physical experience. We talk about what happened, and maybe our thoughts and emotions. That’s about as close as we get to sharing our actual visceral experience, and when someone has a particularly sensual or colorful way of speaking, it can be strangely arousing, like they can root around inside you. The best books do this.

It’s a challenge in writing, too. When I’m writing about yoga, I am a rationalist trying to redeem it, preemptively, from those in my life who might think it’s too woo-woo or “out there.” I try to keep it all very close to home. This is to entice people, to convince them. Maybe to explain it to them a little bit. Whereas with people already in a class the goal is to give them something they want, or need, a need just an unexpressed or uncomfortable want, however deeper it seems to be generated. And this, too, can be tricky.

As for yoga being “out there” or somehow esoteric; on the contrary I’ve found yoga to give me more awareness, more grounding in reality than I’ve ever had. It imparts both a will and a way to get beyond wishful thinking and escapism that seems common not only to many so-called spiritual disciplines, but to our culture in general.

Maybe it is all about the breath, which helps you stabilize yourself in the most uncomfortable positions. Keeping breathing through difficult or strange or new movement also trains us to regulate our emotions and soothe ourselves, in a life and time when more and more people are succumbing to stress-induced sickness, both mental and physical.

Yoga is a practice of beginning again, always back at the source, which is just ourselves. Just standing there is a pose, and we do have to learn how to just stand there. Yoga literally means the yoking of the mind to the body. We use the body to quiet the mind, and then learn to use both as tools, as both the means and the measure of things. The breath and the movement bring us into a better acquaintance with our body, inside and out. It shows us that our everyday level of awareness is pretty superficial, and it shows us this by taking us deeper.

Is that all the philosophy you need? I like the idea that you just go along and you get it when you’re ready for it. That includes knowledge, lucky breaks, and challenges too. So sure, yes! And that must include the teacher too. If it comes up for you, it comes up. Some people will zone it out anyway.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 5: Teach, Taught

End of Day in the Enchanted Forest
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Fred

I had my teacher training demo last weekend, and I taught a class with about five people the night before. I passed my demo with flying colors! Rah!

It went really well. Friday night I was shy, tentative, worried about getting the instructions right. Saturday morning I was bolder, more creative, able to let go when I started tensing up, and use the energy rather than be reduced to the shakes.

I’ve noticed that I am absorbing the wisdom of simplicity. Sometimes I can get so deep with the thing that I lose the thread that makes it intelligible to other people. I am learning to come back to basics when I feel myself spinning off into an abstract conceptual universe. In other words I sometimes need an editor. In teaching, you have to edit yourself, and I know from writing that this is tough.

You don’t want to get all up in your face and clog your mojo, you want energy flowing freely and cleanly, to be yourself, to not second guess things. It is just a little half-step back, during a pause, when you take a breath and ask yourself, “First principles. What is the essence of the pose?” Or if you’re writing, and going a bit off, “What’s the story?” It always starts from the ground up.

In my first class, I was a bit tight, standing too far back. I didn’t let it flow, I was too concerned about saying everything correctly. One of my students, a friend of a friend, was a yoga teacher. Not intimidating at all! But he was great, afterward he told me not to worry and to be myself, that people will come because of my personality, not for perfect instruction.

The next morning I was able to remember this, and when I got worried or nervous, just allowed myself a couple of breaths, smiled and laid off a bit, and looked down at my students’ foundation to know what to say next.

Which is what I love about yoga. It is real, it is a physical embodiment of principles that work for literally everything. Foundation. Ground down and lift from there, etc. The routine, the limited system is very comforting (something about freedom within confinement, feeling held, yes?).

My writing mind is engaged with the challenge of saying these things over and over (essentially), but differently, to keep students listening, each one feeling it differently in their body when you put it precisely this way, or that way.

At school I had to pee all morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I was that invested and excited about something. I had to go back to dance recitals as a kid to locate a similar feeling. (Writing is different, it’s more of a wave of euphoria when I get something real down, then a rush of dread when I think people might actually read it). This is more about performance, something I really haven’t done much in adulthood. But it’s also not about me. It’s for the students, and this short-circuits my modesty and appeals to my desire to serve others, a higher purpose. And I still get the rush of it. I am so pleased. Yoga, and learning to teach, has brought me more into and out of myself.

Deeper Into Yoga, part 4: Mission

I will be conducting a yoga class this Friday in Rogers Park, hosted by the folks at the Solarium. I have my final in teacher training–to teach a demo class to my classmates–on Saturday morning, so I was a bit unsure of putting another source of nervousness on my plate the night before. But then I thought, why not? I might as well get two for the price of one nervous day.

I wrote this to help me prepare for teaching, and to aid me in grounding the practice in the  basic alignment principles that will allow my students to build a personal practice of their own. This is important in yoga, the path of change (in the body, in the mind) runs gradually, over time and with regular practice.

Mission Statement

We escape into our minds every day, constantly ruminating about issues in our personal and professional lives. This way of being often leaves us feeling anxious and exhausted, yet we repeat the cycle on a nearly daily basis. So distracted from what we really need to do, change seems inaccessible.

Yoga is a way to rebuild the pathways between our external senses with our internal experience of life. It reconnects us to the body, from the skin on down to the very cells. Yoga allows us to achieve centering, focus, self-care, and a healthy relationship with the body. It promotes health in the circulatory system, better digestion, cardiovascular health, calm and focused awareness. Even more, it supports transformation in the body and courage in everyday life. The healthier we feel, and the more we take care of the basics in our life, the more we have a stable base from which to perform great feats in life.

Yoga is for everyone, and you do not need to be super physically fit to take part. We begin where we are. This class will acquaint both new and more seasoned practitioners with the building blocks that support a personal daily practice.